Thinking about teaching writing in a connected world

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The eye is naturally drawn to things you’ve been thinking about. So it was for me last night when I was browsing my Twitter feed and came across Susan Carter Morgan‘s retweet of Angela Stockman‘s link to her article The questions we ask when we begin to teach writing on the WNY Young Writers’ Studio  website. Angela asks:

“Is it possible to teach writing well if your students aren’t aware of what’s possible now? If they aren’t publishing online?”

An interesting question. Although I hadn’t exactly been phrasing it as specifically as this, I’ve been wondering about the task of teaching writing at a time when our publishing options are so many and varied; wondering whether we’re doing our students a disservice if we continue to teach writing the way we were taught. I mean without recognizing the opportunities for a broader, online audience. I’ve been rabbiting on about this for quite some time.

I also wonder why we are still predominantly text-centered with regard to storytelling options when there are so many other options for storytelling, particularly with the new digital possibilities.

“Composing isn’t just about text anymore.”

And it isn’t. That’s not to say it’s any less important to teach textual writing but there are so many other things to consider. If our students are reading stories online, enjoying graphic novels, following and creating stories in virtual worlds, then shouldn’t we be exploring these new forms of narrative with our students?

There’s a mounting list of technological applications which enable and enhance storytelling. These options incorporate visual and digital literacies, amongst others, but writing is still the crux, that is, creating plot, characters, setting. The story itself, is still a matter of writing. As Angela states:

“I don’t focus on genre or the writing itself at first either. I find myself asking questions about who the writers are, what kind of difference they want to make with their words, and for who.”

“When my grandmother died, she left behind her childhood journals and a whole bunch of letters,” someone mentions to me quietly. “Seeing her handwriting helps me hear her voice. It keeps her alive.” And I appreciate this. I know that when I look at my daughter’s blog and when I skim through her Flickr stream or her Facebook updates, I experience the same feeling. For me, it isn’t about the ink. But I’m not the only audience the writers I work with will have. In fact, one thing I do know for certain is that if I’m doing my job right, they won’t be writing for me—they’ll be writing for other people, and their purposes and the tools they will use to connect with them will vary. As a teacher, what I think and what I need doesn’t matter at all. It’s all about the writer.”

I wrote about something similar in a post a long time ago when I found my grandmother’s old autograph book, remarking:

The autograph book demonstrates a lovely collection of shared sentiments, but at the same time, this generation is collaborating in newly found ways to create.

The tools are always secondary to what is being created. Angela says:

“Our first task is to connect writers to themselves, their needs, their vision for the difference they will make, and their ideas. Who do they want to move with their writing? What is the best way to accomplish this? What’s possible, given the range and access of tools that are available today?” (my emphasis)

Trying out blogging as a platform with year 9 students has shifted something seminal to successful and convincing writing. I was nodding when I read Angela’s words:

“My work involves helping writers develop and share their own. What they are writing has to matter to them. It also has to matter to someone else. Otherwise, they will not persevere as writers. It’s as simple as that. School teachers can force kids to write by threatening them with failing grades. Fortunately, we don’t have that awful luxury at Studio, and I’m grateful for this. It keeps us honest. It keeps our writing real. It helps us persevere.”

In her excellent article Remaining seated: lessons learned by writing Judith M. Jester advises teachers to write if they’re teaching writing.

“As a teacher of writing, I consider writing to
be one of the most important things I can do for
my kids. I need to put myself in their place on a
continual basis so that I more fully understand
what I am asking them to do. How can I know
what difficulties they face if I don’t face them, too?
How will I know what strategies to suggest if I
have not tried them first? How will I know the
joy they experience when they are genuinely
pleased with a draft if I have not felt the same joy?”

It’s a shame that teachers are so busy teaching, assessing and writing reports that they don’t have time to do what they teach. Judith is passionate about the teacher modelling writing:

“What they fail to understand is that they will produce better writers if they pick up a pen for something more than evaluation. If they do, they will learn far more about teaching writing than any instructor’s manual can ever tell them.”

I’m not sure that teachers have much of an opportunity to do much more than keep up with teaching their classes, correcting work and writing reports. The expectation of schools, of a curriculum which drives teachers and students towards the final assessments in senior years so that students enter tertiary institutions of their choice – does this allow much room for senior school teachers to choose between what they want to do and what they must do?

The article gives food for thought. Judith writes about the power of process, the power of feedback, the power of audience, the power of modeling, the power of thinking. Definitely worth reading and thinking about.

Wouldn’t it be nice if teachers’ lives were balanced to allow time for themselves – to think, to try things out, to model what they teach, to alleviate the relentless pressure and give them some space just to be. Teachers should be nurtured as learners too, not just have their last juices squeezed out of them.

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5 Comments

Filed under teaching, writing

5 responses to “Thinking about teaching writing in a connected world

  1. This year has been an overwhelming one for me professionally. I spend my days working with teachers in varied contexts–much of it devoted to curriculum design work and lesson study–and with the unveiling of the Common Core Learning Standards in New York State and Race to the Top across our entire nation, staying connected online fell to the bottom of my priority list for a while.

    So, I wasn’t writing.

    And I missed it so much.

    Not the act of publishing—but the writing itself, which for me has become connecting to others who engage with me about the things that I’m interested in or that I’m trying to make sense of.

    It occurs to me that writing is about having an immediate audience now, and they are beside me from start to finish (if I invite them to be). They are a part of the process. This exchange we’re having here is embedded in the process I began and continue around the post that you cite. That isn’t a final copy–it isn’t “done” by any stretch. It was a conversation starter, and the fact that you are carrying that conversation forward has me revising my thinking already.

    When I work with teachers, accomplishing anything often involves aligning processes and purposes or even embedding them within one another. There is never enough time, and I’m finding that it makes more sense to focus on mindfulness and intention and prioritization. We will never have enough time to write, perhaps. But the point you make is compelling–we need to be doing the things we are teaching. Something more: we need to be doing them not simply because it helps us teach better, but because we probably chose to teach this stuff because we love it. It satisfies us and nurtures us and sustains us. We can’t just give that away to others. It’s ours too. You have me wondering how we can align writing with other purposes or embed writing within other tasks, if that’s what we love to do.

  2. Well said – very well said. And now the ideas are multiplying and changing shape in my head. So true – we teach what we ourselves love (loved? hopefully still…) Audience and conversations are just as important to us as they are for our students. Joining our students by writing with them in blogs, for example, allows us to shift our relationship with our students so that we’re with them in a transparent fashion.
    Thank you for leaving such a rich comment, Angela. I hope you find more time to write.

  3. Tania, I came to your blog again, looking for examples of student writing–and found this. I’ve taken some time away from connecting the last few months (much like Angela talks about time away from writing). In taking a break, I also removed commenting from my blog. Which, of course, removes the ability to have conversations about ideas. I’ve been in a vacuum, of sorts, sucking in all kinds of ideas but not participating too well in the back and forth.
    At any rate, you’ve given me so much to think about. You always do.

    • Susan, so good to hear from you again. I understand about the break from connecting, and I remember back in the PLP days you talked about depth of learning, and you weren’t afraid to ask the hard questions. I haven’t removed commenting but I haven’t had many people comment which makes me wonder who I’m writing for. Or why I’m writing. So I really appreciate you dropping by, and thank you for your kind words. I’m really curious about what you’ve been sucking in – will you share at some stage? Maybe we could collaborate in some form one day. Hope to speak to you again soon, Susan.

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