AI in College Writing

As the new semester begins, many faculty are again engaged in an ethical debate about the ways in which their students might use AI in their writing assignments, whether with explicit guidance and permission, or otherwise.

This past week, I was invited to join educational futurist Bryan Alexander and my colleague and collaborator Daniel Ernst as we discussed a number of ideas related to AI and the teaching of writing at the college level. It was a robust discussion, and I encourage you to view the Future Trends Forum recording here.

Over the past few months — as I have been trying to refine my own thinking on AI and writing through blogging, facilitating workshops and webinars, beginning a new book project with my colleague and co-author Kristen Hawley Turner, and reviewing the transcripts of our focus group interviews from the project Daniel and I have been working on — I have begun to summarize the ways in which my colleagues are describing their use of AI in writing instruction in the following manner.

In short, I am hearing educators talk about and seeing ways that AI can serve 1) as a thinking partner, 2) as a research assistant, and 3) as a co-writer. This is an imperfect list, of course, as the tools continue to change. Yet, as 2024 begins and the range of functions available in generative AI writing tools seems to be settling into a few categories, I share some initial thinking on them here.

AI as Thinking Partner

With the many AI tools that students can use as conversational partners (e.g., ChatGPT, Bing, Bard), I wonder how we can encourage them to engage with the AI as a thinking partner, much the same way we would during a writing conference (or encourage them to interact with peers to share ideas and give feedback). How might we encourage students not to simply ask the chatbot to write an essay or story for them, and instead to prompt it for the kinds of feedback that could further their own writing?

For instance, when prompting ChatGPT in this manner — “Given recent weather patterns, I am getting more worried about changes to our environment, and I am working on an argumentative essay on climate change. What are some questions that could help get me started as I think about specific topics to cover in my essay related to sea level change, heat waves, and forest fires?” — it provided me with a decent list of questions that could lead my writing in additional directions.

Similarly, Bard’s Copilot (which I have access to through my institution’s Microsoft license) generated some questions, though perhaps not as nuanced as ChatGPT’s. As just one example, Chat GPT generated “How has the global sea level changed over the past few decades, and what are the primary contributors to this change?” whereas Copilot asked two separate questions “What are the primary causes of sea level change?” and “What are some of the most significant sea level changes observed in the last decade?”

Even having students compare the outputs of these AI tools could be useful, looking at the depth and nuance evident in the questions, and thinking about which set of questions would lead to more substantive, engaging writing. Even if just being used to prompt thinking, encouraging students to use the AI chat tools as a way to develop new inquiry questions is one way to engage with AI as a thinking partner.

Of note, both ChatGPT and Bing provided a similar set of caveats at the end of their output, which are somewhat helpful reminders (if followed by additional instruction and coaching). Here is ChatGPT’s:

“Considering these questions can help you delve into specific aspects of each topic and provide a well-rounded perspective in your argumentative essay on climate change. Remember to back your arguments with credible sources and evidence to strengthen your case.”

ChatGPT Output

On a related note, Paul Allison has been doing a good deal of work to integrate specific GPTs for feedback and scaffolding thinking in NowComment. This is certainly a tool that is worth exploring as we help students engage in substantive dialogue around texts, images, and videos, all supported by scaffolded thinking via GPTs that are customized to specific academic tasks.

AI as Research Assistant

As tools Perplexity, Bing, and Bard continue to integrate sources into the AI output and fight many of the fears about hallucinations and misinformation that have been part of the AI conversation since the fall of 2022, I have begun to wonder what this means for students in their efforts to critically evaluate online sources. In this sense, the AI output itself is one source, as well as the additional sources that are referenced in these outputs.

For instance, in a search for “What is climate change?” via Perplexity, it yielded links to six additional sources in the first sentence, with a total of eight different sources for the article. It produced a clear, concise summary and prompted additional questions that the user could click on and explore. By comparison, a Google search of the same question (and, yes, I know that we aren’t supposed to ask Google questions, yet it is clear that many people do), provided a list of sources and a summary panel from the United Nations.

Of note, it is interesting to see that Perplexity’s sources (UN, two from NASA, World Bank, NRDC, NatGeo, Wikipedia, and BBC, in that order ) are similar to, though not exactly the same as Google’s output in the top ten hits, for me at least: UN, NASA, World Bank, NASA Climate Kids, BBC, NatGeo, US EPA, NASA, Wikipedia, and NRDC, in that order. This, of course, could lead to some great conversations about lateral reading, tracking of user data across the web and privacy, and the ways in which different tools (traditional search as compared to AI-powered search) function.

Moreover, as we begin to see AI embedded directly in word processing tools, this research process will become even more seamless. And, as described in the section below, we will also want to begin thinking about when, why, and how we ask students to engage with AI as a co-writer, relying on the research it has provided to craft our own arguments.

