Working With Low-skilled Writers

I’ve had to introduce writing this week slowly to help ease student anxiety. Literacy class can cause some significant behavior issues for students. I had a student call another by the wrong name which caused a major shouting incident brought on by anxiety. I guided both students in using calming strategies. My main function is as a teacher, so I’ve had some ideas to help students ease back into the routines of school and being productive.

A successful activity I tried this week was with some very low skilled middle school readers and writers. I bought some large foam dice at the dollar store and then put pieces of sentences on stickers on each side of the die. I had the students roll the dice and make sentences with the words and phrases that came up on each roll. Once a sentence was constructed, I had them move the dice around to reorganize the phrases into a slightly different sentence or to form a question. This activity showed me that they understand the parts of sentences and how sentences can be structured in different ways. They even read their sentences with different inflections to indicate when there were changes in meaning. One student was too anxious at first to try the activity, but once he saw the others engaging in it, and once he realized it was a low risk activity, he took his turn and had fun with the sentence dice. Some additional things I plan to do with this activity in the future will be to have students write the sentences they form; to leave out some of the dice and have the students complete the sentences from the parts that were rolled. In the future I can also change the stickers on the dice to indicate story starters, or topic ideas for brainstorming. I’d like to get these non-writers writing paragraphs within the next two weeks.

I’m also working with these students on learning to develop ideas by brainstorming. This is a step they all skip when they have to write. For an activity, I named a category and then had them list at least five ideas related to the category as a brainstorm. Then I’ve been having them write topic sentences to go with their categories. They are getting good at writing topic sentences, and they almost don’t need to ask me after every sentence if they have it right. It feels good to have students completing tasks and working toward completing some writing goals. The biggest thing I’ve had to do this week is help students feel safe enough to participate in the class activities. Because they all have such low skills, they need to feel like no one will make fun of them or be disappointed in their effort (effort that would be considered lacking if they were in a mainstream school).

While my middle schoolers are producing writing, they are far below grade level, so that writing can’t be compared to their same age peers. Will these students ever write at grade level? Doubtful. Will they move forward from where they are right now? Very likely.

Using Edmodo for Peer Collaboration

Edmodo is a great resource for teachers who want to provide a safe, structured, and fun way to incorporate online learning into their classes.  Using Edmodo, a teacher sets up a “class” and is provided a private code that a user must enter in order to access it. When students enter the code to gain access, they set up their profiles and choose an avatar to represent themselves.  They can make and reply to posts, which is similar to how it happens on Facebook; however, the class is private, so no one “random” can just pop in.  The teacher can set up assignments, provide links to videos, websites, articles, word documents, pictures, etc.  The teacher can also set up a library of resources that the students can access.  Online assignments can be “turned in” and graded online.  Edmodo is a good resource for flipping the classroom:  a teacher can link a video for the students to watch at home so that class time can be devoted to problem-solving or projects.  Edmodo is also a good resource for students who miss class:  a teacher can link make-up assignments or provide links for homework; it could also be used when the school is closed for a snow day in order to access learning.  Currently we have a teacher at our school who is using Edmodo as a way to provide an online class to a student who has such significant anxiety that he can’t leave his house.  Over the summer, I created a presentation that uses Edmodo as a way for students to collaborate on a reading assignment, and I will link parts of it in this post.

Cornell University provides some important insight about collaboration and collaborative learning and why it is so important:

“Collaborative learning can occur peer-to-peer or in larger groups. Peer learning, or peer instruction, is a type of collaborative learning that involves students working in pairs or small groups to discuss concepts, or find solutions to problems. This often occurs in a class session after students are introduced to course material through readings or videos before class, and/or through instructor lectures. Similar to the idea that two or three heads are better than one, many instructors have found that through peer instruction, students teach each other by addressing misunderstandings and clarifying misconceptions.”

Research shows that educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning. The benefits of collaborative learning include:

  • Development of higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills.
  • Promotion of student-teacher interaction.
  • Increase in student retention, self-esteem, and responsibility.
  • Exposure to and an increase in understanding of diverse perspectives.
  • Preparation for real life social and employment situations.

Here is a lesson I developed that involves students collaborating on a class project (I have classes of 5 or 6, but a larger class could be divided up into small groups for this project): Collaborative Approach Activity Lesson Plan

The following is from “Using Collaborative Strategic Reading” by Janette K. Klingner and Sharon Vaughn:

  • “Once students have developed proficiency applying comprehension strategies through teacher-led activities, they are ready to learn roles they will perform while using Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR) in their peer-led cooperative learning groups.
  • Student roles are an important aspect of CSR because cooperative learning seems to work best when all group members have been assigned a meaningful task.
  • Some roles you can use: leader, announcer, time keeper, summarizer, visualizer, encourager, and reporter
  • The teacher becomes an active listener (or participant online) while helping with any questions or issues that come up for students; the students learn from each other
  • CSR can be used in general education classrooms where students with special needs are included for instruction (Klingner et al., in press) as well as in special education settings (Klingner & Vaughn, 1996).

downloadIn case you aren’t familiar with Edmodo, here is a handout I created that explains some of the main features of Edmodo: Edmodo Handout.

To use Edmodo for a reading collaboration activity you need:

  • personal tablets or laptops with internet connectivity or a computer with internet connectivity.
  • The Edmodo app installed on each personal tablet or access to the website.
  • A personal Edmodo account (email is not needed for students to set up accounts).

The activity could be something like this:

  1. Read for a few minutes, then answer a comprehension question on the site (the reading and questions are linked on the site for the students to access).
  2. The next step would be to continue reading for several more minutes and respond to at least 2 other people in the class via posts and replies. 
  3. Then, the group would finish the story and post their answers to the end questions. 
  4. The final step is to respond to at least 3 other learners in the class and answer any questions posed.  Then complete an assignment that is based on the reading.  The whole activity could probably take about 50-60 minutes, depending on your readers.  Here is an example of how you could set up your group collaboration reading (I used the story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” always a favorite): Ransom of Red Chief Story and Questions

Blogging with Students

I recently had my two classes of high school students set up blogs through My purpose is to use our current unit topic to have them present their thoughts and opinions. First, having students sign up using email was only straightforward for those who regularly use email. Otherwise, students forgot passwords or had trouble creating email accounts. I can deal with that by having students write down their passwords and login information in their notebooks. If our school district provided students with school email, some of the issues with lost password or login information could be avoided. Once all accounts were set up, showing students how to personalize their blog was easy and they caught on quickly.
I provide students with a quick in class reading so they can get some information, then they spend the rest of the class typing a blog post in response to specific questions I write based on the reading they did in class. I follow each of the student’s blogs so I can easily comment to them to open up conversations and I can help them improve writing skills to work on IEP goals. I can also assess their understanding of the topic we read in class. The biggest thing I am pushing with my students through blogging is teaching them to back up their opinions with facts and details. I constantly repeat to them that their opinions are stronger when they can give clear and concrete reasons to support them. As we work through non-fiction topics connected with their science and history classes students will form opinions, use concrete evidence to support their opinions, and build skills necessary to be more active and social citizens.