Wow! I had no idea when I started writing the title to this blog post that it would quickly spiral out of control into a Victorian novel. Well, if it were a Victorian novel, here’s what the cover would look like:
As I wrote about yesterday (or early this morning, depending on what time zone you’re reading this in) I’ve got a presentation to be prepping for in late June, which means I’ll now be taking more copious and rigidly structured notes about my experience with using MixedInk in the classroom. At this point I’ve used MixedInk a number of times now (more with my sophomores than with my freshmen, something I hope to remedy this next semester) and have noticed some definite patterns as to what type of assignments work well with this software tool versus which ones do not.
This topic of my presentation at the ISTE conference came up at dinner the other night with my wife’s family who we’re presently visiting in Philadelphia. In the course of explaining the process of how MixedInk works to my mother-in-law, who just retired this year after twenty-five years of teaching middle and upper school students at an independent school, I realized two important things: 1) that the process and steps of working through a MixedInk writing topic is a rather involved one, and 2) I need to become more concise in my ability to explain its functionality. As perhaps I’ve mentioned here before, concision is not my strong suit.
Related to the first point is the fact that not all types of writing assignments work well with MixedInk given its multi-step writing, revision, and rating process. One of the by-products of using MixedInk for a writing project is that it generates a deep familiarity (perhaps bordering on annoyance or exhaustion) with the topic and/or text about which one is writing. My sophomores made this fact quite apparent to me after we used the tool to engage in a close textual analysis of our textbook author‘s portrayal of early humans. In that instance the topic that I had the students write on was too narrow, which meant that by the end of the process the students had seen the key quotations from the text and one another’s analysis so much that they had lost any motivation or desire to discuss it in class.
I had much better success with my most recent foray, which involved writing a response to a so-called “historical puzzle.” I adapted and scaled down this assignment from one that a college professor had assigned in a Medieval History course. The puzzle requires that students closely read six accounts of the same event, in this case the Islamic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE, in order to achieve two things: 1) suss out the authorial bias that distinguishes the Christian accounts from the Muslim ones, and 2) determine the order in which these documents were authored. However, the students could not simply answer these questions, but instead had to justify their responses with quotations from the text and logical reasoning to support their conclusions. The exercise not only exposes students to the idea of historiography and the ways in which the interpretation of the same event can change over time, but it also pushes them to worry less about the right answer and instead focus on the reasoning and substantiation for their argument. In short, its a good, valuable assignment for getting students to practice the habits of historical thinking in a safe, low-risk setting.
MixedInk turned out to be an ideal tool for this type of assignment for a variety of reasons. Firstly, although the students were dealing the same textual excerpts, each one tended to gravitate to different passages or phrases, so that the entire class didn’t end up reading the same quotation over and over again in the remixing and rating phases of the assignment. Secondly, the way in which the assignment is framed a “puzzle” or mystery to be solved makes it somehow more exciting or compelling. Finally, the goal of the assignment was to remix one’s original essay by drawing on the ideas, reasoning, and evidence of one’s classmates in order to create an essay that garnered the highest ratings from one’s classmates. As a result, the fact that students could see one another’s responses and answers through the transparency-creating feature of MixedInk provided them with alternative perspectives that would both challenge their initial interpretations and also provide them with material that they could use to improve their own essays.
Given that MixedInk topics lead to the creation of one “winning” entry, this topic also seemed ideal because it would generate a single document that the classes could then read, critique, and discuss before learning the correct answers about origin and dates of each document’s authorship. Moreover, because the classes wanted to know the correct answer, reading through this “winning” entry didn’t seem like a needless chore or an unnecessary re-tread of material because it provided a clear point of comparison with the right answer. Although I stressed to students that the accuracy or lack thereof in terms of their conclusions about the relative dates of authorship was not important, knowing the correct answer still proved compelling to students at the end of a process where they had invested a substantial chunk of time into a narrow range of documents.
One area where I hope to have more specific discussion and provide clearer guidance for the students is in terms of the criteria for rating a peer’s writing. It seemed that this portion of the process occurred rather quickly and without a clearly articulated sense of what one should be looking for. Perhaps having the class collaboratively develop a very specific rubric for the assignment before starting the rating stage would lead to a more careful and critical reading of the other entries. Nevertheless, the winning essay from this assignment was quite strong in its reasoning and use of evidence and provided precisely the type of counterpoint I’d hoped to have in contrast to the correct answer.
So, for those of you looking for the easy way out of this post, here’s the Reader’s Digest Version:
• MixedInk a great tool for in-depth writing;
• Especially strong for “problem solving” type writing assignment;
• Requires substantial time investment;
• Don’t skimp on time spent establishing criteria for “rating”