Feature: Writing and Learning in the Digital Age – "Digital Is"

"Writing today," say the authors of the book Because Digital Writing Matters, "is pervasively and generally digital; composed with digital tools; created out of word, image, sound, and motion; circulated in digital environments; and consumed across a wide range of digital platforms."

Teachers today face a number of challenges as they design writing instruction for their students in our new digital world. Not only must educators address the ever-present challenges in writing per se, including adapting the writing process to an increasingly diverse population of students, they must first adopt the best methods to employ the new technological tools and integrate this knowledge into a complex learning environment. Inadequate training, an array of student technological skills, shifting notions of texts, as well as the ever-changing definition of a "literate" citizenship, are just some of the realities of today’s classroom. Add to these challenges the importance of privacy and personal safety, public scrutiny, and a fluid paradigm of standards and autonomy in the digital writing world, and it becomes quite evident that teaching writing in today’s classroom is starkly different from what it was just 20 years ago. At the same time that technologies have made drafting, editing, and modifying documents quicker and easier, the Because Digital Writing Matters authors note that the technologies have simultaneously "expanded options for writers and have probably made writing, and learning to write, more complex."

A forum for sharing student writing

In response to this challenge, the National Writing Project (NWP), an OII grantee, launched the Digital Is website in 2010 to provide a forum for teachers to share and engage with other educators in the field of digital writing. Its companion publication (cited above), published in the same year, navigates the many challenges inherent in teaching writing with digital tools and offers a variety of supports for teachers as they work to improve students’ writing across academic subjects.

The portal is an open forum for the exploration of inquiries and sharing of examples of practice by educators across all grade levels and disciplines, as well as those who work with young people in schools and in museums, libraries, and other out-of-school settings. The driving question behind the portal is: "If 'digital' is a primary means of conveying the written word, how do we collaborate, write, publish, and share today, and what does this mean for the teaching of writing and connected learning?" NWP's Digital Is website was designed to explore this question within a supportive community of colleagues.

Within Digital Is, educators are encouraged to share and discuss important evidence of the visionary, innovative, and dedicated work and approaches they bring to their professional practices, especially important in a rapidly changing media and information landscape. All content within the website is contributed by the community and curated by NWP teacher-leaders. It is a work in progress and a growing collection that currently involves several thousand educators, writers, and learners. In addition, it provides a forum for the NWP community that is using this medium to enhance their teaching effectiveness. Specific examples that are linked to improved classroom practice and/or student achievement are highlighted throughout this article.

Students in Robert Rivera-Amezola's fourth-grade classroom in Philadelphia work collaboratively on a writing assignment. (Photo by Jason Miczek and provided courtesy of the National Writing Project.)One example from the elementary school level is the contribution of Christopher Working, a third-grade teacher in West Ottawa Public Schools in Michigan. He posed the question of how to get "the most bang for his buck" with his young writers and support them in giving each other thoughtful and supportive peer response. "For years," he writes, "I have struggled with finding a framework or structure that seems to work with elementary students, something that will bring the author a more substantive response than the all too common, intentionally helpful yet ineffective feedback, 'I like it.'"

Christopher's contributed resource, Social Media as a Tool for Peer Collaboration with Elementary Students, describes the writing process in his classroom within a forum called KidBlog. "Reflecting back upon [this] project, I realized that I probably learned more than any of my students," writes Christopher. He continues by sharing that "kids learned how to troubleshoot hardware and software problems, struggling writers became proud writers, parents and staff started asking if they could help, and kids started to have conversations about pieces of writing outside of writing time."

Will he try it again? "Absolutely," Christopher says, because the benefits are multiple. "Not only did student writing improve, but so did motivation, self-confidence, collaboration, digital citizenship, classroom citizenship, and value in the written word of lived experiences."

Here are some other examples of work shared at NWP’s Digital Is:

  • Janet Ilko, of the Cajon Valley Middle School and San Diego Area Writing Project, blogged daily under the name "Writing for Change" in the lead-up to her and her students sharing their work in Washington, D.C. for Digital Learning Day 2013. They created "Sharing our Stories, Passions to Words" in order to share what happened when students started to blog with a purpose and an authentic audience.

Digital Learning Day is every day at Cajon Valley Middle School and the San Diego Area Writing Project. Janet Ilko and her middle school students created this video for Digital Learning Day 2013 to share their experiences as writers and bloggers.

  • Robert Rivera-Amezola, a fourth-grade teacher in the Philadelphia Public Schools, working with a local nonprofit group called "Need in Deed" that helps students apply academic skills to solve social issues, decided to investigate water pollution and contamination and documented their efforts in a video presentation: "A Fourth Grade Service Learning Project." In the process, they conducted research, wrote scripts, and recorded audio broadcasts for publication on the Internet. "Podcasting (like other digital modalities) often motivates English language learners to extend their new language skills as they tackle complex subjects," he shares.

