“Modern Love” Collaborative Screenplay Writing— Inspired by NYTimes & Amazon

The Inspiration

When Season 2 of Amazon Prime’s Modern Love came out the summer before last school year, I knew I had to show my students the opening episode: “Strangers on a (Dublin) Train.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time. It’s an adorable Covid-era love story of a train ride meet-cute with just the right mix of humor, suspense, and romance. The episode stars the charming Lucy Boynton opposite Kit Harington (of Game of Thrones). Plus, I teach a course called Modern Fiction & Nonfiction, so it fit in perfectly as a supplemental text. [ . . . ]  Read More

Learn in Your PJs with Free Digital Literacy PD

Are you interested in digital literacy? Would you like to do some professional learning from the comfort of your living room? Then read on to learn about 11 upcoming opportunities to jump-start your digital literacy knowledge!

Drew University’s DrewTEACH program is offering a full slate of free virtual professional development on digital literacy this spring. Learn about topics such as collaborative annotation, fake news, and ethical communities from the comfort of your couch by registering for the free series that begins January 21 and runs through April 7.  [ . . . ]  Read More

Tweet about Tech + ELA at this Sunday’s #NCTEchat

I’m excited to co-host NCTE’s monthly Twitter chat (#NCTEchat) this Sunday at 8 PM EST with fellow digital literacies enthusiasts Troy Hicks, Tom Liam Lynch, and Nicole Damico.

We’ll be tweeting about “Beliefs for Integrating Technology Into the English Language Arts Classroom,” a position statement collaboratively written by 22 members of NCTE’s ELATE Commission on Digital Literacies and Teacher Education (D-LITE)

In the statement, authors share four beliefs to consider when integrating technology in ELA, with applications for K-12 teachers and students, teacher educators and students, and literacy researchers. [ . . . ]  Read More

Students’ Visual Notes Featured on Sketchnote Army Website

In an earlier post, “Students Sketchnote Classic Kafka and Contemporary Black Mirror,” I described my students’ first efforts at sketchnoting.

I am happy to report that their sketchnoting is being featured on the Sketchnote Army website, an international hub for the sketchnoting community.

Special congrats to Kendall S. and Emily B., whose notes were chosen by sketchnote extraordinaire Mike Rohde to be highlighted in their blog post. Head over to the Sketchnote Army website to read the featured post. You can also read more about my journey as a sketchnoting educator.

Join the Sketchnote Army

Experienced and amateur sketchnoters alike will find ample resources to choose among on their site, including their blog, newsletter, podcast, and Slack channel. They also organize annual festivities for January’s World Sketchnote Day!


Special thanks to Mike Rohde and Sketchnote Army for sharing our work!


Students Sketchnote Classic Kafka & Contemporary Black Mirror

High school students in Lauren Zucker’s Honors Modern Fiction & Nonfiction class recently created sketchnotes for two texts written nearly one hundred years apart: Franz Kafka’s classic novella, The Metamorphosis (1915), and the latest release from Netflix’s popular Black Mirror series, the interactive film, Bandersnatch (2018).

Zucker first introduced students to sketchnoting by using excerpts from Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook, a YouTube video of Rohde’s “Sketchnote Mini-Workshop” (that allowed students to draw along with Rohde), and McGregor’s Ink & Ideas, a sketchnoting book for educators.

*SPOILER ALERT*  Students’ sketchnotes contain plot spoilers.

Sketchnoting The Metamorphosis

Zucker suspected that Kafka’s highly descriptive and visual text—in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, famously transforms into an insect—would lend itself to beginner sketchnoting. Though Kafka himself did not want readers to draw the insect, even Nabakov ignored Kafka’s wishes, doodling a rendition of the bug in his personal teaching copy of The Metamorphosis.

After showing students several ways to structure sketchnotes from The Sketchnote Handbook (e.g., modular, vertical, radial), Zucker suggested that students organize their notes for The Metamorphosis in three sections to match Kafka’s three-part structure for the novella. For a more detailed post about Zucker’s introduction to sketchnotes, see here.

Students were given the option to complete their work digitally or on paper. About two-thirds of her students created sketchnotes digitally, while about one-third opted to take notes on paper.

Depicting Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch

When the class viewed Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, students were instructed to take notes while viewing the film; though visual notes were not required, many students elected to take sketchnotes. This might be due to the story structure itself—a choose-your-own-adventure style narrative path determined by the viewer’s decisions.

