Small computers like the Alphasmart are portable, inexpensive word processors that students can use to write, edit, and save documents. These are extremely lightweight and portable devices. Their size and portability make them useful for field work, such as writing observations about a site. They can also be easily shared in the classroom, making them useful for group writing or peer editing activities to support the writing process.
Middle school students polish skills for writing, reflection, and collaboration
Daphne Wyatt teaches sixth grade in a large, suburban middle school. Her school is struggling with high staff turnover. Students move in and out of the neighborhood, and change is a constant for the school and community.
Wyatt had never taught sixth grade in a middle school before. The district just completed the transition to a middle school model. Sixth-graders are learning what it's like to encounter new peers, move from class to class, and shift from teacher to teacher for each subject.
One strategy Wyatt adopted right away was to create "home base" groups for each of her classes. Her new colleagues recommended this strategy as a method for developing interpersonal and small-group skills. This type of group provides additional support for new students, and helps all students foster and develop relationships.
After a few weeks in a new writing unit, Wyatt decided to incorporate use of the computers. Students were familiar with word processing, but there weren't enough computers to get much writing done in one class period of 45 minutes. However, the school recently purchased 10 "small word processors" for writing. These machines are essentially small computersless robust than a full-sized laptop but much less expensive, and perfect for language arts.
Wyatt wanted to build self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-monitoring into her unit. Access to the computers gave her an idea for how to improve writing, technology use, and team skills. First, she modeled the process of reflecting out loud. She quickly formed an ad hoc group, with herself as a member, and had the other students form a larger circle around her small group. She began to write. As she wrote, she read her work out loud: "I think this group is..." Then she turned to one member and asked, "How would you describe this group?" The student answered, "new." Wyatt typed, and read, "new." She went on. "We are a group because we are ... OK, why did we form a group?" Another student responded with, "To show us what to do with the new computers?" Wyatt continued, typing as she read. Then after a few more sentences, she passed the computer to the next member of her team and asked her to continue the process of thinking aloud.
Next, each group received one of the small word processors. They were asked to engage in the same process, reflecting on their work, abilities, difficulties, needs, ideas, successes, and frustrations. She encouraged them to be creative, as long as they were serious, thoughtful, and honest.
The students examined their work, considered what they had accomplished, and assessed how they had worked as a team. They shared the computers, passing them off to the next writer after a few sentences had been completed.
Wyatt observed the student engagement and the focus on writing that the technology fostered. Each group had only one computer. While she assumed the students would benefit from a one-to-one ratio, she noticed that group skills improved when dealing with real situations such as sharing limited resources. Sixth-graders need plenty of practice negotiating, compromising, and listening. Cooperative grouping is an effective strategy for strengthening the interpersonal and metacognitive skill of reflecting on one's membership in a groupothe process of observing oneselfofor young students moving into an expanding learning community.
The files were saved on each computer, and each team printed copies. They developed rubrics for their teams on effective learning in groups, and identified behaviors that supported learning as a team. The experience created a stronger sense of being a group member, and this contributed to the groups' overall success as a learning community.