How to teach writing with digital media

How to Teach Writing with Digital Media with Dr. Sarah Levine

“Really, we have to write?” say some students. No more! If you're working to engage your student in writing that is engaging and exciting, Dr. Sarah Levine from Stanford University has some practical ideas for you and your students. In this episode, you'll learn ways to engage students in writing using digital media. You'll also learn about the incredible idea “audio gifts” which you could use to support writing and gift-giving for the upcoming holiday season. She also gives us the language for how to help students strengthen their writing with strong verbs and concrete language as they create their audio gifts.

How to teach writing with digital media

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Examples of Audio “Gifts”

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Show Transcript

00;00;02;00 – 00;00;24;11

Vicki Davis

Episode a 767, how to teach writing, using digital media. Today's sponsor is Defined Learning, an excellent website full of project-based learning tools and resources to create awesome opportunities for your students. Stay tuned at the end of the show to get a free 60 day access to all of Defined Learning's PBL resources.

00;00;24;22 – 00;00;33;00


Welcome to the 10 Minute Teacher podcast hosted by author, educator, speaker and mom, the Cool Cat Teacher Vicki Davis.

00;00;33;28 – 00;00;55;29


Today we are talking with Dr. Sara Levine. She's assistant professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education. She has spent ten years in secondary English, and now her research focuses on teaching and learning of literary interpretation and writing in under-resourced urban high schools.

00;00;56;02 – 00;01;09;21


And so, Sarah we are talking today about using digital media to teach writing. And is it writing a challenge right now is we're going back to school in fall 2021.

00;01;11;04 – 00;01;30;16


Yes, it's always been a challenge. It's such a difficult thing to teach. In part, I think, because as you know, any teachers in the classroom knows half the time your kids are wondering why it is that they have to write anything, especially if you just had a discussion about something and now you're supposed to write about that

00;01;30;16 – 00;01;40;29


thing. And the kids are wondering why we just talked about it or who's going to read this besides you, the teacher. And I think that's where things get really challenging.

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They can. And I always talk about, we don't want “wastebasket work.” We want to publish for an authentic audience when we can.

00;01;47;01 – 00;02;04;28


Yeah, I completely agree, and it can be really hard to create those authentic audiences. It takes a lot of work sometimes. For example, let's say you want to have a trial, you want to put a character on trial, you want to bring somebody in who's going to act as a judge, somebody who isn't you.

00;02;05;08 – 00;02;22;09


Or let's say you want to publish a review on Amazon or let's say you want to have a poetry slam. All of those things take a lot of work in coordination. And one of the things I've been working on both when I was an English teacher at the high school level and also here now at Stanford is

00;02;22;09 – 00;02;47;10


using audio. That is especially podcasting, but it's really even simpler than podcasting. And really, it's just recording on your phone using audio as a way to create authentic writing with authentic audiences. And one of the interesting things that I've been kind of looking into lately is how for a lot of kids, you don't need a gigantic audience

00;02;47;16 – 00;03;12;00


for something to be important. Sometimes just one person really is enough. For example, I've been working on these little things called audio gifts. So this is a memory that a kid might have about someone special in their lives, and they're going to tell the story of that memory and give that memory as a gift to whoever that

00;03;12;00 – 00;03;30;23


person is in their life. And we have been finding in the research that we've been doing that kids care just as much about making that gift work for that one person, just as they do as if they were going to be published on public radio or, you know, on a commercial radio station with a ton of people

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What a fascinating idea. So as they're preparing their audio gift, are they, I assume writing and preparing that script to prepare to read it? Is there a process involved?

00;03;44;21 – 00;04;03;22


Yeah, there is a process. And so there's a lot of ways you can go about kind of scaffolding for this final product. one way to start is simply by having kids listen to a bunch, let's say, five or ten different audio stories, especially if they're done by kids.

00;04;03;22 – 00;04;22;18


And I can give you a couple of links where you can listen to for free stories written by high school students. So the first thing you might want to do is have your students listen to a bunch of those stories and then compare them to one another as the students to start building criteria.

00;04;22;18 – 00;04;42;24


Which stories did they like the best, which seemed most effective to them, which moved them the most? And then how did those stories do that and what students will come to when they've listened to, let's say, five different stories and said, Oh, I really like that third one because I could really see it.

00;04;42;24 – 00;05;00;06


I could see what they were talking about. I could feel what they were feeling. What they'll get to is that the language that the students are using when they're producing these pieces is what makes those pieces effective. And when you think about writing for radio or writing for audio, you've got some

00;05;00;08 – 00;05;15;08


Really good built in principles for good writing, like, for example, when you're writing for radio. first of all, your story has to mean something. It can't be like you say, just wastepaper basket writing. It has to be a story that is specific.

