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Guest Post: Technology Transforms a Writing Workshop

In response to this post I wrote about walking the talk in our content areas, another teacher has responded to my invitation to write. She says of herself:  “Karen Clancy-Cribby loves learning, especially from adolescents. She’s a teacher, writer, and Writer’s Workshop is her life. Literally.” Find Karen on Twitter @kcribby.

My husband and I live in the country on land that is expansive, scrub oak, tall grasses.  Every time I go to the kitchen sink, my first look is up at the hill, across the valley, and I scan the hillside before my gaze settles to the immediate foreground.  I do this probably twenty times a day.

It hit me today, as I thought about this blog, that how I look out and around, before settling into the immediate, is how I think about everything.

I’m a big picture person, and when I was given the great honor of being offered the opportunity to guest blog about technology and Writer’s Workshop with this amazing group of teachers, I jumped at the chance.

Then I realized I’d signed up to write about a lesson.  Well, therein lies the rub.  To describe a traditional lesson is just not what resonates with the organic nature of the classroom we’ve been so fortunate to run with Writer’s Workshop.  The “we” in that sentence refers to my language arts colleague (and former student, and former student teacher) who I team with daily.

I’ve embraced Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop since I first read Nancie Atwell’s “In the Middle” back in 1990.  I’ve read Fletcher and Calkins and others since, but I’ve mostly just been diving in.

So, back to the whole lesson idea.  Lessons in WW can, and should, of course, be planned, but to speak of them outside the daily dynamic of the classroom doesn’t make sense to me.  Sure, plan for different activities, plan with the end in mind, know and plan for what students should know (even that is a stretch, but that’s another blog), but the ebb and flow of class has to be more dynamic and a response to what happens with students.  So, WW has been an ideal.  Set aside time for mini-lessons, reading and writing time, feedback and closure.

Now, with technology in the mix, well, wow.  So, instead of blogging a WW lesson with technology, I’m going to give you a day in the life of WW with technology.  I need to thank my language arts cohort and daily teaching partner, Emily, who suffered through all of these pages of drafts for this idea for a focus.

Here is our day:

Student working on writing in the winter pulled up a fire for cozy atmosphere.

We have our daily agenda and objectives on a Google Document shared with our students, who walk into class oftentimes having already pulled this document up on their Ipads or phones.  Every day, we ask students to answer a question as they come into class.  Thanks to another colleague, Kris, we call these “Fire-Ups,” given that warm-up seemed too tepid to describe the first lesson of the day which should be big.  So, students pull up the agenda on their iPads and log into their Google Doc on the Chromebooks.  Sometimes they need to look up a few things to answer the question, sometimes they need to just think, and sometimes they need to read and re-read to answer the question, which, ideally takes no more than ten minutes for everyone to feel okay to discuss the question.

Within ten minutes of class, we will ask them how much time they need.  It’s usually no more than a few minutes, but oftentimes, our questions are bigger than we planned.

So, our agenda is a work in progress, and we adapt, as all teachers do,  as the class goes along. Sometimes, all students need a nudge in a certain direction, and we extend the lesson.  This often looks like one of us “saging on the stage,” while the other uploads examples or research hints and tools.

Other times, and I’d hazard to say most times, they all just need to fly.  Then, we have the luxury of sitting down at our desks, reading over their virtual shoulders and giving them individual feedback in person or on their Google Docs.

Writer’s Workshop has been my educator dream ideal since I was in college, and now the ideal is…well, I hate to sound absolute, but it’s possible, truly possible.

Technology allows all of that to happen immediately and in real time.  I am fortunate (understatement) to teach with someone who not only embraces the workshop pedagogy as passionately as I do, but she is a whiz with technology.  Four years ago, when she was my student teacher, we had netbooks, and we started using Google Docs, and I’ll never forget those opening days of my brain exploding.  We had our agenda on the overhead screen, shining from her computer.  The agenda was made in Google Docs.  I had a few students who preferred to access their writing from their phones.  If I didn’t read literally over their cyber-shoulder, I would not have believed how fast they could write using their phones.  As more and more students used their phones alongside the netbooks (we are so lucky to now have Chromebooks!), I started thinking about so many possibilities of all the access they had to information.  Then, there were whispers of our district going 1:1 with iPads.  I’ll never forget standing in the front of the room with Emily, my student teacher, and I looked at her and said, “we can have the agenda online for them to have access to,” and she looked at me and said, “they can write their responses on a Google Doc too.”  That was four long (or short?) years ago.

Now, we’re all online, and I feel as though the newbie teacher dreams of a perfect Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop are now a reality.  Well, perfect is an oversell, but all of those years where I would say, “read and write whatever you want” have been transformed.

Students walk into the classroom, open up their Chromebooks and their iPads. Most students pull up the agenda on their iPad and then start answering their fire-up question on their running Fire-Up Google Doc.   The question is related to where we have been and where we are going.  We try to stretch the question, make it something they need to think about.  Sometimes there is a background/research portion, and then the question.  Sometimes it’s a piece of literature they need to explore for techniques; sometimes it’s a revision piece they need to evaluate.  These Fire-Up questions are very often taken from my own personal writing.  Writer’s Workshop isn’t WW without the teacher as writer.  The beauty of the Fire-Up being taken from my writing is that I am starting most classes with modeling myself as writer.  I can then keep going back to my writing, allowing everyone to critique it.  I have noticed that students are at their best when they are critiquing my writing.  With peers, they sometimes become too gentle, or the reverse, too harsh.  With my writing, they are quick to get to the heart of what needs improvement or what things work and why.

I get to do the think-alouds about my own writing; things I like, things I want to make even better, my purpose, etc.  This leads to them then taking that mini-lesson and my modeling metacognition, and then they look at their own writing, and other’s writing.

My teaching cohort Emily and I were talking the other day about how she needs to do some writing. We have an easy balance together, but she’s right.  She needs to write.  The best way we show ourselves is at our in-progress stage of writing, discussing what we want to do for purpose, topic, and audience.  We should not show ourselves ever thinking we’re “done.”

Back to how technology transforms this all.   Sharing is more immediate; there are multiple modalities for discussion (Edmodo for responding, Padlet for throwing out fire up responses, sharing of Google Docs for commenting).  The transformation, for me, having taught using this model for so long, is that if I ask a student to explore an interest, they can do it, right then, right there.

They can find and access a kazillion mentor texts.  ‘Nough said.

Student finishing up an online literature circle discussion using Edmodo.

Student finishing up an online literature circle discussion using Edmodo.

Here is another snapshot of this transformation.  As we were moving into the second quarter of language arts, Emily asked me how we should frame our lessons as we continued.  It hit me that though we were using the workshop model, it had transformed to such overwhelming possibilities.  It felt like grooming a rock star who had hit the charts.  I have no idea why that analogy came to me, but it’s so hard to describe the little monsters we’d created with so much room for them to stretch, reach, and grow with Writer’s Workshop.  I answered her with a gleeful, big, let’s see-where-this-will go shrug and said, “well, nothing has changed, let’s keep the workshop going, but maybe we need to call it something more expansive, like, “Learning on your own.”

The next day, when LOYO was on our agenda, and many students knew what the acronym was, well, wow.  The teacher learner in me talked about how their learning was officially limitless, and I was excited to sit down and visit with them and see where they were going.
I’m excited to see where I’m going.  I get to do this.  Every day.

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Technology Transforms a Writing Workshop

  1. john August 5, 2016 at 3:09 am Reply

    lpost

    Like

  2. john August 5, 2016 at 3:08 am Reply

    Technology Transforms a Writing Workshop

    Like

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