  • Rebecca Rupert, a high school teacher in Bloomington, Ind., shares her and her students' work in "Literacy in Our Lives," a project chronicle in which her high school students explored their identities as writers with pre-service teachers at a local university. She writes, "It was gratifying for me to watch [my students] increasingly identify themselves as readers and writers. Later in the semester, students had some background upon which to build as they explored and made meaning around the sometimes difficult texts we read together. But by this time, they were already thinking of themselves as readers and writers, and they had strategies they had used before that might be of help to themselves and their peers."

Also a forum for professional development

Teachers at a NWP professional development workshop in Nevada collaborate on an e-circuitry project. (Photo courtesy of the National Writing Project.)In addition to specific classroom practices, Digital Is enhances opportunities for teaching and learning in a synergistic manner by offering educator professional development that provides multiple opportunities: to develop and reflect on curriculum and classroom practice, to work on developing a healthy digital ecology, and to examine the standards and assessment for digital writing, as explained in Because Digital Writing Matters. One very critical point in the literature regarding writing, and digital writing in particular, is the realization that teaching writing in today’s world does not mean "… throwing everything you’ve been doing out," as emphasized by Liz Stephens of the Central Texas Writing Project. Rather, as she explains, it is an artful blend of using digital tools in a smart way that remains true to years of research and practice about supporting student writers.

Further, the effective professional development featured in Digital Is explores the ways in which the field of digital writing provides an ideal setting for teachers and students to engage in collaborative inquiry. The emphasis on inquiry-oriented approaches and the involvement of students as co-researchers in digital writing helps to mold the writing process into a more meaningful and engaging process in which students take ownership in the tasks set before them.

Connecting one day and throughout the year to improve practice

As a complement to its work through Digital Is,the NWP partnered with the Alliance for Excellent Education (Alliance) on Feb. 6, 2013, to celebrate Digital Learning Day. The NWP and the Alliance brought together a wide range of states, organizations, and corporate partners to call attention to the powerful work going on in school districts, classrooms, and out-of-school programs where educators and their students are making thoughtful use of digital tools. Digital Learning Day celebrated innovative teaching practices that make learning more personalized and engaging and encouraged the exploration of how digital learning can provide more students with more opportunities to get the skills they need to succeed in college, career, and life. Click here for more information on this event, including current learning opportunities.

In keeping with the recent emphasis on digital collaboration, the NWP has designed a number of ways for its communities of practice to connect online, such as NWP Connect and NWP Radio as well as Digital Is, which are open to all who are interested in the teaching of writing. In just slightly more than a year, NWP Connect has grown to more than 7,000 unique users from all across the educational spectrum, and NWP Radio has aired 86 shows with more than 17,000 downloads since its beginning in 2010. The NWP also has an active presence on social media via blogs, Facebook, twitter, Google+ communities, and online hangouts, all of which are available to educators with an interest in writing. Currently, the NWP is featuring content and activities related to National Poetry Month (celebrated every April) and the Urban Sites Conference, which this year examines the power of writing to achieve social justice.

Connecting writing to the Common Core State Standards

The NWP is currently funded through OII’s Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) and Investing in Innovation (i3) grant programs. Through its two-year SEED project, the NWP has developed 36 teaching modules in the content areas aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Each module represents four-to-six weeks of instruction and culminates in a multi-paragraph writing task. The module content will be available as an Open Educational Resource this summer and builds on the work of NWP teacher-leader Bud Hunt of Colorado, who developed and piloted an online course entitled "Writing and the Common Core: Deeper Learning for All."

As part of its i3 grant, the NWP is implementing its College-Ready Writers Program, a professional development program for middle and high school teachers in rural school districts that integrates the Common Core State Standards for writing. The project will serve 40 rural school districts in eight states and will focus on research-based instructional strategies, extended writing assignments in core subject areas, the alignment of writing assignments with college- and career-ready standards, and increasing the amount of time spent on writing instruction. Additionally, the project will emphasize the interconnectedness of reading and writing by expanding teachers' knowledge of the research in the relation of writing to improved reading comprehension. Finally, it will enhance the participating districts' capacities to strengthen teacher leadership by supporting participating teachers in the NWP's Invitational Summer Institutes, its signature, 120-hour training and leadership development program.

In addition to OII’s support, the NWP receives grant funding through the National Science Foundation and a number of private organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The Teacher Quality Programs office will host a seminar in the fall of 2013 focusing on NWP’s work through Digital Is and its writing across the curriculum initiatives. For more information, contact Margarita Melendez at Margarita.Melendez@ed.gov.

Through its work with Digital Is, the NWP continues to be at the forefront of integrating writing and learning in all of its manifestations. By providing a forum for teachers to guide their students to their fullest writing potential and by facilitating the sharing of cutting-edge teaching and learning tools for all teachers of writing, the National Writing Project is leading the way for high-quality writing and learning in all disciplines to be a permanent fixture in our nation’s schools.

Margarita Melendez, an education program specialist in the Teacher Quality Program of the Office of Innovation and Improvement, is the author of this article.

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