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?
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?
4. How can teachers keep their authority over online classroom environment?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
Today, I made my way to Columbus in preparation for the Digital Media and Composition Institute, also known as DMAC. In more than one way, this has been a career aspiration of mine for well over a decade, and I’m very much looking forward to the immersive, sustained experience of working with colleagues over the next 10 days.
I first learned about DMAC, then CIWIC, when Cindy Selfe and Gail Hawisher were still at Michigan Tech, from my mentor and dissertation director, (and, eventually, co-author on Because Digital Writing Matters), Danielle Nicole DeVoss, as she had pursued her own graduate studies there. To make a long story short, I feel like part of my academic heritage is deeply rooted with CIWIC/DMAC, and in many ways I feel like I am returning “home” though I have never actually attended the workshop.
At another level, this spring is also quite important for me as a moment to pause, reflect, and refocus. Since 2003, I have had the incredibly good fortune of leading countless conference sessions, day-long workshops, and multi-day or even multi-week institutes. This has come about from my long and productive relationship with the National Writing Project. I’ve been humbled and honored to have started the Chippewa River Writing Project at CMU, and to have been invited to dozens of writing project sites – as well as other school districts and professional organization events – over the past decade.
However, one of the things that I miss is simply being a participant in a workshop, to be fully immersed so I can soak up ideas and wisdom from other participants and facilitators. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy opportunities for leadership, because I certainly do, and I’m looking forward to at least half a dozen different opportunities this summer, not least of which is facilitating our own weeklong CRWP leadership institute, returning to Rhode Island to help facilitate the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, and also coordinating our Beaver Island Institute for science and literacy. I look forward to all of these, and to my time at ISTE and NWP Midwest, among other conference events. All this will be wonderful, too.
Still, there’s something to be said for just having one’s mind in a state of “being.” DMAC will allow me that time and space. And, I will get to meet other like-minded scholars, reconnect to my writing roots, and think critically and creatively about digital composition. In short, it will be intellectually engaging and fun.
And, I’m at a point in my career where, not needing to “pivot” or “redefine” entirely, what I really need to do over the next ten days is get refocused. I have a number of specific projects that I want to work on over the next 10 days, many of which are connected to my teaching, scholarship, and service.
With teaching, in particular, I’m trying to imagine the possibilities for a class I am teaching this fall, a seminar class for honors freshman, that I have entitled “Our Digital Selves.” There’s quite a bit of work that I need to do this summer in order to figure out exactly how I want to teach the course. First, I’m looking to a colleague and leader in the field of digital badging for composition, Stephanie West-Puckett, and the work that she has begun at URI with Writing 104. Titled MakerComp, she helps her students move toward self guided inquiry and significant projects, bundled in a system of badging.
Additionally, I’ve been “away” from writing for a significant amount of time. I have certainly been busy with some smaller projects this year, I have not gotten refocused on a book-length project since the publication of Argument in the Real World, From Texting to Teaching, and Coaching Teacher-Writers in 2017. I have a number of writing opportunities ahead of me, as well as potential collaborators with whom I would like to work, and so these next few days will give me lots of time to consider possibilities and develop project proposals.
Finally, of course, I am interested in learning how other people design professional development experiences for their peers and colleagues. I’ve been struggling to try to figure out how, exactly, to help re-invigorate our own writing project site’s work, connect to our masters in educational technology program, and consider new possibilities for CMU’s education program at large. I hope that watching the DMAC team in action as facilitators will be good for me, too.
In short, I need DMAC.
I am deeply fortunate to have a patient and flexible wife who is managing the chaos at home, as well as an employer in CMU who has given me significant financial support to attend this DMAC Institute. I am thankful for these blessings in my life.
Exploring the Craft of Digital Writing, Grades 2–8
A Complimentary Webinar with Dr. Troy Hicks and the Center for the Collaborative Classroom.
Join us for an hour of inspiration and learning with Dr. Troy Hicks as he leads us in an exploration of the craft of digital writing. More and more, our students encounter a daily dose of digital texts, ranging from websites to social-media messages, from class assignments to YouTube videos. As they encounter these texts, what are the strategies that they need to be close, critical readers and viewers? Moreover, as students craft their own digital writing, what do they need to be able to do as writers, producers, and designers? Join Dr. Troy Hicks as he shares insights about the craft of digital writing and its implications for our students, grades 2–8.
Please note: This webinar will be recorded. If you are unable to attend the live session, register to receive a link to the recorded webinar. The recording will be made available 5–7 business days after the live session.
