Patrick Higgins, Jr.

Some Light Weaving

In writing on April 14, 2009 at 11:03 pm

Cross-posted at TechLearning

The future of writing, and thus the teaching of writing, has been featured heavily in both my reading and my conversations lately.  Whether it be via the rapid influx of unemployed journalists into the world of (free)lance writing due to the collapse of major and minor newspapers, various reports citing the fact that students don’t consider the writing they do outside of school to be “writing,” or meetings I’ve been a part of lately, writing and how we teach it is proving to be a hot topic.

With that in mind, there are a few elements flying around my little world lately that call out to be connected together around the central theme of writing: a recent post by Vicki Davis in which she outlines four basic guidelines that anyone in education should follow, Kathleen Blake Yancey’s recent position paper from the NCTE entitled “Writing in the 21st Century,” Larry Ferlazzo’s listing of the best ways in which to connect your students’ writing to real audiences via the web, and finally a recent meeting with my English teachers.

Vicki recently wrote about Jerram Froese’s lament over a colleague’s reaction to a professional article that teachers would be asked to read.  The response from the colleague? “This is too long.  Teachers won’t read it.”   Like Jerram, I take offense to that reaction.  Teachers, as a rule, will default to professionalism, and as an administrator, I have to accept that there will be a segment of the groups I am working with that will disregard any “extra” reading they are asked to do.  However, there is the segment that will read, and that is where I want to focus my energies.    Jerram’s thoughts spurred some wonderful points from Vicki about how we should treat our students and teachers:

  • If we don’t want to sit in a 10 hour session with someone lecturing to us about project based learning — neither should we turn around and lecture to our kids hour after hour.
  • If we want engaging training and MEANING in what we do for professional development, we should do the same in our classrooms.
  • If we want kids to read things and be inquisitive – we should do the same.  When is the last time you took a new idea to the curriculum director.
  • We want our students to have a positive attitude about things they don’t want to do – will teachers have a positive attitude about doing things they don’t like?

When I look at these I see play and the willingness, as Sir Ken Robinson says “to have a go.” After reading Vicki’s and Jerram’s posts, I began to reflect on the English Department meeting I referenced above.

I asked the department to read Yancey’s piece on writing for two reasons: to have a professional conversation centered around the future of writing in the world, and to gauge what they were feeling about the proposed changes from the NCTE that have been forthcoming since its annual convention a few months ago.

(As a brief aside, hats off the NCTE for its forward-thinking stance on media literacy and the changing nature of its definition.  Few organizations have been as pro-active with their membership in helping to move into new territories.)

Yancey calls out three challenges for teachers of writing in her piece:

  • developing new models of composing
  • designing a new curriculum supporting those models
  • creating new pedagogies enacting that curriculum.

The question that my colleagues had after reading through all of this was simple: we know we have to change what we do, and we are willing to do so, but what are we changing into?  What does it look like?  Yancey leads us close to what it will look like in her paper; however, in hearing the question come from them, I immediately begin to think of Jerram’s point (via Vicki’s Four Points).  Their question to me–truly a “so what now?” type question–caught me off guard initially.  I left that meeting thinking to myself

If you are going to ask your staff to read this and take into consideration for our profession, you’d better have read it too, you’d better be prepared to put into practice yourself, and you’d better facilitate conversations to help its application.

Essentially,

be the change you wish to see in others~~Gandhi

But I’ve since turned it back around.  This street is going both ways.  We don’t know where the future of writing is going, but we do know that it’s rapidly changing and while we prepare for these “new models” of composing that the NCTE is calling for, they are being created all around us in the form of connective writing, of digital citizenship, and of participatory media. I understand the need for definition in regards to what we are supposed to be teaching, but let me take us on a short side trip, one that is inspired by my wife.

We are the adults, aren’t we?  When I lose sight of how to effectively parent my 4 year old, my wife always steps in and asks me a very quick question that sets me straight: “He’s 4.  You’re not.  Who’s the adult here?”   Now let’s apply that to some of these new models of composing that we are wondering about.  Larry Ferlazzo posted “The Best Places Where Students Can Write For An “Authentic Audience” in which he dug around for some emerging trends in online writing.  Note some of the sites he selected for inclusion: What Percent?, RecipeSnap, Shelfari, The Art of Storytelling (this one is truly fabulous for stimulating some deep writing), Moment Tracker.  Audience is no longer a single teacher poring over your personal narrative with a micro point Sharpie.  Audience is amplified to the power of 10 or more if we want it to be, and our role in the process is often immaterial.  To a large percentage of our students, publishing is something they do daily–just outside of school.  Our new modes of composition are going to be the marriage of the composing students do outside of school with content-related material we help them craft.  We are the adults, where are we writing?  Are we showing them how we use collaborative technologies to be effective citizens?  Effective teachers?  Effective learners?

As leaders within our buildings, how much importance do we place in modeling expert thinking for our students and teachers?  As teachers of writing, how much writing are we allowing ourselves to do to be the models our students need us to be?  Look at all of the opportunity we have to affect how our students see the world, and more importantly, how the world sees them through their writing.  On all levels, in regards to the teaching of writing, we must be the change.

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  1. What a thoughtful post on the teaching/learning of writing. It gives me much to think about…

    Larry

    • Thanks, Larry. The list you created truly reflects the types of writing we have yet to “codify” in an academic setting, but we should. There is no reason we cannot find a way to explore these new genres with their authentic audience in a manner that teaches good writing skills. What we need, as my English department notified me of, is more relevant curriculum centered around the use, and abuse, of rhetoric in our society.

      And thanks again for the work you do.

  2. Delightful Patrick. We just finished up our 5th Grade writing assessment, I actually go to grade it on Friday. My colleague and I were discussing where to go with out writing next, to which I lamented that our last piece wasn’t quite done yet. Well, the students are finished, but the papers are still sitting on my desk. Is this where it should end?

    Here’s a few gems I’m highlighting and may find their way into my own writing:

    “If we want engaging training and MEANING in what we do for professional development, we should do the same in our classrooms.” This is exactly what I don’t like about PD, it’s delivery (in most cases) contradicts everything we have learned about teaching.

    “If we want kids to read things and be inquisitive – we should do the same. When is the last time you took a new idea to the curriculum director.” And this one kind of hurts to, as I don’t know off the top of my head who our district curriculum director is…in fact I think I am going to ask around our building tomorrow, see how many people even know…

    “We want our students to have a positive attitude about things they don’t want to do – will teachers have a positive attitude about doing things they don’t like?” Now this I am using. Wow, who can argue with that?

    I tell you, what I struggle with is trying to figure out where to go, where and what they should do with their writing. There are just so many places, I get overwhelmed and start thinking that my desk is all I can handle right now. And part of that is because of how much NCLB seems to have compartmentalized subject within elementary schools, i.e. Why are you writing in reading class?

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