Using PLCs to support student writers in the digital age

Here is a video scribe that a friend and I created that demonstrates the importance of using professional learning communities to support writing in the digital age.


We are Writers. We are Collaborators.

“New digital tools, internet technology, it’s the next leap, maybe a quantum leap, maybe an evolutionary leap, in the technology that we’ve created to communicate and to work together.”
Elyse Eidman-Aadahl
How has the act of writing changed? What skills should we developing with our students? What are we now asking of them as composers, communicators and creators of information?
What we do know is that they are no longer passive recipients of information, nor are they isolated writers. Our students can see themselves as writers and co-constructors of information in platforms that move far beyond pencil and paper within the four walls of a classroom. 

In this video, Elyse Eidman-AAdahl of the NWP invites us to consider the changing opportunities our students have as communicators and reminds teachers that the power of clear, purposeful writing is more important now than ever. 

The Writer, The Writing and The Technology

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.

Linking our Learning – Reflections of a Teacher Composer

When first absorbing the blogging assignment where we were to become composers I thought to myself – isn’t that what we are doing all the time – writing? Little did I know that I would be embarking on a journey of humility, exploration, deep reflection and empowerment.

While tentative at first, our early readings helped me understand the method behind our instructor’s madness. Leigh & Cramer’s (2011) plea to teachers struck me, “Young writers look to us for opportunities to write their way into this world. Write with them,” (p. 88). Around the same time I was reading the opening chapters of Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle (1989) where she also expresses the importance of writing with our students. While I was beginning to understand its value, particularly in transforming our writing instruction, I was still left with a fear of putting myself out on the line as a writer in a public forum for my colleagues. I felt like the teachers in Teresa Grainger’s (2005) study with, “[a] fear of failure and possible exposure” (p.78). Furthermore, I could relate as, “they still found it difficult to share their personal writing,” (p. 78) despite having a collegial and supportive relationship with their peers. I soon realized the irony of my fear. I ask my students to do this daily – to write, to share, to post to a bulletin board. Of course some (or many) of them share the feeling of fear and exposure that I was grappling with. This challenge also made me consider the learning environment of my classroom. While typically positive and supportive, I realized that I needed to put additional thought into structuring lessons, assessment and classroom communication to create an especially safe space to share our writing.

My initial piece of writing was a free verse poem about the best part of me. This was a writing assignment my students were about to begin and I knew it would come with some challenges and vulnerabilities as it isn’t easy for an adolescent to write about their own physical features in a positive light. I took the advice of Atwell, Leigh and Cramer and exposed myself as a writer to my students. From blank paper to finished product they watched as I planned, crafted, revised, made word choices and used resources to create my poem. Not only did I feel vulnerable writing about myself I was quite nervous (although well hidden) to write in front of a crowd. However, when it came time to conference I found, as Atwell did, that my students valued my advice and feedback as they viewed me as a writer and I felt better equipped offering support having been in their shoes. As Atwell states, “I can only become their mentor…because I know writing from the inside, and I’ve shown them I do” (p. 26).

My reliance on the writing process became very apparent to me throughout my blogging experience. Partly due to the public venue, partly due to personal circumstance and partly due to my own writing style I found that time was essential. Thompson(2013) shares that, “the key to progress in writing lies in the importance of conferencing, allowing time to write and the importance of the writer finding a voice” (p.250). For my voice, which was imprinted in my writing,(p. 250) to emerge I need time to ruminate, read, explore, start over or walk away. I found this with most of my entries, but especially with my two voice poem and my letter to my granny. When our students have, “sufficient time to consider and reconsider what they’ve written, they’re more likely to achieve the clarity, logic, voice, conventionality, and grace of good writing” (Atwell, p. 91). Like them, time was very important to me, but I often felt under the gun as we usually are as students with deadlines. At times I felt my writing suffered, and sympathized with my students who feel the pressure to hand in a piece of work before they think it’s finished.

Time played a different role in my digital writing experience however. I appreciated that time allowed for revisiting, revising and reviewing my online compositions. I liked that I could go back to my blog, Learnist board, or Twitter feed and add information, as I did when I finally figured out how to use html text and embed my Learnist board on a blog post. This made me realize the impact of continually being able to construct, re-construct and represent information will have on our students. They will now be able to demonstrate their understanding over a longer period, edit and revise to include or remove ideas and blend new media as they continue to explore. While faced with some similar struggles as the pre-service teachers in Set in Stone or Set in Motion? (Hundley & Holbrook, 2013) such as finding images to convey a message, I generally found creating multimodal blog posts and web tools engaging and fun. As Jason Ohler (2009)shares, “Being literate also means being able to integrate emerging new media forms into a single narrative or ‘media collage’ such as a Web page, blog or digital story” (p. 9). Through my adventures embedding, blogging, tweeting, and online collaborating through social bookmarking I have felt like an active creator of online information and media. This experience has allowed me to develop a “digital insider perspective” (Roach & Beck, 2012 p. 244) which I can bring to my own class to support my students. And, like the teachers in Susi Bostock’s (2012)research, I found that I , “came to appreciate that these digital literacies were, in fact, a new and important language, a language that deserves recognition in the classroom curriculum as a significant form of communication” (p. 229).

Roach & Beck ask, “have we connected our outside school knowledge to our inside school pedagogy?” (p. 244). After this blogging experience I feel comfortable answering yes.

*Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: Reading, writing and learning with adolescents (2nd ed.). Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton Cook Publishers.

Bostock, S. (2012). Thirdspace: A perspective on professional development. Language Arts, 89(4). 222-231.

Grainger, T. (2005). Teachers as writers: Learning together. English in Education 39(1)

*Hundley, M., Holbrook, M. (2013). Set in stone or set in motion? Multimodal and digital writing with preservice English teachers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(6) 500-509.

*Leigh, R., & Cramer, R. (2011). Two voice poem: A conversation with writers on writing. English Journal,100(5) 82-89.

Ohler, J. (2009). Orchestrating the media collage. Educational Leadership. 66(6) 8-13.

Roach, A. & Beck, J., (2012). Before Coffee, Facebook: New literacy learning for 21st century teachers. Language Arts, 89(4) 244-255.

*Thompson, I. (2013). The mediation of Learning in the zone of proximal development through co-constructed writing activity. Research in the Teaching of English, 47(3) 247 – 276.