As an inquiry group of about two dozen educators, teacher consultants from four National Writing Project Sites have gathered together in monthly meetings over the 2020-21 school year to explore what we have broadly named “writing assistance technologies” and their impacts on our teaching, our students’ writing, and the field of teaching writing more broadly. This project has been named “Ahead of the Code” and, yesterday, we met for an open conference, inviting colleagues to join in our inquiry, making our practice public, and sharing some ideas from our exploration of tools ranging from grammar and spelling checkers to automated essay scoring.
What I found most compelling about our conversations from the day is that many of the questions that teachers have explored this year have moved beyond our initial queries such as “what are these tools” and “how might I use them” into deeper, more substantive questions about what these tools really are, algorithmically, how they work with assumptions about academic language, and what purposes they ultimately serve. There were a number of creative ways that these educators have been pushing on the edges of writing assistance technologies that would previously have been seen as confining (e.g., inviting students to choose the writing assistance tool that they feel will best help them rather than being assigned a particular tool) as well as rethinking the use of these tools to make them better fit in a process-oriented pedagogy (e.g., using peer review tools at the sentence-level to offer feedback on compound and complex construction, rather than essay-level feedback, which can feel overwhelming). My hope is that more of their reflections (and resources from the sessions) will appear on our group’s blog soon.
As part of our day, we were welcomed in a keynote with Dr. Maha Bali (@bali_maha), an Associate Professor of Practice at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Learning and Teaching, whose work includes posts in Hybrid Pedagogy and as a founder of Equity Unbound. As part of her keynote, our conference planning team had worked with her to think through the keynote session, and she wanted to build on Ian M. MacKay’s “Swiss cheese model applied to COVID19 prevention” to think about application to writing pedagogy and the use of these tools, as well as systematic and individual challenges that might inhibit our work. Though we didn’t quite have enough time to think through the version I created during the keynote talk (as she had us engaged in a great breakout room discussions with one of the Liberating Structures protocols), I did want to share some brief thoughts here, as well as my image.
As I constructed my version of the Roumy Cheese model, I tried to think systemically about where we find ourselves with writing instruction, broadly, and with the use of writing assistance tools. That said, I didn’t make notation of the tools in my model. Instead, I focused on the context in which we find ourselves teaching writing, which includes diverse causes of inequity in the teaching of English that include the need for Linguistic Justice (Baker-Bell) and a long-held recognition of Students’ Rights to their Own Language (NCTE/CCCC); these both not the ways that teachers must balance the tension between students’ home languages and dialects, some of which can be seen as conflicting with more commonly-held conceptions of “academic” or “proper” English. With that, I took the “larger” to “smaller” approach as I moved left-to-right, beginning with school culture and the prevalence of the workshop structure in ELA classrooms, broadly, on the far left, and then to some of the ideas from Graham et al.’s work on the use of “model-practice-reflect” and explicit strategy instruction, heading toward the middle.
Continuing to the right, I thought that we should look at moves that individual teachers make during workshop instruction including an analysis of mentor texts, effective design of transparent assignments, and generative (as compared to punitive) grading policies and practices. Then, we move further into individual teacher decision-making, we think about the ways that students build in intentional time for conferring and scaffolding intentional peer feedback. These moves inside the classroom are then supported by timely and effective feedback outside the classroom, too, the final slice on the right, and the best way to support student writers as they continue to learn and grow.
Of note, I don’t talk too much about any particular writing assistance technology in my model. If there are moments where these technologies could be used (at a system-wide, school-wide, grade-level, or individual teacher level), my argument is that a skilled teacher can probably figure out a way to do so (even if the use of the tool, such as a grammar checker or plagiarism detection service might be used in a way that is slightly at odds with the way that it was originally intended to be used). For instance, we talked during the conference about how we might take a gamified grammar experience and invite students to think not only about correcting errors (like fixing commas in a series), yet also taking those model sentences and adapt them to one’s own writing. Or, another colleague talked about how she had students choose a writing assistance technology to focus on one element (concision, for instance, with the Hemingway editor), and then would be encouraged to pick a different technology and focus the next time, such as a grammar checker.
There is probably a place to think about the writing assistance technologies in a more explicit manner by layering them into the Roumy Cheese Analogy. That will need to wait, for now. Again, I thank Maha Bali for introducing it to us as a way to stretch our thinking about systematic challenges we face in education. And, as we move from the questions about what the tools are to more substantive questions about how to use them (and repurpose them from their original use), I am encouraged to see the ways that we can continue to stay “ahead of the code.”
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