5 Steps to Digitizing the Writing Workshop

"If you can write what people will read by choice," shares Vicki Spandel, author of Six Traits Writing, "the world is your's" (Source: http://bit.ly/bRwHIs). Over 400 million bloggers experience the truth of this statement daily. If their writing fails to engage, no one reads their work. Yet other bloggers experience that the world is their's every time they publish a piece online.  As human beings writing about our passions, many of us have a deep desire to be heard and recognized...in the past, the experience required the rigamarole of having an editor read your work. Now, like everything else, the Internet enables us to skip the intermediaries and go straight to the audience. Of course, if what you write doesn't sparkle in the eye of your readers, you will lack for readers.

Expecting students to write in our classrooms for hit-or-miss praise is criminal. Their nimble fingers can text an entire piece of writing via their mobile device to a relevant audience online at the same time they publish to a worldwide network. For them, the pay is in the joy of publication, in the act of making their work known, and of partaking of the work of others. 

Gretchen Bernabei, speaking to a teacher audience participating at a 2010 Summer Writing Academy, shares the following observation:
If students leave the writing workshop feeling famous, then I have done my job right. Sharing your writing, being enlarged by others' writing is what makes you feel famous.
Source: Gretchen Bernabei, 2010 Summer Writing Academy, San Antonio ISD, San Antonio, Texas
As a writing workshop facilitator, you have a multitude of online spaces where students can publish their writing for the world to see. Those include school district or teacher-managed blogs, wikis, Moodle-based virtual classrooms (find out more about Moodle), external web sites such as Kidpub.com and many others.  Check Sidebar 1: Student Publishing Online for a partial listing. 

In 2008, my daughter, Rosalie (pen name: Solana), published her writing online via Kidpub.com.  Only 14 years old at the time, she had access to a multitude of publishing choices. She did not publish in print until 2010 via Lulu.com, one of many web sites that allow you to publish your own book. She became famous in her small circle of friends and family, having shared her work online and, later, in print. At no time did she share her work with a teacher, and had published 18 chapters of her writing (a total of 50 pages) online before her parents found out.

Another pair of children--home-schooled in a log cabin in Tennessee using an old laptop computer with MS Paint and Moviemaker--converted the first 3 chapters into videos shared on YouTube.com. The parents of the children had no idea their children had done this until after the first two videos had been created.

While publishing student writing online fundamentally hooks students as writers, as teachers, we can take advantage of available tools to make our jobs easier. Just as our students have new digital tools, so do we as their teachers. 

This article is about 5 steps you can take, as a writing teacher, to digitize your writing workshop. There are many more, though, so "stay tuned" for future articles!

  1. Embrace open web tools
  2. Focus on the Facilitator
  3. Create an Online Writing Space
  4. Facilitate Online Conversations about Student Writing
  5. Offer feedback in audio or video, rather than written, format

Please recall that digital citizenship--including cybersafety--principles must be kept in mind. Also be sure to adhere to your school district's responsible/acceptable use policy. 

"My son has dysgraphia and dyslexia," pointed out a teacher in a summer writing academy, "His school never met his needs, putting him on skill-n-drill software." In contrast, another mother and teacher shared, "My child learned to use a computer in third grade and has used it since then...he's fifteen years old now." The red-haired teacher pauses for a moment. "He's now out of Special Education and in Gifted Talented Program.

