Introduction

Initially, I had studied gaming with the intention of constructing a unit on it for my Dobbs project. While I still have an interest in pursuing a gaming thread with my class, at this point, we’re on the cusp of integrating a set of netbooks into our classroom in the coming year. As a result, my plan to introduce Nintendo DSs was tabled. (To keep the gaming thread alive, I have created a list of games linked to our class wikispace that kids can play during school computer times or at home.)
Once the gaming thread was tabled, I needed a thread to explore for Dobbs. I chose writing, as I teach it every year and I’m interested in creating more interactive and collaborative models of writing. It was around this time that the cohort was introduced to Primary Pad during a monthly meeting. It was serendipity. Here was a tool that would let students interact with each other, that would keep a record of the interaction, that didn’t come up against some of our electronic privacy issues, and was free!
I present here my final project. There are pieces that worked really well, and pieces I would tweak for next time. I don’t know that I’d start with the letter writing again next time; this year it emerged as a starting point because my students lacked expertise on how to write a letter. Next year, the starting point may be somewhere else. Also, while I enjoyed PrimaryPad, it won’t be free to me next year. I’ll look for another EtherPad model to use. There are a lot out there to explore. Without further ado, I present to you my writing project.

Goals

*To create a space for peer collaboration and feedback on student generated stories
*To put the students in role as editors, applying the grammar lessons we had been studying over the year
*To have students engage in a revision process with their writing
*To expose students to the feedback of multiple readers so that they tell “enough” to someone without the same reference points
*To practice different types of writing: letter writing, storytelling, reflective
*To have students practice communicating with each other in writing and verbally

The Project

Preset: The students were divided in half groups, to meet twice a week with each half group (for a total of 4 sessions a week).

Part One

Week One:
The rules of writing workshop were introduced. They were all acknowledged as being writers, having skills and ideas to bring to the workshop. Brainstormed with students about “rules of engagement.” They know that smaller groups will be created later and requested that groups be given time later to meet to create their own rules for that group.
Per some previous feedback with the the class, most of them stressed that they didn’t feel confident on letter writing (and we had previously written letters to an author).
The group reviewed proper letter format. Examples were posted on the Activboard. Students changed and rearranged pieces to the accepted format. The difference between typing letters, as well as business versus personal letters, was discussed.

Writing time:
Students were asked to assume the role of fictional character and write a personal letter to another fictional character (letter #1). The option was given to create original characters or to assume the persona of a character they had read about in a literature or free read book.
Letters were written and handed in during the first “official” writing workshop.

In Between each week’s sessions:
I checked the letters for proper formatting and pulled individuals in for a conference one on one if they were still having confusion. The letters were sorted by half group and then further sorted into pairs or trios, based on compatibility and/or familiarity with books or characters.

Week Two:
The letters were distributed at the beginning of the first writing workshop period. Students were asked to assume the role of the recipient to whom the letter was addressed. Time was given to read and reply to the first letter. (I kept a masterlist of who the letters came from and to whom the letters were given.) If the letter writer had completed that day’s task, they were given the new letter to read. (I acted as postmaster, with the right to return a letter to sender if it was improperly formatted.) Students had to bounce between two different narratives (their original one and the one they were assigned). We also met to talk about the process, their comfort levels with letter writing, how it felt to be in charge of a character one had created and one put upon them. Students asked if they were going to stay with the same partner the whole time or if the groups would change. (As this part was done in the Winter, the groups would change for the spring.)

Writing time:
Students were writing a reply (letter #2). Over this and the next session, a total of 3 letters were written and 4 were received.

Weeks Three-Six:
(Outside of the writing workshop, we had been talking about the hero’s journey, the arc of a story, analyzing characters in Lit groups, Ancient Greece, and read alouds. Part of that discussion was what made a story compelling to them, what kind of information they wanted about a character. We did mini-writes on exaggeration, character studies, and improv storytelling with a beginning, middle, and end.)

Students were given the four letters as artifacts and were asked to use these as a story starter. The parameters were to aim for a minimum of a 3-4 page story that they would be committing to work on for a long time frame. The story could be a result of the letters, chronicling an event in the letters, or the story could result in the letters. Both the original fictional letter writer and the recipient had to figure into the story.

Writing time:
Students were asked to write a 3-4 page typed story using the letters as inspiration. In class writing time was provided, as well as access to the computer lab. I conferenced one on one with students around areas they needed assistance, as well as doing a mini-tutorial with the kids about how to format dialogue (because most of them wanted to include it).

Edit:
Students were giving an “editing” checklist to do a polished (but not yet final) draft.

Drafts were handed in before winter break and held for the next step after the class play.

Part Two


Before we began the second section, I created primarypad links for each of the students and posted links for each of their groups on the class wiki.
Preset: The kids were in new half groups in their regular class. I had preset the collaborative groups, taking into consideration the strengths and weaknesses of each of the kids, both in technical skill sets, talkativeness, idea generation, etc. Each half group was divided into smaller groups.