00;05;15;11 – 00;05;32;11


It needs concrete images and detailed examples because people won't have anything to look at. It's not a movie. You've got to make that movie with your words. It has to be a piece where you're not wasting words. It has to be a piece that has strong verbs.

00;05;32;24 – 00;05;53;17


It has to be a piece without cliches. So these are all things we want students to be doing anyway. It's just that when you're writing for audio, every one of those rules becomes more important. So as your kids listen to these different pieces, they can begin with your help to kind of develop these criteria like all they

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did. They have really strong verbs. Or I could really see what they were talking about when they use that image. And then you want to set up a couple of lessons where they're practicing, for example, using strong verbs, where they're practicing, getting rid of them first, figuring out what cliches are and then trying to get rid of

00;06;13;15 – 00;06;33;05


them. Like a lesson where you say, you know, I had blank in my stomach and everybody says butterflies. That's a cliché. So now we're not going to use that cliche anymore. We're going to try to come up with other ways to help express nervousness that don't have to do with butterflies in the stomach.

00;06;33;09 – 00;06;55;19


Then the second part of the lesson is having kids think about different memories that are important to them and important to one other person living or dead that they can remember. And we describe on tape and then prepare that script as you're talking about to give to that special person like my aunt.

00;06;55;28 – 00;07;11;09


You know, “I remember that day when we,” and describe that memory so that we can hear it and see it and taste it and touch it just like you did. And then once they've done writing their script, then they can practice recording on a smartphone, for example.

00;07;11;16 – 00;07;22;17


And then they're giving that little clip of sound to that one person. They're sharing it with that one person, and that's where the stakes are. That's what makes it authentic.

00;07;22;18 – 00;07;42;05


I love it in particular in it's an older book now. The first book I coauthored with a with another person, Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds. We talked about connecting with many different audiences. In one thing that we said in the book is that connecting with multiple ages, the generation behind you, the generation in front of you, multiple ages actually

00;07;42;05 – 00;07;56;22


adds more meaning and to everything. But it also adds meaning to your life as you make those connections with the multiple ages. So I absolutely love that. Now, do you have any examples of projects that students have done and that really stick out in your mind?

00;07;56;29 – 00;08;15;13


Yeah, I have got a couple that really have stayed with me. one is a kid was remembering this time that she went to Chucky Cheese with her mom when she was little. And she remembered how they went in and she got a bunch of tokens and how she played these different games with her mom and the sound of

00;08;15;13 – 00;08;28;15


Chucky Cheese. And in fact, this kid went back to Chucky Cheese and recorded some of that sound and put it in the background of her piece and how they ate pizza together and what she wanted to share this memory with her mom.

00;08;28;15 – 00;08;43;03


Because now that she's a teenager, they've been fighting. They fight, you know, a lot. And she wanted to just kind of share this memory with her mom to tell her, I'm still here, I'm still your kid. You haven't lost me, you know, and I'll come back around.

00;08;43;05 – 00;09;01;10


And then another great one was a kid who wrote about remembering how her aunt, who was living with her, was working so hard. And one night her aunt came home from work and she was just crying because she missed her kids, who were at home in Mexico.

00;09;01;15 – 00;09;19;06


And this writer, the student writer, wanted to let her aunt know how much she loved her and that if she could do anything in the world for her aunt, she would bring her kids over on the airplane, and she would set them up in first class, and she would bring them so that they walked right into the

00;09;19;06 – 00;09;32;15


Chicago airport and they could hug each other and see each other again. And just, you know, these kind of little pieces of memories that allow someone that you care about to know that you love them and that you see them?

00;09;32;23 – 00;09;41;28


Wow. And so I see I mean, you could even text these or email these after you create your product and you hate to even call it a product because it truly is a gift, isn't it?

00;09;42;08 – 00;09;57;16


Yeah, that's that's why I like this particular approach, and we often would do these around the holidays, but you really can't do them any time. But the idea is, I'm creating this memory for you, so I really want it to be right and I want it to represent that memory correctly.

00;09;57;16 – 00;10;17;09


And it's it's easier for kids, you know, to care. About that than it is like, OK, I guess I'm going to revise my essay on The Great Gatsby, even though that's important too. Yeah, even though that's important too, this is something that still allow students to use strong writing skills to refine their writing to practice important, useful

00;10;17;09 – 00;10;22;06


word choice, but something that they also can give to somebody outside of school that they care about.

00;10;22;07 – 00;10;34;24


Well, and when they learn to remove the cliches, learn to use stronger verbs and learned all of these skills to create this audio gift, then that does carry forward to their great Gatsby essay, doesn't it?

