In 2011, four Brisbane teacher-librarians (two from boys’ schools and two from girls’ schools) put their heads together to explore the idea that shared writing is more enjoyable for students than writing on their own. From our initial discussions the Spring Hill Young Writers Workshop was developed – a writing experience made up of four events over four days, where groups of four students would create a shared storyline, setting and four characters. Each group member would then write a complete story from the perspective of one of the characters. The final group stories would be published as a book for each student to keep.
Why a collaborative story?
– aids in problem finding as well as problem solving.
– aids in learning abstractions.
– aids in transfer and assimilation; it fosters interdisciplinary thinking.
– leads not only to sharper, more critical thinking (students must explain, defend, adapt), but to a deeper understanding of others.
– leads to higher achievement in general. . . .
– promotes excellence. In this regard, I am fond of quoting Hannah Arendt: ‘For excellence, the presence of others [collaboration] is always required.‘
– engages the whole student and encourages active learning; it combines reading, talking, writing, thinking; it provides practice in both synthetic and analytic skills.”
(Andrea Lunsford, “Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal, 1991 http://grammar.about.com/od/c/g/Collaborative-Writing.htm)
The tagline for our workshops was ‘Pushing the Boundaries,’ a fitting mantra because not only did we want the students to step out of their comfort zones, but the road that connects the four schools is also called Boundary Street.
We decided to target enthusiastic Year 8 writers, with each school selecting eight of their best narrative writers. This was done either by the student submitting a written application, or by the English teachers selecting the students to participate. (Year 8 was chosen because in Australia Years 7 and 9 are involved in preparation for the NAPLAN tests.) Each group was made up of two girls and two boys, with one student from each school in each group, and author Brian Falkner was asked to work with the students over the four days. The initial three days occurred at the end of the term, and this gave the students time to complete their stories over the holiday break. The final session was held in the second week of the following term. Each event was held at a different school.
A shared wiki was set up using Wikispaces initially (replaced by PBWorks in 2012) where each group had a home page to develop their story, timeline and characters, but each student also had an individual page. Each person could read what the others in his/her group were writing; they could offer suggestions as well as ensuring they were including the correct events in the correct sequence. The teacher-librarians and author could also read each story as it progressed. Most students responded well to the chance the wiki gave them to communicate with others in their groups, and they posted comments on each others pages about different elements of their stories as they were writing them.
Format of the workshop
Event 1 – An introductory night for students and their parents, where the students met each other and the author, Brian Falkner. He talked about his own writing experiences, as well as the expected outcomes for the workshop. His relaxed manner and sense of humour put the group at ease and they went home keen to start writing.
Event 2 – A full day, made up of three sessions of brainstorming and writing, where the students learned about story structure and opening sentences, as well as developing their story-lines, settings and four characters.
Event 3 – A second full day where the students learned how to include dialogue, how to write descriptively using all their senses and how to write good conclusions. By the end of this day, many of the students had written a significant portion of their stories.
Event 4 – A final Presentation Night where parents were invited to share what their sons and daughters had written. Awards were presented for the best group story, the best individual story, the best opening line, the best conclusion, the funniest line etc. On the final night both the students and the parents were asked to complete a questionnaire, and their feedback was used to improve the workshop the following year. An Animoto video, created from photos of the first three events, was also shown on the night.
Brian was an outstanding author to work with, and the students responded incredibly well to his friendly manner and professional advice. Before the Presentation Night he read through each of the stories on the wiki and selected three qualifiers for each award. These were all put up on the night and then the winner of each category was announced.
In our initial year, not all groups ‘pushed the boundaries’, the students wrote very lengthy stories, the teacher librarians were sleep-deprived in their efforts to edit the stories, and some aspects of the Wikispaces wiki did not suit our needs – hence our change to PBWorks in 2012. All of these aspects were addressed, and in 2012 the students produced some exciting group writing where all their stories matched, but were told from different characters’ perspectives.
Three additional changes we will implement in 2013 are:
1) An extra after-school session one afternoon before the Presentation Night to give the students another face-to-face opportunity to meet and refine their group story details.
2) Students will be involved in the publishing of their group books, rather than the teacher-librarians doing this. This will enable them to own their whole creative experience. (The reason we made the books this year was because it was too hard to get the students back together again.)
3) The e-learning teacher from one of the schools is keen to be involved and work with us next year, so with her help we may explore different ways we could incorporate ICTs into this collaborative learning experience.
The students found it challenging at first to work with complete strangers, and to learn to compromise on their ideas, however their comments showed that they thought the workshop had definitely improved their writing skills. They also gained from the collaborative experience.
- “It was great working with the other writers. We share the same passion and I could really connect with them. I gained more knowledge from them.”
- “I now know that there really are others like me, who enjoy writing as much as I do and who can write stories where I can go – That’s brilliant, why didn’t I think of that?”
- “For the first time, writing has reached the heights of a team sport for me, and compromise and negotiation can be both good and bad.”
2012 comments in response to the question: In your opinion, what was the best aspect of the workshop?
- “In my opinion there were two good aspects. The first was being able to write a story free of stimulus and with support from both a group and a renowned author in relation to storyline ideas, how your story was going and if there were any changes. This provided a far more supportive environment than if you had to write it yourself. The second was being able to meet other people from different schools that you most likely wouldn’t ever meet in your life. Overall this workshop improved my skills dramatically and helped me improve my writing from what it was before. ” (Tom)
- “It was just being told “Go write a story”. Not “Go write a story about x and y”, but just being told to go and make something up, then write about it. Essentially, the freedom we were given. The most gratifying thing about writing with other students my age who enjoyed writing, was actually finding out that they existed. Before this, I had never really met any other student who actually enjoyed writing. Working with an experienced author taught me that, while running is good, you have to learn to walk first. There’s a lot of planning involved, and you can’t just jump in and start writing.” (Josh)
- “Working with an accomplished writer was very helpful as Brian taught us things such as structure and developing the story line, through the means of humorous stories. I learnt that this opportunity is very rare because not many people would bring together four schools for the sake of a couple of days of writing, and I appreciate the effort the schools made and thoroughly enjoyed the workshop. The best aspect of the workshop was meeting and working with an author and also working in a group to build a story.” (Jacob)
- “The best aspect would definitely be the information that only an experienced author such as Brian could pass on. That type of information will definitely aid us in our school endeavours. It was an interesting experience collaborating with other students who enjoyed writing as much as we did, as usually other students do not enjoy writing. Working with them taught me some tricks and they were helpful during the editing stage. Above all, it was a fun experience working with others and meeting some new people.” (Nipun)
The students unanimously agreed that it was a fabulous experience which they would definitely recommend to future participants.
“This would have been the best multi-day workshop with students that I have ever done. I felt it was a great success.” (Brian Falkner)
Links to documents used
The documents we used for the workshops can be found here:
Our 2011Animoto video can be found here:
The 2012 winning group’s published book: