Guiding Student Writers as They Work with Digital Tools

If asking students to develop their voice, stamina, and range of techniques as writers isn’t hard enough, we now have a variety of devices, websites, and apps that students want to use in order to enhance their writing.

From Google Docs to Prezis to whatever new app will come out tomorrow, we know that students want to share their ideas across various forms of media. However, as with all writing, when we ask students to be digital writers, we must also provide them with strong mentor texts as well as good instruction to guide them.

Thus, my main focus as a teacher of writing has been to keep my students’ attention on elements of author’s craft that they can emulate (such as developing characters and plot in narrative text or including relevant facts or extended definitions as examples for informational texts). With digital texts, there are additional considerations to keep in mind such as the use of various fonts and colors on a website as well as the use of focus in the video narration.

In my book, Crafting Digital Writing: Composing Texts Across Media and Genres (reviewed for MiddleWeb by Judi Holst), I reiterate the value of using a thinking tool to consider these types of questions: MAPS.  As shown in the slide here, MAPS is a heuristic, a problem-solving tool, not a step-by-step set of instructions. Rather than trying to figure out a particular recipe for a writing task, MAPS helps students think about the entire context and what they need to do as writers to deliver an effective message.


Following the MAPS

So, how exactly do we ask students to think rhetorically about a digital writing task?  Because every writer and writing situation is slightly different, even in a single classroom with the same assignment, I’m not sure that I have the exact answer to this question. But I do have an example to share with you.

In the video below, you will hear my sixth-grade daughter, Lexi, describe many of the choices that she made as a digital writer when preparing her book response for James Patterson’s I Funny. I won’t say much more here; rather, I would encourage you to listen to Lexi herself describing her project and the choices she made as a digital writer.

The Final Destination

As you can tell from Lexi’s description of her writing process, it was certainly not linear, nor was it clear from the beginning exactly what she was going to do. Instead, by giving thoughtful consideration to her audience, purpose, and situation, Lexi was able to craft an effective piece of digital writing in the form of a Glogster. So you can use it as a model for your own students, here it is in its entirety.

(If you have any problems loading this file, try going directly to the Glogster page. Lexi’s video report is at YouTube.)

Continuing the Conversation

As you move forward with new projects this spring, I encourage you to give students the option of crafting at least one piece of digital writing. As you heard Lexi describe from her experience, this will involve a mix of both traditional writing skills (her script and the short sentences on the Glogster) as well as digital writing skills (creating a video with Green Screen, modifying the Glogster template).

Of course you can adapt these ideas to other tools and apps. No matter which tool they choose, continue to work with your students and encourage them to think about how the choices they are making as writers — and as digital writers — will help guide their readers to a better understanding of the message they are trying to send. By following the MAPS in a given writing context, your students can become more effective at composing texts across media and genres.

Troy Hicks (@hickstro) is a former middle grades teacher, now associate professor of English at Central Michigan University where he focuses his work on the teaching of writing, literacy and technology. He blogs at Digital Writing/Digital Teaching.

This blog entry was originally published on Middle Web and is reposted here with permission.

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My Journey: Transitioning to Project Based Learning


This is the first in a series of blog posts that Amanda will share about her school’s transition to Project Based Learning.

Change is never easy. And I feel like the older I get, the more I become flustered with making big changes. It usually involves learning something new, and sometimes that can seem like a daunting task, stressful.

Yet, when you work in education, as I do, things are constantly changing: requirements, students, content, etc. Therefore, I’d never say that I’m resistant to change; I just struggle during the transition. Part of that, I feel, comes from not wanting to admit or believe that, as an educator, what I’ve been doing for the past several years isn’t “the best” any more.

I’m nine years into my teaching career, and no one year has been the same as the next. While my lesson plans and the books I teach change year after year, I’ve always felt like I knew what I was doing.

CC Licensed Image from New Media Consortium on Flickr
CC Licensed Image from New Media Consortium on Flickr

But now I’m a little nervous about what is on the horizon. I’m excited, too (don’t get me wrong). My district is headed in the direction of what I consider to be a pretty large change. We are moving toward a Project Based Learning (PBL) model for our entire district. In such a model, the students learn through experiencing real world issues and challenges in the form of projects. Units and lessons are aimed at making the students see the real-world connection to their learning. Our district was intrigued by the concept and felt that it would be a great way to work on preparing our students to be college and career ready.

I’m ashamed to admit that it took me a while to get a handle on what PBL really entailed. Our district started throwing around the acronym back in late 2010, discussing the possibility of our high school becoming a part of the New Tech Network, a non-profit organization that promotes a student-centered learning style with the primary focus elements of project based learning, culture, and technology.

The process of joining the NTN and transitioning the school was a very busy and exciting time for our district. However, since I was teaching at the junior high building, I didn’t get to see much of the behind the scenes work that was being done. Yet with an eager and motivated team, Meridian High School began the New Tech model with freshmen for the 2012-2013 school year. Being a teacher at the middle school full time, I wasn’t seeing this every day. I kept hearing about it, though. From the sounds of it, it was quite the change. Classes/subject areas were now being combined and co-taught, and students were working on projects that were rooted in real life issues, making them see the authentic value of what they were learning. It sounded like a great approach.

Then, in early 2013, talk began that we were looking into transitioning the entire district into this PBL model. I’m excited, but I still have a lot of questions. What will this look like in an English Language Arts classroom? How will the grading work? How can I take some of the great things I already do and make them project-worthy? Will we be able to get all the staff on board to make this a success?

So, as we prepare to wrap up the 2013-2014 school year and start looking ahead to more of a PBL model for next year, I decided that I really wanted to write these blog posts to document my journey, as I learn to transition my classroom into more of a PBL model.

In my next two blog posts, I plan to explore these topics/questions:

  • Observations: How does this look in a real-life classroom?
  • Training: How do I make the transition?

Hopefully it will serve as place of refuge for some who may be on this journey as well, and it may even serve as a way for me to connect with others who’ve “been there.”

Amanda Portrait

Amanda Smoker (@aes1024) teaches English at Meridian Junior High School near Midland, Michigan. She was a part of the CRWP Summer Institute in 2010 and now serves as a teacher consultant.

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