Appreciating Writing Assistance Technologies… Finally?

This post originally appeared on the National Writing Project’s “Ahead of the Code” blog on Medium on August 22, 2020.


Appreciating Writing Assistance Technologies… Finally?

You would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative.

Even from the founding of our major professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, we have been concerned with (or simply complaining about) the overwhelming amount of writing that we need to grade and provide feedback upon.

As Edwin M. Hopkins, an English professor and one of the founding members of NCTE asked on the first page in the first issue of English Journal way back in 1912, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done under Present Conditions?

His concise answer: “No.”

Screenshot of Edwin H. Hopkins’ article, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions” from 1912.
Screenshot of Hopkins’ article, “Can Good Composition Teaching Be Done Under Present Conditions?” with his response highlighted in yellow.

And, this just about sums it up.

Even then, we knew that the work for English teachers was immense. And, 100+ years later, it remains so. Reading and responding to dozens, if not hundreds, of student compositions on any given week remains a consistent challenge for educators at all levels, from kindergarten through college.

Fast forward from Hopkins’ blunt assessment of how well any one English teacher could actually keep up with the volume of writing he or she must manage, and we land in 1966. It is at this moment when Ellis B. Page proposed in the pages of The Phi Delta Kappan that “We will soon be grading essays by computer, and this development will have astonishing impact on the educational world” (emphasis in original).

There is more history to unpack here, which I hope to do in future blog posts, yet the mid-century pivot in which one former English teacher turned educational psychologist, Page, set the stage for a debate that would still be under discussion fifty years later is clear. English people started taking sides in the computer scoring game. And, to be fair, it seems as though this was mission-driven work for Page, as he concluded that “[a]s for the classroom teacher, the computer grading of essays might considerably humanize his [sic] job.”

Tracing My Own History with Automated Essay Scoring

Over the decades, as Wikipedia describes it, “automated essay scoring” has moved in many directions, with both proponents and critics. These are a few angles I hope to explore in my posts this year for the “Ahead of the Code” project. As a middle school language arts educator, I never had opportunity to use systems for automated feedback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As a college composition teacher in the mid-2000s, I eschewed plagiarism detection services and scoffed at the grammar-checkers built into word processing programs. This carries me to my more recent history, and I want to touch on the two ways in which I have, recently, been critiquing and connecting with automated essay scoring, with hopes that this year’s project will continue to move my thinking in new directions.

With that, there are two stories to tell.

Story 1: It was in early 2013 that I was approached to be part of the committee that ultimately produced NCTE’s “Position Statement on Machine Scoring.” Released on April 20, 2013, and followed by a press release from NCTE itself and an article in Inside Higher Ed, the statement was more of an outright critique than a deep analysis of the research literature. Perhaps we could have done better work. And, to be honest, I am not quite clear on what the additional response to this statement was (as its Google Scholar page here in 2020 shows only four citations). Still, it planted NCTE’s flag in the battle on computer scoring (and, in addition to outright scoring, much of this stemmed from an NCTE constituent group’s major concern about plagiarism detection and retention of student writing).

Still, I know that I felt strongly at the time that our conclusion: “[f]or a fraction of the cost in time and money of building a new generation of machine assessments, we can invest in rigorous assessment and teaching processes that enrich, rather than interrupt, high-quality instruction.” And, in many ways, I still do. My experience with NWP’s Analytic Writing Continuum (and the professional learning that surrounds it), as well as the work that I do with dozens of writers each year (from middle schoolers in a virtual summer camp last July to my undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students I am teaching right now) suggests to me that talking with writers and engaging my colleagues in substantive dialogue about student writing still matters. Computers still cannot replace a thoughtful teacher.

Story 2: It was later in 2013, and I had recently met Heidi Perry through her work with Subtext (now part of Renaissance Learning). This was an annotation tool, and I was curious about it in the context of working on my research related to Connected Reading. She and I talked a bit here and there over the years. The conversation rekindled in 2016, when Heidi and her team had moved on from Subtext and were founding a new company, Writable. Soon after, I became their academic advisor and wrote a white paper about the power of peer feedback. While Heidi, the Writable team, and I have had robust conversations about if and how there should be automated feedback and other writing assistance technologies into their product, I ultimately do not make the decisions; I only advise. (For full disclosure: I do earn consulting fees from Writable, though I am not directly employed by the company, and Writable has been a sponsor of NWP-related events.)

One of my main contributions to the early development of Writable was the addition of “comment stems” for peer reviewers. While not automated feedback?—?in fact, somewhat the opposite of it?—?the goal for asking students to provide peer review responses with the scaffolded support of sentence stems was so they would, indeed, engage more intently with their classmates’ writing… with a little help. In the early stages of Writable, we actually focused quite intently on self-, peer-, and teacher-review.

To do so, I worked with them to build out comment stems, which still play a major role in the product. As shown in the screenshot below, when a student clicks on a “star rating” to offer his or her peer a rubric score, an additional link appears, offering the responder the opportunity to “Add Comment.” Once they there, as the Writable help desk article notes, “Students should click on a comment stem (or “No thanks, I’ll write my own”) and complete the comment.” This is where the instructional magic happens.

Instead of simply offering the star rating (the online equivalent of a face-to-face “good job,” or “I like it”), the responder needs to elaborate on his or her thoughts about the piece of writing. For instance, in the screenshot below, we see stems that prompt the responder to be more specific, with suggestions for adding comments about, in this case, the writer’s conclusion such as “You could reflect the content event more clearly if you say something about…” as well as “Your conclusion was insightful because you…” These stems prompt the kind of peer feedback as ethical practice, that I have described with my colleagues Derek Miller and Susan Golab.

A screenshot of the “comment stem” interface in Writable. (Image from Writable)
Screenshot of the “comment stems” that appear in Writable’s peer response interface (Image courtesy of Writable)

And, though in the past few years the Writable team has (for market-based reasons) moved in the direction of adding Revision Aid (and other writing assistance technologies), I can’t argue with them. It does make good business sense and?—?as they have convinced me more and more?—?writing assistance technologies can help teachers and students. My thoughts on all of this continue to evolve, as my recent podcast interview with the founder of Ecree, Jamey Heit, demonstrates. In short, looking at how I have changed since 2013, I am beginning to think that there is room for these technologies in writing instruction.

Back to the Future of Automated Essay Scoring

So, as I try to capture my thoughts related to writing assistance technologies, here at the beginning of the 2020–21 academic year, I use the oft-cited relationship status from our (least?) favorite social media company: “It’s complicated.”

Do I agree with Hopkins, who believes that teaching English and responding to writing is still unsustainable. Yes, and…

Do I agree with Page, who suggests that automated scoring can be humanizing (for the teacher, and perhaps the student)? Yes, and…

Do I still feel that writing assistance technologies can interrupt instruction and cause a rift in the teacher/student relationship? Yes, and…

Do I think that integrating peer response stems and automated revision aid into Writable are both valuable? Yes, and…

Do I think that all of this is problematic? Yes, and…

I am still learning. And, yes, you would think that, as English teachers, we would have been more appreciative of having tools that would alleviate the workload. So, why the resistance? I want to understand more about why, both by exploring the history of writing assistance technologies as well as what it looks like, what it feels like, for teachers and students.

As part of the work this year, I will be using Writable with my Chippewa River Writing Project colleagues and, later this semester, my own students at Central Michigan University. In that process, I hope to have more substantive answers to these questions, and to push myself to better articulate when, why, and how I will employ writing assistance technologies?—?and when I will not. Like any writer making an authorial decision, I want to make the best choice possible, given my audience, purpose, and context.

And, in the process, perhaps, I will give up on some of the previous concerns about writing assistance technologies. In doing so, I will learn to be just a little bit more appreciative as I keep moving forward, hoping to remain ahead of the code.


Troy Hicks PortraitDr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has earned CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award, is an ISTE Certified Educator, and has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

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Resources for ETA NSW

This list of curated resources represents work that I have produced from March to May of 2020, all aimed at helping educators as they transitioned to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The full article. “Critical, creative, and compassionate: Resources for teaching English in an era of COVID-19” appears in Australia’s English Teachers Association NSW’s journal, mETAphor (openly available through their website and as a PDF here).

The links here are presented in the order that they appear in the article, which I will provide a link to (once the issue is published online).

March 2020

April 2020

May 2020

Summer 2020

Books

Updated on June 30, 2020 to include article link.


