Exchanging Lives: Middle School Writers On-line
Scott Christian (1997)
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English
Pp. x + 147
ISBN 0-8141-1643-4 (paper)
US $15.95 (members, $11.95)
In the summer of 1992 rural teachers from six states were invited to a workshop at the Bread Loaf School of English near Middlebury, Vermont. Their purpose was to establish an on-line rural teachers' network where isolated teachers could share ideas and resources. Out of this workshop, the Anne Frank Conference was born, which connected six middle school English classrooms from around the United States, all reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Through telecommunication, rural classrooms in Alaska, Vermont, Mississippi, and New Mexico were able to exchange more than just ideas, they exchanged lives.
Exchanging Lives is both a piece of qualitative research and a reflective essay by a classroom teacher. The main purpose of his research was to determine whether or not the writing that came out of the conference was different from that which he had previously seen in his classroom. Scott Christian is an insightful teacher who demonstrates the importance of teacher-conducted research. In analyzing the transcripts from three years of the Anne Frank Conference, Christian brings insightful interpretation of his students' writing. Only he as the primary teacher can compare the growth of his students as writers before and after the conference. While he focuses on the students, their teachers, and their growth as people and as writers, there is the idea that this type of learning and growth would not be possible without the technology behind it. This is an excellent example of how technology can enrich an educational experience without taking the focus away from the purpose of the class. Christian emphasizes that none of the teachers involved in the conference was particularly knowledgeable about technology before becoming involved in the conference.
Exchanging Lives is divided into an introduction and eight chapters. In the introduction and first chapter, Christian introduces the book with a discussion of the difficulties in motivating students to become actively involved in their writing. It is rare that their writing reflects the enthusiasm which is so prevalent in other aspects of their lives. Often there is little investment on the part of the writer. Scott states that "Teaching literature and writing is about connecting: the exchanging, the examining, and the growing of lives, both on the page and in our classrooms" (p. 10). The most important thing to middle school students is their connection to their peers. In class, students most often are required to write to the teacher about topics that are [-1-] detached from their daily lives. The conference was a means of giving the students a genuine audience. During the conference, the students' level of concern for their writing increased because they had a real purpose. The author also reflects on the importance of integrating technology into the classroom to enhance rather than take away from the focus of the class. The telecommunication used often became transparent to the students, meaning that they were not focused on the technology for its own sake but for the purpose of communicating their thoughts and ideas to others.
The second chapter is an overview of the development of the Anne Frank Conference. The first conference lasted about seven weeks. Each week a different class would post a prompt to which the other classes in the conference would respond. With each prompt from a classroom, students had to interpret the text, then connect their insights to their own lives. It is important to note that the on-line conference was only a part of the sequences that were taking place in each classroom. Individual teachers were teaching their students with their own particular styles. Partaking in the on-line discussion did not force the participating teachers into one model of teaching. Each class had its own approach to the diary of Anne Frank. Because each class had different learning experiences it could share its unique insights into the diary that another class might not have achieved.
In the next four chapters, Christian analyzes the transcripts from the three years of the conference and looks for growth in the writing of his students. In reviewing the data, the author focuses on what effect the writing has on the reader. The students' writings are categorized into five types based upon the effect the writing has on its audience: a) performing writing seems disconnected from the reader; b) reaching writing reaches towards an audience; c) connecting writing connects with the audience; d) striving writing connects to the audience in an experimental, speculative, or thought-provoking manner; and e) talking writing becomes a dialog between writers. He gives rubrics for categorization, but admits that there are not clear-cut boundaries between categories. He supports his arguments with numerous examples of student writing from the conference. Striving writing is the kind of writing that teachers seek, where the students take risks, opening themselves to their audience. It gives a voice to the writer. Striving writing manifested itself more often in the Anne Frank Conference than it did before the conference.
While the categories of performing, reaching, connecting, and striving writing can be seen in a normal class, talking writing is a new form of writing that seems to have developed as a result of the conference, where two writers engage in a dialog. This is different from the writing that occurs in a class when students pass notes. When passing notes, the students know the audience intimately and have no hurdles to overcome. The talking writing of the conference [-2-] is between two people who have never met, who live in very different cultural and regional circumstances. Talking writing is very much like striving writing, where the writers take risks and have a high level of investment in their writing. It is open and sincere. The main difference between striving writing and talking writing is that it is addressed to a particular person as opposed to a group of readers.
The seventh and eighth chapters include discussions about how the conference introduced a level of diversity into the students' lives that would not be possible without the telecommunications technology, and how this new literacy fits into the lives of teachers and students. Students from a mainly white community were able to discuss openly for the first time issues of prejudice with minority students from a racially diverse community as well as with students on an Indian reservation. Other students were able to share ideas that their own class might deride but students in other classes would write back and support their positions. For middle school students, that reaffirmation of their beliefs by their peers is essential to their growth as human beings.
Scott Christian's style of writing is both personal and practical. Although the focus of the book is the students and their growth as writers throughout the Anne Frank Conference, it is also a good example of how technology fits into the classroom. The book does not require any computer expertise to understand it, and elements of the project outlined in this book could be modified to work at almost any level. Teachers of middle school and above will gain valuable insights into teaching writing and integrating technology in an interactive and meaningful setting.
Although this is not specifically an ESL book, there are many applications that can be drawn from Exchanging Lives. A telecommunications audience can give ESL students the impetus to communicate in English. In fact, if students live in a community where English is not used, it may be the only real opportunity they have to use their English to communicate with others.
Krieger Schechter Day School, Baltimore, MD
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