Overall GoalsI wanted to make a project that would get younger students excited about reading. I designed a simple routine that requires older students to write short stories for and about younger students. After doing it a few times now, I've found these additional benefits.
- It's very engaging for older students. Even the most unmotivated students write a story.
- We have good conversations about what makes an inspiring story.
- We relate the important theme of finding our gifts and overcoming obstacles to our own lives.
- It can make use of as much or as little tech as the teachers want.
- There are many options for extending the learning.
As you read this lesson idea, keep in mind I have the advantage of working in any building in our district. If you're a classroom teacher doing this project, just think of another teacher you could work with and what each of your roles would be in the activity.
I usually work with an elementary teacher and a middle school teacher, so I'll use that in my explanation. The steps below are usually separate class periods, but but I try to do the first few in consecutive days. The goal is to get the students writing right away. The whole project takes two to three weeks, mostly because the middle school class spends 5 - 7 class periods writing their stories.
Step 1: What Makes a Good Story?
I take one class period with a middle school class. I explain that we will be writing stories for elementary students and that requires us to find what makes a good story. Through examples and discussion, we build up to a definition I have written about before, based on Donald Miller's books. He explains that every good story is about...
- A character...
- Who wants something...
- And overcomes conflict to get it.
We look for this pattern in movies and books we like. I also have them (in groups) read one-page biographies of famous people who did something good after overcoming obstacles. I'm still tweaking this part, but some of these people have been Helen Keller, Ben Carson, Louie Zamparini and Phiona Mutesi. We sum up those biographies in terms of the conflict the person overcome and what good they offered the world after that.
By the end of the class, I show them some of the slides I will share with the elementary students. Of course, as I talk about what i will tell the younger ones, I'm really trying to reach them too. I explain:
- I want students to use technology to discover and use their gifts. And we all have a gift.
- We also all have obstacles we face in life. I have referred to these as "walls" or "challenges".
- If we learn to overcome those obstacles, we can discover and use our gifts.
Summing it up, I explain that their stories will be based on how the younger students want to help others (their gifts) and what challenges they face. I explain that we will ask the younger students some questions in a Google Form and I take suggestions from the class about what to ask.
As you can imagine, I have no problem getting ideas from the class. By now the students are always excited to learn about the younger students.
While the list of suggested questions varies each time, for the most part we get the same types of questions. I always include a few of my own to sharpen the focus of the survey. I'll give examples below.
And last of all, I take a picture of the class before I leave. The younger students love to see who is writing for them.
Step 2: Meeting the Younger Students
I usually meet with third grade classes and I try to make this part take about 20 - 30 minutes. It's always such a pleasure to talk with younger students and see their excitement. As I told the older students I would, I begin by explaining my job and how tech can help us discover and share our gifts with others. I talk about one student I worked with a few years ago who started writing and selling her own books on Amazon.
I explain that we all have gifts that the world needs us to use. I also talk about walls we face in life. I explain how I was voted "most shy" when I was in school and how hard ti was to get in front of a class. I also talk about my wife. She faced abuse as a child, but as an adult has helped many homeless people in our community.
Then, before I set them loose on the survey, we go through each question that I and the class came up with.
Speaking of the survey, one big challenge is to include what the middle school students wanted to ask without getting too much information. If I come back to the middle school with too much information, the students try to include everything. Their stories turn into long lists of random events, each revealing some tidbit the young student put on his or her survey.
I want the older students to feel they contributed to the survey, but there are really just a few key things we need to do this right.
The surveys usually are something like this:
- What nickname do you want us to use for you? (We don't use their real names.)
- Are you a boy or a girl?
- Who lives with you? (I explain they don't have to list names, but just things like "two brothers, my grandma", etc.)
- What do you like to do in your free time?
- What is one gift you have that you think you could use to help others? (We talk about some examples, but I have to be careful here or they mostly just tell me things I listed as an example!)
- What is one challenge you face in life?
I use Google Forms for this survey, since it's easier to compile the results in the next step.
As with the older students, I try to take a picture of this class as they take the surveys. It really inspires the older students to start writing! (Actually, if I have the chance I take a picture of the class before I even meet with the older students. Starting the whole discussion off with the photo puts it in context.)
Step 3: Compiling the Survey Results
I use Autocrat to compile the students' survey results into a single document. That Google Sheets add-on can be a little intimidating at first, but when it compiles 25 or so surveys in about a minute, it's well worth the investment of setup time.
|This is an example of one student's responses compiled in|
a table. Notice his "gift" is walking dogs!
I made my template for Autocrat so that it puts each student's answers in a table. I print those, then work with the classroom teacher to decide how we will assign the younger students to the older students. It depends a lot on class size, but so far we have always combined two younger students for each story. Most students will end up in two stories. Sometimes the older students work individually and sometimes we put them in groups.