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Podcast with Ivy Ewell Eldridge on “Writing with Digital Tools”

While attending the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) conference in February, I was invited to speak with CNUSDEdChat. My thanks to the entire CNUSDEdChat team — Ivy Ewell-Eldridge, Annemarie Cortez, Kim Kemmer, Jenny Cordura, and Kate Jackson — for welcoming me to this conversation. Follow more of their work via their homepage, Soundcloud and Twitter. Enjoy the podcast!

Dr. Ivy Ewell Eldridge chats with Central Michigan University professor and author, Troy Hicks, a super advocate of ways to teach and enhance the process of writing through the use of digital tools. He encourages educators to nurture our students’ curiosity, openness, flexibility, persistence, engagement, and responsibility as they engage in the writing process.


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Ideas from Instagram Live Conversation: “Online Teaching and Learning English”

Edited Post: Video added on May 30, 2020.


Instagram Advertisement - Online Teaching and Learning EnglishEarlier today, I was honored to be invited by Alireza Qadiri Hedeshi, Dean of Foreign Languages Department at Mehryar Institution of Higher Education, for an Instagram Live conversation. Here are some of the questions that he and his colleagues shared, as well as some brief responses that I wrote to prepare for our conversation.


1. You have titled one of your scholarly works “Because Digital Writing Matters”. What do you mean with digital writing? Is it different from ordinary or academic writing?

As we argue in the book, digital writing can be defined as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading or viewing on, a computer of other device connected to the Internet.” While that definition was written just as the iPhone and touchscreen devices were being introduced to the consumer market, it still holds up today. Digital writing, in this sense, is writing that can be composed, stylistically/rhetorically as well as technically, for the screen. Hyperlinks, embedded media, and interactivity are hallmarks of digital writing.

And, yes, while traditional academic writing is typically seen as thesis-driven essays with outside citations from reputable, peer-reviewed sources, we are coming to new understandings — as scholars and educators — about what “counts” as a thoughtful, rigorous argument. Intellectuals can present their work in critical and creative ways, employing the tools of digital writing like alphabetic text, of course, as well as photos, graphs, maps, timelines, videos, and other “born digital” artifacts. These artifacts are created for others to engage with them, and can be effective uses of digital writing tools/skills to support academic goals.

At the International Literacy Association Conference last fall, I shared some more ideas about how digital writing and best practices in writing instruction intersect, and here is the handout for that session.


2. How can we improve interaction over online methods of teaching language?

AND

13. In respect with real classroom environments, how can we make effective use of technology in providing learners with feedback?

There are ways that we interact with individual writers, as well as our entire classrooms.

First, with individual writers, there are strategies we can use. In a recent blog post, I argue that, even in times of remote learning, “we can teach writers. And, we can teach them online. To paraphrase Lucy Calkins’ oft-cited advice, we teach the writer first, then we teach the writing.” I offer, in that post, three main practices that we want to continue doing: connecting, conferring, and responding. In another recent webinar, for CCCC/TYCA, I went into more detail and offered a list of tools that could be helpful in that process.

With entire classes, we need to make sure that we are using synchronous video sessions with our students to their full effect. To do that, we need to think about what happens before, during, and after a video class session. When I consider that I might only have an hour of focused time with all my students — and what I want them to do with one another during that time — I think through the types of collaborative activities they might do to talk about their own writing, give one another feedback, and grow their knowledge about language. I may model a writing process for them, using sentence templates and engaging in effective web search and evaluation strategies, then invite them to do the same.

Finally, as we interact from session-to-session, we can think about tools to build continuity and collegiality amongst our students, outside of the normal learning management systems. This is not just a “discussion forum” in the classic sense, but a space for students to engage around course content in an informal manner. For my adult learners, Voxer has been effective for this, however there are many other options that exist.


3. How can we encourage learners to take online medium as serious as real classroom environment?

AND

4. How can teachers keep their authority over online classroom environment?

AND

6. Many ESL teachers find speaking the most challenging skill to teach online as learners tend to be passive listeners in online classes. What can we do to cope with this issue?

When we remain consistent in our approach — regular announcements, effectively run class sessions, brief and engaging instructional screencasts as needed, timely and goal-oriented feedback — students will know that we are taking our teaching seriously, and this will raise their level of expectations. We model the kinds of behavior that we would expect of them by staying organized and efficient, since we can’t rely on regular, face-to-face class sessions for informal conversation and last-minute reminders.