"Computer software now allows young children to write and illustrate their own stories before their fine motor skills are developed enough to allow them to do so by hand" (Source: National School Boards Association, http://bit.ly/9Cwbz9). Student writers can publish their work, not only in print, but in a variety of media. Text, audio, and images combine when students use blogs, wikis, podcasts and digital storytelling. Students may find it easier to collaborate on a piece of writing when using collaborative word processors. Neither teachers or students can afford to ignore freely available technologies. These digital tools on the "open web" allow you to create a variety of media, much of which begin with text. Some of my favorites include the ones listed online at http://bit.ly/digitizethismedia

Within this context of writers with its focus on the recursive, writing process, a wide variety of technology tools are available. Note that writing can find expression in a variety of media formats, as well as be developed singly or in collaboration with others. Take advantage of over 20 digital tools for students (Sidebar #2 - Digital Tools for Students). Learning to use open web tools--like social bookmarking site Diigo.com which allows students to annotate web sites, make notes and keeps it all in one location--eliminate the "Oh, I left my writing journal at home/work and now I'm stuck." You can easily transition from notes and highlights kept in Diigo.com social bookmarking tool to a written piece that appropriately cites content. Check Sidebar #3 for Electronic Citation Resources.

Our job as writing workshop facilitators can be pretty harrowing. Even a paper-centric writing workshop involves juggling colored sheets to create books, setting up writing centers, helping students deal with the daily struggle of journals and journal responses, and, crafting mini-lessons that engage and endure. The focus is always on student writing. As workshop facilitator, you can work to find the answer to the question, "How can technologies we now have make the HOW of writing workshop easier for the teacher?" 

One possibility is to reflect on the teacher's role in the writing workshop, and the technology available to organize the writing workshop. The work Diana Benner and I focused on centered around writing workshop components, including the following: 1) The Mini-Lesson; 2) The Status of the Class; 3) Write/Confer; and 4) Group Share. There are many more components and activities, but these present a starting point. Consider taking just one of these--such as the mini-lesson--and building an online writing space that allows you to share and archive your mini-lessons. Here are some simple ways you can use available free technology online:

  1. Create a Self-Editing checklist that is actually a GoogleForm or the Questionnaire Module in Moodle so you can quickly see class progress in graphs. Students complete this information via a web-based form that allows you to quantitatively track progress in class.
  2. Create a bank of online mini-lessons that students can watch and listen to again and again in an archive. Build that in your GoogleSites Wiki or Moodle.
  3. Facilitate sharing using recording tools in a discussion forum or Sites wiki. When doing the Group Share during a Writing Workshop, you can either play the students' presentation of the audio (which they recorded when they were ready) or record the feedback students get so that it can be added to the written piece/recording shared. That way, students can come back and reflect on the advice provided by their peers.

While some of the ideas above are elaborated in this article, consider how technology, rather than complicating your life, can make it easier for you and your students over the long run of a writing workshop, eliminating the constant paper chase.

Often, writing folders serve as the central repository in a classroom in the throes of a writing workshop. As a writing workshop facilitator, my efforts involved storage of students' writing folders in crates and/or file cabinet, depending on what was available. All writing resided on pieces of paper. Specific areas of writing workshop can be moved online. If your students are publishing online--whether via a blog, wiki, collaborative word processor, Moodle forum--then an online space to bring all the artifacts together is critical. A staple of the mini-lesson includes the mini-lesson.

"In the mini-lesson," my mentor teacher explained to me, "someone--usually the teacher, but it can be a student or a guest speaker--introduces a new concept to writers. The mini-lesson, lasting 10-20 minutes, can also be focused on meeting the needs identified in students' writing. The mini-lesson facilitator models the approach introduced, writing alongside the students." Using a Moodle or wiki, you can create a reference point that can house your mini-lesson content, including audio and/or video recordings. Moodle allows you to group content around topics, or week of study.

