Thinking Through a Digital Deliberation, Part 4: Handwriting, Typing, and Fluency

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2016 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy

Today, I head to Rhode Island for the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, and next Thursday I lead a “Digital Deliberation” session on “typing vs. handwriting.” In my first post for this series, I shared an overview of the debate. Then, in the second post, I look at handwriting curricula and typing tools. The third post explored the rhetorical approaches that proponents and opponents of handwriting and keyboarding both take. Today, I take one more dive into the deliberation, specifically trying to discern what — if anything — we can make claims about when it comes to students’ writing fluency, and what we can reasonably expect of them when handwriting as compared to typing.

I close this part of my inquiry and deliberation delving deeper into a point that Seán McHugh posed in his own blog post about typing vs handwriting, though I want to look at it in a different manner. His idea was this:

In other words, when you can touch-type, the cognitive load of writing and thinking at the same time are lessened and free up working memory for thinking—a bit like cycling a bicycle—once the effort required for remaining balanced, and changing gears et cetera are automatic, you can spend more time noticing/enjoying where you are going. The same idea applies to things like decoding in reading via ‘sight words’, this frees thinking space for understanding instead of decoding. The absence of effort in one frees cognitive space for the other…

In short, he equates fluency in touch-typing with gains in the composition process in the same manner that we know gains in fluency for readers will lead to better comprehension. This makes a good deal of sense, and is also backed up by all the research that he summarized. I thank him for contributing that part of his thinking so I could use it to further this deliberation.

So, to elaborate on the idea of writing fluency: in a NAEP report entitled NAEP 1996 Trends in Writing: Fluency and Writing Conventions, writing fluency is described as “a writer’s facility with language both in terms of the development and organization of ideas and in the use of syntax, diction, and grammar” (4-5). Much like a reader develops fluency (speed and accuracy) as well as prosody (performative measures such as volume, tone, and expression), so, too, must a writer develop these skills.

Returning to McHugh’s point above (and summary of the research), touch-typing frees up the cognitive load in our brains so we can focus on the composing process at the level of words, phrases, and clauses in a manner that, for many writing tasks, is superior to handwriting. Again, common sense would dictate that the words can flow more quickly with touch-typing when doing simple transcription tasks. Also, it seems that touch-typing also allows us to focus on higher-order concerns in the composing process.

This is not to say that we cannot, with handwriting (or cursive), compose intelligent, elaborate, and emotionally-rich written texts. Of course we can, and anyone who has his or her own writer’s journal, or enjoys the art of calligraphy or simply prefers to write by hand, can attest to this. What it does suggest, however, is that “handwriting vs. typing” — regardless of neuroscience or nostalgia, is a moot point.

Students must learn both how to touch-type for purposes of transcription (copying from their own handwritten texts or other texts) and composition (creating their own, original written products) in order to be fully literate in today’s world.

Back to the Standards

Because the CCSS offers no clear direction about how much writing a student at any grade should do in one sitting — a composition process that, much like reading well, requires both fluency and prosody as writers — I am going off the writing samples in Appendix C,  as representative samples of fluent writing, completed in one sitting. And, at the moment, I am not even looking at the quality of the writing or the commentary provided about how those pieces compare to the standards. I am, indeed, just looking at word counts and assuming that students produced those texts in “one sitting.”

In the table below, I provide a simple summary of the word counts of these pieces (I copied and pasted the selections into Word) so we can think carefully about this question of writing fluency as it compares to the time that it will take. For what it’s worth, the three kindergarten pieces, both first grade pieces, and the argument piece for the second grade sample and the third grade narrative were handwritten. Also, some of the older grades had pieces where handwritten, too. Thus, I started looking at arguments that were done as on-demand that were “on-demand” or noted to have been written in one sitting (and, I assumed, typed).

Grade Word Count
4 408
6 1026
7 473
10 719
12 582

In order to build this out further, I needed some reasonable estimation of how many words a child might compose based on age. After much searching — both through Google and the academic databases — the most concise document that I could find is this “Curriculum-Based Measurement: Written-Expression Fluency Norms” created by Jim Wright of Intervention Central who, in turn, had built it based on research from Gansle et al (2006) and Malecki & Jewell (2003). Take a moment to click on those fluency norms, and then take a look at Utah’s keyboarding standards, which was one of the few curriculum guides that, again, offered any kind of specificity in terms of the number of words a student should be able to produce at any one “sitting” of writing time.

