Continuing Our Writing Workshop Community Virtually
As a kindergarten teacher, writing workshop does much more than teach kids how to write. It is the first time in their lives these five and six-year-old scholars are allowed to make such big decisions about their learning. These decisions look like: deciding the type of writing they want to work on, topics they want to teach about, craft moves they want to make, which writing tools from the writing center they wish to utilize, and how much time they want to spend in the part of the writing process they are on. The relationships they build in their writing partnerships provide more authentic teaching opportunities than any lesson I could plan and develop. Writing workshop serves as one of my most powerful tools to establish and continue to foster community and responsibility.
Once the COVID-19 crisis happened, schools abruptly closed in March, and distance learning became our reality. As I planned to navigate uncharted waters, I knew that writing workshop was the key to continuing to drive the engagement and excitement of my kindergarten learners. I found myself in search of strategies and platforms to help me keep the writing workshop going virtually, in its sincerest form.
Student Demographics & Parent Involvement
My students are part of a dual-language immersion program; about 30% of them are English Language Learners. They spend half of their day in English instruction and the other half in Mandarin. I teach the English portion and have two groups of students so a total of 48 students rotate through my class.
With distance learning, there is a learning curve, so in the beginning, parents sat with students to help with troubleshooting technology. At first, parents had the good intention of sitting next to their child wanting to help them; however, I wanted to continue the independence we had created with writing workshop in the classroom. I gave parents the advice to set up a quiet space for their child to participate in the live lesson or watch my video lesson, then work with a timer set for ten minutes. This entire process took a few days to build into a habit. For the first week, I kept students live on zoom with me during this block, and set the visual timer to guide them from one part of the workshop to the next to create a routine while providing a gradual release.
Online Tools for a Virtual Writing Workshop
Intending to continue workshop and all of its components, a focus that remained at the top of my priorities was making sure my writers would be equipped with the tools to record themselves reading their pieces. As a primary teacher, I gained insight into who they are as writers when my students read their writing (sketches or sentences) to me. In search of platforms that would allow me to continue implementing all those effective workshop strategies that were part of a routine with my students, the first tool I came across was Seesaw. It is an online platform where students use the application’s creative tools to take pictures, draw on pdfs, record videos, and manipulate images. As a teacher, I utilized the tools in this program to mimic what I would be doing in the classroom. I used it to send work back for revision and provide feedback on student work in various ways, including written comments, voice feedback, and video with annotation. In addition to Seesaw, I used Jamboard and Zoom for collaborative learning opportunities, such as marking up mentor texts and peer editing.
Addressing Writing Workshop Learning Priorities Virtually
Sharing Writing Pieces and Receiving Feedback
Through online tools, my students’ ideas and knowledge become transparent. In other words, their learning was made visible. When my writers participated in virtual writing workshop using Seesaw, they would start by clicking the link in the assignment to access a video recorded minilesson I had previously delivered either live on Zoom or recorded using Movavi Academic. Next, they would set a timer and write for ten minutes at home. Once the timer went off, they watched a mid-workshop interruption I had left in Seesaw on the announcements page. Students then continued writing for another ten minutes. At the end of their writing workshop block, they would upload themselves reading their piece either with the camera and microphone tools or the video camera.
Through this process, it was amazing to see my students outside of the classroom, marking their pieces with edits and revisions such as crossing out words, using carets, and taping in scrolls. This platform allowed them to continue applying what they’ve learned and share with their peers and teacher. Using the teacher feedback tools such as voice and video recording to send back drafts for revision and approve work, I provided more feedback similar to one-on-one conferencing opportunities. This feedback was in addition to the Zoom small group table conferences they participated in with me live.
Annotating Mentor Pieces
Last year, one of my goals for writing workshop was to use mentor texts and writing pieces to set goals and improve the writing quality my students were producing. In the classroom, I would enlarge and make copies of these mentor pieces to have opportunities for the whole group and small groups to highlight and tag up craft moves they noticed the writer used. The writing they marked up lived on our classroom walls and was frequently referred to by both students and me. I witnessed the effectiveness of this strategy during an independent workshop as I watched some students grab sticky notes from the writing center to mark up books in their book tubs while others used the mini charts to tag up their writing pieces. Wanting to continue this instructional strategy, I utilized the features of Jamboard for live instruction and Seesaw for independent practice. I chose mentor pieces based on the anchor charts that were used in our minilessons. I also self-created mentor-writing that tailored to the students’ needs in terms of structure and development, based on what I saw in their Seesaw submissions and my table conferences on Zoom.
When using Jamboard to mark up mentor texts, I shared the link live in the chat box during our small group Zoom, which allowed students to join me on the Google platform. On Jamboard I had pre-loaded the mentor piece along with the individual strategy sticky notes from the writing workshop anchor charts. I chose to do this because the charts were familiar and provided a scaffold for my students. Then I read the mentor text aloud tracking with the laser. As I read, I gave students a focus for reading. I prompted them to think about parts of the mentor text that shows craft moves from our anchor chart.
On Seesaw, I am able to upload PDF versions of mentor pieces either from Heinemann’s website or photos I took of writing I created along with pages of books that I obtained permission to reuse for educational purposes. The activity presented to students was for them to use their choice of tools to annotate the mentor piece. It not only closely mimicked what we had done multiple times within each unit but also allowed students to make their learning visible. Students’ responses ranged from highlighting and narrating their ideas to highlighting and adding text boxes and written opinions.
Celebrating the Writing
Using the student journal feature of Seesaw, students uploaded a video of themselves reading a piece they had selected to take through the entire writing process. I compiled their submissions and created a publishing party video to celebrate their writing. Our district office, site principal, technology coach, librarian, elementary learning specialist, and the teachers on my Kindergarten team all received the link to this video and submitted their “compliment cards” in a variety of ways. The principal sent back a video message while the librarian wrote a letter to the class. For these writers, knowing their writing is shared with the world inspired them to write even more.
As I begin planning for the school year this fall, an idea resonates with me. Rachel Rothman-Perkins, a staff developer from TCRWP, had shared at the institute, “Words have power, and our goal is to write in a way your reader won’t want to put the book down.” With this experience of continuing writing workshop through distance learning, I have come to realize that our five and six-year-old students still have so many stories they want to share, things they want to teach about, and changes they want to make in the world. They are eager to still engage in a writing workshop to share their powerful words. Once we provide this opportunity for them, the possibilities of what they share through their writing are endless.