This past weekend, a presenter at the Keystone State Reading Association (KSRA) conference noted that we do not read "wide and deep" any longer. She cited recent studies demonstrating that the average American read only one book in 2015. I found a recent Pew study estimating that only 72% of Americans read at least one book over the span of a year. The Atlantic confirms that statistic and adds the number of non-book-readers has tripled since 1978.
So what does any of this have to do with an 8th-grade student? While how we read and write continues to evolve to include digital modes, and while adult models of reading and writing remain on the decline, adolescents and teenagers still crave acts of literacy.
In the first episode of my podcast with Jay, he shared some of his reading life as a child and some of his current habits on social media. However, I did not anticipate the shift in conversation where Jay shares how YouTube influences him as a writer:
"Your editing style can really make people recognize your video...you could recognize people [people] by their editing style...you really can recognize someone by their doing what they do..."
Jay shares that he watches Youtube How-to videos. This, of itself, is not remarkable. Many adolescents turn to YouTube to learn, socialize, and create. However, Jay told me that he can tell who made what video according to their editing decisions. While Jay may hear himself sharing a fluent part of the process of being a fledgling teenager, I hear an opportunity to help Jay grow as a writer who will make style decisions too (word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions).
And if I can help Jay grasp those concepts as a writer, then I know Jay will help others around him grasp those concepts. He will be able to mentor his classmates and writing partners through daily conferring and through synchronous collaborative editing...and collaboration is already in the bloodstream of many adolescents.
Jay and his friends collaborate on stories--acting them out--and it reminds me of Tom Sawyer running off into the woods to play at Robin Hood and pirates. As Jay talked about this active (physical) use the imagination he shifts to a memory of when he was younger and a friend gave him a notebook to write in. Jay tried to write a story about "a guy who went on funny, weird adventures."
Even though that story did not work out, Jay says he still thinks about writing while he reads in his room or even as he watches Youtube "I've thought about writing something...starting something of my own...that I could call my own..."
Jay's repeated referencing of YouTube reminds me of their banner statement: Broadcast Yourself. As Donald Graves knew, children do want to write. And just because children grow into busier adolescents and teenagers does not mean that they have to grow into disengaged adults. I do not know how to stop the current downward slide of literacy in America today, but I have an inkling that we can begin to shift the tide by encouraging young writers like Jay.
Encouragement is everything.
Conferring with Jay, I am reminded that the most meaningful feedback is given from the student to teacher. By that, I mean that the teacher encourages the students to think and share the decisions he makes with his reading and writing. Through the act of speaking it, the student is able to understand it and then, theoretically, decide what he is to do next. The teacher serves as a mentor, not a judge.
This conference with Jay started like so many others. He loves reading, but it slowed down a bit for a few years. Now that he is older, sports & activities take up a lot of time.
After a class discussion on making a plan for adding reading back into our lives, Jay disciplines himself to bring a book with him in the car and he schedules reading for himself on weekends.
For teachers, what kids do outside of the classroom should matter as much as what they do inside of the classroom. But we can rarely understand what they do unless we ask. And unless we listen.
And this is where Jay's conference turned on a dime.
Jay shares that he watches Youtube How-to videos. This, of itself, is not remarkable. Many adolescents turn to YouTube to learn, socialize, and create. However, Jay told me that he is noticing style. He said he can tell who made what video according to their editing decisions. While Jay may hear himself sharing a fluent part of the process of being a fledgling teenager, I hear an opportunity to help Jay grow.
If Jay can notice style in a video because of the decisions a filmmaker, then I can coax Jay through conversations of style in various writers because of the decisions they make. Jay will be able to respond to questions about his decisions as well. Because I asked the student to tell me about his reading and writing life outside of the classroom, I have an access point towards helping Jay understand the impact of word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. And if I can help Jay grasp those concepts as a writer, then I know Jay will help others around him grasp those concepts. He will be able to mentor his classmates and writing partners through daily conferring and through synchronous collaborative editing.
But there is another lingering question in the back of my mind...saved for conferences in the near future. What of the YouTube banner statement Broadcast Yourself.
