“Maryanne walked into the room and looked around. She was surprised that no one noticed her.” Steve Johnson (pictured here) read the sentences that were projected on the screen and turned to the 6th-grade class. “Pretty boring, isn’t it?” Everyone in the class nodded their agreement. “I wouldn’t want to keep reading, would you?”
A chorus of voices concurred with his analysis. “Can you help me make it better?” he asked. “Let’s see if we can jazz it up.”
With that introduction, Steve Johnson, technology facilitator at Washington Street School in Rockingham, NC, hooked his students into the fun process of digital revision. I was there observing him pilot the technology mini-lessons he wrote, which will be incorporated into the next edition of Teaching the Story. Five hours later, 75 students had learned about a wiki, practiced word-processing skills, discovered the nuances associated with word choice, worked collaboratively, and started on their way to becoming better writers—and had fun every minute.
First, Johnson projected a page from Wikipedia on the screen and discussed how these were Internet sites which could be edited by anyone. Opening the Wiki page, he projected the boring sentence about Maryanne onto the screen and invited students to edit it. With sometimes-comic attempts to outdo one another, students tried out different action verbs while Mr. Johnson egged them on. (“Did she stroll? Saunter? Creep? Smash?) As the students played with replacing vague pronouns and nouns, (the room, no one) with specific nouns (Her bedroom? Her parent’s bedroom? Who didn’t notice her? Her younger twin brothers? Her parents?) and by asking, “Why didn’t anyone notice her?” Johnson prompted the class to picture what Maryanne was doing and where she was doing it. While he demonstrated how to line through a word and add a new word in red, he engaged students in a running dialogue about how word changes take stories in different directions.
The students got the picture and were ready to play with sentences themselves. Johnson directed the class to go to the Washington Street Wiki and gave them their password for access purposes. On separate pages, he had already written six boring sentences. Working in small groups, students were each assigned a sentence to revise. As Johnson and I walked around the room, we encouraged the students to “show, not tell” through vivid verbs, specific nouns, and figurative language. Asking them, “Can you see it? Hear it? Feel it? Touch it?” (some of Nancy Atwell’s favorite questions) helped them become more concrete and specific with their descriptions
Before the end of the 70 minute period, each group had the opportunity to read their revised sentences to the class. By the end of the day, three groups of students had worked in Johnson’s computer lab. The final group was able to view how other classes had revised the same sentences, further illustrating that there wasn’t one “right” answer. When you visit the site, click on “Sidebar” and then on one of the teacher’s names, such as “McInnis-Red Pencil.” You’ll see how these engaged 6th graders revised, played with words and red fonts, and came up with original ideas. As Johnson said, “One good sentence is a story waiting to happen.”
So, where was Miss Maryanne and who didn’t notice her? Check out this class’s revision:
went stomped into the room The Oval Office. She looked around and was surprised that the Secret Service didn't notice her. A thick, green ooze wound its way out the open office window.
Red Font. The revision wave of the future.