Tomorrow, I will be speaking with Danielle DeVoss and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, co-authors of Because Digital Writing Matters, at the first ever WIDE-EMU Un-Conference.
For my chunk of the plenary address, I will be presenting: Teach Digital Writing: Five Paradigm Shifts for K-12 Education My hope is that by using AuthorStream here to present both the slides and a recorded narration of my talk, I will be able to participate in the backchannel that is happening during the actual plenary address time. We’ll see how that goes…
My thanks to Vidushi Kanwar of AuthorStream who has offered a promo code for those of you who might want to try out the “Pro” version of AuthorStream with a 20% discount: DIS20
Yesterday, I had the good fortune to talk with Steve Hargadon on his Future of Education webinar series. Details of the show, including access to the MP3 version and Elluminate sesssion archive are available with those links, and also are on his blog. It was a wonderful and far-ranging conversation about the importance and effects of digital writing and social media on our culture, as well as the state of writing instruction and teacher professional development in our schools. Many NWP colleagues joined in the backchannel conversation, including Christina Cantrill who kept a steady stream of resources from the Digital Is site flowing into the conversation.
There is so much to think about and reflect on from the conversation. As many others have noted, Steve is a well-prepared, thoughtful, and entertaining interviewer. He kept asking me great questions and was very attentive to trends and ideas raised in the backchannel. This kept the conversation moving along, and I found myself trying to limit my responses to two minutes or so (although I am not entirely sure how well I did that!). Of the many questions that I tried to field during the show and answer while talking, there were a number of other ideas that popped up, and I wanted to look at some of them here.
The first key idea was one of our main principles from NWP, just with a slight addendum. Steve Taffee stated that “It’s difficult for teachers to advocate for digital writing if they are not practitioners themselves.” Indeed. The trick, then, is how to invite our colleagues into discussions and opportunities to do digital writing which led to a humorous comment from Lisa Cooley who asked, “I wonder if Troy knows what Douglas Adams had to say about technology and age. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.” Sadly, I haven’t read any of the Hitchhiker’s series, or any of his other work. This gives me new inspiration to check them out.
The second major idea that surfaced was first mentioned by Adam:
In Because Digital Writing Matters, there’s a phrase that keeps resonating for me. It’s one Tim Wright said about digital writing being collaborative, yes, but also “real time, improvisatory writing…” This resonates because it breaks down a traditional notion that writing has to be “final draft talk” and writing can be “exploratory talk.” In the way this Elluminate Level is allowing us to do now…I’d like to hear more about this notion of digital writing as improv.
He elaborates a bit more:
Having to jump in and learn to use a wiki or Google Docs, if someone has never done that before, in a way forces them to improvise…For me, great digital writing occurs when I am in over my head and I have to figure out creative ways to make new things happen…
Digital writing as improv.
I like that.
That’s a unique take on the old idea of “writing as discovery” or “writing to discover.” It brings new meaning to the aphorism, “How do I know what I think until I see what I am going to say ?” (or something to that effect). Also, I like it because it reminds us that the tools for digital writing — computers, mobile phones, cameras, recorders — are all open to interpretation and revision. There are opportunities to capture, recapture, and rearrange words, images, sounds. Digital writing is like improv, and we only get good at improv when we play.
In that same vein, a second key idea about what counts as digital writing came up. Richard Close asked “Is creating your own YouTube digital writing? Or sending a pic with a text digital writing?” Yes, indeed, it is, although I want to clarify that a bit. We can teach students how improv with both creativity, and responsibility. Simply recording something on your cell phone and posting it to YouTube without thinking about how, why, when, or by whom your video could be viewed or repurposed is not, in my eyes, a responsible way to think of yourself as a digital writer. Just because you can post something doesn’t mean that you should (think of all the scandal that has happened just this week about indiscretions via Twitter). We want to teach students to be intentional, to frame their thinking and the composition process in light of purpose, audience, and situation. So, if they are going to use an image or video clip and share it through a text or social network then, yes, they are writing, and they need to take responsibility for themselves and their products, for better or for worse.
Third, a bit later, Peggy George notes “does digital writing change the notion that writing isn’t “finished” until it’s the final, published version? seems like it’s much more about writing as communicating and growth–not necessarily final products.” Again, a good point. I think that is one of hallmarks of all writing, at least all authentic writing, is that it is never done, just due. The digital nature of texts and wiki-fication of the writing process now allows us to think about writing going through many stages, many revisions, and many audiences. Also, I think it is important to understand the idea that when we make a multimedia piece, all the elements fit together in just such a manner, and any change to part of the composition will change the the other elements. And, once something is publicly available online, it becomes open to public comment, criticism, and repurposing. So, digital writing is very much work in progress, even when we think it is done.