From our webinar the other day, Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University) shared their Online Writing Instruction Community with many ideas, including their “PARS” approach (Personal, Accessible, Responsive, and Strategic). Another great set of resources for effective online instruction is Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (GSOLE), and their “Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets.” By thinking through these principles, we can design our own online philosophy for teaching, and make it clear to students.

For our actual online sessions, we need to learn how to be strategic in our use of time, as well as become familiar with controls in our video conferencing software. While designed for business people in training sessions, this guide for facilitating remote workshops has some helpful ideas for helping move online meetings along in productive ways. Also, we can use tools like Flippity to share an on-screen tool that will randomly pick student names, so we can let them know that they will be called on soon to take the microphone and turn on the camera. In a worst case, we can mute them, turn off their camera, or kick them out of the remote room.

We can also invite students to use tools like Voxer, mentioned above, or Vocaroo to record their voice and share with one another or the teacher. Also, they could use Flipgrid to have one-to-one, or small group, conversations. This can be done at their own pace, and if they make a mistake, they can rerecord themselves, avoiding embarrassment that would happen in class.


5. How do you suggest learners/teachers to use social networks effectively as means of language acquisition?

AND

7. A big problem is that during online classes, some learners confuse the learning process with chatting language. For example, they use the language developed for chatting (e.g. Thx for thanks or L8 for late). Do you think we should worry about the way they are using the language or regard it as a way of enriching the language?

AND

8. Some learners are unwilling to take part in online classes, as they believe this deprives them of socialization opportunities provided in real classroom environment. Is this claim true? Is there any way through which online world improves their social skills?

We can ask students to think about the tone and style that they might use in social networks and how they need to code switch as they move across different online/social media spaces, as well as communicate in more academic settings. Helping them see that they use a different register of language in these different spaces — and to reflect on why they do so — is one step to making these spaces useful.

Also, we can have them think about how they might use these tools and what they offer (like “streaks” in Snapchat) to stay in touch with another person trying to learn the language. They can communicate with one another each day, and try to maintain their “streaks” in the process.

We could also ask them to think about how they would “translate” a message from one social media form to another. For instance, what would a tweet (without an accompanying image, and using hashtags) look like in Facebook (with use of fonts and colors) or on Instagram (an image with a caption). How would you have to change the style (and amount) of words? What about fonts and colors? These conversations can be helpful for them as they think about the audience, purpose, and media being used.


9. How can we reduce distraction while learning English online?

Teaching our students — and ourselves — to self-regulate is a challenge, no doubt. And, different people have different tolerances for working at their own pace (or in a way other than traditional face-to-face schedules), so we all need to figure out ways to manage our time and attention. I think that it can be done, yes, though there is no single answer that works for everyone.

To that end, I would encourage students to adjust some of their web browser settings and install extensions, turning on ad blockers and using tools to block distracting sites. On their mobile devices, they can turn on “do not disturb” settings (or simply put their devices in another room) while studying. Also, they can set up times to study with classmates, holding one another accountable for getting work done and sharing their progress, as well as more intensive studying. They can also use apps like Duolingo, which “gamifies” the process of learning, if that is motivating for them.

Ultimately, our students need to self-regulate. While we would like to think that they are 100% focused and on-task when they are in our classrooms, we know that is not true. The same is true when they are at home, on their devices. They will not be 100% focused for an entire learning session, whether looking at asynchronous material or in a synchronous video class. We need to acknowledge that, plan for interactive and useful lessons (as noted above), and encourage them to self-regulate and stay motivated in the ways that work best for them.


11. Is it effective to devise a mixed/combinatory method with some skills being taught online and some others in real classroom? (If so, what skills do you suggest to work online?

AND

10. Generally do you think it is possible to learn English via online tools without the help of a tutor?

As I have noted throughout, I think that there are times and places, ebbs and flows, in the learning process. Sometimes, we can accomplish a lot by having our entire class work together, sometimes we meet with them individually or in small groups. Sometimes, we provide a video lesson for them to watch ahead of time, and then we work on something together during class time. Sometimes we set up individual conferences with writers. Whether we are partially or fully online, we need to consider the many ways in which we move back and forth between realtime communication with students and other tasks that can happen over time.

