Updates from Our Book: Argument in the Real World

Image courtesy of Heinemann
Image courtesy of Heinemann

As a writer — both in the sense that I am a blogger and the author of texts for teachers — I am well aware of the fact that writing is never really “done,” it is just “due.” I am thankful that I have the opportunity to keep writing, keep sharing, keep updating. It is as important now as it has ever been.

When my colleague and co-author, Kristen Turner, and I were putting the finishing touches on our book, Argument in the Real World, last summer, we knew that the world would be experiencing digital arguments in many ways across the closing months of the US 2016 election cycle. However, we had no idea that “fake news” or “alternative facts” would become part of the Orwellian discourse. Over the past few months, the incredible team at Heinemann has been sharing a number of posts and videos related to the book:

They also helped us refine the MINDFUL poster:

How to teach students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media.
How to teach students to be MINDFUL readers and writers of social media.

Finally, here is a video in which I demonstrate how students can remix existing news content to analyze the implicit arguments presented in the news.

As teachers continue to work with their students to overcome the many challenges we continue to face with media literacy, we will continue to update the book’s wiki page and share more ideas. My hope is that this collection of resources is a good place to begin those difficult lessons and conversations.


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

Summer Institute in Digital Literacy Logo
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 2: Handwriting and Typing Curricula and Websites

Summer Institute in Digital Literacy Logo
2016 Summer Institute in Digital Literacy

Later this month, I will help facilitate the fourth annual Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, at URI. As I noted in my last post, I will be leading a “Digital Deliberation” session on “typing vs. handwriting,” and in this post I want to build on Seán McHugh’s ideas about the practicality of teaching touch typing to a look at some of the websites and curricular options for these two options.

In short, I want to look at the evidence and rhetorical appeals each type of curriculum/website makes, and to match those claims up with some of the evidence that McHugh’s had shared. He concluded that “So to summarise: that’s handwriting at 22 WPM, hunt & peck at 27 WPM (about the same) and between 50-120 WPM for touch-typists,” making the point that the mechanical act of writing (whether by hand or by typing) is a proxy for the types of fluency that a writer can and should have. So, to start this curricular conversation, let’s begin with the one that dominates the conversation in the US right now: The Common Core ELA Standards.

According to the Common Core

First, I couldn’t find any reference to “cursive,” “typing,” type,” “keyboard,” or “keyboarding” in Appendix A, the document that is subtitled “Research Supporting Key Elements of the Standards.” “Handwriting” gets one mention, though oddly enough it is in the “Speaking and Listening” section (26). So, any curriculum for handwriting or typing that claims to be Common Core aligned is, from what I can tell, simply making up that endorsement. (If anyone can correct me on this — and can point out where this info is found in the CCSS — I would appreciate it.)

So, Dave Stuart Jr. notes that the 3-6 standards in the Common Core emphasize “keyboarding skills,” and have an increasing set of requirements for “one sitting”; in fourth grade, it is one page, and then two pages by fifth and three pages by sixth grade. Interestingly enough, by seventh grade, the keyboarding skills are left to the imagination, but the phrase “linking to and citing sources” enters standard six (which is, I think, a pretty important move for us to consider when we think about digital writing; that is, writing that truly utilizes the affordances of digital tools such as links and media).

At any rate, as Stuart reminds us, there is some “intentional ambiguity” in this standard, and it is tough to know what comprises a “page” and a “sitting.”The standards all read that students should have “sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of X page(s) in a single sitting.” Thus, it is hard to know what constitutes a “sitting” — both in terms of time, fluency, and quantity. The CCSS certainly doesn’t reference any point about how much of this typing should be devoted to invention and brainstorming, actual drafting, substantive revision, and/or editing.

Given all of this, I will assume that it means drafting, and for simplicity’s sake, I used the Words Per Page Calculator, and I assumed an Arial, 12 pt, double-spaced page. The number of words it takes for just one page of typing: 275. Going back to the low end of McHugh’s estimates on what a proficient writer can do at the keyboard (and this is just drafting, or transcribing, not serious revision), a “sitting” could be anywhere along this range:

Typing Speed One Page (275 Words) Two Pages (550 Words) Three Pages (825)
25 WPM 11 Minutes 22 minutes 33 minutes
50 WPM 5.5 minutes 11 minutes 16.5 minutes
75 WPM 3.6 minutes 7.3 minutes 11 minutes

This is an amazing amount of “intentional ambiguity” in terms of the sheer amount of text that students would produce in a “sitting” (one student could type only one page in 11 minutes, another could type three pages). Let’s assume that the average 4th, 5th, or 6th grader falls somewhere just lower than the average of 58 WPM, say 50. How much time would they be allotted to write in any one sitting (during a normal school day, or under test conditions)? Can they reasonably get the writing done that they are expected to do? I am not sure that I know too many students who can fluently type in excess of 70 WPM (I tested myself a few times and I ranged between about 70 and 73 WPM).

Again, I can’t find any reference in the CCSS as to how much a student should really be able to produce in a sitting. So, I turned to the standardized assessments to see if, perhaps, they could shed any insight because, of course, what gets measured, gets treasured. After a half an hour of fruitless searching on both the PARCC and SBAC website, I can’t find any mention of exact times and expectations of what students should be able to compose, via keyboard, in any particular time frame. The SBAC has no time limit on test, though they note some estimated times and the PARCC has some limits. Still, I can’t tell how much time is allotted to any given writing task, let alone all of the tasks combined.

Thus, I don’t think that anyone — software developers or curriculum designers — can make any reasonable, empirical claim about what the Common Core “expects” in terms of writing proficiency, for either handwriting or keyboarding.

Still, the claims come from both the handwriting and typing curricular sites… let’s look at a few.

What the Handwriting Curricula/Advocates Emphasize

There are a number of handwriting curricula available (“handwriting curriculum” yielded about 504,000 results), and I delved just briefly into three of them: Handwriting Without Tears, Zaner-Bloser Handwriting, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Handwriting (full disclosure: HMH is the parent company of one of my publishers, Heinemann, though I have no direct relationship with HMH). Also note that I am only looking at commercially-published curricula, though there are many examples of homeschool and parochial school handwriting curricula. First, Handwriting Without Tears has a complete 111-page guide to the Common Core, and the crux of their argument is summed up in the first pages:

With the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, the emphasis and expectations placed on classroom note-taking and expository writing in grades K–5 is greater than ever.

The reality is that elementary students spend the majority of their day doing pencil and paper work.

Similarly, Zaner-Bloser has a 12-page white paper,  which discusses how handwriting primes the brain for literacy and serves as a foundation for school readiness.There are many, many references (and, I will be honest, I didn’t check them all).  HMH does not have a clear link to any details about their curriculum or any white papers to describe the program, though they do note the one goal to “Improve writing communication with rapid and fluent letter formation.” Still, the general tone of all this curriculum seems to include a clear connection to how fine motor skills and knowledge of print concepts are critical to students understanding how to write and, more importantly, how to write fluently.

What the Typing Curricula/Advocates Emphasize

The first site that came up in my Google search for “typing test” was, aptly, TypingTest.com (of about 8,400,000 results). On their “Touch Typing Benefits” page. In addition to the many images on the website that demonstrate a person casually, and happily, typing, this particular photo/graphic links to the five benefits gained from touch typing including speed, times, focus, comfort, and productivity.

Their claim, from gained when they had “over 15,000 people take a combined typing test and survey” showed that the average typing speed with a hunt and peck method was 28 WPM, while touch typing yielded 58 WPM. Other items of note include this claim, though it is not substantiated with any sources:

Touch typing will keep you focused. As your fingers know their way on the keyboard, they don’t need your attention any more. Instead, you can fully concentrate on what’s important – the text you are writing.

