teens want more in-class writing

Yesterday, I wrote about the latest Internet report from Pew, which focuses on teens and how they use technology for their writing. First, some interesting facts about internet use, which impacts writing. The Pew survey claims that virtually all teens, 94%!, use the internet on a frequent basis. This high percentage crosses all ethnic and socioeconomic strata, ranging from whites at 96% to Hispanics at 87%. I think we have the enormous popularity amongst teens of social sites such as MySpace and Facebook to thank for that.

Nearly all teens (89%)  access the internet from home, while 77% do from school. Minorities and lower-income students rely more heavily on schools and libraries for their internet use, though over 70% have access from their homes. Nevertheless, your experience may be similar to mine. While the high school library has extended hours for before and afterschool computer use, many minority students used the bus system and were therefore unable to take advantage of those extra hours. This alone is a powerful argument for installing computers in the classroom.

And what do students want to be doing in the classroom? More writing! Nearly 90% of them believe that writing will help them be successful in their lives; over half say that it is essential. Nearly all teens report that they write everyday in class, mostly note-taking, but that their writing comprises only about a paragraph to one page, and they want more so they can improve their writing skills. A high percentage also believe that using computer-based instruction would help them become better writers:

Most teens feel that additional instruction and focus on writing in school would help improve their writing even further. Our survey asked teens whether their writing skills would be improved by two potential changes to their school curricula: teachers having them spend more time writing in class, and teachers using more computer-based tools (such as games, writing help programs or websites, or multimedia) to teach writing. While the options presented in our survey were quite different in nature, teens find the approaches equally appealing. Overall, 82% of teens feel that additional in-class writing time would improve their writing abilities, similar to the 78% who feel the same way about computer-based writing tools. (my emphasis)

Responses to the Pew survey demonstrate that teen writing is purposeful. They write when they have a particular reason to: assignment completion, grades, college acceptance, personal expression. They prefer assignments that are relevant to their lives, and they would really like teachers to comment in detail on their work. They state that technology does not make much difference whether they write or not, but it does make it easier to revise their work, and therefore much more likely that they will.

There are many nuances from the survey that I’ve not been able to include in a short post, but this is fascinating stuff, and is well worth reading.

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teens who write

Pollsters from the Pew Internet & American Life Project have a new report out about teens’ use of technology. In particular, the questions from the poll relate to how much teens write and how they perceive themselves as writers. As we already know, teens spend copious amounts of time text messaging on cell phones and on instant message chats. But they don’t consider that writing—- and neither do we. Nevertheless, technology does play a part in encouraging teens to write more, particularly blogging:

. . . there is a relatively strong association between writing and technology platforms that help teens share their thoughts with the world such as blogs and social networking sites. Teen bloggers in particular engage in a wide range of writing outside of school. Bloggers are significantly more likely than non-bloggers to do short writing, journal writing, creative writing, write music or lyrics and write letters or notes to their friends. In this sense, bloggers are even more prolific than social networking teens when it comes to the types of writing they do. Social networking teens are unusual in their relative proclivity to write short writing, journal writing and music or lyrics. Teen bloggers also write more frequently than social networking teens.

Pew reports that nearly a quarter of teen bloggers write outside of school on a daily basis. This is encouraging, and it may convince more teachers to include blogging in their lessons. When does blogging in the classroom make the most sense? Anytime you require recurrent responses from your students. Blogging’s sequential quality is especially useful for assigning frequent freewrites on reading topics. Or, maybe you’d like your students to keep a summary of daily class notes; this is the place to do it.

Do you dread having to keep track of all those blogs? Don’t. The extremely handy RSS feature makes it easy to collect all of your students’ work in one place. You will be able to easily scroll through their writings, and your feed reader will refresh each time your students make an addition to their blog posts. No paper shuffling. More about RSS feeds in a future post.

Utilizing blogs in the classroom was problematic even as recently as a couple of years ago, due to unwanted spam in the comments. New spam-targeting technology has virtually eliminated that problem, making blogs such as WordPress and Blogger excellent choices. They’re free, too.

The Pew poll contains a wealth of information about teens, technology, and writing, and tomorrow I’ll tell you what they learned motivates teens to write, and what teens think about writing for school.

More about writing and tools for the classroom

context and comprehension

let them remix videos

Fair use–what it really means

input facilitates output

Your class has read and analyzed the text, and now it’s time to write the essay. In essay writing, of course, output depends on input, or pre-writing. Continuing with our Anglo-Saxon unit, we’re going to prepare for an essay on Beowulf. One of the more constructive aids can be found at Edsitement: a table for filling in the Elements of the Epic Hero Cycle (pdf file). You can make copies of the table to use as handouts for your students, but maybe you’re trying to cut down on all those handouts. There is also an interactive exercise at the same site, which is useful for the individual student, but not for you, or the class as a whole.

Why not utilize Google forms to capitalize on all that useful input.

First, create the form from Google Docs and Spreadsheets. (Click here if you don’t remember how.) Here’s an example of what your form might look like. Now, sit back and wait for the input.

Once all the students have participated, publish the results. The output from the input form is a winner in two ways. First, you have an online document which shows you at a glance whether or not your students have completed the first steps toward writing the essay. It will also be very apparent what they don’t understand as a whole, or individually. All very useful information.

Best of all, though, is how they help each other. By making the input document public, all students can see what the other students entered, and make adjustments to their own understandings, or lack thereof.

