“Historically, we humans have experienced an impulse to write; we have found the materials to write; we have endured the labor of composition; we have understood that writing offers new possibility and a unique agency. Historically, we composers pursued this impulse to write in spite of—in spite of cultures that devalued writing; in spite of prohibitions against it when we were female or a person of color; in spite of the fact that we—if we were 6 or 7 or 8 or even 9—were told we should read but that we weren’t ready to compose.”
Kathleen Blake Yancey, Florida State University, Tallahassee. “Writing in the 21st Century”. February 2009 National Council of Teachers of English
When I read this I thought – omg. If I had an iphone at the time, I might have tweeted it too.
The new commons for student writing
Kathleen argues that without a planned curriculum (the central way in which formal education has been constructed), the use of writing has always taken the primary ‘colors of the time’. She maintains this as being a rudimentary skill in pursuit of testing students understanding of ‘the text’. Despite a ‘new’ curriculum – it seems likely that composition will continue as it is now in the majority of student experiences.
The report goes on to look historically at writing as composition though modern history, identifying letters from the European trenches of World War 1, letters to loved ones etc., as examples of self-directed composition enabled by the ability to send and receive it though systems such as the postal service.
It outlines how being able to write a personal letter transformed writing, through to today’s hyper-connected world composition is has turned “its attention to the visual and to audience—is needed.”
In this model of composing, meaning – created through the interaction between visual and verbal resources is central and a key consideration and motivation is understanding the role of audience and the social nature of writing.
The report goes on to discuss how social platforms have become the new ‘commons’. As people themselves become more mobile in the 40s and 50s, travelling further from home and community – physical ‘common’ spaces began to shrink as communities stopped using them. I can vividly recall playing ‘down the common’ with friends – and it was a hub of activity for latch-key kids like me. How times change.
Students today are learning composition in pixels, though social apprenticeships – from following Photoshop tutorials, learning about writing a better blog or telling a digital story, or simply updating their status on a social network – and we are learning in the new commons created by the internet, because that is the authentic audience and virtual spaces that kids have immediate and persistent access too. Socially, we are far less likely to let kids gather in spaces than 30 years ago – and even if we do, our helicopter parenting habits will probably give them a mobile phone too. Social networks and virtual spaces have become a ‘third space’ – in which kids can ‘hang out’ – and the method by which they compose short or lengthy messages is though technology.
Why don’t teachers use the online common room?
I’ve noticed, on occasions I attend conferences – that the 95% of teachers are text-consumers, and the ‘work’ asked of students is based on a Blooms approach to unpacking them in essays, reports and other text-types that have are socially and academically acceptable. 95% seek out new texts and sessions that give handouts and 5% will attend anything ‘computerised’ – despite most EdTech’s these days focusing on pedagogy and strategy, not ‘tools’.
Teachers are far more likely to see physical spaces – their staff room, conferences, subject plenaries as their commons and to look for teaching materials in the form of ‘texts’ than use the metaverse. They are very unlikely to compose a blog post, send a tweet or create new information, but highly likely to buy a text that someone else has composed, or personally recommended during a professional development session.
It is no surprise that students predominantly work alone or rarely offered research challenges that cannot be hacked out in front of Google for 10 minutes, as writing is tied to assessment, using an academic writing style – supporting the idea that knowledge passed on by the teacher is singular, valuable, and must be remembered.
The advent of paper and pen, and word processor, flash drive, email perpetuates this culture and marginalises composition and publication online – from the classroom.
What does composition look like today?
Composing from self interest (forums, applications, games interaction) or self sponsored (emails, facebook, playlists, photo galleries, youtube) is far more likely than writing for school, which is seen as work.
Teacher use of technolgy is in composition for ‘work’ – creating tests, tasks, powerpoints, reports etc., Activities closely related to their job, to transmitting and reporting on the student ability to ‘work’ within Blooms Taxonomy. Their self interest is annexed – if indeed they use sites such as Facebook, or simply email.
School assessment is hung up on reports, exams, essays, LMS, posters and presentations – for a very narrow audience – the teacher and the examiner. Developing assessment beyond the current method is challenging.
95% of teachers have no interest in entering the digital common room, participating with others or encouraging writing in pixels in social spaces with their students – as culturally, this is not seen as proper work and in turn don’t see a social-value as their students are directly reporting to a narrow audience.
Yet – 95% of students do this a hundreds times a week to a global audience though a multitude of technologies, from almost any location.
Does anyone see a problem here? Anything that remotely represents social composition in pixels is banned, dismissed or ignored. The ‘virtual world’ or ‘online world’ is not cyberspace or the opposite of ‘real life’ – it is just life, composed in pixels. I guess the issue now is – how long can leaders insist of pressing the <deny> option – and claim that the small percentage of Outliers, who use technology well – are examples of their culture without adding 2-5% of our culture?