We ask students to write and some of them do it simply for the love of it just like some play sports or painting. At some point though, doing work for the sake of work just doesn’t cut it for kids and I can’t blame them at all. Whenever I’m given a task, I’m always thinking why is this important? What is the point of doing this? If I can’t be given an answer or come up with one on my own, then I’m less likely to put forth my best effort. It’s the same for my kids.
I’ve been really trying to give my students work a voice that will be heard since I moved into teaching at the junior years level last year. It’s not enough to have their voice out there on the internet somewhere waiting to be heard but someone ACTUALLY needs to listen/read/experience what my students have to say.
Celebrating Published Work
One of the first things I did was make sure that when we completed a writing unit with published work that their work was really celebrated. This meant that it needed to be shared in a way that would make the students feel proud of what they had accomplished. Depending on the unit, we would find different audiences to share our work with. Sometimes that would be other classes, our parents or even each other. It was no longer just a type it up and hand it in and never be heard of again. My students are excited to share with others their work after going through the writing process and like the instant feedback and gratification from sharing with people they know in a face to face context. What I love even more about this is that not only do my students share their published work but they now share their process of getting to the product. As the ‘process’ of doing something has become more important than the ‘product’ in my class, I love that they enjoy sharing the experience of getting to the end rather than just being finished.
Using Google Documents to Comment and Make Suggestions
As a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) school, we are very fortunate to be able to use the various Google Apps to enhance the classroom experience for our students. One of my favourite aspects of the applications is being able to use the comment or suggesting feature of Google Docs and Presentation with my students. I have the ability to access any of the documents my students are working on and give them timely feedback on their work. My students know that I’m reading their work and creates a lot more dialogue about their work and thinking as we go. I also love that documents can be shared with other students so they can do this as well. Often it happens without me knowing when a student stands up and starts asking another student across the room what he meant by this comment on his work. This idea that ‘we’ is better than just ‘me’ in our writing process allows them to have an authentic audience throughout their writing journey as well.
Weekly Reflections For Our Website
At the beginning of the year when our new class website was unveiled to my students, they took ownership of the visual appeal to it but also wanted to make sure their parents could see what they were thinking and feeling throughout the week. As a class, they decided to create a weekly Google Presentation where each student was able to design a slide (or more) with whatever graphics they wanted to and reflect on their week in any way they chose too. Many chose visuals to express themselves as a component of it but most of them wrote whatever they were feeling throughout the week. Knowing that someone would be reading their reflections each week meant that it gave them a purpose to write. This was a complete student-led initiative and is completely optional for my students to do each week. Most weeks at least 80% of my class completes it depending on how much other homework they have, etc. But they do it because they want to write and create and because they want their parents to share their experience in the classroom. This is the culture of sharing THEY have created in our class community.
This is one of my favourite parts of my class. I absolutely love using Google Sites for our e-portfolios. It allows my students to share and reflect on their work. We share them within our class and occasionally with other classes as well but the biggest success has been using them to create powerful school-home relationships. At the end of every 6 week unit of inquiry, my students share their eportfolio with their parents at home and have a discussion about their accomplishments over the course of the unit. The students know that they have wiggle room within those 6 weeks to get their e-portfolios where they want them to be but know that by the end, they will be sharing them. Knowing the audience will be there has significantly increased the quality of e-portfolios since I first started doing them. The parents are not in the dark about their child’s learning and the dialogue continues to develop with the learning at home and not just in the classroom. Parents comment on their work within the e-portfolio as well. Because of this, the student has their teacher, peers, parents, and self all reflecting and commenting on their e-portfolios - quite a powerful audience.
Gmail Home Writing Program
Each week every student in my class writes me an email. They can choose from a list or just write about whatever they want. Every Monday I send them back a personal email. The students clearly know someone is reading their writing and responding to them in a timely fashion.
The more meaningful we can create the learning we have in the classroom, the more students will learn and want to share. The more students share their work with an audience that matters to them, the more pride they take in doing their work. Students want to know what they say matters - foster a community where it can and does.
This year I started the program from the beginning of the school year. I believe this allowed me to help build the relationships with my students from day one. Overall, the students have been very responsive. It really has allowed a few of my students to blossom as writers. These students in particular really think about the feedback they are given and I can clearly see it being applied in the following email. This just emphasises the need for timely and specific feedback for students.
