Students collaborate on Revolutionary War writing

February 9, 2017
The Elkhart Truth

By Jordan Fouts

Brandi Sapp and Suzanne Holcomb recently got their students together to swap war stories.

Sapp, a Goshen Middle School English teacher, had her New Tech 8th-grade students read a young adult novel on the Revolutionary War and then write their own short stories. Those were read to Holcomb’s 5th graders at Mary Beck Elementary School last month, who scored them on a rubric and discussed what makes good writing.

The two teachers have been friends for about 15 years, but this was their first project together as educators at two different schools, Holcomb said. Both classes loved the activity, she added — hers because they got to rate the books and keep them afterward, and Sapp’s because they had a receptive audience.

“Mary Beck is moving toward a more problem-based learning model next year, and it seemed like a good opportunity to try it out,” said Sapp.

She added that she and Holcomb are both voracious readers who read and discussed Laurie Halse Anderson’s series on the Revolutionary War and it seemed natural to partner up when both sets of students started learning about the war.

About 105 Goshen students wrote short stories, on average about 10 pages long. Fifty-seven Mary Beck students heard the stories when the older New Tech students visited.

The 8th graders approached the project from multiple directions, Holcomb said. From reading “Chains” by Anderson, to writing historical fiction of their own, with input from the younger students, and then publishing them on tablet computers with artwork. Sapp said they worked in teams to pick an event from the Revolutionary War and then individually wrote about that event from different perspectives.

“Part of the project was to make the Revolutionary War interesting for the 5th graders,” Sapp said. “So, my students asked Suzanne’s students what they found interesting in a book. The representative took this information back to their teams and they adjusted their stories accordingly.”

She noted that authenticity is an important part of New Tech and teaching in general. Motivation and achievement both lag when a student writes just because a teacher tells them to, so having an audience outside the classroom helped them focus on doing their best, she said.

“When students create something for an authentic audience for an authentic reason, students are motivated and achievement skyrockets,” Sapp said. “Many of my students were genuinely concerned about the quality of their work and if it would appeal to the 5th graders. This does not happen when I assign them to write a narrative and I’m the only one who’s going to read it.”

Holcomb said her students were happy to provide a critical audience.

“They took a lot of pride in thinking about it seriously and talking about what their expectations were for good writing,” she said. “And they got to be the ones grading for once.”

The schools created a short video detailing the project, which is published at Anderson shared the video herself after receiving letters from the 8th graders in response to her novel.

The two teachers hope to coordinate another joint project soon, Holcomb said. It’s also something she believes another pair of teachers could do, as long as they’re able to communicate well.

“It wasn’t scripted,” she remarked. “We had the basics of it all, but other than that we just had to jump in, work at it and figure it out as we go.”

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