Earlier this month, Kristin Ziemke and I co-authored a blog post in response to Nancie Atwell’s blog post about the role of technology in her classroom. In short, the response to our response has been, well, overwhelming and positive. As so many of us in the world of English language arts prepare to head to DC this week for the NWP Annual Meeting and NCTE annual convention, I wanted to capture just a few of the smart, thoughtful, and creative ideas that our colleagues have shared over the past few weeks. A few other edubloggers have jumped in with their insights:
Julie Johnson reminds us how “When using technology in thoughtful and authentic ways, our students are given one more avenue for both consuming and producing text. In a true digital workshop, students have choice in how they read, respond, and write. Sometimes they choose traditional tools, at other times they chose digital tools.”
Franki Sibberson demonstrates that, in a “workshop of the possible,” digital reading and writing are parallel to print literacies because “The key is that the teaching focuses on the writing, not the tool.”
Cathy Mere describes the possibilities of what technology can offer her students including the fact that digital tools are “ONE option of many possibilities,” “A way to connect with other learners,” and “A place for students to have a voice TODAY.”
Finally, Jessica Lifshitz rethinks how her students work as readers: “Because now we are not just reading alone in our classroom, now we are reading in a great big world of readers. And it feels so much bigger, and better, than just us.”
It is simply amazing to me how powerful teachers’ voices can be when we reach out and share our thinking. I look forward to doing much more of this over the coming week at NWP and NCTE 2014, as well as on our new Teacher-Writer Network page on FB.
Thanks again to all of you for sharing your insights on teaching digital reading and writing. Let’s keep the conversation going.
In interest of full disclosure, I was provided an advanced copy of the book by Stenhouse, though I have long been an admirer of Jeff’s work to effectively integrate grammar instruction into the writing workshop and Deborah’s work on genre study and best practices in writing. More importantly, even though I got one for free, you can win a copy, too… read on!
So, it was my pleasure to read their book and converse with them about some related topics.
First, a quick overview of the book from the perspective of an English teacher who was always reluctant to “teach grammar.” I tried to integrate grammar instruction into my mini-lessons and conferences with students, but very rarely could I get beyond the idea of simply introducing my middle schoolers to using commas in a series or, if I was really lucky, to add an appositive phrase. Jeff and Deborah have provided teachers with a road map for how to make grammar instruction, through an alternative form of sentence combining, much more effective than simply winging it during those teachable moments and hoping that something would stick. Indeed, Revision Decisions provides us with the theoretical and practical glue to make grammar lessons meaningful and memorable.
Jeff and Deborah remind us that “Writing is a series of attempts that is often messy — drafting, revising. Many things are tried; some will be fixed, some discarded, and others memorialized in print, making it the best it can be — for now” (17). They encourage us to teach students how to play with language, to make words and phrases move on the page, to help our ideas take shape, reform, and then take shape again. Teaching in this manner is not necessarily easy, because we need to be willing to take risks with our students, playing with language while inviting them, too, to engage in the process. It is important that we provide ample wait time as students explore, remembering that “[t]he most important part of these activities is letting the students discover as much as they can” (44). Jeff and Deborah show us exactly how to do this by offering their DRAFT heuristic (18):
Delete unnecessary and repeated words
Rearrange sentence parts/chunks
Form new verb endings
Talk it out
Then, in the second half of the book, our co-authors walk us through a number of “lesson sets” which explain these revision decisions in more detail. All in all — and not just because I am a big fan of their previous work — I can say that Revision Decisions will guide my teaching practice as I continue to think about how sentence combining (and, as Jeff and Deborah show, “uncombining”) can be a great teaching strategy.
Second, and equally as interesting, I was able to interview both Jeff and Deborah via email. They provided me with some compelling answers to burning questions that I have about the teaching of grammar. I share my original questions and their responses here:
Question 1: First, as we consider the many ways in which students knowledge of grammar could be assessed, part of our reality is that the new common core tests, as well as other high-stakes tests such as the ACT, are asking students to identify grammatical structures and problems and then reply to a multiple-choice question. How do you balance teaching “revision decisions” with authentic pieces of student work against these constraining types of test questions? In what way are we able to have students transfer their knowledge of grammar from their “revision decisions” into the reality of test prep?