Similarly, “typing tutor” brought up about 4,580,000 results, though a quick look at the top ten of them yielded no typing tutor-type sites that discussed any research about the effectiveness of touch typing, nor why one should learn to touch type, as TypingTest.com did. It is, apparently, assumed that if you are using a computer, then you will want to learn how to type faster.

There was one unique site that made a claim about how typing is taught, The Typing Coach. It’s claim:

Screenshot from The Typing Coach (http://thetypingcoach.com/why/)
Screenshot from The Typing Coach (http://thetypingcoach.com/why/)

I didn’t see any other websites that made that specific claim and, from my own experience, I know that I do periodically take a glance at the keyboard to get “recalibrated.” If I had more time, I would like into the research on this, but I am out of steam for this week.

One final note: I found an interesting collection of links to touch typing sites and programs, which — despite the basic look of the site — appears to be updated regularly (showing updates from 5/25/16), though it did not have a link to The Typing Coach.

Conclusion (For Now)

So, my first caveat is that I didn’t even try to get a representative sample of various forms of handwriting and typing curricula. And, after that half an hour of scouring SBAC and PARCC, I gave up. Still, this blog post has been insightful for me (even if it took me three nights to write!). Most of the arguments that have been built here rely on the general idea that fluency is important, yet the way to achieve fluency can happen in two very different ways.

As a parent, I have always said that, of course, I want my children to know how to write (in this case, I mean “handwriting”) and how to type. Even that conversation brings up some tension in our home as we think about our two girls who are “all thumbs” with their phone-typing, and two of our boys who, at best, write in school only because they “have to.” Legible handwriting (let alone cursive) is a battle for nearly all our kids, one that my wife and I have, in all honesty, fight hard each September but then give up on as the school year progresses.

Where am I at in my “digital deliberation” after this week’s research? Well, tough to know… I know that I need to get my kids learning how to type, regardless of what the Common Core, the SBAC or PARCC, or any software package tells (or fails to tell) me. Next week, I will dive in to see what teachers themselves are saying about the debate by scouring some blogs… if you have an opinion on this (and a link), please share!


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Fandom Mashup with Mozilla’s Popcorn

Mozilla's Popcorn, part of the Webmaker suite of tools
Mozilla’s Popcorn, part of the Webmaker suite of tools

For anyone that has read this blog, seen my guest post on the Heinemann website, or heard me speak in the past few months, you know that I am becoming more and more intrigued with Mozilla’s Popcorn as a digital writing tool. Last week, my students in ENG 201 started playing around with Popcorn as one possible tool for creating their final, multimedia projects.

Before I share this example from one of my students, Cali Winslow, I wanted to note just a few quick notes about helping guide students to this point of the semester.

First, I have been fortunate enough to teach and honors section this semester. While most times I teach English 201 I am focused in on various forms of academic writing, and especially on the techniques of argument, this particular semester has been interesting because I am guiding students, as freshmen, to think about what they want to do for their senior honors capstone research project. As a part of this work, students will be submitting what I’m calling a “very rough draft” of what they would like to do as a senior honors project proposal.

Second, because we’ve been talking about digital writing throughout the semester, I am asking them to share their final presentation not just as a PowerPoint, but in some kind of multimedia form. Over the past few weeks we have begun looking at a number of different tools, and Popcorn is one of them. My hope is that the few students will use this tool for their final projects, especially since I have so many students interested in topics related to media.

All of this is a lead up to what I found to be a truly wonderful project. Mind you, this was meant as an opportunity for play and exploration, a formative assessment opportunity just to see what students could come up with in a limited amount of time. My guess is that Cali spent much more than just a “few extra minutes” outside of class to get this creative representation of her many “fandoms.” In fact, she noted in her reflection, there are many things to consider when embarking on such a project:

This project revealed some important benefits and drawbacks of using multimedia presentations. One clear benefit is that, if executed properly, it can provide a concise, engaging presentation related to the topic. A one-minute video can be much more compelling than a page of text presenting the same information. It also allows the author to be more creative in how they present their message, which can draw a wider audience. As with any media, however, there are some limitations. The biggest problem, in my presentation, was due to technological issues. As I mentioned, I had five tracks that were all timed precisely to fit with one another. Several times I tried to play them back and one would glitch and become out-of-sync with the others, which in some cases, even somewhat changed the message I was trying to get across (some of you may also have had this problem if you tried watching my video).

