So today I took one of my most distracting classes into the library for writing. They're working on their final draft of their choice of one of the essays we've written in this unit. It's their choice of a review or a personal story. I gave each back with suggestions for improvement and and grades for two of the standards areas on the report card: "Writing - Conventions and Grammar" and "Writing - Style, Organization, and Content". I didn't mark up their papers pointing out mistakes. Each student received between three and five sentences of feedback consisting of a positive comment and areas I'd like see work differently.
Writing in class, with this group in particular, has always been a challenge. They're distracted, talking, and frequently off task. The normal free write time that I give my classes at the beginning of the period, which can last up to 15 minutes with other classes, usually has to get cut off at 10 with this group. Even the fact that working on their essays in class will prevent future homework doesn't often get them quietly working away in class. The best days from a writing perspective is when someone in the class gets into major trouble, gets sent out of class, and everyone else is too frightened to talk. I can't say how good their writing is on these days, but at least they're writing.
However, we're in the library today, and after settling in it's dead quiet. I hear the clicking of keyboards, I've had a couple of questions, and but otherwise nothing but silence and progress. Perhaps most amusing is the set up in the room which I would never permit in the classroom. Each row of computers consists of all boys or all girls with several of the loudest most off task students sitting right next to each other. But their performance is flawless. I see a few conversations crop up about spelling, sentence structure, and I couldn't be happier.
The question I'm forced to ask is if this is a product of the computer, assignment, library space, or some other unknown factor. The class is down about 6 students today, several of the usual distracters are absent. But enough are here that Math was it's usual struggle to stay on task. The absences don't seem to be the cause.
I remember back to my teacher education time I spent in a high school "Digitools" classroom in a not so glorious part of Tacoma High School. There the same silenced hush came over the students when they were working at the computer. These were students who were more talkative and generally off task than my group of 6th grade Bainbridge Islanders. But when the computers were the task at hand, their focus was much better and they were working on the assigned work, even when the assigned work was painfully boring.
Now I know that there are huge amounts of unnecessary computer education. I saw students being trained to write a memo. A memo doesn't really exist any more; it's called a global email. The work that these students are doing on the computer is really no more interesting than if the work was hand written in class. It's no more relevant or less relevant than every book report they've been required to write. It's just being done on a computer.
As an interesting comparison, I can't write. I like to think that the last good writing I did was back in high school scratching down poetry in a spiral notebook. I probably did some decent writing in college on an exam or two, though most of my professors never rewarded me with fantastic grades because of it. If I have a creative idea I can talk about it or I can type. Boy, oh, boy, can I type.
My current estimation put me at about 140 words per minute. I can probably think just a hair faster than that so my typing can generally keep up with my thinking. The fact that the space bar on my work computer has been a little touchy has slowed me down substantially and caused significant frustration. But my creative medium is typing. I've basically been typing as long as I've been writing. For most of my students, this is even more true. My daughter could type her name before she could write it. Typing it only required finding five keys on a keyboard. Writing it requires hundreds of muscle control motions.
Could it be that the keyboard is the natural form in which these students can write, create, and interact? Is this engagement just a novelty of being out of the classroom or could I achieve it in the classroom if I could provide a 1 to 1 ratio of computers to students? Or is this just a random alteration in morale that will fade tomorrow once they're further along on their final draft?
Report from 1 day later...
Things were not the same the next day. However, engagement was still much higher than sitting writing in the classroom ever was with this group. I guess technology can't solve all our problems. But it can make a significant difference.