| In the spring of 1998, I collaborated on a distance writing project with Barbara Schultz's fourth grade class called "The Oil Spill Mystery." Barbara is the the co-author of my book, Learning to Teach Inside an Electronic Writing Space.
Because her classroom lives near the Atlantic Ocean and wetlands, we wanted to weave science and ecology into the writing project. When Barabara invited me into her classroom online, I became a de facto online writer-in-residence, helping her students develop their “Oil Spill Mystery” at twice weekly sessions for approximately four months.
Barbara's classroom was reasonably representative of many classrooms in the United States in 1998. She had one modem line and two or three personal computers functioning in her classroom at any point in time. In an ideal world, Barbara would have had a computer on every desk and I could have collaborated online with as many students as necessary in an interactive chat..
In the real world, I was lucky if three-four students were hovering around a computer screen watching while one student conversed with me on behalf of the group or class. Since Barbara did not have an arsenal of computers in her classroom, she faced the same dilemma that most teachers encounter when working with computers in a classroom –how to effectively deploy 25-30 students across the many tasks encountered weekly in a group writing project, especially if there are many research tasks. The solution rested inhere ability to transform the classroom into a writer's classroom.
What is meant by a writer's classroom? It means organizing classroom space, activities and people in ways that are conducive to collaborative writing projects.
Here are some tips for doing this.
(A) Arrange your research space so that all your resource materials are located in strategic positions. Few teachers have enough resources, such as encyclopedias, to allow every child to have one. The solution is to put what materials you do have in places where many people can use them.
- Can you arrange the room so that you have ‘centers' for each type of research tool?
- Can you put all the classroom books in one corner and the encyclopedias in another?
- Is your technology on wheels, so that it can easily be moved and shared by all in the classroom?
- Have you developed an extensive book library within your classroom?
- Do you have a ‘quiet corner' for serious research, with a computer and a CD-ROM, plus another computer for online searching nearby?
( B) Organize your students according to the research task they will be doing. Over the year, Barbara experimented with grouping her students in various ways:
By Story – In this type of grouping, students are divided up according to the story they are writing. The group stays together and rotates from one ‘center' to another when the teacher designates that it is time to switch.
By Topic – All the students who need to do research on a particular topic work together. This type of grouping is especially useful when several students must share one CD-ROM, such as a Social Studies CD-ROM that has information about “Woodland Natives,” and the class only has one CD-ROM player available.
This procedure also allows several groups to take turns on the computer with a CD-ROM player when the class only has one CD-ROM encyclopedia available.
By Ability - Group your students in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups. Think about the results you want and how grouping them either way can benefit them.
By Learning Style - In this type of grouping, students self-select and divide up into “committees” that suit their learning styles and help them demonstrate their knowledge. The artistic learners can choose to be the illustrators, the ‘logic smart' learners can choose to write the math word problems, etc.
The net effect of this division was that Barbara and I managed to hold the attention of 25-30 tenacious students for a very long period of time.
At the beginning, our Scribes spent much time online developing and deciding upon the story line with me, writing new text and dialogue, editing the script with the rest of the class, gaining class wide approval and then uploading edited versions later in the week to my by e-mail.
Fact checkers,called the “Research committee,” held everyone accountable for the new ideas that sprung up each week. Since the class settled on a plot involving environmental issues associated with the Chesapeake Bay , where the students lived, the research group compiled data about endangered wildlife, oil spill technology and much more.
As time passed, each chat centered around the work that been completed the previous week. I would then make suggestions about how to improve the writing or move forward with the story. Since all the chats were logged, the students could then discuss my comments and decide as a group how to move forward. “Communicators” would highlight the suggestions that I had made in the chat session for each group. The Communicators would then e-mail reports about each group's progress during the week to me. This also gave me, the online instructor, and Barbara, e classroom teacher, a common set of materials to discuss and plan what we would do the following week.
(C) Rotate your students among the various research centers.
Now it's time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. But before you start, set some ground rules. Explain to students that research time will be stopped if the students do not follow these rules. Students will be sent back to their seats to discuss why these rules are necessary. They must understand that without them no one can work. This is quiet work time. It is research time. People are trying to read and take notes. Any communication with teammates must be done in a whisper. All communication with other students must be related to the research at hand. This is not social time!
Researchers must not copy directly from their sources. They must paraphrase!
Researchers must keep a running list of the sources they encounter.
Each group must take a few minutes at the end of the rotation to clean up and put away any materials used, leaving a clean working area for the team that follows them. That way each group starts with an organized area. (It helps to give groups time deadlines, and to inform them ahead of time that they have only 5 minutes to finish and clean up).
Excerpted from, Ost,
John and Barbara
Online, Learning in an Electronic Writing Space,
Beaumont Publishing Ltd., 1999, pgs. 49-50. I've modified
the text slightly to eliminate all web links no longer
active and also made the narrative more of a first-person
narrative by the authors.