Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Students, Authors and Videoconferencing: Descriptive Writing with Mary Quattlebaum

This week, MAGPI has been wrapping up several projects and programs for the 2008-2009 academic year. Several of these programs revolved around students interacting with authors, so I thought I'd reflect on the different models. (I'm also starting to put together our programs and projects for next year - - so catharsis is always good!). Today, I'm looking at the descriptive writing videoconference with author Mary Quattlebaum.

Children's book author Mary Quattlebaum has been working with MAGPI for three years now, and is truly a pleasure to work with! Over the past three years, we've co-developed two program platforms (one based on haiku poetry that we do in the fall and one based on her book Jackson Jones and the Puddle of Thorns) and offered them twice a year. She graciously donates her time and her publishing companies are always kind enough to donate one copy of her book to each participating class.

Yesterday, we held the Jackson Jones and the Puddle of Thorns videoconference program with five 3rd through 5th classes in Pennsylvania. Students read the short chapter book ahead of time and responded to a prompt (written by Mary) that asked them to write a descriptive paragraph:
In "Jackson Jones and the Puddle of Thorns" (pages 106-107), Jackson describes the garden using many of his senses. How does he seem to feel about it?

In preparation for this videoconference event, students should use their senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch (at least 3 of 5) to write a description of a place special to them. How does being in that place make them feel? Descriptions should be relatively short (about 1 to 3 paragraphs long).

Each school selected one student's work to submit and we posted them on the project website. We then assigned a school to read and reflect on another school's work. The student descriptive pieces are great - - I encourage you to visit the site and take a look! I'm still chuckling about Evan's description of Mickey D's ... and how a bad day at McDonald's is when you get a "prosthetic thumb in your iced coffee." (Bethel Elementary's submission).

During the videoconference, Mary gave a brief presentation on the book making process and then asked each school to read their submission aloud. After skillfully providing thoughtful feedback to the student author (i.e. "I really liked how you used language that...") and asking a few questions of the author about his or her writing process, she invited the school that read the students' piece ahead of time to reflect for the rest of the group. Although students were certainly well prepared, Mary's modeling of the feedback went a tremendous way toward helping students formulate thoughtful critiques and extend their feedback beyond simple statements such as "I really liked your paragraph." Also, Mary's careful attention to detail and kind words provided validation for the student authors -- who bravely read their work in a videoconference environment and answered questions on the spot from a "published author!"

This videoconference event wrapped up with Mary sharing a quick garden craft and answering questions from students at each of the sites. For more about Mary (and for instructions on the sweet potato garden craft she demonstrated), visit her website.

Granted, we've done this program multiple times; however, I really felt like it flowed effortlessly yesterday. Mary was quite the pro 'on-screen' and facilitated interaction between the multiple sites effortlessly. Although any time students get to interact with authors is exciting, I felt this program went particularly well because Mary quickly adapted to the students' needs and continually involved them throughout the 75 minute exchange (a long time to engage elementary school students).

A few notes:

  • Agenda setting was key in making this program work! As students became more aware of the process for sharing and responding to one another's work, they became more at ease with one another, the technology and Mary herself.
  • Planning time was time well spent. These types of author exchanges take more time to set-up: more of my time in terms of coordinating information between the schools; the author's time in terms of reading student work ahead of time and working with me to formulate a more interactive agenda; and the teacher's time in terms of integrating the descriptive writing activity into their classroom and creating time for students to read/respond to another student's work. I would argue, however, that this particular videoconference was more meaningful to students (and me, the author and the teachers!) because of the time invested up front.
  • Time keeping is critical. In a 75 minute videoconference, mixing up instructional strategies is key to keeping students engaged. Equally important is watching the clock -- we ran out of time at the end yesterday and the MCU kicked all of the participants off!
  • Working with individuals who are truly interested and invested in the educational process is WONDERFUL! Mary is such a pro! I can't thank her enough for all of the time she invested into making sure this was a wonderful experience that nurtured burgeoning student writers! While some authors may have perceived this as merely a marketing tool (which, if we're honest, it certainly is), Mary spent time encouraging every student who participated in yesterday's program by providing thoughtful and constructive feedback. This wasn't something that could be done 'on the fly' and required thoughtful preparation.

Although we did get disconnected at the end of the event, Mary was kind enough to write an email to all of the participating teachers that I thought I'd share with you:

Hello Everyone,

I so enjoyed yesterday's video conference. All your students were so well prepared and had much to offer. It was a pleasure to hear and see them on the screen. And many thanks to Heather, who always does a wonderful job of coordinating the series.

I'm sorry, too, that we ran out of time and wanted to make sure I got back to Dunmore with the answer to the final question, which I think was something like this: Did any animals or pets inspire your books?

Answer: Yes! Animals seem to inspire many writers. Do you like to write about your pets? Let's see, for me there's a performing hamster in "Jazz, Pizzazz, and the Silver Threads" inspired by my first childhood hamster, Ginger. "The Magic Squad and the Dog of Great Potential" has a big, goofy dog, Train, based on a childhood dog, Muttsy. I think I mentioned a picture book I'm working on, in which there's a guinea pig, like ours, named Smoochie. And our old dog, Charlie, just inspired an early reader. I also like to write articles and poems about the animals and birds in the natural world. (Which is like Samantha, who shared her writing about her cabin during the

Please do feel free to get in touch with me through my website, if you and your students have other questions. And if you try the sweet-potato craft in your classroom, do let me know if it grows. Sometimes it sprouts leaves and roots, sometimes, alas, it doesn't.

Wishing you a good end to the school year,

Many thanks to Mary and all of the teachers and students who made this program a success!