Week One:
We met in new half groups. I preset a PrimaryPad link on the Activboard. Letting them know that they would have time to explore this tool later that week, I gave them a tour of the site. We talked about different ways stories could be uploaded to the site, as well as how to comment on other people’s writing (literally how to work the tool as well as ways to word feedback).


I had the students meet with their new groups to establish a contract. They decided what their “rules of engagement” would be. Each child signed his/her group’s contract. I also had them fill in a “what I bring to the group” list. They shared that with their small group. I had them fill out a card (to give to me) requesting support in any areas that they felt the group still needed. (For example, if a group felt they didn’t have anyone who was a “grammar expert,” they could request an expert be loaned to them, either in the form of me or another peer.)



In Computer time, the students explored how to access their PrimaryPad links on the class wiki. I had a story starter set on my link (the same one I had shown them earlier in the week during the demo) for any student who wanted to practice to write on. Students had to have their work posted by the end of Week One.

Week Two:
Students had two writing sessions, one during regular classroom time, the other during Computer time. During the Computer time, students were asked to read and comment on other group members’ pages, strictly looking for content suggestions. The story was to be their focus, as opposed to the grammar and mechanics. (Time was to be allotted for that later.)
Directions were as follows:


Task One. Your primary task.
Please log onto the wiki.
Go to your group’s primary pad links.
Visit each group member’s link.
Read each story and leave constructive feedback.
Don’t focus on grammar or sentence structure. Make the story your priority.
Sample areas on which to focus:
Are there spots that are unclear?

Is there enough description?
Should a new part be added?

Are there any spots that are repetitive or, conversely, too vague?
IF, AND ONLY IF, you get through all the stories (spending AT LEAST 15 minutes on each one, reading and rereading, as well as commenting), you can go back to your own link and read the feedback left for you.
At that point, you can work on your own story.


The first set of peer feedback was due by the time we had our second session that week.

In writers’ workshop (regular class time), groups met to discuss any problems they had been having and to talk about the revisions they were pondering doing. It gave students a time to face to face about how their stories were going, to ask for explanations if they were confused and to check in about whether or not their feedback was following the contract they had all signed. This also gave me a chance to check in with individual groups to mediate conflicts and to offer additional feedback.


Week Three:
Students were asked to make some changes between the last time their groups met last week and the first meeting we had this week.
During computer lab time, students were asked to take and feedback that had been offered them and concentrate on making a polished revision. Once they were satisfied with their additions, they were asked to transfer the text to Microsoft Word and print enough copies for their group members and one for me. I collected all the versions for their next batch of meeting time in class.
In class, students were given time to meet with their groups. I handed out packs of their collected stories and asked them to come ready with a correcting pen (any color). The task below was posted on the activboard (and there were paper copies if a group wanted to move away from the main meeting area).

Task:
Now that you’ve given each other some feedback on the content of your story, it’s time to focus on the mechanics. Look for typos, spelling errors, and grammar mistakes.
Hint: It’s easier if you are just looking for one thing at a time.
1. Hunt for typos. Note where they are for your author.
2. Hunt for spelling errors. Note where they are for your author.
3. Hunt for grammar mistakes. Suggest revisions for your author.
Once you have done that for one group member, move on to another, until you have offered changes to all group members. IF and ONLY IF, you are done you can:
1. Go back and read the feedback left for you.
2. Comment on my writing sample.
3. Start your next revision (after doing #1).

If students didn’t have enough time to finish commenting on a group member’s draft, they had to hand it back by the end of the week.

I gave them feedback on a printed version as well, both in terms of grammar/mechanical suggestions and story development.


Week Four:
Students were asked to work on a final version of their story, due at the end of the week. Computer time was given to work on drafts, and students were asked to work at home as well. During the half group times in the lab, students could continue to ask each other (either in person, via our wikispace, or on primarypad) about comments or choices that worked or didn’t.

Final drafts (as well as the commented on drafts from me and their other group members) were due on Friday. We spent that last Friday’s half group times reflecting on the process. Students were asked to fill out a paper questionnaire with the following questions:

1. What skills did you work on in this piece?
2. What do you wish you had more of from me? From other group members?
3. What was it like using Primary Pad? Would you want to use it again? Why or why not?
4. What would you do differently next time?
5. Is this your best work? Are you proud of it? Why or why not?
6. Grade yourself as a group member on a scale of one to ten, ten being the best score. Why did you give yourself the rating you did?

After they had handed in the sheets, we had talking time for them to give each other feedback. Some thanked specific group members for grammar help or a comment that shaped the story revisions. Others commented that they wish they had been more helpful and what they would do differently as a group member if they could do it over. Some gave me feedback on the role they had wanted (or didn’t want) from me. Overwhelmingly, they enjoyed using PrimaryPad, as well as the peer element of the writing group. Requests were also made for a future collaborative writing project.


