An Evolving Writing Classroom
Visit my tenth-grade English class today and you’ll likely find a lively, dynamic environment. You might see Randi listening to her friend’s narration and providing feedback on the quality of the audio, Casey helping a classmate scan images from a scrapbook, or several other students with microphones and headsets looking for quiet places to record. You won’t see me lecturing, but you might see me conferencing with Megan, who thinks her fifth draft finally hits the focus of the story she’s been trying to tell. This organized chaos is something I have come to embrace, but my classroom didn’t always look like this.
* * * *
I am sad to admit that in my first year as a teacher, I struggled to provide meaningful, relevant writing opportunities for my students. Because none of the writing assignments honored their voices or seemed purposeful, students were bored and exhibited little progress. However, over the next few years, following the example of an experienced teacher in my department, I incorporated a few projects that employed iMovie and other technologies, and the level of engagement I saw in my students excited and interested me. Students took real ownership over their work, and I was suddenly obliging their requests to arrive as early as 6:00 a.m. and stay as late as 7:00 p.m. to polish their video inquiry projects. My classroom had evolved into a kind of digital learning community, one in which my students, inspired by the presence of an authentic audience and motivated to impress their peers, threw themselves into their work. It valued the multiple intelligences required to produce successful multimodal digital projects, and it strengthened my students’ technology skills. I realized I was on to something. The benefits of this new classroom environment and the rich, compelling nature of these modern compositions became even clearer when I observed one student’s transformative experience with digital storytelling.
Shawn, a student in one of my sophomore English classes, helped me recognize the power of digital writing. Like several other teenage boys in his class, he enjoyed working with his hands and admitted that English wasn’t his strongest subject. Getting him to turn in work was sometimes a struggle. When I introduced a digital storytelling project, however, I saw a dramatic change in his outlook. He announced immediately that he knew exactly what he would write about, and shortly after I assigned the project, he chose to stay after school on a Friday afternoon to upload images, even though the pictures weren’t due until the middle of the next week. Because he could visualize the piece he planned to write, he was simply too excited to wait. With some writing conferences and plenty of revision, Shawn crafted a powerful story about the Maine woods (see above) that he was anxious to share. When presentation day rolled around, Shawn’s classmates watched his story in awe. As his teacher, I was both excited and baffled by this surge of writing energy. Where had this kid been all year? What made this digital writing so appealing to him?
Now that I recognize digital writing’s ability to challenge students’ thinking and provide them with real purpose, my students now respond to literature on blogs, collaborate on Wikis, peer conference on Google Docs, and shoot and edit digital video. Integrating technology in these ways raises several questions. Is this digital writing a new writing or is it traditional writing in a new medium? Does digital writing require new knowledge and new expectations of teachers as well as students? Does it mean we need to abandon the traditional ways of teaching writing? From my perspective, the essentials of writing instruction still stand firm. I want my kids to be able to communicate effectively, which means they need to have a command of the basic conventions of written and spoken English; to present work that maintains a clear focus and is organized enough for the reader, listener, or viewer to follow; to be cognizant of the tools and techniques that make for rich writing: specific detail, powerful imagery, and thoughtful examples; and to be clear about purpose and have a solid understanding of who their audience might be. These have always been important elements in writing instruction, and I don’t think that will change. They are timeless indicators of strong communication, despite genre or presentation method. So what is different about digital composition? I see clear benefits in the authenticity of the students’ audience, the collaborative nature of the process, and the multimodal quality of digital projects.
In my experience, digital writing offers a purpose beyond the grade and the teacher’s expectations. Digital stories, for example, are clearly meant to be shared with an audience students value, an audience composed of peers, friends, and family. The stories aren’t designed to be collected by the teacher, graded, handed back, and later thrown away by the student. When students compose digitally, they seem to be more aware of their audience and do a better job of adjusting their tone, diction, and syntax to support their purpose in addressing their readers, listeners, or viewers. They are also more likely to want to revise and polish their work. When students produce powerful, sometimes heart-wrenching stories that need telling, they are usually intent on making sure the tales unfold with the greatest possible impact. Sierra, for example, drafted her story about her father several times to make sure she was telling the story just right. Like Sierra, many students find empowerment in these successes as they receive positive feedback from unexpected places. I love it when I prepare to share a previous student’s digital story as a model and a student pipes up from the back: “Oh, I heard this story was really good!” If accomplished digital composition has become a topic at the lunch table, an authentic audience clearly reinforces my students’ efforts to achieve.
