Writing Across the Technology

This article from The Miami Herald was featured in today’s ASCD Smart Brief.   Richard Sterling, former director of the National Writing Project discusses the potential for online tools for teaching writing:

Sterling believes blogs, MySpace, Facebook, e-mail, IM and texting all have potential for improving a student’s ability to write. While some critics worry about how the abbreviated nature of online and text communication ignores basic grammar and spelling rules, Sterling isn’t concerned.

”Creatively abbreviated words like GR8 and issues like not capitalizing after punctuation don’t worry me — and some changes may eventually become standard,” Sterling says. “Students are savvy, and they will learn to adjust the way they write to fit the audience.”

That last bit–writing to fit the audience and, increasingly, the format–is one of the most important ideas for me as I always found it a difficult topic to deal with in the traditional classroom where it seemed as though I was often the only audience.   The article goes on to quote KC Culver, assistant director of the University of Miami Writing Center:

‘Discussion boards, blogs and wikis present a huge benefit: They give students a real audience, rather than the outdated `student-to-teacher’ writing,” Culver says. “Students put more effort into their critical thinking and writing because they want to be the post that gets commented on. In composition, we like to talk about reading and writing as an ongoing dialogue. With the Internet, this becomes a reality.”

The ideas about audience really hit home with me.  I recently submitted an article to a practitioner journal.  When the editor returned it to me for revisions, one thing she mentioned was that it sounded too academic for her audience.  And she was right.  I’ve been doing so much writing for my graduate courses that it was tough to change gears for a different type of publication. I do know that my writing style changes as I move from academic writing to this blog to a discussion forum to an email.  Lately, I’ve also been playing a bit with Twitter…just what can you achieve in 140 characters?

Finally, the article goes on to talk about “new” types of writing, specifically those incorporating multimedia, which I see as an essential skill in the digital age.   By learning to create multimedia, we are better able to read and understand it ourselves.  Again, it was a lesson I had to learn.  When I set about to make my first long (12 minutes!) video, I started with words and wrote a multi-page, single spaced script.  But, as I sat down to do the creating and editing, I realized I simply couldn’t get all those words into the movie.  Instead, I had to trim the script to just one page and let the images and video clips I used do the heavy lifting for me.  It was a new way of thinking about writing for this old-school English major.

Through all of this, I worry that the standardized tests are limiting the way teachers approach writing instruction with all the focus on writing the five-paragraph essay.   It’s not a terrible form to master in terms of the concept of building an argument but it is pretty artificial when we consider all the formats available for students.  In addition, the writing process is turned into a simple formula (brainstorm, draft, revise, publish) that does not help students understand its recursive nature and skips over the whole idea of reading and writing as a dialog.  Wouldn’t it be fun to have a writing prompt like the one Hall Davidson gave us at the VSTE conference last year: tell a story in six words.  Now there’s a challenge to your writing skills!

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