Student Samples:









Conclusion

Reflection:

*What I was most struck with is how well this process fit with the students. They loved getting feedback from their peers. I had kids asking during free time if they could look for new feedback online; I had kids avidly working on drafting and redrafting at home without me begging.
*I liked the use of PrimaryPad. It fit well with the privacy issues in my class. I’m not married to that particular site, but I will be looking for something along those lines that is free or inexpensive to use next year.
*I’d like to try doing more than one piece of writing in this format over the course of the year. It was rather time consuming, but I’d love to see where kids would take it now, after the initial exercise. This would mean starting it earlier and trying to space it properly with the class play (in Jan and Feb).
*I was extremely impressed with the level of thought and sensitivity that the students gave when commenting on peer work. Since the online piece, we had a guest author come and run an in-class writing workshop for a few classes. She even commented on how thorough and respectful their feedback was to each other.
*I’ve found other tools during the process that I’d like to incorporate into next year’s writing workshop. I’m currently teaching a media literacy unit, but I’d like to fold all the pieces together to make a more coherent writing program involving multimedia pieces. I’ll be including some of the tools I want to fold in at the end of this artifact.
*Students have requested the option of working in groups to create a collaboratively written story. I may test drive that next using our class wiki and a site such as Primary Pad. The limitation is that PrimaryPad works, ideally, with only 8 (including the original author). Any more than that and the color doubling causes confusion. I may try posting 4 or 5 links for the students to use to write collaboratively.
*Students had some trouble using the chat window in PrimaryPad appropriately. Part of this was, I believe, because of code switching. Their reference points for chat windows are strictly for chatting each other informally online. As a result, their interactions in the chat window tended to be less serious and sometimes completely off task. On the one hand, it seemed to make them more comfortable with each other, but, on the other hand, they could get fairly off track before they got back on. I couldn’t monitor all the chats. I had to deal with some conflicts that arose from the chat window piece. Hopefully, the students had a clear idea of what was appropriate feedback and what was not by the end of the workshop. I will address the chat window piece more thoroughly (and hopefully more effectively) the next time I run this unit.

Some areas that didn’t work/I’d do differently next time:

*Choosing groups was done in an attempt to match up different skillsets and personalities in complementary ways. Some of the groups were more functional than others, as personality conflicts I didn’t anticipate arose.
*I’d make sure the kids chose their colors BEFORE I unleashed them on PrimaryPad. The initial confusion about who was which color made the site use a bit glitchy (and led to some conflict about who got to be each color). It did give the kids a chance to problem solve/try out the rules with their group in a low stakes manner.
*As stated in the section prior to this, I would like to start out the use of the online tool earlier in the academic year.
*Other than publishing online on a semi-hidden site, I didn’t find an outlet for publishing that the kids really got excited about. My original plan was to create a book of the short stories. Part of the issue was that some kids loved their stories, and others did not. (Part of the confusion was that the direction that they would come back to the stories after the play didn’t register with all parties. As a result, some of the commitment levels to the stories were mixed. Next time, I will emphasize that piece thoroughly. I’ll also hunt up a more suitable publication location/mode.
*I struggled with how much to give my own feedback and how to leave up to peers. Often the students gave feedback to group members that took the story down an avenue that didn’t even occur to me. There were rich stories that emerged without my feedback.

Summary

I think, overall, the project was successful. I would definitely implement it again. I did not start a collaborative writing project as a class project, but I did email the parents of some of the kids who were really interested in such a project a list of kid friendly places to explore that option further. (My concern was that some of my goofier students might derail the serious story starters, thus frustrating the folks who were serious about creating a complex story.)

Wordle: primary
Wordle: primary2

My Process Blog (in part)

technoreflection

Research Materials/Resources


Digital
Creative Writing - Peer Group Critiquing (Walker, Elaine)

Teaching Writing with Peer Response Groups. Encouraging Revision. ERIC Digest . (Hermann, Andrea W.)
http://writing.umn.edu/tww/responding_grading/peer_workshop.htm
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xpr_--Tddw
http://www.mguhlin.org/2010/03/diigonotes-digital-writing-workshop.html
Digitizing the Writing Workshop
A cool example of a collaborative mystery story written by a HS class at Millburn HS

Print
Atwell, Nancie. In the Middle: New Understandings about Writing, Reading, and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1998.
Fletcher, Ralph and JoAnn Portalupi. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.
Troy, Hicks. The Digital Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009.



Tools
www.primarypad.com
(I used Primary Pad. There are other similar programs available.)
http://typewith.me/ (This is another option. It functions pretty much the same.)

The Best Online Tools For Collaboration — NOT In Real Time (http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2008/04/10/the-best-online-tools-for-collaboration-not-in-real-time/) (You can find additional collaborative tools here)
http://www.youtube.com/searchstories (You can use youtube.com to create a storyline. Great for a story starter!)