Since broadcasting is a form of publishing our thinking, when do adolescents feel the urge to create on YouTube? Clearly, Jay is drawn to watching it. He says watching his brother create videos is fun. He watches a video with a sophisticated eye for style. I wonder if Jay or my other students will make the leap towards broadcasting their thinking...and how much writing, planning, collaboration, and sharing would go into such a leap. I wonder if students would seize the opportunity to publish their thinking on a class YouTube channel.
Jay has me wondering a lot. He has me thinking about how this supports our students' writing and reading processes today.
Sometimes the most meaningful feedback is not what we say to a student, it is what we hear from a student.
When students share that they used to write stories as a child, I am delighted to learn about what they did. Little else is as charming to hear an adolescent describe the book he wrote several years ago. Will started out his conference with a similar story, but then shifted to a story he is writing right now on his own.
What hooks me about Will--beyond the fact that he literally unplugs and goes outdoors to compose--is how he acts as a writer on his own outside of the class. Thankfully, writing is more than just something Will does in school.
Will is a writer.
After playing a video game (Slenderman) which Will admits is scary, he began to imagine the game turned into a book. He composes--thinking--while shooting baskets outside. As you listen to the podcast, note how a video game is, for Will, the source of an idea.
Before writing anything down on paper, Will constantly tells himself the story in his imagination while physically engaged in an activity outdoors. I think of writers who share that they go for a walk in order to stimulate their thinking.
Soon, Will abandons the Slenderman story for a new idea for a story. To use Will's word, he "remodeled" the story.
What is beautiful here is that Will's unique process continues to evolve. He went from a video game, to imagining fan fiction, to imagining an original story, to the next stage: he verbalized the story to his mother and brother in the car. And they encouraged him to keep working on it. They said that it was good, but keep going...
Will presents one example of the constant state of composition outside of the classroom that some adolescents do on their own. When pressed to tell me how and when he would write the story down, Will did not leap to that action. His response is patient and makes the point that his writing process is very much a mental rehearsal. When he finishes shooting baskets he tells himself, literally, "to be continued" and conjures a mental placeholder.
When Will eventually returns to shooting hoops another day, he summarizes the story to himself and picks up from the mental placeholder. This is very real, recursive act of revision for Will.
The depth and believability of Will's story astonish me. He comments on characters' decisions ("it is kind of sad") and articulates the setting and family history so clearly that capture a sense of Will's imagined community quite well. I especially love, as he is summarizing his story, that he says he doesn't want to tell me anymore because he does not want to spoil it.
This is a writer who believes in his thinking. This is real. The writing is real. The story is real.
Will is a writer.
Once Will moves to put the ideas down on a document, he verbalizes the story aloud to himself. He says he is listening to hear well he wrote the suspense, details, and description. When asked why that act is different than just reading your work silently, Will says, "Well, I can't hear myself when I read silently."
Will is a writer.
Will reports that a fluency exists between what he writes at home and what he writes at school. This stream of composing is never severed. It is strengthened. Will points to a class lesson that directly impacted his personal writing. He goes right into a specific example from his story; yet, he still knows what he wants to work on next (details during the most suspenseful moments) and points to James Dashner's The Kill Order as a mentor text. He knew the book influencing his style right away. He notes that Dashner's details make the moments sound real. Will states that reading Dashner taught him how important those kinds of details were.
I wish I could take credit for any of Will's discoveries and revelations. But I can't. Will came to me as a writer. He is a writer. And when one writer is in the presence of another writer, we listen and encourage, we share and mentor.
Mina Shaughnessy wrote in Errors & Expectations that the average American high school and middle school student only wrote 350 words a week in the 1970s while the basic writer in high school and middle school only wrote 350 words a semester. Historically for many adolescents, writing has been more of a designated activity--write in school, write for school--than an authentic tool for thinking. Among my adolescent friends in the 1970s and 1980s, the only public engagement with writing occurred via graffiti.
Today, we often see adolescents and teenagers engaged in an act of writing on their devices. We may not think much of its value in the grand trajectory of growing as a writer, but texting and posting on social is, indeed, an act of writing--and carries with it many of the same conditions taught in academic writing. Rather than compare texting and social media posts to the academic writing desired in schools, I have been trying to see writing in digital spaces for its intrinsic value. I have been trying to understand the value in what is happening when adolescents write via text or social media.