00;10;35;26 – 00;10;53;25


Sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't. Well, I mean, there's a couple of things, so it's just one of them is obviously writing an essay about Great Gatsby is a different kind of writing. But I think what it does if you're going to write another narrative like your college essay, for example, well, then all of those skills apply choosing a

00;10;53;26 – 00;11;10;27


story that's meaningful, finding a particular moment to write about using strong verbs. All of those things apply. And I think applies to reading, you know, beloved by Toni Morrison or The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald and saying, “Oh, let's check out his verbs.”

00;11;11;10 – 00;11;18;09


You know, like, is clearly trying something here with those burbs, I'm just going to check them out and see what they do, what kind of work they do.

00;11;18;12 – 00;11;24;03


OK, so Sarah, so you have teachers that are sold there ready to go? Where do they start?

00;11;24;15 – 00;11;45;00


I would start by going to a website called PRX.Org (, and I'll actually give you a couple of links that will take you specifically to some of these audio gifs that I was just talking about and have teachers listen to a couple of those just to get a feel for what they're like.

00;11;45;01 – 00;12;05;21


Choose a couple that they might want their own students to listen to and then begin developing probably a three to four week writing unit, depending on your time. That goes from listening to stories to having kids build criteria for what makes a good story to having kids decide for themselves.

00;12;05;21 – 00;12;22;02


What kind of moments, what kind of gifts do I think I might want to write about to having kids kind of lay those out and pick the one they think might be the best to having them outline the story, to having them work on the verbs, to having them cut it down, edited it and then to begin

00;12;22;02 – 00;12;34;14


recording and practicing. Recording is also a whole thing because, you know, you can sound really stilted and unnatural, so you got to learn to speak to the person you're talking to, as if they are like a real, live, honest to God person.

00;12;34;22 – 00;12;45;15


Well, and I'm sitting here thinking I can use it to teach Adobe Audition, which is an editing software that I use in this podcast, so I could even incorporate that with writing because all of our classes have to teach writing.

00;12;45;21 – 00;13;00;21


Oh yeah. And I mean, if you really want to dove in, you know, get the kids working on something like audacity, not content, which is free or another editing software, and they can spend a week putting in music, putting in sound editing and a whole other set of skills.

00;13;01;04 – 00;13;28;25


Love this idea. So Dr. Sara Levine from Stanford Graduate School of Education, thank you for this gift of audio gifts. This is fantastic. I've literally never heard of this idea, but it's just so transformational. And then having multiple literacies involved in multiple modes of communication does add meaning, and I love this, so thank you for this best

00;13;28;25 – 00;13;29;14



00;13;29;20 – 00;13;31;20


Oh yeah, my pleasure. Thank you for talking with me.

00;13;32;09 – 00;13;56;13

Vicki Davis

A big thanks to our sponsor Defined Learning. Teachers, if you're looking for engaging project based lessons for your students, I encourage you to take a look at the PBL tools and resources on defined learning. Defined learning provides an online library of engaging hands-on projects, inspiring career focused videos, research resources and more to help you create deeper learning

00;13;56;14 – 00;14;11;18

Vicki Davis

opportunities for your students. Listeners of the podcast can get a free 60 day access to all of Defined Learning's PBL resources by going to

00;14;11;19 – 00;14;18;19


That is and check

00;14;18;19 – 00;14;21;03

Vicki Davis

out their project based learning resources today.

00;14;21;10 – 00;14;34;29


If you enjoyed today's 10 Minute Teacher Podcast, why not subscribe on iTunes? You can also catch up with Vicki on Twitter at @coolcatteacher or level up and learn with her blogs and free resources at

00;14;35;12 – 00;14;36;12


Thanks for listening!

About Dr. Sarah Levine – Bio As Submitted

Dr. Sarah LevineSarah Levine is an Assistant Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Dr. Levine's primary goal as an academic is to help shape the teaching and learning of secondary English teachers and contribute to research that will help students — especially those in urban and under-resourced schools — become independent readers and writers.

Twitter: @s_r_levine







Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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KIMBERLY Carter November 29, 2021 - 10:40 pm

Hi. I truly enjoyed the episode that mentioned “audio gifts.” I couldn’t find a link for this resource. Please help. Thank you! :-)

Vicki Davis January 26, 2022 - 7:42 am

I asked her on Twitter about it and she shared them and I have added it to the post.

Lance Smith March 6, 2022 - 9:59 pm

I am glad I read this! It is good find an alternative to writing. Having students use their resources to get their message across through other means of communication like an audio recording is a fantastic idea. I also like your audio gifts. I think that is a great way to tell others especially your family that you care for them.

Vicki Davis March 16, 2022 - 8:21 pm

Yes, Lance, I also thought Audio gifts was a great idea!


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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere