Chapter 1: Transitioning Toward Digital Literacy

1.7 The Power of Workshop


As I began to shift toward making room for digital literacy, I found that our use of reading and writing workshop was the perfect space for all literacy.  I’ve always been someone who believes in the power of a workshop.  Teaching in a reading and writing workshop hasn’t always been easy.  It’s a delicate balance of knowing learners, building a collection of mentors that live around us, nurturing a caring community, listening to readers and writers, allowing opportunities for students to make their own decisions, and providing feedback that will help them push forward.  It’s about living and breathing in a community grounded in literacy.    

For me, it is the predictability of our workshops that allows students to make decisions around digital and traditional ways to read, think, share, collaborate, and create.  It is in this space to try new learning that students have opportunities to use digital literacy in new ways.  During our reading workshop students can read blogs, eBooks, and other digital texts.  They can use Kidblog to write a blog post, Educreations to share their thinking about a story, Pixie to write about the author’s message or voice recorder to record as they read a book.  As a class we collect our read alouds on Shelfari, send messages out via Twitter to other class about reading lives, and write shared blog posts about our learning.  During writing workshops students might be writing a post on Kidblog, taking pictures of a story they wrote and putting it in Educreations to add audio and share, creating a digital story using Pixie, or sharing a story using VoiceThread.  As a class we share celebrations of next steps with others using Twitter, look at digital mentors, and seek advice from authors.      

The power of the learning I was experiencing digitally, the way my writing life was growing, the types of digital reading I was doing, and the variety in tools for composition I was using helped me to know my students needed these same opportunities.  Digital tools provide new opportunities and new ways to learn.  In the time of my transition I’ve moved from using technology as an event where everyone is basically doing the same thing to having technology available so students can select it naturally in the course of our literacy work.  First steps are always tricky, but students have helped me to see the significance of these changes and opened my eyes to greater possibility.

Digital tools offer some students alternative ways to learn.  These alternatives sometimes move quieter students into a space where they feel comfortable sharing.  I think of students like Tyler whose voice as blogger about books lifted him as a reader.  A student receiving intervention, he had to work hard to make the gains he needed to make to catch up with peers.  Tyler had fine motor challenges.  Holding a pencil or marker was hard for him and no matter how hard he tried his letters were not easily formed.  As we started to use Kidblog to compose in our classroom, Tyler was better able to share his ideas.  The work of writing letters was replaced with the touch of keyboard freeing him up to do other thinking.  Tyler began recommending books he liked to read to the class.  Students loved his recommendations.  Their enthusiasm for his work pushed him to write more.  Becoming the star book recommender helped him stay motivated to do this hard work.  

Digital tools offer students new ways to express their understanding.  I think of students like Avery who had so much to share all of the time.  Using digital tools to reflect, create and share gave her a way to take her energy and enthusiasm as a learner and use it to create new possibilities for others.  She was someone who enjoyed sharing all the time and her voice could have easily dominated our community.  Digital tools allowed her to write stories and share them with others.  It gave her tools to record retellings of stories, to share new understandings, and to create in new ways.  She continually pushed our community as she wrote digital stories, created videos, and continued to discover new ways to work as a digital citizen.  

Just like some students prefer pencils, others enjoy pens or markers.  Just like some students like to write books with several pages, other students prefer to compose an entire story on one piece of paper.  Some illustrators prefer painting to sketching illustrations.  The tools we choose are a matter of preference.  These decisions are often shaped by the meaning we hope to create for our readers.  Digital tools offer new ways to work, create and make meaning.  I think of students like Maddie who found composing her writing in Pixie to be a way to think carefully about her words as she typed them carefully and enjoyed opportunities to illustrate using digital tools that allowed her to draw and color her illustrations in new ways.  Her work pushed our class to think about new ways we could write our stories.  

Remembering What We Know: Mentors, Modeling, and Shared Experience

The first year I introduced blogging to my students I just dove into the madness.  I’d made excuses, but one day I just walked in and said, “Today is the day, no matter how ugly it gets.”  I won’t ever forget that day because it did get ugly.  However, it wasn’t long until blogging got easier and students began to grow as writers.  It was interesting to watch them write about all that interested them.  I learned things about them I wouldn’t have known if we hadn’t had this space. I realized that this experience was not only changing each of them as a writer, but it was changing our class as a community.  No longer did students seem to think I was the only one they could learn from each day.  No longer did it feel like every thought had to come through me before it got heard.  Students seemed to be connecting with each other in new ways.  I was a bit taken aback by how this one little change had accomplished what I had tried to accomplish for years, to have students really listening to one another and valuing their friends.