Several solutions are available to the problem of creating an online writing space, such as:

Once you know where you are going to put your writing workshop content--where you can share anything, everything you and your students will need for writing workshop--decide what format you will put that information online in. Here are three types of tools--with specific suggestions--that you can use:

  1. Create Digital Content viewable by Students using Digital Storytelling Tools
    • MS Photostory (Windows only) - Enables teacher to create an enhanced podcast--pictures and sound--about the MiniLesson content.
    • ShowBeyond.com - Enables teachers to create an enhanced podcast about the MiniLesson content.
    • VoiceThread.com - Enables teachers to create an enhanced podcast about the MiniLesson content, but also allow students to contribute audio, text, or video content as comments. This enables many to many interactions. 
  2. Create an electronic slideshow using Online Presentation Tools - Teachers can create presentations and make them easily accessible online, embedding the code of the presentation. This relieves students from the requirement of having MS Office installed on their computers.
    • GoogleDocs Presentation Tool - Enables teachers to create a slideshow that students can participate in chat, as well as contribute slides to.
    • ZohoShow.com - Enables easy uploading of your Powerpoint presentation.
  3. Share your MS Office/OpenOffice created documents as PDFs.
    • Scribd.com - Allows you to print up a long document as a PDF and place it online for easy viewing on-screen. No downloading (getting) of large Word documents. Instead, you simply paste "embed code" that allows you to directly include content on a web page you have created. Students simply view the content online.
  4. Add audio introductions to writing workshop mini-lessons:
    1. Audioboo.com - This allows you to use your mobile phone to record and share audio content. You call it in and the content appears magically online and accessible for students to access.
    2. Drop.io - This is another phenomenal, easy to use tool that you can use with your students to collect feedback on a piece of writing (audio or text) in one place. Setup is free.

"Eddie, if you write about parts of yourself, I bet your reader will have some of those parts, too. I guess that's a small answer to the big question you asked." In this excerpt from  Louis Borden's book, The Day Eddie met the Authorwe read the tale of Eddie, a third grader. Eddie who, when his favorite author visits, finds that he is not able to ask his question of the author. Fortunately, the author sees him and reads the yellow paper where Eddie had written his question. You may intuit the question from the answer the author gave Eddie.

When I first started facilitating writing workshops, one of the best sources of insights for students came from the students themselves. Facilitating large group share provides students a place for them to find out what others think of their ideas. That said, students tend to focus on different aspects of a person's writing. Each of us, while listening to a writer, may find that the writing connects with a part of us. 

As wonderful as a writing workshop teacher may be, s/he cannot offer the feedback that ALL students may need. However, online discussion forums through Moodle, attached to wikis, or with blog postings and comments CAN facilitate student to student interaction independent of the teacher. While many fear these kinds of interactions, in online learning, these interactions make or break an online course...or a face to face one. Moodle allows teachers to create a rich, safe environment with ample "brain food" for learners.

Collaborative word processors can also serve as a way for students in groups to interact with ONE text online. Imagine having a piece that needs editing. Paste the text of that piece into a collaborative word processor, then engage in group "ratiocination." Ratiocination, a term encountered in an article by Joyce Armstrong Carroll, involves using codes that symbolize specific modifications that can be made to a text. Students can learn to decode clues, as Carroll (Source: Acts of Teaching, http://amzn.to/9I0NAs) says, and "figure out words and meanings to solve the mystery of their written drafts." 

For example, some common clues include circling all "to be" verbs, making a wavy line under repeated words, etc. Some of this work--with adjustment from the paper to electronic codes for clues--can be done in a collaborative word processor.

In a classroom using a collaborative word processor, assign different groups of students different clues to code and then turning them loose on a writing assignment. The written piece undergoes a virtual transformation online in full view of the students. This modeling of the approach can then be repeated with students' own writing with a peer. 

Educator "Mr. Warner" shares that learning conversation about writing can also involve offline work that finds expression online. He writes:

"In just over twenty minutes, the Class had gathered nearly 80 different ideas / persuasive phrases for use in our future lessons. These documents were on display on our interactive whiteboard, so we could see what everyone in the class was doing as the lesson progressed. They are also stored online, allowing us to access them during our future lessons." 
(Source: Etherpad in the Classroom Blog, http://www.mrwarner.com/2009/03/etherpad-in-the-classroom, Available: April, 2010 now offline).

In addition to posting written texts and commenting, you can also add audio or video.