I see all levels of writers writing for authentic reasons. In many most cases, students write to friends through texting and social media, but writing to an authentic audience is something teachers may not leverage enough. With the proliferation of digital devices, adolescents are no longer only writing in artificial situations. When I was in middle school, basic writers struggled to access their thoughts. It may not have been unusual for some of my friends to have written nothing at all in school (or at home). Even though my friends talked a blue streak to one another, we could not compose these ideas on paper--and often gave our teachers the impression that we were slow, struggling...or basic writers.
As we pick up with my conversation with Shannon and Brynn, I learn about what they are aware of online. Shannon and Brynn share their thoughts about commenting on social media and its impact on a writer's confidence. They also note that the significant difference between what is written on a "real" Instagram account and what is written on a "fake" Instagram account aka a "Finsta."
This evolution of a "Finsta" is significant because the adolescent-teen world figured out distinctions among audiences. In so doing, adolescents participate in an exercise something many teachers across the country try to recreate in the classroom--a community of writers. Our kids are using fake accounts so only the people they trust can see what they write. This makes my head pop just a little. It is already well-documented that trust and modeling fuel writing communities; yet, kids don't need the research to tell them this.
Set aside conversations about the possibilities of inappropriate language for a moment (plenty of adults model inappropriate writing online as it is) and focus on what kids have created without us...actually, deliberately without us: a room of one's room. Writer to writer, friend to friend, our adolescents have created the many of the conditions advocated by Donald Graves, James Britton, et al. I speculate, with good reason, that adolescents have done this to distance themselves from the judgment adults while moving themselves closer to the encouragement that grows from the seeds of trust.
As one of my students tells me in the podcast, on (real) Instagram "there is a lot judging...it is human nature."
Towards the back end of the conversation, Shannon and Brynn blend in why adolescents use a variety of social media tools to communicate with the same circles of friends.
While Instagram provides outlets for creating shared experiences (travel, daily routines, sports) which are fun to look at, Snapchat is all about humor and being yourself.
My students tell me "...that's what I like...on Instagram you try to look good, but you try to do crazy stuff on Snapchat. It's just a joke back and forth...it is your worst and best moments..."
Among the possible writing skills under development under these conditions on social media are writing to different audiences, word play, using imagery to contribute to a story, and writing for authentic purposes. Again, we may not be packaging this writing into applications for private school, but the more we know about the kind of writing adolescents are engaged in outside of our classrooms, the better prepared we can be to help them when they are inside our classrooms.
Adolescents carry much more writing experience, collectively, than my classmates and I toted into our first year in high school in 1983. As a matter of fact, a teacher who began his career in 1983 could still be teaching today--to a differently equipped adolescent and teen than he met at the start of his career. Perhaps a thirteen-year-old is always a thirteen-year-old irrespective of the era, but the conditions under which each thirteen-year-old lives harbors strong influence in their development as readers and writers. Ignoring the impact of students writing in digital spaces is akin to ignoring the role played students having access to a library.
Painfully anchored to handwriting and grammar, writing instruction in school feels the strain of technology. Subsequently, what adolescents and teenagers do online, outside the classroom, is dismissed. Kids just being kids. Wasting time. Texting isn't writing. Kids are more likely to be sloppy. Kids are less likely to be conscious of grammar. Writing on social media or through texting does not look like what many adults consider good writing; therefore, it is not good writing. Some may argue that it is not really writing at all.
When I spoke with Shannon and Brynn, two 8th grade students in my class, I initially wanted to know more about their reflections about using video online. They each wrote reflections about how Snapchat and YouTube functions in their lives outside of school. I had no idea I was about to get an education about writing on social media.
The notion of how kids write outside of school matters most to me here. I learned to pay attention to this concept from Donald Graves.
Lots of educators construct curriculum and lessons around the architecture of assessing writing. We teach the nuts and bolts previous generations project on what tomorrow's adolescents will need in college and beyond. While these ideas make for a healthy conversation, writing instruction is often a narrow practice. It has been this way for generations.