Finally, I end with two quick questions that came up:
First, Jeff Mason asked “Are there models of Writing Workshop in content classes? ..as opposed to LA classes.” I am sure that there are, and one is in the Annenberg Series, “Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers.” Check out episode 3, “Different Audiences,” at about 44 minutes into the show; there you will see an example of a writer’s workshop happening in a science classroom. And, as Christina pointed out, “There are some beautiful visions of a digital writing workshop here created by Joel Malley and his students in western NY, http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/1133”
Second, Steve Taffee asked “Troy – What thoughts do might you have about alternative input devices for writing, for example speech to text?” I am all for them. As Ira Socol points out, text-to-speech software is useful both for special education students in their writing, as well as for anyone else who wants to learn how to use it so that they can hear their own writing in a different voice. Moreover, I personally have started using speech-to-text software to compose some of my own writing. Writing and speaking are, at least from my non-linguistically trained perspective, very different processes, so using speech-to-text to write things like emails generally works well, although not so well for composing longer pieces like this blog post or academic papers.
So, those are some thoughts and reflections from the show. Going back to review the transcript has been useful for me as I prepare to teach for MSU’s Ed Tech program this summer in France. The interview with Steve provided me a chance to collect my thoughts as I work on a few articles and a book proposal, too. I will go back and give myself a listen at some point soon, but first I need to catch up on Renee Hobbs’ talk with NWP on BlogTalk Radio and brush up on my French, so I will have to save my own recording for the plane. Au revoir!
This morning, I was invited by Franki Sibberson to record a podcast for Choice Literacy, thinking broadly about the changes in technology and writing instruction over the past few years as well as the teaching approach that I outline in The Digital Writing Workshop. Here are the questions that she sent me ahead of time, with some brief answers that guided our conversation.
Can you define Digital Writing and Digital Writing Workshop for us?
To borrow a definition from our co-authored NWP book, Because Digital Writing Matters, we define digital writing as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for, reading and/or viewing via a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet.” For me, I then think about three broad categories of digital writing:
Writing and responding to posts on blogs, microblogs, and social networks
Creating individual or multi-authored documents using wikis and collaborative word processors
Composing multimodal pieces such as podcasts and digital stories
The digital writing workshop, then, is (to use the contemporary term) a “mash up” of digital writing and the writing workshop. For most teachers, then concept of the writing workshop — where students have choice in topic and genre, teachers use mini-lessons and conferring to guide writing, and students share, respond to, and publish work — is familiar from noted teacher researchers and scholars such as Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle and many others who come from that school of thought. Thus, blending the digital writing with the workshop approach leads us to a digital writing workshop.
Why do you think it is an important thing for teachers to think about?
Since it is impossible to separate the act of writing from the use of technology (even pencil and paper are technology, right?) we need to think more and more about what digital tools such as computers, smart phones, video cameras, and other devices allow us to do (or, in some ways, not do) with our writing processes and products. Writing and technology are intertwined, and as we continue to think about how the shape of writing is changing in digital spaces, teachers should always be thinking ahead for how this will affect students’ literacy practices.
How have you seen the needs of student writers change in the last few years?
In some ways, it’s the same as it ever was: students still need time, materials, and space to write. They need to have consistent, thoughtful feedback from teachers and peers, and, sadly, they need to pass those tests. Yet, as students adapt their writing to other digital spaces, for instance on social networks and text messages, they don’t always see what they are doing as “writing.” As teachers of writing, this is something that we need to help them understand. Purpose, audience, situation. These will always be the constants in writing, even if the modes and media continue to change.
What’s different/What’s the same when it comes to writing workshop?
One key difference, obviously, is the technology. Ideally, we would all be working in a 1:1 environment where we are able to teach tech tips alongside elements of craft in digital writing spaces. Yet, we know this is not the case; some teachers and students have limited, if any, access. So, I think that we need to keep thinking about principles, no matter if you are working in a 1:1 situation, or if you are only in the computer lab once a month. What are you able to do, reasonably, given the time that you have access at school? What can you expect students to do outside of school with mobile devices or on other computers with access? We have always had some writers who excel and some who struggle, so those students will continue to be present in a digital writing workshop, yet we need to be especially sensitive to the technologies that they have available.
What role does technology play in digital writing?
As I mentioned above, technology plays a role in all writing. Even three years ago, it might be that someone wanting to create a digital story would need to have a digital camera, a personal computer, and a voice recorder. Now, for those who have access, they can do all of that with a smart phone. So, as technologies converge on our devices, I think that it will become easier and easier to create thoughtful, well-crafted digital writing. Still, having access to a full suite of tools including digital cameras, modern computers with lots of RAM and storage, and fast internet is still important.
How do you balance the tools with the teaching of writing?
To me, this is like the “teaching grammar in context” type of question. When we teach sentence combining, we can integrate a discussion of the semicolon vs. the colon, and that makes more sense than handing a student a worksheet. For digital writing, it is much the same. At the moment in the digital story when something needs to show a transition, then it is time to pull up the screen with the choice of transitions and talk about them. Why might you want to fade to black rather than have a page flip? Teaching the technology in the context of the writing process is what makes the digital writing workshop approach more than just “integrating technology”; instead, it is talk about the craft of digital writing.
Do you think that the craft of writing changes because of all of the new tools and new formats available to writers?
Indeed, as I mentioned above, I think that the craft changes. What makes an effective “hook” for a traditional essay may, or may not, work in a podcast or in a digital story. Having a slide with a title may be appropriate in some shows, in others it may not, although essays almost always have titles at the top. So, as with any genre study, we need to think about what makes good digital writing in a variety of contexts.
What is a good way for teachers to start incorporating more digital writing into their classrooms?
Pick on digital writing technology and go for it. For me, that tool would be a wiki. Look at a few examples, watch a tutorial on YouTube, and dive right in. The students will help you figure things out.
Other than your books, what are some resources, websites, etc. that you would recommend to teachers about Digital Writing Workshop? Who are the other experts we can learn from?
Also, anything by Clay Shirky, Donald Tapscott, danah boyd, Jason Ohler, Will Richardson, Sherry Turkle, Chris Anderson, Tim Wu, or Henry Jenkins would be useful to understand the broader context of digital media and learning. Critics of digital media, who we need to read, understand, and argue against, include Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein, and I am sure that there are more. Teachers/researchers that I read and respect include: Sara Kajder, Carl Young, Bud Hunt, Robert Rozema, Allen Webb, Danielle DeVoss, Punya Mishra, Matt Koehler, Charlie Moran, Anne Herrington, Rick Beach, Kathi Yancey, Doug Hartman, Jeff Grabill, Ellen Cushman, Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Dickie Selfe, and many more and more that I am sure I have forgotten in this list.
As many of my colleagues participate this weekend in the #blog4nwp cooperative, I want to thank Chad Sansing and Pam Moran for coordinating the effort and for the dozens of teachers who are adding their voices to this important conversation about saving the National Writing Project.
At the same time, I hope that my voice offers a complementary, although slightly different perspective — the voice of a junior faculty member who is also a director of an NWP site. In an era where the liberal arts in general, teacher education, and school performance are continually scrutinized, and the value of all three are constantly in question, I hope that my perspective as someone from inside the “ivory tower,” someone who is in the business of educating educators, offers yet another reason why NWP must be funded.
To begin, I acknowledge that there are many stories that have been and will continue to be told this weekend about the value of NWP to our personal and professional lives, and the life-changing experience that an NWP summer institute offers. This is all very true from my experience, and I consider myself a teacher and a writer, for sure, because of my involvement in NWP.
In addition, I am also a young faculty member and scholar whose work — my teaching, scholarship, and service — has been shaped and focused by NWP. To that end, I need to say more about how and why NWP works. I say this to show that NWP is a positive force for change, and worthy of continued funding from the federal government.
Without NWP, I can say quite simply, I would have no work.
While this is not entirely true (as I would likely still be teaching methods courses, participating in conferences, and writing for publications without the NWP). Perhaps I should say that I would not have meaningful, worthwhile work, or, at the very least, I don’t know that much of that work would matter. My teaching, scholarship, and service are all defined in relation to my work with NWP. Without NWP, I truly don’t know that my work would be possible, at least not in the way that I imagine strong, quality professional learning to happen.