Many of the same writing areas of growth appeared and have allowed me to have a more targeted approach from the beginning of the year. The biggest one will always be quantity and quality writing. We have started our dialogue about how to create paragraphs that really give your readers a ‘juicy hamburger’ paragraph (detailed paragraph) instead of a ‘grilled cheese’ paragraph (a small paragraph with not much in it).
One student this year has asked to write a weekly letter by hand to improve her cursive handwriting. I have no problem with this and provided her with resources for handwriting as well. However, she still wanted me to email my response back so she could have one on Monday morning in her inbox like the rest of the students.
It’s important for my students to know the conversation isn’t just one way either. I always allow my students to ask me questions about whatever they want, and yes that sometimes means questions about who I am and my life. As long as they are appropriate, I have no problem answering them as I think it’s important for students to see you as a person just as they are. So far I’ve never had anything come my way I wouldn’t answer. Perhaps I’m just lucky to have such respectful students. I’ve always felt being honest with my students is essential if I expect the same from them so sharing about my holidays or relating to them with stories from my own life growing up or whatever the case may be is something I think is important for my students to see.
There was one weekend when I was away at a conference for a few days and into the weekend where I did not send individual responses to students. Instead, I sent a general email to the whole class. The students were understanding of it and I responded to many of the common questions asked throughout all of the emails that week. But the following week I was back to the individual emails again.
It is a time-consuming project on my end but I truly believe the value of it outweighs that. One thing I have done to help me combat spending so much time on email writing every weekend is to create a canned message template for each week. In doing so, each student hears about maybe something I did on the weekend, something that might be coming up to look forward to in class or another topic that pertains to all students. Then, I will respond individually to the content of their emails and provide feedback where necessary. It still means sending an email to every student but I’m not rewriting every single word in every email.
For one of my beginner ESL students, this has been a really positive experience this year. He always sends me his email in English (his native language is Japanese) because he wants to improve his English and he has! He went from a one or two sentence email to sometimes up to two paragraphs now. The other really interesting part is how he uses images and videos in his emails to help convey his messages to me. Without the use of technology, we would not have this ability.
I had a student who was very disruptive during class at the beginning of the year. We tried different strategies in class to help him be successful in whole class settings but I always found he was more successful when he was able to use the computer to communicate his thoughts. In his emails, he would always express how he didn’t want to call out but couldn’t help himself and how much he enjoyed the class. His emails provided me more insight into the student I saw in class. The dialogue created through this digital medium allowed us to reflect on what was happening in class and what we could do together to make the classroom environment work for him. I don’t believe these conversations wouldn’t have happened in class to the same effect as they have.
On holidays and summers, I still get emails from my students - not all, but some. It always surprises me who emails me too. Often it is some of the students who really didn’t like writing when they came to me. It makes me confident that the plan worked. It makes me confident that students want to have an audience for writing, that building relationships with students is important and that sometimes writing isn’t just about writing.
Many students come and go in an internationally community and I still hear from some of them every now and again. I heard from ½ of the students who moved to another country at the start of this school year and left our school community. Sometimes students need that sense of comfort from their old life as they start a new one. I’ve always said to all my students, if you write me an email, I will respond. Sometimes that sense of security, as little as an email is, is what a child needs most.
The greatest success of these writing program is that is has had impacts much farther and more meaningful than just my students’ writing. It really is impacting who they are as a person as they grow. Each week I have the pleasure of reading about sleepovers, friends moving away, disagreements on the playground, celebrations at home, parents returning from business trips and more. Each week they open up their little lives to me with trust and respect and I do my best to do the same. It has become more than writing - it is a dialogue to build the foundation of relationships, skills and attitudes that go beyond what is reported on any report card. I can only hope that I can continue to be that source of support both inside and outside of the classroom this year.
Last year I began a writing program in my class where the students would write me an email each week and I would respond. I created a thought out plan with input from our Director of Education Technology and off I went. After just over a year of doing this, I opened up the same document to check in and see if I was still doing everything I had set out to do and reflect on the overall effectiveness of the program.
