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Archive for May, 2014

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Do you personally enjoy writing? Do you find it more difficult than speaking, reading, or listening? I’m a writer at heart, and even I would answer yes.

That realization has been at the heart of my exploration of how to teach and encourage writing.

Recently, I read an article in The Reading Teacher titled “Inquiry about Learning and Learners: Why do we find writing so hard? Using journals to inquire into our teaching.” The article was about teachers struggling to reflect in journals about their own teaching. Instead, teachers found study group sessions in which they shared perspectives on what was happening in their classrooms or read and discussed articles on teaching more valuable. They enjoyed journaling about their teaching experience least even though they actually found the reflection process helpful:
“But despite the fact that two thirds of us did not like journal writing and did not want to continue, the writing we did in journals was much more reflective than the talk that took place during study group.” They value group study, but recognize that writing provides greater reflection.

What a fascinating paradox!

The researchers in the group found that, among the problems that the teachers identified with journal writing, two stood out and “seemed to be more significant in explaining why writing was so hard for most of us”:

  • having prior difficulty with journal writing
  • writing as a stressful, difficult endeavor

Wow, that sounds like what many of my students experience; yet, these were teachers – some of them writing teachers!

The researchers recognized that, unlike social, collaborative study groups where teachers build upon each other’s ideas, writing is an individualistic activity. The writer is alone without the richly supportive and interactive environment of the group. Journal writing (blogging essentially) became for many teachers “emotionally troublesome and even threatening.”

If teachers are using that language, what might some of our reluctant students be experiencing?!

Fortunately, the researchers (teachers themselves, remember) offer some strategies that I believe would work equally well with students struggling to write.

  • In study group sessions, begin with everyone writing or sketching before talking. Allow individuals to read what they’ve written so that writing becomes a communal activity.
  • Refer to journaling as process, not product. Place the emphasis on journaling as ongoing inquiry. As the researchers underscored, “School teaches us that we write to display what we know, not to discover new ideas … good thinkers need to overcome the lessons they learned in school.” Good thinkers – meaning teachers, students, everyone – need to view writing just like thinking and speaking. We continually express, reconsider, revise, consume new information, and express again. That’s the thinking, speaking, and WRITING process. Journaling or blogging can exist anywhere in the spectrum of that process.
  • The key is to look at journaling as first-draft thinking and expressions of tentative understanding. We need to move away from “doing it right the first time” or “writing as test” mentality. Writing needs to be part of the exploration process too.

I plan to have this understanding of writing as the focus of my presentation, “The New Literacy,” at The Martin Institute in two weeks. I’m just getting some of my “first draft” ideas on paper.

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I just finished rereading Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. I’m giving a presentation in Memphis next month at The Martin Institute titled “The New Literacy,” and I’m reviewing some of the works that have informed my thinking on this subject. Wagner’s book especially highlights the need to help budding writers create focus, energy, and passion in their communication through the development of an authentic voice. We English teachers generally come to our discipline through a love of literature and writing about literature. As a result (and because no one has taught us to do otherwise), we teach writing almost solely through the reading and critiquing of the canon. It’s as though the consummate form of written expression is reached when one has mastered the five-paragraph expository essay on Hamlet’s indecisiveness or Gatsby’s myopia.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s much that is good about the five-paragraph essay. Writers learn to grab their readers, make an argument, defend that argument through evidence, and summarize their perspective. Personally, I appreciate it when someone, whether published in print or talking on television, can do this with clarity and concision.

The problem is that we English teachers have placed too much emphasis on form over function. The five-paragraph essay does offer a clear-cut, easy-to-teach formula for clear, succinct writing, but who uses that form of writing in the real world? I’ve asked that question many times, and even in presentation halls filled with teachers, I’ve never had anyone respond that they regularly – or even irregularly – write five-paragraph essays. It’s just not done outside of the halls of a secondary school classroom.

Instead, I’ve been asking writing practitioners, which means pretty much everyone I encounter, what form of written expression they use to communicate. The answers (in no order of prevalence or frequency of use) are emails, texts, letters, blog posts, social media posts, tweets, memos, reports, brainstorming sessions, medical charts, songs, short stories, resumes, diaries. I didn’t interview students or academicians. Just regular folk. And no one answered, “five-paragraph essays.”

So the question seems to be, if we’re trying to help prepare students for the real world, why are we focusing so much on one form of writing that isn’t even used in the real world? If we believe that form should follow function, and we know that students need to function as creative, clear, cogent writers, why don’t we develop them as writers using the authentic writing forms of the modern world?

For instance, what if I asked my students to reduce this blog post to a tweet? That’d teach concision and clarity. What if I asked them to write a letter to their English teacher advocating this form of instruction? That’d teach audience, voice, and persuasion. What if I asked them to compose a resume of their learning experience in high school with a bullet point expressing their writing capabilities? That’d teach reflection, analysis, and summarization.

In his book, Wagner repeatedly emphasizes that he hears the same mantra from employers all over the nation: employees need to be better communicators. The questions we teachers need to be asking are how are people communicating today, what makes those forms of communication effective, how might we develop those forms of communication in our classrooms. The new literacy demands it.

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