The Classroom

The Classroom is a podcast by a middle school writing teacher conferring with students about the books they read and issues in writing. The podcast strives to give students a voice about the impact of choice in the classroom and the reality of what works for them in the teaching of reading and writing.
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Oct 18, 2016

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 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 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.