Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sparta Students Speak Out

Our students have been involved with Teaching Matters, a non-profit group based out of New York City, for about three months now. Teaching Matters, among the many services they provide for a fee to a district, hosts a free website called Writing the City, where middle school writing can be showcased. We have about seven active pages, with several more pending submission of student work. It is password protected, and teachers have the right to restrict whether or not a story is made public, or kept private so only space members can see it. They also have the opportunity to make it a feature, which then opens it up to be placed on the front page of Writing the City.

Mainly language arts teachers in our middle school have been using it for various genres, but recently one of our 8th grade science teachers did some individual research on federal regulation of roller coasters at amusement parks and found some interesting data. Once she shared this with her students, the idea to write their Senators and appeal to them to change the way the government regulates the rides was hatched. Mrs. Ciolino then approached me about whether or not Writing the City would be an appropriate venue. Any chance I get to show off student work, or rather have the students put themselves out there for a wider audience, I immediately take. Check out the public letters here.

In my initial presentation to the students, I pose a simple question to them: how many people do you expect to read the stories or essays you write for class? The standard answer is between 2 and 4 (teacher, student, peer-reviewer, and maybe parents). I then ask them if they knew their story or essay was going to be read by 20, 30, 40, or in one case 1600 people, would they do anything different when they were engaged in the writing process? Overwhelmingly they agree that they would. Audience, magnified like that, appeals to the sense of community and identity that middle school and high school children have; their "story" becomes a part of who they are in the society of school. The power of those numbers has a legitimate affect on student performance; I don't have the academics to prove that yet, but it is something I am seeing through this experience.

The hands-down best part of this has been on days when I am in classes showing them how to post their first story and they start seeing their work appear online. They go nuts, but then things quiet down as more stories are posted, until the room is nearly silent. They are reading each other, like they never would have before.

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