The cool thing about the concrete acts modeled and experimented with in Revision Decisions is that they are based in a sound research-based instructional methods and help prepare kids for test. Sure, it will work best for critical thinking, revision, and sentence combining questions that students are sure to encounter. It’s not so much about editing; however, since we only use grammatically correct sentences to play with and combine, they are getting exposure to correct texts as they reformulate and revise.
Thinkers. That is what we want our students to be in our classroom, in the world, and even on tests. Thinkers. Thinkers evaluate what best communicates and idea, analyzing, testing it. This is all built into the lesson cycle or progression in Revision Decisions. Based in the Writing Next research on sentence combining, study of models, and collaboration, students will think. Thought requires flexibility, risks, and options. We demonstrate options, we allow students to tinker with and combine sentences, all in the name of making beautiful, rhythmic sense. The concrete doable actions of the DRAFT mnemonic let young revisers in on the concrete things they can do (options) to create effective prose: Deleting, Rearranging, Adding connectors, Forming new verb endings, and the essential piece of Talking it out. Luckily higher standard tests won’t ask students to identify a part of speech or structure, but the applied knowledge they’ll get from sentence combining and revising will set them on a path for success.
One of the ways I would say the work we present in the book helps prepare students for testing is that Revision Decision work is consistently putting options about writing in front of students and asking them to consider the effects of the different choices, much as the test does. As students and teachers work with making writing choices (revision decisions!), they consider effects, to be sure, but they also consider issues of clarity and, in some cases, correctness—issues the tests focus on. All of these are elements of the decisions writers make. In our classroom talk about choices and effects, a certain amount of talk about correctness is sure to come up: it is, after all, something readers might expect in some writing situations and it is possible for writers to violate expectations for grammar when they are playing around with parts of sentences. Therefore, correctness (or lack of it) also creates an effect that writers need to consider in revision. There is room in this practice for helping students get ready for tests; it is just woven into the talk and decision-making about sentences. Long answer put short: although we don’t focus on correctness directly, it will certainly come up in discussions of choices and their differing communicative effects.
Question 2: Second, just as the Writing Next report indicates that isolated and grammar instruction has a neutral to negative effect on students writing, it also notes that word processing has a positive effect. How could a teacher transfer some of the ideas that you both have shared in your book to a technology–infused lesson? What might you suggest for teachers as they help students use word processing for smarter revisions?
Ack. This one is hard for me. I have lost many a good idea by revising on a word processor program. I do think it’s handy for small stuff, but I have lost things too. I almost always print my writing out at some point, open a new file, copy and paste the section in need of revising. When and if it works, I paste it into my doc. So I guess, sharing my process isn’t a bad way to do that. Wait, I am sharing my own process discovery. That’s writing process, by jove. Also considered a huge plus in the Writing Next research report.
It certainly seems to me that the practice we present in the book works with students who are word processing as well as, if not better than, for those who are writing out their sentences. In fact, one of the challenges of this work is that when students are handwriting, they sometimes don’t like to make multiple versions, “writing the same words over and over.” Some of my students acted as though the physical act of writing was almost painful in these instances. For those students, being able to copy and paste to move sections of sentences around would be a great benefit, allowing them to create more ways to frame the ideas of a sentence with relative ease.
An additional benefit that is available for handwriting but that may be a little less noticeable is the way that copying and pasting helps students to see how ideas group themselves into grammatical structures for movement. It is easier, I think, for them to see a prepositional phrase or verb phrase as a unit if they are moving chunks with a word processor.
Question 3: Finally, though I’m sure it is difficult to pick only one, what grammatical structure do you think most students could learn to use in order to add power and voice to their writing? What is it about that particular grammatical structure that you find so useful? Do you have an example of how an author has used that grammatical structure in a book, essay, or poem?
