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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Using Technology to Encourage Writing

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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