Questions on 21st Century Writing

We’ve just been asked to reflect on a presentation about the history of the Bread Loaf Teachers Network, the NWP, and the Technology Initiative Work. It has been useful to be reminded of this history, and think about where we are at in this unique moment. In particular, there are three questions that they want us to consider today and tomorrow as we engage in the working meeting:

  • What is the distinctive power that technology brings to learning to write and literacy? How does it enhance and change the way students learn to write? how does it enhance and chance the teachers teach writing and literacy?
  • As teachers use technology in teaching, and students use it for learning in the classroom, new challenges and vulnerabilities have become evident. What are the concerns, pitfalls, risks, and vulnerabilities that accompany literacy, and teaching literacy in the digital age? What lessons have we learned about these challenges and problems?
  • The definition of what it means to be literate keeps evolving. Through the ages it has referred to written communication and expression using pen and paper. The audience has been those who have had access to the hard copy product. In the digital age, these as well as other aspects of literacy have changed. Now, when you think about being a writer or being literate in the digital age, what is the same and what is different?

For the moment, I will focus on the first one and think about the question that I have — if we know that technology brings a distinctive power to the process of learning to write, and there is compelling (although not a ton of) evidence that it does, why are schools not opening embracing new models for teaching and learning writing? We know that schools are institutions that have power structures in place that are hard to change, but haven’t we come to a point in history where we, as a society, must make a substantial investment in both the hardware/software and also the professional development of teachers?

Questions/ideas/comments from others:

  • Focus on the infrastructure problem
  • When I look back at my NWP work, I have some truisms such as “All writing is rewriting.” I wonder what truisms we can write into the curriculum about writing with technology.
  • What are we doing to change the assessment of writing in relation to testing?
  • There is an opportunity for the teacher and the tech developer to talk about how the tools work and what innovations can occur.
  • We need to talk in specific terms about “technology” and what we mean by that term in light of particular tools.

Teaching Writing in the 21st Century

Group PicTonight, I am blogging from Baltimore, where I am attending an NWP working meeting, “Teaching Writing in the 21st Century.” I feel very fortunate to be here with about 60 colleagues and friends of the National Writing Project and the Bread Loaf School of English. There are many, many wonderful people here — too many to name — and the next 48 hours we will spend together promises to be professionally rewarding in many ways.

One of the major goals for the work will be to think about how and why teachers are using technology in service of literacy learning and, in turn, thinking about implications for the National Writing Project’s future work. Given RCWP’s work in the Lead Technology Site work over the past few years, I am looking forward to sharing some of our ideas. In particular, I am looking forward to hearing about one of our co-directors, Renee Webster, as she does a presentation on integrating digital voice recorders into her elementary classrooms.

I say “hear about” her presentation instead of “see” because I have been assigned to be in a group focusing on online language learning and peer response for ELL students, a session by Joe Bellino (who took the photograph above) and Ailish Zompa that I have been looking forward to attending, too.

So, tonight it has been nice to be among friends and colleagues, and I am sure that there will be more posts tomorrow!

Book Review: Teachers’ Writing Groups

The second book that we are using in our summer institute is both practical and promotional. Teachers’ Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth (Kennesaw University Press, 2006) describes multiple configurations of writing group — important to our summer invitational — and is co-edited by Kathy Yancey, the keynote at MCTE’s fall conference. So, we are reading to find out more about how to conduct our own writing groups while also preparing for the fall conference. Here is my first attempt at a review.


Book CoverAs a member of many writing groups over the past five years, I began reading Teachers’ Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth with my own inquiries:How do teachers form and maintain writing groups that focus on professional writing, especially during their busy school years?In what ways can writing groups encourage professional publication while still nurturing the writer’s soul?Does it require a shared goal (such as writing a particular article or a collaborative project), or just a shared sense of purpose?

How do teachers decide when it is time to end a group?

As I read this text, I feel fortunate that many of my questions were addressed, if not answered, throughout it. Overall, the strength of this book comes from the stories that the teachers in the groups tell about the process itself, although I am still left with some questions in the end.So, that is where this review will begin — at the conclusion. In the final essay of the book, “Setting Teachers’ Writing Groups in Context,” Robbins, Seaman, Yow, and Yancey describe how the envisioned the writing groups in their project as

a collection of circles, with our three small writing groups clustered together as a community of practice seeking to forge connections with scholarship on social literacy practices, on professional development grounded in shared reflection, and on writing as an avenue to learning. (p. 184)

These groups, then met face-to-face and online, as did the larger group comprised of all the smaller ones, over the course of a year, all the while setting goals for drafting, response, and, eventually, publication. Their conclusions suggest that the process of writing and reflection that the groups fostered allowed the teacher writers involved to create substantial pieces, over time, that were indicative of the rich teaching practices that they hoped to describe. This took time for trust building, and was fostered by an overall sense of purpose for the large group. Along with multiple opportunities to give and get response, the group’s consistent focus on publication seemed to motivate many of the writers in this project.

By beginning with the end, I was able to go back into the three sections of the book that each writing group produced and read them with a better sense of purpose. In each of the three sections — “Creating Our Professional Identities,” “Looking Closely at Classroom Practices,” and “Designing Writing Programs” — the teachers involved took the overarching theme that developed in their group and translated it into individual essays fronted with a collaborative response about the group’s work process. To me, these introductory essays for each section were the most compelling pieces in the overall text, as each told the story of how the group worked (and, sometimes, didn’t work) together.

For instance, Kramb, Harrell, Seaman, and Yow in “The Gift of Time” describe the ways in which a set protocol helped them organize their work and stay focused as a group. They show how this process of setting norms took “time and patience,” but that, “[t]hose discussions were powerful, once we established the protocol that was right for our group” (p. 18). The notion that a group of writing teachers — all well-versed in their pedagogy and at least moderately confident in their writing abilities — still had to set up a protocol is reassuring. In the writing groups with whom I have worked, those that set and stick to protocols are the ones that last the longest and are successful. Rather than viewing this as a strict set of rules, group members are able to offer responses within these guidelines, feedback that is “both honest and kind at the same time,” according to the authors (p. 20).

The second group — Robbins, Stewart, and Kaplan — discuss the ways in which they used technology to comment on one another’s writing and also shared professional readings as a way to stay focused and dig deeper into common themes they were exploring. The third group — Walker, Walker, and Smith — offer the protocol of reflecting, at the end of each session, on what worked well for the group and what did not (p. 116). This is a strategy that I have not tried myself and think that I might suggest in this summer’s institute, especially early on in the process.

Taken in sum, the three introductory essays offer snapshots into the varied practices of writing groups and the ways in which they can work. Interestingly enough, the editors note their one “failed” writing group disbanded because the members felt too isolated, from one another and the larger group (pp. 187-8). This cautionary note reminds me to think carefully about how and why to invite teachers into writing groups and to consider the ways in which face-to-face and online collaboration can contribute to, and take away from, the group’s over sense of community and purpose. Also, through these failed writing groups, I can remember that it is OK from time to time for all writers to reconsider their goals and, even in successful groups, think about articulating what it is they want and hope to gain from giving and getting feedback. This process of reflection will enhance everyone’s group experience.

The remaining chapters of the book are the individual teachers’ essays, all of which focus on the teaching of writing and each of which warrant a description and response longer than what I can offer here. What I can say is that most of the essays offer an authentic teacher voice, built from both theory and practice, and rooted in story. I have not read all of these essays yet, so will not offer commentary on them here, but many look to be promising, especially Robbins and Stewart’s “‘Seeing’ Community: Visual Culture in College Composition.”

My concerns about the book are both in content and form. In terms of form, I do feel that the book is a bit disjointed in that each section’s preface, useful as they are, could be more detailed about suggestions for writing groups. In terms of content, I wonder about how “kind and honest” all the teachers both in the project and outside of it were in their responses to one another, with emphasis on the honest part. For instance, the responses in “Writing with Our Eyes Open: A Collaborative Response to Teachers’ Writing Groups” (pp. 173-180) seems to focus a little too much on the positive aspects of the book and could have offered some more critiques. And, of course, this is the problem with all writing groups; in our efforts to praise, I think that we too often try to be kind without being honest.

In conclusion, Teachers’ Writing Groups: Collaborative Inquiry and Reflection for Professional Growth reiterates for me the power of collaboration. I believe that the authors in this book, overall, were pretty honest with themselves and their colleagues, despite my concerns listed above.

Book Review: Teaching and Learning Multiliteracies

Yet another busy week has passed by with too much to blog, and too little time. Our summer institute is coming soon, and I have had lots of reading to do, so the good news is that I now have an excuse to get blogging again — book reviews.

So, here is my first one, written about a text we are using in RCWP this summer and, perhaps, in Tech Matters, too. What follows below is the rough draft of my critical response to the book, to be revised and refined throughout the summer.


Multiliteracies BookTeaching and Learning Multiliteracies: Changing Times, Changing Literacies

Michèle Anstey and Geoff Bull

Published by IRA, 2006

Echoing the countless calls for 21st century literacy or new technology standards, Anstey and Bull suggest that “[L]iteracy pedagogy must teach students to be flexible, tolerant of different viewpoints, and able to problem solve, analyse situations, and work strategically. They must be able to identify the knowledge and resources they have and combine and recombine them to suit the particular purpose and context” (p. 18). In saying this, it seems as though they add nothing new to the conversation about why and how to teach students about various discourses and technology. These demands are commonplace now, in business coalition reports, professional journals, and even in state curriculum documents (usually the last place we see such progressive calls to action).
Yet, this is only the beginning of their argument. And, as a literacy educator, I find the fact that they begin with a claim that most others end upon a refreshing change. In a preview of the text to come, Anstey and Bull immediately add the following to the quote begun above [emphasis mine]:

Consequently, school classrooms and teaches’ pedagogy must encourage, model, and reflect these sorts of behaviours. The content and pedagogy of literacy programs must reflect the literate practices of local to global communities and equip students for change. Educators cannot hope to teach student all they need to know, as this will change constantly. But teachers can equip their students with the knowledge, skills, strategies, and attitudes that will enable them to meet new situations and cope with them. (p. 18)

It is with these closing remarks in their introductory chapter that Anstey and Bull lay the groundwork for their timely and practical text, Teaching and Learning Multiliteracies: Changing Times, Changing Literacies. Rather than focus on a particular technology (or limited set of technologies) or the aspects of a certain discourse, the authors offer teachers a series of chapters that builds theoretical and practical knowledge through careful explanation and thoughtful reflection techniques.

Anstey and Bull create a vivid picture of globalization in the first chapter, suggesting that the reasons to be multiliterate are about more than just economic competitiveness and, indeed, center more on concerns about power, identity, and ethical behavior in a new digitized, globalized era. In the second chapter, they continue this line of thinking and layer in the New London Group’s Pedagogy of Multiliteracies heuristic for helping teachers think about our understanings of text, semiotic systems, meaning making, intertextuality, and critical literacy. They suggest a “Four Resource Model” of the multiliterate person (p. 41), a model that is flexible enough to give teachers and students language to talk about multiliterate perspectives on texts.

In chapter 3, Anstey and Bull go on to offer specific advice for how to integrate a pedagogy of multiliteracies model into classroom teaching and learning, focusing specifically on classroom talk, lesson structure, and materials used. They explain how “[a] dynamic multiliteracies pedagogy is concerned with making decisions about learning that are based on the relationships between the desired learning outcomes, what teachers know about their students, and what teachers know about the way in which successful pedagogy is conducted” (p. 81). I find this approach particularly refreshing as it acknowledges the expertise of teachers and the local contexts in which they find themselves. Even though this quote is (perhaps intentionally) vague, there are concrete suggestions in the chapter that will help a discerning reader make choices about how to integrate such pedagogy in his or her classroom.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on multiliteracies and children’s literature as well as producing and consuming texts, respectively. Both of these chapters offer specific examples about how and why to use particular children’s texts and lists of questions and terminology that will help teachers find resources and adopt the language of a multiliteracies perspective into their pedagogy. The final chapter moves back to the Four Resource model as a way to begin integrated curriculum planning and, in turn, a focus on whole-school plans for literacy that include students, teachers, and the entire school.

Overall, I find Teaching and Learning Multiliteracies: Changing Times, Changing Literacies a compelling text, and one that I know we will be using this summer in RCWP (and, possibly, in Tech Matters) as well as in my fall pre-service writing methods class. One concern that I have, however, relates to the Four Resource Model. Like all models, students could become scripted — like Harvey Daniels has noted about literature circles — into certain roles and become complacent in them. If the “code breaker,” “meaning maker,” text user,” and “text analyst” take their roles too literally, then a number of problems could occur, the worst of which is that they don’t become multiliterate since they are engaging in primarily one way of reading the text.

That said, I think that the benefits of this book outweigh that concern. Anstey and Bull offer series upon series of useful questions and annotated lists of terms. The also offer periodic reflection questions that could easily be turned into classroom prompts for journal writing and/or discussion. Despite my concerns about the Four Square model, the authors conclude that “[t]o rely on just one approach [to teaching], or on one favoured pedagogy, is to pretend that all students of teachers or schools can benefit from the same treatment” (p. 135). I believe that this is just as much a jab at the standards-based reformists as it is aimed towards themselves and the ways in which the pedagogy of multiliteracis might be enacted, too.

And, because the authors remain critical of themselves right up to the very end, I respect them — and the pedagogy outlined in this book — that much more for it.

CEE Summit, Day 2 Panel: Vision for CEE in….5 Years?

Panel: Vision for CEE in….5 Years?

This panel is a prelude to a brainstorming/visioning activity that we are going to be involved in next.

  • Don Zancanella, University of New Mexico
    • In five years, CEE should and will be further along in the process of using technology to support English Educators; right now our work is done in an ad hoc way and it is inevitable that we will be further along with technology and we need to do it strategically. We need to figure out how to do it well.
    • In five years, CEE will be further along in figuring out its role in educational policy. How do we respond at the federal and state level or help others live within that context? We have been caught up in federal policy and we also need to get involved at the state level, too.
    • In five years, CEE should or will have created better ways in supporting new English Education faculty. They can see the benefit of membership. Track faculty job openings and then follow up with people who get hired. Set up opportunities for new and adjunct faculty to meet at conferences.
    • Probing questions
      • Should the web editor have a grounding in technology, digital/visual rhetoric and other understandings of how technology changes writing?
      • State affiliates?
      • Policy action?
  • Suzanne Miller, University at Buffalo, State Univ. of New York
    • In the next five years, we need to become the “keeper of the guild” and creating research agenda and organizational identity.
    • We need to maintain our own individuality, but we also need to talk about consensus and what voice the organization will put forward. We have the wisdom, voice, and action.
    • Individually, we need to step up to contribute, get doctoral students involved, and if we don’t do it, no one else will. We will cede the vision of the profession to others who have political and economic interests that may run counter to what we value.
    • We need a vibrant online community. We are looking for a CEE web editor who will help develop content and provide daily change of information. There will be a great deal of information on there, including lesson ideas, video clips, and other resources for methods courses.
    • Get grad students involved.
    • Get a research agenda and ideas out there. Conduct a national study that collects data from multiple contexts from many CEE members. Create policy documents from that.
    • What counts as literacy — we need to promote multimodal literacy as the major focus in the 21st century. What can these literacies help us to do?
    • Set policy at the state level. Could we have 50 CEE Affiliates in 5 years?
    • Create sets of documents that are readable by parents, administrators, and policy makers.
    • If we are to be the keepers of the guild, and we need to be the one developing standards for teachers of ELA.
    • We need more retreats/conferences/working meetings where CEE members can all work collaboratively together.
    • Probing questions
      • NCTE funding research; how can CEE partner with other research entities to co-sponsor research (foundations, organizations, etc)? Do not look at CEE as a stand alone organization.
      • Who gets included in our conversations in terms of diversity of viewpoints? There are people who have more conservative positions that might share some goals with us and we need to understand their positions.
      • Should we remain an almost exclusively secondary group, or include others from the elementary level? We don’t all talk the same language all the time, but we can be allies as teacher educators.
  • Kent Williamson, NCTE
    • I think that we are talking about the CEE experience as being a part of a social network that make this a community of practice that is sharing questions, ideas, and other thoughts at an informal level. Then, things move to a more formal level such as a monograph or article.
    • We need a web editor who is a great teacher and we need to encourage people to comment and post. People need to see themselves in the questions that are asked. The nuts and bolts of everyday life need to be present in the site. If there was extended weekly participation, that would be good.
    • CEE’s involvement with teacher education. NCATE isn’t the only thing that we can do to support program development. We can be assistive in helping build programs and support new faculty and curriculum adoption.
    • Licensure is not an end of the road goal, but a continuing process.
    • Data from authoritative research will being you more notability. Begin the research now for five years now.
    • More participation at both ends of the career scale: grad student and retirees. We need to tap the knowledge base of the past.
    • More collaboration with similar organizations. Groups need to find common ground at the level of program and project development while creating interdisciplinary expertise.
    • Probing Questions
      • How are we going to reach the 6 out of 7 teachers who are not members? Parents? Administrators? Open source publishing? How do we go beyond serving our members to serving the larger world.
      • The CEE website is looking more and more ambitious, even daunting. Who is the audience that will view the website?
      • English educators who are not active members of CEE.
  • Joyce Stallworth, University of Alabama
    • Chair of NCTE’s Advisory Committee for People of Color
    • CEE must be more inclusive. We have to have inclusions of teacher educators from a variety of institutions.
    • If we are to think critically and creatively about teacher education, more diverse voices must be a part of the conversation and the group must be have full participation.
    • Classroom teachers do not see CEE as important to their work; how can CEE work with teachers to create useful solutions to problems?
    • CEE can be more involved in forming policy.
    • Taking small steps to become more politically active.
    • CEE and NCTE must be more responsive to the efforts of subcommittees and recommendations and we need to be more careful about the ways in which we act.
    • Probing questions
      • The language we use to talk to legislators.
      • Who is CEE for? Teachers? Teacher educators?
      • Recruiting doctoral students from personal connections and bringing them to CEE.
  • Sheridan Blau, University of California, Santa Barbara
    • From Peter – Why is it that “doing progressivism” is seen as not being rigorous?
    • From Ernest – Schools are problematic for learning as racists, classist, and anti-intellectual.
    • From Cathy – States messing up what teacher educators have done.
    • When have schools not been like this? When we think that we win, we lose…
    • The world isn’t ready for what we propose — what does that mean for us?
      • We don’t give up on working with public schools. The best teachers feel, right now, that they are totally demoralized and we need to work with them.
    • We can do a few things in the next five years:
      • We need to become a critic of standards of ELA that we don’t agree with
      • We can offer other forms of guidance for beginning teachers
      • We need to take it as our role that we harness the research engine and provide scathing evidence-based data that show the ways in which policies and standards are not working.
      • Include both elementary and college teacher preparation.
    • Probing questions
      • The conversation hasn’t changed, some would say. I would challenge us to contextualize our problems and values here in 2007. What are we doing for the classroom English teacher in public schools? Our conversations need to be in the “now.”
      • We are also thinking about huge changes that are happening in our country and how do we deal with things in the long term? Who might be opposition to us that we have to have a relationship with here and now and in the future.
      • There are some things that are substantive and some that are more political (how do we act on what we believe). I wonder how we have a conversation about how we engage politically about what we now and believe.

More small group discussion will follow…

Digital Writing Wiki

Of the many great things happening at the CEE Summit, I have had many opportunities to talk to other English Educators and find out about their online lives.

As we prepare for the second panel discussion to start, I am sitting with Carl Young, editor of the CITE Journal and blogger of the SITE blog and Rick Beach, blogger and writer of a new book/wiki, Engaging Students in Digital Writing.

Lots of new ideas and RSS feeds to keep up with here!