Last year, with the support of my principal, I started a new program that focused on enriched writing instruction for sixth grade writers. Twice a week, students participated in small-group writing workshops and used Kidblog for peer review and digital portfolios. This year, the program allowed me to follow my “guinea pigs” to seventh grade, and we expanded to four days a week.
In working with my talented writers, there are a few key facts that I have discovered:
- Digital portfolios are the friend of the “scatterbrained genius.” Talented writers are not necessarily organized. Let’s take “Cynthia” for instance. She is truly gifted with words. Last year, Cynthia wrote a poem so poignant and economical that it gave me goosebumps. But Cynthia and physical papers repel each other, I think. Handouts are her Waterloo. Digital portfolios are perfect for Cynthia and her brethren. No paper, no lost work (and most importantly, no lost time.) In our class, all work is housed in the portfolio. This allows everyone the freedom to return for revision in the most efficient way possible.
- Smart kids need boundaries, too. However, if possible, they should help to establish them. At the beginning of the year, I had the students come up with rules for peer editing. They included “Don’t take it personally,” “Respect the writer and the work,” and “You don’t have to take the advice if you don’t want to.” And, because they made up the rules, they also invoke them at will. Those rules guide all of the students’ commenting, as well as their spoken interactions. (While we use the comments function as a primary mode for giving feedback, real-time conversations about writing are critical, too.)
- Feedback is key. Peer editing is the key to developing self control in the young author. When students practice peer editing, they are becoming better readers and better writers. Commenting on another author’s work should be serious work, but many teachers really struggle to get kids to buy in. I tell the students in the beginning that the biggest insult you can give to someone else’s work is, “Uh, it was goooood.” That is like saying, “I don’t care if your story stinks or has a contrived plot device or a corny ending where the main character wakes up and it was all a dream. I have better things to do.” At the beginning of the year, I set my classes up so that every comment a student made had to be approved by me. By January, I felt comfortable removing myself from the picture — but I still browse the comments, just make sure that they are being constructive.
- Fun is not an option; it’s a requirement. Encouraging noms de plume, allowing illustrations, letting kids customize their Kidblog pages, and incorporating language play are all really important parts of fostering young writers. I can honestly say that I really enjoy every minute that I spend with these young writers. I want them to feel the same way.
- Publication, publication, publication. English teachers know that publication is critical. Before I started incorporating technology into writing instruction, publication was the step in the writing process that I often missed. But kids need to see their work in print. And though one of my mottos is “a piece of writing is never finished,” it’s a great feeling to look at your work in its final(ish) form and say, “Yes, I did that. And it’s good.”