So what does writing literacy look like in the context of these Read/Write Web tools? I mean think of the many different ways that we “write” in our networked lives, ways that differ from the modes that were in primary use just 10 or 15 years ago when I was actually teaching students “how to write” (whatever that means.) Here’s just a quick list of the different ways writing occurs for me today:
- Blogging, which, when I have the time to do it, means expending some intellectual sweat into synthesizing ideas and reflecting on the things that I am reading. It’s writing that is intended to engage; I constantly put myself in the reader’s shoes and try to anticipate reactions and responses because (surprise!) the reader can.
- Commenting, which, when I have the time to do it (and I’ll stop adding that from here on out) is meant to probe or support or question. I wonder, is there a “literacy” to commenting?
- Writing articles or essays for publication, which is the most traditional writing that I do these days. The sense of audience is still present, but there is a huge difference in the way it settles over what I write. I know I may never get feedback on those pieces, that I may never engage in a conversation around the ideas as I do here on my blog. And that changes the voice, the tone, and the style. (Writing books would probably fall in here as well.)
- Tweeting, which has become a bizarre new micro genre, hasn’t it? Tweets are pretty narrow in scope for me. I Tweet to update my presence (“On a propellor plane to somewhere.”), to ask a question, to respond to others’ Tweets, or to play. But the asynchronousness of it makes it difficult. I’m writing for response, but I’m not as patient about getting that response as I am with my blog. And obviously, it’s mostly reaction, thin thinking, not sweat.
- Chatting or IM, which I am surprised at how much I do, usually in Skype and Gmail. It’s more synchronous, I don’t care as much about misspellings and errors, it’s conversation. But the way I chat certainly varies depending on whom I’m chatting with.
- Writing in video or audio, which I don’t do so much, but have a couple of ideas that I’m working on. Writing in pictures, digital storytelling, can be very compelling and useful but require a different way of thinking about the message, no?
And I’m sure there are others. But I wonder, with all of these different ways now of communicating in writing, does that change what writing literacy is?
All of this comes from a recent post by Barbara Ganley, one of my favorite all-time bloggers and one of the few teachers I think I would actually get into a four-walled classroom with again. In her Creative NonFiction course at Middlebury this fall, she’s leading her students into a whole bunch of different writing environments in ways that I find fascinating. I mean, think of what that course would have been a decade ago. Pretty much essay. Pretty much paper. Maybe some hypertext. Maybe some getting outside the classroom in limited ways. But check out her unit on the uses of multimedia to “write” online. Not only will her students be blogging, they will be creating group “Twitterstories“, linking to pieces of art and posting links to the class Flickr group, writing in one-sentence hypertext shorts, and creating digital stories using the tools outlined in Alan Levine’s 50 Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story resource. And more.
Barbara blogs about the course, saying:
This is the most challenging course I have ever taught because I’m asking my students–right from their first days as undergraduates– in large part to unlearn how they have been taught to read, to write, to connect with the measure of their own work. [Emphasis mine.]
When I get to the part about literacy in my presentations, I always ask how many of the teachers in the room are teaching their students to read and write in different modes, in hypertext, with art and photos, in audio and video, using all of them combined. I’m surprised if I get more than a hand or two going up. And I’m sure that what’s happening in Barbara’s class isn’t happening in very many other college courses either. Traditional writing is absolutely still important, but writing is more complex than just text on a page (usually a paper page) these days.
Makes me wonder, with all of the different ways in which I write, all of the different audiences I write for, all of the different ways I attempt to communicate and engage in conversations and connections around my ideas, it makes me wonder whether we’ll ever see these many modes of writing as important enough to teach our kids.
(Photo “Hand (made)” by 3blindmice.)
“…one of the few teachers I think I would actually get into a four-walled classroom with again.”
You’ve railed against the system, which could use some railing, but with this quote you’re railing against individuals…individuals who, by my estimation, are putting food on your table.
Tom Hoffman says
Some of these media (and/or genres) are just less formal than what we’ve ever seen the need to teach in English. We haven’t generally taught, say, personal letters, graffiti, personal diaries, talking to a friend on the phone, or dinner party conversation. You can make an argument that we should have been teaching these things all along, and I think that’s the argument that you’d need to make.
But we have traditionally taught more than just essays. You taught journalism and the various genres that entails. We’ve always had “creative writing” and business writing. Schools have always published yearbooks created by students. Etc., etc…
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment Ed. But I’m not saying there aren’t lots and lots of wonderful teachers out there that I would love my kids to learn from. I’m talking about for me…the 40 something old guy who has been doing the vast majority of my learning in the network for the last seven years now and has experienced a complete transformation in the way I learn. Please don’t read that as an indictment against classroom teachers in general. It’s not. That’s my personal reality.
Lisa Linn says
As a middle school English teacher and sometime blogger, I find your insights here especially interesting. Although less formal, the forms you discuss must be explored as alternative (or additional) genres. OK, maybe not Twitter, but that has its place as well. I use Twitter for the amazing links from people I respect (most of whom I don’t know personally), sometimes to an instant web 2.0 activity such as Ustream(s), and to gain alternate views of educational issues that are important to me.
If it is our job to teach students to be global citizens in a global workforce, then we must recognize their preferred modes of communication, albeit with an understanding that those will change and mature, as all learning and writing does.