For me (but Debbie has a love affair with this structure itself. I am surprised we didn’t dedicate the book to right-branching sentences), it is the idea of the right-branching sentences. So primary to both of us that it is Lesson Set 1 in Revision Decisions. Whether a writer adds an appositive to the right of the main sentence or clause or a participial phrase to the right. This is manageable and replicable for both fiction and nonfiction writing. In the book, we reference a sentence by Albert Marrin from Rats!:
A rat can collapse its skeleton, allowing it to wriggle through a hole as narrow as three-quarters of an inch.
The main clause is really expanded by the right-branching modification. This is true in appositives or participial phrases or any other appropriate structure.
I don’t know for sure how to write the sound I just made.
It’s a little like asking which is my favorite child. Impossible to answer.
But, okay. I don’t know what Jeff would say, but I would go to participial phrases, I guess. (As soon as I say that I think of dozens of others—should I say appositives????) Why do I find them useful? They allow me to add details; in fact, if I’m thinking about using them, I usually add details I might otherwise leave out, adding those details in concise ways, without duplicating words or making placeholders necessary.
I always remember a passage of Where the Red Fern Grows that we use on pages 103 and 104 in the book. It’s a passage that shows how powerful participles can be (and so does the example on page 105 from Sheinkin’s Bomb). Participles and participial phrases are useful in so many places and in so many texts. We have lots of examples in the book of them—I guess both Jeff and I really are drawn to them.
I thank both Jeff and Deborah for their responses! And, now for the fun part. GIVEAWAY INFORMATION:
For a chance to win this copy of Revision Decisions, please leave a comment on this post by Monday, November 17th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner, who will be contacted via email.
Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you if you win. Stenhouse will be shipping the book to you, so I will share your mailing address with them.
Thanks to Jeff and Deborah for their timely, useful, and fun approach to teaching revision!
In her recent blog post Nancie Atwell opens up about the role of technology in her classroom. As a leader in our field of teaching writing, Nancie, suggested that:
I do think classrooms in grades four or five and up should have computers, so kids can experience and experiment with word processing, but I have concerns about them in the younger grades. In fact, I think the trend of iPads in the primary classroom is a mistake.
We’re grateful to Nancie for starting this conversation as districts across the country purchase more and more mobile devices without thinking about the pedagogical practices that must go hand-in-hand, if not lead, how we think about using these new tools. This dialogue is necessary and overdue. Nancie is one of the literacy leaders who has guided our thinking about student writing, the reading and writing workshop approach, and how best to frame our own thinking about the teaching of writing, both of us appreciate and admire Nancie’s work. We respect her opinions about what works in reading and writing classrooms.
We agree with Nancie that many schools are using technology poorly; instead of embracing redefinition as Dr. Puentedura has advocated for, teachers are often misguided and use digital devices for sight word practice, prompted responses and (sadly) weekly assessment and test prep. We recognize that there are poor models of classroom technology out there. We also respect and acknowledge how Nancie employs technology at her school.
However, in this case, we humbly suggest that her opinion on students writing with technology is limited, and we feel compelled to offer a different vision of how students can become digital readers and writers.
First, in the upper grades, we feel that her insistence on computers for word processing is too limiting. Let’s unpack this assumption just a bit. First, though it can feel like our students have their noses stuck in screens for far too long throughout the day, technology is not the enemy here. In fact, word processing is just the beginning of what technology offers to writers. According to leading researchers in the field of K-12 writing instruction, Jill Barshay reports that:
In 83 percent of 30 studies on the use of word processing software, students’ writing quality improved when they wrote their papers on a computer instead of writing by hand. The impact was largest for middle school students, but younger students benefited, too. The theory is that students feel more free to edit their sentences because it’s so easy to delete, add and move text on a computer. The more editing, the better the final essay.
