Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere


#Pedagoo London: How Twitter Taught My Students to Write

March. A dark, cold Saturday morning. The careful customer service of British Rail. My first teachmeet. Pedagoo London.

The prospect of having been asked to present in amongst the heavyweights of the job was both flattering and exciting. Helene O’Shea is a master enabler, in her sharing of blogs, recommendation of colleagues to read and speak to and in her fabulous organisation of a networking and CPD event that had none of the passive aggressive teacher behaviours of other inset I have provided. What a pleasure it was to put real, three dimensional faces to the people who have supported me and shared with me and allowed me to build my progress and to say stupid things to them like, “everyone feels taller than I thought they would be”.

Kev Bartle talked us through the “Trojan Mouse” (Google it! Really!) and I attended sessions from Tait Coles, David Fawcett and the peerless David Didau and would have loved to have seen others, particularly Rachael Stevens and Lisa Jane Ashes. I left, and write this on a train home, missing the evening session which I trust will continue in the same veign as the day but perhaps slightly more, “fuelled”?

A fab day and something I’d do again and may even do closer to home with some of the Twitterers from the North West. A day of great ideas and practice. Building on the spirit of sharing I wanted to share a short summary of my session with links to the materials for people to use.

@AfLPie: How Twitter Taught My Students To Write

Pedagoo London 2nd March 2013 (pdf)

Link to Prezi

I’m fascinated by the idea of engagement and have written before about the idea of “Flow” as a useful facsimile for engagement so tend to start sessions like this with a pointless activity to engage and get brains and juices flowing. In this session it was to tear a hole in a piece of paper big enough to fit a person through. Some success was had but effectively we got to know each other a bit. I will be nicking David Didau’s idea of having the “flow” graph up in my teaching room to track with students how they’re feeling about their work at given points in the lesson.

The task of writing a letter to me to tell me you could beat me in a fight is just as silly an engagement task but it starts to delve a little further into the core of the session. Despite the flimsy or shallow nature of the task, participants have to include technical details and then share with the group. This question is in contrast to the typical exam question which treats kids like forty something accountants, perhaps despite the unfortunate assumed back slapping at the AQA when they came up with the classic, “describe the room you’re sitting in”. The video that follows is frivolous but helps to explain my motivation in trying to provide more engaging tasks for writing. I started to feel like the unfortunately unhinged individual in it.

The two tasks that follow are unashamedly nicked from TED talks I’ve watched over the years and are concerned with combatting “self editing”, that moment when, before you start something, you convince yourself of your inability to do it. Simply, thirty seconds to turn the “squiggle” into a recognisable picture of something and the thirty circle test requires you to turn as many of the circles into as many different things as you can in the time given. As mentioned before, you’re aiming for “flow”.

My work on writing begins with meeting a Lead Practitioner who had been working on writing journals. Places where students had the opportunity to write about whatever they wanted for a set amount of time every day. The quality, to an extent, doesn’t matter – it is the act of writing that matters. With mobile communication and social networks as prevalent as they are, our kids write more than ever but less than they ever did. What I mean by this is the actual kinaesthetic act of writing. Partly inspired by a programme that Phil Beadle took part in a few years ago around adult literacy I hit upon the idea of providing students with the chance to write every day. In the programme, Beadle asked a couple of the more “hard to reach” participants to simply draw waves across the page then zig zags and so on – building up this concept of the kinaesthetic act of writing. But getting kids to write every day is a bit of a hill to climb and could be dangerously Sisyphusian.

I had been working with “Thunks” and “Thinkers Keys” for a while and love the way that they inspire higher level, interpretative thought so I resolved to basically, and sometimes childishly, ask a silly question. (I’ve written about this before here)

There are as many examples as I have come up with so far here (Writing Warmups), amongst my favourites being “Write a letter to the Head to advise him/her why the punishment for stopping suddenly in a busy corridor should be a lunch in the face” and “Write an article for a local newspaper to argue that we pick ugly friends to make ourselves look better” (this one always causes some raised eyebrows and spirited discussion). The trick is to keep it small, maybe starting with A5 cards that can be collected together but also to keep the scale achievable (I now use the slim vocabulary books). Be careful to work out a way to mark or check over what is done. This should be somewhere for the kids to write and feel challenged and creative but realism and direction dictates that they need to be “marked” in some way.

I played around with using success criteria to stimulate more peer assessment and reflection but it almost took away from the intended “quickness” of the idea. Also, two students’ interpretations of what good looks like can be fairly diverse. So I started working with a broader scaffold for a reflective journal that worked well but hasn’t been revisited. Perhaps watch this space for that one!

The most recent and most significant breakthrough has been in joining Twitter. The advice and resources I have tapped into have been invaluable, particularly with respect to David Didau’s “slow” writing process. In combination with Alex Quigley’s ideas around DIRT and Zoe Elder’s series around marginal learning gains this made a significant difference to my students writing.

David describes the slow writing process perfectly on his blog. I began by simply taking David’s process directly and was amazed by the outcomes. I set about trying to use it in a variety of ways, but the most powerful aspect of the process, to me, is the double spacing. This communicates that the writing isn’t complete, that there will be a redraft or reflection or DIRT (Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time). It reinforces that writing is as much a process as it is a product. Genius.

I began to combine this with the adage that I had developed with one class in particular: Quantity, Quality, Progress. Every time we write, we write as much as we can (Quantity), we make it as good as it can possibly be (Quality) and whatever we write has to be better than the last thing we wrote (Progress). It started to work. Before the January English Language exam, students were taking mobile phone pictures of the projection of the “slow” writing sentence progression.

I’m trying a few new ideas with it: adapting it for responding to an unseen poem, including the “A, B, C story” (each sentence must start with a word that starts with the next letter of the alphabet Poems prompts etc) and cut up into “slow” writing cards. The arguments against a formulaic approach to the unseen poem are good ones but it has stopped kids from staring at a blank page, terrified by making a mistake, unaware of how to move forward. I combined this with Rachael Steven’s take on Ron Berger’s critique system to support kids in offering “FSH” feedback – friendly – specific – helpful to support peer assessment and improvement.

The cards, available here (SLOW Writing Card) are loaded with more “high value” items like inclusion of semi colons so that, with random selection, kids are more likely to include those things. But also, moving forward, I want kids to make more conscious decisions about crafting based on which card is selected, either accepting it or rejecting it based on what they want their writing to “do”.

Health Warning:

The tendency for lots of teachers to read what they find above and say, “yeah but…” is hereby acknowledged. The stuff I describe here worked for me, I enjoyed it and so have the kids and, luckily, it’s shown some real improvement in their writing. It’s a beginning though. It’s like any writing “frame”, you start with a sturdy scaffold and gradually remove it part by part until the habits it has hopefully sown the seeds of, begin to grow. Sorry to end on a mixed metaphor but it seemed appropriate.

Dedicated to Helene.