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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Advisory

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Instructional Strategies

Research Alert

Taking Stories Off the Page

Digital storytelling, a compositional genre now increasingly available to classrooms, can play a significant role in building students' literacy and advanced communication skills, according to a recent research overview.
The study, by University of Houston education professor Bernard R. Robin, defines digital storytelling as the use of a "mixture of digital media, including text, pictures, recorded audio narration, music, and video" to convey short personal narratives and present information. A central premise of the growing field is that "everyone has a story to tell."
By capitalizing on students' technological savvy and creativity, Robin says, digital storytelling can heighten engagement and enhance learning. He highlights studies showing that, through storyboarding and script-development processes, multimedia story projects can improve younger students' understanding of literary elements and narrative structure. One study found that digital storytelling experiences helped 1st and 2nd graders see themselves as more competent and motivated writers.
Robin says that digital storytelling projects can help older students deepen their understanding of materials, construct meaning, and personalize learning experiences. One researcher cited notes that creating digital stories helps students "evaluate the reality that surrounds them and produce their own interpretation of it," which builds their knowledge base and social-analysis skills.
Other studies have emphasized the potential of digital storytelling to build advanced literacy skills (such as evaluating and synthesizing information) and social-emotional skills (including empathy, self-understanding, and community building).
Robin's paper includes guidelines for educators on teaching digital storytelling, as well as an overview of software and technology tools.
Read "The Power of Digital Storytelling to Support Teaching and Learning."

Seen on the Screen

Launching Students into Writing

The website Reading Rockets posts videos that demonstrate approaches and activities to spur student writing. See how Shana Sterkin of Springhill Lake Elementary in Greenbelt, Maryland, gets her 3rd graders writing daily by providing the encouragement, tools, and—mostly—time writers need. Watch the video.

School Tools

Yes! They Can Write a Novel in 30 Days

The only thing scarier than attempting to write a novel in 30 days is to try to teach students how to write a novel in 30 days. But National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo to its friends) has you covered. With the Nanowrimo for Young Writers Program, educators have access to numerous resources and lesson plans for students of all age ranges. Student workbooks—available in hardcover for purchase or as a free PDF—offer suggestions on how to create characters, imagine settings, and craft plots. Discussion boards, bookmarks, motivational tips, and more goodies will have reluctant novelists spinning their yarns in no time.

Snapshot

From Football to Poetry

Eric Charles has played football since he was a child and planned to play in college. A knee injury derailed his plans, and he turned to poetry and writing. In April 2017, Charles performed his poem "Goodbye to High School Football" for classmates at Sharpstown High School in Houston. He compared the thrill of the performance to the emotions of a football game.
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(Photo credit: Jon Shapley / Houston Chronicle / Associated Press)

Turn and Talk

Q & A with Ruth Culham, best known for her work identifying the six traits of good writing. Culham enthusiastically consults on writing instruction in schools, and is the author of more than 40 books (most recently, Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts that Celebrate Latino Culture, Stenhouse, 2016).

Your 6+ traits help teachers talk with students about what good writing involves—but it can be hard to motivate some students. How can the right texts motivate writing?

Students don't hate writing—they hate how we teach it. We often throw too much out of context at them and expect them to connect the dots on their own. A better place to start is with books students love.
Engagement is motivating. When students are allowed to find books they're captivated by, they will read them eagerly, over and over. That interest in a fascinating story idea or intriguing information is step one. Revisiting those texts through the lens of the traits (ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions) to understand how the author was able to accomplish so much is step two. Teachers should ask, "What do you like so much about this book?" and then, "Can we try using one or more of the same techniques in a piece of your own and see what happens?"

Why is it important to present students with texts featuring characters who match those students' backgrounds and cultures?

Students who identify as nonwhite deserve the opportunity to see themselves in the pages of books they read so they can get excited about the connections they make. They can reflect on their own experiences and learn about similarities and differences to other cultures from a position of familiarity. However, for both minority- and majority-culture children, texts shouldn't only provide a mirror, but also a window into others' lives. Children who could never imagine everyday life outside their zip codes get to know characters in fiction whose lives may not be at all like theirs. They learn to appreciate, celebrate, and honor ways of living and loving that are different from their own. These can be big steps toward a world community.
In this regard, the teacher is the most important person in every child's literacy life. It's the teacher who makes sure that all students have access to the brilliantly written texts that reflect diversity by race and ethnicity, but also gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, life experience, and so on. The teacher hunts for the right books for her students and places them in the right hands—one of the great joys of teaching.

Once we find a text whose characters or culture mirror those of several students in the class, how do we use it to spark writing?

Read the mentor text the first time aloud without stopping to appreciate what it says. Then read it again and again, each time focusing on different writing techniques. Show how the traits play out in the book. Maybe it has a killer introduction—that's organization. Maybe the use of details is extraordinary—that's ideas. Maybe the ideas in the book are so powerfully written they reach out to readers—that's voice. Maybe the words themselves are fascinating or are specific to the subject matter—that's word choice. It's great if the book models how to use different sentence types to sound pleasing to the ear—sentence fluency. You can even teach conventions, one at a time, though well-written texts. Learning to read like a writer is a deliberate process of thinking, reading, and noticing.

What about nonfiction? Some say nonfiction is more motivating to boys in particular.

It's our job to find well-written nonfiction materials that will captivate readers as much as fiction—that open up possibilities to imagine and wonder. If we present nonfiction with the same passion as fiction, all students will love it—not just boys.
Nonfiction doesn't have to be a dull recitation of facts and information. It should be a foundational piece of every piece of writing. Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games series, said that to create her character Katniss, she read ten nonfiction books on survival. Maybe the secret is not to segregate fiction from nonfiction artificially.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Relevant Reads

New Words on Writing

Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing by Ralph Fletcher (Heinemann, 2017)
Celebrate the joy of the writing wilderness with this book by author and consultant Ralph Fletcher. Fletcher argues that writing instruction should give young writers time and space to produce low-stakes, informal, student-generated writing—what he calls "greenbelt writing." The book includes many examples of such writing and tips on how to carve out "wild, informal" territory where student writing can be playful, unpolished, personal, and passionate.
The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler (Wiley, 2017)
Are you looking for a more structured approach to teaching writing? The Writing Revolution, based on a sentence-level instructional approach developed by Hochman, is a step-by-step guide to teaching the fundamentals of writing to students in any grade level. The book breaks down writing into manageable pieces, allowing students to master certain elements in order to boost their confidence and demystify the writing process. Chapters include a look at sentences as building blocks, the single-paragraph outline, and how to assess students' writing. A hefty appendix includes definitions of writing terms, writing rubrics, and sample pacing guides.
Developing Writers of Argument by Michael W. Smith and Jon-Philip Imbrenda (Corwin, 2018)
Argument is one of the most essential pieces of writing and communicating. If students can articulate what they believe and why they believe it, as well as listen and respond to opposing views, they not only become better writers, but also better citizens. Smith and Imbrenda write that teaching students how to argue helps develop critical thinking, foster collaborative reasoning, and promote a sense of social responsibility. Includes 20 ready-to-use adaptable lessons.

Numbers of Note

Where's the Writing?

23% of middle school assignments require more than a paragraph of writing.
15% of assignments require students to cite evidence from a text.
9% of assignments link to creating a more extended piece of writing.
Source: Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today's Higher Standards?, a 2015 report by Education Trust examining all assignments involving writing in six middle schools in two urban districts.

EL’s experienced team of writers and editors produces Educational Leadership magazine, an award-winning publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and leaders each year. Our work directly supports the mission of ASCD: To empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. 

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