Student Mystery Writers are Magical Mystery Tourists
by Addie Gaines
Whodunit? That is for my kids to know and everyone else to read about! The exciting part is that everyone can read the original mystery stories written by the students in the Magical Mystery Tour summer school class in Seneca, Missouri. Thanks to the magic of technology, authors and readers can come together via the Internet and e-mail communication.
In the Magical Mystery Tour class, second through fifth grade students learned the basics of mystery writing through listening to mystery selections, journaling, practicing elements of mystery writing, listening and responding to other students' work. Each student published at least one online mystery story.
The class met in a computer lab setting with one computer per child. Students completed all writing, editing and journaling on the computers. I used a video data projector to show student work to the entire class when we were editing as a group. Students had individual files on the server in which to save their work. Our class website was the homepage on our browser. Not only could students read the other students' work that had been posted, but they could also access resources such as online dictionaries, encyclopedias and a children's search engine. Students were encouraged to participate in peer editing and working cooperatively to help each student excel. A "real-life" author, Joan Lowery Nixon, guided the students through the mystery writing process. The students followed the steps outlined in her on-line writer's workshop on the Scholastic website .
When each student's first story was published, he/she received email from readers from around the country. Students answered the email courteously and in a timely manner. I used Teachers.Net to promote our project and encourage visitors. I also shared the web address in our elementary handout at the school board meeting, in our local newspaper, and in our weekly parent letter. Additional classroom activities included playing "Clue" and reading mystery stories.
It was important to put the appropriate structure in place, so those students could successfully accomplish the goals of our class. Procedures that were in place in the class included:
- Students are to log into a computer immediately upon entering the class. It is not necessary to use the same computer each time since student files can be accessed from any computer in the lab.
- After logging on, students are to begin writing in their journals. Students may write about any "school appropriate" topic. Students may choose to share the writing with classmates if they wish. The teacher reserves the right to read all journal entries, but will not correct or edit. This is a warm-up activity for students.
- Students are to save their work in the assigned files. Children were taught the specific procedures for doing so.
- Students are to open and/or edit their own files only.
- Students are to select from the optional activities when assigned projects are finished.
Our specific class rules are:
- Students are expected to follow the Student Rights and Responsibilities for the Seneca Elementary Summer School program.
- Students are to follow the Seneca R-7 School District Acceptable Use policy for computers.
I sent a parent letter home with all students in the class on the first day, so the parents would know what to expect in the class. The letter had a "sign and return" portion indicating that parents granted permission for their child to participate in online activities. A copy of the Seneca R-7 School District Acceptable Use policy was attached to the letter.
Because the Magical Mystery Tour was the first class I had taught in this format, the results of the class were a mystery, for a while. By the end of the five-week course, I noted several positive outcomes. The students' mysteries were extremely well-written. I have to place the credit for that in a couple of places. The Joan Lowery online mystery writing workshop is fantastic. The activities that she suggests as prewriting work really help the students think like a writer. The ideas were fantastic and the stories were vivid and descriptive. Secondly, I could not have asked for a better group of kids. They were dedicated to writing interesting stories and were very helpful to each other. The students were complimentary of other student writers, but were unafraid to question parts of the stories when they were unclear, or to make suggestions that would improve another student's story. The students understood that the each story belonged to its author and the author had the final say in selecting revisions. I had one student who had obvious difficulty with spelling. The other students chose to focus on the ideas and the plot of her story, rather than the multitude of errors. I was pleased that another student who was particularly proficient in keyboarding, helped a student who was struggling with keyboarding. He patiently typed as the other student dictated his ideas. In this multi-aged setting, the peer cooperation and collaboration was very important to accomplishing the goals of the class. I heard positive comments from several parents about how interested their child was in the mystery he/she was writing, and the time the student put in at home planning and thinking about the story.
However, there were some challenges involved with teaching in this format. While the technology is a blessing, some children who were less familiar with the computer found it difficult to follow the technical procedures at first. I spent quite a bit of time, searching for student work on the computer, because it hadn't been saved according to our protocol. Some students who were less proficient at keyboarding, found the amount of typing frustrating. In one case a peer stepped to the keyboard and helped out. In another case, a parent typed much of the story for the student and allowed him to dictate most of it. Editing was a challenge for the students and I when it came down to the final edit. It required one-on-one attention from me to create the final polished product. We were thankful for the spell check and grammar check features on Microsoft Word. The students learned to utilize these features fairly well, but, of course, they are not foolproof. Overall, the students had the most difficulty with correctly punctuating conversation, which permeated most of the stories. The lack of time was an issue in teaching. We met for an hour everyday for five weeks. By the time we did some prewriting activities and studied through the workshop, the children had to work hard to get their stories finished in time for me to upload them to the web and promote our site. The children did not receive as much interaction from readers in the cyberworld as I had hoped for them. I think that since the class was in June, many readers who would have been available had it been the regular school year were not.
Despite some challenges and minor disappointments, I would term this project a success. I saw obvious growth in the students as writers and as collaborators. I think that this idea of publishing student work on the web, whether it be mysteries, or short stories or poems, and interacting with the readers would work better during the regular school year, than in summer school. I think that finding a "buddy class" with which to do the project and interact would be ideal, so that the kids are guaranteed an audience. I also think that having several months for the stories to be available to readers online would improve the response rate. The students would have more time to mull over and develop their stories. In a regular classroom, once the writing workshop portions were complete, the students could work on the stories in their spare time, as well as, assigned times.
The question the reader of this article might have is: "If you had it to do all over, would you do this again?" My answer is yes, I would plan another class in this format. The benefits to the children far outweighed the difficulties.
If you are interested in reading the student stories or simply checking out how the website was set up, I encourage you to visit. I have disabled the "email the author" feature on most of the stories since our class has ended, unless a student had his/her own email address and wanted me to change it from the class email address. The website includes links for teachers. The lesson plans for the class are available as well as, a copy of the parent letter. I posted these items in the hopes that they could help another teacher plan a similar online class with mystery writing or any other theme.
We hope to see you on the Magical Mystery Tour!