Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop: Living Your Life as a Digital Writer

This is part of a series of blog posts on Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop.  Contributors to this weeklong series are Troy Hicks, Katie DiCesareBill BassTony Keefer and Kevin Hodgson. Posts are also being collected at Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop. Please join our conversation!

I realize that my posts have been anchored on the things I believe about the teaching of writing and how I have been thinking about those when it comes to digital writing. Anchoring my work in the powerful things I've learned working alongside writers in writing workshops over the years is key.

Writers' notebooks are hugely powerful tools in the writing workshop.  It is not so much the notebook but the practice of living your life as a writer by keeping one.  A writer's notebook is hard to define as it takes on a bit of a different personality for each writer. Ralph Fletcher says,  "It's a place to collect, to react to ones world, to play with language, to stalk your inner voice, to find your stride as a writer."  And in her book Notebook Know-How, Aimee Buckner says, “A writer’s notebook gives students a place to write practice living like a writer.”  

As a writing teacher, inviting kids to keep notebooks has always kept writing workshop authentic.  It was a tool that reminded me that living your life as a writer was key. It was also a place to focus on growing and being a writer, rather than on writing "stuff" and focusing on projects/products. 

So, I have been thinking about what this idea of a notebook means for digital writing.  How do we make time for kids to live their lives as digital writers and what does that even mean?

When I think about the writer's notebook, there are several things that make it powerful. A few things that writers do in the notebook:

They collect great writing--words, phrases, passages
They collect images and moments in their lives
They collect their thinking
They try new techniques
They play with language
They give things a try

A writer's notebook is the place where writers can play with the things they learn from other writers/mentors and make them their own. For me, a writers' notebook is often where the real work of mentor texts happen. It is a place where they can collect writing they like. It is a place where they can try a technique that they saw another writer use, without the stress of a finished product. It is a place to play with things.  Then, it is a place to go back to when publishing to pull out some of the things that will make your writing more powerful.

A Digital Writer's Notebook?
So, what does this mean for writers in this digital age. Obviously, a spiral bound notebook will not help our writers collect digital pieces, try our new techniques in film, or play with sound effects. But these things are clearly things that writers who use digital tools do. So, as the definition of writing has expanded, so has the definition of writer's notebook. 

Teacher as Writer
I try to look at myself as a digital writer first. What habits do I have that feel like a writer's notebook expanded to include my life as a digital writer?  Here's what I know about my life as a writer:
I blog regularly.
I read other bloggers' writing daily and often try things I've seen
I bookmark things I'd like to try in my blog writing
I save videos, presentations and podcasts that inspire me to try something new in my composition
I collect photos that I may use in presentations in the future
I play with new tools and often become obsessed with them as I am learning them
I try to create things with new tools for fun
I try various drafts of things and save the drafts
I revise and edit with online tools
I share writing online and immediately for feedback
I compose collaboratively using things like Google Docs

I am sure there are millions  of other things I do. I did all of these things before there was a digital tool for composing. The difference is that before, my playing with writing, my collecting and my drafting was all housed in a writer's notebook. Although I still sometimes use the notebook, more of these habits happen on my computer, ipod or ipad these days.

As writers, we naturally pay attention to things we want to try.  (Yesterday for example, Tony Keefer used a check mark symbol in a tweet.  I had never seen that so immediately decided I wanted to write a tweet with a check mark. I investigated and thought of a tweet that would need a check mark. Now that is something I can do. The point is, sometimes these things are very small and meaningless but it is the way writers pay attention to what is possible and try out new things that is key.)

Mentor Texts as Invitations
So, I want to make sure to use mentor texts in ways that go beyond creating products. I believe in study and I believe that if we are writing persuasive essays, we need to immerse ourselves in reading persuasive essays to begin the study.  However, I think an equally powerful way to use mentor texts is as invitation.  If we want our students to live their lives as writers, invitations and playing are key. Collecting is key. And going back through your attempts is key.

So, I am trying to add more things like this to my time with kids. Quick minilesson type invitations where we study something a digital composer did and try it out ourselves--not to share, not to publish, just so we have it as a possibility in the future.

A few things we've done that support this idea:
Our students have access to lots of digital books and they spend quite a bit of time on sites like Tumblebooks. They enjoy audio and understand the idea of podcasts.  And they know how to record in Garage Band. If kids are to create audio, I want them to have fun with voice and music. So, I invited them to try a few things.

I created an invitations in the library that we played with in a minilesson and a few kids tried out using the foam board displays. One was a foam board display entitled, "How would the character say that?". Scattered around the board were favorite characters and memorable dialogue. We tried reading it aloud in various ways in the minilesson. Then I invited kids to try recording different ways to read character dialogue on garage band. This was fun for those who merely wanted to play. For others, it helped them when they created audio podcasts of picture books for younger students.

