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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Use New Technology to Reinforce Instruction

Designing a Writing Lab Carl Sannito

If I were designing a writing lab, I would focus on a four areas:

(1.) Typing
(2.) Pre-Writing/brainstorming
(3.) Writing
(4.) Publishing

But First
Before you begin writing, it’s very important that you decide where your students are going to save their documents. Some teachers are lucky enough to have a network environment where students can walk up to any machine in the school, pull up their files and get to work. If that’s not you, you can always save files to a floppy. However, my experience with floppies is that they frequently fail and get damaged very easily. You might want students to save their work to a re-writable CD. If that isn’t an option, I’ve heard of schools that have used portable USB Flash drives for students. Much more reliable and portable than a floppy.

Now that you’ve decided on storage, you and your students are ready to begin.

Typing
There is no point in having the student work in a writing lab if they can’t operate the keyboard. Students may be able to find letters on the keyboard without much assistance, but punctuation marks are not so intuitive. A solid typing program can not only teach students some basic typing skills, but it can also be used to reinforce good writing skills.

There are many wonderful typing programs available to students these days; following are a few that I have used with much success.

For grades 1-3, I would recommend Type to Learn Jr. This program is only going to take one or two periods for most students to work through, but by the time the students are done, they will have been taken through a tour of the majority of the features of the keyboard.

For older students (grades 3-8), I would highly recommend Type to Learn 4. This product is a wonderful program that not only teaches students how to use the keyboard correctly, it incorporates historical figures and language arts into the lessons. This program would take students a few months to work through, however I might use it for a few weeks at the beginning of the year, and then leave it as something the students can work on in the classroom or in the lab if they finish an assignment early.

Pre-Writing/Brainstorming
Inspiration (Grades 5-12) and Kidspiration (Grades K-5) are the two heavy hitters in this area. Both products help students see, organize and develop their ideas. Completed charts and graphic organizers are then turned into outlines to help students through the writing process. I have used both products and they are both wonderful, but they require a very dedicated teacher. The software requires that the teacher give the students specific assignments and work directly with them.

Writer’s Companion (grades 2-12) is another great program. It actually steps students through the writing process, starting with brainstorming and organizing. As students use the program to generate their ideas, they can also organize and sequence their thoughts by pointing and clicking.

Writing
Microsoft Word is an extremely versatile program and it has some great typing tools, such as the spell checker, thesaurus, and word counter. However, the interface can be confusing and overwhelming to younger students. I would use Word with high school students, but younger students might benefit from software that is more age appropriate.

I would again recommend Writer’s Companion (grades 2-12). Not only are standard word processing features built in, but it takes the ideas that a child had previously generated into a fresh document. The software can read text back to students and features bilingual education components.

Scholastic Keys is another wonderful student program that is used with Microsoft Office (you must already have purchased and installed Office before you install Scholastic Keys). It puts a “kid-friendly” interface on top of the Office applications, so they don’t seem so overwhelming. Students can create and customize their writings very easily. The software can also read text back to students.

KidWorks Deluxe is another program word-processing program that students can use. I haven’t used the software, but you might want to check it out.

Publishing
Publishing is where the students generally have the most fun, but if the students are going to see the fruits of their labor, publishing requires a printer or two.

One monochrome laser printer is always good to have around as a workhorse. It doesn’t have to be too fancy, but stick with a name brand, mid-level printer. Something in the $300 to $500 range would be about right. Be sure to price the toner cartridges ahead of time so you know what you are in for.

A color printer is good to have on hand for publications that demand color treatment. You probably don’t need a color laser printer, unless you plan on printing out everything in color (that becomes very pricey). A heavy duty inkjet printer would be fine. Expect to pay $150-$350, plus ink cartridges. Again, price out the cartridges beforehand because that’s where you will pay the most money.

One last thought on printing: you might want to establish printing rules with students as to when and what they are allowed to print; it makes good economic and environmental sense.

As for software, both Writer’s Companion and Scholastic Keys have some wonderful publishing features built right in. Both allow you to add graphics, format text, change fonts and really jazz up the papers. Scholastic Keys has a great feature that allows you to create PowerPoint presentations (using their “kid-friendly” interface). Students can record sounds and voices to add into their stories. If you are interested in having students record voices, you’ll need to purchase microphones.

Older students can use PowerPoint directly with their work. The animation features alone are enough to keep kids very focused, but be careful the students don’t lose sight of the big picture.

Another favorite of mine is Kid Pix. Although Kid Pix can be used as brainstorming software (it comes with lots of great ideas for teachers), it really shines as a publishing tool for younger students. Students can use it to illustrate their projects and to create presentations. It is one of my favorite programs and is a hit with students of all ages.

Other Considerations

You might also look at obtaining some fun fonts and installing them on your student computers. Fonts can easily be downloaded from Google Fonts, or you can also search the Internet for free fonts, download them and install them yourself.

I have highlighted programs that I believe run on both Mac and Windows platforms, but double check with your vendor.

 

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