To put this in more concrete terms, and from a student perspective, my writing/language class might look like this over the course of a week:

  • Day 1: My instructor sends me a 10 minute video lesson and the assignment for the week; I start my writing and speaking tasks and communicate with my study parter via Skype for 30 minutes.
  • Day 2: My instructor hosts a one-hour video chat, and has us working in small groups to share our writing. I give feedback to three classmates as we work together for about 15 minutes in a breakout room, then we come back together and my instructor points out good examples of writing from a few classmates. We ask questions in the last few minutes to clarify our assignment for the week.
  • Day 3: Today is an independent work day. My instructor asks us to send a screenshot of what we have accomplished on Duolingo, and I share a voice message on Voxer. I work on my paper, and add comments to my partner’s paper.
  • Day 4: We have our second, one-hour video chat of the week, and our instructor demonstrates how to revise our thesis statements. We watch as he shares his word processing screen, and talks about how he is making revision decisions. We then go into breakout rooms to rework our thesis statements with our small groups, and give one another feedback.
  • Day 5: My instructor has asked us to sign up for 20 minute video conferences, and I shared my draft with him the day before. On the video chat, I tell him about what I am doing with my thesis, and he recommends a few changes. I leave with a good idea of how to revise, and spend the rest of my study time making changes.

As you can see, the student is moving back and forth between synchronous and asynchronous learning, with the whole class and a partner, as well as independently. Having the consistency — yet flexibility — is powerful, and keeps students connected, motivated, and on track to complete their work with support and feedback.


12. Except for saving time and energy, does online teaching/learning have any privileges over real classroom environment?

Well, honestly, I don’t know that teaching online saves time!

As you can see from the example above, my week as an instructor would be spent planning the two, one-hour synchronous class sessions so they are highly engaging and useful. I am also creating a weekly video lesson, and pointing my students to other resources. I am providing written and audio (and, perhaps, video) feedback, and meeting with students in brief video chats. So, I am spending quite a bit of time being intentional about making connections and supporting students.

We can rely on the thousands of things that are already out there to help our students understand grammar and engage in basic writing skills, including websites, videos, online games, flashcards, AI built into word processors, and other resources. They can use those resources, if we guide them in smart ways.

What they need from us is our time and encouragement. That is what we provide when we teach in a manner like the one that I described above. Students have consistent schedules and expectations, and are accountable to us, as teachers, as well as their classmates. They feel connected and valued, and are likely to stay engaged.

This is about more than just pointing them to pre-recorded lessons, online quizzes, and correcting their papers. This is about building relationships, and making their voices heard as writers. It is difficult work, but it is possible if we rethink what it means to be an online teacher of English and to invite our students into meaningful language learning.


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Resources and Reflections from “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction Webinar”

4Cs Online Writing Instruction Webinar AdEarlier this afternoon, I was pleased to be on a webinar, “Online Environments and Your Students: Strategies to Inform Writing Instruction” (Archived Video) with Jessie Borgman (Arizona State University), and Casey McArdle (Michigan State University). Hosted by Brett Griffiths, Director of Reading and Writing Studios at Macomb Community College, we covered a good deal of ground.

For my segment, we discussed tools for conferring and responding to student writers. Building from my experience in writing centers, NWP, K-12 teaching, college composition, and mentoring graduate students, I consider conferring to be the single most important activity in writing instruction. In the context of online learning (and our current “remote learning” scenarios), I am referring to “conferring” as scheduled meetings with students, via phone or video conferencing. This involves planning the conference, interacting during the conference, and follow-up after the conference.

Again, building from my experiences, I contend that timely, specific, and goal-oriented response helps writer move forward. When conferring is not an option, responding in an efficient and effective manner is second best. I work from the writing center-influenced ideas of responding first to higher order concerns, yet I am also willing to break protocol and offer directed feedback on lower order concerns. Responding can take the form of text, image, audio, or video and can happen at any stage of the writing process. Here are links to the tools that I shared:

Updated on May 17, 2020, with a link back to program page on NCTE’s website and a link to the archived video recording.