Here, then, is my best attempt to combined Wright’s version of Gansle et al’s WPM of handwriting with a parallel match to Utah’s WPM of typing at the same grade level. I then compare that number to the average number of words in those samples from Appendix A and, finally, try to calculate an average sitting time for a student composing a text of that length, by keyboard, with the Utah standards. Please note that the Utah standards max out at 25 WPM in fifth grade and then suggest that, beginning in sixth grade, students “will demonstrate correct keyboarding techniques while increasing speed and maintaining accuracy.” For sake of this argument, then, I am adding 5 WPM each year until they make it to 12th grade and are fluent at 60 WPM.

Also, note that Wright’s fluency norms only go up to sixth grade, at which point the range could be from 44-72 (and this is just for total words written per minute, not counting errors). I am going to top out the students at a max of 80 WPM for no other reason than, based on my own experience, I don’t know that I can be in a state of “flow” while writing and pump out more than that. And, as you may recall from my earlier post, I tested myself a few times and I ranged between about 70 and 73 WPM. I’ll assume, however, that we can get our high school students to be accurately composing their written expression at 80 WPM, max.

So, what do we have?

Grade* Word Count Utah Typing Standard WPM Wright’s Fluency Norms (by spring) Wright’s Fluency Range (by spring)
4 408 20 46 30-62
6 1026 30* 58 44-72
7 473 35* 66 (No rates reported, but adding 6 WPM from 6th grade) No rates reported
10 719 50* 80 (No rates reported, but assuming that students top out at this level) No rates reported
12 582 60* 80 (No rates reported, but assuming that students top out at this level) No rates reported

OK, so one more table, now condensed a bit and adjusting for time. How long would “one sitting” be for our hypothetical, Common Core exemplar students, using a keyboard and allowing for a straight-on composing process (no time for planning, organizing, reorganizing, revising, or editing… just putting words onto the screen in a coherent manner).

Grade* Word Count Utah Typing Standard WPM Time Needed to Meet the Standard and Compose This Many Words (Rounded Up) Wright’s Fluency Norms (by spring) Time Needed to Meet the Standard and Compose This Many Words
4 408 20 21 Minutes 46 9 Minutes
6 1026 30* 35 Minutes 58 18 Minutes
7 473 35* 14 Minutes 70 (Estimate) 7 Minutes
10 719 50* 15 Minutes 80 (Estimate) 9 Minutes
12 582 60* 10 Minutes 80 (Estimate) 8 Minutes

Conclusions (For Now)

I will leave any more deliberation to my readers — and the participants in this week’s institute — but for the moment I will leave with some questions:

  • Are these times realistic given the time we have devoted to writing instruction in our school days and adequate access to computers?
  • Are they realistic given the time our students’ attention spans and ability to compose in on-demand or very short time frames?
  • How much more time do we need to allot in terms of allowing students to actually go through a writing and revising process that, even under ideal circumstances, would mean that they are not writing at the maximum WPM throughout?

Tying all of this together, I share the voice of one more teacher, Terri Fortmeyer.

I just wanted to let you know what we do at our school – North Muskegon Elementary. As a 3rd grade teacher for 16 years, we’ve had many of the same discussions about cursive and keyboarding skills. Currently, we teach cursive during our first semester so students are able to read any cursive they may encounter as well as have a cursive signature. We do not, however, spend large amounts of time on learning cursive letters – maybe 15 min. at the end of the day when students winding down for the day. We also begin teaching keyboarding skills during the second semester of second grade and more consistently during all of third grade. We notice that by fourth grade, students are able to read and write cursive as well as type at a decent speed so that they can begin to move away from paper/pencil writing. Last year I started teaching fourth grade and except for my on-demand assessment pieces and writer’s notebooks, my students drafted, revised, and edited on netbooks computers . . . and they preferred it.

So, what can we learn from Terri’s experience — as well as this entire series of blog posts? What is the state of handwriting and typing in our classrooms? I’ve got to tie all of this together into a 30 minute presentation before Thursday, so I hope that I will have some more ideas by then. And, as always, I appreciate your comments, questions, and insights.