Bandersnatch sketchnote by Cameron H. (11th grade).

Here’s a pair of sketchnotes that depicts all of the narrative paths in Bandersnatch. [Note: Major spoilers ahead!]

Bandersnatch sketchnote by Reed S. (11th grade).

World Sketchnote Day “Daily Doodle” Activity

To celebrate World Sketchnote Day, which coincided with this series of assignments, Zucker’s students did a variation of the Sketchnote Army’s “daily doodle” activity, in which participants spend one minute sketching the word of the day on a post-it note—anyone interested can participate on the Sketchnote Army Slack Channel.

Students poised to draw a “daily doodle.”

In Zucker’s class, students had one minute to depict a topic (related to Bandersnatch) on a post-it note: technology, mirror, or adventure.

Zucker’s students’ Bandersnatch-themed daily doodles displayed at the front of the classroom on World Sketchnote Day 2019.
Close-up of Bandersnatch-themed daily doodles.

Since completing these tasks, several students have opted to continue taking visual notes in Zucker’s English class.

See the slideshow below for examples of these talented high school students’ Metamorphosis sketchnotes!

Are you a teacher using visual notetaking in your classroom? Comment below with your feedback and ideas!

Lastly, see below for Daisy L.’s (11th grade) Metamorphosis sketchnotes drawn in OneNote. Scroll down (or zoom out) to view them in full.

Four Easy Ways to Display Your Digital Badges

After three years of experimenting with digital badges with both high school students and adults, I’m still exploring ways to integrate and share them.

For those new to badges, here’s a simple definition I wrote in an earlier post. To access additional introductory, intermediate, and advanced resources I’ve curated on digital badges, see this slideshow.

In a nutshell, badges are digital ways of recognizing accomplishments or skills. Open badges are tied to evidence of learning and designed to be shared, so recipients can showcase their skills across digital platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).

Image by Kyle Bowen, used with permission. CC BY-SA 2.0.

I’ve always used the Mozilla Backpack to store and display badges; however, when I recently learned that Mozilla is retiring the platform, I began looking for alternative options.

Currently, my students are thinking about what kinds of badges could showcase skills that college admissions officers and potential employers might value.

Here are four options for sharing their badges online that I’ll tell them are worth considering:

1. Badgr

Mozilla announced they’ve be encouraging Backpack users to migrate over to Concentric Sky’s (@ConcentricSky) Badgr (@Badgrteam) platform. After creating a free account, I found the platform to be very easy to use.

Badgr’s features for sharing/displaying badges: [ . . . ]  Read More

We’re the November Classroom of the Month!

Thank you to Six-Word Memoirs for selecting my Honors Modern Fiction and Nonfiction class as their Classroom of the Month! Their feature article describes our use of six-word stories as an ice-breaker activity on the first day of school. (For additional information on this assignment, see “Even Reluctant Writers Will Love Six-Word Memoirs.”)

Here’s some student pieces highlighted in the article. Click the stories themselves to see the full compositions published on the Six-Word Memoirs site:

Her students expressed positivity (“Rainy day or blue skies, smile”) and passion (“She uses a brush to dream”). They told of the importance of standing up for who you are (“Don’t let stereotypes define your character”) and not caring what people think (“Be silly, dance confidently, think later”). They shared stories of both their values (“Brother, Mother, Dad. Family Comes First”) and their backgrounds (“One parent. One Child. One story”, “two coasts, six houses, thousand stories”). Finally, one student summed up how it really feels to be at this stage in life: “Highschool Student — Confused, But Having Fun.” [ . . . ]  Read More

Even Reluctant Writers Will Love Six-Word Memoirs

Six-word memoirs were a quick and excellent way to get students writing, revising, and crafting digital texts.

At the start of every school year, I look for a fun way for students to introduce themselves to each other and to me. Last year, I asked students to craft visual autobiographies on Padlet. This year, since I’m teaching a course for 11th and 12th graders on Modern Fiction and Nonfiction, I also wanted a quick activity to get my students writing their own modern stories. Enter the Six-Word Memoir! (Just in time for the National Day on Writing! #WhyIWrite)

An invitation originated by Smith Magazine, everyone from NPR to Oprah has invited writers to pen their own stories in exactly six words. This activity turned out to be an easy way to get students back into writing mode after the summer break. As a bonus, the legend of Hemingway’s six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) was a perfect way to begin a conversation about modern writers.

