UAS looks to computers to improve teaching of writing

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2004

In a 21st century classroom, it helps to teach with 21st century tools, such as a "blog."

Now Juneau is one of the initial sites of a project to do that by teaching teachers how to use computers to improve student writing.

Classroom Internet Web sites and computer discussion groups - blogs - allow students to communicate to each other and a wider audience, teachers say. It can make students more serious about their writing.

The federally funded National Writing Project selected as one of five pilot sites the Alaska State Writing Consortium at the University of Alaska Southeast's Center for Teacher Education. UAS will receive $60,000 a year for two years.

Other sites are in California, Michigan, West Virginia and New York City.

The Alaska writing consortium already operates a summer institute for teachers. What's learned in the two-year pilot could be added to that program and to similar programs nationwide.

The National Writing Project, funded at about $20.3 million next fiscal year, serves more than 100,000 teachers a year at 185 universities, the organization said.

The pilot will deal with how teachers of writing can use computers to communicate with each other about teaching methods, and how they can use computers in the classroom.

"In Alaska almost everything we do is going to figure out how to use technology to effectively bridge distances," said Tom McKenna, a UAS assistant professor of education who coordinates the Alaska State Writing Consortium.

For example, the consortium will give teachers small grants in the spring to use computers to communicate with other teachers and collaboratively assess student writing, he said.

U.S. senators who had been active in getting funds to wire schools for computers asked the National Writing Project to work on the professional development of teachers, said Mary Ann Smith, director of governmental relations and public affairs at the project, based in Berkeley, Calif.

"The worry was lots of times teachers didn't know how to take advantage of the Internet for real learning for kids," she said.

A teacher in Nebraska told Smith that her students would write an essay only at the last minute. But they'll stay up all night if the assignment is a digital story that combines writing, art and music.

Some teachers use computer discussion boards as forums for students to comment on books or each other's papers. In some places, parents are invited to join in.

"The community is writing about this book the students are reading in class," Smith said.

Sue Hardin, a teacher of English, Spanish and debate at Petersburg High School, uses blogging in her English classes to get students to share ideas about their papers.

It's convenient because students can communicate by computer any time of day and from home. And their comments are more thought-out and focused than they would be in a classroom discussion, she said.

Computers are useful also because so many students in Southeast Alaska are gone from school for several days at a time to play sports, Hardin said.

"If we can use technology to have them send us their work and respond to it online, it's so much more effective than to say, 'Have this paper finished when you get back from the trip,' " she said.

Classrooms also can use computers to communicate and collaborate with other classrooms in their district or elsewhere, McKenna said.

At UAS on Monday and Tuesday, several teachers and one retired teacher met as key consultants to the pilot project. They talked about teachers creating digital portfolios of their writing.

"Portfolios allow them to show themselves as writers to students and colleagues, and model their own process as writers to (kindergarten) to (grade) 12 students," McKenna said.

The idea of the consortium is to make teachers writers so they better understand the process of writing, Hardin said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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