15 February 2015

Students Should Create, Compose & Connect Digitally

In the past several weeks I have had the great fortune of working with dozens of teachers, both current teachers and pre-service teachers. Our conversations have revolved around digital literacy and the need to have our students not just consuming media but creating, composing, and connecting. I've heard a wide-range of enthusiasm for the possibilities, a genuine concern regarding access issues, and uninformed complaints about why it's impossible.

It just so happens that my book a week took me to Troy Hicks and Jeremy Hyler's book Create Compose Connect: Researching, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools. What I enjoyed most about this book was the journey described throughout. Starting with Hyler's admission to previously being part of the "cell phone brigade," a focus on being intentional and purposeful emerged as a common thread.

An effective tool for making decisions about writing technology in the classroom is what Hicks calls a MAPS heuristic. Throughout the text, Hyler uses this tool to consider the various digital writing tasks his students create.
Visit the Wiki book accompaniment for more fabulous resources

The book includes practical advice, strategies, and tools as well as connections to the Common Core State Standards with each chapter providing a different focus. My personal favorite was chapter 4 titled Reading Our World, Writing Our Future. The mere title intrigued me, and those of you who know how much I enjoy nonfiction won't be surprised to learn this particular chapter was focused on reading and writing informational texts. Hyler wants "students to understand that informational texts can function in different ways, for different audiences and purposes (61)."

Hyler upgraded the ever popular Article of the Week assignment from Kelly Gallagher to be completed digitally, allowing for more interactivity with the article and collaborative discussion. The chapter also explores students creating book trailers and comic strips with digital tools such as YouTube, Animoto, and WeVideo. Finally, Hyler discusses his thoughts on reading logs, again emphasizing the importance of purpose and intentionality. He wants homework to be meaningful and reading to be enjoyable outside of class, not homework to be dreaded.

Indeed, reading and writing should not be dreaded but rather embraced, and when we move beyond the same five paragraph essay written with pencil on paper in every subject with little meaning and little writing about reading, we open the doors for our students to understand creative processes and writing for the future. In the opening paragraph of a 2011 Education Week article by Liana Heitin, the author begins with statements about how writing has shifted in recent years and then asks why most schools still rely on paper and pencil methods. She quotes Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the director of national programs and site development for the National Writing Project, saying "school are in catch-up mode."

I contend that in most schools we can move beyond catch-up mode with careful and thoughtful planning and with the use of devices available to teachers and students. Clearly, this takes administrators who support Bring Your Own Device options and districts who support students using wi-fi bandwidth (Two of the recent concerns I've heard from practicing teachers). Teachers who have shared their principal's issues with digital writing claim they are required to write five paragraph essays with paper and pencils because it will "help improve scores on standardized writing assessments."

Heitin's article as well as Hicks and Hyler's book address this concern arguing that technology can enhance writing and learning without sacrificing the fundamentals. Further, Heitin reduces the complaint about test preparation by reminding us "digital writing and standardized test preparation are not at odds. Both require that students know the fundamentals. Digital writing, by showing students how writing can be used, often enhances the drive to learn the basics."

In fact, a desire for students to learn and be engaged drove Jeremy Hyler past the point of his place with the "cell phone brigade" and onto a journey to determine exactly what caused his students to be distracted and disengaged. "I had to figure out how to connect with them, make my lessons more meaningful, and engage them in the types of literacy practices that they were using outside of school (1)." He claims this isn't just about the digital devices but about engaging students in meaningful learning that keeps students coming to school and learning what they need to know for success in life. And, isn't that exactly why most of us got into careers in education in the first place?