I asked students to introduce themselves to the class in six words. “It doesn’t have to capture your life story,” I reassured them. “It just needs to reveal something about who you are.”

They got right to work. They wrote at different paces, so I encouraged students who finished early to write additional stories, while allowing more time for those who needed it.

Towards the end of the shortened, first day class period, we had barely enough time for each student to say their name and read their six-word story aloud.

The next day, I projected my own six-word memoir that I had published on the Six-Word Memoirs website.

My first six-word memoir published on sixwordmemoirs.com. 


I joked that the open-source image I paired with my story didn’t exactly look like me.

Then, I talked about my challenges as a writer and enlisted their assistance in revision. I wanted to capture a tension between being content in the present and itching to make progress, I explained. We played around with my verb choice. (We were already talking about diction and copyright on the second day of school!)

All-in-all, six-word memoirs were a quick and excellent way to get students writing, revising, and crafting digital texts.

I gave them a chance to revise their stories, talking with a partner about what they were trying to accomplish through language. Some students asked to draft new stories, which I happily allowed.

After writing their stories, students enjoyed pairing them with images and posting them on the Six-Word Memoirs website. I later realized they could embed their stories into their first posts to welcome readers to their class blogs.

Here some examples of their six-word memoirs (posted with permission by eager volunteers):

A few students were interested in the website’s monthly writing contests, especially when I pointed out that with the right six words, they could boast that they’d won a national writing contest. I hope to announce the contest topic each month (October’s topic is “Secrets to Take to the Grave”) to encourage participation.

For a relatively low-maintenance writing assignment, the six word memoirs yielding great rewards. It helped us introduce ourselves to each other without having to share a recycled “fun fact” about ourselves. In just a few minutes, students were able to see themselves as writers and talk about our writing choices. And we were all able to have fun with a digital publishing without the pressure of a graded assignment.

I’ll leave you with several student examples. If you decide to try this out yourself (or in your classroom), feel free to comment with additional ones!

Special thanks to Lindsey Caruso for feedback on this blog post–especially for your suggestions for the conclusion.

Let’s Annotate the Web! Meta Digital Writing with Troy Hicks

For this month’s Digital Literacies Collaborative (DLC) social reading, I invite you to read and annotate Troy Hicks’ (2018) excellent piece from Voices in the Middle on “The Next Decade of Digital Writing.” In addition to joining the ongoing discussion throughout the article, I especially invite you to think publicly about your next steps or goals as a teacher of digital writing.

In the article, Hicks reflects on the evolution of digital writing instruction and highlights five educators’ innovative practices. Hicks describes his purpose as follows:

CC-BY 2.0 image by Pete O’Shea modified with permission via Flicker.

Reflective digital writing educators themselves, DLC members should have a lot to say about Hicks’ suggestions for our next ten years of work. October 20 is NCTE’s National Day on Writing, so October is the perfect time to reflect on our digital writing instruction.

**Plus, Troy Hicks will be visiting Drew University on October 25 as the featured speaker to kickoff the #DrewTEACH Lecture Series.**

This is why I’m inviting DLC members (and anyone else interested in technology and/or the teaching of writing) to write about writing with me by reading Hicks’ article and joining the ongoing intratextual conversation (via Hypothes.is).

Using Hypothes.is for Social Annotation [ . . . ]  Read More

A Transmedia Writing Project by Global Collaborators

Thanks to a series of well-timed clicks on social media, I recently became one of twenty, international co-authors of a collaborative digital writing project, the NetNarr Alchemy Lab.

How I Got Involved

Scrolling through social media, I was intrigued by a playful invitation that teased the possibility of a transmedia, collaborative story.

“Come. Join us,” the invitation stated.

“Take a chance. We’ll be right there with you. Together, we hope to create something magical.”

The sign-up sheet made the following, modest offer:

“We’re hoping you will be open to working on creating one digital piece of art or story. We will then stitch our stories together into an interactive Alchemy Lab.”

I later learned that NetNarr referenced Networked Narratives, a co-located class taught by Alan Levine at Kean University and Dr. Mia Zamora at the University of Bergen, Norway. (Learn more about the structure, here.)

A colleague had suggested I try out Adobe Muse to create digital animations, and I figured that a CLMOOC invitation was the perfect time to tinker, fail, and explore,” to borrow a phrase from Renee Hobbs.