Note that attendance can be a complicating factor as you wait for all survey results to be in. You will want all younger students to be represented in the stories, but we've had cases where a student was absent for several days and we had to start writing before we had the results. This requires flexibility. While I haven't had to do it yet, there are times I just moved along with the process and I planned to write a story myself for any student who turned in a survey very late.
Be aware that the younger students do not always understand what I meant by their "gift" and a "challenge". Sometimes they are very literal. Many times instead of writing a significant life challenge, they will write something like doing wheelies on their bike. It's understandable and middle school students often get a kick out of how they interpret the questions!
Often their challenge will be a school subject they find difficult. We end up with a lot of stories about learning math! Sometimes they are a lot more serious, like dealing with bullying. One time a student even said her challenge in life was dealing with the loss of her mother. Those things can be difficult, but handled gently, they make an important learning experience for all involved.
Step 4: Starting the Stories
|Each page of the story template has space |
for an image and some text.
A lot of the details of the writing process are completely up to the classroom teacher, so I am not very involved with this part. I do come in the first day and give some examples of how I would use a student's survey results in a story. I also show the class the simple template we use.
The length of the stories and how long the project takes are all up to the teacher.
A few things to note:
- The teacher I've worked with the most has them write an outline and then a draft, both on paper first. Once approved, they start writing on the Google Slides template.
- While we haven't mastered this yet, we use some guiding questions to help them plan a story that focuses on the students' gifts and the challenges they want to overcome. All the other details they find on the survey results are meant to flesh out that story, not distract from it.
- None of our students have purposely included inappropriate content, but the teacher and I have redirected a few things here and there. As you would imagine, you will want to have at least a couple points in the process before they turn them in where you can read their stories in detail.
- When the writers are working in pairs, we have one student open the template in Classroom, then share that with his or her partner. So the one student actually never has to use Classroom for the assignment. This is just a simple way for us to monitor their work throughout, as we have access to the stories in Classroom. (And it lets us easily provide the template.)
- I come back at a later date and show them examples of title pages. I don't go into great detail on the features, but I point out how to add Word Art, gradient fills and drop shadows. I don't start with this, because it will distract some of them from the writing.
- As I mentioned earlier, every student has written a story so far in this project. I always see a couple students who are obviously tough cases. I've been warned by the teacher that they might not complete a story. So far no one has dared to make their assigned student go without a story.
Step 5: Editing and Compiling the Stories
I have been working with a middle school elective class most often on this. While we've been happy with the students' engagement and effort, stories submitted by middle schoolers are rarely ready to go straight to the younger students. Here's what I do to edit them and prepare the files for the younger students.
|I share the stories with the younger |
students on a Google Site.
- I open the Drive folder from Classroom and I make a copy of all the completed files. I do this so the teacher can grade the students' stories exactly as they were submitted.
- I then drag those copies into a new folder and share that so everyone in our school can view it if they have the link.
- I read each story carefully and make corrections to spelling, grammar and punctuation. I change some words for young readers if necessary.
- I change the name of the story so it matches what the writers put on the title page and I also include the nicknames of the students it is written to. For example, a story might be The Day at the Park for Anna and Chloe.
- Last of all, I create a Google Site for the project and I add a link from that site to each story. I usually use pictures I've taken to decorate it too, so it's inviting to the younger students. I link to that page from the website the students see when they sign into Chromebooks.
- Last of all, I tell the elementary teacher that the stories are ready.
Step 6: Students Read Their Stories and Respond
As anyone would expect, it's an exciting time in the classroom when the students read their stories. There's no doubt my goal of hooking them with stories written for and about them has been accomplished. They read their stories as well as stories for their classmates.
At this point there are many other options to continue the project. One teacher had her class write handwritten thank-you notes back to the middle school students. Another teacher wanted to have the classes meet up through a Google Hangout. Even though the schools are only about eight miles apart and some of the students even knew each other, both classes absolutely loved it.
That teacher also had her students (with their hearty agreement) write stories back to the middle schoolers. We gave a quick paper/pencil survey to the older students. The elementary teacher invited me to join them during their writing hour each day for a week. I taught them some basics of using Google Slides and they had a wonderful time making their stories.
I also have a follow-up reflection survey I like to give the older students. It encourages them to consider their interests in writing stories. Very importantly, it also asks them if the project has helped them think of their own gifts and challenges in life. I'm still perfecting this stage of the project, but I believe the reflection is essential to solidify the most beneficial lessons.
So that's my dream project. I look forward to developing it more each time we do it. I'll be glad to hear what you'd add to it or what you like best.