Friday, November 25, 2011

Writing in the Information Age

How many short stories have you written in the past six months? As adults 80% of writing consists of expository writing. We write most often for a purpose: to communicate information, to ask questions, to make reports and to interact with colleagues. In the Information Age, for business and pleasure, we more often communicate electronically with colleagues, friends and family.

It is in the reading and responding to text that we create writing opportunities for students who may be reluctant to put pen to paper. The role of the teacher in the Information Age is to guide students in communication skills, which will help them fully function in a language and communication-based economy. Young people are more than facile with electronic communication and they are not afraid to try any new technological development. In fact, educators, such as Burke (2003), believe that using digital technology can help us communicate in layers of understanding that carries a far more creative opportunity.

We know from brain research (Jensen, Caine, Greenwood, Nunley) that when we integrate brain functions we create dendritic connections that reinforce learning and make learning easier. Expository writing incorporates data, information, knowledge and leads to a deeper understanding by linking linguistic meanings to graphic representations. This holistic integration transforms the learner from a passive writer to a creator. Anchored in specific, authentic writing tasks, students can be encouraged to refine writing skills by incorporating digital technology into permanent records of their work.

Writing in the Information Age
With the advent of the Information Age, educators have realized whole new worlds that are open to them. Digital communication links learners to other learners. It provides an avenue for linking us globally on the Information Highway, creating multicultural respect, and understanding of diversity and opportunities for educators to facilitate tolerance. While much has been written in the inequities of the current economic climate, there are many opportunities for technosavy educators to take advantage of technological advances and create opportunities for growth. We are increasingly limited by cutbacks to human and financial resources. Initiatives paid for by the PT3 grants have diminished as this program winds down. Universities are exploring new opportunities such as laptops, which sit on moveable carts, moving around schools on a rotational basis. Other faculties have created mentoring programs with the intent of increasing the integration of technology.

Technology Integration
At the 2003 SITE Conference, keynote speaker Dr. MD Roblyer asked, “If technology is the answer, what is the question?” The integration of technology into our writing is multisensory, inclusive, symbolic, interactive and universal in its design. It establishes a student’s work as a meaningful representation of their knowledge and understandings. Using technology enables students to work at their own pace as they undertake projects which integrate subjects, create relationships amongst concepts, participate in flexible groupings, and collaborate and communicate with one another.
semantic organisers
For or these reasons I have chosen to use technology with my elementary students as a major focus of our regular work. The bulk of the work students have created is an e-portfolio of their creative and expository writings, their major project presentations, derived from Social Studies, Science, Arts and Language Arts work. They create graphic representations of their knowledge and connect left and right brain work in meaningful ways.

Authentic Writing Opportunities
Will multimedia, technology-based opportunities create authentic writing opportunities for our students? I believe it will. As we begin to collect more data on the use of computer technology and come to a greater understanding of and further interpretations of pedagogy, we are realizing that we are not making students smarter by giving them more time on a computer. In the Postmodernist Era this is simply not enough. Our notion of education and learning and curriculum design must and will change if we want to move into the Information Age. We must critically reflect on where we are heading in using technology in our schools.

The manner in which we will implement computers and create programs for our elementary students has a profound impact on both the student and the teacher. Our students have access to drag and drop applications and voice-activated computers are just down the road. We must prepare students for the learning process, not just to fill them like vessels with facts. We must challenge our students in new ways by encouraging them to use digital technology to help them construct meaning.

Many parents I speak to insist that we develop their child's computer skills, often at the expense of other skills. They feel that the computer skills they require in the workplace must be taught at an earlier age. I believe we need to teach our students how to learn, as much as how to use our minds. Costa's Developing Minds, as quoted in Senge (1991), supported by work in chapter 13, The Good Thinker, identifies Intellectual Behaviours which demand that we develop in our student's minds these skills:
persistence, self-control, listening skills, flexibility in thinking, metacognition, a quest for accuracy and precision, the ability to question, assimilating past knowledge and experiences, ingenuity, originality, insightfulness: creativity, precision of language and thought, multisensory data-gathering, humour, wonderment, inquisitiveness and curiosity, co-operative thinking and social intelligence.
Senge (1991)
Technology-based writing opportunities create problem solvers and thinkers as they rise to the challenge of communication literacy.

To require students to record their activities on an e-portfolio ensures that they are motivated to do work at home, to do reading and writing in order to be prepared for the activities of the next day. Research abounds on the benefits of Multimedia, web-based projects that require students to provide evidence of their learning. These activities, if properly scaffolded, provide for authentic writing opportunities for learners. Students are carefully guided in word processing their expository and creative writing. They learn to edit for meaning, using that wonderful little spell check tool, creating graphics, spreadsheets, graphing data, writing scripts, connecting the visual to text and learning to use encoding tools which make their web page work much easier.

Discovering American Memory
The case for e-portfolios is a strong one. More and more pre-service teachers are required to prepare portfolios. The collection of various artifacts, the overviews and the reflection on learning, provides a summative assessment of progress for both student and teacher. (See Ice Storm '98 examples!)

