On July 14, Scott Filkins blogged about his literacy dig, noting the many writing activities he’d accomplished in just one day. But here’s something I’ve been noticing ever since the National Day on Writing bug bit me. Have you ever noticed how many, many people are writing and just how much writing there is in the world? Well, I’ve been unable to help myself from noticing.
Example 1 - Writing for corn and soy beans. A friend of mine owns a farm here in Central Illinois. If you know anything about this part of the Midwest, you’ll guess (accurately) that the farm produces corn some years and soybeans the next. Now although each of these crops when alternated put back in the soil what the other takes out, our rich soil still needs fertilizer. “Where is she going with all this?” you’re probably asking by now, but here’s the point. In times gone by a farmer would just get the some fertilizer and sprinkle it equally all around the farm. But today, this farmer pays to have a satellite fly over his fields—and here’s where the writing comes in—and from that fly-by he gets in text and in pictures information that tells him exactly which fields need how much fertilizer—no more guess work, no over-fertilization run-off.
Example 2 – Writing for cats and dogs. I have pets and I travel lots. I need a pet-sitter who will come to my home and take care of my pets while I’m gone, but more than that, someone who will cuddle and nurse my pets when they need it. In the past several years, I’ve found my pet sitters and information about my pet sitters on their websites where I can read testimonials, notice how they talk about the pets they care for, and check out their prices.
Example 3 – Writing for advertising. In Urbana, Illinois, there’s a billboard on the way into town from the north that displays the most interesting ads, each featuring some short, catchy, and often puzzling tag line. The trick for me each time I pass by the billboard is to see if I can get the entire tag line read at 30 miles an hour and then if I can figure out the message. I’m guessing that’s exactly what the billboard ad creator wants because by the time I put all the texts together, I don’t readily forget the product or service being advertised.
Example 4 – Writing for car repair. My car dealership just got a new makeover, complete with a snazzy waiting room with cookies and coffee, and a car wash complimentary with my oil change. Where the writing comes in—beyond the fix-it ticket they’ve been using for years—is in the car checklist that appears on my bill when I turn up every 3000 miles. The checklist not only tells me which of many services my car should have at what mileage intervals but the service staff usually circle those services that I might be interested in very soon. I actually try to keep the checklist in my glove box so I can remember the next time where I’ve left off on the service program—something I guess they’re counting on.
Example 5 – Texting for kids. Who would have guessed even five years ago that I’d be using my cell phone to make dates with my grown daughter or to firm up the time to pick up my choral singing colleague? In fact, five years ago when I first went to Europe, my daughter was horrified that I wasn’t bringing my cell phone. “Wouldn’t work there anyhow,” I told her, and that was true enough then, but just past weekend I was listening to Rick Steves’ radio travel show and my ears perked up when he talked about buying SIM cards through vending machines in Europe so you could use your cell phone, for example, to text your children to see where they were so you all could plan when and where to meet up. Sure beats the old-fashioned way.
Writing is a significant part of our lives—not just English-teacher lives but the lives of repair people, babysitters, kindergarten artists, pet-sitters, lawyers, bloggers, farmers, hospitality workers, truckers, travelers, advertisers, nurses, trades workers, and more.
Two NCTE Reports-- Writing in the 21st Century and Writing for School vs. Writing for Life speak both to the significance of writing today and to how different it is from writing in times gone by. It’s plain that now we have technological tools that enable us to write differently now in form and frequency, but now with those tools even when using pen and paper, we think about writing differently. We are able to write lots, often targeting our own audiences and trying to make things happen--we have agency for what we write, especially when we’ve been the ones to decide to write. And, many of our students are writing just this way outside of school, ironically thinking that what they’re doing isn’t writing, and many are not doing enough of this new sort of writing in school.
How can we help our students expand their notions of what constitutes writing so we can help them use their own agency and audience selection to make things happen with their writing? What if we began by sending our students on a scavenger hunt for new ways of writing? What would they find?