Anna Smith, educational researcher & teacher educator blogging about composition in the digital age, contexts for learning, theories of development, and global youth.
Last month I had the pleasure of guest hosting the weekly #engchat on Twitter. Sixty minutes zoomed by as the tweets poured in in rapid succession. I knew I would need some distance and time to reflect on the wide range of ideas and extended multiple conversations that happened that night. After combing through the responses to just the first question of the night in the archives of the chat session, I realized that this would have to be a series of reflections. I am no Wonder Woman. So, without further ado, here is the first question and what I saw as a few of the salient points made in just the first 15 minutes of the evening’s chat.
In addition to goals that we had for young writers’ written products and abilities, most of the tweets focused on aspects of writerly dispositions that rarely, if ever, are mentioned in curricular materials. Here’s a sampling:
In looking over these tweets, I was struck by how intertwined comfort, confidence and risk-taking are…and not only that, but also how integral they are two learning and growth. I began trying to sort out the chicken/egg causal relationship between these aspects. Are we more confident because we are comfortable in taking risks? Or are we more comfortable because we’ve experienced risk-taking (successful or not), and if successful we gained confidence in knowing what we know and what we don’t know? Or do we have enough confidence to have comfort to take a risk? Or is this line of questioning not really that fruitful?
Our society is set up to look for cause and effect, especially when the question is development, but that simply isn’t how we make meaning of our experiences–and how we make sense of experiences is central to growth. I thought about Joe Bower’s recent post What Learning Looks Like in which he broke down aspects of learning, including comfort, confidence and risk, all happening at the same time in a girl’s run down a snow slope. (It’s precious, if nothing else. Worth a quick watch. Watch all the way through!)
My guess is that we could (and someone probably has) tease out the causal links, but I think what is more helpful to us as teachers of writing is to focus our attention designing writing experiences with attention to comfort, confidence and risk-taking. And not only focus on these single experiences/performances, but focus on designing writing experiences over time and attending to comfort, confidence and risk in these experiences over time. We often talk about single lessons or tasks, but as a question of growth, we want to pay attention not only to the single “sign of growth” but to how that occurs over time and through experience.
We can also see these three aspects (comfort, confidence, risk-taking) as dispositions (or the writer’s approach or orientation) toward writing. Another “sign of growth” that many #engchat participants brought up was revision. This is not that shocking if you think about what writing is. (Writing and revision are nearly synonymous, imo.) What was interesting to me was how people were talking about youths’ approaches or dispositions toward revision. I think this is indicative of another aspect of growth that receives short shrift in curricular materials.
There are so many other tweets from our chat that I could post here, but I’ll move on for now. I want to point out the language of these tweets: “trying new moves,” “playing around with,” “varying…trying…the process is messy,” “looking at feedback as…not feeling like they did wrong,” “being comfortable in the discomfort of being lost as a writer.” So many of these not only indicate that youth are revising their pieces of writing in one way or another, but that they are doing it in a way that frames writing as experimental and positions themselves as player. I used the word “player” purposefully there, because it is not just being playful–which it is–but also (using a sports metaphor) being the one handling the ball on the field. The writer as player is the actor in the midst of the action. Now, if we go with this metaphor, we have to note that the field or game is messy, messy, messy. The player can act, but isn’t in control of all elements. Writing isn’t something with steps or formulas. It isn’t a performance of set skills. Rather it’s an activity that needs the player to bring “her game.” This is all an orientation toward writing. And though we were describing it as a “sign of growth,” it may well be an orientation toward writing that is necessary in order to learn from that writing activity.
Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Ball State University
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