Reflections on the State of Writing Instruction

Over at Writers Who Care, Kristen Turner and I have shared some thoughts from our recent experience at Writing Research Across Borders III:

Arthur Applebee, a leading scholar in the field of writing instruction, shared some new research during his keynote at the Writing Research Across Borders III conference last week in Paris.

Applebee and his colleagues have conducted two wide-scale studies — 30 years apart — about the state of writing instruction in middle and high schools in the United States.

We had hoped to hear better news.

Read more…

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WRAB LogoThis has been both a personally and professionally fulfilling week for me, as I was able to travel with colleagues from the US to participate in the Writing Research Across Borders III conference in Paris. Along with the sightseeing, which has been wonderful, the general spirit of inquiry and collegiality from around the world has been inspiring. Here is a short recap of some of the key moments.

Arthur Applebee’s Keynote

As I wrote earlier this week, Applebee shared some relatively unsurprising news. While I had wished there might be something more optimistic in his speech, most of what he shared has also been reported in his latest book. Kristen Turner, my friend and colleague, will share a post on the Applebee keynote on the Writers Who Care blog soon. In short, as teacher educators concerned with the quality of writing instruction in our country — as well as the generally lackluster integration of digital literacy throughout the curriculum — we hope that the insidious effects of standardized tests can be stopped before any kinds of authentic writing instruction are stamped out forever.

Session on Automated Writing Evaluation

There were many (competing) ideas about the purpose, quality, and overall effects of automated writing evaluation. In sum, Carl Whithouse made the case that we have seen a shift from automated essay scoring (AES) to automated writing evaluation (AWE), and those slight changes language are not inconsequential. When the terms of the argument move beyond simply “scoring essays” (which, according to ETS presenters there, was basically a count of grammatical and vocabulary features) to “evaluating writing,” this raises a new level of concern for those of us who are teaching writing. No longer is it enough to take the either/or argument, for or against. We now need a much more nuanced understanding of what AWE does as well as how it works; in turn, we can still make compelling arguments for the value of teaching writers, not just evaluating single pieces of writing.

Panel on Writing, Language, and New Media

In our session, we were able to bring in multiple voices connecting issues related to reading, writing, digital literacy, and the uses of technology. You can find notes from the session here, and my short summary is that many of us are wrestling with the same questions about technology’s role in effective teaching and learning, whether we are thinking about our youngest writers or undergraduates or adult learners who work as translators. There are many shifts that we must consider, including what Daniel Perrin and I are framing as a difference between “focused writing” and “writing-by-the-way.” I was happy to present with Kristen and also to have another Michigan colleague, Sue Sharma, share her work on how she has developed an online reading clinic. I appreciated the many voices — of both presenters and participants — that made our session interactive and useful.

Panel for the Handbook of Writing and Text Production

This panel shared five different perspectives on the state of the field and the way we pursue scholarship: theory and methodology, authors, media and mode, genre, and domains (personal, professional). These five perspectives — and the scholars gathered to write and discuss them — are useful as ways for us to consider what is happening in writing studies. I was honored that Daniel invited me to be a part of this work on mode and media perspectives, and I shared my 10 minute overview of possibilities and problems we face from this perspective. We then broke into small groups and had a robust discussion about three “problems” from this perspective: what writing actually is, what the unit of study is or could be, and finally our ability to examine both process and product. Our small group conversation was quite productive, and I made some connections to colleagues also interested in these issues, so I hope our exchanges continue.

Kristen Turner’s Digitalk Session

Kristen Turner

For all the years we have known one another and projects that we have collaborated on, I have never seen Kristen present specifically on her work with “digitalk.” Since our session ended early, I was able to sneak into her session and gain a better understanding of the work she has done. In short, she positions “digitalk” — the types of moves that teens make in social networking, texting, and instant messaging — as both an act of code switching and individual identity making. I was most interested in how teens described themselves though the moves they made (for instance, one teen used “5” instead of “s” in his messages and another discussed how many Ys she would put at the end of “HEY” to indicate a quick hello to an acquaintance (“HEY…”) or as a way to show she really like a boy “HEYYYY…”). I really appreciate Kristen’s approach to coding and analyzing her data, and look forward to doing more of this work with her in the future for our research on digital reading.

