Talking on paper
Teaching writing to middle school students is not an easy task. For the most part, when a teacher mentions writing about anything the room fills with groans and “Do I have to?” Explaining to students that writing is only talking on paper and getting them to realize they do have a voice is definitely a challenge in middle school.
When I first introduced voice in writing, many of my students didn’t quite understand what was meant. I explained to them that having a voice in writing simply means that the author’s personality and beliefs shine through in their writing. Many students lack confidence in their ability to communicate well, and they look at writing as a task; not a catharsis of release for their beliefs and emotions.
Technology at their fingertips
My task was to figure out a way to get my students more interested in writing and help them have fun while learning to express themselves with confidence. Our district implemented a technology program two years ago to have laptops for every student from grades 5-12. In the first year of the program, laptops were issued to grades 5 and 9. This was wonderful because the second year I had 6th graders with technology at their fingertips. Having the laptops made the task at hand much easier as I searched the Internet for ideas. One of the first sites I found was Kidblog, and I was so thrilled to find that it was just what I needed to urge my students to get their creative juices flowing and find their voice!
I immediately set up a Kidblog account and added my students. I started with a daily blog providing different writing prompts and a video to help stimulate students’ thoughts. At the beginning of class my students were directed to go to the blog and write about the prompt that day. I encouraged them to be creative but appropriate, and so our journey to having voice in writing began.
Take chances, make mistakes
The first time we blogged I wasn’t receiving the most in-depth responses. Students feared putting their thoughts in writing for others to read. I assured them this blog is an opportunity to take chances and it is okay to make mistakes; this blog was simply a way of expressing what they feel. Our efforts kept reminding me of a line from the opening song for an old TV show, “The Jeffersons”—took a whole lot of trying just to get up that hill—because that’s exactly what it was: a hill they had to climb. I had to convince my students that we will all make spelling mistakes, grammar errors and have less-than-perfect writing. I had to convince them to take that chance, put down their feelings and let the others in the class respond to them. I had to convince them ALL that their writing had value. It’s a starting point, even if it is not proficient in the beginning, and gives them the opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes.
Proficient writing takes practice…lots of practice. There are times when one wants to throw the paper in the trash and forget it (at least with computers you can save that and start over without doing it from scratch). I began by giving feedback to every post. Yes, it is time consuming, but feedback is essential for writing improvement. I had the students edit and revise. Using Kidblog I opted for teacher approval of each post. If it needed revision for whatever reason, my comments to the student were made private so other students would not see.
Loud and clear
After the first month on Kidblog, I noticed improvement in the written responses. Some students were adding pictures to go along with their responses, and students’ responses were amazing! Students found their voice, which was shining through in their writing. This is the moment all teachers thrive on—knowing their students are learning and growing. Granted, I still have some students who want to give “I don’t know” and “I’ve never done this” answers to me, even those students were ready to share their voice without knowing it. I convinced them to tell me the reason why they were unsure. Most recently, I asked my students who they would like to exchange lives with and why they chose that person. One student responded, “I don’t want to change lives with anyone.” I sent feedback to him and asked him to explain his answer. I quickly heard back: “Because I have my own problems and someone else may have problems that are worse than mine.” Boom! Voice coming through loud and clear!
Allowing students the opportunity to express their feelings without fear of failure goes a long way in improving writing. Blogging is one of the best tools for freedom of expression in writing, and it is absolutely wonderful to hear those voices come alive!