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Thinking Through a Digital Deliberation, Part 3: What is Gained, What is Lost

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2016 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy

In less than two weeks, I head to Rhode Island for the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy. One main item on my agenda is to lead a “Digital Deliberation” session on “typing vs. handwriting.” So far, I’ve shared some initial thoughts on the debate, as well as a look at some particular concerns with curricula and web-based tools.

In this post, I want to look at “what is gained” and “what is lost,” as well as to bring in the voices of teachers. As with many of the great debates in education, there are many opinions on the matter… and most of them are based in nostalgia and some basic surveys, (though not necessarily in deep, substantive qualitative or quantitative data).

Voices in the Media

Of the responses that I got to my last blog post, a few of them pointed to articles in the popular media that discuss studies done with neuroscience and fMRI images that show positive correlations between handwriting and other functions, studies that suggest good handwriting is tied with academic achievement, and the neural pathways that are activated by cursive as compared to touch-typing. Look at a few of the headlines and, using some very basic critical discourse analysis, see if you can spot a trend.

If you need a hint, scroll down to the word cloud below, which is comprised of all the text that I copied/pasted from these articles:

Representative Language from Cursive Writing Articles (Word Cloud Created with Wordle.net)
Representative Language from Cursive Writing Articles (Word Cloud Created with Wordle.net)

Just as a side note, here are two pieces produced by National Public Radio and its affiliate, WNYC, that I left out of the word cloud.

So, what is the narrative that dominates the media? Well, it certainly has something to do with our children, their brains, and the powerful effects of cursive writing.

Also, I finally ran across two state-level curricula for handwriting, from Kansas and Utah. Why I didn’t find it last week when searching for handwriting curricula, I have no idea. Utah, coincidentally, has curriculum for keyboarding, too. There also appear to be some other handwriting/legislative updates documents on this site, sponsored by Zaner-Bloser (who also offer a handwriting curriculum).

Voices of Teachers

As you might imagine, it seems like the voices of teachers are a bit more even-keeled.

In 2012, my NWP colleague and creative teacher-leader Kevin Hodgson noted the ways in which his sixth graders struggled with the task:

… they began to type and I was curious to see their skills at the keyboard. It wasn’t so great. Some students took almost 45 minutes to write a single paragraph. Most were hovering over their keyboards (ergonomic alert!) with a single finger jabbing at keys, their eyes darting from paper to computer. When I asked how many had ever used any kind of keyboarding system, only a few raised their hands. Most of the programs were online games.

Hodgson concludes, “We don’t do our students any service by leaving out keyboarding from the school curriculum, and the ideal age is around second grade.”

Also, another NWP colleague (and Spartan!), Rachel Huntley, responded to my last post via FB with these thoughts:

As a Kindergarten teacher, I teach both handwriting (letter formation, placement, shape, etc) in conjunction with typing. I support the fact that to create digital composition beginning in 3rd grade, it benefits my students to be more familiar to keyboarding from the start. I have (and continue) to try new programs, apps, websites to facilitate this.

Those are two voices that jumped right into the conversation last week. A little more searching yielded a few other teachers with positive things to say about the need for keyboarding (with a healthy overall balance focused on handwriting as well). For instance, Jacqui Murray, a K-8 technology teacher, describes a lesson in which she asks her students to use the scientific method to measure their handwriting WPM as compared to typing WPM, all within a discussion of the school’s keyboarding curriculum. There is also this article from Education World about the importance of teaching proper keyboarding technique.  Finally, Gary Stager posted a literature review from a deceased colleague, Steve Shuller, which was written in 1989. The concluding section of Shuller’s report: “There is widespread agreement that elementary school students need keyboarding skills.”

Conclusion (for now)

As I continue to prepare for the Digital Deliberation session, I am still trying to figure out exactly how I will frame the debate. One thing is for sure, we can always look to Finland for some answers. There are many ideas for me to consider as I prepare a 30 minute, interactive talk on the topic… but I look forward to the challenge, as well as your continued comments, questions, and links to other resources.


