• The New Writing Pedagogy
      Using social networking tools to keep up with student interests.
      November 2009

    • Because Cory was in a class that used social networking tools for writing—specifically Elgg, an open source media platform—other students, teachers, family members and even the general public were able to comment on his story.

    • A fifth-grade class at the Saugus (Calif.) Union School District is working on a writing assignment using social networking. The district is leading an ambitious plan to rethink writing instructions and pedagogy in the schools.

    • But as research is showing, students are flocking to online networks in droves, and they are doing a great deal of writing there already, some of it creative and thoughtful and inspiring, but much of it outside the traditional expectations of “good writing” that classrooms require.

    • change is spelled out clearly by the National Council of Teachers of English, which last year published “new literacies” for readers and writers in the 21st century. Among those literacies are the ability to “build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally,” to “design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes,” and to “create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts.” Very little of that kind of work is possible to achieve without expanding the way we think about writing instruction in the context of online social tools.

    • According to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Project study, 85 percent of youths aged 12-17 engage at least occasionally in some form of electronic personal communication, which includes text messaging, sending e-mail or instant messages, or posting comments on social networking sites. In other words, our students aren’t waiting for us to teach them the ins and outs of writing in these digital spaces.

    • “Using online writing tools will allow students to write whenever and wherever they feel inspired, and to be able to speak to an audience that is larger and more important to them than the traditional classroom,” Childers says. “There is a reason why we should constantly be looking for ways to incorporate more innovative writing opportunities into our curriculum.”

    • Key to this rethinking process is articulating these shifts throughout the K12 curriculum, across all disciplines, as well as providing professional development opportunities for teachers to begin to explore writing in these online spaces as well.

      Freshmen at the Academy for Civic and Entrepreneurial Leadership in Fresno, Calif., take tips from social media strategist Peter Lang and his staff, who are helping the students set up their own Facebook pages and school blogs.

      “The shape of writing has changed,” agrees Troy Hicks, author of the recently released book The Digital Writing Workshop and assistant professor of English and director of the Chippewa River Writing Project at Central Michigan University. “Kids are now writing for real audiences and for real purposes, not just other kids in the class or the refrigerator door. And they are composing on computers and on phones in text and multimedia. These are substantial changes.”

    • Chris Sloan, an English teacher and media adviser at Judge Memorial Catholic High School, a college prep school in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, says students still need to be taught how to navigate online environments. Facebook and MySpace, for example, do a “good job” of connecting people socially, but they shouldn’t be the extent of students’ online presence, he says.

      “That is a big fear for me—that we are inadequately preparing our youth for the future,” he says. “I think that the kind of research, learning and jobs of the very near future will increasingly require people to collaborate from a distance.”

    • “Students need to be able to find sources, critically examine them and communicate effectively to the larger group,” he says. “My goal is to inspire students to better themselves as writers, but more importantly, as people.

    • “My students are writing things that they are passionate about and willing to stick with and do research on and talk to other students about,” he says. For example, one of his students wrote a blog post about abolishing school uniforms. “I don’t think he would have written it if he wrote for the school newspaper,” Allison explains. “So it’s like quasi-school. But it’s what he wants to write about. And he’ll get responses from kids in Boston and Utah.”

    • if we are going to live in a digital age, we have to reassess everything that we are teaching in schools to see if there is a digital component or vehicle that is available to utilize,” says Childers.

    • In these online spaces, students and educators write not just to communicate but to connect. Whereas publishing was once the end point in the writing process, it is now a midpoint, the place where the interaction with readers and subsequent conversations begin through comments on or revisions and linking. Sharing one’s writing with a potential global audience is a means to creating networks of learners who share an interest or passion. Their interactions can continue for a lifetime. But while this sharing creates all sorts of opportunities for students, it also creates a new level of complexity that requires they become adept at navigating a more transparent life online and at managing a much more distributed conversation that is carried on asynchronously in many different places. Figuring out how to help students manage those shifts is, in large measure, where schools are struggling right now.

    • That collaborative aspect is another important shift to consider, as the Web continues to facilitate more and more opportunities for people to create together. Tools such as AppJet’s EtherPad, a Web-based word processor that allows people to work together in real time, Diigo, a research tool and knowledge-sharing community, and wikis provide spaces for students to roll up their writing sleeves and create together—an act that, again, adds another layer of complexity to the writing process but one that most see as an important skill moving forward. That has implications for every teacher.

      “How can a math teacher ignore the collaborative potentials of having kids work in a Google spreadsheet?” Hicks asks. “That’s writing too. Collaboration on almost every level is just a part of the equation today.”

    • “Social media, as with all things public, present risks,” he says. “School leaders need to not only understand these risks but also to have a plan to mitigate them.” In Klein’s case, that means providing teachers with the tools necessary to maintain complete oversight of what’s occurring online, a “necessary step” for younger students who are being prepared to move into more public spaces online. It also means counseling teachers about the legal implications of inappropriate use and having a clear policy, which parents sign off on, that covers both in-school and out-of-school use of social tools.

    • In an August 2009 Wired article, Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, offered her own research

    • Hicks believes that “inviting students to create, share, and respond to digital writing” such as blog posts, wiki pages, electronic portfolios, podcasts, and more means they are learning how to compose various texts, with different media, for audiences and purposes within and beyond classrooms. “Teaching with social media can help them learn more than just how to use technology,” Hicks says. “It can help them develop into critical and creative readers and writers as they learn how to communicate with other students, teachers, experts and outside audiences.”

      Angela Pascopella is senior editor, and Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at weblogg-ed.com.

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