This is one of those projects where a student clearly went above and beyond, and I think you’ll find the final results to be compelling and creative. If this is what she was able to create just playing around with Popcorn for fun, I can’t wait to see what she — and all of my students — with their final projects.

Enjoy!

https://cali-winslow.makes.org/popcorn/2w9a_


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Hosting #engchat on 1/12/15

Flickr Image
CC Licensed Flickr image from JLM Photography.

As more and more students bring mobile devices to school, we have more opportunities (and challenges) to teach reading and writing, speaking and listening.

For next week’s #engchat conversation (1/12/15 at 7:00 PM EST), join co-authors Jeremy Hyler (@Jeremybballer) and Troy Hicks (@hicsktro) as they share some strategies from their book, Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing and Learning with Digital Tools (Routledge/Eye on Education, 2014).

More importantly, we invite you to share your ideas about how best to engage students in authentic literacy activities with smartphones and tablets. Some questions we may pursue during the chat include:

  • What is your school’s policy for mobile technologies? If your school has a BYOD or 1:1 program, how did it begin? If not, what do you want to know in order to start one?
  • What are the literacy skills that mobile technology enable? How are you working with students to develop their skills as readers and writers, listeners and speakers?
  • What lesson ideas do you have for mobile tech — daily, weekly, or just once in awhile — what works for you and your students?

We look forward to creating, composing, and connecting with #engchat colleagues soon!


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Creating and Composing in a Digital Writing Workshop

Note: This post, co-authored by Troy Hicks and Kristin Ziemke, has been prepared in response to Nancie Atwell’s blog post about the role of technology in her classroom.


In her recent blog post Nancie Atwell opens up about the role of technology in her classroom.  As a leader in our field of teaching writing, Nancie, suggested that:

I do think classrooms in grades four or five and up should have computers, so kids can experience and experiment with word processing, but I have concerns about them in the younger grades. In fact, I think the trend of iPads in the primary classroom is a mistake.

We’re grateful to Nancie for starting this conversation as districts across the country purchase more and more mobile devices without thinking about the pedagogical practices that must go hand-in-hand, if not lead, how we think about using these new tools.  This dialogue is necessary and overdue. Nancie is one of the literacy leaders who has guided our thinking about student writing, the reading and writing workshop approach, and how best to frame our own thinking about the teaching of writing, both of us appreciate and admire Nancie’s work. We respect her opinions about what works in reading and writing classrooms.

Girl Writing on iPad
One of Kristin’s students composing both print and digital writing.

We agree with Nancie that many schools are using technology poorly; instead of embracing redefinition as Dr. Puentedura has advocated for, teachers are often misguided and use digital devices for sight word practice, prompted responses and (sadly) weekly assessment and test prep.  We recognize that there are poor models of classroom technology out there.  We also respect and acknowledge how Nancie employs technology at her school.

However, in this case, we humbly suggest that her opinion on students writing with technology is limited, and we feel compelled to offer a different vision of how students can become digital readers and writers.

First, in the upper grades, we feel that her insistence on computers for word processing is too limiting. Let’s unpack this assumption just a bit. First, though it can feel like our students have their noses stuck in screens for far too long throughout the day, technology is not the enemy here. In fact, word processing is just the beginning of what technology offers to writers. According to leading researchers in the field of K-12 writing instruction, Jill Barshay reports that:

In 83 percent of 30 studies on the use of word processing software, students’ writing quality improved when they wrote their papers on a computer instead of writing by hand. The impact was largest for middle school students, but younger students benefited, too. The theory is that students feel more free to edit their sentences because it’s so easy to delete, add and move text on a computer. The more editing, the better the final essay.

