Saturday, March 16, 2019

Boomwriter for Engaging Collaborative Writing

Boomwriter is not new, but I hadn't used it with a class until recently. I am presenting a session about collaborative storytelling at the MACUL conference this week, so I asked our middle school Creative Writing teacher if she'd be willing to let me run the activity in her class. After I explained what it is, she was excited to try it.

For those unfamiliar with it, Boomwriter is more or less a game where students write stories one chapter at a time. Everyone writes, then everyone votes on the submissions. The winning submission becomes the official next chapter. The process continues until the story is done.

Overall Thoughts

If this sounds at all interesting, definitely try it out. The students really enjoyed the activity. Due to a number of circumstances, the teacher and I had to rush much of the activity. I'm not thrilled with the quality of the writing that came out of it, but I am looking forward to trying it again. So are the students!

What We Did

Our class had 27 students in it, mostly seventh graders. I divided them randomly into groups of 5 or 6 students. The site allows students to dress up their "Boomer" avatar using Boomer Bucks. More Bucks are earned through writing and winning the votes. I wasn't sure how seventh graders would take to this, but our group was definitely into this feature.

With five groups, that means we had five stories. I provided a single sentence as a story starter. Boomwriter has several initial chapters to choose from and, judging by the ones I saw, they expect the first chapter to provide a lot of detail. I didn't want to give them a long passage to read, so my first "chapter" was just one sentence. For example, one of them was The main character is trapped in a video game. I wanted the students' imagination to drive the direction as much as possible.

I set the length of our stories to five chapters, so that meant we had four rounds of writing and voting. The teacher and I were very impressed with how the students were engaged by the activity. Almost all the chapters they submitted were fairly short, but the teacher provided some feedback on the second round of writing and I saw an improvement.

We had many snow days this semester, so we have been pressed for time in all classes. For this activity we really rushed a few rounds. In a couple class periods we just rapidly went through as many rounds as possible (usually two writings and a vote). This amounted to a lot of frantic clicking on my part as I approved chapters, called for some revisions and moved stories along to the voting stage.

When the stories were almost done, we gave the class a survey about the experience. When asked how they liked Boomwriter for collaborative stories, 68% gave it five stars and 20% gave it four stars. Some were disappointed when we didn't immediately start a second story!

Before we did the activity, I wondered if the voting process would discourage students who didn't get picked. Well I did see some sign of this, only 12% said on the survey that it affected them in this way.

Be aware that Boomwriter hopes you and the students' parents will buy the stories as books when they are done. Because of this, I didn't find any way to view the complete stories. Maybe I missed it, but the only solution I came up with to see the whole story was to copy and paste each winning entry into a single document. (While I'm not against them selling a product and I would consider buying one in the future, this time around our stories were not good enough for that.)

What I'd Do Differently Next Time

We plan to use the activity again next marking period. If we do, I will have larger groups and fewer stories. I was hoping to keep the number of submitted chapters down, so students didn't get tired of reading several. Since there was very little sign of that problem in our class, I am going to aim for about 10 students per group in the future, which means three stories.

This should help with what I considered to be the biggest negative on the site. The students' submissions were organized by story, so I was constantly clicking on a story, then clicking through the submissions to approve them. I had to keep going out of one story and into another to find the students who were ready to be moved along. It would have been much easier if there was another view where I could just approve any student regardless of the story he or she worked on. Having fewer stories will at least make this a little less frantic.

And along those lines, I also hope we will have a lot more time to work on each chapter. My plan would be to use the activity along with other things we are doing in the class. After several days of having the chapter open for writing, we would close it then vote. That way I could send back revisions and raise expectations on what they are submitting (in content, spelling, grammar, etc.).

I'm looking forward to our second attempt with Boomwriter and I hope to share some of the stories next time around!

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