Opening the Conversation on Digital Mentor Texts

Just about a week from now, a number of us will be blogging about mentor texts in the digital writing workshop. Inspired by this announcement and reflecting on her own experience with integrating digital writing into her work as a librarian, Buffy Hamilton offered me many things to think about in a recent blog post on The Unquiet Librarian. She outlines a thoughtful approach to why and how she is integrating digital writing into her library curriculum, and leads into a series of great questions/points, three of which I will quote from and respond to here because I see them as intricately intertwined and important to our work as teachers of digital writing:

I felt frustrated in the professional books I read this fall in that they never seemed to address concrete strategies for scaffolding the digital composition process or effective assessment strategies.

How do I do better job of helping students articulate the learning goals in these projects and to take on more ownership and involvement in constructive, meaningful assessment of their work?

Ultimately, I think some of these challenges come back to the larger challenge of encouraging teachers and students to take an inquiry, participatory stance on learning…

Buffy raises the key issue here about digital writing that could be said for much of the history of writing instruction; this is the tension we feel between allowing students the freedom to choose topics, genres, and assessments that they find personally meaningful and will help them grow as writers in contrast and/or competition to what we feel we should or must do as teachers of writing. In the simplest terms, it boils down to whether or not we prepare students to write five paragraph essays and to be able to respond to prompts on the test, or whether we want them to be real writers. In practice, this means that we are forcing students to engage in a “writing process” and spend more time focused on using rubrics than actually talking with students about their writing. This is a classic model of teacher driven instruction where we must “motivate” students become better writers. The onus of responsibility — not to mention the topics, word limits, and structures of organization for the writing — fall squarely on the shoulders of the teacher.

What Buffy appears to be advocating for, and what I would completely concur with, is a more student-centered approach that invites students to think carefully about the process of writing, however messy that process may be. Traditionally, we’ve had about three genres in school writing: the (five paragraph) essay, the research paper, and the book report. As soon as you open up any one of those genres for multimedia expression, you immediately expose the constraints of those structures and, in turn, make it very difficult for teachers and students to apply traditional rubrics and language of assessment to the products that they create. What does a “thesis statement” look like in a slideshow or a public service announcement? Thus, Buffy hits the nail on the head when she mentions ideas about ownership, meaningful assessment, inquiry, and the participatory stance on learning. These are not just problems with writing, or with digital writing; these are problems with what my colleague Anne Whitney calls the “schooliness” of school. Writing is normally very “schooly” and, when it isn’t, it’s too “touchy/feely.” We are caught in a trap of either living up to a formulaic model or praising students for their efforts without any substantive feedback.

So, to that end, I really appreciate how Buffy raises points and asks questions that force us to think about the thinking process students are involved in during the digital writing process. More importantly, she clearly aims for students to document their own learning and to have teachers focus formative assessment on that process, ultimately leading to many of the goals that we’ve had for years when employing a writing workshop/portfolio pedagogy.  And, since she asked for some specific advice about how to move forward, I’ll offer a few points here that will also inform my thinking in the next week as I prepare to write about the digital mentor texts:

  • Use the tools at hand. Teach students to use the digital tools at hand in order to become better readers, writers, and researchers. I know that there’s still a digital divide and that not all students have access to smart phones, tablet PCs, and high-speed Internet in their own homes, yet cloud-based services such as Diigo and Evernote are allowing students to capture their own thinking as well as links to websites, audio and video just about anywhere. They need to take responsibility to do that. See a link? A video? A podcast? Save and share it. Since teachers are using the library in a variety of different ways, from a very casual to very intense and thoughtful, help students become digital learners by inviting them to use these tools and share resources on-the-go.
  • Embrace the messiness. The writing process has never been a linear one, at least not the same straight line for everyone. Despite what the posters in our classroom and the programs that people try to sell us may say, no writer worth his or her salt has ever gone straight through a process of pre-writing, drafting, revising, proofreading, and publishing. I’m not even able to do it in this one blog post, let alone for an article or a book. Thus, we need to acknowledge that the writing process is recursive and messy, and that needs to happen both in our instruction and assessment. For digital writing, we can invite students to literally take snapshots or record screen casts of what they are doing, what they’re thinking, and the questions that they have while in the process of researching and writing. Have students create inquiry guides for their peers using social bookmarking, wikis, or some other collaborative tool. Invite students to pose questions to one another about their research, and part of their assessment is based on how well they respond to these questions and concerns that their peers have raised.
  • Make the process public. Whether your school is using wikis, a course management system, or some other type of social network to help students connect online, make sure that they are documenting and describing the process along the way. In addition to the suggestions above about embracing the messiness, they could have periodic checkpoints during a writing project in which they would be responsible for certain things (as, indeed, many students have always been responsible for having parts of projects done along the way). Part of what they might need to do is technical: set up accounts, watch screen cast tutorials, find _ many sources from academic databases and _ many more on the public web.  I am not saying that teachers should have every single one of these tasks are checkpoints set up before the project begins, as it could very well depend on the student, the topic, and the digital writing that he or she undertakes. Yet, holding them accountable along the way can still be done even if it is not tied to a formal quiz or essay test.
  • Make the final product public, as well as the responses. Again, this returns to this idea that students should be accountable not only for their own work, but for their thoughtful critique and commentary on the work of others.  They can use tools like Diigo to annotate webpage products, Jing to record screencasts describing a website, or Video ANT to insert commentary on a video. As they read/view the work of others and respond to that work — in conjunction with their own experience as digital writers — they can then work together to develop evaluative criteria for their projects. Some of those criteria will be shared, and will most likely be focused on the content of the projects, will some of those criteria will be specific for each particular project. For instance, everyone may have to meet the broad goal of finding at least 10 sources and accurately documenting their work, yet individual students may go about this in different ways to the use of social bookmarking, bibliographic tools, or hyperlinks, based on the digital writing that they do.

So, those are some thoughts in response to Buffy’s insightful reflections on this first half of her year integrating digital writing. Sorry that they kind of read like a list of new year’s resolutions, but I hope they are helpful.

Also, as I prepare for the collaborative series, I’m looking for examples of what I would call “professional” digital mentor texts that I can write about. The first one that came to mind for me was Dove’s “Evolution” video. While I know that students would not be expected to create something exactly like this, I do think that it opens up opportunities for many conversations about what digital writing is and could be. If you have other ideas for mentor texts that have been made by professionals yet would still be appropriate to share with students as models of exemplary digital writing, please do let you know.

Until 2012…

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Collaborative Blog Series: Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop

To kick off the new year, Franki Sibberson has gathered a number of us together to create a collaborative series of blog posts around the idea of mentor texts in the digital writing workshop. Here, in part, is the announcement from her blog,

Lots of us included our thinking in our sessions at NCTE 2011 but then followed up with conversations working through what the idea of mentor texts and inquiry-driven study mean for a digital writing workshop.

In the midst of one of our conversations, an idea formulated about focusing some writing around it.  So, during the week of January 8, we’ll each be posting on our own blogs about the thinking we’ve been doing, the things we’ve learned from students, and our own writing.  We are hoping you’ll join us by thinking along with us about this idea of mentor texts in the digital writing workshop. You can join in the conversation by reading our blogs, posting your own thinking to your blog, commenting, etc.  We thought this would be a fun way to have a larger conversation about ideas we are thinking about. We love the idea of pulling lots of voices together around one idea.

Participating in the series will be:

Bill Bass, Technology Integration Specialist in Missouri and author of the upcoming ISTE book on Film Festivals tentatively titled, “Authentic Learning Through a Digital Lens” will be blogging on his blog MR. BASS ONLINE.

Katie DiCesare, a primary teacher in Dublin who runs an incredible writing workshop will be blogging at her blog, CREATIVE LITERACY.

Troy Hicks, author of THE DIGITAL WRITING WORKSHOP and BECAUSE DIGITAL WRITING MATTERS. He will be blogging at his site, DIGITAL WRITING, DIGITAL TEACHING.

Kevin Hodgson, 6th grade teacher and author of TEACHING THE NEW WRITING will be blogging at his blog Kevin’s Meandering Mind.

Tony Keefer, an amazing 4th grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio will be blogging at at ATYCHIPHOBIA.

And I’ll be blogging here. (Actually, here, because I copied her post and pasted it here)

This will be good for me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that publicized peer pressure always makes me want to write more and because I am working on my next book, which will touch on many of these ideas about digital mentor texts. More importantly, I look forward to reading, viewing, and learning from this amazing group of educators. All together, it will good to get some thinking, reading, and writing done.

Until then, enjoy the holidays and the new year!

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.