Professional Development

Writing Re-Launched: Teaching with Digital Tools

By Liana Loewus — April 04, 2011 9 min read
Second grader Daisy Mora Gomez uses an iPad application called &quote;Puppet Pals&quote; to work on her pre-writing skills.
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The nature of writing has shifted in recent years. There are very few—if any—jobs these days for which employees produce lengthy handwritten reports. News stories are an integration of words, images, audio, and website links. College applications are all online, and some schools are beginning to accept videos in place of essays. A friendly letter is more likely composed on a smartphone than on stationary.

So why does writing in school still so often involve a pen, paper, and a hardbound print dictionary?

“Schools are in catch-up mode,” says Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the director of national programs and site development for the National Writing Project, a federally funded program that provides professional development in writing instruction. Outside of their classes, students most often encounter digital writing—that is, writing created or read on a computer or other Internet-connected device, as defined in Because Digital Writing Matters, the book Eidman-Aadahl co-authored. While digital writing melds visual, audio, and text, “so much of school writing is consciously in the other direction,” says Eidman-Aadahl. “As of 2nd and 3rd grade, students don’t draw anymore. We wean people away from everything except the written word.”

There are plenty of reasons for teaching writing without a technology component, including lack of resources, lack of training, and the pressures of testing. But as Eidman-Aadahl, who is based at the University of California, Berkeley, points out, digital writing skills are critical to “college and career readiness.” Digital writing assignments “match the real world” and give students experience composing “in a form people will actually read,” she says.

Fourth-year teacher Robert Provonost helps 2nd grader Daniella Hernandez incorporate descriptive details into her "Puppet Pals" story on her Ipad.

And now, many teachers across the country are bucking convention and working to better incorporate these new modes of expression and presentation into writing instruction. For example:

• Elissa Loeb Waldman, a 7th grade English teacher at Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg, Md., turned a district-mandated research requirement for her students into a multimedia writing project. Waldman, who spent last summer in National Writing Project classes, had students research various challenges minorities faced during World War II. Then, as part of their oral presentations, students were required to include a technology-based visual aid, such as an interactive poster made through Glogster or a word cloud created with Wordle.

• Joel Malley, an English teacher at Cheektowaga Central High School in Cheektowaga, N.Y., was an early adopter of digital writing. He’s been incorporating filmmaking into his classes for more than nine years. Malley, who also serves as a technology liaison for the Western New York Writing Project, recently took his Advanced Placement literature students to a local nature reserve. Students filmed their tour and shot close-ups of exhibits using Flip video cameras. During lunch, students wrote poems about their experiences at the reserve and how the scenery moved them. Back in the classroom, they used the raw material—both footage and poetry—to compose short films about the field trip. The final DVDs were shown at a wine-and-cheese fundraising event for the nature reserve.

• And 2nd grade teacher Robert Pronovost at Belle Haven Elementary in Menlo Park, Calif., uses a digital component in teaching pre-writing skills. Pronovost, who incorporates technology into his teaching at almost every moment, applied for a DonorsChoose grant to bring iPads to his classroom. His students now use an iPad application called “Puppet Pals” during centers time. Through the app, students choose characters, a setting, and a title, then make up a story based on those choices and record it using the iPad’s microphone. They move the characters and props with their fingers as they narrate. When they’re done, the iPad will play their story back to them—both the narration and the visual.

Writing as Collaboration

Tech-savvy teachers tend to agree that digital writing differs from conventional composition in ways that can spur student engagement and creativity.

By design, pen-and-paper composition is a one-person undertaking. But digital writing is often collaborative. There are a variety of ways students can collaborate, says Eidman-Aadahl. For instance, they can create a text jointly, through shared documents or wikis, or they can take turns posting on a collective blog.

Storyboarding with iPads

Robert Pronovost uses grant-funded iPads to teach his 2nd graders about the elements of good storytelling.

Historically, collaboration is “thought to be cheating” in schools, says Eidman-Aadahl. But outside of the school setting, in higher education and the workplace, she says, “collaborative writing is huge.”

Of the many digital tools Malley uses, Google Docs has been one of the most transformational, he says. Google Docs stores documents on the Web, so they are accessible from anywhere, and allows users to share their work with others—making it easy to edit or co-author a piece. This school year, Malley is assigning collaborative research papers to pairs of students. Through Google Docs, students will add to and edit each other’s work from home or school. Programs like Google Docs also allow teachers to work more closely with students during the writing process. “One of my basic beliefs is that kids need access at the point of need,” Malley says. “As opposed to having lectures and notes on grammatical devices, a more effective way to teach writing is to zip in when kids need help with something specific.” With Google Docs sharing capabilities, he explains, “I have access and can give feedback whenever a writer would like me to, whether I’m sitting across the room or across town.”

Writing to Be Read

Another distinction between the two types of writing is that while traditional writing formats, such as journaling, are frequently used for private reflection, digital writing is almost always meant for an audience. Once published, digital pieces, such as blogs and YouTube videos, are often widely available and searchable on the Web.