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Updates from AILA Junior Researchers Meeting

This week, I have had the good fortune of presenting a keynote at the 7th Junior Researchers Meeting in Applied Linguistics, sponsored by the International Association of Applied Linguistics. I focused my keynote yesterday on both the work that I have done with my NWP colleagues to produce Assessing Students’ Digital Writing, as well as my own career trajectory as a teacher and researcher.

It has been wonderful to interact with various researchers throughout the rest of the morning, most of whom are finishing their PhDs or beginning their careers in Europe. As I listened to the variety of topics they are studying and questions that they are pursuing, I was pleased to see so many of them employing theoretical frameworks that address new literacies and methods that employ new technologies such as analysis of digitally-mediated communication — including words in English and other languages, as well as the new universal language of emojis — as well as screencasting as a tool for capturing, and then replaying and analyzing, the writing process.

Dr. Gitsaki's latest book: Recipes for the Wireless Classroom – Mobile Learning Activities
Dr. Gitsaki’s latest book: Recipes for the Wireless Classroom – Mobile Learning Activities

This morning, I was able to enjoy a keynote from Christina Gitsaki, from the Center for Educational Innovation, Zayed University, Higher Education, UAE. The focus of her presentation was on an iPad initiative that she supervised over the course of 18 months at numerous universities across the UAE. The major takeaway from her talk is one that I think we continue to grapple with throughout the world as we employ new technologies — how can we invite teachers to engage in meaningful professional development so their instructional methods change in substantive ways? That is, rather than simply introducing the iPads into the classroom and asking students to do something on screen as compared to doing it on paper, how can we instead engage them in a task that they would not otherwise be able to do without the technology? Needless to say, she shared a fast-paced talk, and here are some quick notes from her presentation.

  • MALL – Mobile-Assisted Language Learning
  • Looking at the explosion of mobile learning in 2005-201 with new technologies such as MP3s, PDAs, mobile (and then smart) phones, tablets, and laptops. This led to ubiquity, but then in 2010 the iPad brought about a revolution.
  • The UAE education system has a bilingual language policy, and students learn English for an average of 3-6 hours per week. All the courses in bachelor’s degree programs are taught in English, and about 20% of high school graduates are eligible for these programs right at graduation. The other 80% enter “foundational” courses to gain more English proficiency.
  • Gitsaki was in charge, as an associate dean, in implementing the iPad initiative. This involved 17 colleges, 22,000 students and the demand was for an entirely paperless classroom.
    • To assess this program, she conducted a variety of formative applied research methods including surveys, observations, and classroom assessment data.
  • Teachers reported that they gained confidence in using the iPads in the classrooms, managing their lessons, taking care of technical issues, and preparing materials.
    • However, they remained concerned that the iPads were really helping their students gain proficiency in English. Unfortunately, most teachers were only using the iPads for vocabulary lessons.
  • Students generally reported positive results with using the iPad, including a great deal of use in the classroom. Most of them do feel that the iPad is helping them learn more with English. In short, there is a very different picture from the students and the teachers, but this is all self reported data. Students were also using their iPads for other tasks, such as blogging.
    • So, she tried to correlate what the students said that they were doing with what the end-of-semester assessments showed, too. Students who performed at least three types of activities on the iPad in class and outside of class, did show some impact on their test scores.
  • Critical issues that we learned from the study:
    • Pedagogy — technology was dictating what the teachers were doing in the classroom, needed to help them use a “technology-enhanced,” not “technology-driven” method
      • Also, needed to teach teachers how to use the iPad in an EFL context. We need to discover and understand best practices for teaching and learning English.
    • Teaching materials — the materials created by textbook publishers were simply PDF copies; interactivity was very difficult because of having to use different annotation tools on the iPad
      • We also requested that the teachers to create their own resources, but we never really taught them how to do this; we had no expertise in teaching teachers how to create these resources
    • Assessment — current practices for evaluating the impact of tech in education needs to broaden; this does not fully measure the extent of the skills that students are learning
      • We need to find new ways to identify and measure the skills and knowledge that students are gaining from mobile tech
      • For instance, looking at a platform like Knewton for learning analytics
  • So, where does this take us as we look at mobile devices in the classroom?
    • Need a longitudinal research agenda
    • Need to rethink teaching tasks
    • Need to reconsider what it means to read and write in digital spaces
    • Need to understand how mutlti-tasking and environmental distractions can affect learning
  • Intro to the Center for Educational Innovation
    • Invitation to come to the center as a visiting researcher — travel to the UAE!