The eleven year olds I teach are just beginning to understand what “audience” means since their audience has always be teachers. I’m not sure many educators realize what kind of cognitive jump that entails, mostly, I don’t think it occurs to us. The trick then, is to “hit them where they live” so that they see a defined difference in types of writing and their uses. Most of them have never considered that they would want to write with intention other than having to complete assignments at school. Middle school is where they start writing to and for each other; in the form of notes, songs, raps, and chat messaging, and that makes all the difference. If they can see the intrinsic relevance, which they do more easily when the web (or their friends) are involved, then their writing should take on more substance, more depth, and more innate relevance.
So while I struggle to teach my sixth graders the “appropriate” way to write a formal summary, I am also worrying that this skill is not one that needs to be taught for nine weeks, except for the fact that their formal district writing prompt will be a summary. The saddest part? It is only loosely fitted under expository writing and NOT one of the forms mentioned in the California state standards. Go figure! So, being the educator I am, I will spend countless hours of my own to start a class blog or wiki (I haven’t decided yet) to teach them what I believe to be more important skills for their continued growth an learning, which they will no doubt much prefer to the seemingly pedantic forms they must learn because the “powers that be” say so.
Lisa M Lane says
It occurs to me that no one taught *us* how to blog and tweet. We picked it up because we were able to adapt our basic knowledge of communicating through text to different media.
Will Richardson says
@Tom…I agree that we haven’t just taught one genre, but those others you mention aren’t a part of the core curriculum. Journalism, yearbook, business writing etc. were and are electives more than anything else. I guess my question is should these new modes be required and integrated throughout the curriculum.
@Lisa Lane…I think lots of people “taught” me how to blog and they continue to teach me. Sure, I took the initiative, which may be different from a K-12 classroom student, but the question becomes do we teach our students how to adapt effectively to these different media?
I think that there is a possible third-dimension learning benefit in some of the modes of writing that you list. Take one mode, blogging, for instance… You might write in a blog with a general “blog” style but vary your writing based on the intended audience- teachers, students, parents, the public etc… There is a lot of critical thinking and reflection that goes into writing for a particular audience and even more when you try to make it discernible for a wide audience. I think that the same could be said for the writing craft in other modes.
When people, students included, don’t have the opportunity to write in different modes for different audiences a valuable learning experience is lost.
Ann O says
Your post gave me a lot to think about. We are in the middle of a sea of change. I taught my first set of adults how to use the Internet August 2006. I now teach children and over the last six years what I see as important changes annually as the tools I have access to change and improve. Stop by my blog to see my reflection on your post. It was getting too long for a comment.
Emily Vickery says
This has nothing to do with this post so I don’t expect to see it. I just didn’t know how else to get this to you. There was an NPR story on Morning Edition.
On how the Southern California radio station KPBS lead the way on fire information using Twitter and Google’s My Map.
And, by the way, this post on pushing writing literacy is fantastic! Thanks.
“… of these Read/Write Web tools?”
Although the phrase is used by many, I tend to cringe a little every time I run across this. I’ve come to call it ‘Web Cubed’ (acutally envision the word ‘Web’ with a power of 3 symbol attached to it) — consume, contribute, collaborate. Yes, you heard it here first (unless you read my blogs), so now the question is ‘What does writing literacy look like in the context of these ^Web Cubed^ tools?’
Kevin Amboe says
“it makes me wonder whether weâ€™ll ever see these many modes of writing as important enough to teach our kids”
Wow. This one resonates. I have been an advocate for writing to be understood as more than paper and pencil. Many teachers are moving in that direction; however, they are often seen as leading edge or doing something special. Shouldn’t it be common practice to actually teach students to be literate in today’s and tomorrow’s society?
Kathy P says
I am an English teacher for 9-12 and have recently started blogging with my students outside of class. I take it as an opportunity to get their real opinions without being formal. They can use slang on the blog because they’re more comfortable leaving responses when they don’t have to worry about grammar. Then in class we study formal writing as well. Eventually, their grammar improves and blog responses sound more formal.
I am also an advisor for newspaper and the writing is completely different. The kids love it because they can express themselves. Creative Writing is another elective I love to teach because of this. But unfortunately, they are just electives.
It is really difficult to expand people’s ideas of what literacy is. In my job, I work closely with specialists in my district who are having a major impact on literacy instruction. They are both fabulous, but it is hard to get technology infused even into traditional literacy instruction at times, let alone to talk about digital literacy, how hypertext differs from print media, and so on. With so many students actually online, this may well be the way to help many of our students actually maintain and improve their literacy.
I get discouraged when I see report after report talking about what we need to do in the primary grades, and they neglect creating a love of reading to start off with. Kids who stop reading, at whatever age, are ones who skills begin to regress, even if they were up to par at one time. Online literacy may salvage many, but we are not addressing those needs as well as we should.
Angela Maiers says
Will, I love your blog. This post is especially near to my heart. I have been working with teachers and students on exploring their writing territories. Writing in school is so far removed from how we live our “writerly” lives outside the school walls. This post opens up the important and necessary dialogue of how the definition of 21st century writing needs to be expanded and explored in all our classrooms. Great Post!