AI as Co-Writer

Finally, the aspect of AI in English language arts instruction that I think is still causing most of us to question both what we do, as teachers, and why we do it, is this idea that AI will take over anything from a small portion to a large degree of our students’ writing process. In addition to the initial fear of rampant, outright cheating and how to catch plagiarists, in conversations with my colleague Pearl Ratunil of Harper College, we are trying to understand more about how AI cuts to the core of who we are as teachers of writing. Teaching writing, in this sense, is deeply emotional work, as we invest time and energy into the success of individual writers, providing them with coaching and feedback. To think, feel, or actually know that they have undermined our efforts at relationship-building, let along teaching specific skills that are then outsourced to AI is, well, deeply saddening.

Yet, back to the main idea here of AI as co-writer. The tools are here, becoming more and more integrated and our student will continue to have access to and use them in their day-to-day writing tasks. I learned about another new-to-me tool the other day, Lex, and that is on my agenda to explore in the weeks ahead. Add that to the list of many tools I keep exploring like Rytr, Wordtune, Quillbot, and more. Lex claims that “With Lex’s built-in AI, the first draft process becomes a joy. No more switching back and forth between ChatGPT and Google Docs,” so that will be interesting to see.

More than simply an auto-complete, these tools do have the capability to help students explore genre and tone, adjusting messages to different audiences based on needs for style and clarity. Just as we would want students to be capable writers using other tools that they have available to them — both technical tools like spelling and grammar checks, as well as intellectual tools like mentor texts and sentence templates — we need to help them make wise, informed decisions about when, why, and how AI can help them as writers (and when to rely on their own instincts, word choice, and voice).

As Kristen Turner and I work on the book this year, I will be curious to see how some of these tools perform to help support different, specific writing skills (e.g., developing a claim or adding evidence). My sense so far is that AI can still help produce generic words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, and that it will take a skilled writer (and teacher) to help students understand what they need to revise and refine in the process of writing.

Closing Notes

In my “welcome back” email to faculty this week, I shared the following as it relates to academic integrity issues.

Having had conversations about this with a few of you last fall – and knowing that a few of you dealt with cases of potential AI dishonesty – as we begin this semester, it is worth revisiting any policies that you have in your syllabus related to academic honesty and AI. It is no surprise that I am still, generally, an advocate for AI (with some guardrails), as our own students will need to know how to use it in their professional communication, lesson planning, and in teaching their own students to use AI tools. 

In addition to the many resources on the CIS AI website, one that they have listed is from Dr. Christopher Heard of Pepperdine/Seaver College, who used Twine to create an interactive where you can create a draft of syllabus language that is then free to use and remix because it is in the public domain. This tool could be a useful start, and I would also encourage you to read recent research on the ways that AI plagiarism detection tools are, or are not, doing so well at the task, and that many are biased toward our multilingual learners, the use of AI detection is perhaps dwindling, as some universities are simply abandoning the tools altogether. If we do plan to use plagiarism detection tools at all in our classes, then we need to follow best practices in scaffolding the use of such tools and making students aware of our intentions.  

Finally, consider this student’s perspective in an op-ed for CNN, who encouraged teachers in this manner:  

“We can be taught how to make effective prompts to elicit helpful feedback, ideas and writing. Imagine the educational benefits students can gain by incorporating AI in the classroom, thoughtfully and strategically.”  

Sidhi Dhanda, September 16, 2023

As we focus more intently this semester on core teaching practices, I will be curious to see where the conversations about the use of AI intersect with our goal to prepare the next generation of teachers.  

Throughout it all — as I keep thinking about AI in the role of Thinking Partner, Research Assistant, and Co-Writer — 2024 promises to be another year dominated by the conversations around AI. In the next few weeks, I have at least three professional development/conference sessions on the topic, and I am sure that we will revisit it during our upcoming MediaEd Institute and summer workshops with the Chippewa River Writing Project, as well as the faculty learning community I am participating in at CMU.

In what ways are you rethinking the teaching of writing in 2024 with the use of generative AI writing tools?

Photo by Aman Upadhyay on Unsplash.

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Podcast Episode: Conceptually Speaking

With thanks to Trevor Aleo for the opportunity to think through some new ideas related to new literacies and teaching digital literacies, please enjoy this recent episode of “Conceptually Speaking.”