As a junior faculty member, my colleagues in NWP have helped me think through all of my responsibilities to teachers and the profession, and it has given me the collegial space in which I can try out teaching ideas, explore digital writing, and seek collaboration. NWP has given me the opportunity to travel the country, work with teachers, and understand their many different classroom contexts. The people with whom I have worked offer me ideas and inspiration to write more, think more, present more, and work diligently to change the way writing is taught in this country. NWP has allowed and encouraged me to write books and articles. At CMU, I have articulated a vision for teaching, scholarship, and service that centers on the idea of active engagement, all guided by the NWP philosophy. And, most importantly, as a young faculty member who is often confronted with pressures inside and outside the university about the value of a liberal education and sometimes forced to defend myself as a teacher of writing, NWP has offered me the strength to state, with conviction, my beliefs about teaching writing as a personal and social act that can lead to personal and professional growth, reflection, and action.
If Congress wants a liberal arts education to have value, putting universities in partnerships with local schools and community agencies, then its members should vote to keep the NWP.
If Congress wants teacher education and professional development to be timely, evidence-based, and instructive, then its members should vote to keep the NWP.
And if Congress wants to see changes in teacher practice that lead to student achievement, then its members should vote to keep the NWP.
Without NWP, yes, I would still be teaching, still be researching, and still be serving my university, community, and profession. Yet, I have to wonder… to what extent would my teaching just be average? Would my research be filed away in obscure journal? Would my service be limited to peer review of articles and serving on only small committees? Would I really be a teacher, a write, and a voice in the dialogue about education reform in this country without NWP?
I am not 100% sure. However, I can say unequivocally that NWP has helped me become the teacher, researcher, and leader I am today. NWP works not only because it is one of the most cost-effective and results-oriented educational programs ever conceived, but also because it puts so many stakeholders involved with education in conversation with one another. And, these conversations matter. In schools. In communities. And, in universities.
Case in point: This past Wednesday, I was awarded with CMU’s Provost Award for outstanding achievement in research and creative activity by a junior faculty member. I thank my family, friends, and colleagues, all of whom have contributed to me earning this honor, many of whom have NWP connections. And, now that I have been recognized by CMU with the Provost’s Award in large part because of NWP — and, more importantly, on the weekend that we are sharing our collective voice about the importance of NWP — I want to share the text of my personal statement that I wrote.
Congress, quite simply, I ask that you reallocate funds to the National Writing Project. It is an investment that will pay dividends that go far beyond dollars. My hope is that both this letter above and my personal statement shared below can contribute to this conversation.
Director, Chippewa River Writing Project
Personal Statement for CMU Provost’s Award
Troy Hicks, January 2011
Significance of scholarship can be measured in many ways, including acceptance rates for a journal or the number of citations a work generates. More importantly, given the increased scrutiny on the role of arts and humanities in a liberal education, measurements of significance can include grant dollars, credit hours, and public recognition beyond the university, including commendations and awards. These measures are, indeed, important, and my scholarship had earned significance in these ways.
Yet, as a public intellectual in a digital age, my work takes many forms, including traditional academic formats such as books, journal articles, grants, and conference presentations, as well as a scholarship of application that includes teacher research, workshops, webinars, and blogging. In turn, my scholarship is significant because it reaches a variety of audiences, from the local level at CMU to the larger field of K-16 education, affecting the ways that we teach and learn writing in a digital age.
In my work, I explore the ways in which teachers adapt writing instruction to newer literacies and technologies, an emerging field called “digital writing.” Thus, the nature of my work has been—and will continue to be—flexible and timely, connecting the rich history of research in composition studies to the ever-changing needs of my colleagues who are teaching a new generation what it means to write with pencil and paper, as well as with computers, mobile phones, and digital cameras. My thoughts on digital writing are summed up best in a recent interview for District Administration, in which I stated:
The shape of writing has changed… Kids are now writing for real audiences and for real purposes, not just other kids in the class or the refrigerator door. And they are composing on computers and on phones in text and multimedia. These are substantial changes.
At CMU, my scholarship has direct effects on the undergraduate and graduate students that I teach, most of whom are pre-service and in-service teachers. Because I explore how we can use technology to teach writing, I am constantly collaborating with colleagues to write grants, plan workshops, collect data, and analyze what is happening in their classrooms. Along with the undergraduate writing methods course that I teach, ENG 315, I have worked with CMU colleagues to establish our site of the National Writing Project, the Chippewa River Writing Project (CRWP). In 2009 and 2010, and again in this coming summer of 2011, we offer a four-week summer institute for K-16 teachers of writing. My scholarship moves immediately from the process of writing a grant to fund CRWP into a process of application where we work with teachers to improve their practice. For instance, the chapter I have included in my materials that I co-authored with Dawn Reed, “From the front of the classroom to the ears of the world: Podcasting as an extension of speech class,” is indicative of the types of teacher research projects that I develop with my colleagues through writing project work. At least nine teachers affiliated with CRWP have completed or are working on their own teacher research projects, including IRB protocols and systematic inquiry in their own classroom practice. I encourage teachers to engage in the research process, leading them to create conference presentations, journal articles, and book chapters. In short, my work at CMU with the CRWP is an applied form of scholarship, showing the importance of how we can study and teach the arts and humanities broadly, and writing in particular.
