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January 19, 2012 Collaborative Writing and Online Publishing By Mary Blow
Grades 6–8, 9–12

    Anchor standard number six of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks us to engage our students in collaboration and online publication of writing. Mrs. Ronica Lawrence and I work in different schools that are 70 miles apart. We enjoyed working together over the summer, so we decided engage our students in an invasive species collaborative research and writing project. Read more to learn what resources we used and how we managed over 150 students in this first-time endeavor.

    We used Web 2.0 tools that are free for educators. None of them require student email addresses to create student accounts. They also provide options for locking down the sites so only those who are registered have access, thereby providing a secure online learning experience. Be sure to send home a parent letter whenever your students go online. My letter explains the project, informs the parents that their child will be working online, and provides the URL, student user name, and password. Even though I monitor student activity, I encourage parents to also monitor their child’s progress anytime they are online. It is a teachable moment for everyone.

    Grouping Students

    Before the project started, Roni and I spent a couple hours on the phone discussing our student outcomes based on the CCSS, the resources required, and the student grouping. We decided to use mixed-ability, heterogeneous grouping. We grouped high and average and low and average students together. Because PBworks, the platform we were using (see below), only allows one student to edit at a time, we grouped Roni’s 1st period with my 2nd period and her 2nd period with my 3rd period. Roni teaches two sections of 6th grade science. I teach five sections of 6th grade English. Since this was our first cross-district collaborative experience, we chose to limit the cross-district grouping to these two sections rather than spreading her 35 students throughout all five sections that I teach. My remaining students were grouped with English sections in my own school. Students were placed in groups of four.


    The picture to the right depicts group members videoconferencing. Our 6th graders videoconferenced twice using Skype, free videoconferencing software. Once Skype is installed on a computer, it's like picking up a phone and dialing. The first meeting was scheduled to allow the students to meet each other and decide on the invasive species their group wanted to research. The second time, they divided research topics into subtopics. After that, all communication was online. I would have liked one more videoconference for an end-of-project debriefing, but the holiday schedules made it too difficult.

    Students need certain skills to successfully communicate in a videoconference. Cover the following points before the first videoconference:

    • Greetings: say hello or good morning.
    • Raise your hand when introducing yourself to clarify who is talking.
    • Speak clearly and loudly enough for your friends to understand you.
    • Look into the camera to speak to your friends. We compare this to eye contact.
    • Listen for a group member to finish speaking before you talk.
    • Come prepared with a list of topics or questions to discuss and a pencil.
    • Sign off: say good-bye; don’t just hang up or walk away.

    Also consider the following videoconferencing classroom management tips:

    • If students videoconference in pairs, set up a computer workstation for videoconferencing, so that the rest of the students can continue working. 
    • Plan ahead so students who are not videoconferencing are able to continue working. Our students use the invasive species research checklist, which I wrote on the board in case students forgot their list. Allow students who are not videoconferencing to access computers and continue researching.

    Managing Collaborative Research

    We used a research checklist consisting of subtopics required for each invasive species: scientific names, native habitat, invasive history, ecological impact, etc. The checklist was a record of who was researching which subtopic. It also allowed students to work ahead. Before we started, the students listed their names on top of the paper in alphabetical order by last name. They numbered their names one through four. Then they numbered the items on the checklist one through four, repeating the number pattern until all items on the list were labeled with a one, two, three, or four. The students with number one researched the topics labeled one. Number two students researched all subtopics labeled number two and so forth. Each student had two subtopics to research. Ultimately, it was a good lesson for identifying supporting details for a topic.

    Diigo for education allows teachers to set up social bookmarking accounts for students without requiring email accounts to register. I did not use this social bookmarking tool this year, but I will not do another research project without it. Students did not have access to the same computers every day. They also needed access to their bookmarks when they wanted to work from home. Even though we tracked our resources in a bibliography handout, some URLs are extremely long.  One error meant that they would not get back to the Web page. Diigo would have been a precious timesaver when hyperlinking images or bibliographical information.

    Collaborative Writing & Publishing

    PBworks is a free Web 2.0 tool for collaborative writing and online publishing. It is a WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) Web publishing tool. The tool bars are similar to Microsoft Word, so students became proficient quickly. After creating a PBworks space, I created one Web page for each invasive species. For example, there was one page for Burmese python and another for kudzu. Four students were assigned to create one page. Because students work at different paces, I created a PBworks video tutorials library to guide them as they progressed through each step of the publishing process.

    Only one student can edit a Web page at a time; therefore, we had students type their informational articles into Microsoft Word. When the rough draft was completed, the students copied and pasted their text onto the PBworks page. Once the rough drafts were posted, students began collaborating online. When in published view, the students could post revision and editing suggestions in the comment boxes beneath the Web page, much as they would with a blog. Finally, students combed through the Web page editing and formatting. During this process, students worked in pairs to proofread before publishing. Below are some PBworks Classroom Management Tips:

    • You only get the option to print student user names and passwords once. Keep a record handy as students sometimes forget. I print them on mailing labels and stick them in their planners.
    • Create a Web page of the topics and group members. It was a handy reference whenever I wanted to monitor a particular student’s progress.
    • “Steal the lock” is a term PBworks uses to let editors know that someone is editing the Web page. If you steal the lock while someone is editing, it will delete the author’s information.
    • Make sure editors sign off when they are done. They may post a comment below the Web page to let their partners know it is safe. Hint: If you are waiting for your partner to finish, the steal the lock status will not change unless you refresh the Web page.
    • Create folders for each topic. When you have 150 students, it is important that they upload images and other materials into a folder, so they can locate it later. I gave the folders the same name as the Web page.
    • Preteach communication netiquette. This is a highly important skill that will travel with them throughout life. We published a student contract or agreement on a separate PBworks page. The first task was to learn how to navigate the Web page, read the contract, and sign it by commenting underneath. This was a requirement before they could access their online materials. 
    • Preview the rough drafts, create a revising & editing checklist of the most common errors, and create a checklist for peer review.
    • Establish criteria for how many peer reviews students must complete before they are done. For example, my students had to provide feedback to all members in their own group and to two other members in one other group.

    Access the Scholastic article “Web Tools for Student Publishing: Tools for Collaborating” for a list of additional Web tools that support student collaboration and online publishing. What are your favorite Web 2.0 tools? What tips do you have for collaborative writing and online publishing?


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