Here is the plan created in October 2013:
In my first year of teaching, a colleague of mine had a grade 4 class who did ‘Thinking Thursday’ every week for a lesson. The concept was simple – write what you were thinking about. Students had an option to write a letter to the teacher, choose a topic from the jar or write about whatever they wanted. Surprisingly, most students would choose to write a letter to the teacher.
We had many discussions about the power of a letter back and forth between the teacher and student
I personally have never been one to be good at communicating in person and have found writing a better form of communication for me as I am able to think through what I want to say before saying it. While it takes away the initial face to face conversations, it will allow for more meaningful conversations inside the classroom and help me relate to my students more.
I have decided to incorporate this as part of their homework rather than an in-class assignment for the simple reason that it utilises technology and writing in a way that will captivate students and allow them to develop their writing skills without feeling they have to write a polished piece to publish.
Why Not Blog Instead:
Sample Email for Introduction to Students
Dear Ms. Mac,
I hope this email finds you doing well. This week at school I really enjoyed doing our summative assignment. I liked that we were able to work in groups to make our buildings. I found it tricky working with Roger on our project because he did not listen to my ideas. Do you have some suggestions on how to work better as a team?
In cross country this week, I came 4th. I ran as fast as I could and really tried my best. I would have done better but I tripped over a log on the path and rolled down the hill. But I did pass one person because I rolled really fast.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Foreseeable Challenges & Solutions
Email Sent to Parents Prior to Beginning Program:
I wanted to take a moment to write to you in anticipation of our next unit of inquiry which is about personal awareness. The central idea for the unit is “A person’s behaviour and how they choose to present themselves can project aspects of the identity.” We’re really looking forward to exploring it.
As part of the writing homework, students will be asked to write a weekly email to myself. Students may choose to write about one of the selected topics in their homework package or choose to write about something of their own interest, but each email must be submitted no later than Friday along with their regular homework. All emails will be sent from the student’s Chatsworth email account to the teacher’s Chatsworth email account as usual.
There will be two parts to the teacher feedback to these emails. The first part will be a response to what the student has written, while the second part will deal with writing styles, grammar and conventions. I will read them over the weekend and students will have a response in their inbox on Monday mornings - at which point they can ponder the questions posed by myself and include their answers in the next email. I’m excited at the potential for some very interesting conversations and dialogue.
Chatsworth’s mission includes developing students as internationally aware, responsible digital citizens. By connecting with students through email, they are building skills in digital literacy and developing their writing skills in a 21st-century environment.
Students who are enrolled in the ESL program are welcome and encouraged to write in their first language if they feel more comfortable. The purpose of this writing exercise is to allow them to express themselves without feeling restricted by language. I will translate emails through Google Translate and respond in English. Students may choose to read the English response or translate it back to their first language. (Please note: No translation is perfect).
This assignment will provide students with many learning opportunities and has the potential to develop our classroom community tremendously. Students will learn how to write letters and use proper email etiquette as well as developing their writing skills with individually tailored feedback. It is important for students to become familiar with typing on a computer and remembering to incorporate appropriate capitalisation and punctuations.
In doing this, I hope to continue to develop an ongoing relationship with my students and allow them to write about topics of personal interest in a format that is meaningful and timely.
Should you have any questions or concerns, I would be more than happy to discuss this with you at your convenience.
As always, it is a pleasure learning with your children.
Ms. Emily MacLean
I absolutely love this program with my students. Over the past year and a bit, I have learnt so much about my students through this initiative and it literally makes my day when I get the sweetest emails from them.
For the first few weeks of the first year of the program, I documented my weekly reflections. These are my thoughts from October - December from 2013 as the home writing program began to unfold.
Week 1 Reflection
Well, it’s out in the world now, let’s see how it goes. The students seemed pretty excited that they didn’t have to write on paper for the homework each week. By providing an example of what was expected in the email really allowed students to get a visual of what was intended.
I am glad I emailed the parents prior to the assignment – it can be difficult at times understanding the perspective of the email being sent and I could find myself in tricky situations potentially if a student emails content of concern so it’s good to be completely open about it first and educate the parents instead of trying to backpedal later. I even got a response from one parent being really supportive of the idea and excited to see what comes of this.
