“iWorkshop: Sharing and Responding via Smartphones in the Composition Classroom” by Jill Buettner-Ouellette


“Valley of the Heart’s Delight” wall mural in downtown San Jose, CA, 2012.
Photo by DMG.

Many teachers, especially those of us who value active hands-on learning and student-centered discussions, get frustrated when our students pull out their cell phones during class and disengage from the conversation. In spite of clear syllabus policies and verbal warnings, there are still a few students sending surreptitious text messages during class when they should be paying attention. For good or for ill, smartphones seem to be permanent fixtures in the lives of our students. There has never been a more connected, tech-savvy generation than this one. If we want to engage our Generation Y students in the classroom, it can be useful to use technology and tools that are familiar to them but that are channeled toward a shared academic purpose.

I used to be a “freeway flier,” driving between West Valley College and two other community colleges in the East Bay, where I also taught composition. I had multiple preps, and when I taught a new class, I often felt as though I was starting from scratch. Time was of the essence, so I began lesson planning in the car. I experimented with recording my ideas on my iPhone’s recording app while I was driving. Now that I think about it, this may not have been the safest practice! Soon, though, I had hours of ideas, mini-lectures, and activities recorded on my phone. I found that when I “talked out” my lesson plans instead of writing outlines, my lessons were often more interconnected, creative, and metacognitive.

Speaking aloud worked well to enforce my learning process as a teacher, and it works for others too. When I went to the California Community Colleges’ Success Network Reading Apprenticeship Workshop, they taught us a critical reading strategy called “Think-Aloud.” When students practice this technique, they stop periodically as they read to reflect on how they are processing and understanding the text. They relate this information orally to another listener and discuss the reading strategies they are employing. Research shows that thinking aloud while reading improves comprehension and retention of the material (Oster). In compositionist Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” she also discusses the relationship between speech and writing. She emphasizes the cognitive significance of talk and suggests that “talking is a valuable, even necessary form of pre-writing” (Emig 8). Though Emig ultimately privileges writing over talking, she also acknowledges that writing is learned behavior, while talking is “natural, even irrepressible behavior. Writing is then an artificial process; talking is not” (Emig 9). There is something wonderfully natural, immediate, and present about spoken conversation.

I use writers’ workshops in my developmental and first-year composition classes as a way for students to collaborate and share feedback during the writing process. I have found that workshops that center on conversations instead of silent written responses to a workshop “script” are almost always more dynamic and engaging. Students agree. I also find, however, that when students talk about their papers, they often forget some of the feedback they receive when they go home and try to revise. (I had the same problem when I lesson planned in the car before I began recording myself.)

Midway into the semester, I told my English 1A Composition class that we were going to do a different kind of workshop today. I asked them to pull out their phones. Though not everyone had a smartphone, we had enough to share them in pairs. They giggled about the fact that they were actually allowed to use their phones in class. I explained the theory behind “Think-Aloud” and modeled my own “Think-Aloud” with a sample student paper so that they would get the idea. I then asked my students to read through their partners’ papers out loud, stopping to notice how they were reacting to the papers as audience members. What did they focus on? What interested them? What was confusing? What did they want to know more about? They would take turns completing the “Think Aloud” with each other’s papers, and they would record their reflections on their smartphones. Then, they would email the audio clips to their workshop partners and to me.

As they began the workshop, I walked around and observed. They were focused—animated even! They were gesturing enthusiastically as they spoke into their recording devices, and they listened carefully to one another. The feedback that I overheard was markedly stronger than usual because it was clear they were engaged in the process. They thought the activity was fun and creative and told me that this was the most useful workshop because they could listen to the feedback as often as they liked when they revised. I also listened to the feedback they recorded, which gave me the opportunity to reflect extensively on how they were responding. Teaching students to give good feedback is sometimes challenging, and these recordings allowed me to check in with my class and think about ways that I can continue to help them grow stronger as colleagues and fellow writers and responders.

I know that recording feedback is not new or particularly innovative, but this workshop provided a learning moment for me. We often take our personal technological devices for granted, or we consider them to be nuisances when they distract our students. Nevertheless, on that day, our smartphones were not detractors—they allowed us to be more collaborative and engaged. Anything can be a tool for learning. To me, using technology in the classroom, even in small ways, is exciting when it can serve my students.

Works Cited

Emig, Janet. “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” College Composition and Communication 28.2 (1977): 122-28. Print.

Oster, Leslie. “Using the Think-Aloud for Reading Instruction.” The Reading Teacher 55 (2001): 64-69. Print.

Jill Buettner-Ouellette teaches composition in the Department of English at West Valley College. Her other passion is dancing ballet.


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