Braving the Challenge: A Guest Post by Beth Scanlon

Braving the Challenge

Inspired by my writing and the other Slicers’ work during the Slice of Life Challenge (SOLC) in March 2012, I decided to attempt the same with my ninth grade students on a smaller scale last May. My colleague, Lee Ann Spillane, and I designed a ten day SOLC for our student using our Bear English NING space. Our goal was to cultivate writing habits, create a safe place for self-express, and experience an audience’s response to their writing as well as practice writing digitally. The students were excited to be part of our pilot project and their continued enthusiasm and desire to keep blogging after the ten days were over let me know that the Slice of Life Writing Challenge was a valuable writing experience.

Providing Space

Safety concerns always jump into my mind when I have students post their work on the internet. The NING space that we used ensured that each student had space to blog as well as a layer of protection on the internet. The Bear English NING was created by Lee Ann Spillane for students at Cypress Creek High School to participate in a digital reading and writing community. We have used it for four years and our SOLC became a perfect project to foster a more authentic use of the space. If you don’t have blog space up yet, I encourage you to check out creating a NING or using Edmodo, which is free. There are other ways students can post.

If you are having students post on the internet using a blog that doesn’t have password protection, you might think about letting them create a pseudonym. My 3rd grader posts as her cat, Fanny2Boots and Lee Ann’s son, a sixth grader, posts as a squirrel. None of my ninth graders used a pseudonym, but I did have one student who refused to post on the NING space since she was an extremely private person.

You might have a student like Liz (a pseudonym of course!). You will need to handle this situation on a student-by-student basis. She wasn’t opposed to the writing, but she was opposed to the posting. After speaking with her and talking to her mom, we decided that she would write each day in a word document and email us both. Her mom and I provided the comments on her writing. She missed out on the commenting, but she did meet the writing challenge. Our mutual decision about handling the challenge was just right for her and she got what she needed as a writer and a student. Remember one size doesn’t not fit all even with this challenge.

Handling Technology Issues

I always tell my college students that technology is not a “down-day” lesson plan. Using technology can be one of the hardest days in a classroom despite the digital natives there. My students struggle with using technology for academic purposes. Your students like mine may have varying level of tech skills. Students and perhaps their parents might need help with posting. Although my ninth graders had no trouble linking via comments, a help video for all of the technology issues that you can anticipate is useful. I like using http://www.screencast-o-matic.com, but be ready to model and provide time in class for students who are struggling to post, especially in those first days.When I am teaching a new skill using technology, I quickly identify tech-tutors who can assist other students as the student to teacher ratio on tech days can be daunting.

Access to technology also can become an issue for many students, but does not have to be an obstacle for participating in the SOLC. Due to the high level of testing in May at our school, the computer labs were unavailable for my students to use. We used cell phones to post and I also had a laptop available for students to use before school, during lunch, and after school. Some students needed the supports of posting during class time as well.

As you are planning your challenge, thinking about how students can access computers is an important work-around. This trouble-shooting may include surveying students about their access to technology and coming up with an individualized posting plan for students who lack the access to technology. Also a quick status of the class each day will help you figure out who is have trouble accessing technology or who doesn’t know how to do something with the technology.

Managing the Challenging

We used a common main page so that our students could link their blogs and find each other. This main page provided daily inspiration, writing tips, or challenges for the day. I rotated this writing responsibility with Lee Ann each day although this year I would invite a guest poster to participate to allow for more time to comment on students’ blogs.

Commenting is the most powerful component of the process, especially when students give comments to each other. My students were surprised how much they enjoyed participating in our digital writing community.

Students commented on at least 2 other bloggers each day. We also enlisted our dean to write with us so that we had another adult providing feedback to kids daily. I think that kids needed their peers to respond to them as well as an adult to keep them moving forward as writers. During the duration of the challenge, they began to expect feedback, learn from the feedback and write for their audience. To grow the challenge this year, I would ask parents to comment or try to get other adult volunteers in our community to participate.

I would encourage teachers to take it small if are participating in the challenge for the first time. We had about 75 participating students for our first go-around which allowed us to work through the bumps. I think if you are a high school teacher thinking about participating with all of your students for us (150), you might think about who you can get to help. Perhaps there are teacher-education programs in your area that might like to partner with you or parents who can help. However, you choose to do it, you will find it well worth your time and worth repeating!

In hindsight, I wish that my students had taken more care in their writing. The first week was spent helping kids post their writing versus working on the quality of the writing. With the ten-day challenge, it was over before we could get to work on other aspects of our writing. I think that is the benefit of a longer challenge. The first part is instilling the habit and the second half can be working on craft.

The beauty about the SOLC is that students will have a different venue for expression and getting to know each other as well as grow as writers. I learned more about my students by doing the SOLC and the digital writing community fostered a closer face-to-face classroom community. The surprises are always the best part about trying something new with your students!

solcchsSlice of Life Blogging Challenging

The term a “slice of life” comes originally from French drama and means a natural or naturalistic representation of real-life. As a narrative technique, a slice of life shows a random moment from a writer or character’s life. The “slice” may come from the beginning, middle or end of story and may present just a short peek into a memory or event. Slice of life writing is related to vignettes and the idea of starting something “in media res.”

Challenge: Blog every day for 10 days on your Bear English blog (http://bearenglish.ning.com). Paste your slice of life link as a comment (each day) to the main challenge blog post. Read the comments and choose 2 blogs to read and comment on each day.

write + post + comment = 10 day SOL challenge

My writing for this challenge: descriptive leads, writing dialogue, writing a specific genre, etc.
I am interested in writing about…
Reading I can check out to mentor my writing… Pieces that I have written that I can revise and use….

Blog post checklist:

‡ Organize paragraphs (at least 2).

‡ Read your post out loud before you post it.

‡ Proof-read your blog before you post.

‡ Include media (picture, links, video) to enhance reading.

‡ Tag the post (use sol2012, slice-of-life, Scanlon, Spillane).

‡ Invite readers to respond.

‡ Use positive tone.

‡ Comment on 2 people’s blogs.

‡ Post link to main page.

Click here to view the evaluation rubric and reflection sheet.

Beth Scanlon is a reading coach at Cypress Creek High School in Orlando, Florida and a teacher-educator at the University of Central Florida. She will be braving the challenge with her graduate students and her eight-year old daughter. When she is not struggling to write, she reads, plays ultimate Frisbee, and spring hops. She gives credit to her experience in the National Writing Project at the University of Central Florida for fostering her love of writing.

A note from Stacey: Beth’s colleague, Lee Ann Spillane, is also a Slicer. Check out her A to Z List she created for the purpose of framing the Challenge for her students. Also, come back next Sunday for a post that will contain the information you’ll need to have so your classroom can be part of our online Classroom SOLSC.