From the immediate effects on CMU’s campus, my work is significant in local, state, and national professional development, too. While teachers can often read about ways to integrate technology in their classroom, we know from research in teacher education that they need time for their own learning and reflective implementation of these plans. Thus, professional development must be timely and embedded in teacher practice, and I actively move my scholarship forward from the articles and books that I write into my relationships with teachers. This past year, I have collaborated with the Center for Excellence in Education to develop a Title II Professional Development grant, WRITE NOW, extending many of the ideas of that I write about in my work into workshops and literacy coaching for local teachers. For instance, my co-authored article “Transforming the group paper with collaborative online writing,” offers many examples for how teachers can invite their students to use technology to collaborate and revise. To enact this, in the summer of 2010 I led a five-day workshop for twenty local teachers to learn how to use these tools. Then, as a follow-up this year, I am working as a literacy coach in Mt. Pleasant High School and Oasis Alternative High School, helping teachers take the ideas that they learned and applying those ideas in their classrooms. Again, my work on this grant is scholarship in action, leading teachers as they examine research on digital writing and immediately applying it. These initiatives with teachers are where most of my day-to-day work happens, and it is through this process where change occurs, leading to significant effects for students in their classrooms.
The work that I do with these teachers in local contexts then leads to broader conversations that occur across the nation, beginning with the books that I write and continuing with the subsequent conference presentations, webinars, and workshops that I lead. For instance, my first book, The Digital Writing Workshop, has combined two areas of composition studies – writing workshop pedagogy and the study of digital writing – and solidified the use of the term “digital writing workshop” in the discourse of K-12 writing instruction. My approach to writing this book was one that would speak to writing teachers about pedagogy, not just offer a list of technology tools that they could use in their classroom. One review of the book summarized it in this manner: “Teachers’ fear and preoccupation over technology tends to feed an either/or dualism that sets teaching and technology against each other… Hicks avoids this pitfall. Instead, he portrays technology and writing as ‘intricately intertwined’ by keeping a firm hand on two visions.” Because of this approach, my book has been adopted by numerous National Writing Project sites and English education courses across the nation, and Heinemann began a second printing only eight months after its initial publication in September, 2009. As a result of this work, I have been invited over the past eighteen months to speak at over twenty professional conferences and workshops broadly related to English education and teacher education, as well as one invitation even to speak with an audience of school architects. I estimate that I have delivered over 10,000 contact hours of professional development, thus extending the reach of my scholarship well beyond traditional academic publications and conference presentations. Also, as a sign of the book’s effect on English Education, I was awarded National Technology Leadership Award in English Education from the Society for Information and Technology Education’s English Education Special Interest Group.
Along with classroom practices, I am interested in larger concerns about curriculum development, school policies, and infrastructures. My second book, Because Digital Writing Matters, released in November 2010, has already entered the discourse of K-12 education by influencing school district policies and curriculum design, as well as teaching practice. For instance, the Etowah County Schools in Alabama have recently adopted Because Digital Writing Matters as a text for their latest professional development initiative. As a co-author of the book, published jointly by the National Writing Project and Jossey-Bass, I am also involved as a “curator” of the new NWP website, “Digital Is,” a collection of multimedia resources created by teachers and students. As writing continues to change, I understand that the ways in which we share our scholarship needs to change, too, and online resources that complement traditional academic publications will be significant as educators create professional development initiatives nationwide.
As demonstrated in my work, there are many measures of significance—especially the effects that it has on teacher professional development and student learning—that matter as much or more than traditional measures of academic success. When I lead a workshop and have a teacher tell me that my work has changed the way that she teaches writing, that is significant. When I am compared by my peers to some of the historic leaders in the field of teaching writing, that is significant. When my work inspires others to do research, create workshops, and reflect on their own teaching, that is significant.
Significance can be measured in many ways and my work appeals to both traditional academic audiences and K-16 educators more broadly, thus changing the conversations about how we teach writing in our schools and contributing to a new line of scholarship that will last for decades to come.
