Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Community Writing in the Classroom
Teaching at a Fairbanks, Alaska, elementary school offers educator Doug Noon a distinct advantage: "Living where I do, I have a critical distance from the mainstream that gives me the opportunity to look at things from a fresh perspective." For Doug, this fresh perspective means creating innovative ways to use technology in the classroom, a perspective he shares with teachers far and wide on his highly-respected blog, Borderland. And it's a perspective he puts to work with his students, 4th graders who publish a website of their own called Tell the Raven. Doug graciously talked to us about his experience applying technology to teaching.
VT: Why did you get your students involved with the website?
Doug: I've been very interested in the social dimensions of learning. The website is a very social experience for my students and that's what makes it tick. In the past, when my students would write something, they'd just turn it in to me. No one else would see it, sometimes not even their parents. I felt there was very little investment on the students' part. But as soon as there was an audience, it changed everything. The more things I can get them to share with their class on the website, the more they're going to put into it.
VT: So is this a blog?
Doug: While I use blogging features, I never call their website a blog. I tell my students Tell the Raven is a community writing project. Blogging seems to me a certain set of things, like reading other websites and linking and all that. This is pretty much one way.
VT: What challenges did you face getting kids to work on the website?
Doug: Typing was a big obstacle. It took some students a painfully long time. So I taught the whole class to type. As a 4th grade teacher, I thought this is one of the developmental tools I can help them with. Once they got their speed up to where they could type faster than writing by hand -- about 12 words a minute -- they were able to efficiently use the computer. Some of them were able to type much faster than I do!
VT: What changes did you notice once you got the kids writing on the website.
Doug: There was a huge difference. The kids all of a sudden started thinking of themselves as "writers." They became writers, it was so cute -- a little writer community developed in the classroom. The kids started commenting on each other's stories. They just loved it.
VT: What did the students write about?
Doug: That was another interesting thing. I expected them to write personal narrative, I thought it would be easier to write about personal experience than make something up. But they wanted to write fiction. I never expected them to become fiction writers. When I looked at some of these stories, I realized some of them were undecipherable. So we had to learn, for example, how to write dialogue so you'd know who was talking.
VT: How has this influenced your teaching?
Doug: I've had to follow their lead. At one point I decided to require them to write personal narratives. That lasted a day -- you could see their shoulders droop. I realized I was roadblocking this wonderful thing that was happening. I've had far better luck giving them a long leash. It's an opportunity to see what makes them tick. But I still keep tight control over what they generate -- I'm not saying "anything goes." I have certain standards, as if I was their "editor-in-chief."
Working on the Tell the Raven website has completely opened the classroom. They'd have written for two or three hours if I allowed them. Every morning, I'd have to say, okay, that's enough.
VT: How about safety?
Doug: A big obstacle to elementary school students publishing on the web, of course, has been concern for their personal safety. But just like there's a fence around our schoolyard and we don't allow people to wander into our building and communicate with students, I moderate everything on the website. Every comment that comes in has to go through me as well as what comes out.
You also have to talk to parents -- they want to know why we're doing this, and if it's safe. For the most part, they've all agreed to let their kids participate. We're not in a high socio-economic district so a lot of students I work with don't have computer access at home. But parents are beginning to understand the power of all this.
Doug keeps an online list of "recommendations for teachers" -- educator resources and bookmarks. Please click here to check it out. On a technical note, he uses an open-source content management software called Drupal to run his website.