Listen to this episode of The Classroom while suspending long-held judgments about writing. Listen to what Shannon and Brynn say about how they write outside of the classroom. And consider how their footprint matches any of the considerations of good writing in school.
Our conversation led to an examination of what some adolescents do on the social media platform Instagram. Just as Shannon and Brynn dig into the importance of writing captions, they tell me that having good writing skills (to write a caption) is paramount because "otherwise people will judge" on Instagram.
When I ask how they learn to write captions well, each immediately points to mentors in their family and peers online. They text one another, call one another, and observe what others are doing in an effort to be a better writer in this very specific context.
Take that statement for all that it is worth--observe what others are doing in an effort to be a better writer. Turning to mentors is the foundation of some of the best writing instruction that we know. And kids are doing it on their own. Away from us. Organically. Holistically. Shannon and Brynn share the practice of authentic writing so many kids are doing...and let's not overlook the fact that authentic writing practices might be the rarest writing practice inside America's classrooms.
As they speak, I become fascinated by their manipulation of text so that they might create clever puns. They speak an awful lot about the cleverness of the writing.
Finally, we addressed style. Shannon and Brynn tell me that they can identify writers on Instagram by their style. The writing takes a component of a person's personality through choices to use punctuation, capitalization, hashtags, and emojis: "how you post like your personality...everything you do on social media is your style..."
I am not advocating that writing on social media should replace anything; however, I am suggesting that we consider its value. Adolescents and teenagers talk about writing. They mentor one another about writing. They share their writing. Simply put, adolescents are developing an understanding of certain components of writing, without us, outside of the classroom.
This is incredible to me. This is a good thing. A very very good thing. Put it into context, yes, but embrace the conversations about writing happening away from the adults outside of the classroom. What adolescents do with their writing outside of class is just as important (perhaps more so) than what they do inside our classrooms.
A monument standing in Beethoven's birthplace (Bonn, Germany) keeps coming back to me because this specific statue is of Beethoven standing while holding a pencil and a small notebook. At first blush, we might think he is composing music. However, Beethoven was a great observer of the world. He carried a journal with him everyplace. Records exist of his notes about nature and thinking inspired during walks outdoors. Records note that he took a journal and a pencil with everyplace.
Recently, an 8th grader, Hope, said a few things that reminded me of this statue of Beethoven. Hope told me that when she was younger that she used to write newspapers for her family. But then she stopped because school got in the way. She had too much to do and could no longer find the time to sit down to write (not an uncommon experience for today's adolescent).
However, when Hope received a camera for Christmas, a chain of events moved Hope toward becoming a writer again...or, if you will, a composer. Hope started to vlog her family magazine rather than write it with pen and paper.
Like all writers, mentors informed Hope of what to do. She learned about vlogging through her younger sister and then through YouTube. Composing through video "came naturally" as Hope began to take her camera with her to many family events. It is as if the physical camera moved Hope towards becoming an observer of life much in the same way that the notebook and pencil allowed Beethoven to observe nature. We don't think of the pencil and journal as technological advancements, but each truly is. And by the same token, we don't necessarily regard the camera capabilities on our smartphones (or in Hope's case a stand-alone camera) as a writing tool. But a camera truly is a writing tool.
I am fascinated by Hope's admission "I feel like with home and school there is no time to just sit down and write" because so many kids experience this sense of lost time. I especially appreciate Hope's circular debate with herself. On the one hand, she says, composing with video is easier "because you can see it right in front of you" but on the other hand, she says, "with writing you can do the same thing...it's complicated."
Oh, how I love those two words in that moment: it's complicated.
Writing IS a complicated act of moving thinking to the page. Many strategies can help adolescents develop as writers. Talking, for instance, is one of the greatest writing strategies we can encourage in our classrooms. Sketching is another strategy. And now, with photography and video so accessible to many students, we should make more room for encouraging additional tools as students find them natural extensions of what they want to compose.
When I asked Hope if she found any similarities between vlogging and writing she nodded immediately and told me about her videos of wild horses which she later incorporated as a base for writing for school.
