Ken Haynes, former public school teacher and current specialist in the emerging field of digital education, participated in a NISCE professional conversation held at Boston Green Academy. This group had a round-table discussion exploring the concept of ‘student-centered education,’ and Ken shared his varied experiences in creating effective learning environments in a variety of settings. He offered the following thoughts in response to questions drawn from that conversation.
You were a teacher in a number of schools prior to developing BoomWriter. What inspired you to go in this new direction?
Let me begin by saying I absolutely loved teaching. But as I reflect on my own needs as a classroom and special-education teacher, as well as an after-school and academic summer camp director, it was easy to see how BoomWriter could be applied in all of these settings and beyond. The decision became clear because I wanted to get as many teachers and students as possible using and benefiting from BoomWriter.
I believe in BoomWriter’s potential to be a successful, positive and high-impact digital learning tool.
What’s been the reaction to BoomWriter?
As we begin to introduce BoomWriter to more and more teachers and subsequently more and more children, it has became abundantly clear that we are onto something special. They love it!
How does BoomWriter work?
In a nutshell, students go online and read the first part of a story, something we call a “story start” (see an example). They then write what they believe should happen next in the story. Teachers then review and provide feedback and then the submissions go into an anonymous voting phase. Students read the work of some of their peers and then vote for the piece they think makes the best next part of the story. The piece receiving the most votes becomes the next chapter, and the process continues until a collaboratively written story is completed.
We aren’t just talking about spelling and grammar here—how does writing become a pathway to better learning? How does your approach engage students in their own learning?
Think about all of the things you are asking students to do. They are reading and having to comprehend in order to formulate what they believe should happen next in the story.
To do this they must factor in all of the elements of the story start and then apply them to their own work. This translates to some rather complex processing relating to otherwise static content. Add to this the fact that students are then asked to evaluate some of their peers’ interpretations of what should happen next in the story.
Lastly, those students whose submissions do not win must divest from their own piece and then immediately adopt and understand the new content of the winning submission in order to proceed. Opportunities such as this to develop flexible thinking from both an academic and emotional perspective are rare, and the fact that students truly enjoy and benefit from the BoomWriter writing process make it an invaluable teaching tool.
What have been the challenges to implementing a program like this?
I’d say our biggest challenge to this point has involved teachers’ ability to find time within the school day to incorporate BoomWriter. It’s really no different than with any other larger-scale, project-based learning activity. These typically take time from a planning and implementation standpoint, but from my experiences these were always the activities that my own students would reflect back upon as highlights of the year from a learning and level of engagement standpoint.
Is it scalable? What demands does it place on a typical school?
BoomWriter really is scalable. You can create stories with a group as small as five students, a whole class or grade level or even an entire school or district. BoomWriter has even conducted its own writing competitions outside of school where we’ve had literally hundreds of children participating, some of whom live outside of the United States.
In terms of the demands BoomWriter might place on a typical school, there really aren’t any. BoomWriter is free for schools. It’s easy for teachers to use, and they can even manage the little work associated with using BoomWriter from home.
It helps if there is computer access within the school for the students, but it’s not imperative because I believe nowadays it’s completely reasonable to expect most children to get support in terms of access to technology from home. I understand this still serves as a barrier for some kids, but after school access, clubs and public libraries can help address this need.
How about outcomes? Does it work? What kind of results have you been seeing?
It definitely works! We’re in the midst of developing a formal BoomWriter efficacy study but having worked with kids in a variety of roles both in and outside schools for over 20 years, I’ve become fairly adept at identifying effective learning tools and Boomwriter is certainly that!
The most powerful and telling characteristic of BoomWriter is the level of engagement it creates among the children. Regardless of an individual student’s academic strengths, weaknesses, preferences or ability to attend, BoomWriter has consistently demonstrated the ability to engage children in all phases of the process.
Kids are captivated when reading and dissecting the story starts and their writing output levels typically exceed what they produce in class and for homework. Then when exploring the literary elements embedded in the piece, the students are often more engaged because the content being analyzed has either been created by that particular student or by one of his/her peers.
I strongly believe that some of the best learning takes place when students are engaged in academically focused activities, especially when there are feedback components and such is the case with BoomWriter