When the next school year started I knew I needed to provide this opportunity again for students.   We had gained so much the previous year from blogging, but I had learned lessons that were going to make it easier.  I realized I had missed an important step the first year.  I hadn’t taken the time to model and demonstrate how to blog.  I had forgotten the shared step of our learning.  So when the new school year began I started the year with shared blogging.  Right from the beginning we had a website that allowed us to blog as a class.  We talked about those things we need to consider when blogging.  What do we want people to know?  How will we tell them?  What’s important?  How do show with an image that isn’t a picture of us?  When students received individual accounts, having the shared experience lifted our beginning days of blogging.  Students knew what they were going to write was their decision.  They knew a title might make more people read their post.  They knew a picture might make their writing more interesting or help make their point stronger.

I’ve had to remind myself to remember those same things I know about gradually releasing control of digital tools to students.  I use the tool in my lessons, not to model the tool, but to help them to see the possibility.  I have shared learning opportunities in which tools are a part of the opportunity.   I have to remember those things I know.  I have to remember to provide mentors.  I have to remind myself to provide shared experiences.  I have to remember that some students will need more support.  I have to know what my students already know and what will be next for them.  When using digital tools I have to remember to consider the learners and adjust accordingly.  

Remembering What We Know:  Assessment Matters

1_7_EvernoteThere are parts of my teaching life that going digital has made so much easier; assessment is one of them.  Across my teaching career I’ve had many different record keeping systems for tracking anecdotal observations.  I’ve tried mailing labels, file folders, post-its, and spiral notebooks with varying degrees of success.  In the transition to becoming more digital, it became easier to collect and save different types of student work.  I could take pictures, save links that connected me to work they had completed, and record student voice and conferring conversations.  There are a variety of tools that will allow you to keep and organize different types of artifacts of learning.  

The recent work by the National Council of Teachers of English about formative assessment  has once again reemphasized what we already know:  formative assessment matters.  

Learning digitally in our classroom has pushed this practice forward by:

  • making process work more visible
  • allowing for self-reflection
  • providing new opportunities for peer feedback
  • giving us new ways to track thinking
  • equipping me to keep anecdotal records in new ways

For me, Evernote seemed the tool perfect for collecting and tracking student learning journeys.  Evernote allows me to type notes, take pictures, and record audio.  Using Evernote, I’m able to create virtual notebooks to store and organize student work.  Adding tags can help me to sort for purposes of reflecting and planning on individuals and the class as a whole.  It is possible to create checklists within an Evernote note, if you’re someone who works from checklists.  I often create forms in Google and then place a link to the form in Evernote for easy access.  Checklists work better for collecting information over several occasions.  Google forms work better when I am collecting information all in one conference, one assessment, or one observation.  

The Difference:  The Power of Choice

If you stepped into my classroom during writer’s workshop, you would likely see students with paper, with pencils, with markers, with iPads, with laptops and on desktops creating, composing, drafting, and publishing.  Digital tools have opened new possibilities for students to make decisions about how they will write.  Which tool will work best for my message?  What is my purpose?  Who is my audience?  Do I want to be able to receive comments?  How can I share this work?  These are all questions continuously asked as writers work in our classroom.

If you stepped into the room during Reader’s Workshop you would see this same variety of work taking place as students make reading decisions.  You would see children reading at their tables, on the floor, and in small nooks around the classroom.  You’d see students reading by themselves, students reading in pairs, and perhaps students learning or talking in small groups.  Readers have time to read and share their thinking.  Do I want to read a book or use the iPad?  Am I going to respond to my video?  Do I want to write my response on paper or digitally, compose a blogpost, create a video, or make a VoiceThread?  Do I want to share my work?  What do I want people to know about this book?   

In today’s workshops, students have many decisions to make about their learning.  I have found digital tools to shift my classroom from teacher drive to student driven.  There’s something about the additional choices, the new ways to show understanding, and the possibilities for connecting with others that makes the learning feel different.  Students have to think more about their intent and make real decisions. Students learn to rely on one another for feedback and support as they work.  


Launching Digital Writing in the Elementary Classroom Copyright © by Edited by Julie Johnson and Johnson, Julie. All Rights Reserved.

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