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The New Literacy

It’s a formula.  The first sentence is the thesis sentence.  The next few sentences give reasons to support the thesis.  The last sentence sums up what you already said and transitions into the next paragraph.  Each of the following paragraphs is devoted to expanding upon the reasons to support the thesis.  Each follows the same format.  The last paragraph sums up and/or restates the thesis according to the formula.  Repeat depending on the length of the assignment. (Even reading this paragraph is boring.)

 “As a writer, it [the formula]  offends me deeply,” says Professor Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University. 

Me too.  Especially when the formula frequently produces paragraphs like this one and hundreds just like it:

“Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers.  Their families didn’t like one another.  They accidentally killed themselves.  In the end their parents were sorry they were star-crossed.”

Davidson has written a new book, Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.  The book focuses on teaching writing in digital times.  Davidson is a proponent of moving away from the old pre-technology literacy, including the dreaded 20-page research paper, into a new literacy that embraces short papers, websites, PowerPoint, and blogs.

I have no problem with high school or even college students abandoning the research paper.  I stopped assigning it years ago, and as an administrator encouraged the English department to give it up too (with not a lot of success).  It’s the rare student who can refine a topic, gather pertinent research, come to her own conclusions, and present the whole argument in clear, cogent, lengthy prose.  Researchpapertable-main_Full

In addition, time management is always a problem.  No matter how many weeks a teacher gives her students to complete the paper, no matter how carefully she monitors their progress, many will try to slap the paper together in the last few days.  The time crunch leads to papers rife with ignorance, mechanical errors, cutting and pasting, and plagiarism, which now must be dealt with as a disciplinary issue.  No thank you.

This is not to say that I believe we should abandon all formal writing and replace it with student blogs.  Students can practice thinking and writing in shorter traditional formats.  But as Matt Richtel notes in his excellent article in Education Life, choosing to have students write either traditional papers or blogs is another false dichotomy for which educators are famous.  Students can actually do both, and teachers can choose from a panoply of formats.  Still, even in my doctoral courses, I found that blogging is often more about self-expression and less about actually thought, the literary equivalent of the difference between “The Bachelor” and “Downton Abbey”.  But it doesn’t have to be, Richtel notes.  While blogs are “a platform that seems to encourage rambling exercises in personal expression,” [they] can also be well-crafted and meticulously researched,” he says. On her blog Davidson herself says, “My larger point is that ‘blogs vs term papers’ is a nonsensical binary.  There are good and bad ways to use blogs just as there are good and bad ways to use term paper or any other assignments.“

One big advantage blogs have in teaching writing is that the audience is greatly increased from just the teacher to all of the students’ classmates and maybe beyond.  In addition, blogging is interactive, and many students don’t trouble themselves to criticize gracefully.  So publishing written work in any form is a strong impetus to revise and correct.

This is an interesting time to be teaching writing.  So many choices, so many ideas.  And the teacher doesn’t have to drag a 10-pound briefcase home every weekend filled with samples of sorry writing.



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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.