My sketchnotes from Renee Hobbs’ talk, “Create to Learn,” from the 2018 DrewTEACH Winter Conference.

Enter the Alchemy Lab

The beautiful and impressive finished product, stitched together by Master Alchemist Kevin Hodgson (@dogtraxusing ThingLink 360, opens with a spinning, 360° image of the Alchemy Lab.

Here’s a photo of the Alchemy Lab by Kevin Hodgson (CC BY-SA.) But you should really check out the 360° version on the full site.

My Contribution to the Lab

In case you can’t guess from the image above, my contribution to the lab is a lock (located on the bottom shelf of the purple case at the center of the above photo). The lock graphic itself — and all of the others in the lab — were drawn by the talented Susan Watson and shared via a Google doc that asked contributors to first claim an image, and later drop in a link to their finished product.

Image by Susan Watson

Even though I was tempted by other images (the already-claimed neon green flask, especially) I chose the lock because I thought it would be a convenient method, conceptually, to move from one piece of the transmedia text to another.

Clicking on the lock in the Alchemy Lab links to a website I created using Adobe Muse. Taking a cue from the style of the original invitation, my goal was to make an animation that moved a key graphic towards the lock to open the next page of the lab. I was somewhat successful.

Media Jumping: Triumphs and Challenges

In the spirit of Connected Learning, here are my reflections on creating my piece of the Alchemy Lab.

✓ Win: The design of my site matches the look and feel of the original invitation to join the NetNarr media jumping experience.

X Fail: The original invitation did not really inform the look and feel of the finished Alchemy Lab.

✓ Win: I found a cool looking key image. After hours of trial and error with animations in Muse, I was able to move the key (down and to the right) to meet the lock.

X Fail: The key meets the lock perfectly on my Windows-based work computer. Unfortunately, it does not perfectly meet the key on my Mac, or on my mobile phone.

✓ Win: At first, I was unable to publish my Muse webpage on this WordPress site. After a few false starts, I was able to host my Muse website using Adobe’s free service, Adobe Business Catalyst.

X Fail: About one month after the Alchemy Lab was published, I received an email from Adobe Business Catalyst that it will be discontinued in March 26, 2020.

✓ Win: After a few days of research, and several emails with patient WP developers, I was able to migrate my site from Adobe Business Catalyst to this WordPress site, using the free, MWuse plugin. [Luckily, digital texts are especially conducive to revisions.]

Lessons Learned

  • Continue saying yes to offers from the CLMOOC community, even if I don’t really understand what they entail.
  • Do a bit more research before committing to a platform. Had I known what headaches Adobe Muse and Business Catalyst would bring, I might have found a better alternative. Next time, I’ll ask my PLN via Twitter.
  • Know when to ask for help. I enjoy the challenge of tinkering myself, but I realized I was in over my head long after I felt committed to a platform.
  •  [ . . . ]  Read More

    Experimenting with Digital Badges in ELA

    I’ve been tinkering with digital badges for a few years, but this spring marked my first effort to test them in the classroom. I’m still in an exploratory stage, but I wanted to share some initial reflections.

    What are Digital Badges?

    In a nutshell, badges are digital ways of recognizing accomplishments or skills. Open badges are tied to evidence of learning and designed to be shared, so recipients can showcase their skills across digital platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).

    If you’re new to badges, check out the Open Badges website and this article on badges in the classroom. The graphic below illustrates the elements of an open badge.

    Image by Kyle Bowen, used with permission and Creative Commons.

    Piloting a High School ELA Badge Program

    Here is the full list of badges that I co-developed with students this year. If you explore the individual badges, you’ll find evidence from student “experts” who earned the badges.


    Ninth and tenth graders developed the badge names, descriptions, and required evidence. They decided to group the badges into three categories: Reading, Writing, and Miscellaneous. Then, tenth graders designed the badges using open badges.me, which they picked up quickly after my three-minute demonstration.

    We didn’t get these badges going until early April, so this year was more of a trial. Badges were not inherently motivating to all of my students. Some students were more interested in designing the badges than earning them. Regardless, the time we spent thinking together about skills worthy of recognition in our class was valuable.

    While many students were eager to claim multiple badges, a handful were brave enough to ask, “Why should I want to do this, again?” I explained that a digital badge houses more information about your learning and skills than a grade does. If you collect several badges, I explained, you can create a digital portfolio of sorts that showcases your accomplishments. I showed them my virtual backpack as an example. Some were convinced, but they were not all emphatic.