Steve Graham and Delores Perin shared these results in the 2007 Writing Next report, and — sadly — in many K-12 classrooms we still don’t see technology being used for revision and editing in this proven manner. Yet, word processing is just the beginning of what students can, and should, do with computers.
Second, as we dig a bit deeper into Nancie’s claim about using computers only for word processing, we know that there is more to consider. Indeed, we know from our own research, teaching, and professional writing that computers — as well as tablets and smart phones — provide students with countless opportunities for reading and writing. And, when we say “reading” and “writing,” we are talking about both traditional alphabetical texts (books, articles, essays, poems) as well as digital texts including blogs, ebooks, and hypertexts. Our professional organizations — such as NCTE, IRA, and NWP — have been calling for a broadened view of digital literacy for well over a decade. We would hope that Nancie would consider doing so, too.
Now, to unpack the second part of her concern: that “the trend of iPads in the primary classroom is a mistake.” While Troy does not have the benefit of being in the classroom everyday with younger students, Kristin does. And, from this experience, she would argue that the primary grades are exactly where kids SHOULD be using technology as it transforms their ability to create, share their ideas and connect with an authentic audience beyond the classroom. In fact, it is essential.
Let us explain a bit more.
In the early childhood years, many students are challenged by the physicality it takes to produce a piece of writing. Ideas are often generated and lost before a young writer can transmit them to the paper. In today’s digital writing workshop, students can scaffold their own development by recording a video snapshot of the story they want to tell. Once the ideas are captured on video, the child can transfer the story to paper while going back to rewatch the video as many times as needed in order to remember and include all the parts of the story. Video recording tools allow us to meet the writer where he is and nudge him to become a more proficient writer and idea generator.
Using digital publishing tools like the Book Creator App or Little Bird Tales, we find new ways to celebrate active literacy in the classroom as students can draw, write, speak, listen, view and read all within a piece they create. The ease of which a child can add audio to their own book signals to the learner that each child has a story to tell and is the owner of that story. Embedded audio provides a window into the thinking and gives us a picture of what a child knows and is able to do, not merely what their fine motor abilities allow them to produce on paper.
Most importantly, technology expands our youngest learners audience as students publish their writing online. Enhanced eBooks, student blogs and classroom Twitter accounts invite primary age students to move beyond the writing wall in the classroom and into a writing world. Feedback from their families, blogging buddies and experts in the field inspires them to write even more. Students view themselves as important contributors to the global writing community and move beyond learning about writing to living life as a writer.
Moreover, these observations extend beyond the early grades. We can point to numerous examples where teachers in upper elementary, middle school, and high school are using digital reading and writing to support their students’ literacy development. As a point of reference for upper el and middle school, we would suggest that Nancie look at some really innovative educators who teach writing with technology such as Kevin Hodgson, Jeremy Hyler and Katharine Hale.
Finally, we suggest that the concerns Atwell suggests are less about her students’ abilities — as well as the capabilities of the devices — and more about her stance as a teacher. Certainly, we want students to feel positive about their reading and writing experiences: reaching fluency with the written word, providing opportunities to talk about books with one another, holding a well-worn novel or favorite pen in our hands. These are tactile, valuable experiences. As she notes, there are social reasons embedded in writing and reading that make these practices both pedagogically useful as they humanize our classrooms.
However, if as teachers we discount the opportunities that crafting digital writing and engaging in digital reading can offer students, then we are doing our students more than a disservice. We are failing to prepare them for academic, workplace, and real life opportunities to engage in literacy practices. This is not about our personal preferences for or against technology. It is about the ways that we teach students to become literate.
We are grateful to Nancie as a thought leader and for her decades of work, as well as for her blog post in which she invites us all to reflect on the role of technology in our classrooms. However, we disagree with her stance that word processing is the only way to use technology in the writing workshop and encourage Nancie and others to rethink how we engage students as writers. We strongly believe the trend of iPads (or any tech) in elementary (or middle or high school classrooms) is, indeed, not a mistake, but a necessity.