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Using Technology to Encourage Writing

Related Tags: Teacher Leadership

The first time I saw an Elmo (a digital visual presenter) in action, my mind was flooded with ideas about how I could use it in my classroom to encourage my students to write.

Since writing with a strong voice is one of the common weaknesses found in the writing of the students in my middle school, I was able to convince my principal to buy one for the English department with the guarantee that I could show him obvious improvements in students' writing as a result of using the Elmo. I was a little nervous and hoped that my confidence was well placed -- having only seen one and not actually having used it.

The box arrived several weeks later, and the kids and I excitedly worked together to figure out how to get it to operate. Basically, using a built-in camera, it projects whatever you put on the platform up onto a whiteboard or screen. When I saw it demonstrated, I had not paid that much attention, for instance, to the fact that you needed an LCD projector to project the image from the Elmo. So I had to find one of those.

It didn't take too much time before it was up and running. The class and I thought it would be a very effective tool for revision. I asked who wanted to be Professor Elmo and bring up a draft of a piece of writing he or she had been working on to get group feedback. Just about every hand in the class went up. Now this was a class of seventh graders whose daily goal was to avoid being embarrassed, so I was surprised at their willingness to put a piece of their own work in front of the entire class.

Hilary went first. She had written a description of her hair modeled after a vignette in the young adult novel, The House on Mango Street. She put her first draft onto the platform of the Elmo and read her piece to the class. As she read we could follow along with the projected image of her writing. When she had finished, I asked the class to point out what they appreciated about the piece.

Many hands went up and the class made many specific comments about word choice, tone, organization, and so on, that they liked in her writing. As they did this, I underlined the specific text on the whiteboard that they pointed out. Within a short time Hilary's writing was marked up enough to show that she had done many things well in her writing. She stood next to the Elmo with a look of pride on her face.

Next I asked the class to point out parts of the text that were unclear or they had questions about. This time I asked Hilary to highlight sections of her own piece on the Elmo in response to the feedback. This would help her later when she was revising and wanted to recall parts that the readers were confused about.

After Hilary finished, other students had a chance to revise the same way. One thing I noticed was that some of the students who did not have a chance to get group feedback for their own pieces were making notes for revision on their own papers based on what they observed. One student even asked if it was okay to get ideas from the pieces that were brought to the class via the Elmo and use those ideas in her own paper. Of course, I told her that that was the idea -- writers learning from other writers. The class was instructed to work on a second draft of the piece of writing.

The next day, before I could ask for any volunteers, Hilary asked if she could get feedback on her second draft. I told her that was great and that I would like her to think aloud as she talked through the changes she made. I could not have scripted a better lesson on revision. She used the Elmo to project her first draft as she read through it again. Hilary added some of her thoughts about the feedback she had received and then she showed us her second draft. She highlighted the areas of her paper that she had revised and told why she had made the changes she did. We all got a much better look at the process of writing.

Then Hilary, without prompting from me, asked the group to focus on her ending for the piece. She said she wasn't satisfied with it and asked if they could help her with it. At this point, I had faded to the back of the classroom. She didn't need me right then. She got it. The class got it. And that was the beginning of some of the most deliberately crafted writing that I had ever read in that class.

The Elmo has become an integral part of my classroom. I might project the opening paragraph of a difficult piece of text we are going to read and we can go through together it marking it up (a reading strategy called syntax surgery) to model how good readers think as they read. I might grab a book by Sharon Creech off the shelf and show how she crafts leads in her writing, and then we'll practice imitating her style. All this can be impromptu -- based on the needs of the lesson and the students. No more running out to the copy machine. We can all have a discussion about a common text right there.

I have shared this piece of technology with other teachers. When I check my email in the morning, it is common to have several requests from other teachers asking to borrow the Elmo for the day. I think because they are used to using an overhead projector, this is a comfortable leap for them.

I was working with a group of National Board candidates recently and there was a digital visual presenter in the classroom we were using. One woman asked if I could look at one of her entries. I suggested we look at it as a group using the Elmo and she agreed. We had a very valuable discussion on her piece, marking as we talked though it. By the end of our session together, everyone in the group had volunteered a section of his/her writing for revision. They loved it -- just like the kids. And their writing improved dramatically.

