4 Free Tech Tools to Jazz Up Your Writers Workshop

Ghost-blogging for the Inspired Writer at WriteSteps, a small educational publishing company that helps elementary school teachers improve writing instruction (August 2012).

The new school year is sneaking up fast, and you’re probably already fine-tuning your lessons for the Common Core. How will you teach the new technology standards for writing? Today we’ll show you some free tools that add meaning and excitement to students’ writing experiences.

Do you know what kinds digital writing experiences the core standards require?  The expectations increase as kids move through the grades. For example, kindergarteners must “with guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.”

Mrs. Dalesio’s fifth graders are using iMovie and other digital applications to publish their own narratives, poems, and even math tutorials.

First, second, and third graders must “use” (rather than “explore”) those digital tools. Fourth and fifth grade students are required to use not only technology, but specifically the Internet to produce and publish writing.

So, how can you bring digital experiences into your writers workshop? The free tools below will get you started. They’ll provide your students with rich opportunities to collaborate with peers and open the door to sharing their work with a huge audience.

Digital Tools, Grade by Grade

One way to approach digital applications is to use whatever is already available on your school’s computers. The video above from Edutopia shows how one fifth grade teacher guides students into using Apple software to publish student narratives, poems, and other creative projects.  These are inspiring examples by a teacher who’s obviously a real tech whiz. But don’t worry if you and your students aren’t as tech savvy as Mrs. Dalesio and her class. If you teach younger students, or you just aren’t ready to tackle video production, here are some equally exciting options.

StoryBird (Grades 2-5)

StoryBird is a free online application students can use to publish their stories, poems, book reviews, ads, and anything else they can imagine. Younger children can work with friends, parents, and teachers to create online versions of their illustrated stories and share them. Although the tutorial below doesn’t mention it, children can upload theirown artwork. Try recruiting a few parent volunteers to learn the application at home and help you as roving assistants when you teach your class to use StoryBird. The 4 1/2 minute tutorial below will show you the creative possibilities in this simple tool.

A video tour of StoryBird, a free online application that allows students to publish and illustrate their work, collaborate with friends, and share their final projects with a large audience.

Little Bird Tales (Grades K-3)

In Little Bird Tales, children can upload their own illustrated stories and record themselves reading to an online audience. Even kindergarteners can do this with help from adults, and older children can read their writing to large online audiences. We know kids who have entertained younger siblings on long car trips by playing Little Bird Tales for them on their parents’ smartphones!
How does it work? Each reading is saved as a short video and stored on the site for others to view and hear. Little Bird Tales stories can also be emailed to family and friends; online Mother’s Day cards, anyone? Though the interface is not as slick as StoryBird’s, being able to hear the author’s voice adds a something special.

Little Bird Tales can even be shared by very young children, as demonstrated in the video above. Like StoryBird, it’s free, and it helps students practice common core reading and writing skills. Little Bird Tales even addresses the speaking and listening standards.

ePals (Grades 3-12)

The Common Core introduces a new writing element in third grade: keyboarding. As third graders learn to type with less effort, writing to pen pals from across the globe becomes a thrilling and viable activity. Try ePals, a safe-Internet company that gets great reviews and helps teachers integrate writing skills with social studies.

Partnering with classrooms around the world, teachers can introduce ePals to teach cyber-etiquette, parts of an email correspondence, grammar, and sentence fluency, not to mention geography and cross-cultural understanding. The program is set up so that teachers can view emails before their students. This allows teachers to pick out details to emphasize in classroom discussions.

The control it provides educators is one thing that makes this program so appealing. Teachers can create their own access and protection settings according to the needs and ages of their students. Find classrooms around the world to connect with here, and then click on the tutorial below to get started.

With ePals, your students can correspond with pen pals from other cultures using built-in features that allow you to comply with your district’s privacy regulations.

Digital Publishing on Local Websites

Digital publishing can also be meaningful with less glitzy activities. Book reviews uploaded to your local library website, and persuasive letters or comments submitted to your town’s online newspaper give kids a thrill, too. Writing for people they might actually know is meaningful and engaging, and helps kids connect their writing to an authentic purpose.

What digital tools have you tried with your students? What are you planning for the coming year? We’d love to know! Share your tech tools for publishing student work on our Facebook page, and we’ll enter you in a drawing to receive a complimentary set of classroom privacy folders with word walls for your grade level!