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Teaching Tips: A Peek Inside—Digital Tools that Empower

by Julie D. Ramsay
 | Feb 28, 2012
As language arts teachers, we know the importance of helping our students build context when reading and writing in different genres. Since our students live in a digital world where they drive their own activities outside of the classroom, it is important that we bring that type of learning into our classrooms. Although most of my learners live in poverty and may not have access to a desktop computer at home, many do have access to handheld devices or smart phones. As their teacher, it is important to find the technology tools that will support their learning inside and outside the classroom walls.

When we begin a new genre study, like many teachers, I provide mentor texts for my writers to study and from which to draw inspiration. Because most of my students don’t have literature readily available in the home, and I usually don’t have enough texts for them to take home, I have created LiveBinders of online texts that the students have access to from school and from home.

A LiveBinder is a digital three-ring binder you can use to organize and label your online resources on a particular topic. You can include PDFs, videos, images, text, or webpages. One aspect of LiveBinders that I particularly love is that you can invite collaborators to add resources to your binder. When I asked my students why it was important for us to study these texts, one student said, “These are professional writers. They are the best in the business. If we want to be great writers, we need to read great writers and write like them.” By using LiveBinders, I am giving my students access to all kinds of writing that they can access from school or from home.

A Tale of Two Tools

At the beginning of the school year, we had a teacher in Memphis contact us and ask if our students could do some collaborative writing and publishing. My writers jumped at the chance to write and publish collaboratively with other students. When students can have an authentic reason to write to a real audience, it greatly impacts not only the quality of the writing, but the enthusiasm for creating great pieces for others to read. For this particular project, the students decided that creating fables would be a perfect fit for both classes. My students come to fifth grade with a vague understanding of the characteristics of the particular styles of writing. When they are given a piece of literature, they might be able to guess the genre, but few have a meaningful understanding of how to write in a specific genre.

Many teachers ask me how I foster such enthusiasm for writing with such limited classroom time. When I introduce a new genre, I want my students to build context and gain an understanding of that writing and how it is relevant to them. Their learning means so much more to them because they have discovered it on their own (with some guidance) instead of merely being given information. This is a small shift that makes a huge difference in their perception of content and in their motivation to become active, thoughtful writers.

So what does this look like in the classroom? After a discussion where they shared any prior knowledge they had about fables, they divided into pairs. Each pair had a netbook computer to explore the sites I had marked in our LiveBinders. They began their exploration of fables by visiting a site called Lit2Go. This site provides a huge database of stories and poetry in PDFs and in MP3s. They are organized by Author, Books, Genres, Collections, and Readability. Sometimes it can be a challenge to find literature available online that you can use as mentor texts. Thanks to Lit2Go, that is no longer a problem. My students had over one hundred examples of fables at their fingertips to study and analyze together. (There are so many other creative ways you can use Lit2Go in your lessons—I’m just sharing how we used it for this project.)

Now that they had a plentiful supply of texts, they needed to organize their learning. That’s where Lino-it came into play. Lino-it is a site for online sticky notes. You can create boards where collaborative users can add information, upload files and photos, and share URLs. Not only is Lino-it a web tool, it is also available as an app, making it readily accessible for my students. It’s a great place to collaboratively house all of the learning that the students are gathering during an exploratory activity such as the one in which my students are engaged.

Once students started noticing characteristics among several different fables, they began adding sticky notes to our fable board. I traveled among the pairs to ask questions or re-direct as necessary, but often before I could ask any questions, their excitement spilled out as they shared all of their findings.

Throughout the lesson, we occasionally stopped and discussed their learning. At the end of this activity, we looked at the collaborative board where they had been adding sticky notes. They made astute observations as they cited examples from the fables they had been reading. Throughout the discussion, they began organizing similar sticky notes and drawing conclusions about what should be included in their fables that they were going to create.

As you can see throughout this activity, my writers took responsibility for their learning. Never once did I assign anything or have to encourage a student to focus on their project. They were 100% engaged in this meaningful writing project that we had to squeeze around all of our other mandated work and programs.

Jumping into Publishing

Their enthusiasm for fable writing was contagious. They couldn’t wait to write. As we squeezed conferring into our tight schedule, the writing partners quickly finished and were ready to jump into publishing. For this project, the students asked to publish a storybook where both classes published their writing together. They wanted to publish an anthology of fables.

We turned to a great tool that publishes digital storybooks, StoryJumper. StoryJumper provides teachers with the opportunity to set up a class; it provides a huge library of clip art, backgrounds, and text options and one can upload photos or scanned images. Also, with StoryJumper, if one wants to purchase a hardback copy of their work, this is possible as well. The creators have done an amazing job giving StoryJumper the feel of a storybook. It has shadows, movement, and the sounds you associate with reading a tangible storybook.

For our project, the learners felt strongly that they wanted their unique artwork included in place of the clip art. Since we were creating an anthology of writing, we were working on creating one book. The writing pairs took turns uploading their artwork and inserting their fables into their pages. When you can have students so excited about publishing their writing, you know you’ve found a winning combination.

What they really love about their StoryJumper is that it’s not only accessible to them at home, but they also can share their writing with friends and family members around the world. Often I see them reading this book during the school day, and they’ve blogged about each other’s writing. They showed their expertise as my “fable masters” had the ability to guide third graders in learning about writing in this genre as well.

Some things that I wonder…

As I’m writing this blog it brings to mind a few questions that I thought I would ask. I hope that this can spur some conversation here and on the message boards. For me, I’ve learned the most from other educators who are willing to share their thoughts and ideas. I am always in search of relevant real world mentor texts that I can share digitally with my students. When we write articles, op-eds, reviews, or PSAs, I turn to national newspaper publications’ digital sites. However, I always have to be careful with the ads that some of them have on their sites. What other sites have you discovered that provide great writing and content, but are still appropriate for sharing with students?

One comment that I hear from teachers regularly is how overwhelming the amount of digital content they generate for their students can become. I started by organizing content and links on SimplyBox, but as it is in the digital world, what we have today can be gone tomorrow. That’s why I moved to LiveBinders. My students have a binder with tabs to organize their papers in each subject, so this is a format that they easily understood. What are some ways that you’ve managed to organize links and other digital content for your students to have readily accessible from any computer or handheld device?

My students and I love publishing. Here is a blog that I wrote about ten of our favorite publishing tools: What’s in Your Writing ToolBelt? We’ve recently purchased an iPad for our classroom and some of their favorites apps (so far) are Comic Book!, ToonTastic, and PuppetPals. [To learn more about literacy classroom-friendly apps, see Karen Lirenman’s recent post, “Your Classroom Got a New Tablet Computer—Now What?”]

My writers and I are always on the look-out for tools that we haven’t used yet that might support the type of writing in which they are involved. In fact, many of them go home and spend hours looking for new tools and apps to add to our publishing tool arsenal. (Who needs to assign homework when they spend their free time like this?) So, what are some of your favorite publishing tools that you and your students enjoy using?

I really look forward to these conversations. So please contribute, ask questions, and share challenges. Not only will we become stronger educators, but the ones who are ultimately going to benefit from our discussions are the excited writers that we have in our classroom every day.

Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator, a fifth grade teacher in a student-driven classroom, and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at juliedramsay.blogspot.com.

© 2012 Julie D. Ramsay. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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