The prevalence of blogs, wikis, and social-networking web sites has changed the way students learn to write, according to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)–and schools must adapt in turn by developing new modes of writing, designing new curricula to support these models, and creating plans for teaching these curricula.
"It’s time for us to join the future and support all forms of 21st-century literacies, [both] inside … and outside school," said Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor of English at Florida State University, past NCTE president, and author of a new report titled "Writing in the 21st Century."
Just as the invention of the personal computer transformed writing, Yancey said, digital technologies–and especially Web 2.0 tools–have created writers of everyone, meaning that even before students learn to write personal essays, they’re often writing online in many different forms.
"This is self-sponsored writing," Yancey explained. "It’s on bulletin boards and in chat rooms, in eMails and in text messages, and on blogs responding to news reports and, indeed, reporting the news themselves. … This is a writing that belongs to the writer, not to an institution."
She continued: "In much of this new composing, we are writing to share, yes; to encourage dialogue, perhaps; but mostly, I think, to participate."
The report defines this new age of writing as the Age of Composition: a period where writers become composers not through "direct and formal instruction alone (if at all), but rather through what might be called an extracurricular social co-apprenticeship."
Students who go online today and participate in the web’s many forms of communication compose their writing in informal contexts, where a hierarchy of the expert-apprentice (or teacher-student) does not exist. Instead, there is a peer co-apprenticeship, where communicative knowledge is exchanged freely.
Yancey provided the recent example of a 16-year-old girl named Tiffany Monk who saved her neighborhood after Tropical Storm Fay hit Melbourne, Fla. By taking pictures and writing eMail messages, she managed to garner enough attention to her stranded neighbors–and all were rescued from the flood.
Everyone was saved because "a 16-year-old saw a need, because she knew how to compose in a 21st-century way, and because she knew her audience," said Yancey. "And what did she learn in this situation? That if you actually take action, then someone might listen to you. That’s a real lesson in composition."
Yancey cited another example of composing in which Facebook users decided to write "THIS IS SPARTA" during an Advanced Placement test, then cross it out so that no points would be deducted. More than 30,000 students reportedly participated.
According to Yancey, this light prank shows that students understand the power of networking, and they understand the new audiences of 21st-century composing–their peers across the country and faceless AP graders alike.
"We have moved beyond a pyramid-like, sequential model of literacy development in which print literacy comes first, digital literacy comes second, and networked literacy practices–if they come at all–come third and last," she said.
Her report suggests that multiple models of composing now operate simultaneously, each informed by new publication practices, materials, and vocabulary.
Yancey says there are new questions that writing teachers need to ask. For example:
– The current models of composing deal largely with printed media, and they are models that culminate in publication. When composers blog as a form of invention, rather than a form of publication, what does that do to the print-based models of composing that culminate in publication?
– How do educators mark drafts of a text when revising takes place inside of discrete drafts?
– How and when might educators and their students decide to include images and visuals in compositions, and where might schools include these processes in the curriculum?
– How do educators define a composing practice that is interwoven with eMail, text messaging, and web browsing?
– How does access to the vast amount and kinds of resources on the web alter schools’ models of composing? Can we retrofit our earlier models of composing, or should we begin anew?
The report also identifies three tasks that educators should undertake:
1. Articulate the new models of composing that are currently developing. Define composition not as a part of testing or its primary vehicle, but apart from testing. This will bring about a new dimension of writing: the role of writing for the public.
2. Design a new writing curriculum for kindergarteners through graduate students–one that moves beyond an obsessive attention to form.
3. Create new models for the teaching of writing skills. Try not to grade alone; instead, incorporate peer review and networking–and make sure students know how to sift thoughtfully through increasing amounts of information.
NCTE has announced a National Day of Writing (October 20) and plans to develop a National Gallery of Writing intended to expand conventional notions of composition.
Starting this spring, NCTE is inviting anyone to submit a piece of writing for a national gallery of 21st-century composition. Acceptable submissions for this gallery include letters, eMail or text messages, journal entries, reports, electronic presentations, blog posts, documentary clips, poetry readings, how-to directions, short stories, memos, and more.
"By capturing a portrait of how writing happens today–who writes and for what purposes–teachers can better prepare the next generation for success across the full range of 21st-century literacies," said Kent Williamson, executive director of NCTE. "Our hope is that everyone who participates in this initiative will better understand writing as a valuable lifelong practice rather than as something that is done only in school or only by a select group of people."