I have to admit, writing has always been one of my least favourite subjects areas to teach. I was usually daunted by the range of abilities and meeting the vast needs of my students, the big piles of marking and the students’ general apathy towards writing.
I have tried to make the most of it. I created writing assignments that seemed interesting, taught and supported their expository writing skills, and connected their reading to their writing. I realise now that I was really teaching the writing, not the writer. No wonder we were all bored.
Both Atwell (1989) and Hicks (2009) have opened up my view of writing instruction, helped me understand my students’ role as writers and have ignited a passion to teach writing. If I were to summarize what I have learned I could easily use Hicks’ point that we need to teach the writer, then the writing, then the technology (p.8).
Until now, I have never put some much consideration into who my students are as writers by integrating their out of school writing interests (both topic and genre) into the classroom. This has been a major shift. Inspired by Atwell’s stress of choice I have moved beyond my comfort zone of having all students working on the same style of writing on the same topic. While I haven’t moved to her model of a fully individualized writing workshop, my students are now composing for an audience of their choice, taking their own directions and answering their own questions within a theme and selecting the media and genre which best conveys their message. The inherent differentiation in this approach has not only increased my students’ interests in writing, but is also empowering some of my most reluctant writers. For them choice equals safety.
With students working on different styles at a given time, teaching the writing has presented some new challenges. I find that I am often battling the pressure that they must all learn a certain form or struggling to meet so many particular needs in different genres at one time. Using Atwell’s mini lesson approach has alleviated some of this stress. Instead of addressing forms of writing I am now providing modeling on aspects of writing which they can all use at any given time or within any genre. For example, in one mini lesson we looked at using relevant examples to appeal to an audience. After the lesson I asked the students to review their writing and include a relevant example to help their reader visualize or connect. They all got right down to work and they all had a manageable tool to revise their writing.
Upon reviewing In the Middle I found another idea that I will introduce next term. Atwell uses a hanging file system which contains samples of writing organized by genre (p.99). I have often used mentor texts when teaching a certain style of writing and believe in their value. However, having this system in place will alleviate some of my concerns of meeting so many needs at once as my students (and I if in a conference) can pull samples as they need. I am also considering how we can use social book marking tools or RSS feeds as discussed in chapter 2 of The Digital Writing Workshop to gather digital examples of mentor texts.
The most exciting changes for me this year have been the integration of more technology and my expanded view of digital literacy. Forever a sceptic, I typically need significant proof to enact change in my class. In our field we are constantly bombarded with new ideas, strategies and methods. This can be overwhelming and often comes with the pressure to jump on the bandwagon. When I am considering a change in practice or perspective I ask myself: is this valid? is this feasible? is this meaningful for my students? Hicks’ case for the importance of digital literacy led me to answer yes to all of these questions. It is no longer a question of should we include technology; essentially all writing our students are doing is influenced or informed by digital tools (p. 10). And, as Hicks states, “our pedagogy needs to acknowledge this shift and adopt a perspective that honours and integrates digital writing into our classrooms” (p. 11).
While I have learned more about the writer, the writing and the technology through Hicks and Atwell, they have also helped me understand how to marry the old with the new. I used to question if we were being asked to throw out what we knew of writing instruction to make way for 21st Century literacy. Hicks assured me that this isn’t the case, “New literacies, Multiliteracies. Digital literacies. Digital writing. It all continues to evolve rapidly, and as writing teachers we need to hold on to some solid ground, some practices that we know work when it comes to teaching writing” (p. 10).
This is an important message I think all teachers need to understand as it lightens some of the uncertainty I often hear surrounding writing in the 21st century.
Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: Reading, writing and learning with adolescents (2nd ed.). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton Cook Publishers.
Hicks, T. (2009). The digital writing workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.