Web Page Content
Student e-portfolios can be any combination of activities. Clagget, for example, encourages students to draw their vocabulary words, creating visual representations of their understanding of the written word. I have found that students are eager to digitally record events, report on its success, review the event for its meaning and purpose, and create scripts and voiceovers for iMovies and photogalleries.

Students can create visual essays, develop literacy narratives, create digital storytelling, use the web to reflect in literature circles, perform graphic note-taking, document science experiments, After students participate in a workshop, review a movie or view an Arts performance, they have an opportunity to write a commentary. There are several ways to do this. I tend to use  a number of templates which enable even the weakest writer to create a critical reflection of an event. More able writers need not depend upon this.

This is one way to archive student work
and create e-portfolios!
Norton-Meier, in “To Efoliate or Not To Efoliate? The Rise of the Electronic Portfolio in Teacher Education”, says that we must be vigilant and ensure that content is pruned and weeded. Incorporating digital images into their work provides logographic cues to the reader and the writer, for a good part of writing is writing for a purpose; to communicate information, to connect meaning and to reflect on their thoughts and their work.

Preparing student to write is an important aspect of their projects. Pre-writing strategies vary with projects but require the use of thinking skills to critically reflect upon their work and to choose their communication strategies, whether it be text or graphically-based. This motivates students to go to the word processor and plan, write, collaborate and rewrite. Sometimes it is a simple mind map of connecting thoughts and ideas, which they coordinate at the keyboard.
Reluctant writers know that their ticket into the computer lab is a plan, either a webbing of ideas, an outline, a prepared first or final draft which they can edit to present to the world. This is a strong motivator for students who are anxious to put fingers to keyboards. Students have often e- mailed first drafts to me in order to spend more time fine tuning details in our precious computer lab periods.

Assessment consists of prepared rubrics designed to give student the opportunity to self and peer-assess. Students create a writing plan, web, outline, draft or good copy of their work wither on paper or on the computer. Their work is created in our word processing program (Appleworks) and then it is handed in to the “hand-in” folder on the schools LAN server. The teacher can request hard copy print-outs, as well, while not saving paper, saving time in front of the computer screen and allowing the teacher to revise and edit at their leisure.

After word processing a project or piece of writing, students convert files to HTML and this can be placed on their web pages. The teacher, as web weaver, is responsible for ensuring that work meets the standards of school board policy. Students may not provide identifying information; nor can they put individual photos on their web pages, which may lead to identification by strangers. It is best to be very aware of school board policy in this regard. Internet safety is a new worry in this era. It is up to teachers to educate students on safe internet practices, rather than relying on artificial net minder devices.

Peer assessment is in ongoing process. Students are eager to share new ideas and peer tutor others as they master new skills. Parents can review progress at any time. We regularly provide feedback as we reflect on our work. Their work is public and this allows for easy peer tutoring, as students refine and revise work. Students to do student-led conferencing at home and e-mail work to friends and families. I would suggest that you explore the possibilities of e-portfolios for all of your students. It is a thoughtful, transformative method of engaging even the most reluctant learners. While the computer and technology are only tools, they are a means by which teachers can provide rich opportunities for growth.
There are many on-line rubric makers that enable the teacher to assess and evaluate student progress. Contact your Board’s IT personnel to get help. A quick on-line Google search will give you formatting help. Assessment should be on-going, developmental and should lead the learner towards improving the mechanics and the content of their work.
The 'S' words add depth to writing

Marking Work
When preparing the students for assessment, the actual marking can be time consuming. My practice was to have students mark each other's work. The purpose in this is three-fold. Firstly, I ensure that a strong student marks the work of a weaker student, and vice versa. The stronger students get a better understanding of their peers, and builds their self-esteem. The less able writers can see what quality work looks like.  'When we know better we do better!'  

Secondly, this saves much time for the teacher and gives me more time to assist those who need my help.
Thirdly, peer tutoring usually ensues, as a student can give gentle reminders of ways to improve writing skills, without the teacher (with her proverbial red pen) having to render judgement on the student. It appears to relive much pressure in the classroom. It must be said, however, that some students may have to be taught how to respectfully give suggestions for improvement. Also, I ask them to choose to mention only three ways to improve the writing, while outlining three things the writer did well. This gives a balance, and encouragement to the struggling writer.

1. Burke, J. (2003). English Teachers Companion. Second Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
2. Clagget, F. (1992). Drawing Your Own Conclusions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
3. Kajder, S. The Tech Savvy English Classroom.
4. Norton-Meier, L.A. (2003) “To Efoliate or Not To Efoliate? The Rise of the Electronic Portfolio in Teacher Education”. Found at: 03_column/ , March 18th, 2004.
5. Nunley, K. and 
6. Senge, P., et al (2000) Schools That Learn, Doubleday, Inc., NY 
7. Jilks, J.A. (2003) Our class web site: 
9. Digital Resources 
10. WebQuest: Who Wants to Be a Pioneer?
11. Rubric-builder:

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