You’re going to like the output!

the guilt of green

Undeniably, argument essays have become the centerpiece of every university’s freshman composition course. It can be tough, however, to engage our apolitical, sometimes downright apathetic, students into caring enough about an issue to stake much on a passionate argument.

Here’s a topic that may do the trick: Americans have long enjoyed growth and prosperity as they’ve developed into an economic superpower. China and India, two nations with huge populations and enormous productive potential, are ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Just at this time of unprecedented progress for developing nations, developed countries are recognizing the costs of overdevelopment and coming scarcity of resources. We want to go green. Is it fair to ask developing nations to curb their hard-won progress in favor of environmental restraint?

I think students will respond to this topic because it is their future they’re writing about. Yes, they love their SUV’s, they love driving, period. And they’ve grown up in a culture of waste. But they also have a conscience about the effects such waste have on the environment. In a sense, they are like the developing countries, just about to spread their own wings. How do they assess their own responsibilities?

Big Think has a set of six videos featuring viewpoints from various influential thinkers on this very issue. You’ll need to add some written articles to the syllabus, but hearing a mix of ideas can get the ball rolling. Have students summarize and respond to each speaker’s position to help them define their own stand. Here is the link to the videos at Big Think: Is it fair to ask developing countries to go green?

Fair use–what it really means

Joyce Valenza at School Library Journal has a confession to make. Her recommendations regarding use of copyrighted materials for teaching had been too prohibitive:

I was reluctant to use, or bless the use, of copyrighted materials–movies, television, advertising, popular music, etc.–in teaching and student projects, especially those that were broadcast or published online. To avoid danger, I guided teachers and learners to the use of copyright-friendly materials. As wonderful as these growing collections are, sometimes what you really need to use is commercial or more conservatively licensed materials.

Most teachers are aware that their use of copyright materials is protected under fair use, but most schools and districts are uncomfortable with uncertainties about how the laws may be interpreted, and tend to warn teachers–emphatically–to stay away from questionable uses. Valenza attended a conference where the distinctions for using copyrighted works were finally clarified:

Fair use is a doctrine within copyright law that allows use of copyrighted material for educational purposes without permission from the the owners or creators. It is designed to balance rights of users with the rights of owners by encouraging widespread and flexible use of cultural products for the purposes of education and the advancement of knowledge.

Her understanding has now completely turned around, and she now encourages creative use of all types of materials for teachers to make the world more relevant to their students:

I learned . . . that the critical test for fairness in terms of educational use of media is transformative use. When a user of copyrighted materials adds value to, or repurposes materials for a use different from that for which it was originally intended, it will likely be considered transformative use; it will also likely be considered fair use. Fair use embraces the modifying of existing media content, placing it in new context.

Like Valenza, I always felt guilty about my use of current commerically-sold writings in the classroom. I’ll make my own confession. One semester I copied out a chapter of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It’s that wonderful chapter about the two boys who are still young and innocent of the evils of war, cruelty and betrayal, and are about to enter a kite running competition. I was excited to see how my tenth grade students would react to these two scrappy Afghan boys. I made enough copies for classroom use only, and I made certain the title of the book and the author’s name were displayed on each page. Still, I was not kidding myself that this was ‘legal.’

I developed study questions which the students answered in groups once we finished the reading, and I ended the lesson with a freewrite: How did your reading of The Kite Runner change your perceptions of the Afghan people? I learned that although they were aware that the United States had invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks in the US, they had huge misconceptions about the people. Many students reported that they weren’t aware that the Afghans lived in houses or drove cars. They were surprised that they were educated and actually used computers. They were amazed by the idea of ‘mortal’ combat with kites lined with glass (to cut down other kites). Most importantly, however, these boys represented real flesh-and-blood people who were surprisingly much like them when they were younger. This realization quickly led them to questions about how the lives of Afghan children changed after the wars with Russia and the US. Their responses were lengthy, focussed, concerned, and strong.

Was this misuse of copyrighted materials? Did I hurt the author or publisher? I can’t possibly imagine how this exposure could have hurt either. I know for a fact that a few of the students went out and bought the book. Others looked for it in the school and public libraries. There was more excitement when it was announced that there would be a movie based on the book.

This was one of those lessons that make you want to shout from the rooftops about how great it is to be a teacher–definitely transformative.

argument in the driver’s seat

When I taught a year of high school, I had my tenth graders write an argument essay about whether or not driving while talking on cell phones should be banned. We researched the topic, discussed our findings, held a classroom debate, and wrote the essay. It was a great assignment because the topic was something they cared deeply about, considering that most of them were close to getting their driver’s license.

For the debate, I made them memorize some of the facts and statistics from the research, so that their responses wouldn’t devolve into unsupported nonsense. It made a big difference, and I was impressed by their articulation backed by passion. By the time we held the debate, most students agreed that cell phones should be banned while driving, so I had to divide the class evenly to take each side. There was grumbling from those who couldn’t support their particular stand, but they all did a remarkable job defending the assigned positions. Even after the bell rang, I heard them out in the hallway pontificating.

One of the arguments in favor of talking on a cell phone while driving was that it was no different than talking to a passenger. I wish I had had the benefit of this study showing that not to be the case.

research on a budget

If you have access to journal articles through your university when attempting to do research, great. But if you don’t have university affiliation, and you still want to do great research, you need to be aware that there are many viable resources. Write to Done, an indispensable writer’s blog, provides wonderful information about open source journals and uncommon sources readily accessible. This is great stuff.