    Getting Started Resources

    If you’re considering experimenting with badges, you can consult the following resources:

    1. openbadges.me  – A free, web-based program for designing open badges.

    2. A

    graphic organizer  [ . . . ]  Read More

    Poetry for the Reluctant Poet

    In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s a poetry lesson that can inspire writers of all ages.

    On Valentine’s Day, a day when emotions are heightened in high school, for better or worse, I trotted out an assignment that would invite students to have fun writing poetry. These were ninth graders—generally willing to play along when I call something fun even if they don’t think it is—but I did my best to present them with options they’d find inherently appealing. They even laughed politely when I joked that if they wanted, they could write their poem on colored paper and cut it out in a heart shape.

    I introduced them to the epistle, a poem in the form of a letter. I’d like to think that they were as interested in my definition of the word as they were in the sound of the word itself. They first responded with giggles, but after some coaxing, joined me, unabashedly pronouncing “epistle” in chorus while I repeatedly pressed the speaker icon on Merriam Webster, my computer corroborating our pronunciation.Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 12.54.25 PM.png

    I went over some options for the “recipient” (audience) of their epistle, starting with the classic love poem. I reminded them that love poems aren’t always interesting to people outside of the relationship. Then, I shared several variations.

    Potential Subjects/Recipients:

  • (classically) someone you love or hate
  • (more subtle) someone you want to thank, or someone who is annoying you
  • a public figure or celebrity (dead or alive)
  • a fictional character
  • a person you don’t know but interact with (e.g., the mail carrier, the pizza delivery person)
  • the inventor/creator of something
  • an object or animal
  • to a real audience (you can actually share it)
  •  [ . . . ]  Read More

    Using Literacy for Advocacy

    In honor of Advocacy Month, the Writers Who Care blog has invited educators to talk about literacy and advocacy by posting a 90-second video on Flipgrid. My students decided to tweak their prompt to reflect on how we use literacy for advocacy.

    Here is the video response from my classroom.

    From Of Mice and Men to Advocacy

    After students finished reading Of Mice and Men, I challenged them to investigate a contemporary issue raised by the classic text. Students researched and wrote about issues such as sexism, racism, ageism, and ableism. Then, they researched advocacy organizations that aligned to their arguments. Some students reached out to their advocacy groups to learn how to get involved.

    To share their work, students posted information about their advocacy groups on these three collaborative texts:

    (1) https://padlet.com/laurenzucker/gm97b28avg2o 

    (2) https://padlet.com/laurenzucker/5bgpkmcdswo9 

    (3) https://padlet.com/laurenzucker/8mq256q8by73

    Celebrating Advocacy Month in Your Classroom

    There’s still time in March to contribute to the Flipgrid. For more ideas about celebrating Literacy Advocacy, see NCTE’s list of activities–including 12 that take less than 10 minutes!

    Class Selfie

    Students’ Writing Goes Viral

    The search for an assignment that makes second-semester seniors want to read more is like the hunt for a unicorn—a noble quest that’s likely to fail.

    But this year, my students and I captured the unicorn with a project that invited them to research the benefits of reading and share their findings with a global audience.

    Over 1000 people read my seniors’ writing over a three-day period this month. And after the assignment’s conclusion, several students reported that they read more now than ever before.

    In early February, we tweeted out this student-created digital flyer, which contains links to my students’ individual blogs, since visited by readers worldwide. Each student’s blog post describes a specific benefit of reading.

    My blog was visited 17 times today! And one of my readers is from the U.K.! – a 12th grade student

    I’ve included a photo of the top of the digital flyer here, but you can view the full flyer on Smore.



    How They Went Viral

    1. They created content that their audience values.
    2. They packaged that content in a manner that would reach and appeal to their intended audience.

    The “Reading Reasons” Assignment

    Inspired by an assignment Kelly Gallagher describes in his book Reading Reasons (2002), I asked students to investigate the research-based benefits of reading.

    My version of the assignment had several stages, summarized briefly below. (For the full details, see this assignment sheet.)

    1. Select a persuasive contemporary article about the benefits of reading.
    2. Read and annotate the article carefully in order to lead a discussion about your chosen “reading reason” with your classmates.
    3. Write a blog post about your “reading reason” that incorporates peer feedback from the class discussion.
    4. Promote your blog post via Twitter using our class hashtag: #SESNH.