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Summer 2019 Publications: RRQ and English Journal

While they both require individual or institutional subscriptions to read, I am pleased to share my two most recent co-authored publications:

Turner, K. H., Hicks, T., & Zucker, L. (Advance online publication). Connected Reading: A Framework for Understanding How Adolescents Encounter, Evaluate, and Engage With Texts in the Digital Age. Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.271

From the Abstract

Since the emergence of the World Wide Web and e?reading devices in the late 1990s and early 2000s, reading research has focused on issues of website credibility, search and navigation strategies, and the ability to comprehend text on?screen as compared with in print. What has been missing, however, are data about the specific texts that adolescents are reading in these digital spaces, what devices they prefer, and the strategies that they employ… The authors propose a new framework of connected reading, a model of print and digital reading comprehension that conceptualizes readers’ interactions with digital texts through encountering (the ways in which readers seek or receive digital texts), evaluating (the ways in which readers make judgments about the usefulness of digital texts), and engaging (the ways in which readers interact with and share digital texts)…

Canady, F., & Hicks, T. (2019). Reconsidering Student Inquiry through Digital Narrative Nonfiction. English Journal, 108(6), 25–31.

As an alternative to the traditional research paper for an English 11 class, a digital narrative assignment positioned students as multimedia storytellers.

Thanks to my colleagues with whom I have collaborated on these pieces, and for everyone who has shared continued words of encourage and support upon seeing these new publications.


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Recap of #ILAChat from August 8, 2019

Earlier this month, I was invited to be a co-host of ILA’s chat, focused this month on the “dos and don’ts” in writing instruction. As a prelude to a Research Address at this fall’s annual ILA convention, the entire conversation was robust, and I am particularly appreciative of Dr. David Kirkland‘s erudite responses and questions.

As just one example, his response to the first question pointed out a stark truth:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

This resonates for so many reasons: personally, professionally, historically, institutionally. I appreciate his keen insights and the ways in which he continues to push my thinking about literacy and social justice. I very much look forward to hearing his message as part of the Research Address and, for the full archive of the chat, visit ILA’s post on Wakelet.


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Recent Post on The EdCollab: From Wonder to Writing

Lighbulb/idea image from the Ed CollabPlease enjoy my most recent post, “From Wonder to Writing: Invite Students Into Inquiry Through Online Articles” on the EdCollab blog.

Our best literacy teachers, especially those of you engaging with the TheEdCollab, have known for a long time that we must provide students with mentor texts in order to help them better understand the genres in which they write, the audiences for whom they write, and the purposes that their writing can serve. We have also known—and continue to make clear for our students—the idea that various text types have specific features to help the writer stay organized and to cue the reader in the process of making meaning. As we consider the possibilities for digital reading and writing, we need to make these moves for writers and clues for readers equally as explicit as we do in print.

Read more


Image from the EdCollab blog

The Next Decade of Digital Writing

Cover from Voices from the Middle (Vol. 25, No. 4, May 2018). Courtesy of NCTE.
Cover from Voices from the Middle (Vol. 25, No. 4, May 2018). Courtesy of NCTE.

With the support of Sara Kajder and Shelbie Witte, I am pleased to share that I recently published a “Leading the Call” article from  Voices From the Middle, “The next decade of digital writing.”

Through NCTE, they have made it available through open access, and here is the abstract:

The author, a leader in bringing digital tools into the writing workshop and writing classroom, discusses how the use of digital tools in the classroom has evolved in the first decade of this century, especially in the writing workshop. He examines ways several ELA teachers are using specific tools to assist with literacy learning in the classroom right now and makes some recommendations regarding the future of digital writing instruction.

Read more here: Hicks, T. (2018). The next decade of digital writing. Voices From the Middle, 25(4), 9–14.


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Creating MINDFUL Readers and Writers

MINDFUL Graphic
Image Courtesy of Heinemann

Based on the book that I wrote with Kristen Hawley Turner, Argument in the Real World, one of the tools/strategies that I have been sharing in workshops this past year is the “MINDFUL” heuristic for readers and writers as they engage in academic arguments with, through, and about social media.

When we were wrapping up the book in early 2016, even before “fake news” and “alternative facts” became a phenomenon, Kristen and I designed this heuristic to fill in the gaps that we felt existing website evaluation checklists were missing.

In short, those checklists and other tools were created in the early days of the web when we – as educators and information consumers – generally placed the onus of responsibility on the creator for being accurate. This, of course, was a holdover from our view of the printed word having gone through extensive review and editing in order to be published. The power of books, periodicals, encyclopedias and similar sources came from the fact that they were curated by experts.