The National Writing Project recently collaborated with Google in a project called “Letters to the Next President” that asked students to write persuasive essays and post their pieces on a website. After exploring the qualities of effective argument, my students used Google Docs to collaborate and receive feedback from me and from each other. They wrote about topics that mattered to them—animal rights, offshore oil drilling, taxes, and national security—and shared their ideas with an authentic audience, not just the teacher. As their teacher, I was amazed to see the enthusiasm with which these students wrote their pieces. Writing for a national audience clearly motivated them to consider their writing more seriously, and after publication, many of them came to class with updates about what was being featured on the site.
Digital writing also affects students’ composition process. Digital writing tools like Google Docs, blogs, and Wikis encourage collaborative effort, a valuable pursuit in the classroom. Being able to work collaboratively, especially in ways that utilize technology, is an important skill. The world is becoming smaller as technological tools make global communication simpler and more efficient, so our students need the appropriate preparation and practice to be knowledgeable and competitive in the modern marketplace. Furthermore, when incorporated purposefully, digital writing elevates standards and challenges students to think in new, multi-dimensional ways.
Instead of simply writing a brief research paper on a period in American literature, my junior English students collaborated on a class Wiki. Their pages included text, images, video, and links to other work. Instead of the linear research paper, the site was multimodal and more complex. It also served a purpose as an online go-to guide that would be available for every student in the class; therefore, it had an authentic audience. In addition to demonstrating a more sophisticated understanding of the material and providing opportunities to discuss and evaluate source reliability, the project pushed my students to consider what it means to be a productive and helpful group member. Since much of the work to construct their pages happened at home, students had to learn to use this collaborative tool cooperatively, especially because I was able to track who had contributed what to each page using the editing history feature. Small groups could no longer delegate all of the work to one member. In fact, squabbles over who had added or deleted parts of the site became conversations about effective communication. Asking my students to collaborate on this piece of digital writing provided a richer learning experience than a more traditional assignment.
Because digital writing often moves beyond the text itself, students need to pay attention to where the writing and the visual aspects of their work intersect. As they write and revise their stories, they must consider what images might effectively parallel the text, an awareness that invariably alters their pieces. While commenting on early drafts of digital stories, I often need to remind students that after the writing process, they will need to find photos to enhance their writing. Sometimes, this requirement forces students to reconsider the content of earlier drafts, but it also eases them into a metacognitive process in which they consider the tone of their work. As a result, I hear students converse about how well a particular photo effectively symbolizes an abstract idea, or I might overhear a debate about the appropriateness of background music. The additional “layers” that digital writing supports provide rich writing experiences that encourage higher-order thinking.
In a literature unit focused on recognizing, analyzing, and articulating tone in poetry, my students utilized VoiceThread to share their understanding. VoiceThread is an online application that invites multiple users to comment and join in conversation around images, video or other media. In our case, students selected poems and recorded themselves reading the poems on VoiceThread. They then uploaded images that they felt reflected the tones of the various poets. Combined with written explanations that defended their image choices, this visual connection required more of them than simple written analyses. Students were asked to move beyond the printed page and present their interpretations in multiple dimensions (or layers), and as a result, they spent more time in close reading, leading to greater understanding of the texts.
VoiceThread, in fact, demonstrates all three of the characteristics of a digital learning community. In addition to supporting text in multiple layers, it invites readers to add their own comments, which supports understanding and expression as a collaborative pursuit. And, because VoiceThreads are shared with a wide audience on the Web, students are genuinely engaged in their work.
* * * *
Like any English teacher, I still ask my students to think critically and communicate effectively. I haven’t abandoned traditional writing processes, but I haven’t stayed rooted in them, either. To do so would ignore the digital world in which my students already live and operate, a world that requires a new set of skills to compose and share. Inviting my students to a collaborative digital learning community means engaging them in relevant composition processes for which they have authentic audiences. After seeing what my students have produced in the past few years, I could never go back to teaching writing as I did as a first-year teacher. Now, more of my students leave my classroom like Shawn did: as writers, digital storytellers, researchers, and filmmakers who see writing as a rewarding and purposeful pursuit.