    My not-so-secret agenda was for the assignment to expose my students to the many benefits of reading and to inspire them to read more.

    Matching Medium to Audience

    After students finished the “reading reasons” discussions, I invited the class to consider how to best collect their findings to create a final product (e.g., a classroom poster, a digital product). They decided that the best way to share their work would be to create a visually-appealing, digital collection of their writing that they could share via social networks.

    They collectively explored a variety of digital tools on a wiki created by Troy Hicks. At this point, I invited students to participate in the following ways:

    1. A small group of students volunteered to create the final product over a few class periods using Smore.
    2. Another group of students researched different Twitter groups they thought would be interested in reading their work.
    3. A third group of students chose to use the class time to read silently. Huzzah!

    Unanticipated Challenges

    This is not to say that the “reading reasons” assignment was met with total enthusiasm. Though I’d hoped to scatter these discussions over several weeks, unforeseen schedule changes meant that some weeks, students participated in consecutive days of “reading reasons” discussions. Some students complained that we were doing too much talking about reading and not saving enough class time to actually read.

    Others struggled to convince their peers that reading was valuable.  The more reluctant readers in the class responded to these presentations repeatedly with comments like, “Yeah, we know reading is important, but we just don’t want to do it.” At times, student discussion leaders didn’t know how to respond to their peers when asked for information beyond the scope of their research.

    And clearly, as their English teacher, I was not without bias. I tried my best to limit any interjections during their discussions, but sometimes, I couldn’t help myself.

    I worried if the assignment was doing more harm than good when a student candidly shared a disheartening discovery: “I think this assignment is actually making me want to read less.”

    When I recently asked him for permission to share his comment in this blog post, I also asked him to explain it further. He said he’d endured years of teachers reminding him of the importance of reading, and he’d thought he’d outgrown the topic. He couldn’t believe that I was not only furthering the tradition of English teachers past, but upping the ante by forcing him to research it himself. However, I took it as a victory when he shared that in the past, no one had explained the benefits of reading, and that he did learn several specific ones from this assignment.

    Feedback from a Global Audience [ . . . ]  Read More

    Fun with Infographics: Gearing up for the NCTE Convention

    I leave tomorrow for the Annual Convention for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). With the excitement building on Twitter, I came across a post that inspired me to do some digital writing. English educator and author Kylene Beers (@KyleneBeers) created an infographic to announce her presentation schedule for the conference.

    Inspired by her post, I used Adobe Illustrator to create an infographic (pictured below) to share my presentation schedule, and shared it on Twitter. To create the graphic, I used a “snipping tool” to take screenshots of the presentation schedule, and then added my own call-out boxes, graphics, and text.

    I look forward to an inspiring and energizing convention!

    NCTE Schedule 2016

    Print vs. Digital: Students Choose How to Write

    Now that all my students have a school-issued Surface tablet, I let them choose how they want to take notes. When we were reviewing literary terms last week, I instructed students to take notes and snapped a picture of this tableau:

    1. A student taking digital notes with the stylus and touch screen (using the highlighter tool to emphasize key words)
    2. A student taking notes by hand in a spiral notebook
    3. A student typing notes using the keyboard

    While some research worth sharing with students suggests that handwritten notes may be better for learning, I’ve noticed that now that they have the option to type, my students are less reluctant when I ask them to take notes, and even more likely to start taking notes on their own without my prompting.

    I think my student’s pencil case (bottom right) says it all.

    Authentic Writing: Turning Heads and Saving Necks

    They hurtled into the room, grabbing the thickest, most neglected books from my shelf—titles like The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare and The American Tradition in Literature—rushing them into the hallway, returning for more, until they’d built a wobbly skyscraper of books. What kind of assignment could spark such enthusiasm?

    When educators talk about authentic writing, they are talking about assignments written for real audiences—not just for the teacher—that provide students with opportunities to make choices and write about ideas that matter to them. Ken Lindblom argued in a recent Writers Who Care blog post that good writing instruction offers opportunities for students to write in a variety of genres, invites students to write for real audiences and make meaningful choices, and incorporates feedback from multiple audiences throughout the writing process.

    I’d like to reflect on a project from my tenth grade classes last year that challenged students to craft authentic writing by reaching out to experts and writing for real audiences.