With thanks to Trevor Aleo for the opportunity to think through some new ideas related to new literacies and teaching digital literacies, please enjoy this recent episode of “Conceptually Speaking.” Here is the podcast description, from Trevor:

As melodramatic as it may seem, I’ll never forget the first time I encountered The New London Group’s A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. After an evening of mindless scrolling in the summer of 2016, I clicked on a fortuitous Facebook post from a fellow English teacher. As I read I became increasingly enraptured. It felt inspiring. It felt fresh. It felt innovative. I assumed it was cutting-edge research. Then I saw the publication date. 1996. Reading that publication date made it abundantly clear educational practice had fallen well behind educational scholarship. It’s a disconnect I notice more and more as I move through my own dissertation. It’s also a lament shared by my esteemed guests. This week I was joined by Dr. Troy Hicks professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University and the Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project and his co-author, Dr. Kristen Hawley Turner: Professor of education at Drew University and director of the Drew Writing Project. Our discussion is coming hot on the heels of their recent publication Digital Literacy (Still) Can’t Wait: Four Questions to Reframe the Conversation around Technology in the English Classrooma follow-up to their 2013 publication No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t WaitThough I’m sure they wish such clarion calls weren’t still necessary, I’m thankful for scholars like them who continue to fight the good fight to bring powerful ideas to practitioners and pose poignant questions about how we use technology in our classrooms. Whether you’re a techno-skeptic or ed-tech enthusiast, Kristen and Troy’s four questions are an invitation for us to use technology in more transformative ways. Enjoy!
An Interconnected Framework for Assessment of Digital Multimodal Composition
Dr. Troy Hicks’ Twitter
Dr. Kristen Turner’s Twitter

Trevor Aleo, Conceptually Speaking

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Pivoting the Conversation on AI in Writing

As ChatGPT has heralded the “death of the college essay” and “the end of high school English, we could be well served to lean into the idea that we need to both rethink our writing assignments and to invite our students to “cheat” on them.

So, I am clearly coming to the conversation on AI a bit late.

As ChatGPT has heralded the “death of the college essay” and “the end of high school English” — and as we see both combative and generative approaches to the role of AI in writing instruction — I might be adding this blog post a bit behind the curve (though I was honored to be interviewed for a story about AI in writing this past week, published in Bridge Michigan).

Of course, I think that this is really the beginning of a much longer conversation that we are going to have about the role of technology and the ways in which we might approach it. So, it is not so much as I am late to the conversation, as it is that I am hoping we move it in a different direction.

Others in academia and beyond are, to be clear, already calling for this pivot, so I am not the first on this count either.

Still, I want to echo it here. Paul Fyfe, Director of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities at NCSU, describes a compelling approach in a recent quote from Inside Higher Ed:

For the past few semesters, I’ve given students assignments to “cheat” on their final papers with text-generating software. In doing so, most students learn—often to their surprise—as much about the limits of these technologies as their seemingly revolutionary potential. Some come away quite critical of AI, believing more firmly in their own voices. Others grow curious about how to adapt these tools for different goals or about professional or educational domains they could impact. Few believe they can or should push a button

Paul Fyfe, associate professor of English and director of the graduate certificate in digital humanities, North Carolina State University (cited from Inside Higher Ed)

Like Fyfe, I too lean into the idea that we need to both rethink our writing assignments and to invite our students to “cheat” on them. AI can be used for idea generation (and refinement), and it can also be used as a way for us to reconsider genre and style. For instance, I continue to be intrigued by the options offered in Rytr, in particular, as it allows us to choose:

  • Tone, including options such as “compassionate,” “thoughtful,” and “worried.”
  • “Use case” or style, including options such as “blog idea and outline,” “email,” and “call to action.”
  • The option to produce up to three variants, with differing levels of “creativity.”

The screenshot below shows the Rytr interface, and the ways that these options can be easily chosen from dropdown menus before a writer enters their keywords and was Ryter use its AI abilities to, well, “ryt” for them.

Unlike the input interface of ChatGPT and other AI writing tools (which, to their credit, allows for natural language input for “write in the style of” including pirates and the King James Bible), the interface for Rytr is prompting me to consider a variety of contextual factors.

As a writer and teacher of writing, this set of choices available in Rytr fascinates me.

Screenshot from the AI writing tool, Rytr, showing the input interface with options for "tone," "use case," "variants," and "creativity level."
Screenshot from the input interface of Rytr (January 21, 2023).

Just as the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” invites student to engage in a variety of “habits of mind” such as “curiosity” and “flexibility,” I think that that AI writing tools, too, can give us opportunities to engage our students in productive conversations and activities as they create AI output (and re-create that output through a collaborative co-authoring with the AI).

Also, I think that we need to ask some serious questions about the design of our writing assignments.

When the vast majority of writing assignments have, well, already been written about and replied to (see: any essay writing mill, ever), we need to consider what it is that really constitutes a strong writing assignment — as well as the various audiences, positions, time frames, research sources, and alternative genres (Gardner, 2011) — in order to design meaningful tasks for our students that tools like ChatGPT will be, if not unable to answer, at least unable to answer as well as our students could through their knowledge of the content, their ability to integrate meaningful citations, and their writerly creativity.