Malley’s students blog and use social networking sites, such as NING, to share and discuss their work. “When they’re blogging, they’re not just writing for me,” says Malley. “They found out last year that the more compelling their voice was and if they were funny and insightful, the more readers and comments they got. That drives them.”

Because digital writing assumes an audience, Joseph McCaleb, director of the University of Maryland Writing Project, sees it as a way to get students involved in social justice issues. “It’s so much easier teaching writing when you’ve got kids feeling purposeful,” he says. “Digital media is so ripe for that.” Through photos, audio, and film, students can create public presentations about issues that have strong meaning for them, for example by filming a public service announcement about recycling or creating a slideshow about the challenges of finding clean water in Haiti. And when their compositions are read or watched by more than just the students in their class, students feel like they are making a difference, says McCaleb.

Christian Navarro and Daily Mora Gomez, in Robert Provonost's 2nd grade class, record original stories into their iPads during centers time.

Waldman, the Maryland 7th grade teacher, says digital writing helps her demonstrate to students that good, clear writing is a way to be heard. “Seventh graders feel like adults discount them,” says Waldman. “We focus on the idea of learning to write because it gives our voices power.”

In Pronovost’s class, the iPad prewriting exercise, though not necessarily intended for an audience, allows students to hear what their story would sound like to other readers. Pronovost says that’s been especially helpful for students who know how to write about actions but struggle with including descriptive details. “Once they describe it aloud, I am able to help them understand how to incorporate those details into their writing,” he says.

Conventions Come First

Although digital and traditional writing diverge in some ways, their roots are very much alike. Waldman says she had an ‘ah-ha moment’ at the NWP when she realized that “composing something visual on the computer involved exactly the same thought process as writing an essay or a well-developed paragraph.” She spends the beginning of the school year teaching her students to use organized, even formulaic, writing structures. Once they’re comfortable with the structure, students can “focus on creativity and analysis instead of worrying about where to put each sentence.” When asked to write in a digital format, Waldman says, students tend to instinctively return to that structure.

Solid conventional writing skills are the basis for making short films as well, says Malley. “If you listen to a voice-over, the more compellingly written it is the more effective it’s going to be,” he says. Before applying more advanced technical skills—such as deciding where to put a title screen or jay cut—students who are editing films need to know the basics of how to shape a story or build an argument, he explains.

For that reason, these educators say, digital writing and standardized test preparation are not at odds. Both require that students know the fundamentals. Digital writing, by showing students how writing can be used, often enhances the drive to learn the basics.

Getting Started With Digital Tools

These websites and apps are popular with tech-savvy teachers who incorporate digital elements into their writing instruction.

Select photos, video clips, text, and music, and Animoto will produce a short video—similar to a movie trailer—with the material. From there, users can upload the video to YouTube, Facebook, and other sites. Making 30-second videos is free and teachers can apply for a free Animoto Plus account, giving them access to more features.

Students can make interactive posters and collages that combine text, audio, video, animation, data, and other multimedia elements. The platform allows students to collaborate on projects. The basic teacher account, with limited features, is free.

Google Docs
This free document-sharing program allows users to create, store, and share documents, spreadsheets, and presentations online. Multiple users can work on the same piece at once.

Puppet Pals
This iPad application allows users to create and record their own animated story. Choose characters, a setting, and a title and narrate the story into the microphone while moving the cartoon “puppets” manually. The app with a “Wild West” theme is free, but additional characters and scenes cost extra.

Students create wikis, or collaborative websites that are managed and edited by groups of people, through Wikispaces. Teachers regularly use wikis for group projects. On the K-12 plan for educators, wikis are free and private.

Wallwisher calls itself an “online notice board maker.” Build a “wall,” or Web page, and others can contribute their own short messages, which resemble Post-it Notes and can include videos and images. Teachers use Wallwisher for any number of reasons—to display assignments, generate discussions, review facts, and share links, for example. It’s free and there’s no registration required (which means teachers should be extra vigilant about monitoring what goes up).

In any case, testing and digital writing may soon converge. Though most writing assessments are still done by hand, Eidman-Aadahl says the National Assessment of Educational Progress is moving to a framework in which students will use computers. At first, that will just constitute conventional writing in word-processing mode, she says. “However, over the life of the framework, which runs through 2019, there will be the opportunity to push the boundaries of what students can do to include more than just text in their compositions.”

The caveat to using digital tools, many tech-savvy educators note, is to keep focused on instructional goals, and not use technology simply for technology’s sake. It’s best to “find the appropriate technology to mesh with what the teacher’s already doing well,” says the University of Maryland’s McCaleb, “not to force it in.”

Waldman says she weighs the long-term payoff for students of using a particular platform before deciding whether to implement it. The cost-benefit analysis is especially important since Web-based programs regularly change their business models—and may go from offering free teacher accounts to requiring payment.

Even so, says Waldman, “If [the technology] meets a need I haven’t been able to meet or accomplishes the objective of increasing student willingness to invest their time, I’m willing to put in the time to learn it.” And as she sees it, exposing students to both writing conventions and new technologies is essential so they can build on both skills down the road. Students will be “applying this stuff in the future,” she says, “beyond what I can imagine.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Writing Re-Launched: Teaching with Digital Tools


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