When young writers at Edinburgh primary schools were invited to publish their work online, to be critiqued by secondary students, it proved to be the opening chapter in a major success story. The pupils launched wholeheartedly into a project that not only improved their creative writing but also helped forge new friendships, easing the often-difficult transition from primary to secondary school.
The exercise was conceived by Ian Hoffman, head of ICT at Edinburgh's Boroughmuir High School. He was inspired by a speech given by educational technology guru Alan November about the benefits of bringing together creative writers and anonymous mentors to co-operate online.
The pupils employed Think.com, a secure web-based environment that encourages students to work together in safety. Ian Hoffman is one of the teachers spearheading Masterclass, Scotland's successor to New Opportunities Fund ICT training for teachers, and he was introduced to Think.com on his initial Masterclass training. He says: "We were asked to use it for professional development, but in our end-of-course presentations I challenged teachers to employ it with their pupils, too. That meant I had to come up with an idea myself."
Seeing a wonderful avenue for collaboration between his school and its cluster of five primaries, he hit on the idea of asking students rather than teachers to help pupils develop their writing skills. The main aims were to raise attainment in literacy, and provide stimulus and challenge to pupils attempting creative writing at level F, the highest standard of attainment in Scotland's 5-14 national guidelines for English language.
But Ian also wanted to ease pupils' move from primary to secondary, and lay the foundations of an online learning community that would embrace the entire Boroughmuir cluster. He says: "This was an ideal opportunity to focus on the development of 21st century skills - teamwork, collaboration, interactive communication and personal and social responsibility."
As the project did not feature in schools' development plans it had to be done outside lesson time, and Ian succeeded in convincing teachers it would demand very little effort on their part. "I wanted to see if pupils could drive this, with minimal input from teachers."
In spring 2003, three primaries selected a total of 40 pupils for an initial pilot. All were 11-year-olds from Primary 7 (P7) classes. Their mentors were fifth-year (S5) volunteers from Boroughmuir - 16 to 17-year-olds - who were each assigned three young buddies. Mentors and buddies did not meet, and were known only by the abbreviated names (joeb, maryr) in their Think.com email addresses.
Boroughmuir's head of English, Angela Bell, briefed the mentors on the kind of advice that would be most helpful. Ian says: "Later in the project, Angela tried to volunteer more help, and was politely but firmly told that she was no longer involved. The students were taking control - they liked that, and Angela was happy with it, too."
Think.com enabled the writers to create their own web pages where they could publish their stories and poetry. Mentors left comments on "stickies" - the electronic equivalent of stick-on notes - or used email for more detailed feedback. At first, pupils published work they had already completed in the classroom, but soon they were doing their writing online.
Ian says: "I had advised the teachers that it would be best if the creative work was done in Think.com. Students often tell me they find wordprocessing easier than writing with pen and paper, and the children enjoyed multi-tasking - while responding to their stickies and getting involved in discussion groups, they were also busy writing their stories."
He says the senior students enjoyed being able to help younger pupils.
"They appreciated being given a lot of responsibility, and almost all the mentors looked at all the writing, not just their own buddies' work. They were careful not to encroach on other mentors' territory by leaving criticism, but they would say: 'I loved that story, or: I really like your website.' There was a lot of interaction."
When the pilot ended in summer 2003, there was wide agreement among primary pupils that their writing had improved, and that the mentors' help had been invaluable. They also said the experience had been fun. Ian says: "This was a very serious activity, which pupils were doing in their own time in the evenings, yet they did not see it as onerous. It was somehow removed from schoolwork. One mentor said she thought the exercise worked because it was non-threatening - the writers saw their mentors more as friends than teachers."
It was only when the writers arrived for their first term at Boroughmuir that they finally met their mentors. Ian says: "Some were keen to meet, and some weren't particularly bothered - but everyone was keen to sustain the online relationship. It is fascinating to see just how much an online relationship can mean to students."
He says all the new arrivals felt more comfortable about embarking on their secondary career because they had already made friends, and the writing exercise provided a focus for developing what might otherwise have felt like rather a forced friendship.
The first follow-up to the pilot cast the net wider, taking in all 200 P7 children in the five feeder schools and pairing them with S5 and S6 students, solelyfor the purpose of developing friendships online.
New arrivals at Boroughmuir have also paired up with P6 pupils in their old schools, telling them of their experiences at high school. This year, three major projects will focus on writing, modern languages and maths. Ian says:
"We will begin by re-visiting creative writing, and the mentors will also be helping their buddies to create biographies of famous figures, linking with work that is currently going on at all the primaries."
His advice to teachers considering a similar scheme: "Be brave. Don't worry about handing over control to your pupils - you will be very excited by what they can achieve."
* Think.com is provided free to schools by Oracle
LINKS TO MFL
Ian Hoffman is particularly keen to explore the use of online mentoring in modern languages after witnessing a fascinating exchange during the creative writing project.
He says: "One day a group of mentors came in to use the computers during a free period, and while they were commenting on their buddies' writing, one mentor began to write a poem in French on his own web pages.
"The other students began to add to it, and it became a collaborative effort, with everyone eventually discussing their work in French. The exciting thing about Think.com is that it allows these spontaneous developments to happen. It is a simple but very powerful tool if used creatively - and if teachers allow students to take more control of their own learning."