By Ted Thornton, M.A., Oak Meadow High School humanities teacher
A high school science teacher sits down to grade a pile of student lab reports. She quickly realizes her students don’t know the difference between academic writing and the emails and texts they send to one another every day, sometimes by the hundreds: no words are capitalized, there is no punctuation, and arcane abbreviations known only to the initiated are dropped here and there. “I’m reading a foreign language!” she says as she shoves the pile aside in exasperation.
It is a foreign language. Emails and texts are not written in the “language” of scholarly exposition. Yet, it is expository writing that remains (for now at least) one of the principal communications media of the professional worlds into which we send a significant percentage of our students; and it is good expository writing we teachers are still expected to teach.
While the technology behind emailing and texting has radically transformed the contexts of writing, the pedagogical goals of writing haven’t changed nearly as much. Nor, many of us feel, should they. The goal of high school writing courses remains to fully prepare students for college and professional writing tasks. Students should become well-grounded in the skills of expository writing including the abilities to analyze and synthesize, to carry out research, and to use research material to frame, support, and defend a thesis. They should also be able to discuss the often less transparent and more nuanced aspects of human experience, such as irony and paradox especially as these are expressed in literature and other art forms. The question facing teachers and parents today is, “How do we take a teen from texting to thesis writing in four years?”
The greatest challenges for today’s teen writers
High schoolers these days do a lot of writing in the forms of texting and emailing, especially when using the social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). In fact, they do much more writing than I ever did when I was growing up and going to school. The challenge for teachers today is to channel students’ interest in the writing they already do and put that interest and the skills they bring to us to work in crafting prose that is powerful, well-supported, incisive, and persuasive. This is hard for many teens because the emphasis in texts, Tweets, and emails is on speed, abbreviation, and emoting, which often runs counter to producing good writing that is thoughtful and refined.
Still, I think the skills students bring today put us a leg up on the generations of teachers that came before us. While in college I paid others to type my papers, students today are learning how to type at earlier and earlier ages. And, aided by word processing, they come with more experience in the skills of drafting and revising than previous generations of students. As a result, they are able to produce more material with greater efficiency. This makes it easier for teachers to help students shape what they produce into good writing with less drudgery than I recall when I was learning how to write. In the end, though, writing well is still hard work, and that’s a tough lesson for all of us to grasp when the message that society and the technologies keep sending is “Faster, easier, and (above all) painless.”
Writing is the heart of technology-based connections
The key to student success is to meet them where they are and then guide them forward. We understand that many of our students communicate with one another primarily in a digital world, and we can use that to our advantage. Oak Meadow, as one of the premier distance learning schools, has always been at the forefront of innovation in education, and we are once again poised to integrate best practices in teaching with the evolving needs of students in an ever-changing world of technology. Using the Google Apps platform, we are launching a program that will allow students in seventh grade and above to collaborate online with other students and faculty. Students can submit, brainstorm, and work through assignments with their teachers and with each other using the latest in online educational tools and services. Writing more, writing better, writing with purpose—Oak Meadow recognizes the value of opening new avenues of written communication.
An English professor at John Jay College, Andy Selsberg, has also found a way to adapt the teaching of writing to the experience of students today. His assignments include asking students to write texts, Tweets, and ads for eBay. He finds these short exercises especially useful in training students to write concisely (see “Teaching to the Text Message,” New York Times, March 19, 2011). Selsberg’s pedagogy is just one example of different ways we teachers may engage students in the process of writing and encourage them to become invested in learning to communicate more effectively through the written word.
When I design a new online resource or web-based application for linking students with other students, I know that writing will be at the heart of the students’ experiences and interactions. Especially for today’s digital native, writing is often the only form of communication used to establish and maintain connections, regardless of whether the motivation is social, academic, recreational, professional, or all of the above. Since computing became common, I’ve regularly required students to post online summaries and analyses of news stories and other material as well as journal entries about a piece of reading or some other experience. There is easy-to-use “blog” software out there that enables teachers and students to post and comment upon each other’s work. We are still in the early stages of learning how to apply and steer the technologies to their full advantage, but I’m hopeful about the prospects. I’ve used such software to link my students with teachers and kids in other schools and other countries, and have seen some very productive collaboration develop across many different subject areas. I believe Oak Meadow’s focus on distance learning is ideally suited to make the most of these technologies.
The benefits of “writing across the curriculum”
Students are writing, and they are writing about every subject imaginable. It is up to us as teachers to harness this enthusiasm for communicating with others and channel it into the production of clear and powerful prose that will pass muster in academic settings. “Writing across the curriculum” has always played a major part in the teaching of writing: students have been writing papers in other courses besides English all along. But, in an age when innovations in the delivery of curricula, such as “block” scheduling, mean that students in some cases no longer take year-long English courses, it is more important than ever for other disciplines to encourage solid writing skills.
Over the course of the last fifteen years I’ve seen growing interest on the part of teachers in every discipline in the teaching of good writing. At a school like Oak Meadow, where a student’s work may undergo frequent interruptions due to travel, training, and competition schedules, I think it becomes all the more important for teachers to exploit every teachable moment where writing is involved. Writing across the curriculum also gives students more opportunities to experience different types of writing and writing for different purposes. This more closely mirrors the way we write as adults, for many different reasons and in many different circumstances. Asking students to produce different types of writing and actively instructing them in the specific goals, conventions, and strategies of each type serves them well for all future endeavors.
Integrating writing across the disciplines
Students (and teachers) who are unused to the creative uses of writing sometimes benefit from a nudge in the right direction. Journal writing is one popular method for encouraging students to begin writing in other courses. I know some math teachers, for example, who ask their students to keep journals both as a means of recording problem solving strategies and as an aid in confronting and processing the fears that arise when face to face with difficult material. Science teachers are finding it pays to spend time teaching kids to write good lab reports and other scientific papers. One only has to pick up a professional journal in any discipline to see how awful the writing can be and to become motivated to improve the quality of writing across the board.
“Free writing” is another proven method. This is a drafting and brainstorming technique that may be applied in a wide variety of settings. The process is simple: students write as rapidly as possible (without any revision or second thoughts, even omitting punctuation) for a set amount of time on a prompt the teacher tosses out. All material generated is saved for possible revision and reshaping into coherent and mechanically sound pieces down the line. Teachers in the classroom often use free writing to interrupt a discussion, especially if it is flagging, or is becoming repetitive, or if it has taken a vehement turn that may profit from a cooler, more reflective “time out” period. Afterward, when you pick up the discussion again, the results are almost always better: thinking and speaking become clearer and more effective, and learning advances. The main point is that free writing can be applied anywhere and anytime a student may benefit from taking a break in an activity to conceptualize and write about whatever he or she is doing at the time: in the dance studio, the chemistry lab, wherever.
Neither our exasperated science teacher above nor her students should tolerate sub-standard academic writing. Being clear with our students about which types of writing are appropriate in which circumstances is the first step. From there, our imaginations are the limit.
Ted Thornton has studied and taught all around the world and is dedicated to finding ways for students around the globe to connect with and learn from one another. He joined the Oak Meadow faculty in October, 2011, and looks forward to sharing with students the new high school social studies courses he is busy creating.'