Teacher Inquiry

Using Wikis to Foster Authenticity in Middle School Writing: The Rationale


Kaili Phillips explores the use of wikis to support her students in sharing their writing in her middle grades classroom.

Originally published on March 30, 2011

How familiar does this sound to you—a student gets a writing assignment on Monday and it is due on Friday. He waits all week to begin and crams it in on Thursday night (start to finish) at 9 pm. He hits spell check (mindlessly obeying every squiggly green and red line there is), never has anyone read it (if he even reads it over himself), hands it in to his teacher (the only person who will ever see it) and exclaims, “DONE!”

I am a middle school language arts teacher… this is my life.

I began this school year like I do every other—with one of my goals making writing an authentic task for students…aspirations of facilitating an attitude and environment in which they want to write, want to share, ask each other for advice, and help each other become better writers. A supreme objective of facilitating this natural writing process instead of the artificial, “Have your rough draft done by Thursday so we can share and give feedback in class.”

Idealistic? I didn’t know.

To achieve the goal of authenticity, I needed a way in which all students could share their writing at their leisure—from anywhere, anytime, any computer, and inside or outside the confines of our particular block of time and group of students. Enter: TAMSapedia.

“TAMSapedia” is the name I gave to the wiki site I created to try to meet my needs listed above. One side benefit of using a class wiki was the kids realizing exactly what Wikipedia is. They (my 8th graders) firmly believed that Wikipedia was a wealth of correct information about nearly any topic. So, I thought they’d find a TAMS (Thornton Academy Middle School) version of Wikipedia very cool. I am not sure what the final “coolness” verdict was, but they went along with it…game, set, match.

Using Wikis to Foster Authenticity in Middle School Writing: The Introduction

The All-Important Introduction:

I wrote the following blog entry after a lesson designed to teach students how to access and use TAMSapedia on their own. After a brief introduction to what a wiki is and how we’d use ours, students looked for very specific “how-to” sorts of information through a webquest before adding their latest writing piece to their own page. They had fun and, most importantly, every student knew how to upload files, edit pages, and navigate the site at the end of the hour.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My kids have gone wiki-crazy!!!

It’s the first day introducing the wiki to the kids and they are EATING IT UP. They love being able to see their work online (published) as well as see their friends’ work from other classes. They were very engaged (as engaged as 8th grade gets??) while doing a bit of a exploring and note-taking on how to use the site.

A very steep learning curve occurred during my first block when two kids got ahead of themselves and began editing my wiki homepage while the page was on the Smartboard and I was teaching the lesson. It was actually VERY funny and a nice illustration of how everyone can see the history on every page of the site. The kids were a little embarrassed…good thing they didn’t write anything inappropriate!!

Highs from the day:

  • One student told me that this was so cool that he wanted to make one. I asked him what he was going to use for and he said that he didn’t know but he’d find something.
  • Students posted compliments on work done by peers that they typically wouldn’t interact with in class too much.
  • A student asked me if I would put up a page for myself so they could look at my writing (Yes, I intend to do this)
  • Students had MANY “ah-ha” moments of what a wiki is and what Wikipedia is (why it’s unreliable for research purposes but okay for the occasional “Google”)
  • A student put up a piece she wrote for Social Studies (Yay for interdisciplinary use!)

Lows from the day:

  • A student asked me if she “had to” put her work up
  • Not being able to figure out how to block students from being able to manage the wiki (still working on this one)

Using Wikis to Foster Authenticity in Middle School Writing: (Wiki) Pro’s

Pro’s for (Wiki) Prose:

Students who wouldn’t ordinarily share their work felt comfortable sharing.

As you read in my first blog journal entry, one of the “lows” of Day 1 was a students asking if she “Had to put her work on there.” I can remember the fear and uncertainty in her eyes as she quietly asked the question. There were many like her—students who just don’t like sharing their stuff. I can relate—I was one of those students for most of my life.

In the survey I took two months into beginning the wiki, when asked, “Do you feel safe/confident sharing your writing in class?”, only 20% reported that they felt very comfortable. In contrast, when asked, “Do you feel safe/confident sharing your writing on the wiki?”, 53% of my students reported that they felt very comfortable. This statistic alone prompts me to continue using wikis in my classroom to enable students to act as writers do by sharing their work.

Students learned to ask good questions of their readers.

Kids often come to me in study hall or during class, give me their papers, and ask me “Is this good?” I have emphasized all year the importance of asking specific questions—what exactly are they unsure of? What do they want their readers to look for while reading the piece? Is what good?

