Silent Enemy - Reflection on Digital MakeOver for Writing Lessons


Note: This is the one of several chapter reflections on the excellent book written by Dr. Liz Stephens and Kerry Ballast on "Using Technology to Improve Adolescent Writing: Digital Make-Overs for Writing Lessons." Read all contributions in this series.




"Like any other social structure, School needs to be accepted by its participants. It will not survive very long beyond the time when children can no longer be persuaded to accord it a degree of legitimation."
Source: Seymour Papert (1993) as cited in Stephens and Ballast's "Using Technology to Improve Adolescent Writing: Digital MakeOvers for Writing Lessons."

Over the last few weeks, a stack of books has accummulated next to my desk. All invariably are about writing and the teaching of writing and how it's changed over the last few years as a result of technology. Yet, as wonderful as they all have been, I have to admit at how readable I'm finding Dr. Liz Stephens and Kerry Ballast's "Using Technology to Improve Adolescent Writing." The title of the book is poor, given that technology currently is how many teens ARE writing these days. That the writing falls into the category of what--my apologies for my informality, but it's my blog (smile)--Liz and Kerry call "non-school" writing is...well...unfortunate for them. The real title is "Digital MakeOvers for Writing Lessons." The truth is, perhaps, that it is educators who need the makeover, albeit this is a quiet cry for change, from two friends close to those who need to change.

Over the next few weeks, but I hope in less time, I'll be featuring take-aways from their book. Rather than make a laundry list of take-aways, I've decided on the slower approach because it is truly a book worth savoring since it calls into question what we know about THE WRITING PROCESS.

Chapter 1 of the book shares important ideas that all educators need to be aware of. I'll skip over those for now because, for edubloggers, we already are familiar with the silent enemy encamped outside the walls of schools, broadcasting/narrowcasting to our children and those unafraid to embrace technology for communication, collaboration and social networking.

Liz and Kerry share that the purpose of their book is to "recognize how secondary school students are proficient with technology and to think of ways to motivate them using digital tools that they use outside of school." They go on to point out some important ideas, including the following:

* More than 50% of teens enjoy the act of exchanging email, instant messages, texts, and social network posts, while only 17% said they enjoy writing at school.
* Teens are most motivated to write when they can select topics that are relevant to their lives and intersts and when they are challenged and supported by engaged adults.
* Secondary school students are increasingly frustrated with campus rules that limit access and restrict, if not prohibit, use of the very tools and devices that they use "constantly outside of school...in all aspects of their lives." To eliminate the discontent, teens would like to use personal laptops and mobile learning devices, take online classes and have access to technology tools at school."

On reflecting on these 3 points, one has to ask, "So what if kids are engaged? So what if they are frustrated? Isn't that a part of life? Who cares if they don't see school as relevant? As adults, they will have to do many things that are irrelevant, frustrating in spite of their personal feelings." It was at that point I was reminded of a recent post by John Spencer at Teaching Unmasked Blog.

John points out that what makes a class relevant includes these points:

  • It's relevant if it's personal
  • It's relevant if it's practical
  • It's relevant if it's philosophical
  • It's relevant if it relates to now but gives a glimpse of the future
  • It's relevant if it connects to student interests
  • It's relevant if it's challenging
  • It's relevant if it connects to a story

Relevance is important because if, as Seymour Papert points out, students decide not to play along, what real power will school administrators, teachers have to enforce it? Liz and Kerry point out that teens are most motivated to write when they select topics that are relevant to their lives...isn't that true of anyone?
In my own experience, trying to write about arcane subject matter that is irrelevant to my own interests means I just won't do it...or I'll do it poorly.

Another part of Liz and Kerry's work that appealed to me was the "critical stance" they represented, citing Cummings, Brown and Sayers 2007 work. In that work, it's pointed out that there is "a pedagogical divide" that "separates those students who receive information through top-down dissemination models of teaching from those students who engage in construction information through meaningful inquiry." They also point out that "the cognitive divide describes how some use technology to drill and some use it for dialogue and discovery."

Wow, I love it.

What powerful observation that all technology directors and school district superintendents need to take a long look at before investing in an integrated learning system or technology that perpetuates the way teachers do things now (e.g. Interactive Whiteboards might be such, as Bill Ferriter has pointed out in the recent past).

Such a perspective is reminiscent of Patrick Finn's "Literacy with an Attitude" book in which he makes the following point:

First, there is empowering education, which leads to powerful literacy, the kind of literacy that leads to positions of power and authority. Second, there is domesticating education, which leads to functional literacy, literacy that makes a person productive and dependable, not troublesome.

Empowering education certainly is not the term I would use to describe the pedagogical divide students face. . .but domesticating education is! I am also reminded of Gwen Solomon's quote:

Those who cannot claim computers as their own tool for exploring the world never grasp the power of technology... They are controlled by technology as adults--just [they were]...controlled [by] them as students.
Source: Toward Digital Equity: Bridging the Divide in Education Editors: Gwen Solomon, Nancy J. Allen, and Paul Resta

This "current policy marginalizes students into instructionally constricted learning environments because they are viewed as having deficits that can be remediated with direct instruction." Cummings et al go on to say:

By limiting low-income and culturally diverse students to learning activities that use technology for remedial purposes--drill-n-practice--educators are marooning students.

That said, this is a sad but true reality that exists in schools today. Whether we are discussing empowering education vs domesticating education, technology as a tool for exploring the world or technology as the controlling tool of some elite group (I'm tempted to grumble rich people who have fled public schools and enrolled their children in rich private/charter schools..."white flight" that I witnessed first hand in East Texas schools as immigrants from the local chicken plant found their way into public schools). That it endures what seems a lifetime to me later, well, that's an indictment of something, isn't it?

For me, the heart of the chapter is the struggle our children face in becoming literate, and the interplay between technology and literacy. To cement their point, they cite Wes Fryer's "Moving at the Speed of Creativity" blog (I bet Wes doesn't know!!):

Literacy can be more accurately measured than ever before by not only the texts that are consumed by learners, but rather by the authentic knowledge products they create (in a read/write context) as a result of their exposure to those ideas (p.18-19).

One of the reflections that is fighting its way to the surface of my awareness is that writing a la Atwell and Calkins IS empowering education...but as a result of the changing media and technology, it is insufficent. It threatens to be as domesticating to teach our children how to write with pencil and paper as it once was to just assign them a theme, "What I learned over Summer Vacation." Or, perhaps worse, to write within the context of a grammar lesson, rather than learn grammar in the context of writing a piece over which young authors have ownership and the time to develop.

Against this backdrop of students struggling to seize their power as writers in a connected world where technology access is ubiquitous except in schools where it is prohibited/banned, the authors make this point that resonates with me as a writer:

How each mind approaches the process of composing ideas and communicating them is highly individual, particularly, how technology complicates that endeavor forces us to rethink and question traditional ways of teaching the messy nature of "the process."

It is a sobering thought to consider that some may find technology too much of a complication and abandon their charge, turning a blind eye to the "enemy outside the gates" that, in truth, holds the means to transformation and salvation in its hands.



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