My first day of class had some unusual moments. For example, when I arrived in my classroom, it had apparently been having a party over the weekend. There were stacks of cardboard, folders, CD players and CDs, and enormous canvases strewn hither and yon. The tables had gouges in their tops and splodges of paint all over them, and were pushed together into the center. Chairs were huddled in corners.
I spent some time moving the furniture back into an ordinary arrangement: tables in neat rows facing the board, with three chairs at each table. I met my new students, and we began class — and they had to move their chairs around for group work repeatedly, and I was moving all over the room, and they were drawing as well as writing.
I had to wonder why I had bothered to make the classroom look traditional, just so we could hold an untraditional class there.
There’s always a little bit of a disconnect for me with this class. I’m a writer; that’s my full time job, and I teach writing part time. So I spend my days writing at a computer, using HTML and CMS and best practices for the web, collaborating with people on other continents and competing in the global marketplace. Then I go to a classroom full of kids who are all completely hooked up, who will probably write at computers most of the time and who will doubtless be competing for jobs in the global marketplace — and I have them write five paragraph essays on paper.
In teacher’s meetings, we talk a lot about 21st century skills, but I always feel as though I’m doing something sort of illicit when I sneak in skills that I know — since I work in the 21st century — they will need. The other teachers talk a bit about technology in the classroom, but when one makes a spontaneous, impassioned speech about the need to avoid turning our writing classes into technology classes, there’s a lot of murmured agreement.
What exactly do these teachers think we’re doing? People who write professionally, and most people who write for pleasure, use computers to do it. Unless we’re teaching the kids C+, it’s hard to see how teaching them to write with their computers is out of place in writing class.
But the new textbook for my writing class has chapters on “analyzing a visual text,” “designing documents,” and “working together as a team.” There are assignments that recognize that modern students — and that’s what we have in our classrooms — are just as likely to get information from YouTube and infographics as from books. It is, in fact, a media literacy book.
All sources of information on academic subjects, in all the available media, will still have the essential things we need to teach in writing classes, from third grade up:
- a clear main point
- organization that leads the reader (or viewer) through the content
- strong support for all the claims made
- beautiful, informative, amusing, or otherwise engaging words and images
- few errors or technical problems
As a web content writer, I spend my days taking poor websites and making them into documents that fit those criteria — or writing more documents like that for good websites. As a writing teacher, I spend my time taking poor essays and helping students do the same — or good essays and helping students make them even better.
I’m told that the ancient Greek educators worried that writing would be bad for students; they would not, their august teachers worried, be able to remember things or to craft good oral pieces any more once they used the crutch of writing. Some of us are taking the same attitude about technology.
Let’s get over that.