The Age of Composition

Miranda Clemson’s left a comment on a recent post of mine and included a link to an eSchool News Article:

NCTE defines writing for the 21st Century

Right away I was interested in the article. Our school has just adopted and is implementing the Lucy Calkin’s Reading and Writing Program. I was interested to learn what the National Council of Teachers of English would have to say about 21st Century writing. I liked the direction of the article, and so on the last page I decided to download the White Paper by Kathleen Blake Yancey titled: Writing in the 21st Century.I’ve been interested in finding out why our school decided to adopt the Lucy Calkin’s method of teaching reading and writing and after reading the paper by Yancey, I understand why. When the future is unknown, we tend to look backwards; looking backwards to the 70s and 80s when writing became a process.

You all know the process of writing right? We believed writing to be a process one goes through and not a subject one studies.

Yancey puts it this way:

…the promise of composing process as developing theory and classroom practice was truncated by several factors, among them two that are related: (1) the formalization of the process itself, into a narrow model suitable for (2) tests designed by a testing industry that too often substitutes a test of grammar for a test of writing and that supports writing, when it does, as an activity permitted in designated time chunks only, typically no more than 35-minute chunks.

I got thinking about this and my own education. Reflecting on it, I feel that too often a test of grammar was substituted for a test of writing (not to say my grammar is perfect by any means).

Yancey goes on to say that just about the time this process of writing is making it’s mark on education and education starts to really adopt it, along comes a little thing called the personal computer. Which over the course of the next 20 years will revolutionize the way we write, communicate and who we expect to be able to write to and for.

My favorite quote from the article says it best:

Perhaps most important, seen historically this 21st century writing marks the beginning of a new era in literacy, a period we might call the Age of Composition, a period where composers become composers not through direct and formal instruction alone (if at all), but rather through what we might call an extracurricular social co-apprenticeship.

That paragraph gives me chills every time I read it. An age of composition where composers learn to write, think, and share through co-apprenticeships made possible by connecting to networks of people in almost any field in any subject.

In much of this new composing, we are writing to share, yes; to encourage dialogue, perhaps; but mostly, I think, to participate.

Absolutely! I am not a writer. I hate writing, have never been good at it, barely passed any of my writing courses in school and in fact had to take a 90s level writing course before being admitted to college because I scored so poorly on the entrance test for community college….which by the way was truly a grammar test, not a writing test. I am not a writer….a blogger, yes. I blog to share my thoughts, to get feedback on what I’m thinking, and to participate in the conversation of learning with others. Is there a right or wrong way to blog? Could you learn about writing through this means? I’ve learned more about English, grammar, wording, etc in the past four years of blogging than I ever did in 20 years of schooling (through MS degree). The only question I have left is, why?

These students know how to compose, and they know how to organize, and they know audience. How can we build on all that knowledge? How can we help them connect it to larger issues?

Those are the questions we should be asking as we build a new writing curriculum in our schools. If students understand how to organize and know audience, why do we expect them to be motivated to turn in a paper that will only be read by one person, and be looked at through a process lens and a grammar lens of writing mechanics and not about the actual writing itself?

That’s what I truly love about this age of composition, that once you understand that it’s about the ideas and conveying a message, the mechanics come second. I have a learning disability. I know I miss spell words all the time in my blog posts. I know I tend to have long run on sentences, yet not once has anyone left a comment or made me feel less of a person because of it. Instead what people care about (it seems to me) is the content….the idea….the message.

That doesn’t mean that the mechanics of writing do not matter. My mechanics, my vocabulary have greatly improved over the past four years and I have over 600 posts to prove it! What we need to wrap our heads around is that we can learn mechanics through compositions of work. Whether these be short stories, long stories, fiction or non-fiction isn’t as important. Can we accept that the ideas and content could come before the mechanics of writing and that understanding audience might be a pivotal factor in a students’ motivation to compose?

So how do we get there?

First, we have moved beyond a pyramid-like, sequential model of literacy development in which print literacy comes first and digital literacy comes second and networked literacy practices, if they come at all, come third and last.

As Yancey goes on to point out, this model has been deconstructing for some time now. Look at society today and how we communicate and write. We do not rely on print literacy nearly as much as we focus on it in our classrooms. The New York Times for example now allows readers to leave comments on virtually every article…making their online addition more of a corporate group blog. Don’t even get me started on the “Print This” or “Share” links that allow you to, among all things, share an article on Facebook!

Why do we need to be teaching networked literacy? Because when you subscribe to the New York Times RSS feed you only get the first sentence of an article. What? Wait just a minute. What happened to a beginning paragraphs? What happened to stating who, what, where, when in the first paragraph? Sorry folks…you now have a sentence!

You see networked literacy is different. Networked literacy does not follow the writing process we have come to know and love. Instead, if you w
ant you can do the whole thing backwards. Take Kevin Kelly for example who published a book and is now turning his book into a blog. He finished a writing piece and is now tearing it apart piece by piece so that the network can chew on it, comment on it, link to it, highlight it, and share it.

So where do we go from here?

We need to start by looking at how writing has changed in our daily lives. Where do we go to read, how do we write, what do we write, and who do we write too? Once we know this we can build a model that meets the needs of how to teach writing.

I agree with Yancey that our biggest struggle will be looking at writing as a subject instead of a process one goes through.

In 1995, David Russell suggested that if we wanted writers to compose well, we might consider focusing on writing as an object of study. In 2003, John Trimbur made the same point. He notes that a legacy of the process model is that we think almost exclusively in terms of process, which makes it “difficult to think of writing as a subject” [my italics]. “When we say ‘writing,’” he asks, “do we mean its participial form that refers to writing as an unfolding activity of composing or do we designate its noun form to refer to the material manifestations and consequences of writing as it circulates in the world?”

To wrap it up I’ll recap exactly how I got to this point.

  1. Read a comment left by someone on my blog.
  2. Follow a link they left to an article.
  3. Followed the link in the article to a PDF document
  4. Read, highlighted, commented within the PDF document
  5. Sat down and starting composing.
  6. 1 1/2 hours later…..press “Publish to The Thinking Stick”

Is this networked literacy? What is the new process? And most importantly, when do we start creating it, adopting it, and implementing it in our schools?