Although I would have posted this last night upon returning from EduCon, Sara and I found ourselves rerouted by Delta and not arriving home until about 2AM. So, a little time to sleep this morning (in fact, very little) and a little time to think about this all day today has now brought me back to my computer tonight, and I am reading a flurry of tweets and posts, post-EduCon. In particular, Liz B. Davis shared her “EduCon Struggle” with a thoughtful follow-up from Chris Lehmann, among others, and Bud just asked for our “educontext” in a tweet just a while ago.
So, where am I at in my “educontext?” Well, with encouraging words from both Sara and Liz to share my thoughts, here is where I was at 24 hours ago, when composing a draft on a plane, with a few more comments below.
My second visit to EduCon (and third visit to Philly) in three years gave my time to reconnect with many progressive minds in the education and edtech world, including many NWP colleagues whose support made my presentation on Because Digital Writing Matters a success (see our shared Google Doc for details from the session). Although EduCon bills itself as “not” a technology conference, I find the distinction between “tech” and “not tech” conferences to continue blurring, and the number of smart phones, laptops, tablets, and other devices at EduCon would suggest that we, as educators, are increasingly reliant upon a number of technologies to stay connected. At least, within certain contexts.
What I mean by that — and this takes nothing away from what EduCon is, both as an actual event and an educational phenomenon — is that I think we might be lost in our own echo chamber.
When Sara noted at one point that, in her TweetDeck columns, her Twitter feed of “All Friends” and also of “#educon” looked almost exactly the same, I began to think about what it was that we were experiencing… and when the panels of distinguished guests and educators, let alone the hallway conversations and scheduled conversations, continued the chorus of innovation, change, and educational evolution, I started to (I will be honest here) lose focus. I tried to attend, literally by being in my seat and choosing not to tweet, as well as figuratively, by wrapping my head around the big ideas. But, I lost focus, and it was frustrating.
I am not saying this in any sarcastic manner, as I appreciate all the work that SLA staff and students have put in to making EduCon what it is. And this is not to say that my experience at EduCon, as a participant and as a presenter, were not valuable, because they most certainly were. I just preface the second half of this reflection with the idea that we — as the innovators, the thought-leaders, the doers — need to be very conscious of how and why we attended EduCon and what we are taking back with us to our day-to-work.
And, that is where I want to focus the second part of this reflection… on my day-to-day work with pre-service and in-service teachers and what I am taking from EduCon 2011 back with me as I return to Michigan (via a rerouted trip to Minneapolis). Do we need more “steam” in STEM? Yes. Do we need time and space for kids to innovate? Absolutely. Do we want to empower all learners to share their voice in democratic classrooms? Of course we do. Again, I am not being sarcastic here, as I truly appreciate all the insights, dedication, and inspiration that everyone involved in this weekend shared with us.
But, I feel like something is missing in the conversation, and I am hoping to write myself into finding (at least) part of it.
First, I was reminded about how one’s own continuous partial attention can, in fact, lead to not paying attention to anything at all, and I was reminded of the power of face-to-face conversation. No matter how many conversations I enter into online — even the exchanges I had during EduCon this weekend — I continued to be most impressed with my conversations with colleagues when we are sitting next to one another. Some were serendipitous “tweet ups” (oh, I just started following you last week!). Others were intentional (let’s meet between sessions), yet most were the casual, comfortable conversations that I had with colleagues I’ve know for some time, or who I was introduced to during the weekend. It is good to connect and reconnect, yet sometimes make an effort to move beyond.
Second, as much as I value those conversations, I also value the opportunities to introduce colleagues to one another, and to say hello to those around me who I have yet to meet. EduCon lends itself to friendly conversation, yet it is still a challenge to make sure that we take the time and make the effort to have those conversations. While I am not as critical as some voices I heard who went so far as to call EduCon “cliquey,” or worse, I know that it is still tough to break out of our comfort zones. Oddly enough, at one of the most innovative high schools in the country, many of us sat last night in the cafeteria with groups of our friends. During the sessions, I would intentionally try sit at tables with other EduCon participants that I had yet to meet, and I tried to strike up conversations when I could. To the extent that I was able, I tried to widen my circle and I am continually reminded that I am the one who needs to move beyond, even though I would hope that others make an effort, too. That a little intentional focus on my part can lead to conversations that I hadn’t imagined. Again, I hope to take back the idea that we need to move beyond our own echo chambers, and make opportunities for ourselves to do so.
