Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Writing for Now -- Declaring an Audience

This week I heard a newscast on NPR, "Twitter Seen As Tool For Change In China" (NPR Morning Edition July 24, 2009). The gist of the newscast, that some Chinese NGOs held a training course to teach citizen journalists how to use Twitter and other new media in their reporting, made me think of Tiffany Monk, the Florida teenager mentioned in Writing in the 21st Century, the NCTE report by Kathleen Blake Yancey. Tiffany like many young people, already knows how to compose for the audiences she chooses. Tiffany’s mobile home park was flooding with rain from Tropical Storm Fay and Tiffany knew there were many elderly and disabled people who would be unable to get out. 9-1-1 wasn’t an option, so Tiffany took pictures of the mobile home park, posted them on her computer, and sent them out in emails asking for help. Everyone was saved!

Tiffany is like most of our students. She already knows how to compose and, given an occasion, she knows what she wants to say and to whom she wants to say it. We need to encourage this in all our students.

On February 23, 2009, NCTE held a press conference to introduce Writing in the 21st Century and the National Day on Writing. Two speakers who joined Kathi Yancey during the conference talked about writing today in schools. Dan Brown and his student Mansur Muhammad from SEED Public Charter School, Washington, D.C , talked about writing—teaching it and doing it-- both in an out of school.

Dan’s the author of the blog Get in the Fracas and his July 7 entry states in underlined bold, “Students need more than just their teacher to be their audience in order to unlock their finest potential.” This blog entry, “The Importance of “Going Public,” echoing the title of an NCTE publication Go Public! Encouraging Student Writers to Publish by Susanne Rubenstein, emphasizes the need for us to design school writing assignments that push students to write to audiences beyond the teacher and the school. Another NCTE book, Designing Writing Assignments by Traci Gardner, and many ReadWriteThink lessons give us tips on how to help students work with various audiences in their writing.

I have to agree with Dan and with another idea that Kathi Yancey points out in Writing in the 21st Century. 21st century writers write in order to take action, to make a connection. As teachers, we need to provide our students with the opportunity to make those connections, using whatever tools are available and certainly starting with the tools the students are already using. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, agreed with this philosophy in his interview with Rachel Dretzin of PBS Frontline: Digital_Nation on July 14, suggesting to the surprise of many that teachers have students use cell phones for class work.

For me, having students “Go Public” to their selected audience, using the tools of technology that many are already using outside of school, and taking action are three vital components of the writing assignments I need to design for my students. I’ll need to often be more spontaneous than in the past to take advantage of current situations for writing, I’ll need to allow for students to pursue many different topics and audiences, and I’ll probably need instruction from some of my students on the workings of the tools while some of my students will need instructions on the same from their classmates or me.

I’m guessing, too, that like me you’d like examples of writings produced in this 21st century fashion. Here’s an idea for how we can get just that. Let’s have our students publish their writings to the National Gallery of Writing. I’d really love to read self-initiated compositions on issues important to students: a text message or Twitter exchange, a video, some prewriting notes, an article, a letter, or poem. I’m inviting you to see if your students have such compositions, particularly from their out-of-school lives. Have them publish to a local gallery that you start or to the NCTE Gallery.

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