Sunday, 11 January 2015

GMAIL: Home Writing Program - What I've Learnt After 2 Years

This year I started the program from the beginning of the school year. I believe this allowed me to help build the relationships with my students from day one. Overall, the students have been very responsive. It really has allowed a few of my students to blossom as writers. These students in particular really think about the feedback they are given and I can clearly see it being applied in the following email. This just emphasises the need for timely and specific feedback for students.

Many of the same writing areas of growth appeared and have allowed me to have a more targeted approach from the beginning of the year. The biggest one will always be quantity and quality writing. We have started our dialogue about how to create paragraphs that really give your readers a ‘juicy hamburger’ paragraph (detailed paragraph) instead of a ‘grilled cheese’ paragraph (a small paragraph with not much in it).

One student this year has asked to write a weekly letter by hand to improve her cursive handwriting. I have no problem with this and provided her with resources for handwriting as well. However, she still wanted me to email my response back so she could have one on Monday morning in her inbox like the rest of the students.

It’s important for my students to know the conversation isn’t just one way either. I always allow my students to ask me questions about whatever they want, and yes that sometimes means questions about who I am and my life. As long as they are appropriate, I have no problem answering them as I think it’s important for students to see you as a person just as they are. So far I’ve never had anything come my way I wouldn’t answer. Perhaps I’m just lucky to have such respectful students. I’ve always felt being honest with my students is essential if I expect the same from them so sharing about my holidays or relating to them with stories from my own life growing up or whatever the case may be is something I think is important for my students to see.

There was one weekend when I was away at a conference for a few days and into the weekend where I did not send individual responses to students. Instead, I sent a general email to the whole class. The students were understanding of it and I responded to many of the common questions asked throughout all of the emails that week. But the following week I was back to the individual emails again.

It is a time-consuming project on my end but I truly believe the value of it outweighs that. One thing I have done to help me combat spending so much time on email writing every weekend is to create a canned message template for each week. In doing so, each student hears about maybe something I did on the weekend, something that might be coming up to look forward to in class or another topic that pertains to all students. Then, I will respond individually to the content of their emails and provide feedback where necessary.  It still means sending an email to every student but I’m not rewriting every single word in every email.

For one of my beginner ESL students, this has been a really positive experience this year. He always sends me his email in English (his native language is Japanese) because he wants to improve his English and he has! He went from a one or two sentence email to sometimes up to two paragraphs now. The other really interesting part is how he uses images and videos in his emails to help convey his messages to me. Without the use of technology, we would not have this ability.

I had a student who was very disruptive during class at the beginning of the year. We tried different strategies in class to help him be successful in whole class settings but I always found he was more successful when he was able to use the computer to communicate his thoughts. In his emails, he would always express how he didn’t want to call out but couldn’t help himself and how much he enjoyed the class. His emails provided me more insight into the student I saw in class. The dialogue created through this digital medium allowed us to reflect on what was happening in class and what we could do together to make the classroom environment work for him. I don’t believe these conversations wouldn’t have happened in class to the same effect as they have.

On holidays and summers, I still get emails from my students - not all, but some. It always surprises me who emails me too. Often it is some of the students who really didn’t like writing when they came to me. It makes me confident that the plan worked. It makes me confident that students want to have an audience for writing, that building relationships with students is important and that sometimes writing isn’t just about writing.

Many students come and go in an internationally community and I still hear from some of them every now and again. I heard from ½ of the students who moved to another country at the start of this school year and left our school community. Sometimes students need that sense of comfort from their old life as they start a new one. I’ve always said to all my students, if you write me an email, I will respond. Sometimes that sense of security, as little as an email is, is what a child needs most.

The greatest success of these writing program is that is has had impacts much farther and more meaningful than just my students’ writing. It really is impacting who they are as a person as they grow. Each week I have the pleasure of reading about sleepovers, friends moving away, disagreements on the playground, celebrations at home, parents returning from business trips and more. Each week they open up their little lives to me with trust and respect and I do my best to do the same. It has become more than writing - it is a dialogue to build the foundation of relationships, skills and attitudes that go beyond what is reported on any report card.  I can only hope that I can continue to be that source of support both inside and outside of the classroom this year.

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