Meeting Students Where They Write
Many of my students claim that they “don’t write,” even though those same students wear blisters on their thumbs from texting and tweeting. Texting, 140 characters, commenting, blogging–these are all forms of our students’ writing, and they’re ones we can leverage.
The first step in this shift has to be mine. I have to respect what students are already writing.
It’s tempting to dismiss 140 characters or email or texting as minor forms of communication. But it’s also easy to use those forms to discuss argument or voice, or any of the other things I want my students to be great at. In fact, it’s easy to find plenty of people doing more of this kind of writing than published writers–real writing lives in the wilds of the real world.
Look at email or texts, and what you’ll find are arguments made with passion, humor, evidence–all kinds of evidence used all kinds of ways, all in writing. The trick is looking for it, and in being more flexible in what I consider a final product.
Social Media as Assessment
A recent conversation with a group of colleagues revealed that we have doubts about what we are asking our students to produce as summative products. I think we all can agree that the day of the five-paragraph essay has come and gone, and that ACT writing is really only useful when someone takes the test.
But what about the final essay? Is it time to reconsider the worth of the polished, final draft?
Now, I’m not in favor of abandoning polished drafts, but in expanding our influence over other forms of writing, by valuing them in our practice. Let’s infiltrate the places where our students are already doing writing they care about, and let’s help them do it better.
Take a quick tour of student blogs and you’ll find a rich environment of writing and argument. My students have been writing on Tumblr for some time. I went there because I found that a decent number of students were using the platform to talk about things that interest them.
As a bonus, Tumblr is a great place to look at visual arguments and voice. Most of my students like to offer opinions about things they care about. Their phones are full of examples of this. So they need openings to develop their ideas, allowing them to write about what they care about. Here again, blogging platforms like Tumblr are a great place to work.
Look at where people, who are not writers, write in “real life.” Almost everyone I know spends a fair amount of their professional lives writing. They use email, texts, and tweets to make arguments in writing. This reminds me how, once upon a time, we treated letter writing as an art. In fact, I remember studying a set of memos for the writer’s technique. So is it unreasonable to treat the 21st century’s Johnson and Boswells with less respect?
Turning Theory into Practice
So what does this look like in practice?
For one, before I let my students do almost any “big” project or writing, I ask them to write me a proposal. They have to tell me why they think it’s worth doing, how they’ll go about it, and how they’ll measure the success of the work.
This kind of writing lets me see how well their skills are developing. Even though it doesn’t meet the definition of final draft, doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously. A writer who can write a proposal is probably making clear, effective arguments in writing.
In addition to proposal writing, it’s important to create and use places where students can use the skills they develop, in ways that mirror the writing they already do. I like to use genius.com or to set up a backchannel using a shared Google Doc.
These both work well to promote discussions about how to use evidence, because students have to link their ideas directly to the text they’re annotating. These tools also tend to support precision and economy in language. The students understand that the audience isn’t going to wade through a “wall of text” to get to good argument.
To many of my students, writing is something that they “don’t do.” But that’s because they have mostly only seen it held captive in textbooks and assignments.
But if they see it in the wild–blogs, texts, online–and with permission from their teachers, they’ll see themselves as part of that writing life.
Rick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.