Writing Pushback…

Reading through the comments left on my blog to date, I came across an interesting set of thoughts left by Sue Walters–a seventh grade Language Arts Teacher from Pennsylvania–on my Exam Meritocracy post. Describing the damage done to the writing process by standardized writing exams that rush students through contrived prompts, Sue writes: 

After practicing this writing “process” throughout the school year, sometime in the spring we hand our students a test created by the Department of Education. We tell them it will assess their writing ability. We equip them with a prompt, a piece of paper, a pencil, and sometimes a peppermint (in hopes of increasing their thinking power).  Spell checkers, thesauruses, and dictionaries, tools we taught them diligently to use, are strictly forbidden. Students are given 40 minutes to write their best response. Then we allow them to begin writing using a method that completely disregards the process they have learned and deprives them of the proper tools and the necessary time to produce a coherent piece.

Anyone who has ever taught English/Language Arts in a middle or high school understands exactly what Sue is talking about, right? I’ve often wondered why I bother to spend weeks crafting papers with students when they’ll only be assessed in mere minutes. Perhaps the biggest challenge for test writers is selecting a prompt that resonates with all students. Inevitably after I pass out our state’s writing exam, hands go up and bewildered looks cross student faces as they try to tackle topics with which they have had little first-hand experience.

But something else in Sue’s comment got me thinking about the changing nature of communication in today’s increasingly digital world. Describing the writing that she often sees in her classroom, Sue wrote:

Writing correctly and writing well are skills rapidly approaching extinction. Today’s students come to our classrooms writing in a format my colleagues have termed “I. M. Bonics,” a form of e-mail shorthand that they have been using since they were old enough to turn on the computer. It throws all rules of grammar out the window. They no longer spell words out completely. Instead they use symbols such as “2” for to, two, or too. They capitalize nothing.

While restoring the English language to a state that past generations can interpret, we also teach structure, detail, clarity, and word choice, i.e., the qualities that cause us to read a piece of writing to the end and bring us back for more.

Do you think that the definition of "writing correctly" is changing before our eyes? Could writing play a smaller role in the lives of future generations as technology makes video a more and more accessible—and influential—form of media and communication? Do we already see that transition playing out in the exploding growth of web services like You Tube and Jump Cut

Even things as important as political discourse is changing. Need proof? Consider that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama announced their candidacy for President with streaming videos posted online. 

Has that ever happened before? 

Should we begin emphasizing new literacies in our classrooms that will prepare children for the world that they are going to inherit rather than the world we are most comfortable with?

Interesting questions, huh?

Push my thinking….leave a comment.

2 comments

  1. Education and Class

    R Working Class Kids doingIM?

    Im moving between two deeply engaging but seemingly deeply disparate conversations these days.
    I turn to engage in the first of these conversations, and I hear about poor and working class kids attending much bleaker schools than middle class ki…

  2. Charles

    The key to understanding this issue is communication because writing and other media are simply tools for communication. Are these new tools better in some way and if so, better for what? Some things are best communicated in one way, some in another. The advantage of writing is that it is directly connected to our abilities to understand language, and thus can be as abstract or concrete, as plain or a subtle, as those abilities. It also has the advantage of sitting still while we examine it over and over easily. The problem with visual media is that they are usually used to relay concrete images, whereas words and other such symbols (such as mathematical equations) express the abstract and general much more effectively. To express an abstraction in a video piece usually requires that someone say it, and if they start explaining it for very long, it would be much better written than said because our attention to oral speech wanders and, again, we don’t usually rewind over and over as easily as we glance back over a paragraph repeatedly until we unpack its meaning. On the other hand, for showing how to do something, visual media are often a much better choice. That kids don’t write well is not new–they don’t learn to do that unless they are taught and have practice. They are not getting the practice in the culture at large, never have, and never will. That’s why schools exist, to teach things that you won’t learn on your own outside of school. Reading and writing well are two of the most important skills that most people don’t learn outside of school. Writing instant messages and posting video clips from a cell phone are two things that most kids can easily learn to do outside of school and so schools don’t need to teach them.