While Hope and I go on to talk about the possibilities of leveraging this tool in writing for other classes, I have to add that I most interested in what young writers do outside of the classroom. What conditions put young writers in an almost constant state of composition. I am looking forward to seeing if Hope continues to engage in these moments of constant composition with her camera. And, of course, I am wondering what the next student will tell me about what works for them when it comes to writing.
With each conference, my students remind me that our writing processes, indeed, vary--and when each variation is honored we develop trust. And when we develop trust, we develop a community of writers.
The more I speak with students, the more they offer for reflection. Students' words build the most honest mirrors to gaze into for teachers. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the decisions we make as teachers--and which decisions create possibilities for growth--and what role does homework play in the process of adolescent growth?
When Olivia (an 8th grade student) sat down with me, her experiences addressed engagement (even though she does not use that word). Specifically, Olivia's word, detachment, caught my interest.
I encounter many adolescents who no longer identify themselves as a readers or writers in middle school. They remember enjoying reading and writing in elementary school. In this podcast episode, Olivia admits spending all of her free time reading when she was a child. And now, like so many other adolescents, Olivia tells me that she rarely initiates any reading or writing by herself.
Why? If you have listened to this podcast in the past, you might have a strong guess that reading and writing vanish when homework arrives in middle school. I ask Olivia, "homework got in the way?" And without drawing a breath, Olivia says, "Yeah."
This isn't an argument against homework as much as it is a signal. Parents and teachers, more than ever, must be models of reading and writing if we are to have any chance of current generations engaging in it outside of the classroom.
Olivia adds that once middle school hit, she no longer saw reading and writing as a priority. She admits lounging around in the summertime with her digital device in lieu of reading and writing.
Some may blame the device--and that is tempting--but the device didn't break Olivia's cycle of reading and writing. Homework did. So many adolescents turn to their phones because they are bored (they also tell me this over and over), and reading and writing no longer stand tall as a priority--as something they want to do for themselves after they finish their homework. So, students turn to what has always been a priority for adolescents and teenagers--connecting with friends. Perhaps kids aren't "addicted to their phones"...they might just be addicted to their friends. Just like I was in the 1970s and 1980s. Just like adolescents and teenagers will always be.
However, the most sobering moment during my chat with Olivia is when she describes reading a book (written for adults) that she liked, but she stopped halfway through it so she could catch up with homework. That book still sits unfinished in her bedroom, to which Olivia says, "...it's kind of a sad...I was looking forward to finishing that story."
Please do not read this as an indictment of any teacher or school. What Olivia describes is a well-known, documented, circumstance across the country from 6th through 12th grade. I struggle with the balance of creating conditions for reading and writing for success in life and reading and writing for success on tests.
This is the reality for American teachers in 2016.
I know the 40 Book Challenge that Olivia speaks of and adapt my own version of it at the beginning of the school year. On the one hand, when it comes to literacy, volume matters; yet, on the other hand, I have learned that the number of books read does not trump engagement. Together, the number of books read AND engagement moves readers. Acts of authentic reading and writing are far better than acts of compliance--irrespective of the number of books "read."
In the podcast, Olivia tells me that she is not a writer, yet she shares details of a rich writer's life. All of the conditions have been in place for her! When Olivia tells me about listening to Korean music and copying the lyrics, she says, "it is fun to write."
And what is fun? --the act of writing what interests her, the act of conversation with friends, the act of sharing an experience. Even though Olivia calls herself picky, she knows what she likes. Like many adolescents, Olivia likes conversation, connections with peers and mentors, and above all, Olivia likes encouragement.
Read (or listen) between the lines. What moved Olivia a few inches forward towards reestablishing a reading and writing life? Adults and friends serving as mentors and models--the people in her life who encouraged and shared in an experience.
Olivia is not an exception in this regard. All adolescents need our best. They need us to model how and why reading and writing is a priority for a life full of joy and depth. Our students need people to help them see where and why they are attached to reading and writing more than they need more reasons to detach. And perhaps, more than anything else, students need all adults (teachers, administrators, and parents) to think long and hard about homework.
What is gained?
And what is lost?