Introducing Assessing Students’ Digital Writing

Assessing Students' Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely. Edited by Troy Hicks. Co-Published by NWP and TCP.
Assessing Students’ Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely. Edited by Troy Hicks. Co-Published by NWP and TCP.

By all measures, I am fortunate to work with so many incredible colleagues from the world of education, both K-12 and higher ed. Many times those collaborations happen in just a few hours, or a few says, and they then disappear.

However, sometimes they last for months or even years, and they transform into something much more powerful. Assessing Students’ Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely is one such example of that powerful kind of collaboration.

Here is the book’s description:

Troy Hicks—a leader in the teaching of digital writing—collaborates with seven National Writing Project teacher-consultants to provide a protocol for assessing students’ digital writing. This collection highlights six case studies centered on evidence the authors have uncovered through teacher inquiry and structured conversations about students’ digital writing. Beginning with a digital writing sample, each teacher offers an analysis of a student’s work and a reflection on how collaborative assessment affected his or her teaching. Because the authors include teachers from kindergarten to college, this book provides opportunities for vertical discussions of digital writing development, as well as grade-level conversations about high-quality digital writing. The collection also includes an introduction and conclusion, written by Hicks, that provides context for the inquiry group’s work and recommendations for assessment of digital writing.

Screenshots of Students' Digital Writing
Screenshots of Students’ Digital Writing from NWP’s Digital Is Website

Moreover, each of the book’s chapters include online resources available at NWP’s Digital Is website. One note here is a huge shoutout to my friend and NWP colleague Christina Cantrill who has made the companion site on Digital Is a possibility. There are six different pieces in the collection, including:

My sincere hope is that the student work shared in this collection and online will spark dialogue amongst teachers about when, why, and how they can and should integrate digital writing into their classrooms. If you have questions, please let me know.


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Digital Media in Content Area Learning

Earlier this week, Liz Piazza asked:

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At the time, I didn’t think I could answer in 140 characters, and I’m glad that I didn’t try.

There are quite a few things to consider when answering this question, and perhaps it was simply the word “all” that threw me for a loop. Well, yes, in all content areas. I think. Wait, maybe not all. Most? Some?

You can see how I pondered the question, turning it over in my mind.

In doing so, however, I also began to think about the goals for content area literacy or, as it is being described more and more — especially by Tim and Cindy Shanahan — disciplinary literacy. And, in fact, their definition is at the crux of how I would answer the question. They believe that “Most students need explicit teaching of sophisticated genres, specialized language conventions, disciplinary norms of precision and accuracy, and higher-level interpretive processes” (43) and “the nature of the disciplines is something that must be communicated to adolescents, along with the ways in which experts approach the reading of text. Students’ text comprehension, we believe, benefits when students learn to approach different texts with different lenses.” (51).

Image CC Licensed by Flickr User Dan Zen

So, my short answer to Liz’s question would have been, “Yes, various forms of new media such as social networking and gaming can be successfully used in various content areas, perhaps even all of them,” as evidenced by tools such as EASE History, the Science Game Center, the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, or any of the dozens of options available on this K-12 Tech Tools wiki. Students have created videos about science experiments and historical reenactments, and acted as characters from literature or actual historical figures on Twitter and Facebook.

So, yes, they can.

The deeper answer, and the one that I have been struggling with over the week, however, is a little more complicated.

If we think about the Shanahans’ ideas that content area literacy is quite a bit more specific than simply applying a general set of strategies for writing-across-the-curriculum — as good as those strategies may be — then there has to be something deeper, something more rhetorical, to the idea of composing a disciplinary text with multimedia. Returning to Liz’s question, and pivoting it just a bit, I wonder: Can various forms of new digital media be effective as a tool for composing in all disciplines? 

Here, the answer gets a bit murkier, mostly because I am not a disciplinary expert outside of the field of writing. On the one hand, I can imagine that expressing disciplinary knowledge in math, science, history, or the arts — demonstrating a way of thinking through expert interpretation, analysis, and communication — could happen in any form of media. Heck, a whole movement in education, the flipped classroom, has come about because teachers have taken up the idea that they can create and deliver lessons via online video at least as effectively, if not more so, than they can do in the classroom. So, multimedia exploration of disciplinary knowledge is, conceivably at least, possible.

On the other hand, I wonder what is lost when transitioning from writing (words into sentences into paragraphs types of writing) into multimedia composition? Are there components of disciplinary thinking that don’t translate well from words to images to video to links to… whatever other form of media we can imagine?

At the same time, what do disciplinary experts gain in the process of being able to use images, voice, video, links, and other forms of media? How can they use multimedia to more fully express their ideas? What is it that we want to know about learning math — or science or music or art or anything — that multimedia can offer above and beyond print?

Liz’s question has pushed my thinking this week, and for that I thank her. I’m hoping that this response pushes her thinking, too, as well as yours. What does it mean to compose, as a disciplinary expert, with digital writing tools?

Lastly, and on a related note, for more of my thoughts on disciplinary literacy from an English Language Arts perspective, this chapter could be useful:

Hicks, T., & Steffel, S. (2012). Learning with Text in English/Language Arts. In T. L. Jetton & C. Shanahan (Eds.), Adolescent Literacy in the Academic Disciplines General Principles and Practical Strategies. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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Catching My Breath After #engchat

So, I just finished hosting the lightening round of Tweeting that is know as #engchat (wiki link).

I sat down sat down at Panera with my bread bowl at about 6:45, thinking that I would have time to eat and follow a casual conversation. An hour later, there were so many great ideas that emerged that I barely lifted my fingers from the keyboard, let alone my spoon. That said, I just want to catch a few of these ideas, and a few bites of my cold soup, before the restaurant closes!

  • Even in a world of hyper-connected English teachers, we are still asking the right questions, both about teaching and technology. About access, both to the net and the tools. About teaching, both the content and the process. About assessment, both how and why. I really appreciated the questions that people asked, especially how they forced me to keep coming back to the writing and the writer, not just talk about tools.
  • No matter how little or how much access we (and our students) have, we need to continue advocating for more. Milton Chen in Education Nation talks about how 1:1 access is a digital civil right, and this conversation on #engchat tonight reminds me of that. Both the chat itself (the skills and processes that I needed to engage in a twitter-based chat with colleagues is both a mental and technical challenge, not to mention how to stay focused) as well as the topics that it raises (when, for instance, do we want students to attend to an online chat as compared to a face-to-face one?) remind me of how incredibly complex this thing called “digital writing” really is. It is both immediate and archived. It is both multilayered/multithreaded/multimodal, yet intently personal and focused. It can enrich our minds and offer us alternatives, or it can drive us to distraction. When and how do we teach digital writing so that it can be useful and productive?
  • There are incredible possibilities. One thread of the conversation spun off into the possibilities of gaming and how one teacher, Carl, uses Scratch with his middle school students. Showing the potential for interactive media as a space for storytelling (even if it is not “gaming” in the sense of programming and designing a full narrative with complex options), this example shows the ways in which a student can work to think through the process of writing in a different form. At one point, someone in the #engchat asked something similar to “what isn’t writing then?” and I think that it raises a good point. Whether spoken, printed, or otherwise designed with media, I think that “writing” is intentional. It involves an act of planning, revising, and producing. This Scratch example, to me, is clearly writing.

Those are some brief, initial reflections. I am so thankful for having had the chance to lead the #engchat session tonight, as it gets my new year and new semester off to a good start, helping me rethink what it is that I hope to accomplish in my teaching, research, and writing in the coming months.


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