Culminating projects for thematic curricula are beloved by students and teachers at Green Acres School (Maryland). One fourth-grade favorite is the rainforest picture book. Each hardbound volume combines creative writing with research on tropical plants and animals, allowing every child to become a published author. Children spend several weeks identifying plants and animals for independent research. In addition, an author study using Janell Cannon picture books (e.g.,Verdi; Stellaluna) allows the students to see how factual information can be woven into works of fiction. Cannon’s figurative language and sensory images are discussed and used to inspire similar content in fourth graders’ stories. Each rainforest book serves as a culminating assessment and is treasured by students and families for many years to come.
When Green Acres introduced iPads into fourth-grade classrooms last year, teachers discussed whether to move this special project onto a virtual platform. Important questions arose:
• How would this enhance the curriculum and benefit the children?
• How would peers and parents react to seeing this work on a small screen?
• Would current students be as excited about this project as their predecessors had been?
• Without an actual book, what would be the “take away” for students as they moved beyond fourth grade?
We decided there was only one way to address these unknowns — jump right in and learn alongside our students. We chose Book Creator and Google Drive as our primary applications; none of us had worked with Book Creator prior to this project. We selected Google Drive because it allowed students to maintain control over spelling and grammar without automatic suggestions and corrections. In addition, documents were easily shared between student and teacher.
Keeping what works
While much of the project was open to exploration, we began with an important guiding principle: Technology should support but not alter the writing process. Students understood they had to produce a story plan and, for the most part, this was done on paper. (Exceptions were made for students with accommodations for handwriting.) Teachers felt it important for each writer to focus on story content rather than spend time experimenting with a tool to produce it. As every story plan was completed, I met with each author, made comments, reviewed subsequent revisions, and only then allowed each story draft to begin in Google Drive.
Technology advantages and pitfalls
There were several advantages to composing with Google Drive. Students’ tap typing skills improved, eliminating dedicated class time to work specifically on accuracy and speed. Children’s work was accessible to me anywhere I had a computer, so I wasn’t lugging (or possibly losing!) hard copies between school and home. I developed a color-coded system allowing me to highlight spelling errors in yellow — and punctuation and grammar in green. I inserted questions and comments for revision in a red font. At this point, I met with each writer, carefully citing strengths in the draft (e.g., examples of figurative writing and clever use of facts) before sharing the online comments that needed to be addressed.
After a couple of children tackled their edits and revisions, I felt I was losing the evidence that tracked each story’s evolution. Tracking this evidence required an extra, unplanned step; I printed off and saved each story iteration in order to understand and later communicate to parents about students’ skills, challenges, and growth throughout the project. While Google Drive did not eliminate the paper trail for me, the color-coding provided visual cues that could be interpreted quickly and easily for these purposes.
Layout and illustration: a win!
With a final story, children were ready to lay out and illustrate their books. Layout was easy — in Google Drive, they inserted a couple of returns between what they decided would go on one page and what would go on the next. Each “page” was then copied and inserted sequentially into a newly created Book Creator book. Unlike the hardbound books from past years, virtual books have no page limits, so students with shorter works were not left with blank pages at the end.
Introducing the children to Book Creator was a breeze. They loved experimenting with its options, discovering not only the basics, but also sharing new skills. After one child incorporated a variety of background colors on her pages, she willingly shared her discovery with others. Another added sound effects and explained how that feature worked. Similar examples of cooperative learning were repeated many times throughout the Book Creator process.
Illustration development truly benefited from iPad technology. Before using the iPads, drawings were limited to the space available on a 4 x 6 inch page — less if an illustration accompanied text on that same page. Now students took the time to create beautiful, detailed artwork on large paper and photographed it for insertion into their final books. One child created a 3D collage that photographed beautifully and otherwise could not have been incorporated. An additional benefit was that favorite illustrations could be replicated and reused if needed. Several students developed book covers that way. iPad cameras also came in handy for “head shots” on the “About the Author” pages.
Technology engages students, and the virtual book was an appealing project. Students commented about how easy it was to design a page, using font, color, and multiple illustrations. Labels could be inserted directly onto photos. Children loved thumbing through one another’s stories, remarking about story content, illustrations, and technical know-how. “I was glad it wasn’t a hard copy book because I didn’t want to rip a page or mess anything up,” offered one author.
A final test for appeal came during “Authors’ Share,” when parents visited to enjoy these wonderful creations. Teachers were pleased with the positive reactions, and parents commented favorably about their children’s writing, their knowledge of rainforest environments, and their ability to construct their work on the iPads. The books were a hit! The photo below is one example of how facts were woven into fiction and detailed illustrations were photographed to accompany text.
The “take-away” aspect of the project for students stymied us initially because we were unable to establish permanent virtual access for each writer. During this first year of iPads, fourth graders did not have access to school email accounts. As a result, they could not use DropBox or other services that would allow for multiple viewers, and Google Drive did not yet have the option to open an .epub document inside the application. A second option, saving work in a permanent folder, was unavailable as IT staff planned to have each iPad “wiped clean” for the following year’s class.
Fourth-grade teachers knew it was imperative that each child get a copy of this work. A solution had to be found prior to iPad “cleaning.” So just as school let out for the summer, teachers went into each child’s iPad, printed out individual rainforest stories and mailed them home. This could not have been done during the school year because of the size of each file and the congestion it would have caused on our computer network.
By the end of the year, it was clear to the team that jumping into an unknown virtual world was not as scary as it might have been. Not only did the children take to the environment immediately, but the learning process was an enjoyable and collaborative one among students and teachers. In each classroom, at least one fourth grader evolved as “tech support,” holding a leadership role that previously was unavailable. Also positive was that the time needed for book layout was reduced significantly, thereby giving us more time to focus on content.
Because last-minute hard copy was not an ideal solution, teachers and information technology staff are exploring alternatives for next year’s rainforest books. Anticipated enhancements to Google Drive may be our solution. Whatever we decide, there is unanimous agreement that our treasured rainforest books will remain a virtual platform project.