October 30, 2009″March 5th 1943. Dear Friend. My brain has turned into a tornado; my stomach feels like it has butterflies in it. Why has this happened? One minute I’m happily making bracelets, and the next minute somebody comes to the door and tells us we need to go to camp because we look like the people who we are in war with. This is so unfair. America doesn’t trust us anymore.”
Amanda, a fourth grade student, wrote these words as part of an assignment created by Halerin Ferrier, her classroom teacher at Prairie Elementary School in Sacramento, California, and Gail Desler, technology liaison for the Area 3 Writing Project. As part of the class’s “Day of Tolerance,” internment-camp survivor Mirelle Tsukamoto shared her personal experiences with Amanda’s class. Afterward, the students wrote letters from the perspective of children sent to the internment camps.
VoiceThread from Day of Tolerance
But this assignment was different from other assignments Amanda and her fourth grade classmates had been involved with. She and her classmates published their images of words of intolerance using VoiceThread, an Internet site that allowed Amanda to record her letter against a backdrop of her artwork and also get oral feedback from site visitors.
After hearing Amanda and her classmates read portions of their letters at VoiceThread, Tsukamoto added her voice, too, with the following comment: “I am so happy to hear your letter in response to the presentation I made at your class because you really captured the feeling and the emotions and the fear that we experienced . . . and it was true; the things that you expressed were exactly what we felt. Thank you for this project . . . everyone in the world needs to hear.”
Bob Uyeyama, another internment-camp survivor, added his story to the class’s VoiceThread, and a sixth grade teacher in Massachusetts, Kevin Hodgson, also chimed in with positive feedback for the students.
“The value of VoiceThread is the power of the human voice,” explained Desler. “When kids sit down to work, it’s about an assignment. When they realize they’re actually creating content that others can use, as with VoiceThread, that’s a huge shift.”
The Many Uses of VoiceThread
Writing project teachers and leaders from around the country are beginning to examine the uses of VoiceThread. In South Carolina, Upstate Writing Project (UWP) Director Rebecca Kaminski recommended the UWP leadership team use VoiceThread to communicate instead of trying to arrange logistically difficult meetings.
Once exposed to the website, Shasta Looper, one of UWP’s co-directors, started to consider other uses for VoiceThread and brought it into her fifth grade classroom to publish student writing from the point of view of characters in their class read-aloud novel.
Looper scaffolded the writing process for the project by documenting the characters’ actions during the reading of the novel. She then helped students put each other in a “hot seat,” an activity based on the work of Jeffrey Wilhelm, director of the Boise State University Writing Project. Each student took on the role of a character and answered questions from that character’s perspective. This helped the students make sure their writing accurately represented the character’s voice.
This value of the voice carried through in the next step, when the students recorded their work via VoiceThread. One student, for instance, varied his tone, sharpened it, let his voice break and fall to highlight his character’s emotions.
Jason Shiroff, Denver Writing Project’s technology liaison, first heard about VoiceThread through a post on NWP’s Technology Liaisons Network discussion forum. In an initial project he used it to help his elementary students reflect on a class camping trip. He first uploaded trip photos to the VoiceThread pages. Then students read excerpts from their journals into the VoiceThread audio recorder and attached them to particular pictures.
“VoiceThread is an easy entry into technology [for students],” Shiroff explained. “You use your picture and still have your words, but you don’t have to worry about editing and timing.”
Because students read their writing out loud, they put more effort into getting the voice of writing to come alive. “They compare their voice and traits with other students in the class. This type of natural peer critique tends to raise the level of writing,” Shiroff added.
Putting Students in Charge
Looper agreed with the idea that VoiceThread is a relatively easy-to-manipulate but powerful learning tool. “I didn’t have to do a lot of frontloading. I gave them playtime [with VoiceThread]. Once they were able to play, they were able to design their own learning.”
In addition, both Looper and Shiroff noticed that those who took leadership roles in VoiceThread projects were often their more reluctant students.
“It increases equity by shifting the emphasis to what kids can do. Students really wanted their work to sound great,” Shiroff said. He added that the project motivated them to plan and practice more. The photos also gave many reluctant writers more “hooks” for their ideas. “Some kids don’t get into traditional writing….It’s a great motivator for kids who aren’t into school,” he said.
Looper liked that it “put students in charge.” One of her fifth grade students who struggled on the mandated state exams “took it and ran. He said, ‘Mrs. Looper, we can use this for the science fair.’ After that, he helped plan the class’s use of VoiceThread to analyze each other’s experiments and provide feedback,” Looper said.
Looper and Shiroff see themselves as experienced beginners tracing the filaments of VoiceThread’s possibilities. Shiroff is looking forward to using the comments function to create more dynamic discussions, and Looper wants to learn more about the embedding and publishing features.
While both teachers may feel they still have a lot to learn about this tool, they have already discovered its power to expand the middle ground between author and audience, and help even struggling writers find their voice.