From there, I am also reminded of NWP’s “Writing Assignment Framework and Overview,” which also suggests that we must design our assignments as one component of instruction, with reflective questions that we must ask (p. 4 in PDF):

What do I want my students to learn from this assignment? For whom are they writing and for what purpose? What do I think the final product should look like? What processes will help the students? How do I teach and communicate with the students about these matters?

National Writing Project’s “Writing Assignment Framework and Overview

As we consider these questions, we might better be able to plan for the kind of instruction and modeling we may offer our students (likely using AI writing tools in the process) as well as thinking about how they might help define their own audiences, purposes, and genres. With that, we might also consider how traditional writing tasks could be coupled with multimodal components, inviting students to compose across text, image, video, and other media in order to demonstrate competency in a variety of ways.

If we continue to explore these options in our assignment design — and welcome students to work with us to choose elements of their writing tasks — it is likely that they will develop the kinds of intentional, deliberate stance toward their own work as writers.

They can, as the Framework implies, “approach learning from an active stance” (p. 4) and “be well positioned to meet the writing challenges in the full spectrum of academic courses and later in their careers” (p. 2). As the oft-mentioned idea in education goes, we need to prepare our students for jobs that have not been invented yet, and AI writing tools are likely to play a part in their work.

All that said, I don’t know that I have answers.

Yet, I hope we continue to ask questions, and will do so again soon. To that end, I welcome you to join me and my colleague Dan Lawson for a workshop on this topic, described in the paragraphs below.

Since its launch in late November of 2022, ChatGPT has brought an already simmering debate about the use of AI in writing to the public’s attention. Now, as school districts and higher education institutions are deciding what to do with next steps, as writing teachers, we wonder: how can educators, across grades levels and disciplines, explore the use of AI writing in their classrooms as a tool for idea generation, rhetorical analysis, and, perhaps, as a “co-authoring” tool? Moreover, how do we adapt our assignments and instruction to help students bring a critical perspective to their use of AI writing tools? 

As I try to explore this a bit more, please join Dan Lawson and me on Thursday, February 2nd from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. for a hyflex workshop (in person at CMU or online via WebEx) on revising writing assignments to better facilitate authentic learning goals. Please bring an assignment sheet for a current writing assignment. We will use AI writing applications to consider how best to revise those assignments and adapt our instruction for this changing context.

Register here

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Invitation to an Inquiry: Intentional Integration of Digital Literacies into an ELA Lesson

My colleague Kristen Hawley Turner and I have been thinking about the integration of technologies into instruction, specifically toward the development of digital literacies, for a long time, and we are looking for collaborators for our next project.

My colleague Kristen Hawley Turner and I have been thinking about the integration of technologies into instruction, specifically toward the development of digital literacies, for a long time, and we are looking for collaborators for our next project. 

Recently, we were fortunate enough to have an article published in English Journal, “Digital Literacy (Still) Can’t Wait: Renewing and Reframing the Conversation,” which was a follow-up to our 2013 piece, “No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait.” We are also fortunate to know that many of you have used one or both of these pieces in your own work and methods courses, and for that we thank you!

Now, we are looking ahead to what’s next. Here is something we want to try in 2023 with like-minded colleagues. 

Here is the ask of you as potential collaborators:

  • In the next few weeks, read the 2022 article and share some initial ideas in the NWP Studio (if you need an invitation, please let us know) about the four framing questions that we use to think about integrating digital literacies:
    • How do I foster communication between my students?
    • How do I allow for accountable collaboration?
    • How will my students use digital tools to create, consume, critique and think?
    • How will my students revisit, revise, and reflect on their thinking and growth?
  • During the winter/spring of 2023, take one “tried and true” lesson in your repertoire and consider new ways to more intentionally integrate a digital literacy component.
    • This lesson can be a face-to-face or online lesson. 
    • The important part is that you rethink the ways in which technology tools could be used to help students develop skills of consumption, curation, creation, collaboration and/or connection while engaging with ELA content.
  • As you experiment, join in this conversation in the NWP Teacher Studio so we can have an on-going discussion about this amongst colleagues. 
  • If there is interest among the group, we may also host a few Zoom meetings to share and think together, but that will come later on. 

Where is all of this going? Well, we aren’t entirely sure, but that’s OK! We are planning, at minimum, to organize a roundtable session proposal for NCTE 2023 in Columbus, OH and then take the conversation from there. The NCTE proposal is due January 18, and we will do the heavy lifting of getting the proposal written and submitted.

So, interested in joining us as we think about the intentional integration of digital literacies? 

In addition to leaving a comment here, please take a moment to complete this brief Google form by January 11, 2023, so we can learn a bit more about you and what you might like to do in this collaboration. We will then work quickly from January 9th to 18th to get our proposal together. 

