The Power of Publishing

Over the past few years, our middle school has emphasized Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a specific, inquiry-based model for teaching that has several distinct elements. One of the most powerful of Buck Institute’s Seven Essential PBL Elements is the final, “Public Product.” This pivotal, last stage of the project is where students share their work with the public by explaining, displaying or presenting it to audiences beyond the classroom.

Motivation to Learn

Sharing your work with a large audience can be scary for anyone but it’s also extremely motivating. Preparing a presentation or piece of writing for others creates a healthy pressure to produce your best work. This kind of pressure is distinctly different other classroom scenarios where the teacher may attempt to motivate the class by threatening to deduct marks or promising prizes for the best work. Under these conditions, the motivation of the students tends to centre on the teacher instead of their own learning. However, when students know that they will share their work with an audience beyond the classroom, they are more intrinsically motivated to make sure their best work is on display.

Supplying an authentic audience works to motivate students in a way that most of us are familiar with. Let’s say your boss asks you to make a big presentation at work. The task itself calls on you to put forward your best communication skills. You pour dozens of hours into your final product because you want to leave an impression on your audience. The classroom is no different. Who wants to write a story or make a book review just so their teacher can read it? What student wants to create a piece of writing that will be hidden in a digital folder or stashed in a pile of papers? The answer, of course, is that no one does. To make creative work meaningful, it needs to be shared with an authentic audience.

Storybird Student Publishing

Gathering an audience can be a tricky business but having the right tools is important. During the past few weeks, I learned about a publishing tool that gives students the ability to reach a larger audience with their writing. It’s a website called Storybird. Unlike many of the publishing platforms out there, Storybird is specifically focused on students.

How it Works

The website functions in a similar way to other educational websites. Teachers can create a class within the site and invite students to join. Before joining the class, the students need to create an account. If your school uses G Suit, it is really handy to have them create an account using their Google credentials. Once they have created an account and joined the teacher’s class, they can publish an Ebook or PDFs with beautiful illustrations for free. At first glance, it looks like students have to pay about $3.00 to publish these files, but once the students begin composing their story, they begin accumulating crowns that can be used to purchase a PDF or Epub file of their illustrated work. Students can also gather enough crowns to publish their work by having their parent sign up to receive communication from the website.

Publishing Formats

The Storybird website also has three different published products: Longform Books, Picture Books and Poetry. Due to the length of the stories that my class had already authored, I decided to have them create Longform Books. In the longform format, students can publish a written piece as one, long chapter or they can divide it into separate chapters. Although the Longform Books didn’t have as many illustrations as the Picture Books, there was an option to embed photos within the chapters. At the end of the composing and editing process, my students publish their stories as PDF file so that we could share them on the digital portfolio website we use called, Seesaw. Below, I’ve uploaded a few PDF versions of my student’s stories so that you can see what the final product looks like.

Although I was primarily interested in publishing a PDF file, because the affordability was appealing, there is also an option to order reasonably priced, printed copies on the website.

Storybird Publishing Considerations

  • It looks like the site is designed for students to pick a theme of pictures and write a story that conforms to those pictures rather than writing first and then finding pictures later. For example, the pictures are organized in themed packages and you cannot upload external pictures to add to your story. You also cannot pick illustrations from other packages. This is a limitation of the website that really matters–especially if you are creating Picture Books.
  • At the time of this post, there isn’t any clear way for writers to indent their body paragraphs. The first line of the first paragraph of each chapter can be indented, but I couldn’t find a way to indent the paragraphs that followed.
  • When composing Longform Books, students are required to publish their chapter before they create the next chapter. This was a bit confusing for my students because it looked like they were making multiple copies of their books. In the end, we discovered that publishing each chapter privately was just how the site worked to compile the chapters.
  • During the publishing process, it is a good idea to pre-buy download credits just in case someone has to publish their book twice–which happened to us a number of times. Buying the credits in bulk saves a lot of money. You pay $.20/download instead of $2.99!
  • I initially thought that my class would be able to share their stories with the other readers on the Storybird website, but as it turns out, student sharing is more limited than private accounts.
  • There are also writing lessons that you can assign your class on Storybird and I’m looking forward to trying one of the lessons with my class.

The Result

I wish I could bottle up the buzz in the air as my students composed their stories and send you a sample. The class was so proud to present their published products to each other and to their family and friends.

I’m still looking for ways to spread our stories to a larger audience through iBooks. If you have done something like this in the past, I would love to connect with you or read about your experience.

Copy the Cult

Copying was known as cheating in the schools I attended growing up but experience has taught me that copying is often a very important part of the learning process. In my visual arts class, I often have students copy a photo portrait of their own face in pencil. Copying allows them to discover knowledge about proportions, shading, different textures and even drawing techniques. Students are not the only ones who can learn from copying–teachers can too. In fact, using techniques or units from other teachers can actually be an effective form of professional development.

As a teacher who enjoys inquiry-driven modes teaching, I’m not a big supporter of ready-made types of curriculum. Commercial curriculum makers often have a particular audience or culture in mind when they create their product. As a result, these units or textbooks rarely appeal to my class. That is not to say they don’t benefit my teaching. I often rely on bits and pieces from textbooks and resource guides. I also draw on local authors like Adrienne Gear for her expertise. Her reading and writing resources are easily adapted to different classes. However, a steady diet of “canned curriculum” is not engaging to my students.

This is why Jennifer Gonzalez’s unit on narrative writing pleasantly surprised me. I’ve just finished teaching through it for the first time this term. It was awesome!

Much like Gear’s units, it was organized into a series of mini-lessons that were laid out topically. This made it very easy to adapt or skip lessons based on the strengths or prior knowledge of my class.

Each of the lessons also came with presentation slides and pages of clearly organized notes for the students. For example, the lesson on writing dialogue outlined some very simple rules that were clearly diagrammed so that the students could quickly refer back to them as they were writing their stories. These notes were (and will continue to be) an excellent resource for my students as they improve as writers.

One of my favourite mini-lessons in the unit was on pacing. Gonzalez explained how good stories have time jumps. They skip to the most interesting parts of the story to keep the momentum going. She also used a box diagram (below) to show how each story event is shrunk or blown up based on its importance. Some of the most dramatic events are expanded and developed in great detail while less important parts are squeezed into smaller summaries.

I can’t say enough good things about this unit. I only wished I had found it earlier in my teaching career. If you are interested in checking it out for your own class, it can be found here. There are several other units listed on her Teachers Pay Teachers account that I would like to investigate in the future. As I was writing this post, I bumped into her persuasive writing unit. It looks excellent too!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Jennifer Gonzalez’s website, the Cult of Pedagogy and her Youtube channel, I highly recommend them both as great resources.