New Literacies in the Elementary Classroom

The final session that I was able to attend included a number of scholars from Canada, Sweden, and the US, each focusing on some aspect of new literacies in the elementary classroom. One team described the ways that teachers worked in PLCs as inquiry groups, the next did close analysis of students’ digital work, and the final one examined one kindergarten teacher and his efforts over six weeks to teach a digital storytelling unit. I was most impressed with the conversation that we had afterward, and the substantive issues that we are all wrestling with about instructional moves and assessment of digital writing. My wife would be proud of me, as I even mentioned my own book to the audience as a potential resource. I’ve emailed all the presenters and hope to stay in touch for future collaborations.

Au revoir

WRAB IV WordleMy experience with Writing Research Across Borders III has, indeed, lived up to it’s billing. I’ve been excited about the possibility of this conference since missing the first two, both in the US. As I was tweeting out ideas this weekend, I was engaged with colleagues both here in Paris and back home, and I think we already have some session ideas for WRAB IV in Bogota. I’m finishing up this blog post now so I can prepare for departure from CDG, and a return home for some much needed rest and sharing pictures of Paris with my family. Thanks to all who made WRAB III possible, and safe travels to everyone, too.

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WRAB III: Writing As Multimodal Text Production

Here are slides from my talk, “Writing as Multimodal Text Production.”

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Notes from Arthur Applebee’s WRAB Keynote

This morning, WRAB III kicked off with conference organizers greeted 1140 colleagues from around the world, followed by a keynote from Arthur Applebee, an academic hero for those of us interested in writing research.

Many of his ideas from this talk are also shared in his recent book, Writing Instruction That Works, looking at 20 schools, both in the classroom and with testing data from the school.

The idea was to look at ways that typical writing programs compared to highly successful ones. Here are some notes from his presentation, “What Shapes School Work? Examining Influences on School Writing Tasks over Time in U.S. Secondary Schools.” Main points from the talk:

  • Project looking at changes in writing instruction over the past 30 years
  • Looked across many states including Kentucky, Michigan, and Texas
  • Looked at successful students, as well as less successful students
  • Survey of 1500 teachers and at writing in English, History, Science, and Math
  • Compared to his 1981 study — not an exact replication of the research model, but looking at many of the same issues: assignments, requirements, instructional practices
  • Of course, some differences between then and now — more use of tech, casual atmosphere, but the practices of instruction are, sadly, mostly the same.
  • Example assignment from 1980 — writing was a response to material that was presented by the teacher and textbook, repeated in a format that was well rehearsed.
  • In 2006, the assignment required some knowledge of how to frame a response, drawing in material from class. However, still limiting in the sense that students do not develop new ideas, limited to a five-paragraph theme formulaic response.
  • In other words, students do not elaborate on understanding or construct meaning. Most writing in school is utilitarian.
  • The elephant in the room is that we have high stakes testing that is pervasive in US education. The threat to the teachers and school is what transforms instruction.
  • None of this bodes well for teaching writing. You can pass all of these exams without being able to write at all.
  • Lots of test prep reported by the teachers: Sample writing in class similar to exams, use of the test rubric, class assessments similar to tests.
  • Tests shape school work in four different ways:
    • Whether we should do writing at all?
    • How we should teach writing?
    • How to fit it in with test prep?
    • The use of word processing — most high stakes exams are being taken with handwriting, not the computer (this is changing, however!)
  • The use of writing is dictated by the requirements of the exam. For instance, in New York, the history test requires writing and so it is considered “very important” to teachers that student analyze and synthesize history ideas in writing.
  • Testing reinforces inequality by causing low-performing schools to focus on prep, which leads to inadequate curriculum and, in turn, poorer test scores. It’s a downward spiral.
  • Some good news: Good news is that students do write more to a wider variety of audiences. Teachers understand of best practice have improved.

Some final thoughts (from me):

I was hoping to hear some more of the “good news” in Applebee’s talk, thinking about the ways that we might build on the strengths of work that the National Writing Project and other professional groups have taken. However, it does seem as though there are some bright spots, just not at the moment. Off to the rest of the conference.

Arthur Applebee Keynote from WRAB III in Paris
Arthur Applebee Keynote from WRAB III in Paris

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