Shelly Blake-Pollock, the teacher and author of the TeachPaperless blog (http://teachpaperless.blogspot.com), encourages his students to publish online. Beyond that step, though, he offers feedback on their writing online as well via screencasts, or video recording of his computer screen. Screencasts, or "JingCrits," that he creates are short, less than 5-minute video clips where he highlights student work on screen and offers feedback (View an example - http://bit.ly/bsgVQQ).

Blake-Pollock sends each student a link to their own feedback. The response, Shelly says, has been positive:
 So far, the reaction to Jing comments has been overwhelmingly in favor. In fact, both students and parents have been pushing me to produce as many JingCrits as my time allows.
This kind of feedback can connect with auditory learners who may prefer to get their feedback in another format besides cryptic comments on a post-it attached to their piece of writing. The teacher reviews student writing online, offering specific feedback, recording the feedback as a video recording. The teacher reports taking only 5-8 minutes to record feedback that would normally take 20 or more minutes to write out as feedback.

JingCrits get their name from The Jing Project, a free screen-recording tool available at http://jingproject.com that enables you to post videos online. Using screen-recording tools to offer feedback--whether from teacher to student, student to teacher, student to student--can offer tremendous benefits to students. This kind of video/audio feedback contribute to the demise of one writing myth--"it takes longer to grade writing." As Shelly's JingCrit demonstrates, writing workshop facilitators can grade for discrete skills. The focus on the lead of a paper is helpful. 

Writing Workshop facilitators may be familiar with the Carroll/Wilson Analystic Scale for Classroom Use. The scale enables teachers to assess quickly and effectively what they have taught their students. Developed collaboratively with students, the scale embodies intelligent writing assessment. Simply, you only get graded on what you were taught. Imagine having students and teacher develop a Carroll/Wilson Analytic Scale for Classroom Use--centered around what has recently been taught in class--then offering video feedback on a piece of writing using that scale. The video of the Analytic Scale, shared online with students, serves as a perpetual "model" of how to provide feedback.

Shelly has found a quick way to offer feedback his student writers need using screencasting. Some free web-based services that do not require you to install anything on your computer include ScreenToaster.com, ScreenCastle.com, and/or Screencast-o-matic.com. Online tutorials are available for each, but you should be able to get going fairly quickly with 15 minutes of exploration.

If video is not for you, you can also take advantage of digital audio tools. A variety of tools are useful in this category. From inexpensive digital audio recorders, a USB microphone connected to a computer running Audacity audio recording/editing program (free) to online free web-based recording sites like Vocaroo.com and Drop.io, you and your students can easily record audio.

    • Digital Audio Recorder - Teacher can record the mini-lesson and post it on class web site (e.g. blog, wiki). This is an ideal tool for field trips or "on the go" recordings where a mobile phone is not desirable.
    • Vocaroo.com - Students can record a reading of their written piece then email it to the teacher or to other students. 
    • Drop.io - This web site allows easy recording of audio, whether by sending a locally recorded audio file on a computer, emailed from a mobile device, or "phoned in." 
    • AudioBoo.com - This web site allows phone recording of content and publishing online.

These are only some of the technology tools available. Be judicious in which tools you decide to infuse into the writing workshop.

Remember that the technologies you can use to digitize your writing workshop are easily adaptable to multiple uses. If you find you want to scaffold student writing--or your own teaching of writing--by using tools differently, then do so.  Learning to use new technologies to transform how we approach writing workshop, while a matter of choice for teachers, is a life-skills requirement for our children.

Make the right choice, share back and let me know what you’ve done.

SideBar 1 - Students Publishing Online

  1. Amphitheater List - http://bit.ly/IOq1F - features over 20 web sites where student work can be published online.
  2. Education World article on Encourage Student Writing - http://bit.ly/1IjwJx - Offers additional suggestions.

