Monday, February 4, 2013

Balancing 21st Century Writing with Tradition

This afternoon we had a half day professional development program.  The district allotted the time in the Elementary Schools for the grade level teachers from all schools to get together and work on creating and preparing for common benchmark assessments.  The grade level with which I worked already finished creating its benchmark assessment in reading for the second marking period.  Over the course of the next week the teachers will be giving the assessment to the students.  So, today we spent some of our time calibrating our holistic scoring practices by reading several passages and real student open-ended responses and scoring them using the NJ Open Ended Response Rubric.  Overall, the group did a wonderful job and was fairly consistent in their scoring of the responses.

While this was a successful exercise and I believe it prepared the teachers for the work of the next week and a half, it was one particular discussion that caused my mind to race for the rest of the afternoon.  One of the teachers was having a difficult time with the responses because the grammar, punctuation, and overall writing mechanics were poor, yet these responses did not receive the lowest scores.  How could this be?

Well, on a basic level it is fairly simple.  These open ended responses are designed to gauge reading and comprehension ability, not writing ability.  There is a writing portion of the test that takes care of that.  So we looked at the rubric and really studied what each of the four points asked and were able to come to agreement on the higher scores even though the writing did not reflect strength in traditional composition techniques.

The reason I wrote everything above was to give background for this part of the post.

Some teachers were lamenting the demise of the rules of writing and saddened by the comment that these responses, which were drawn from an online bank of past test questions and response, made on the state of traditional writing.  As I saw the pain in one particular teacher's face and felt for her (by the way, she is a wonderful teacher and her students are well prepared), I couldn't help but feel a bit differently.

In the interest of full disclosure I must say that I was a high school English teacher and I taught the 5 paragraph essay religiously to my students. I understand the mechanics of writing; however, I feel that sometimes we hold on to the past at the expense of the future.  Let me explain what I mean.

1. 5 Paragraph Essays - When was the last time you wrote one?  I am not saying that we shouldn't all learn to write them, but realistically we learn to write them in elementary school so that we can write them in middle school so that we can write them in high school so that we can write them in college so that we can write them.... where?  Not really anywhere.  I am sure all of the professional essayists out there are quite angry with me right now and I know that learning to write those essays helps me in all of the writing that I do now, but I wonder if I needed to learn that form of writing or if some other form would serve me just as well.

2. Mechanics, Punctuation, etc.- All of these things are important to learn.  Writing generally makes little sense if one does not have a grasp of these concepts; however, sometimes we focus on these things so much that we do so at the expense of thinking and creativity.  Writing is not proper form.  Writing is thinking.  I have brilliant students in my school who will likely be innovators of the future that will change the world; however, if we hold back their creativity because they don't conform to our rules of writing we may never get to see that.

3. Indenting- Another focus of the discussion was the loss of indented paragraphs.  Most of the responses that we were scoring (as well as several typewritten examples we found in a book) were written in block paragraphs with no indentations.  This was troublesome to some teachers.  I made the comment that this particular convention of writing is not as important in many areas of modern writing.  Take the blog for example.  If you surf through many blogs you will find that there are many who indent and many who don't.  The key in blogging is relating to your audience, not necessarily traditional form. (I hope that I am still relating to you.)  By the way, in 2013 blog writing is a more likely activity of the average person than most forms of writing that would require a 5 paragraph essay.

4. Tradition- Now here is the real controversial point.  I would lay odds that moving forward our current students will interact with their writing in an increasingly dynamic fashion rather than a static traditional fashion.  What I mean is that  we are all becoming increasingly comfortable and fluent in the dynamics of electronic reading.  As you read through this post there are hyperlinks to various terms.  These links will take the reader to a different location to gain more information about various topics.  Additionally, there are graphics included in the blog to bring certain concepts to life.  In many electronic writing pieces there are also links to videos that illustrate points in the writing.  What I am saying is that writing has become dynamic and interactive rather than static.  Who knows, maybe even writing in 140 characters or less is an art form to be appreciated by writing teachers?

5. Shakespeare- The works of Shakespeare are considered classics.  I taught his plays and he is one of my favorite writers.  Based upon Shakespeare's understanding that writing was a medium to bring ideas to life whether on the page or on the stage, I have to believe that if he had the tools of the 21st Century at his disposal, he would have exploited those tools.  Hey, not everyone liked Shakespeare's writing as is evident when Robert Greene wrote in Greene's Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, 

William Shakespeare
Cover of William Shakespeare
"There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country."

In the passage Greene is complaining of a young upstart Shakespeare who is an actor that thinks he can write as well as the educated writers of the time.  It sounds like Greene was a bit of a traditionalist and Shakespeare was shaking the foundations of his world. Hmmm...

6. The DictionarySo why does the dictionary keep getting bigger every year?  As time marches on new words are introduced.  We add words to our collective lexicon when they become ubiquitous in our culture. Words like "blog" or "crunk".  If you want to see some that are being considered check out here.  Once again, if we stuck with tradition there would be no progress; we wouldn't be able to just "Google" something, we'd have to "find something by searching with an electronic search thingy."

I guess the point of this post is that I think that we have to remember that some of the greatest developments in language come from accepting the changes that the future brings.  We must defend the rules of writing to a point, but not to the point that we hamper the creativity of thought.  Let me be clear, I know the tasks for which we must prepare our students and I am committed to doing so; however, I would rather see a child who can think, create, problem solve, infer and demonstrate it through a visual representation than one who can't but can write a nice paragraph.  Is that crazy?
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