Yet, with the abundance of material emerging on the information superhighway, educators, especially librarians, knew that careful editing and peer review weren’t happening all the time. We needed to create a way for students to understand that some creators were thoughtful and accurate, while others were misleading or creating an outright hoax. So, we  held those creators to task by engaging with such checklists as readers so we could bring a critical eye to what we were reading/viewing. We also encouraged students to never trust a blog, or Wikipedia, or other sources that were not well-vetted. (Of course, we have since changed our tune. A bit).

At any rate, website evaluation checklists worked okay, for a while at least.

However, this was before the vast majority of us became content creators in the Web 2.0 era. Blogs, wikis, and other forms of media were being created at a constant pace and, unfortunately, with different audiences, purposes, and degrees of veracity.

More recently, through social media,  we are all creators, curators and circulators. Our roles as writers have changed. The role of the reader – as someone with agency and perspective in the online reading and writing process – also needed to take responsibility for the types of arguments being created and perpetuated.

What Kristen and I wanted to do, then, was to rethink this instructional strategy of website evaluation. We came from the stance of helping students –as both readers and writers of social media – to recognize that (borrowing from  Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters’ book title) everything is, indeed, an argument.

Retweets and likes are, despite the disclaimers, endorsements. And, by extension, arguments. The way that we see evidence presented in social media matters because it will inform our own stance, as well as the perspectives of others with whom we engage. We create arguments through the act of liking, retweeting, reblogging, or otherwise endorsing, let alone when we create our own updates, tweets, or blog posts.

Rethinking the traditional website evaluation tool meant that we need to consider the challenges that new media, new epistemologies, and new perspectives all bring. In other words, it was no longer enough to simply read the “about” page, do a WHOIS lookup, or even try to understand more about the language/discourse being used on the page/post.

We needed something different. Hence, MINDFUL.

We wanted to help teachers, in turn, help their students slow down just a bit – even a nano second before retweeting, or a few moments when crafting an entire post – and to think about how arguments in digital spaces are constructed, circulated, and perpetuated.

I think that MINDFUL is helpful in doing just that. Below, you will find slides that I have been using over the past few months as well as links to additional resources I discuss in the presentation.

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Additional Resources

  • Argument in the Real World Wiki
  • Our post on the Heinemann blog:  Seriously? Seriously. The Importance of Teaching Reading and Writing in Social Media
  • For the MINDFUL elements
    • Monitoring our own reading and writing means that we must be aware of and account for  Confirmation Bias. Of course, helping students (and ourselves) to do that requires a number of strategies, which are outlined in the rest of the heuristic.
    • Identifying the claim means that we must separate the opinions that someone offers from the facts that may (or may not) support the claim. A refresher on Fact vs Opinion from Cub Reporters is a useful place to begin, even for adults.
    • Noting the type of evidence and how it supports the claim is useful. As a way to think through different types of evidence – In the claims they can support – it is worth taking a look at the Mathematica Policy Research Report “Understanding Types of Evidence: A Guide for Educators
    • Determining the framework/mindset is perhaps one of the most difficult elements for anyone, especially children and teenagers, to fully understand and accomplish. Without taking a full course of study in critical discourse analysis, a few resources that are helpful include the idea of Sam Wineburg’s (of the Stanford History Education Group) idea of  “reading laterally,” explained here by Michael Caulfied. Also, using sites like AllsidesOpposing Viewpoints in Context, and Room for Debate can help. Finally, there is the Media Bias Fact Check plugin for Chrome and Firefox (which, of course, has some bias, and questionable authorship). But, it’s a start.
    • Focusing on the facts requires us to check and double check in the ways that researchers and journalists would. Despite claims to the contrary from those on the fringes, sites like SnopesPolitifact,  and FactCheck are generally considered to be neutral and present evidence in an objective manner. Also, there are lots of objective datasets and reports from Pew Research.
    • Understanding the counterargument is more than just seeing someone else’s perspective and empathizing/disagreeing. We need to help students understand that arguments may not even be constructed on the same concept of information/evidence and in fact some of it could be one of the 7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation from First Draft News.
    • Finally, leveraging one’s own response is critical. Understanding the way that fake news and other propaganda is constructed  and circulated will help us make sure that we do not fall into the same traps as  writers WNYC’s On the Media provides a Breaking News Consumers Handbook for Fake News that is, of course, helpful for us as readers and viewers, but could also be a guide for what not to do as a writer.

My hope is that these websites/resources are helpful for teachers and students as they continue to be mindful readers and writers of social media.


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