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Their words, unleashed by wiki

Web tool opens brave new world for young writers

Neil Kulick (left) speaks to Ryan McGinty as students at Thurston Middle School in Westwood work on their poetry, which is published online. Neil Kulick (left) speaks to Ryan McGinty as students at Thurston Middle School in Westwood work on their poetry, which is published online. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / December 3, 2009

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In an online world where language is regularly reduced to instant messaging abbreviations, a group of Westwood sixth-graders is using technology to explore traditional communication, kindling a new love of the written word.

It’s goodbye to “OMG’’ and “IDK,’’ and hello to Shakespeare and poetry.

This new tool in Neil Kulick’s sixth-grade language arts classes at Thurston Middle School is a wiki, a collaborative website that allows students to post work, make comments or critique the work of others, and make revisions in a group setting.

In the traditional approach to writing instruction, the student writes for the teacher only, Kulick said, “like a soloist with an audience of one.’’

But when a student publishes on a wiki? “The audience includes not just the teacher but all of the other students, too,’’ he explained. “And each student can ‘hear’ every other student - now there is a symphony.’’

And what’s miraculous, he said, is that even the shiest of students, who wouldn’t dream of raising a hand to share writing, now feel empowered to post work online and participate in the exchanges.

“The wiki is an equalizer in classroom participation,’’ he said. “Everyone has a role. It’s a way to showcase their comments and their give-and-take in a medium they take to like a duck to water.’’

Thurston principal Allison Borchers said that while middle school students care about what their peers think, the biggest part of their journey is just figuring themselves out.

That’s precisely why Kulick, who has taught in Westwood for 17 years, said he is drawn to this grade level. “My heart is in middle school,’’ he said. “When you are in sixth grade, you are still in the garden.’’

The school district began implementing wikis last year, and Kulick set up his first one last spring, knowing that youngsters who love texting and instant messaging would be drawn to the new technology.

For the 100 students in Kulick’s classes, there is no fixed schedule for using wikis. It might be used more intensively for a subject like poetry, he said, and less so for novels. But students can use the wiki wherever there’s an Internet connection and whenever the spirit moves them.

On a recent morning in Room 212, where a giant silver thermos of coffee on Kulick’s desk explained at least some of his boundless energy, this semester’s students got their first taste of the wiki. About two dozen children were working on poems to illustrate the essence of fall, after being inspired by “Winter’’ from Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.’’

“How long should it be?’’ asked the owner of a waving hand.

“Long enough to touch the ground,’’ Kulick quipped, reminding students of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s distinction between poetry and prose: Prose - the right words in the right order; poetry - the best words in the best order.

Jessica Kreinsen’s best words read like this:

Fall is a time of year when leaves fall from trees like the swirling birds tumbling southward. . . . The cool winds lightly howl as they blow the leaves, The leaves of all earth tones - every one but green.

During the class, students wrote their poems on the wiki, then immediately began making comments on one another’s work. Among them was James Cassidy, who is an old hand at writing poems and plays but found the wiki opening up a new world.

“You get the results faster,’’ he said. “And it’s nice because you get to write what you want and change it when you want. You can show other people what you can do. And look at their work, too.’’

Cassidy’s view of autumn is timeless:

fluttering leaves, like twirling acrobats fill the air . . . carved pumpkins litter the doorsteps of countless houses, their leering grins stare unblinking . . . the cold of winter looms nearer, and nearer with blistering days of fall.

For Emily Keith, in fall, “crows swarm in the sky, their haunting calls echo in the wind.’’

Before wikis, all students could do is type and print, said Brigitte Farah: “Here you can do all sorts of different things.’’

She wrote:

One Autumn morning I look outside my window and see colorful sparks drifting and dancing through the cool breeze until finally reaching the crisp ground. . . . I think how much fun I had in Autumn, now that winter is coming through. . . . After coming inside, I remembered feeling the sticky sap that made my cold fingers stick to each other like peanut butter to jelly.

Kathy Kinsman, an instructional technology specialist in the Westwood district, stressed that the wiki is a collaborative tool - not a social network - that gives children ownership of their work. A classroom homework wiki is accessible to parents, too, and another departmental wiki allows teachers across the district to work together.

Kulick’s wiki has been so successful that students in the last class he taught are now independently posting their work for him and others to critique, she said.

Clearly, the experiment has worked, Kinsman said, adding: “They are teaching each other.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.