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Urging students to write in the age of Twitter, texting, and Facebook

In what could be considered the social media decade, there’s often a conundrum in today’s classrooms: Students need writing and critical thinking skills more than ever, but with the proliferation of social media, formal writing is quickly going the way of cursive–an antiquated practice from generations past.

A few months ago, in “What does science tell us about teaching kids to think,” Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia psychology professor who studies the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 education, discussed how there is a certain logic to the idea that students can become better critical thinkers by completing writing assignments.

“Writing forces you to organize your thoughts. Writing encourages you to try different ideas and combinations of ideas. Writing encourages you to select your words carefully. Writing holds the promise (and the threat) of a permanent record of your thoughts, and thus offers the motivation to order them carefully. And indeed some forms of writing—persuasive or expository essays for example—explicitly call for carefully ordering thinking.”

(Next page: Are students actually writing more?)

These benefits of writing are, in part, why the Common Core State Standards focus heavily on language arts and the incorporation of analytical writing into many subject areas.

However, though there’s a major emphasis on incorporating writing in today’s 21st-century classroom, currently there’s a heated debate as to whether or not texting and social media have a negative impact on students’ writing abilities.

“I think it makes sense for these social conversations to be lightweight or light-hearted in terms of the syntax,” said President of Shravan Goli in a recent interview with Education World. “But ultimately, in the world of business and in the world they will live in, in terms of their jobs and professional lives, students will need good, solid reading and writing skills. I’m a little worried about where we are in America with literacy levels dropping. Are these [electronic devices] helping us, or making it worse? I think they may be going the other way and making it worse.”

But in a recent study, “Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students,” Jeff Gabrill, a writing professor at Michigan State University, and his colleagues found that 93 percent of college student participants said they wrote for personal fulfillment.

Why’s this important? “Our students write more than any generation in history,” explained Gabrill in an interview with MindShift. “They have to be doing something right.”

Students’ mobile devices are legitimate platforms for writing, Gabrill argues, and it would behoove schools and teachers to accommodate what changes that might bring on.

It’s about getting students interested

Whether educators and parents believe the popularity of texting and social media have a negative impact on student writing, the question becomes not how to get students to write—they’re writing all the time—but changes to focus on how schools can get students interested in analytical writing?

One of the easiest ways is to introduce current technology students are already interested in.

“Technology has the capacity to allow for a broader vision of literacy instruction,” say Carol Bedard and Charles Fuhrken, authors of the book When Writing with Technology Matters. “Not only can students in the language arts classroom learn reading and writing, but a technologically infused curriculum can develop multiple essential literacies: technological literacy, visual literacy, informational literacy, and intertextuality.

“Conceptualizing literacy in these ways transforms the classroom from solely a text-based literate environment to one that embraces multiple literacies, and the richness that comes with a technological landscape is continually evolving,” explain the authors.

The book aims to show teachers how to create a classroom environment that allows students to become invested in writing and provide detailed descriptions of elementary and middle school literacy projects that teachers can follow step-by-step or use as a guide when planning their own technology-based projects.

Some projects included in the book include writing to launch moviemaking, turning stories into movies, visual nonfiction essays, and creating independent projects.

(Next page: Technology resources for writing)

Technology resources for writing

Virtual Village Classroom is one product that’s gaining traction in classrooms, specifically because of its focus on flipped learning.

Each month, a new 400+ page ePublication publishes on the website, giving K-12 teachers access to four reading and writing lessons with imbedded critical thinking skills. Lessons include videos modeling the writing process for teachers to use with their students in the traditional or flipped classroom format.

Writing lessons include print and video modeling lessons in all four modes of writing, and each lesson is followed by an activity aligned with Common Core State Standards, and additional activities using the Speaking and Listening standards. Video lessons are modeled by writing specialist and author, Darren J. Butler. After spending nearly fourteen years traveling to schools training teachers and students for state based writing assessment, he provides an invaluable resource to teachers.

Another resource is BoomWriter Storytellers Camp, which invites kids ages 9-14 to sign up for a new and innovative week-long online camp that brings campers together to write, edit and publish original works with first chapter “story starts” created by the award-winning Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney.

Kids collaborate with others online to create their own stories and come away with published books. Campers get writing tips and can even participate in a Skype chat with Jeff Kinney.

BoomWriter Storytellers Camp hopes to inspire kids to write and showcase their creativity while helping to prevent summer learning loss. Registration is open for camp sessions starting July 22, 2013.

Zaner-Bloser is also trying to entice students to write through its Online Writing Center, a writing and grammar program written to the Common Core State Standards. The Center provides a teacher-managed environment where students can use technology to produce and publish writing and to interact with and collaborate with others.

The Online Writing Center also includes ‘My Writing Pad,’ a built-in word processing application. Students can write essays, submit assignments, and receive teacher feedback online; it also includes ‘Peer to Peer, Peer Group, and Teacher-led Conferencing.’

(Next page: Apps for writing)

Zaner-Bloser also has a handwriting app to help young students learn how to write uppercase (capital) and lowercase (small) letters and numbers. Features include:

  • Video animations to show the correct formation of all letters and numbers
  • Unrestricted choice of any letter or number at any time
  • Choice of shaded letters and numbers for tracing or blank guidelines for practice
  • “Hint” button for instructional support
  • Built-in reward to celebrate your young writer’s success and motivate her/him to improve
  • Zaner-Bloser’s manuscript and cursive alphabet and numerals, the most widely used and recognized

But Zaner-Bloser isn’t the only developer of writing apps. Reading Rockets—a national multimedia literacy initiative—has compiled a list of the “Top 9 Writing Apps.”Apps include:

  • Popplet: A productivity app that also works as a mind-mapping tool. Use the app to begin structuring the writing process. The app can also be used to create graphic organizers, classroom visuals, orhanize material according to text structure (list, sequence, compare-contrast, cause-effect), and to practice sentence combining and complex sentence creation by connecting individual “Poppies.” ($4.99)
  • Sentence Builder: An app that helps children learn to build grammatically correct sentences about a given pictures. Special attention is paid to the connector words. ($5.99)

Many more apps are included in the list, including spelling and storytelling.

For more information on writing and technology products, read “Technology a key tool in writing instruction.”

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