So, where does this leave me? Well, one component that I am bringing back with me is the idea that I closed my session with — no matter how many digital tools we invite students to use, it is the quality of the community that matters. And, let’s face it, we are the community. What is it that we, as a self-identified group of progressive educators, hope to (and plan to) do to move beyond our own comfortable conversations and invite other voices, even dissenting voices, into the mix? Do we want innovation? For sure. Who are those that are (from our perspective) stifling innovation… do you think that they want innovation, too, even if they are going about it in a different way? I imagine that they do. Sure, it may be a race to nowhere, not the top, but those who are designing these reforms have intentions, and it does us no good to preach to the choir of progressives if we are not truly understanding the logic of those who think otherwise and, if at all possible, attempt to come to some common ground. What voices were missing from those panels and what value (and values), positive or negative, might they have brought to the conversations?
Maybe I am still riled up about all the political rhetoric lately about the new tone in Washington that, very quickly, degenerated right back to where we were at election time (if not worse). Maybe I am tired after a long weekend at a conference that encouraged me to think, share, and connect, yet still left me with more questions about how to do so than answers. Maybe it is because I need to translate this all to pre-service and in-service teachers who, rightfully, want to know what they can do to engage reluctant students and help them master content all the while defending their profession to parents, administrators, and politicians. Or, maybe, just maybe, I am a bit unsatisfied with the way that the conversations played out, that I want something more… that I want us to really, really move toward something new, something different, but no one really knows how.
Sara and I just finished our coffee break on the flight and she mentioned the idea that software, when moving from version X.Y to X.Z will usually do some major overhauls, adding some features that make it richer and more robust. For all the wonderful panels, collegial conversations, and student voices we heard this weekend, perhaps those who organize it need to think more about what EduCon 2.4 could be. What other voices, however contradictory they may appear to be, do we want to join in the conversation? What value would that add to the conversations within our own echo chamber?
Thank you, EduCon — SLA staff and students, participants both onsite and online — for a wonderful weekend, for pushing my thinking, and for helping us all become better teachers and learners. I look forward to continuing the conversations.
Now, back to the present. I need to encourage the teachers with whom I work to get out of their own echo chambers, to listen to and understand the voices of others, and to make sure that they are bringing their own voices — classroom-tested, inquiry-based, well-reasoned voices — into the conversation. Understand the key ideas about innovation, democratic classrooms, STEAM, and the like. Yet, don’t stop there… be sure to listen, to engage, and to be a part of the conversation in wider circles. Despite my frustrations, that is still my take-away from the weekend.
All that said, I was hesitant to post any of this at all, feeling much like Liz in that I might hurt the feelings of colleagues at SLA and in the EduCon community. But, Chris’s response to her post was generous, and in the spirit of the conversations that EduCon fosters, I hope that my post will provide an opportunity for response, too.
Again, thank you EduCon for pushing my thinking in ways that I would otherwise not be able to move myself. I appreciate the ways in which you make the conversations happen.
We have quite a crew of NWP colleagues here at EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia this weekend, too many to list right now. As we begin our conversations this morning, for instance, I am in a room with Chrsitina Cantrill (NWP), Meeno Rami (PhilWP), Paul Allison (NYCWP), Chad Sansing (CVWP), Cindy Minnich (CAWP) and probably even more colleagues who I have to meet yet. As I sat down this morning for the presentation, I met Shelley Krause (@butwait), who I had been conversing with about digital literacy via Twitter when at the NWP Resource Development Retreat a few weeks ago. EduCon’s theme this year is “innovation,” and the ideas and connections so far this morning remind me of how creating an environment, a space (both physical and virtual) is so important to creating opportunities for innovation. And, the fact that all the sessions are being streamed, tweeted (#Educon), GoogleDoc’ed, blogged, wikied, or whatever, it is truly an opportunity to help us innovate.
So, speaking of innovating, I know that webcasting isn’t really an innovation (in the sense that people have been doing it for years). But, for me, trying to do a live presentation and a webcast at the same time is something that I haven’t done yet. Also, our local site (Chippewa River Writing Project) and state network (National Writing Projects of Michigan) will be hosting a month-long online book study for Because Digital Writing Matters beginning later this week. So, as a kick off, Sara and I are going to give webcasting for BDWM a try this afternoon when Christina Cantrill and I present at EduCon in Philadelphia from 2:30 to 4:00 EST. You should be able to watch live on EduCon’s site, but we hope that you are able to join us in the webinar to by clicking on this link, launching Wimba, and joining as a participant:
This is a new experience for Sara and me, even as techies, and we hope that we are able to get you as our NWP colleagues to join in the conversation. So, enjoy all the conversations coming out of EduCon this weekend, and we hope that you can join in our webinar, too.