The form asks you to share some basic contact info, a bit about your teaching context, and thoughts on the lesson you are thinking about “rethinking” with digital literacies (2-3 sentence description).

Again, we would appreciate it if you could share your interest by Wednesday, January 11, 2023, and we will be back in touch soon after.


Kristen and Troy

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Embracing the “Both/And” of Digital Writing

Embracing a “both/and” stance toward technology, we can push back against the kinds of dichotomies that characterize most language arts instruction. What might you do to move any of your ELA assignments toward a “both/and” stance, embracing the opportunities that you have right now to utilize the technologies available to you and your students?

As America moves into an endemic stage of our relationship with COVID-19, and professional learning is slowly shifting back to face-to-face settings, I was fortunate enough to travel to the CCIRA conference this weekend, and to share talks related to topics from my recent book, Mindful Teaching with Technology: Digital Diligence in the English Language Arts, Grades 6-12. In one of the sessions, I used a phrase that I learned early in graduate school from a leader in my field and advisor at the time, Ernest Morrell and have borrowed many times since: “both/and.”

Searching for the phrase, there are millions of hits about “both/and” thinking, not least of which is the memoir by Huma Abedin. That said, when Morrell introduced me to the idea it was in relation to the kinds of reading and writing (as well as listening and speaking, viewing and visually representing) that we ask students to do in our typical ELA classrooms. In this sense, he was pushing back against the kinds of dichotomies that characterize most language arts instruction such as to simply read the story and write an analysis of the characters and plot, or to write an argument in the form of the five-paragraph essay.

So, for nearly 20 years, I’ve carried the idea of the “both/and” into my work, too, in particular around digital writing and collaborating with K-12 colleagues to consider new possibilities for writing in their classrooms. I will often start by saying that, “yes, I want for my own children and all students to both be able to craft words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into essays, and…” then providing any number of examples of digital writing tools and tasks that they might consider. After one of my sessions at CCIRA, one of the participants came up and said how much she appreciated that phrase, “both/and,” and wondered if I could elaborate just a bit more.

In response, I shared an example of a lesson where students could take one idea and extend it in different ways. In the book, one of the chapters is an extended lesson that focuses on helping students craft an initial idea in a short paragraph or kernel essay, and the then moving their argument into three forms of digital writing using Adobe Spark (Renamed Creative Cloud Express in June 2022), which has recently been rebranded as Creative Cloud Express. In the lesson, students are encouraged to come up with a hashtag that summarizes their main argument, and to to then reframe their message in 1) an image with a brief caption like a post on social media, to then 2) record their message in a short video, and, finally, to create 3) a web page with a “call to action” as an external link. The entire lesson could take just one class period, or could be stretched out over days, depending on the time that you have and what goals you hope to accomplish. This is what I mean as just one example of the “both/and” kind of thinking.

As I continue to reflect on NCTE’s “Definition of Literacy in a Digital Age,” especially their point that literacies include “a wide range of skills, competencies, and dispositions” and that “[t]hese literacies are interconnected, dynamic, and malleable,” I keep returning to the “both/and” idea. Knowing that our instruction needs to be more flexible than ever and that – even though, according to Common Sense Media, there are still gaps – due to the pandemic, more students in more schools have access to devices right now than ever before (and, perhaps, may ever happen again in the future), I wonder: if we don’t move ELA instruction toward a “both/and” mentality now, when will it happen? Again, while I am sure that divides still exist and that school policies and procedures may prevent some students from taking their devices home on a regular basis (if at all), the simple fact is that the vast majority of students will not be any more connected in the future than they are now.

So, what can ELA teachers do to encourage the “both/and” approach as we consider common tasks in our classrooms? What if we ask students to:

  • Both read the stories to look for elements plot, character development, and use of literary devices, and then craft their analysis and response in the form of a timeline showing how each emerges in the story, using a tool like Sutori or Timetoast to show the intersections of these elements?
  • Both write their initial argument essay an incorporate evidence from outside sources, and then step away from the text to do a “distant reading” of their own work using the word cloud and word frequency tools with a corpus analysis via Voyant Tools so they can use different functions to see their essay in a different manner, using that data to then prepare for revision?
  • Both prepare their speech while recording a practice session, and then post a recording of them practicing it to a video annotation site like Now Comment or Video Ant, noting their own questions and concerns about their performance, and seeking input from their peers and teacher before delivering it?

These are just a few examples, and I am sure that there are many other ways we can continue to take advantage of the tech access that we have right now to more fully engage our students (above and beyond simply assigning digital dittos and collecting work through our LMSs). I will be curious to hear how the landscape of digital literacy is changing as I am able to talk with more and more teachers in the months ahead and, as always, welcome further inquiry, dialogue, and collaboration around these topics here on my blog or via social media.

