Random Thoughts

The Age of Composition

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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?

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


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  5. I agree with you in as much as writing instruction needs to change within our schools. However I still believe that their is a writing process that must be undertaken if we expect our writing to be read, thought about, considered and responded to. I even argue that the process you listed at the end of your article is the writing process in action.
    1. Prewriting: Read a comment left by someone on my blog.
    2. Prewriting: Follow a link they left to an article.
    3. Prewriting: Followed the link in the article to a PDF document
    4. Prewriting: Read, highlighted, commented within the PDF document
    5. Drafting: Sat down and starting composing.
    *** Although not mentioned, I have no doubt that before you went to step 6, you read over you blog entry and even made a few structural, grammatical and spelling changes… ie. revising and drafting
    6. Publishing: 1 1/2 hours later…..press “Publish to The Thinking Stick”

    Just some thoughts. This also shows how important the pre-writing stage really is in developing a well thought-out piece of writing.

    • hhhhmmmm….I’m going to have to think on this a bit. I do think there is a “process” that one still goes through but I don’t think it’s the writing process as we understand it.

      I’m not sure there really is a clear break in the writing process from prewriting – publishing

      Computers and digital text allow us to merge these stages into one large stage called composing.

      We teach kids that they must pre-write and then only after that move on to the edit/revise stage and then on to the next stage, etc

      With digital writing, they all become one stage. The stage of composing.

      I’m still thinking on this and appreciate your feedback and thoughts.

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  7. This is a common misconception that I have seen in classrooms before. I think the confusion lies between the message and the medium used to convey it. The development of a new medium (via PCs and handheld electronics) has resulted in some radical changes to how accessible the publication of the message has become for an individual and the speed at which it can enter the public domain. Inspiration can also come from a myriad of places including networked media (like blogging or social networks). And networked literacy is really about technical literacy: how to use the tools that allow us to compose our message. The formats used to convey a message are now multi-faceted and can include sound, images, and the written word. But any composition of a video, podcast, or flowchart starts with the process of writing. A video or podcast must be scripted and ideas must be organized first.

    The composition process still starts with an idea (or inspiration), followed by researching, prewriting, revising, and finally publishing. The student must still learn about organizing ideas (e.g., making an outline or answering WWWWH); understand how to write differently for different audiences; and learn how to write coherently (or present ideas coherently). And I think that educators ignore these basics at the peril of their students! Children are not born out of the womb knowing how to write. An illiterate student remains so until some attempt is made to teach that student reading and writing whether it is by means of a digital medium, or a printed one; whether by formal or informal instruction (i.e., traditional classroom, distance learning, or homeschooling).

    I think that Yancey is also confusing the motivation to write with the learning the process of writing when she refers to “extracurricular social co-apprenticeship” and “writing to share”, or “to participate.” Certainly new skills are needed to master the technology that is underlying our new medium. And the motivation to blog, or participate in social networking, can be used to a teacher’s advantage in the classroom, but writing skills still need to learned by students. Ask any published author how one becomes a writer and they will usually reply, “By writing.” You confirmed that yourself in stating that you learned more about writing by blogging, than by taking classes.

    The good news is that the process of writing has become much faster due to new technology and this can help speed the learning curve for many students. The process of revising, editing and publishing is now very fast. And a published composition can be edited after the fact-an amazing innovation! So, yes, the definition between publishing and prewriting is less distinct than it was when it was all done on paper because it can easily be done repeatedly.

  8. Thanks for reminding us as educators that we need to step back and re-evaluate so much of what we do as our students’ communication tools and methods are changing so dramatically.

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  11. I studied writing in college. My most inspiring teachers never taught process or techniques but rather stated, you learn to write by writing and by reading. We wrote, shared, critiqued and had reading assignments for each class. Reflecting on why something I’ve read is moving or has clarity, from an admired published writer or blogger, is the most helpful for me in terms of improving my writing.
    I’ve also read several books on writing in the past, but they didn’t click for me because the author’s process didn’t make sense for me. Process in any task is different for everyone- we learn and express ourselves in different ways. Actually, it wasn’t until my students had a real audience of penpals, online writing buddies across the country or heard their writing recorded on audio for our class blog, did they really start revising in earnest. Those audiences were so much more meaningful for my students than their classmates or myself.
    I guess it really comes down to the final product, for example expository writing is written well with a prescribed format, which we alter personally as we grow in writing. Whenever you want personal expression though, it needs to be approached individually and is more difficult to prescribe.

    Slightly off topic, I recently viewed this video (via a workshop with Ewan McIntosh) showing a teacher in Scotland, Tim Ryland, teaching writing using the video game Myst. It’s not just the game but that he is sitting among the students, they are all facing one direction (not in a circle), and the teacher either asks the student to repeat or he repeats a quality phrase. What is so powerful in this scenario is actively writing with your tribe, getting immediate feedback and reflection, not having to be face to face when sharing, and reading and reflecting on published writing.

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  13. I think that this model is intriguing, but I agree with SoCal Angel: we still need to teach students to create ideas, organize their thoughts, write for a specific audience, and write coherently. Even with the print model, we shouldn’t teach the writing process as a rigid set of stages that you have to go through in an exact order, but as different steps that we move through, and go back and forth through, in the process of composing. For example, students can create an idea, draft, revise, maybe modify their original idea, revise a bit more, edit, write an outline to re-organize their paragraphs, revise a bit more, publish, fix any editing mistakes they notice two days later, etc.

    I think that the writing process model is fluid enough to adapt itself to a new way of teaching writing that centers around digital literacy. The amazing thing about technology is that it allows us to teach and explore MANY processes of writing–from the very structured one we teach in 6th grade English to the very flexible one we learn to navigate in college. The tools of blogging help us to teach audience in a more authentic, immediate way. Students have SO many more publishing opportunities in the digital age. And technology also opens up the opportunity for collaborative writing, which is something that is rarely explored but has amazing possibilities with students of all ages.

    Overall, it is just about being open-minded. We can’t ignore what we’ve discovered about how students learn to write best (writing as a process). However, we can’t ignore the fact that writing and reading has been utterly and completely transformed by the internet. So, somehow, we find a way to meet in the middle.

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