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Teaching Writing for the 21st Century

Posted by on in Vicki Davis
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In 2001, when I was a junior at Brimmer and May in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts—an independent school where I now also teach—my academic writing benefited tremendously from one-on-one instruction. I learned to write concisely, think analytically, and consult credible sources to deepen my insights.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate the role my mastery of academic writing has played in my success, not just inside the classroom, but also as an education reporter, and most importantly, as a teacher. Clear writing reflects clear thinking, no matter the type of writing, and I have my high school teachers to thank for instilling that lesson in me.

But much has changed in over the 12 years since my graduation, and I’m now excited to serve as Writing Center Director, helping my alma mater embrace technology to help students master not just writing, but also other 21st-century communication skills.

To help set myself on the right tack, I recently read Reinventing Writing: The 9 Tools That Are Changing Writing, Teaching and Learning Forever, by Vicki Davis, a full-time teacher and IT Director at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Georgia. Davis also founded and runs The CoolCatTeacher, one of the Web’s most successful teacher blogs, which, along with Westwood’s Technology Program, has received copious accolades and national recognition.

Davis’s book is filled with practical steps for teaching not just writing, but also collaboration, creativity, and problem solving—essential skills for the new and evolving knowledge-based economy. Davis shows how technology, especially cloud-based tools, can help lead the way. I also admire how Davis, a “techie” if I ever saw one, asks readers to return constantly to a fundamental question: “What am I trying to do?”

Accordingly, one thing I’m always looking to provide is more meaningful and manageable feedback. As a new teacher, I spent hours correcting every misspelling and grammatical flaw. Not surprisingly, before long students accused me of caring more about marking up papers then helping them improve. Rather than sending students into despair and hopelessness over each revision, I now encourage individuals to rework a different writing component, such as topic sentences or transitions. I no longer drench papers in red ink, yet sometimes I’m still unsure if my feedback resonates with all students.

I’m intrigued when Davis tells me about voice annotation, and the power of multi-sensory feedback. “If you have a kid who’s weak in writing, it’s ideal if you can sit beside them, because you can help them,” she says. “But if you can actually record your voice, included as part of that document, I think that [could be] better almost than face‑to‑face, because while they’re revising, they can play it back. They can hear your voice, and they can hear the context of how you’re saying things—and improve their writing.”

All of this makes perfect sense. No matter how talented the teacher, when it comes to written feedback, it’s easy to misconstrue tone and emphasis. I can just imagine my earliest students, rereading my comments time and again. After speaking with Davis, I stumble upon iAnnotate, a dynamic commenting and feedback application that works great with the iPad.

Brimmer and May is an iPad school, and I can’t wait to try out iAnnotate’s other features, which work seamlessly with this device. Better still, iAnnotate works with almost every type of file, and I’m stunned by its array of annotation tools. It also syncs to the iCloud for sharing, not just with the teacher, but also with other students.

Speaking of sharing, I also want to teach and encourage students to share their work online. In this respect, I find it odd (and hypocritical) that for as much as teachers say they support that initiative, more don’t share themselves. I know of no better way of encouraging certain behavior than by modeling it oneself. Full-time teachers like Davis support my case.

“When I saw the value of blogging for my students was when I blogged myself,” says Davis, whose words resonate with me. “In 2000, it was a lot harder. Now [that] we have truly entered the age of the influencer … I’ve seen that more educators realize its important. I don’t think all educators understand the academic value of all these tools. I think that they just think, ‘Oh, it’s social,’ or, ‘That’s what they do on their off time.’ They don’t know that blogging … is a truly new form of writing that we need to teach.”

I couldn’t agree more. Today’s students need to be taught more than just academic writing. They need to understand how to communicate online, using a first-person narrative to promote themselves and their ideas. They need to know what to share, where to share it, and how to attract an online audience. They need to know how and when to hyperlink, which, as Davis says, “can change everything” with how writers footnote, and how readers access information.

Two years ago at Palmer Trinity School in Miami, Florida, my American government students put their knowledge (and opinions) to good use by launching a Blogger website, titled Making a Difference: Give a HOOT about Learning. The project included only a few posts, but in my experience, students learn best through sharing ideas and knowledge, whereby the learning also becomes deep and lasting. Above all else, teachers should strive toward that goal.

I had sharing in mind again this year when my European history students learned about the Belgian Congo under King Leopold II. In class, upon discussing similar atrocities that have happened in more recent history, they wanted to make a difference. To help them do just that, I introduced them to Wix, a powerful website-builder, to use in raising awareness of crimes against humanity. I’m particularly fond of one similar student-generated site titled, Children of Sudan.

Alas, like Davis, I’m a techie (though not in her league). Often, I hear from well-meaning teachers overwhelmed and frustrated by technology. I ask Davis how to help those teachers: “The one thing I tell people is ‘Don’t try to do all nine at the same time. You can’t.’ A lot of people are like rabbits. They run around, they do a bunch of stuff, they move really quickly, and they burn out. You don’t get anywhere. For those teaching writing, the question is what one or two ways are you integrating electronic writing into how you teach? Can you find one tool that will be helpful for you?”

Davis also tells me to encourage teachers to “innovate like turtles,” and that gradual progress wins out over rushed implementation. I’ll keep that wisdom close to heart, as I do my best to embolden educators and equip my students with next-generation writing skills. They should stick their necks out, inch steadily forward, and develop a tough shell against resistance.


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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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Guest Thursday, 21 March 2019