There are more sessions today and tomorrow, and I hope to find time to blog about them as well. For the moment, Gitsaki’s work remind me that we need to continue our efforts at teaching teachers how to employ digital tools and spaces in smart, critical, and creative ways. This is a challenge that I can relate to and — as is evidenced by the many other young researchers here at this conference — one that we will continue to face, and embrace, for years to come.


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Digital Learning Day (Week/Month) 2015

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Image from http://www.digitallearningday.org/

Celebrating Digital Learning Day this year has been quite an experience, beginning last week and going all the way through this weekend, with the “official” celebration happening, of course, this Friday with a live feed from the Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington DC.

Last week, I was honored by my friend and colleague, Dawn Reed, who nominated me as a Digital Learning Champion. She and I are working on our new book with Corwin, and “Research Writing Rewired” should be published later this year! She is a digital champion herself, and I have enjoyed collaborating with her again over the past year.

Then, last Thursday, I joined Greg Mcverry for part of his open “Question the Web” course, discussing ideas for teaching with blogs and RSS. He recorded the conversation via Hangouts on Air, and we tried to keep it brief and focused coming in just over 20 minutes. You can watch the episode below and find more resources on pages linked above.

This week will have me moving right along, too. Earlier today, I participated in a hangout on air with Amber White and other colleagues from North Branch Area Schools and the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative to discuss the conference we are offering in the district this Friday. In short, here is what’s happening:

District colleagues involved in the TTI have been working diligently to prepare a wide-variety of interactive sessions to provide a small lens into some of the learning and thinking going on in the realm of technology as a result of their participation in the Teacher Technology Institute.

It was a great conversation — and brief, so very viewable — and I encourage you to view the recording. I look forward to seeing how all our colleagues in North Branch share their own inquiry and learning this Friday, and hope to blog about it soon.

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In DC this weekend for http://teachingandlearning2015.org/ Join us!

So, that will be a great day, followed by a quick trip to Washington DC to join in the second day of the Teaching and Learning Conference. My brief trip to DC will include two presentations with my NWP colleagues Tanya Baker, Janelle Bence, Gail Desler, and Kevin Hodgson: “Mixing Sources, Amplifying Voices: Empowering Students Through Connected Learning” and “Readers, Writers, and Citizens: Principles and Practices for Digital Literacy.” I will post our handouts and materials on my wiki later this week.

Earlier this morning, Heinemann published my new blog post, “Connecting + Making = Digital Writing.” Here is the opening…

Often, while I’m delivering professional development workshops or webinars, teachers ask me about new tools that have been released since I wrote Crafting Digital Writing in 2013. While I try to keep links updated on the book’s companion wiki page, I know that many resources come and go each year. There are some stand-bys, such as Google Docs and Wikispaces, that have long track records and that many educators find quite useful. Sharing a link to these tools is often enough to point teachers in the right direction.

Yet, when teachers want to dig deeper, to think about creative ways that they can invite students to play, transform, and critique existing materials with digital writing tools, sometimes the stand-bys aren’t enough. Yes, it is great that Google Docs allows us to embed images and links and that Wikispaces allows us to create a collaborative online classroom; but once our students are familiar with these tools, how can we help push their thinking and learning in new directions?

Moreover, I am happy to announce that NCTE has opened up the site for pre-ordering my new book with Kristen Turner — Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. A quick summary, courtesy of our back cover copy:

As readers of all ages increasingly turn to the Internet and a variety of electronic devices for both informational and leisure reading, teachers need to reconsider not just who and what teens read but where and how they read as well. Having ready access to digital tools and texts doesn’t mean that middle and high school students are automatically thoughtful, adept readers. So how can we help adolescents become critical readers in a digital age?

Using NCTE’s policy research brief Reading Instruction for All Students as both guide and sounding board, experienced teacher-researchers Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks took their questions about adolescent reading practices to a dozen middle and high school classrooms. In this book, they report on their interviews and survey data from visits with hundreds of teens, which led to the development of their model of Connected Reading: “Digital tools, used mindfully, enable connections. Digital reading is connected reading.” They argue that we must teach adolescents how to read digital texts effectively, not simply expect that teens can read them because they know how to use digital tools. Turner and Hicks offer practical tips by highlighting classroom practices that engage students in reading and thinking with both print and digital texts, thus encouraging reading instruction that reaches all students.

