Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Justin Reich: Teachers who co-opt Web tools for class have the best of both worlds

(Courtesy of NCTE)

Turn teen texting toward better writing: Teachers who co-opt Web tools for class have the best of both worlds.
By Justin Reich
Christian Science Monitor


Imagine 20 students in invisible groups of three, all silently, furiously typing and reading, immersed in conversations about the dialogues of Socrates or the teachings of Confucius. That classroom time is incredibly intellectually productive: all 20 students are simultaneously sharpening their arguments, supporting them with evidence, and questioning their colleagues.

My students know that they must practice these analytical conversation skills, which are easily transferred to the realm of formal writing, since I'll be reading and grading a copy of their transcript.

Students who use interactive Web tools in the classroom learn that certain features of effective communication transcend media. Strong arguments; compelling evidence; and clear, concise language are prominent features of analytical writing on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in those oral debates themselves, or on a blog post persuading friends to support a current presidential candidate.

It would be nice if all students wrote essays in their spare time, but Pew tells us that only 8 percent do. Nearly all of them, however, use text and instant messaging, so if the far shore turns out to be a chat room, then we should start teaching critical thinking skills in chat rooms.

One of the remarkable findings of the Pew Internet research is that intellectual stereotypes based on race and class do not hold up under scrutiny. Black and Hispanic teens are more likely than their white peers to write outside school, and 47 percent of black teens keep a journal.

Over half of teenagers from all races and income levels have social networking profiles, like on MySpace or Facebook. This flourishing of creativity and expressiveness should be harnessed in all schools.

Unfortunately, equity in MySpace is not the same as equity in digital educational environments guided by adult educators, and anecdotal evidence suggests that online learning networks are far more common in affluent, white, suburban schools than in hypersegregated, urban schools. Closing the digital divide is not just a matter of plugging in classrooms, but of providing teachers in low-resource schools with the training, prep time, and support to nurture this blossoming of student writing through online learning communities.

Our student bloggers and digital writers of all backgrounds are part of a journaling culture which America has not seen since the great age of diarists during the Transcendental movement, when Thoreau and Emerson recorded their daily lives for eventual public consumption.

Failure to harness that potential energy would prove a terrible misstep at this junction in American education. As educators, we face two choices. We can scorn youth for their emoticons (☺), condemn their abbreviations (Th. Jefferson would have disapproved), and lament the time students spend writing in ways adults do not understand. Or, we can embrace the writing that students do every day, help them learn to use their social networking tools to create learning networks, and ultimately show them how the best elements of their informal communication can lead them to success in their formal writing.

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