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Improving reading skills in middle school using a popular Web site prompts effective feedback
Susan Billings is a language arts teacher in an urban district that has experienced several years of budget cutbacks. Lean resources limit her choices when it comes to ordering class sets of books for her eighth-graders. For a reading assignment tied to a social studies unit on the Revolutionary War, she stayed with a classic, Johnny Tremain, since many of her students read below grade level.
Billings began hearing complaints as students started the book. They felt Johnny Tremain was boring and old-fashioned. Billings realized another problem was a lack of comprehension: students were struggling with new vocabulary and period dialogue.
Billings decided to structure reading and writing activities to help students acquire new strategies for tackling and understanding challenging text.
Billings surveyed her students about what they like to read outside class. Many students reported that they like to read and write online, using one of several fan sites where they post their work and receive feedback on their writing. Rather than discounting this information as unrelated to learning, Billings decided to embed it into her teaching.
Billings decided to use the students' popular writing site as a class writing forum. FanFiction.net is a site where young writers write in the style of certain writers, or use existing stories as catalysts for their own creative writing. The site requires users to be at least 13 years old, and all Billings's students met this requirement.
The site already had an active section devoted to Johnny Tremain where writers had posted entries and reviewers responded with feedback. Billings noticed that several entries began with writers saying they hated the book at first. They grew more interested as they became better acquainted with the title character. Most entries were creative extensions of the story, with alternate endings, or new adventures for the character. Billings knew students would need to be familiar with the text to create new plot twists or character studies.
Billings reserved the computer lab for two class periods each week to provide enough time for students to complete the online assignment. The first day, the school librarian explained how fanfiction.net works, showed students how to create their own log-ins, and reviewed the school policy for appropriate Internet use.
Billings then explained that students would post their own writing to the Johnny Tremain section of the site. She told them they were expected to use vocabulary they had encountered in the text. Specifically, she asked them to write a short passage that demonstrated their understanding of a term, while also elaborating on a scene from the chapter they were reading. For example, they could create new dialogue, add more description, or even write an alternative ending. Also, she told them to expect other fans of Johnny Tremain to read and write reviews of their writing.
On the next day in the lab, students learned to use the comment feature to provide feedback about their classmates' entries. Billings modeled how to create a comment to a fanfiction.net entry. Throughout the three-week unit, students alternated between writing new entries and making comments about their peers' and others' writing.
Billings reminded them that they could also access the Web site from computers at home or in the library. The more occasions students have to encounter new words in context, the better their chance of mastering the vocabulary.
Billings wanted to provide students with structured feedback to improve their literacy skills.
Billings modeled how to give critical feedback. She pointed out that effective criticism can compliment the writer: "I like this paragraph because you use the word apprentice, then explain how an apprentice learns a trade by working with an expert. Your word choice helps me understand this term." Criticism can also point out problems and suggest improvements.
Students warmed up to this assignment rapidly. Students were more successful in completing their reading assignments. They wanted to be ready to write their fanfiction.net entries. The structured feedback assignment helped students learn to read each others' work more critically. Feedback also helped students improve their own writing.