SideBar 2 - Digital Tools for Students

Stage of the Writing ProcessTechnology Tools Available
  1. Storyboarding Documents
  2. Storyboarding Websites
  3. Concept Mapping
  4. Playing with Words
  1. Digital Storytelling Software
  2. Digital Storytelling Websites
  3. Digital Posters
  4. Comic Strips
  5. Podcasting
    1. AudioBoo
    2. Aviary.com/Tools
    3. Drop.io
  1. Word Processing
    • Microsoft Word
    • OpenOffice
  2. Collaborative Word Processing
  1. Word Processing
    • Microsoft Word
    • OpenOffice
  2. Collaborative Word Processing
    • Google Docs
    • iEtherpad.com
    • PrimaryPad.com
  1. Digital Storytelling Software
  2. Digital Storytelling Websites

Sidebar #3 - Electronic Citation Resources

· Bibme: This resource creates citations and pulls reference content.
· EasyBib:  Bibliography and citation maker--featuring GoogleDocs integration--for books, newspapers, web sites and more.
· Son of Citation Maker:  David Warlick’s MLA, APA, Chicago, and Turabian citation guide.
· OttoBib:  Enter the ISBN number of a book and it will prepare the citation for you.

Copyright Notice: This article is shared under Creative Commons ShareAlike-Noncommercial-Attribution Copyright. I would love to have a publication like TCEA TechEdge or MassCUE publish it to their readership, which I have found is often a different audience than those served by my blog.

Update (07/28/2010): This article accepted for publication in MassCUE. Thanks Jean Tower!

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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure


Lisa Nielsen said…
Great post. I just shared similar sentiments on my blog in a post called "Just Say Yes to Publishing" http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2010/07/just-say-yes-to-publishing-exposing-man.html . I am going to add a link to this fantastic post in the comments so others will be able to see some concrete ideas for doing so.
Thanks for sharing the link on your blog, as well as placing this link to Innovative Educator blog entry!! Great entry on your site!

With appreciation,
Miguel Guhlin
Kassissieh said…
Miguel, thanks for sharing this useful collection of online tools and encouraging teachers to publish student work online. Our school's high school English program does some of this, but we use only one tool: the Moodle forum. The forum tool is incredibly versatile, allowing classes to self-organize in a variety of ways, make discussions more democratic, and attach files as needed. Using one tool for paper drafts, peer review papers, word of the day, and WEDGE (writing everyday) allows the tool to recede to the background of the class as familiar and automatic. Students also master the Moodle forum tool and make creative, effective use of it on their own.

Our teachers take a different approach on the question of audience and publishing to the whole world. With such an authentic, personal audience as all of one's peers, the teachers find it less useful for students to publish to the public. "The whole world" is too indistinct an audience for structured, high school critical writing, is it not? It might be a great audience for editorial columns on popular topics.

I will share your suggestions about video comments with our teachers. They might take that on as a useful addition to our school's writing process.
JeanTower said…
Loved reading this post. As I read I was thinking how much the readers of on Cue would enjoy it, so when I got to the end and saw your message about MassCUE I had to smile. I will add it to our next issue and will make sure you get a copy! Thanks.
@Kassissieh, thanks for sharing the feedback! It's fascinating how students react to audiences, as well as teacher perceptions of what's valuable or not impact student learning!

I'm going to repost your remark about using one tool. Excellent insight.

@JeanTower, so glad to know you are still reading! I'm delighted this will appear in the next issue of MassCUE!

With deep appreciation,

Miguel Guhlin
kim yaris said…
I've been thinking about how to digitize the writing workshop since the spring when I attended a conference break-out session where the speaker opened my eyes to the many web 2.0 tools available. I loved this articles because you summed up in one place many of the things that I should be thinking about as I prepare to start the school year. Great post! Thanks!
wrtngtchr said…
This post is really helpful because it clarifies and organizes the integration of digital tools with writing workshop elements. You've mapped out how to implement online tools instead of just listing possibilities.

Your article provides exactly what I need to get started in my own classes. thanks!!

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