One highlight of implementing this sharing process is that students learned to ask their readers for specific and helpful feedback. Whenever they posted a piece of work, they were to ask their reader at least two questions indicating what they wanted feedback on. Often times, they took language from our classroom, which was very cool. For example, during descriptive writing, they often asked the reader if he or she could “See” particular parts of the piece. We talked about “flow” a lot in class because of the ambiguity of the term. We decided that if a person could read a piece aloud and not be caught on a word or sentence, or not have to say, “Hold on….what?” and re-read, the piece had good “flow”. Students asked many questions like, “Did it flow when you read it aloud?”

Students were giving different kinds of feedback

Often in middle school, students are not only afraid to share their writing with peers but they avoid giving real feedback to peers as well. I believe they aren’t confident enough in their own writing so don’t feel like they have anything to offer. This is something I have been working on all year and trying to emphasize that content is really what we’re pushing for and grammar will come later.

Along with asking the good questions of their readers, as discussed above, my students began giving a wide variety of feedback on each other’s pages. At times, students who asked specific questions didn’t get much in the way of specific feedback.

Other times, students who really didn’t ask very specific questions got very specific feedback (this student didn’t write any questions at all).

A conclusion that I arrived at was that quality of feedback was not conditional upon just a specific question but also upon the responder. The majority of the feedback that had to do with content was from students who show more confidence as a writer and/or a class participant. I feel that they felt more comfortable taking a risk like giving advice on what the person is writing about as opposed to giving advice on something as impersonal as grammar.

With that said, some students DID surprise me; Emily, the girl who responded about both organization and grammar in the image above, is very quiet, tends to listen instead of speak during class discussions, and would not be a person I would think of to give that much feedback to a peer about his or her writing. Seeing how she helped her peer shows me how powerful this resource is for her and for other “under-the-radar” types of students.

Students began sharing writing that they had produced for other classes or just for fun.

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This is an email I got about two hours after sending out invitations to join the wiki—invitations that explicitly said, “Do not worry about this until class time!” A few of my students were so excited to begin getting their work out there…wherever “there” was. Many students put free writes up and asked for comment while others did as this student did four days later:

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Students were beginning to act like real writers. They wanted to get their work read and get feedback from peers. Like anything, the site has lost a bit of novelty over time, but it has become a lasting, powerful resource for some students and that makes me very happy.

Using Wikis to Foster Authenticity in Middle School Writing: Success?

Experiment Success?

So, was my experiment a success? Did implementing a wiki in my classroom increase student authenticity in the task and process of writing?

I deferred to my students to find out the answers to these questions. I told them that this project of mine was kind of one of their science experiments; I had a hypothesis of what I thought might happen but that their feedback would tell me if I was right or not. Let me tell you, they were way more than happy to help tell me if I was correct or not. I was careful to word the questions so they were not leading at all and I also mentioned that they should be as honest as possible.

Some notable statistics include:

As mentioned above, when asked, “Do you feel safe/confident sharing your writing in class?”, only 20% reported that they felt very comfortable sharing. In contrast, when asked, “Do you feel safe/confident sharing your writing on the wiki?”, 53% of students reported that they felt “very comfortable” sharing.

When asked, “To what extent does knowing your friends, peers, or teachers will look at your page affect your motivation to write?” 54% reported that their motivation increased “some” or”a lot”.

When asked, “To what extent does knowing friends, peers, or teachers will look at your page affect your quality of writing?”, 58% reported that their cared “more” or “much more” about the quality of their writing. Of that 58%, 25% cared “much more”.

60% of students value peer feedback regarding their writing “highly” or “very highly”.

Some notable anecdotal responses include:

“It is fun to explore what other people like to write about.”

“I like to know what my classmates and peers are writing so I’m not the ‘odd’ one.”

“It interests me because I can see what they made a mistake on and if they made a mistake that I know of, I can edit the page and correct what they did wrong.”

“I can let other people see my work and other people can write comments about improving on my writing.”

“If other people tell me it’s good, I feel more confident.”

“I love it when my friends put feedback on my papers. It really gets me thinking.”

“If I am writing something that will go on the Internet I try my best.”

“I love it. I like seeing everyone else’s stories and ideas.”

I categorize the wiki as a “success” because, although these responses aren’t representative of every single one of my students, I truly believe that no student felt it detrimental to their learning or a waste of their time. I do acknowledge that some students did not get “into” the wiki and I wonder why that is. Is it because they don’t enjoy writing to begin with? Because they didn’t know how to use the site well enough? Because they just didn’t care what peers thought of their writing? I have many other questions as well— did the wiki work so well because of this particular group of students? How valid was the survey data I collected? I can (and will) ponder these things as this year continues and I begin to think of how I might introduce or use the wiki next year.