Steve Graham and Delores Perin shared these results in the 2007 Writing Next report, and — sadly — in many K-12 classrooms we still don’t see technology being used for revision and editing in this proven manner. Yet, word processing is just the beginning of what students can, and should, do with computers.

Students with Laptop
Kristin’s students compose using a laptop.

Second, as we dig a bit deeper into Nancie’s claim about using computers only for word processing, we know that there is more to consider. Indeed, we know from our own research, teaching, and professional writing that computers — as well as tablets and smart phones — provide students with countless opportunities for reading and writing. And, when we say “reading” and “writing,” we are talking about both traditional alphabetical texts (books, articles, essays, poems) as well as digital texts including blogs, ebooks, and hypertexts. Our professional organizations — such as NCTE, IRA, and NWP — have been calling for a broadened view of digital literacy for well over a decade. We would hope that Nancie would consider doing so, too.

Now, to unpack the second part of her concern: that “the trend of iPads in the primary classroom is a mistake.” While Troy does not have the benefit of being in the classroom everyday with younger students, Kristin does. And, from this experience, she would argue that the primary grades are exactly where kids SHOULD be using technology as it transforms their ability to create, share their ideas and connect with an authentic audience beyond the classroom. In fact, it is essential.

Let us explain a bit more.

In the early childhood years, many students are challenged by the physicality it takes to produce a piece of writing. Ideas are often generated and lost before a young writer can transmit them to the paper. In today’s digital writing workshop, students can scaffold their own development by recording a video snapshot of the story they want to tell. Once the ideas are captured on video, the child can transfer the story to paper while going back to rewatch the video as many times as needed in order to remember and include all the parts of the story.   Video recording tools allow us to meet the writer where he is and nudge him to become a more proficient writer and idea generator.

Using digital publishing tools like the Book Creator App or Little Bird Tales, we find new ways to celebrate active literacy in the classroom as students can draw, write, speak, listen, view and read all within a piece they create. The ease of which a child can add audio to their own book signals to the learner that each child has a story to tell and is the owner of that story. Embedded audio provides a window into the thinking and gives us a picture of what a child knows and is able to do, not merely what their fine motor abilities allow them to produce on paper.

Screenshot of Kristin's class interacting with author Seymour Simon
Screenshot of Kristin’s class interacting on Twitter with author Seymour Simon

Most importantly, technology expands our youngest learners audience as students publish their writing online. Enhanced eBooks, student blogs and classroom Twitter accounts invite primary age students to move beyond the writing wall in the classroom and into a writing world. Feedback from their families, blogging buddies and experts in the field inspires them to write even more. Students view themselves as important contributors to the global writing community and move beyond learning about writing to living life as a writer.

And of course, we provide balance and choice in all we do. We explicitly teach kids that tablets and laptops are tools that writer’s use, just like paper and pencils. We want kids to be intentional about how they choose the tool and think about how the tool enables them to revise, alter the layout and share the writing.

Moreover, these observations extend beyond the early grades. We can point to numerous examples where teachers in upper elementary, middle school, and high school are using digital reading and writing to support their students’ literacy development. As a point of reference for upper el and middle school, we would suggest that Nancie look at some really innovative educators who teach writing with technology such as Kevin Hodgson, Jeremy Hyler and Katharine Hale.

Finally, we suggest that the concerns Atwell suggests are less about her students’ abilities — as well as the capabilities of the devices — and more about her stance as a teacher. Certainly, we want students to feel positive about their reading and writing experiences: reaching fluency with the written word, providing opportunities to talk about books with one another, holding a well-worn novel or favorite pen in our hands. These are tactile, valuable experiences. As she notes, there are social reasons embedded in writing and reading that make these practices both pedagogically useful as they humanize our classrooms.

In this blog post, one of Kristin's students shares her "wonders" as a part of an inquiry project.
In this blog post, one of Kristin’s students shares her “wonders” as a part of an inquiry project.

