Student Voice & Choice in the Digital Writing Workshop

“Why do we have to write these stories about ourselves, Mr. Joseph? I mean, what’s the point?”

During class with my fifth graders, I found myself facing characteristic skepticism and a key question from my student, Tate, that speaks to the heart of the question of student voice–that of audience. What Tate really wanted to know was: Would anybody care about this story? Would anybody see his piece? Would it have any meaning beyond simply building a skill that he’s supposed to possess? 

153911435As teachers, we all have students who are compliant and willful, who will readily produce whatever output we ask or demand of them to please the teacher or earn a desired grade. There is no question that narrative and non-fiction writing are critical skills that must be taught explicitly at all levels every year. Increasingly, however, in an era of online publishing and digital content production on social media sites, students need to know that whatever they are asked to generate will have a meaningful audience and make a difference to someone. In 2014, kids have never known a world where they haven’t been able to reach out around the globe in seconds and make an impact with words, pictures, and video on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. The ability to publish at the click of a button has provided a liberating opportunity for students to receive swift feedback and effectively measure the impact their writing has on their intended audience.

Central, of course, to student voice is student choice. When I ask my students to write a small moment narrative each fall in writing workshop, I also give them the opportunity to not only write traditional text-based stories using words, but also to create a “performance piece” that involves a demonstration of the story through some digital medium. Some students choose to make digital stories, matching their own podcasted voice to images and create a movie. Others choose to learn the ancient art of storytelling and video record their performance. Some reenact their story as a movie and film the experience. Still others use animation techniques to tell their stories. Each year, the possibilities generated by the students and the products that they ultimately produce far exceed anything I could imagine.

83405387We all know that technology tools are constantly evolving and changing. What will remain immutable, however, is the architecture of story–problem, solution, characters, and setting. As long as we enable our students to make choices about the multi-modal output they would like to try, they will be motivated to learn the fundamental writing skills they need to grow and develop as writers. Students are empowered by both multi-media tools and the allure of a wider audience.  Their work will have meaning for the maximum number of people possible, as it should. Kids care about writing and creating when they know people pay attention to and care about their work, that their writerly voices will be heard.

The students in my workshop all have blogs, so they post both their stories and the digital counterparts online. They use first names only, are well-versed in safe digital citizenship and receive parental permission to use online tools. They are asked to send the link to at least three people in three different states or countries around the world and solicit feedback. In this way, the students see the exponential possibilities of global sharing, and how their work does, indeed, make an impact–however large or small–on the lives of people, often countless individuals beyond friends and family. Their voices are not only honored, but broadcast on the widest possible stage.


Hear Shin Be tell her story with passion and purpose.

Watch as Tate reenacts his paint ball battle in dramatic fashion:

See how Nicolae brings his story alive through Legos.


9.21 face shot JoeRick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher of 5th and 6th grade students at Birmingham Covington School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He believes in the power of multi-age education to break down barriers in traditional school settings. Rick advocates for the meaningful use of digital tools on a daily basis to help create meaning and relevance for all learners.  He is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.


Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

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