Connected Reading Cover
From ncte.org

This afternoon, I recorded a podcast with Kristen and our editor, Cathy Fleischer, and I will share that link when I have it. Thanks to everyone who has shared the link via FB, Twitter, and G+. We appreciate the initial positive reaction and hope that the book lives up to your expectations! For some preview of the material, you can visit our companion wiki page.

Finally, this month of digital learning continues next week with the MACUL conference next week and the Educator Collaborative’s Maker Space Camp, where I will deliver a virtual keynote on Monday March 30 (which is available for free viewing).

So, this will be a busy Digital Learning Day (Week? Month?). I am pleased to be celebrating digital learning in so many ways, yet still I caution us all think about this day in the same way we would ask our students to think about ideas that they encounter online — critically and carefully. My 2013 post about Digital Learning Day is still as relevant today as it was two years ago, especially as the new assessments are upon us, and upon our students, too.

Thanks to all my colleagues who are making my experience with digital learning so rich and fulfilling. I appreciate the work that all of you are doing and look forward to celebrating it this month and well into the future.


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Social Media, Educational Research, and “Keeping It Real”

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Join the KQED #TeachDoNow MOOC this summer!

This summer, I’m participating in KQED’s #TeachDoNow MOOC, though I am just a little bit behind the game. I finally caught up on the week one webcast, and I have been checking out the discussion board on Google+.  Later this summer, the week of August 11, I will cohost a webcast on the idea of “How do you manage learners, tasks, resources, and assessment in a connected learning environment?” There are many things happening in many places with this MOOC, and I am really intrigued how they are using Tagboard as a hub for collecting resources.

So much to think about! This, of course, is both the opportunity and a challenge of social media use in education. For the moment, however, I want to focus on the question of the week: What is the value of social media for your professional learning?

Of all the possible answers to this question that I might consider — such as finding resources that I can use in courses and workshops for preservice and in-service teachers, delving more deeply into the lesson ideas and unit plans of networked colleagues, or simply keeping my finger on the pulse of conversations around education — the biggest value for me, as an educational researcher and teacher educator, is simply making connections with K-12 colleagues.

There are many examples that I could cite, but I will share one that happened just this week. On Wednesday, I was presenting a session about growing your PLN at the Michigan Reading Association‘s summer literacy conference. In my session, one of the participants was an NWP teacher consultant from the Lake Michigan Writing Project, Erica Beaton, whom I hadn’t had a chance to meet in person, though we were connected on Twitter. She acted as a guide and mentor to others in my session as they were learning to use Twitter. I, in turn, then made the choice to attend her session on “creating hype for reading,” and posted numerous resources.

At the end of the session we were talking about possibilities for engaging readers with e-books. Though we only have a few moments, it turned into a lively conversation and Erica offered me an invitation to visit her classroom next school year. What had begun as a collegial, though semi-anonymous relationship on Twitter before the conference quickly blossomed into a new professional connection and, ultimately, will probably result in me visiting her classroom and — who knows? — perhaps even writing an article together or co-facilitating a conference presentation.

This is but one example of how social media contributes to my professional learning, specifically as an educational researcher and teacher educator. I am talking with teachers all the time, and many times those conversations begin on social media and result in sharing coffee or a meal together. As one Michigan colleague, Todd Bloch, recently reminded me, our K-12 colleagues rarely, if ever, actually see university researchers and teacher educators engaged in real conversations with teachers, visiting classrooms and attending the conference sessions. This continues to exacerbate the “ivory tower” divide between educational research and classroom practice, and he was appreciative of the fact that I present at conferences, visit classrooms, write with teachers, and participate in social media.

All of this is to say that social media — to use the popular phrase — “keeps it real” for me as a professor with deep roots in the K-12 classroom. Social media participation is a must for all educators, especially those of us who do educational research and are preparing the next generation of teachers. To do less is a disservice to the educators that we serve and to our own sense of what it means to be a professional.