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Margaret's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Pat,

I enjoyed reading your success with your students. It reminded me of similar experiences over the years.

As the last person suggested, knowing more about what technology tool you are using makes it easier to understand what was taking place. I gather that ELMO is a document projector that works like an overhead projector to show opaque pages of student work to the class.

Congratulations for creating an environment of trust and collaboration where students can make comments on each other's work. You credit the technology but most of the work was in your skill in creating a social context where people can give and receive constructive critique. That is what is often missing school. The technology, although helpful, if not nearly so important as the work you have done to create a context of trust and respect. The tools of collaboration help and they will continue to change but the work you do with your students is what marks good instruction.

Nice work...


Pat Harder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The document camera that I have is the ELMO EV-2000AF. The original cost was about $1500. The resolution is pretty good, but if I had a little more to spend I would get the next model up--EV-3000XG which runs a little over $2000. The text on that is much more clear. It is offered through a variety of vendors--just search the ELMO and the model number on the Internet.

Jim Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

An inexpensive way to get started on this is to use any video camera connected to an LCD projector as a document camera. New digital and old VHS video cameras all have RCA outputs (red, white, yellow - yellow is video) and the projectors will accept the yellow video feed. A bit of rudimentary carpentry can deliver a stand for the camera, and an inexpensive gooseneck lamp can provide the lighting. I saw an art teacher use this setup to demonstrate soome shading techniques in a drawing lesson, and it was great. She also used it, as Pat has described, to put student art "on the big screen" for group critique. Effectively engaging.

Ken Messersmith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is not about the technology!!

As Margaret points out, the technology helped you to facilitiate the writing process but what really worked was the fact that the students had a great instructional leader who had the vision to be creative about how to teach writing.

While we are on the technology, there are other tools that would allow you to do the same thing including SMART Boards and other systems that allow you to turn any white board into an interactive teaching system.

I also like to use the Versions option and the Track Changes tools in Word to facilitate the writing process. I have used them with writing partners. The Versions option allows the student to save each version of the writing separately within the same file creating a documented record of revisions. The Track Changes tools allow the writing partner to make comments and suggest changes electronically but leave the control back with the original author because he or she can choose to accept or reject the suggested changes.

Gavin Thomas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My company has several of the EV-2000AF units as open box stock right now. If anyone is interested in one or several of these units for their classroom or lecture hall they are available for $1000 each including continental US shipping. They are new units but will be reboxed, you can contact me at


Colleen Caputo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Pat,

Hi Pat,

I enjoyed reading about the success that you have had with the Elmo. Our school in currently in the process of purchasing 3. I look forward to using it with my first graders. Although their writing is very limited at the beginning of the school year, they benefit and need visual demonstrations on daily basis. I would like to use the Elmo as part of our writer's workshop to help model editing techniques, writer's voice, and sentence variations.

Thanks for sharing your positive experience. I am excited to integrate the Elmo into my own curriculum.

Lauren Hilderbrand's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Pat! As I was searching aimlessly for topics that caught my attention, I found your clever header, "Elmo Tickles Student Writers." I do not personally have an Elmo in my classroom, but have recently been introduced to this awesome tool by the student teachers in my school building. The student teachers from the University of Georgia have really shown us how useful and effective this piece of technology can be. Our principal asked them to speak at one of our first PTO meetings about the use of this technology and others in the classroom to spark interest and curiousity in the minds of parents. Since then, parents and volunteers have begged to know what they can do to help raise money to purchase Elmos for each classroom at our school. My principal asked my friend and I to write a grant, geared towards encompassing the use of Elmos with Writing in the classroom, specifically. Thanks for your awesome ideas and input. Perhaps I can use this as a springboard for our grant.

dana wade's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. Thomas, I know it has be several months but I just came across it. Any chance that you still have units available.

Julie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed your post about the Elmo. I, myself, have never used it or even seen it. It sounds like an excellent tool. Being a middle school teacher, I am always looking for ways to increase writing success. My school recently got Promethean Boards and this has been a helpful tool in some ways, too. I will definitely look more into my own technology to see how I can use it to enhance the students' learning, just like you did for your students!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The kindergarten teachers in my building would like to pilot the Elmo's in our district and was wondering if anyone knows of any grants to request money for this device?

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