What might you do to move any of your ELA assignments toward a “both/and” stance, embracing the opportunities that you have right now to utilize the technologies available to you and your students?

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Announcing Mindful Teaching with Technology: Digital Diligence

Set for release on October 29, 2021, my book Mindful Teaching with Technology: Digital Diligence in the English Language Arts, visitors to my website can receive a special offer of 25% off from Guilford Press. Learn more…

Digital Diligence Cover Image
Mindful Teaching with Technology Cover Image (Courtesy of Guilford Press)

Set for release on October 29, 2021, my Guilford publication, Mindful Teaching with Technology: Digital Diligence in the English Language Arts, Grades 6-12 (2021).

The book’s companion page is available here, and the links provided here were active as of June 1, 2021, and are presented in the order they appear in the book.

Visitors to my website can receive a special offer for my book from Guilford Press: to save 25% on the book, please use Promotion Code “AF2E” without the quotes.

If you are interested in learning more, please consider joining me for an upcoming webinar:

Thank you for creating effective digital learning experiences for your students and colleagues.

A Fall Full of Conversation: Three Recent Podcasts

Time to binge on some edu-listening! This fall, I have been fortunate enough to be invited to three different podcasts, sharing my passion for teaching writing with technology. Find the links here.

Photo of podcasting equipment by Will Francis on Unsplash
Photo of podcasting equipment by Will Francis on Unsplash

This fall, I have been fortunate enough to be invited to three different podcasts, including Teach Wonder (produced by Ashley O’Neil and Julie Cunningham from CMU’s Center for Excellence in STEM Education), Middle School Hallways (produced by my colleague and co-author Jeremy Hyler), and All About Literacy (produced by my colleagues Erica Hamilton from Grand Valley State University and Deb Van Duinen from Hope College).

I thank them for the opportunity to talk about education broadly, and my passion for teaching writing with technology. Find the specific episodes here:

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What Are Your Best Practices in Digital Literacy?

What are your best practices in digital literacy? If you — or a K-12 classroom ELA educator that you know — are doing exceptional work and might be interested in being interviewed during the month of October or November 2021, please fill out the form linked in this post.

Students at Sutton Middle School use online research to answer questions during a lesson in history class. Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages. As we transition from “emergency remote teaching” and into a new era of hybrid learning that embraces technology more fully, I am working on a chapter for an edited collection that will share classroom case studies of best practices in digital literacy.

Beyond lessons that are just digitally delivered because they must be, I am looking for exceptional examples of K-12 ELA teachers inviting their students to engage in digital literacy practices that NCTE describes as “interconnected, dynamic, and malleable.” I wonder: how are you encouraging students to engage in active inquiry, connected reading, media literacy, and digital writing in ways that support authentic literacy learning?

If you — or a K-12 classroom educator that you know — are doing exceptional work and might be interested in being interviewed during the month of October or November via WebEx (video call or phone call-in), please take a moment to complete this brief Google form between now and October 15, 2021. I will get back to you about a possible interview after mid-October.

Thanks for spreading the word and sharing your work.

Troy Hicks
Central Michigan University

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

CCIRA Podcast (July 22, 2021)

Troy Hicks, professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University, former middle school language arts teacher, and Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project shares about New Literacies in the classroom.

Have you listened to CCIRA Literacy Conversations yet?

Thanks to Molly Rauh and Jessica Rickert for the opportunity to talk about teaching, writing, and technology with the @ColoradoReading podcast!

(Link to episode and show notes.)

Pandemic Pedagogy: Some Questions About Being “Successful” and Getting it “Right”


With the midpoint of the summer and the July 4th Holiday weekend in the rear view, and states (like our own home of Michigan) now releasing plans for a “safe return to school” in August, we feel it is worth taking time to pause.  

As parents and teacher educators, as well as long-time colleagues and friends, the two of us have had many conversations in the past month as educators in the state of Michigan and around the world have moved to “remote learning” in K-12 and higher education.

In thinking about ways we can productively talk about complicated issues, we have been informed by our experiences in the National Writing Project, and the use of protocols, or guided discussion models, for moving forward through difficult conversations. 

In a recent chat, we used the “What? So What? Now What?” protocol to share our thoughts and feelings related to “pandemic pedagogy,” “getting remote learning ‘right,’” and other phrases that capture the COVID-19 zeitgeist. 

This blog post summarizes our current thinking and, we hope, will serve as a time capsule for questions we need to ask in the weeks, months, and years ahead. 


Humans, by nature, want to help others. Our willingness to do so is, most often, well-intentioned. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and both higher education and K-12 schools moving to “remote” instruction, there have been a number of companies that have offered their products for free (or at reduced cost) so that teachers and students can use them.  Moreover, professional organizations have shared K-12 resources through blogs, podcasts, webinars, lesson plans, and countless social media posts. We believe teachers and their students are doing the best they can, given the circumstances. We also trust that parents and guardians are doing the best they can. Humans are navigating uncertain futures and as we do so, we must help ourselves and our children navigate what is, indeed, a brave new world.

