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Graduate students help high schoolers learn beyond the written word

Kristen B. Morales

November 18, 2016

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Meghan Barnes wants her students to know one thing about writing: It's much more than putting pen to paper (or, fingers to keyboard).

Instead, she encourages her preservice teachers to consider writing a form of storytelling—which may also take the form of videos, a podcast or photos. Even a series of tweets can create a narrative.

Her point is to keep options open. Teachers can use new media to their advantage, and when the overall lesson is to tell a story, it doesn't matter how the story is told—as long as a student can capture his or her perspective using a method they can relate to. This lesson can be tremendously helpful for Barnes' students, who are studying to be English teachers.

"My goal is to encourage students to draw from their own students—what kind of writing are they drawn to?—and using that to teach writing," said Barnes, a doctoral student in English education in the UGA College of Education.

This fall, Barnes took her class of senior English education students to Cedar Shoals High School for a project on writing. In December the students will present their writing experiences—but not before they spend the next month exploring the art of storytelling with a class of freshmen at Cedar Shoals.

To kick off the project, the UGA students and high schoolers met in the school's media room to pair up and launch their blogs. The blogs are the centerpiece of the project—they are where questions will be asked and answers given, by both the college and high school students. Along the way, as they answer questions such as "Are you a writer?" or "What is community?," students are encouraged to get creative with their answers and push boundaries of traditional narrative.

"This is the first time I really thought about it," said Dania Flint, 14, when asked if she considered herself a writer. Her gut reaction was yes, she said as her UGA partner, Alex Mitchell, a senior English education major, looked on. But the blog forced her to reflect more. "It makes me think about how life is—a bigger perspective."

Community is another key theme to the project, as it helps give students a perspective o the world around them. Community, the students and their college-age counterparts agreed, was whomever you surround yourself with.

They pondered these ideas while staring a baggies of M&Ms on the tables in front of them. The morning's challenge was to assign a race to a color of M&M. Then, the students looked at a list of people in their lives. After doling out a candy for your teacher, your barber, your boss, your coach and others, the students looked into their bags.

The questions that followed helped frame a discussion of community—is it diverse? Who are the people we surround ourselves with?

The concept of community made writing more relevant, said Christie Scarborough, 15. She told her UGA student partner, Ren Jones, a senior English education major, that she preferred to read but the project showed her the necessary link to writing. "It's very relevant because that's how people let out their emotions," she said. "If you write about a problem (in your community), it can help a lot of people."

Armed with their blogs and their laptops, the students then split up. They will meet virtually over the next several weeks, coming together again in December when Barnes' students present their answers to the question, "Why is writing relevant?"

"A lot of this is breaking down the idea that there's one way to write," Barnes added. "And also, writing is a form of expression, and there's a lot of different ways to express yourself."

Whether it's via slide show, podcast, a "Smore" blog or other new storytelling tool is up to the students to decide.