In the fall of 2014, I joined a Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC) project under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey Grabill from Michigan State and Susan Golab from Oakland Intermediate School District. The focus of the project was on feedback, assessment, and evaluation. A group of teacher-researchers would be developing tools to teach argument writing at the secondary level. In reviewing a learning progression for argumentative writing that we were developing, Dr. Grabill pointed out that two moves on the instrument had to do with how the writer used values and affect appropriate to their intended audiences. The phrase ‘audience values’ stuck in my mind. To understand what it means to use values and affect appropriate for an audience, after all, a writer needs experience writing for audiences.
Teens are constantly exchanging ideas online, and they are natural producers and consumers of digital texts. Trusting this, I assumed I only needed to find a way to tap into these activities. As it happened, digital writing advocate Dr. Troy Hicks from Central Michigan University was also working with our MiTRC group. With so much support, conditions seemed right for me to take some steps to incorporate digital writing instruction into my Grade 11 writing workshop. I envisioned a year long classroom project in which students would work in groups and keep blogs, writing about topics related to our classroom units of study. Through a series of broad, open-ended tasks I would teach lessons about voice, style, and writing for audiences.
Two thirds into the first semester, I realized that my early expectations that students would act as agents of their own publication and each others’ audience had been utterly unrealistic. Fiasco and failure were among two the f-words to describe the situation. The writing my students produced to share with one another was, if anything, less interesting and developed than the formal essays they turned in to me. Worse than this, a disturbing percentage of students were not completing the assignments at all.
As part of the MiTRC research, we had ELI Review to set up drafting, feedback, and revision tasks. One benefit of the program was the at-a-glance information it gave. By December, my home page showed, with 3 classes participating in blogging and 12 assignments per class, not a single assignment had been completed by all the students. This is not to say that most students were not completing the work, but that in every class I had reluctant writers. My disappointments were two-fold. The best writers were not producing good writing, and my reluctant students were no less reluctant. I blamed myself for having made too many assumptions.
I thought about my goals, set my priorities, and made some decisions. Learning to write for an audience had to mean more than writing and reading one another’s words. My students had to spend time exploring to work to understand the relationship between the things they said and the things they heard and read each other saying:
Decision #1: To teach audience values, publish. If my goal was for students to learn to write for an audience, my first job would have to be to remove as many obstacles as possible between them and sharing their writing. I changed the project so that they worked in groups and wrote as if writing for blogs, but they handed the work in to me and I posted it on a classroom site. When I acted as their publisher, they were able to complete the assignments, to write with voice and style, and to interact with the published texts. They wrote comments, and continued classroom discussions online. Ideas they had read in each others’ posts came up again in their class discussions. This choice made me sacrifice teaching elements of digital text. But my first goal was for my students to have a variety of experiences to develop an understanding of relationships between writer, text, and audience. Consistency of publication mattered more.
Decision #2: Emphasize the social context. Because the MiTRC project focused on feedback, we were already working on ways to move beyond advice and evaluation in our peer response activities, and to learn about effective ways to talk about writing. For students to understand writing as a social activity, however, we needed to make a bigger shift. My students — and I — were still treating response activities as discrete, isolated tasks. In his article, Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, Grant Wiggins makes the point that authentic feedback is an ongoing relationship of choices, responses, and reactions. To write for an audience means to take part in an open, extended discussion about ideas.
One of the first things I realized after making these adjustments was that for a large number of my high school juniors, there was no valuable social link between their writing and their everyday classroom experiences. If the ideas in their writing were truly going to develop out of discussions and then have impact in a way that would contribute to further discussions, my students needed to approach the exchange of ideas and information with the expectation that the ideas of others could have an impact on their own thinking. To teach them how to write for an audience, I found I had to teach them the value of being each others’ audience.
In our discussions I had to model what it meant to think and listen. I instituted ‘wait time.’ When a student introduced a new idea, no one could respond until they had taken the time to think through how that idea would change, extend, or create discord with what they already believed or understood about the topic. When I told them what it would sound like if I thought those thoughts out loud, I started with phrases like, “If I thought (what the speaker said) then my ideas about (the topic) would have to include/consider/accept…,” summarizing what the speaker had said, and then comparing or contrasting it to what I already knew. Discussions with partners and small groups were structured to be blended in with writing activities. Students would talk, then do short writings in which they summarized and incorporated the thinking of their partners into their own ideas, appropriating ownership over each others contributions as they moved between these written reflections and their ongoing discussions. As they did these things, they discovered they were working more fully through their own understandings of the texts and topics we discussed. At one point, I assigned a collaborative essay in which students in a group provided support and explanation for one another’s ideas about a text, and had to reconcile differences between ideas by exploring and working to explain the complexities that would account for these differences. Students used shared Google documents, drafting and revising together on the same page. Writing became discussion, and discussion became writing. Writers write for social purposes, but in order for this lesson to take hold, teens need to learn how to approach the exchange of ideas as a potentially transformative experience.
By the end of the year, I noticed some important changes in my students and their relationship to their writing. In contrast with the first semester, during the second semester, 13 out of 36 activities were completed by all students in all classes. In fact, for the six assignments due in April and May of the second semester, one class completed 100%. The other two classes had at the lowest a 91% completion rate, all but two of the students in one class and all but three in the other, for those assignments. Out of 77 total students, only 5 did not complete all the assignments, and even those five completed at least thirteen, where in the first semester they had completed none. What it meant was that those reluctant writers who had opted out of writing, feedback, and revision activities during the first semester had begun to write, engage with their peers’ writing, and revise their own work. In all my students’ writing, from blog posts to formal essays, I noticed qualitative improvements in how they worked to develop ideas to support their claims, relating evidence to audience concerns, and in many cases considering a variety of viewpoints about the topic for each piece of evidence. The students also noticed these improvements in each others’ writing. Students began to compliment their peers with comments about how their writing challenged the reader, and discussed varieties of viewpoints about controversial topics. They began to note how the things they wrote for each other extended the ideas they had already shared in conversations.
Digital tools make publication easy and accessible. Digital writing, the discussions that led into it, and those that developed from it helped my students see themselves and their writing from new perspectives. The relationships they were able to build with each other as authors and audience made these discussions meaningful and strengthened their investment in their work.