I need to confess. As an English/Language Arts teacher with nearly three decades of experience teaching writing in her professional backpack, I am supposed to know what I am doing. But the radical changes in the way we communicate in contemporary society have led me to dive deep into an existential crisis.
What I Know and What I Don’t Know
I know that a focus on building skills to communicate effectively in our media-driven, socially-networked world is more essential than ever. I know that harnessing the power of language (and images) to persuade and convince others requires a kind of mastery that nearly every member of society will need to access on a regular basis. I know the five-paragraph essay is dead – and should have been buried a long time ago – because it is a meaningless, formulaic construct. I know that asking students to write formal literary analyses has no real application for the majority of our students, who will not ever need to deconstruct a poem or discuss a story’s narrative structure in their professional lives. Yet these assignments are the stuff of my livelihood and profession, and I am struggling with what to do instead.
I should say, actually, that the problem is that I don’t know where to start. You see, I’ve completely bought into the idea that what we teach our students should be authentic, that is, tangible and real in ways that are meaningful and purposeful for our students. If I am to teach my students to become masters of their own self-expression through writing, my work should be delivered in terms of teaching them the actual forms and contexts that they encounter – and will encounter – throughout their lives, right?
What about the Common Core State Standards?
As I understand them, the Common Core standards still generally address writing in very traditional ways: as exposition, as narrative, and as analysis. These categories, while useful for looking at what writing can do (describe or explain, tell a story, convey complex thought), also encourage English teachers everywhere to continue to teach writing in the same old, inauthentic ways: tell a story about an embarrassing moment, describe the feelings the poem evokes for you, analyze the way the author conveys a theme. I’m not saying these ways of approaching English and Language Arts aren’t useful. They just don’t resonate for me or my students in today’s world.
My List of Contemporary Writing Activities
A recent conversation at SocialEdCon/ISTE Unplugged about online writing (let’s face it, most of the writing our students will do will be online in one format or another) led me to start the following list of contemporary forms of writing we need to address with our students. How such writing is made authentic depends on the context of how it is introduced in each learning environment, and, of course, this is where things get tricky. Tricky or not, here is my tentative list:
- Text messages to friends vs. text messages to colleagues
- Captions for photos that convey important and relevant information
- Questions that probe and dig for what matters
- Status updates that share a mood or point of view with a particular audience
- Comments on blogs and other interactive sites that continue the conversation
- Reviews of videos, music, products or services that argue a point with convincing detail
- Email that expresses an appropriate tone, conveys information succinctly, and invites further discussion or commentary
- Collaborative documentation (Google docs, wikis, etc.) that goes beyond divvying up and delegating sections to become, instead, actual co-construction
- Elegant tweets that add value and share perspective in a community of learners
- Blogs (in all their multitudinous forms) that allow ideas and information to percolate over time
- Citizen journalism that bears witness to the news of the day
- Storyboards and scripts that lay out way all the elements of how a video or audio will unfold
- Proposals to make, do, or change something
- Process analyses that examine the way things work
- Syntheses that draw together and make meaning of complex, disparate resources and multiple media; and
- Reflections that share transparently and probe thoughtfully.
Note that the Common Core emphasis on traditional rhetorical modes can be employed in many of these arenas. Text messages are essentially a kind of dialogue, and a tweet can certainly tell a story in 140 characters. Reviews and proposals are analytical arguments of a sort. Captions and status updates can describe; a process analysis explains in careful detail. Many of these forms use multiple ways of writing at once (reflection, for example), and some, like synthesis, invoke complex ways of organizing and thinking that are often overlooked in school. Finally, all of these forms of writing should incorporate visual elements as well as language. Drawings or sketches, screen shots, info-graphics, photographs, video – these things are just as important as the written word in conveying what we need to say today.
A Conundrum and a Sign of Hope
The forms in which our students write day-to-day give us a starting place for addressing authenticity in the English/Language Arts classroom. But they also leave out some of the artfulness of language I would mourn the loss of. So, I am still left pondering a conundrum: how can we teaching writing authentically and celebrate its power to move an audience, to invoke beauty, and make music? I find myself asking, Where is the place for poetry in the contemporary, digitized, socially mediated world?
Yet, attending a second day of ISTE Unplugged introduced me to the Global Education Summit, where I found some hope. Summit host Lucy Gray invited Rob Sbaglia of the Castlemaine North Primary School in Victoria, Australia to Skype into the conference. Rob described how he created an international Writer’s Club where students are empowered to write and connect in truly authentic ways with a global audience of readers. The keys to his success are simplicity of design, adaptability to different disciplines and age groupings, and the students’ freedom to pursue individual interests.
Also at the Global Education Summit, Jennifer Klein spoke about her work connecting students from around the world using poetry and art as a means to create dialogue. Embedding her work with students in the Taking IT Global network, she asked students to share their writing, artwork, and photography as a means of creating empathy and understanding of multiple perspectives about international conflicts. At one point, she described a teenager who articulated her own transformation from someone who looked only inside herself to someone who looked at the whole world. For a teacher like me, this was powerful inspiration.
Confessed and absolved, now I’m renewed and ready to change direction and start again.