That said, in the past few months — and even more so in as we reflect on “remote learning” successes and failures from the end of the 2019-20 academic year — there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of such resources that have been distributed to support a “continuity of learning.” Again, all well-intentioned, and many useful. 

However, when we see headlines like “getting remote learning right” or “successful strategies for online teaching,” we wonder what “right” or “successful” (or, for that matter, “teaching”) even means. While we do have empirical evidence about “what works” for nearly all students in typical school settings (e.g., IES What Works Clearinghouse), which are still in and of themselves contextual, we don’t yet know what works for all teachers and students when teaching and learning remotely. We also don’t yet know the full impact of social distancing on teachers’ and students’ learning and emotional well-being.

We are left with many questions, few answers, and a great deal of uncertainty. 

So What?

Despite the terrible, tragic circumstances in which we find ourselves, one of the silver linings, perhaps even a gift, of this pandemic for educators —  if we dare call it a gift — is the opportunity to re-think what has been considered the standard parts of teaching and learning for decades, if not centuries. As educational professionals, if we want to take advantage of what we’re learning and experiencing in this COVID-19 era, we must be willing to ask (and, eventually, answer) some important questions.  So, as we consider the days, months, and years ahead, we believe that it will be imperative to create time and space for conversations about what we’ve experienced and learned. 

In other words, as the world is experiencing a pandemic,  what is “right” or “successful” for one remote school or class may not actually be “right” or “successful” for another. And, we believe that part of getting it “right” — or achieving “success” —  extends well beyond the immediate needs and outcomes of the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. 

Indeed, the ways we prepare ourselves for 2020-21 matters in many, many ways. Thus,  framing questions for the conversations we have now — both about what we’re experiencing and learning as well as  how we can use what we learn to help us move forward in the future — is critical. 

Now What?

As noted above, there are already countless resources available for remote teaching and learning. 

We are not dispensing more advice or resources in this post. There are so many of us — individual teachers, entire school faculties, district administrators, teacher educators, policy makers, the business community, and, of course parents and caregivers of our youth — all of whom have questions. And, we’re all trying to figure things out. 

Instead, we want to pivot and pose some questions that, right now, can’t be fully answered here as we are still trying to plan for August. Whatever happens in a few weeks, when schools “re-open” for the fall, we know that it will still be an era of pandemic pedagogy. 

In fact, we consider this a “time capsule” of sorts, and these questions, we hope, can guide our own thinking as well as our PK-12 and higher education colleagues as we transition into a post-COVID, socially un-distanced world. Whether we are face-to-face, online, or both — and whether we are talking about one day of instruction, one week, one month, or a whole year — we wonder…

For educators:

  • What is essential for your students to learn, in terms of content and skills? 
  • What is essential for your students to do as they learn to communicate with one another? 
  • What were the “rhythms” of the school week for each of you? What was the workflow? When did you meet with students? How did you support students’ emotional and academic needs?
  • What communication media (text, image, video, audio), methods (through an LMS, via text message, via email), audiences (one student, small group, whole class), and frequency (hourly, daily, weekly) are effective? 
  • What content needs to be “delivered,” asynchronously, and what, instead, might need to be “modeled” and “coached,” synchronously? 
  • What should be the [new] norms of online meetings with students? 
  • In this time of remote learning, what practices have you developed that could be carried forward, in hybrid or fully online courses?
  • What have you learned about yourself, your teaching style, and what you really value as an educator?
  • How might this entire experience frame your pedagogy and practice moving forward? 
  • How much synchronicity is necessary? For full classes? For small groups? For individual tutorials? 
  • What ways did you see students be creative as they developed their thinking and expressed what they learned? How might they have used “old” and “new” technologies to meet these goals? 

For administrators:

  • What worked best for communicating with your staff? For providing feedback and direction? For maintaining relationships and supporting one another?
  • What might have worked well in the past for organizing faculty meetings, curriculum, assessments, PLCs, etc.? How did these change and, perhaps, become more [or less] efficient? 
  • For online meetings with other adults/colleagues, what norms did you establish and how did these facilitate communication and teamwork? 
  • Based on your experiences supporting teachers during remote teaching and learning, what changes do you hope/expect to make when you return to brick and mortar buildings and classrooms?
  • How did you partner with and/or support students and their families?
  • What success(es) should be celebrated?

