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Writing with Authenticity and Agency - a story of stunning growth in student writing
I’d like to share the story of a project I ran in the second half of 2022. It was a student writing program built on the premise that authentic purpose (student publishing), collaboration and creativity (student agency) can support high levels of growth in student writing. The ultimate goal was for students to publish their work to an authentic audience - to satisfy the highest standards that come with publishing and, in doing so, achieve significant growth.
"It makes me think that I’m a great writer the fact that I don’t like writing but when it comes to extension I feel really engaged. I get to write a novel, a novel that may be posted out into the public for others to see. This has never happened to me before, so it’s really exciting." (Gemma - Year 6)
My 0.6 part-time role at St Albans East Primary School in Melbourne, Victoria is that of transformation coach; I work with teachers and students to help them see and explore the possibilities that come when we put powerful technology tools in the hands of any and all learners. I’m particularly passionate about teaching writing and in my 30+ years as an educator I’ve put my heart and soul into helping teachers and students craft, build and share their stories.
We need to define what “growth” really means - beyond the obvious advancement on a metric scale?
In writing, I believe that growth is about self-belief, sustained engagement, self-awareness, workflow, feedback (in many forms) and the conditions which support all of these things - time, space, tools and and authentic end-goal. One of the problems we have in the teaching of writing - I believe - is that we often take a one-size-fits-all approach by telling students what they have to do, often starting with some form of modelling, independent practice, feedback and sharing or “publishing”. All of this sounds perfectly reasonable as a simplified instructional model but in my experience it’s nowhere near enough if we’re serious about true student agency.
"I get to make narratives, work in a group and cooperate with others. In other classes we would never (or rarely) use digital technology and/or interactive features. By being in extension, you can experience more difficult assignments, which are quite more interesting than being in class." (Theresa, Year 4).
If we want to achieve HIGH GROWTH, we need to give students collaboration tools to craft, build and develop their ideas with their peers. We also need to challenge and engage them to reach the highest standards in writing: publishing. And by publishing I don’t mean printing out a good copy - I mean actual publishing to a global audience. This can be done in a number of ways which I’ll go into later.
So let’s start by looking at the end-point. Here are some of the published works - published via the Apple Books platform to an audience of 51 countries…
In each case, students worked undertook the same process in support of their goal to publishing globally:
- small groups (2-4 people)
- explored and analysed “mentor texts” - high level student writing projects already published
- worked through the Design Thinking process under the framework of publishing digitally - empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test
- used digital tools to plan, draft, build widgets and construct their eBooks (Pages for ePubs)
The age of the students ranged from year 3 to year 6. There were 56 students involved, split into two groups, who were released to work with me for two or three one-hour sessions per week across a semester. Students were broadly of mixed ability but were identified as requiring extension due to their already strong interest in writing, motivation, creativity or even some who had capacity for growth but under-achieved in a more “traditional” writing program.
"It is exciting knowing I have the ability to publish a book." (Duy, Year 6)
"Because in class, all of the writing topics were things that I already knew and it didn’t challenge me. If I didn’t know it, I would just easily finish and do it over again." (Jessica, Year 6)
Between June and July, the year 3 and 4 students participated in an online program called “Story School” - developed by author, Tristan Bancks. Story School provided students and classroom teachers online lessons and resources for idea generation and the exploration of craft. In short, the lessons are excellent and our plan is to run this program again in 2023 across years 3 - 6.
The use of Mentor Texts
What really helped motivate students was showing them the work done by others before them. I’d previously been involved with smaller scale student publishing projects which resulted in the publication of two significant works - “Convergence: April 13th, 1945” and “Unsolved: a Mystery with a Difference”. Combined, these works have been downloaded more than 5000 times globally and are strong examples of highly creative, collaborative writing by students, for students. By exposing the group to these texts and providing them with digital study guides for text analysis, this proved what was indeed possible and within reach. They allowed the group to look at the concept of reading-by-design - a deep dive into the author’s purpose when designing interactive eBooks.
Design Thinking - empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test
The Design Thinking process provided students with a process which would guide their goal-setting, define success and develop an efficient workflow. By reading mentor texts we were able to visualise an end-product. Empathising what the reader-experience might be allowed students to ideate and this helped greatly in the formation of collaborative groups. Students ultimately formed teams based on the type of book they wanted to create (mostly by genre) - they then needed to make the all-important decision around structure. Some groups decided on choose-your-own-adventure, some on a parallel plot - while one group created two version of the same story based on POV (point-of-view). All of these were highly strategic decisions - and complex. The level of critical thinking required is high; students needed to be goal-focussed and communicate with each other in myriad ways.
"What didn’t work was that we ended up failing our first plan so we came up with a new one, we get a little bit stuck when we are writing the draft, but eventually got ideas from friends, or things that happened in real life. I feel like collaborating is better than working on your own." (Lien, Year 5)
Digital books - also known as eBooks or ePubs - offer transformative and creative design opportunities for students. They can include their own drawings, animations, videos, music compositions or sound scapes. These “widgets” (interactive touch-points) are easy to make and are highly engaging for young authors because they offer their audience new and exciting ways to engage with writing. Take a look at the eBook examples provided in this post and look at the ways in which young authors have taken writing to a new level.
Branching is one of the six coding concepts. When designing a digital book the author can use this concept as a real-world application: offering the reader choices or pathways. It takes careful planning and requires explicitly taught technical skills.
Australian Curriculum: Digital Technologies (5/6):
Implement digital solutions as simple visual programs involving branching, iteration (repetition), and user input (ACTDIP020)
The Results (eWrite data)