Friday, January 31, 2014

Changes in Teaching Writing from EduCon

This past weekend, I attended EduCon at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy in which teachers, librarians, education professors, think tank members, app developers, even representatives from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Technology came together to discuss innovations happening in education. While attending a number of sessions on innovations in the reading/writing classroom, which at EduCon are called conversations, I was fortunate enough to connect with two very dynamic SLA teachers -Larissa Pahomov and Meenoo Rami.  The session that Larissa lead on Sunday focused on the reading/writing workshop model, and conversations that started in that section have stuck with me all week as I reflect on changes that I would like to make in my own classroom.

Photo by vanhookc
As a National Writing Project fellow, Larissa's approach to teaching writing is similar to what I try to foster in my classroom, a way that is being questioned more and more in light of the increase in state-based high-stakes testing, especially given that student performance on these state tests will now be included in teacher evaluations, at least in Pennsylvania. Over the course of my teaching career, I have applied he ideas of the writing workshop model while teaching emerging writers. What this looks like is a classroom that engages students in writing for authentic audiences, writing in response to texts and to events, encouraging student choice, encouraging publication outside the classroom, all those higher-order thinking activities that research has shown encourages and engages students in a more thoughtful level of interaction with texts. I am especially interested in the doors that technology opens up when it comes to reading and writing with students. This has been my passion.

As a beginning teacher I was heavily steeped in holistic models of teaching which encouraged authentic assessment, formative assessment, differentiation, and student choice. Technology has allowed educators to help students understand that reading and writing are not activities done only in the classroom. I am interested in how teachers are leveraging technology to connect students with authentic audiences for their writing endeavors. But also I wonder how digital writing is changing how students understand texts.

Amanda Lyons' Visuals for Change from EduCon
The Pew Research Foundation just released a study that found just under a quarter of Americans didn’t even open a book last year. Yet, the content that is both being produced and consumed online rises exponentially. People are reading, though they may not be reading traditional texts. Students are reading and writing online. But have our models for teaching writing changed. What does this mean for how we teach young writers? I think it would be interesting to interview and perhaps survey secondary students from a couple of different locals school about their reading and writing habits outside of school and connect that with how students feel they have learned about writing. My guess is that many teachers use traditional printed texts as models for their student writing, asking students to practice the more traditional five-paragraph format of writing as this is how students are assessed on state and academic achievement tests. Yet since more and more of the text that is produced is digital, hyperlinked, and dynamic, shouldn’t the writing that we do in the classroom reflect the type of writing that is actually happening in our world? Which students feel more confident about their writing experiences and abilities - those that learn writing using traditional text models or those that write using digital mentor texts? I sense a research project for myself.

But don't misunderstand me; I am not advocating the death of paperback books in schools.  An e-reader cannot replace the feeling of a well-worn, well-loved book, whose pages are annotated with connections, definitions, and reminders of readings past.  Helping students understand how to navigate and enjoy a good printed book is a skill.  However, what I am advocating is that we need to bring the digital texts that students are also reading into the classroom, hold them up for inspection and help students become critical readers of these texts in thes same way we do traditional texts. But this is not a new suggestion.  Troy Hicks has been talking and writing about this for years!  And like Hicks, I agree that students should be using these digital texts as mentor texts for their own writing.

Oh, there's an idea for an e-book - The Digital Mentor Text: Teaching Writing 2.0.  So who wants to help write it with me?

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