    Real-World Inquiry

    When I learned that the school would be providing tablet computers to all students for the following school year, I wanted to encourage my students to consider the implications of such a significant change in their schooling. The school had distributed Windows Surface tablets to teachers a year ahead of the students, and through my experience using the tablet, I grew concerned that it was not designed for extended use, such as the sustained reading and typing that often occur in the English classroom. I launched an inquiry project, inviting students to “investigate how using a Surface tablet impacts health, formulate recommendations, and present an argument.”


    Contacting Experts

    Over a period of three weeks, students worked in small groups to investigate the question. Many groups reached out to experts for information, contacting clinicians such as local eye doctors and chiropractors for their recommendations, interviewing teachers to learn about their experiences using the tablet, and talking with students from nearby schools who were already using computers in the classroom. In their research, students encountered high level texts, such as scientific research studies and government publications, and culled facts and details to support their arguments. They even contacted vendors for price quotes on ergonomic furniture and computer accessories.


    A student demonstrates the challenge of maintaining appropriate posture while using the computer in the classroom.

    Choice in Designing the Final Product

    I gave students the freedom to design their final products, encouraging them to select the genres and audiences that they deemed appropriate for their arguments. As a result, students crafted a wide range of texts: letters written to the Board of Education, original video PSA’s for the student body, fact sheets for teachers, and digital presentations designed for students, faculty, and administrators. Students raised concerns about posture-related strain on the neck and shoulders, referred to as “text neck” or “tech neck,” and many offered recommendations for ways to protect the eyes, wrists, arms and back from injury, including free suggestions such as stretches and posture tips, and purchases like computer accessories and flexible furniture.


    Extending Influence

    After the presentations, we talked about how to use students’ findings to effect change. We selected volunteer representatives from each of the small groups across both classes to develop a master presentation for the administration, pulling the best information and resources from all of their classmates’ presentations together.

    During the last week of school, the students invited the Superintendent, Principal, and Director of Technology into our class to view the final presentation. Three students volunteered to deliver the presentation, meeting ahead of time to go through a dry run in front of their classmates before the administrators arrived. They hoped to share the health risks associated with extended device use, and to convince the administrators to consider their recommendations for what they called “healthy device use.” Watching the students passionately present their argument to the administration in front of an audience of their peers, all of whom had contributed in some way to this final product, was a highlight of the school year.

    Authentic Writing Yields Authentic Results

    Regarding feedback on authentic writing, Lindblom argues that “the best kind of authentic writing results in something tangible that shows the writing was successful, such as a letter written in response, a change of policy, a series of good questions (from an in-person audience), and so on.” After the administrators viewed the presentation, they gave a variety of feedback, asking questions about the writing process itself, and offering their opinions on the recommendations. Following the extensive Q&A session, the Director of Technology promised to include some of the students’ findings in that summer’s mandatory student training. Immediately, the students’ efforts had resulted in a policy change that would impact the entire student body.

    The students also recommended training for staff, so the Principal agreed to allot some time to these issues at an early faculty meeting. I enlisted the help of a physical education teacher and an athletic trainer in September to co-present the students’ findings to the faculty—I shared some key slides from the students’ presentation, and the athletic trainer led the staff in a short movement routine consisting of stretches that teachers could use in their classrooms with students. The Principal encouraged teachers to give students breaks from device use, pausing instruction to invite students to move out of their seats and stretch. To follow up the presentation, we shared a list of “healthy device use” tips and resources with the staff. Later that week, a faculty member informed me that she’d purchased computer stands for her colleagues.

    Student Recommendations.PNG
    Students’ recommendations for promoting healthy device use.

    In my own classroom, I continue to incorporate students’ suggestions. I’m more mindful of the time that students spend in their seats, so I create opportunities for students to get up and move around. I worried that the short movement routine might disrupt the flow of instruction, but that has not been a problem. I’m still working on the “20−20−20” rule for eye health: taking a break from the screen every twenty minutes and looking twenty feet away for twenty seconds. I’m hopeful that as students spend increasing amounts of time on devices, they must they remember to take breaks, to get up and stretch, and to be mindful of their posture.

    This school year, I will continue to encourage students to engage in inquiry, pursuing the answers to questions that matter to them, reaching out to experts, and crafting their writing for audiences to effect change.

    Special thanks to Julie Goldberg, John Wodnick, and my period 6 students for their feedback on an earlier version of this post.