However, if as teachers we discount the opportunities that crafting digital writing and engaging in digital reading can offer students, then we are doing our students more than a disservice. We are failing to prepare them for academic, workplace, and real life opportunities to engage in literacy practices. This is not about our personal preferences for or against technology. It is about the ways that we teach students to become literate.

We are grateful to Nancie as a thought leader and for her decades of work, as well as for her blog post in which she invites us all to reflect on the role of technology in our classrooms. However, we disagree with her stance that word processing is the only way to use technology in the writing workshop and encourage Nancie and others to rethink how we engage students as writers. We strongly believe the trend of iPads (or any tech) in elementary (or middle or high school classrooms) is, indeed, not a mistake, but a necessity.

Student Response on Twitter
Student Response on Twitter

Photos provided by Kristin Ziemke.

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Conversation with Carl Young’s Class

Digital Writing Workshop Book CoverLast night, I had a Skype conversation with students of my friend and colleague, Carl Young, who are taking a course on teaching composition and reading The Digital Writing Workshop. It was a robust conversation, and they had really smart questions.

I have, with permission, simply copied and pasted the text from their original wiki page with questions and pasted it here as a resource, without much editing. Hopefully their questions — and my answers — are useful for you, as well as the links.

As a culminating experience to our reading of The Digital Writing Workshop, please add your questions below for Troy.

Questions:

  • How do you reconcile the differences of technique in professional writing and the typical writing seen in digital channels? (i.e., professional vs. entertainment blogs, etc.) – Elisha
    • As with all kinds of writing, I think that this is a good opportunity to talk about audience, purpose, and situation. Clearly, a paparazzi report on a celebrity from TMZ has a different purpose than would an interview on NPR. So, I think that it is valuable to see what digital texts are produced by different individuals and organizations, then prompt students to think critically and carefully about what the writing is and why it was composed in the manner that it was.
    • In a recent chapter I co-authored, we distinguished some of this as a difference between “focused writing” and “writing-by-the-way.” If you are interested in hearing more about this, I can share the chapter with you.
  • What are some tips you have to teach students that good digital writing is similar to that of a well researched paper or report? – Elisha
    • All of us can agree that writing is a process, whether a traditional research paper or a web page or a digital story. So, helping students become aware of their processes — as well as strengths and weaknesses in these processes — is crucial.
    • A great thinking tool to share with them are the Habits of Mind from the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.
  • Which would you recommend for an upper elementary teacher to use for digital writing a wiki or blogs? – Amy
    • Honestly, it depends on what task you are hoping to have your students accomplish. I’ve seen teachers and kids do great work in both spaces, and we can talk about the advantages and disadvantages of both. For blogs, you might want to look at Kidblogs as a tool and for wikis I am a Wikispaces fan.
  • How can we use digital writing workshop in mixed classrooms where tiered or scaffolded instruction is necessitated without creating numerous lesson plans? What pedagogical value does it add? Lee
    • In a very real sense, writing workshop is all about differentiation. You are teaching mini-lessons that are responsive to the general needs of the class and then conferring with individuals or small groups of writers. Layering in the digital writing component opens up additional choices for students in terms of producing and publishing their work.
    • One way to do this work without going overboard would be to, quite literally, have students help you find resources based on the tool they are learning. There are, for instance, there are at least 15 tutorials for using Kidblog that show up in a search on YouTube. As you work with your students through various digital writing projects, I would ask them to help curate a list of high quality resources, and then organize one wiki page with links to all of them.
  • Does digital writing technology appeal to various individual’s natural or habitual pattern of acquiring and processing information, allowing students to augment knowledge and information, not just utilize digital writing, and how can we predetermine if it will fit a classes learning abilities? Lee
    • If I am understanding your question here, basically you are asking if we can figure out ways to engage students in authentic work and not simply using technology for technology’s sake, right? I would encourage you to watch Joel Malley’s video about how he teaches in a digital writing workshop. It is highly adaptive, yet he still has clear objectives for what he wants students to accomplish.
  • In your book you reference particular web sites that help support Digital Writing Workshops. Given how quickly technology changes, are there any new sites that you would recommend which were not available when the book was published? (Guen)
  • How do you manage a digital portfolio for your students? Since we do expect students to type and compose using computers now, is there a system that is best to track changes and keep all of a student’s writing in one place? (Shannon W)
    • Personally, I am a huge fan of Google Apps for Ed, and students can produce a portfolio using Google Sites. If you are looking for a tool to specifically track changes in writing, Google Docs has a “track changes” plugin now. In a broader sense, I would encourage you to think about how students could reflect on their writing by using screencasting to give you a virtual “tour” of their digital portfolios, reflecting on their growth.
  • How do you assess your students? Rubrics? Final product or during the process or both? (Shannon W)
    • If I had it my way, I would only assess process, and only in formative ways. But, I don’t, and grades have to be earned eventually. So, I do try to use lots of feedback while in process, very little at the end. I work with students to develop criteria for writing projects and, yes, those often turn into rubrics. Still, I do try to balance out the final product grade that I assign with a students’ own reflection and, sometimes, self-evaluation.
  • Do you advocate a balance between digital writing and traditional print writing, or do you feel they require the same process? (Jen H)
    • If anything, I am pragmatic. Sometimes, it is simply easier to have students pull out pen and paper to write me a quick note in class rather than have them turn to the computer and send me an email, if it means that they need to get logged in, boot up a web browser, etc. However, if they are already online, then sending an email or sharing a Google Doc could be easier. So, I generally lean digital, but I am pragmatic, too.
    • In terms of the debates about whether we should still teach handwriting/cursive, and the effects that has on the brain as compared to word processing, well… I will leave that for the neuroscientists to decide.
  • How much time should a teacher spend teaching the technology aspect of digital workshops? (Jen H)
    • Just like any other element of craft, I think that you teach the technology in small bursts, as mini-lessons. Or, again, look to the resources that exist online, especially screencast tutorials, and help students figure out their own tech support questions. While you have time with them in class, you want to talk with them about crafting their writing in effective ways, which may include some technical components, but you don’t want to get hung up on tech support.
  • Not all students have access to technology at home. Do you feel this puts them at a disadvantage in a writing workshop since others have time in class as well as at home to work on their writing? (Jen H)
    • Yes, of course, there are varying levels of privilege in our classrooms. Still, when looking at the most recent reports from Pew Internet, the vast majority of people are online, and I feel that the responsibility we have to teach digital literacy is significant. As I have heard many times before, it is terrible that we have a society where some kids don’t come to school with breakfast, or proper clothes, or other needs (like internet) met. But, we still have a responsibility to teach the masses, and being digitally literate is a huge part of that.
  • In our study of teaching writing, we have used Twitter as a tool for connecting with a community of writers and writing teachers. What other digital tools do you use to stay connected to the community of writing teachers? (Shannan K.)
    • So glad to know that you are using Twitter! I really enjoy using Flipboard as a tool for reading and sharing all kinds of news, especially related to education. I am pretty fond of a few key “hubs” for educators, too, including EdutopiaBAM Radio, and TeachThought. I try to stay on top of the ideas discussed in these spaces, and follow links to educators that they recommend. Also, watch for “events” that happen, whether a regular Twitter chat, a face-to-face EdCamp, or some online happening like the Slice of Life Challenge. Get involved with other educators online and they will reciprocate.
  • What criteria do you use to evaluate the effectiveness and usefulness of a digital tool as a teacher and as a writer? (Shannan K.)
    • The tool has to fit into my teaching/writing life in a seamless and useful manner. Seamless and useful doesn’t mean that there won’t be a learning curve, because there always is, no matter what the tool. The cut that the tool has to make for me is whether or not it will fit into my workflow and, ultimately, make my digital life more productive and useful. If it is just something gimmicky, then I generally steer clear. I can talk more about some of the tools that I use in both teaching and writing.

Other sites/tools that we discussed:


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