The first night I had a few students email me with their letters. It is interesting to see the range of emails. Some students are sticking specifically to the options, others are writing about their own topics. It is a quick glance at who chooses to be creative or follow the form. The range of work is quite wide from a sentence to a couple paragraphs. Hopefully, I can get all of my students writing at least a few paragraphs each week to me.
One thing that also happened today was that a student emailed me about an issue that took place last Friday (not as part of their homework). This was the first time I have received an email like this from a student. It is clear that this outlet can provide students with a comfortable environment that allows them to connect with a teacher without having to have difficult conversations face to face. While I still believe face to face interactions are important, it simply provides students with another avenue to communicate with me so that we can problems solve together.
One thing I learned today is that I should draft the email from the students as I receive them. This way I’m not writing to 20 students on Sunday night. It is a bit much to do it all in one go. Therefore, this week I will try drafting the emails as I receive them and still send them out on Monday morning. I’m going to let my students read their email from me first thing Monday morning once they get settled for the day.
Some of the most common areas of improvement for writing emails include :
Week 2 Reflection
Week 2 of the email writing. I emphasized to my students they should aim to write at least 3 good paragraphs to me if possible when we were reviewing our homework for the week. Hopefully, this will help them continue to develop the length of their writing.
Monday, October 7, 2013– Today was the first day my students got to read their emails from me. They were all very eager to read their responses from me. By the time I got home at night, I already had a few emails from students. Many responded to the questions I had asked them but the biggest thing I noticed was that the length of the emails had grown to almost double for most students compared to the first email they had sent.
Another thing I noticed was that I received questions about class work. I had 2 boys in my class email me to ask to meet with me tomorrow to review some of the work they were unsure of. All I thought was wow! Already my students are using this assignment not only as a vehicle to fulfill their weekly homework but also using it as an educational tool to reach out and get help. For these two particular boys, they both need extra help and rarely participate or ask questions in class. For me, this was a major success this week. These emails are truly opening up the lines of communication with my students and making them feel more comfortable reaching out for support.
I was discussing the project with a colleague tonight sharing some of my successes. I was also mentioning how labour intensive it was right now as it required me to write at least 20 long well thought out and grammatically correct emails for students each week. But how can you argue with the results? A little work could mean a lot of rewards and right now I am enjoying getting to know my students better and being able to help them personally, socially and academically.
Topics that have come up so far in the first 2 weeks:
Week 6 Reflection
So I can't help myself but be the proudest teacher in the world right now!
The same student who has struggled to process information, sequence events and get thoughts from pen to paper the past few years wrote a story today that pretty much blew me away. We were doing our pre-assessment for our new Writer's Workshop fantasy unit. The task was simple - show me as much as you know about fantasy writing in a small moment story in one period, try your best and let's see what you can come up with.
Well, I wandered the room ensuring my ESL students understood and redirecting another student or two back on task and didn't notice the student writing away. About 15 minutes in, I wandered over to him and he had four lines written on. I gave him a high five and off he kept going. After about 45 minutes it was time to break and I asked if he was done. He said he wasn't but almost and asked if he could finish. I figured he wanted to write and he is allowed the extra time as an accommodation so I was happy to let him finish.
When he handed his work to me that was almost a page long, I was beaming with excitement. He had done it completely independently as well. We exchanged our class secret handshake (which I did wrong, so we had a redo) and I gave him a ton of praise for his hard work and perseverance. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but for our personal narrative pre-assessment, I got a blank page in 45 minutes so this is a major step forward.
Then he reached for the iPod, took a picture of his work and continued to write another sentence about his work before posting his blog. His fiction story was sequenced and had a beginning, middle and end. It had some descriptive language and he even wrote some of his words creatively to help create a feeling for his haunted story.
Is it having the blog that is similar to Instagram that he loves that made things click? Was it sharing the positive feedback about his blog I got from his family with him? Was it the positive encouragement that has finally sunk in? Was it just everything aligning in one go? I'm not sure but I will do whatever I can to keep him on this path.
It's simply a great reminder we really need to be these kids biggest cheerleaders and never give up on them. There is always something that might motivate a child. The student may not have the best progress every day, and likely many setbacks along the way but there is always something else that could work - so don't stop trying.