One tech-savvy parent's just-in-time classroom intervention
Last year my second-grader was learning to hate writing. "It's the worst part of the day," he'd say. "I can never think of anything to write about!"
His teacher, it turned out, used no prompts and fiction was outlawed. ("Their plots are too messy at this age" she told me.) Writing periods were spent practicing the structure of a paragraph among other prescriptive tasks.
Back in graduate school, I'd had the opportunity to teach high-schoolers a summer course I called "Writing with Passion for School and for Yourself." Now I was wondering how I could also show my son that writing is satisfying, nourishing and essential. How could I show his class? (After all, I'm a writer not an educator.)
At an AT Advisory Council meeting in December, I took the opportunity to share my woes with Karen Janowski. Janowski is an educational technology and AT specialist working with public schools in Massachusetts (see "ReThinking: He Doesn't Want to be Seen as Different" in the sidebar). I told Janowski about my son, how he receives reading room support and hates writing so much he gets angry with waitresses who bring him crayons.
She recommended trialing Storybird.com, a free online storytelling program. Storybird allows users to create gorgeous picture books by selecting graphics by participating artists, and writing accompanying text. The site is durable for young students; once logged in, student projects are automatically saved as they work. Once a book is finished, the project may be published online and/or ordered in hard copy.
Back at my son's school (in Vermont), a group of parents and I decided to tackle integrating Storybird into his class of 20 first- and second-graders. For guidance I enlisted the support of the reading specialist (she met with me on her own time and attended class when she could manage it). To get into the weekly schedule, I took over the class computer lab (unstructured time used solely for learning the keyboard and playing games). And to motivate the kids, I got a grant from the PTO to buy one soft-cover copy of each student's book for them as a keepsake.
- To give the students a writing project that was completely theirs.
- To envision themselves as published authors (elevate their task and sense-of-self).
- To introduce them to the elements of a story (concepts of plot, character, and setting--part of the state standards).
- To provide motivation for learning basic word processing skills and sentence construction.
- To model my own love of writing.
- To have fun.
Nuts and Bolts:
- To introduce the unit, I showed them a Storybird I wrote (above) which incorporated some of their first names to get them excited. (Here is the Google Doc slide presentation I used to guide them on that first day. Be sure to click on the speaker notes).
- To ensure enough time, including time to learn and play with the Web site, we met weekly for over four months of the school year.
- The first set of weeks was spent writing individual stories; the last half we spent in small groups on collaborative works (adult facilitated!)
- Collaborative stories were shared in a final wrap-up celebration using a SMART Board.
- At the end of the school year, the students chose which stories they wanted the PTO to purchase (their individual or their group project).
The Devil in the Details:
- 4 adults helped in computer lab each week.
- I pre-registered each student at home to create simple user names and passwords.
- I used a projected screen to help guide them through log-in and tools.
- To maximize class time, eventually we learned to arrive early to pre-log them in, choosing who would sit where for a quieter classroom (it worked!)
- We came up with some parameters: no project could be over 20 pages, and words must accompany every page.
- One parent made colorful, paper "choosing hats" for drawing names when conflicts in small groups needed resolving.
- Storybird updates were sent home to parents including login instructions for home access.
- Initial grumbling about lost free computer lab time vanished by the second week.
- A mid-session show of hands revealed 50% of the classroom was working on Storybird at home, writing on their own free time (and not always the students we would have predicted!)
- Logging in, I found that older siblings had also created stories or collaborated with younger siblings to get in on the action!
- The first-grader on the autism spectrum enjoyed sequencing pictures and thrived contributing during group work (he was assigned to the reading specialist's group).
- I used a SMART Board with my small group, which made everyone eager to place pictures, enter text, and stand up to read what we had created.
- Final results varied, predictably, by skill level. For some, just learning to navigate the site, drag and drop pictures, and move a cursor were big accomplishments. However, all developed a range of skills much faster than anticipated. Most were eager to read and share their stories with the class and answer questions (making me wish we'd had more time for literary criticism because they loved it).
- Their plots were, indeed, messy. They loved them anyway.
Special Needs (with input from Karen Janowski):
- Storybird works with Co:Writer word prediction and Dragon Naturally Speaking software.
- Storybird is forgiving and flexible; students can easily change, edit, correct, and update their work. Nothing is unfixable, even after you hit "publish."
- Spell check may be enabled or disabled (I found many second-graders were empowered and delighted to use spell check).
- Reluctant or struggling writers love placing and sequencing pictures. The artwork inspires storytelling.
- Older students can collaborate via email on a common Storybird project (swapping turns). Comments may be left on published works (a huge motivator).
In March my son was stuck at home with walking pneumonia while I was stuck out of state due to a snow storm. Using Skype with Storybird, however, I was able to babysit him for over an hour, providing respite for my partner. I chose Skype's "screen share" option, and he and I took turns reading published Storybirds aloud to each other (I turned the pages as well as guided him, word-by-word, using the cursor). It was a wonderful way to visit with each other as well as support his learning.
Plus, these days he admits that writing is not the worst part of his day.
-Eliza Anderson, ATPN editor-in-chief