Michele Haiken isn’t quite ready to do away with student essays.
But the veteran English teacher at New York’s Rye Middle School would much rather get her students writing podcasts and movie scripts, creating infographics, designing e-books and websites, and producing their own TEDtalks.
“Basically, we’ve been preparing our students for standardized tests when it comes to writing,” Haiken said during a talk here at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education. “We’re not asking them to actually write in the ways we write every single day in our work lives.”
Earlier this month, ISTE published Haiken’s new book, “New Realms for Writing: Inspire Student Expression With Digital Age Formats.” The big messages:
Digital tools dramatically expand ways in which students can produce written work.
Technology can help teachers get to know their students better and provide them with customized options for writing out their ideas.
And tech can amplify students’ voices and help them reach new audiences.
“It’s about giving students access to diverse formats, genres, audiences, and writing opportunities,” she said.
What does that look like in a real classroom?
Here are three examples Haiken described at ISTE.
1. Mixing poetry and coding
For this unit, Haiken asked her students to curate five different songs or poems that represented who they are. Then, the students pulled words from those anthologies to make their own poems, plus drew accompanying booklets or posters. From there, they used Makey Makeys (an electronics and coding toy that lets users connect everyday objects to computers), Scratch (a kid-friendly coding platform), audio recording software, and other digital tools to make their products interactive.
The end result?
Instead of just reading each other’s poems, Haiken’s students could touch them to prompt computers to play related music, a dramatic reading, or an author’s note.
“By making it interactive, we were really able to talk in new ways about tone, inflection, message, and purpose,” she said.
2. Working across disciplines & giving students choice
Haiken said her principal is a big believer in consistency and collaborative planning time. That means for the past three years, she’s gotten to work closely with the same science, math, and social studies teachers--when their students are studying World War II in social studies, for example, Haiken does a related unit.
That kind of partnership has allowed for a great deal of student choice. Take a recent science research project. Students selected and researched their own topics. Then Haiken worked with them to showcase their work in either a traditional, text-based annotated bibliography, or in a more visual infographic. At the end of the unit, the students could choose to disseminate their conclusions in a podcast, a videorecorded TEDtalk, or in a traditional narrative nonfiction essay.
“Trying out different formats helps [students] expand their own verbal and written communication,” Haiken said.
3. Murder mysteries with a twist
Not every writing lesson Haiken does is quite so involved. This past school year, for example, her class was moving along briskly, creating a little unexpected slack. So Haiken broke out on of her favorite stories, an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
As they read, students had to pick a character, identify a theme song that fit the character, and produce a quick music video tying the two together.
“They got 40 minutes,” Haiken said with a laugh. “They were running around the school, and I got in trouble with the principal, but it was great.”
The larger lesson?
New technology tools offer fresh ways for teachers to strike a balance they’ve long struggled with.
“My job in my school, working in New York state, is to help students meet their learning targets,” Haikens said. “But at the same time, I want to make writing meaningful and purposeful. It shouldn’t be, ‘I’m doing this because I have to.’”
Photo of Michelle Haiken by Benjamin Herold for Education Week
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.