On March 8, 2014, I had the opportunity to tackle a new format for sharing my research–an Ignite Talk. With 20 slides that advance automatically after 15 seconds, those preparing Ignite Talks are given the charge to “be inspiring, but make it quick.”
I chose to talk about “learning pathways.” The word “pathways” showed up in 48 of the 70 session titles at the Digital Media and Learning Conference this year. I had yet to hear, however, someone talk about the concept directly, and critically. In the talk I asked:
In December I had the pleasure of joining a group of 5th graders in the high desert mountains of Utah. That week, my niece, Alaina, and her classmates had just asked their teacher if they could have time to write to children in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. In a discussion with Alaina about how she decided what to write about, it was clear she (and her classmates) were very attentive to the audiences she hoped would eventually read her note. She was thinking about the children who survived, and how they may be frightened by the thought of going back to school. She also talked about how helpless she imagined the community members must feel. To address these weighty matters, she decided to share a fear of her own that could work as a metaphor for moving forward:
So let’s not look for the rain
Let’s look for the rainbow
Let’s look for new hope
There is always hope
Over the next week I had several conversations with Alaina about writing in school. For instance, she was working on an essay comparing and contrasting earthquakes with volcanoes. In class, they had been introduced to the Venn diagram as a way to jot notes. They had lists of transition words for comparison. She was set up for some great content area writing.
Then the time came when Alaina was trying to decide what information to include in her essay. To help her decide, I asked her for whom/to whom she was writing this assignment. I was surprised when she didn’t understand what I was asking–especially considering her attentiveness to audience in her note to the youth in Newtown. She didn’t consider her teacher the audience or her peers who would read it in small groups. There was effectively no audience.
The influence of audience is one of the most well-known findings from this section of the study. Fifty per cent of the 500 written pieces analyzed which were deemed as immature, i.e. with no distinguishable function or audience, were from work completed for English language arts courses. Many of these pieces were considered by the researchers to be ‘dummy runs’ or student products written merely to show a teacher capacity to complete a certain written task (Britton et al., 1976, p. 106). To this day, the importance of creating written assignments with ‘real’ audiences or audiences logically aligned with the purpose of the written task and beyond the teacher as audience is looked upon as instrumental in ensuring student engagement in writing a product, as well as higher quality end products.
Her school district had also begun to use a computerized writing assessment system that has become popular in recent years. In talking to her teacher, her teacher was concerned that Alaina’s scores were not reflecting Alaina’s writing abilities. Determinations about placement and advancement were based on these scores. When I asked Alaina what she took into consideration when writing to the computer program’s prompts and when being assessed by the computer program, she–again–wasn’t sure how writing changed when the rhetorical frame changed. Not only did she not know how to articulate (or have declarative knowledge) about rhetorical frameworks, she wasn’t demonstrating the kind of procedural knowledge she readily applied in writing for her own purposes.
In our digital age, we have more access to distribute written pieces to audiences who previously we could have imagined, but not practically reached. We can compose in varying genres and more easily design with multiple modes to really address topics previously out of reach. In other words, our rhetorical frameworks (form, message, audience) can be realized in the writing we do in schools (and out of school) in ways just a decade ago were far more difficult. However, we’re still seeing “dummy runs” dominate schooled writing, and we are using our digital technologies in ways which essentially distance our students from the “real” audiences they actually have access to. I see many critiques of computer-based writing assessment, but I have yet seen the argument taken up that these programs take writing out of its communicative framework. I think that is an argument we need to make moving forward.
I was pleased to be invited to join Alaina’s class to teach during their next hour dedicated to writing. In my next post, I will share the mini-lesson and guided practice we completed together on the topic of audience. We then extended that discussion into considering what writing for audience means in contemporary times. The young people in that class shared great advice for the demands on writing in a digital, networked age. I can’t wait to share those with you!
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I am ecstatic to have the opportunity to guest host #engchat on Monday 01/07/13 at 7PM EST. By hosting #engchat, I get to have 100s of dedicated and inquisitive English Language Arts teachers think with me about a topic about which I care deeply. What a way to start a new year!
#engchat is a network of English teachers connecting with one and another via Twitter to share ideas, resources and inspiration. This conversation happens every Monday at 7 PM EST. To join, search for the hashtag, #engchat in Twitter or use a tool such as TweetChat to help you follow the discussion. Each week, a guest moderator shares a new idea, perspective or vision of what it means to be an English teacher.
Without further ado, here’s my video invitation to join me on 01/07/13:
Questions To Kick-Start Our Conversation:
How are we accounting for young people’s writing development?
How do you know a child is developing as a writer? What are signs of development?
What dimensions do we want to be paying attention to as educators? What new dimensions of writing do we want to include given advances in digital literacies?
What tools, approaches, resources are you using to map the development of the writers in your classrooms?
Although only the hardback version (a.k.a. expensive collectors’ item) of our new book, Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, shows up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the Buy Now and Desk Copy buttons at Open University Press, U.S.A. are now functional! (Amazon does have a Kindle version.)
With Richard Andrews, Dean of Faculty and Professor of English at the Institute of Education, University of London, I argue that although existing theories of writing development have provided insights into the teaching and learning of writing, we need to bring such theories up to date in the digital age—an age in which, among other things, writing needs to be re-conceived as one crucial component of communication among other modes.
In the book, we review and compare existing models of writing pedagogy, and invite readers to discover for themselves their working theories for how writing and development happen. The theories with which we make pedagogical decisions are the driving force behind why we do what we do; however, they are often tacit, working in our lives unnoticed and unarticulated—making them very hard to be reflective about. In the book, we offer a new theory and model for understanding writing development in the multimodal and digital age. The last few chapters are all about how this model would work in teaching practice and policy.
I can’t wait to be able to discuss it with teachers, teacher educators, literacy researchers, digital scholars, policy makers and writers of all ages!