Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Harris Burdick Writing Project and What I've Learned

Approximately two months ago I embarked on an adventure that has taught me more than I ever anticipated.

We have been blogging in our classroom for a year now. One year ago, Christine Southard and I learned about blogging and set out to find a site we could use with our students. We came upon David Warlick's Class Blogmeister site and found it very user friendly. So we set up a blog and got our students engaged and excited. This year, we started up in September and have seen great strides in our students' writing and communicating abilities through the site.

One of the great things about Class Blogmeister is the ability to connect with other blogging classes. We frequently have our students comment to other classes and we often find comments from students outside of our room. One class in particular kept showing up. We started looking into this fifth grade class and discovered the Learning is Messy blog of Brian Crosby's fifth graders in Nevada. After much commenting back and forth, we finally emailed Brian to discuss the comments and have him assist us in improving the comment skills of our students, while we helped his. Of course, at this point, I also started following Brian on Twitter - increasing my network even more.

Eventually, Brian and I decided it was time to consider doing a project together. Our students had sort of gotten to know each other so there was a motivation, we enjoyed communicating through email and twitter, and we both had fifth graders. Brian came up with the idea of doing something with the book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris van Allsburg. This is a very open-ended book begging for a writing piece to accompany it. So we set up a date to Skype and discuss the idea.

During our Skype call, I told Brian about Google docs (Christine and I use them all the time to plan units). We decided this was the perfect venue for writing the collaborative stories. We then decided to link everything onto my already-existing Classroom Booktalk wiki. And, then, just to add to the excitement, we decided to open it up to other teachers. Brian and I both sent out twitter invitations and Christine blogged about it in the NY DEN blog. 12 other teachers signed up.

By now, the project is almost completed. Our students will be editing on Monday and Tuesday, Brian, Christine, and I will do final edits during the week, and the stories will be linked into the wiki next week, along with VoiceThreads to allow them to compare and contrast stories. Other groups are in various stages of progression but most should be finished within two weeks.

So what did I learn from all of this?

1. Setting up a collaborative project with 14 classes is confusing and time-consuming.

I had to create a Google doc carefully explaining the process. When Christine and I work together, we just talk. This wasn't possible with so many teachers. Hence, the need for the document. And the multitude of emails that preceeded and followed the document. And the dealings with technology problems that arose (blocked Google docs, blocked emails, no Skyping experience, etc.). And dealing with teachers that say they want to join, then don't respond to my emails. This took up a great deal of time. I didn't anticipate this when we started. It wouldn't have stopped me, I just was surprised.

2. This was more a lesson in learning to collaborate than learning to become better writers.

The children faced many issues with learning to work with partners with which they couldn't directly communicate. Sometimes, their partners changed the story without discussing it first. Sometimes their partners took a long time to respond to questions. Sometimes they were confused by what their partners were writing. All of these problems were answered when they Skyped but they forgot to continue having these conversations in the Google docs. Or they didn't like the waiting in the docs.

They also needed to learn how to handle these situations. Sometimes, their way of handling it was to delete whole parts of the story. Thank goodness for revision history in Google docs. Sometimes, they handled it by writing their own story, without their partner. That took some intervention from the teachers. Sometimes, their response was to stop writing. Again, teacher intervention.

We spent much time brainstorming solutions. And, in all, I think it was a pretty positive experience.

3. The more our students use technology, the less the technology excites them.

I truly believed that the excitement of using Google docs, collaborating with a class in Nevada, and Skyping would be enough to entice them. And, at first, it was. Then they settled down and realized this wasn't such an easy project. There was actually work involved. Hard work, thinking, creating, writing. And they had to learn to collaborate which, as many of us know, is really not always so easy.

So it was up to us as teachers Do what we do best. Forget the technology and teach them how to work together, how to improve their stories, how to complete this project.

So my final thoughts.

Overall, this really was beneficial to the students. Once they got into it, they found they are writing some incredible stories and they are proud of their work. And they've made connections with students in Brian's class. They go to their blogs first to comment. They discuss what their partners are writing about.

Also, I am already thinking about next year. The timing was no good...too many teachers on different vacations. October, November might be a better time. And we want to add a chat box into the Google docs. This will allow them the communication they need when they are not Skyping.

Networking is an issue with children. Once they connected, they wanted to make more of a connection. Comments in the blogsite asked for Xbox ids and email addresses. We had to put a stop to this. But it opens up the bigger issue of the power of networking. I can no longer function without my network. I truly rely on others to give me ideas, tips, links, and pep talks. But we had to shut down the fifth graders networks...too dangerous to give out personal information. Keep it in the classroom until...oh yeah, until June when it all shuts down. Sorry. I am actually hosting a round table discussion about this on our May 1st Teachers are Talking webcast. Come listen and add to the discussion.

And next year, join the project. We will have all the kinks worked out and I will, by then, have some sort of sign up sheet so I can avoid the confusion I faced this year. Watch for twits. It was well worth it.


Martha said...