I also try to create invitations by finding pieces that connect to student interest. In the past I have found how-to videos for students who like to build with legos and many give those a try while building--taking photos or video of their process.  Our students love to build and a favorite building toy is Straws and Connectors.  I wanted to give the students options for visual creation. On the Straws and Connectors site, you can access several PDFs of directions for building different structures. Once I showed these to a few builders, they created visual directions that will be turned into PDFs and put on our school website.

5th graders are currently playing with Numbers, learning how to make graphs, charts and tables. Eventually, they'll be invited to include those in some of the research that they do. They will also be able to use it when they conduct experiments, etc.  So this playing time is key. Some may choose to use this tool. Others may not.

And, I love to share the Klutz Tricky Video book with students. These have been amazing invitations for students to see how various film techniques work and to give them a try. Klutz actually has many resources when it comes to giving kids opportunities to try some new and doable techniques.

And kids are finding their own ways to play when it comes to digital writing. When they have play time built into their digital writing workshop, they watch television differently. They look at commercials differently. They examine webpages differently. They listen to sound effects and they notice when a film has a close-up and when the scene is shot at a distance.  Then they give things a try. I have to remind myself of this every time someone wants to create a talk show about nothing ("Mrs. Sibberson, don't you watch TV. Talk shows about nothing are funny!") or when they want to spend hours taking a million photos of themselves and embedding them in nonsense pictures on Pixie.   The products don't always work, but the students are becoming more sophisticated digital writers every time they play.  And they are living their lives as writers.

I have worried about this "play time" and am trying to figure out the balance between playing with tools, strategies, and techniques and creating quality products for an audience. But I have come to realize that this play time is the way digital writers live. It is the way I live as a digital writer.  I like to play with things, give things a try, work with new tools, attempt new techniques and formats. Then these things come back in more published pieces when I see the need.  This play time is critical and most of my playing comes from mentor texts I've discovered-something I've seen someone else do that I want to try.  

My challenge is to help my students find ways to collect and revisit these things as we do in our writers' notebooks--to reflect and reuse in future work.  I am still working on this idea but know that I want my students to live their lives as writers--writers who have access to digital tools and writers who are critical readers of all types of texts. If I want them to live their lives as writers, I want them to be awake to all that is out there, to notice what is possible and to think, "Hey, I can do that." I want them find things they want to try and then to have the freedom to play with an idea or technique without the pressure of a finished product--knowing that this will add to the things that are possible for them in the future.  Just as in pre-digital writing workshop, I want notebook type thinking that helps kids live their lives as writers, and I want time for students to work hard on a published piece for an authentic audience. Both are equally important.


  1. Anonymous7:34 AM

    Many things about this post resonated with me in a big way. Especially "But I have come to realize that this play time is the way digital writers live. It is the way I live as a digital writer. I like to play with things, give things a try, work with new tools, attempt new techniques and formats." I too also have been thinking of ways for our students to create a more digital writer's notebook to go along with the composition books we use. My hope is the sharing I do with how I collect via Evernote and Delicious will help my 4th graders see the potential, then when they are a little older and are never without their phone, they can find a tool that fits their needs.

  2. You are spot on about the playing. Living a creative life requires carving out time to play. As an adult, it can be hard to do when family and work demand so much time. Students, too, are often scheduled to the minute.

    I suppose it can feel inappropriate to carve this kind of play time out of school time, just as it's hard for an adult to carve it out of family or work time, but it is essential.

    Kudos to you for valuing it and making it a priority---and encouraging me to do the same.

  3. My students and I were just talking about the idea of digital play today--what great timing for this post for me. Thank you. I agree with you--play is essential and important. As one of my 11th graders said, "I learn programs by playing around with them." Sometimes I stay after school to give students just this kind of time. The digital sandbox is busy after school in my classroom.

  4. I've had the opportunity this past quarter to teach an online tools class to middle school students, beginning with collecting the tools we might use on Diigo, & then playing. We discovered and examined so many, & clearly the play was what the students needed, to experiment & try, & then apply what they were doing in their classroom to these new ideas. Whatever they might choose to collect ideas, like Delicious, Diigo, Evernote, or LiveBinder, students are clearly going to move down this path. What you all are doing in these posts is delineating the details for teachers that will help us all begin the conversation. Thank you very much for what you're doing.

  5. Anonymous2:39 PM

    I couldn't agree more that invitations and play time are important. I would like to add they are the perfect formula for engagement.
    Eight of my fourth graders are tackling an invitation to read the Chronicles of Harris Burdick. You Tube as provided a very visual excitement and the interview with Chris Van Allsburg has them excited about their own stories.
    When they write their own stories they will be using Google Doc and commenting with each other. I've been amazed at the critical thinking and creative ideas that they have created for their discussion groups. I'm thinking I lost an opportunity for this to be a digital book club. Umm! Another busy mind!
    Thank you for sharing.


We welcome your contribution to the conversation! For some reason, our blog doesn't seem to stop loading. For more success leaving a comment, stop the loading before you comment.