For business and community members:

  • In our efforts to create a 21st-century workforce — and with the changes that have been made in your places of work over the past two months — what should educators know about what it means to prepare their students for the workforce in months and years ahead? Given potential past efforts connected to volunteerism and mentorship opportunities for employees to work with K-12 students, what might you need to reconsider when planning for future opportunities?
  • Even in light of the economic impact that all businesses are sure to face, what role do we all play in providing equitable access to broadband or mobile internet, as well as low-cost laptops or devices for family use, both for K-12 students as well as their caregivers who may be reskilling for a new job? 
  • What new partnerships could be developed with local K-12 schools to support students’ learning and connect their learning to the community? 

For higher education faculty, administrators, and teacher educators: 

  • How do we effectively prepare preservice teachers for all the realities of teaching and learning, including future remote teaching and learning?
  • How can teacher educators clearly model high-leverage teaching and learning practices for preservice teachers?
  • How can colleges/schools and departments of education more directly support our communities’ schools, including their teachers and students as well as parents and caregivers?
  • How can we better advocate for and partner with local K-12 districts and schools when integrating technology?
  • What new partnerships, programs, and models could be forged to partner universities and K-12 schools (e.g., traditional models of student teaching and field placements, dictating required observation/teaching hours, etc.)?

For parents, guardians, and caregivers: 

  • What are your children passionate about? How did you help them follow those passions in this time of staying home and staying safe?
  • On the flip side, what led our kids to distraction (and/or ourselves)? What did we do to help them learn and/or practice self-regulation and to follow their interests?
  • What kinds of topics, subject areas, and questions did they follow?
  • What did you notice about their use of various learning technologies and modalities such as video, audio, and text, as well as virtual interactions with others?
  • How did you and/or your child[ren] process the “loss” of the remainder of the school year?
  • What do your children need as they head back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What do you, as a parent/guardian, need as you send your child[ren] back to a regular school building and schedule, whenever that might be? 
  • What was most helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • What was least helpful, in terms of the way(s) your school/district responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

For legislators: 

  • What laws perpetuate inequality for public education and how can we change these to ensure all students have access, no matter the location of learning and/or the modes/methods?
  • What needs to change, at the state and/or national levels, so that K-12 administrators and educators can quickly and effectively respond to current needs and environments, including the need for remote teaching and learning?
  • What role does technology play in providing “equal access for all” K-12 students?
  • What do you need/want to learn from K-12 teachers as well as their students and families about their experiences with remote teaching/learning during this crisis? 
  • Beyond increasing teachers’ pay, how might we recognize the contributions that educators and schools/districts made to students’ learning, both intellectual and socio-emotional, during this difficult time?
  • What can we do to recruit new teachers to join/stay in the profession, and prepare them for new modes of instruction?
  • What can we do to keep current teachers in the profession and how can we prepare and support them for new modes of instruction?

(A Few) Essential Questions as We Move Forward

These are a lot of questions and necessitate conversations over time. As we conclude, we close with a few questions for us all:

  • What might a typical school day (week) look like in the years ahead? 
  • How might we build remote/online learning into our normal patterns of work?
  • How will we maximize synchronous learning times, whether face-to-face or remote? 
  • What content can be “delivered” asynchronously and what platforms/delivery works best for asynchronous delivery?
  • How will we engage all students in substantive learning, inviting them to create — and not just consume — content?

These are more questions, we know, than can be answered right now.  However, in addition to responding and reacting to immediate needs and contents, we must also deliberately think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and its impact on students’ learning and development. 

We are, indeed, in the midst of a pandemic pedagogy and while we’re all hard at work, our success and ability to “get it right” depends not only on what we do right now but also what we do moving forward.

We hope you’ll consider joining the conversation that these questions invite.

Erica R. HamiltonDr. Erica R. Hamilton, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI

Erica R. Hamilton works with pre-service and in-service teachers and serves as a K-12 teacher coach and professional development provider. Erica’s teaching focuses on helping teachers support and extend K-12 students’ literacy and learning. Committed to professional service, Erica currently serves on GVSU’s Online Education Council and GVSU’s IRB committee. She is a peer reviewer for various journals and organizations and is active in West Michigan schools. Her research interests focus on teacher learning and professional development, place-based education, literacy, and educational technology. Connect with her on Twitter @ericarhamilton.

Troy Hicks Portrait

Dr. Troy Hicks, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Dr. Troy Hicks is Professor of English and Education at Central Michigan University (CMU). He directs the Chippewa River Writing Project and, previously, the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Since beginning work at CMU in 2007, he has earned numerous distinctions including the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Charles Carpenter Fries Award (2008), CMU’s Provost’s Award for junior faculty who demonstrate outstanding achievement in research and creative activity (2011), the Richard A. Meade Award for scholarship in English Education (2014), the Michigan Reading Association’s Teacher Educator Award (2018), CMU’s Excellence in Teaching Award (2020), and the Initiative for 21st Century Literacies Research’s Divergent Award for Excellence (2020). An ISTE Certified Educator, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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