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How I Lead (Professional Development)

Writing about myself is always a challenge (evidenced by the fact that I instinctively wrote “oneself” at the beginning of this sentence, then went back to revise it).

Here on my blog — as well as in my books and articles, and throughout the many workshops and presentations that I lead — I constantly reference the work of others, usually classroom teachers, in my efforts to both raise their voices and, in some type of Midwestern modesty, push my own abilities to the side.

This week has reaffirmed the work that I do, as well as the approach that I take when leading professional development sessions. For three days, I had the good fortune of working with my friend and colleague Amber White, and we have designed a project that invited teachers to apply to a “teacher technology institute,” where they agreed to participate in three workshop days this June and one more in the fall and, in exchange, they receive their own personal iPad Air, well as a $100 gift card to the iTunes Store so they can purchase apps we are using in the institute. She applied to and was award funds from Literacy and Beyond & the Stebbins Family Fund as well as the Lapeer County Community Foundation to do this work. One of the reasons that Amber asked me to lead this session, I say humbly, is because she feels I have a certain style of presenting and working with teachers that will be highly effective in helping them implement their projects.

It was interesting when, in the midst of the workshop this week, one of the teachers pulled me aside and asked, “How many times have you led this presentation?”

Hesitating for a moment, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. I’ve never led this particular workshop before, but I’ve led similar ones dozens of times. I always ebb and flow with my audience, asking them to try digital writing activities and, based on their response, allowing more or less time for the activity to continue. That’s my style. No two workshops the same. I was mulling all this over, and trying to think of a way to be humble in my reply. I began to answer, and he could sense my reticence.

“I mean,” he clarified, “how long have you been doing this type of workshop?”

“Oh, about 10 years or so.”

10 years. Indeed, it probably has been a bit longer if I count some of my first presentations while in the earliest parts of my career as a middle school teacher. Yet, as someone who has been a regular presenter and workshop leader now for just over a decade, I can clearly assert that my main goal is to stick closely to the core beliefs of the National Writing Project, which remind us that “teachers teaching teachers” remains the most powerful approach to professional development.

With that in mind, I can say that I have developed a few other principles that help me facilitate sessions with teachers. They seem simple. Maybe even cliche. But, they work for me, and (I dare say) those who are in the audience as I lead a session.

Listen as much — or more — than you talk.

Engage adult learners in meaningful tasks, relevant to their professional lives.

Model the process. Share the process. Help in the process. “To, with, and by,” to use the language of teachers who work with our youngest learners.

Provide opportunities to be creative, bounded with some manageable constraints.

Pause periodically to acknowledge the “pulse” of the room, especially when working with technology, and allow people to vent about frustrations and celebrate success.

“Oh, ok,” he replied, nodding his head, snapping me back to attention. I smiled and turned my focus back to the group.

I recount the first part of the story because it was a moment that made me, quite literally, stop and think about what I do as a teacher and teacher educator. Something I need to do more often, and I appreciate the question that he asked.

The second part of the story takes place later in the evening, as Amber and I were reflecting on the day. She also was answering many text messages and emails from teachers who had attended the workshop, all of which were positive. Amber articulated a number of points: activities moved along briskly, but not too fast; modeling of the many tech processes helped people learn the tools; and we stayed focused on the bigger picture of helping students use technology in critical and creative ways.

Minus some minor technical difficulties on the second day, our colleagues — in three days — were able to create and share wiki pages, Google Docs, podcasts, short digital movies, an Ignite-style presentation, and a Twitter conversation. They also honed a proposal for an inquiry-based, technology-rich collaborative unit plan. Guided by a number of protocols from the National School Reform Faculty, we also offered feedback to one another in pairs, small groups, and as an entire cohort.

And, if I may say it, we had fun.

Amber, her colleagues in North Branch, and our experience together — though not an official event related to either of our writing projects — was imbued with the spirit of NWP. As I write this post, I thank Amber for the opportunity to be part of the work this week, and I encourage you to read the 40for40 blog that NWP is producing this summer.

As I quipped at one point in the week, “My brain is full, my heart is full, and my stomach is full.” Classic NWP pedagogy, and what I hope happens for so many other teachers in their work together this summer. I look forward to returning to North Branch this fall, working with colleagues as they implement their project ideas.


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WRAB III Wrap Up

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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