Monday, September 19, 2011

Unleashing the Power of Writing in the 21st Century

The first thing that Writing in the 21st Century makes me wonder is if we should ban writing so that kids might want to try it as a form of resistance. Kidding. Well, partly. I love the idea of writing as a subversive activity. (Although I can't fully agree with the article's ideas about reading being receptive and controlling while writing is about resistance. Plenty of reading is subversive as well.)

Last year when I told my parents I was teaching writing, they groaned and asked me questions about cursive. The idea of writing in school meant, to them, penmanship. I had to explain that I meant writing-as-in-getting-thoughts-onto-paper. The fact that composition is a "labor" is one that's still relevant today - I have kids in my class for who the physical act of making words on paper is so painful that it completely stunts the flow of ideas. I immediately turn to technology for kids like that. It can be such an unleashing force.

The historical narrative of the teaching of writing is fascinating, its movement through the progressive era into the current theory of process writing and writer's workshop. How unfortunate that standardized testing came along and ruined it just when it was getting good. I wonder sometimes how many potential authors dreams are destroyed by the soul-crushing agony of having to learn the five-paragraph expository essay - and nothing else - for years.

And then computers and the Internet - with all its possibilities for subversion - rises as a platform for writing just as tests are narrowing it in the classroom. I love how the article describes writing as almost its own entity yearning for freedom from boundaries and authority. Outside of schools, outside of tests, outside of five-paragraph essays (can you tell I hate them?) - people are writing. Arising from the need for communication and expression. Less talking, maybe, at Model Railroading clubs or Shriner meetings or all those other social clubs where people used to get together. (And wear weird clothes.) Now, people can group up on the Internet, and writing becomes the primary modality for communicating.

I cannot say enough times how completely awesome the story about the kids who used the Internet as a platform to get 30,000 people to screw around with the AP test is.

And then the million dollar question - how can we channel all this for a purpose more worthy? (Can we?) Students who know how to compose and organize and know how to use the audience provided by the Internet? How can we help them connect those skills toward the big issues, toward making the world a better place?

I don't know the answer to that and it's something I've thought about a lot. I think "The Internet" is still figuring that out, in a way. The election, in 2008 - Obama's campaign brilliantly used technology to connect and move people. But it fizzled out, or at least it seems that way. How to keep people going? Organizing on the internet seems to destroy the hierarchies traditional to most organizations, at least at the grassroots level. Do organizations and issue-based action require a leader?

I think of that group Anonymous, which publicly states that there's not really any hierarchy of leadership, and they manage to organize and take action. They're quite the enigma though, so I'm not quite sure how they work. But they fascinate me.

Really what will probably happen is that the kids will figure out the answers to these questions first.


  1. I love the visual. Part of 21st century literacies is that visuals are textual and incorporated as tools to express - what Yancey emphasizes. I use them all the time and haven't been good about "citing" where I got them from. I am thinking I need to be better at this.

    I appreciated your developed reflection.

    One of the snafus of the online community, for me, was keeping up with all the writing students did as a result of my classroom. The same behaviors that I tried to monitor in my classroom needed to be monitored outside the classroom (bullying, bad habits, public awareness of events in my room). I am being honest - I couldn't keep up and don't know how it is humanly possible.

    With Google, too, every question I have is a few keystrokes away. How often do we teach youth to follow their own interests and decipher what speaks most profoundly to what they want to know.

    That's what is great about classes like this. It makes us think

  2. I thought about trying to find a citation for the photo too. The Internet subverts copyright too, doesn't it?

    The blog I use with my kids is pretty great, it lets me approve all their comments and posts before they are posted. I can skim over them quickly enough to know if it's appropriate and because they know I am doing this they are pretty good about it, since they get blogging privileges revoked if they purposely do something foolish.

    It's hard to imagine life without google now. I remember once in college we had this friend who told us any question we wanted to know the answer to, we could just call Walmart. So once we were wondering what the difference between a woodchuck and a groundhog were. We called them up, and they transferred us around a couple times, until they finally connected us to the hunting department, who did finally answer our question.

    A few years ago I was visiting my uncle who has no computer and no Internet. This was pre-Smart Phones. We were stuck for an entire weekend without the ability to find out some random trivia that was bugging us, like what year Back to the Future II came out.

    I wonder if having that at our fingertips frees us up to ask the big questions or if we just end up asking more trivial ones.