Shannon and I are learning a lot through this project as well. I think that you are right, teaching kids to collaborate is the biggest lesson in this. I find that my students still see the internet as an annonymous place where they can say and do what they please. This is not a safe or collaborative attitude. I think that the more projects like this we have, the more students will realise that they are part of a global classroom where the same rules that make things work in a classroom are needed to make things work in a collaborative manor on the internet. Thanks so much for sharing your project with us.

Mrs.A said...

It's been great following you and your students through your project. I admire how you just go with it, jump right in, take risks and your students are lucky to have you.

Andrea Hernandez said...

First of all I want to thank you so very much for extending this project to include other classes. It would have been easy to stop with your own success with the project, and I and my students feel so lucky to have benefitted from your generosity.
Second, and forgive me if this is an inappropriate place to deal with logistics, but our team will not be finished in 2 weeks. We just got started, start spring break on Friday and got an email from our partner that her class won't be able to begin until after testing in early May. Don't give up on us, PLEASE.
Finally, I have to tell you what this project means to me and my students. I am tech coordinator/network admin/lab teacher, etc. and these are the types of projects I most want to introduce to teachers and support/co-teach with them, but I find I have little time with all of my responsibilities at the school. This project was just the right one at just the "write" time (couldn't resist). I have already got such good feedback from the 5th grade teacher. She is thrilled with the project and the students' excitement so far. I am hopeful that the more I am able to use my energies in this way, the more it will catch on with everyone. So, long comment, meant mostly to say THANK YOU!

Lisa Parisi said...

Martha, I think you are so right when you say, "the more students will realise that they are part of a global classroom where the same rules that make things work in a classroom are needed to make things work in a collaborative manor on the internet." This is exactly what they and I are discovering - they know how to collaborate in class so I thought it would be easy online. Live and learn.

Mrs. A, if I didn't just jump in, I would overthink things and never get anything accomplished. ;) So I forge ahead and revise as I go along. It makes learning messy, as Brian likes to say, but it also makes it fun.

Andrea, please don't feel pressured. When you are done, you are done. The wiki will be there, the docs will be there, the VoiceThread will be there. Timing is the easiest part. :) Glad you're enjoying it as much as we are.

Maria said...

Thank you for describing your project! In an event of amusing synchronicity, I ran across your blog entry as I am working on, and struggling, with describing a module for a social math site my company is currently building. I thought I'd run the idea by you, as I see that software potentially useful for projects like yours.

The idea is kind of like "MathTrek 2.0" ( - two basic metaphors being "the journey" and "the story." Users contribute next destinations of the journey in the form of links, activity descriptions, mini-games, videos and so on, making a link to a previous step in the journey through narrative. There will be visualizing of branchings of the story, with parent-child link tracking capabilities and other mapping tools.

A particular place where I struggle right now is how to describe what makes "a step" (one entry) in such a journey. As you undoubtedly experienced in your projects, some people tend to run away with a story, contributing many events, in my case many links and connections, at once - leaving their partners far behind and disconnected, as a result. Potential partners become readers, instead of writers. In my experience as a blogger, longest entries are often least interactive, only producing comments in the form of "Thank you" or "I disagree" - rather than content contributions. So it's important to define a small enough step to promote interactivity, yet large enough that the size mandates some content in it. For example, Twitter's 144 letters seem too small a size for the purpose!

I am writing you hoping that you already had to address the problem of the SIZE of each person's contribution, so maybe you have some helpful advice on the subject. Also, would you find such software - "a multimedia blog for collective storytelling, with mapping capabilities" - useful for your goals?


Anne Mirtschin said...

Hi Lisa,
You have done an amazing job,as the workload must have been huge. I have ever only worked between 3 schools and that has been a big enough work load. We started a classroom blog 8 months ago and this year, we have started individual student blogs. The excitement is still there and skype and other global interaction still brings a buzz. I was hoping it would stay that way and that it would be a trigger factor for them to go into the deeper meaningful learning. Well done, on an amazing accomplishment and I will be interested to follow your journeys further.

Mr. Kimmi said...

I have been extremely jealous of you and Brian (and all the other teachers, although I don't know who they are) as I have followed this through blog posts and tweets. I would very much like to participate next year, but I am currently struggling with my district over their blocking of many useful technology avenues. It has also inpsired me though, I set up a Math Buddies program for next year, where me and one of my fellow teachers here in Kansas will be connecting with Canada and Pennsylvania for math tutoring and journaling. Keep up the good work!

Lisa Parisi said...

Anne, Thank you. I didn't realize how much work it would take to coordinate 14 classes but it has been worth every minute. Perhaps next year you can convince one of your teachers to be part of the program.

Mr. Kimmi, Congratulations on setting up a Math Buddy program. It sounds great. Want some other classes involved? ;)

Lee Ann Spillane said...

What a great project! I'd love to participate next year with a class from the Reading Writing Center. I've used the Mysteries of Harris Burdick with students in the past and enjoy the writing that it generates. Did you know that Stephen King even wrote a short story based on one of the drawings? "The House on Maple Street" is in his collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

Sarah Holland said...

Hi there,

I teach a class of year 8 students (12-13 year olds) in Auckland, New Zealand. I would absolutely love to get them involved in something like this over the other side of the world!!

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