Unstymied by 21st-Century Writing

Sitting in a PLC, the team and I were stuck between complaining and planning for a new writing unit. As recent recipients of one to one Chrome Books the push was on to modernize, personalize, and digitize our lessons. Something the creators of our writing curriculum had not considered.  We were genuinely stymied.

I should start with a couple confessions, as it is fundamental to the story that you understand them from the outset.

  • I am the unapologetically proud owner of a 20th-century mind.
    • I think better with paper and pencil than a tablet and stylus,
    • My thumbs are not built to type on a keyboard the size of my palm.
    • In my heart, I know that real books are made of paper.
    • I am the unapologetically proud teacher of 21st-century learners.
  • My job is to prepare them for tomorrow, for a digital world where paperclips are more of an icon than an actual piece of wire.
    • Writing has pivoted into a craft that often hidden to my old brain.

To un-stymie myself and understand how to give my students the skills they need to thrive in a world where writing is as amorphous as the digital formats on which it appears, I needed to find a way to remodel and update the classic structure of my thinking. So I went to the tenants of evidence-based practices for teaching writing, the research backed work that articulates what kids need to know to write well. In the most basic terms, these are the most commonly agreed upon foundations of what makes good writing instruction.

The practices look and read as though they may have been pinned in the 19th-century. Like classic riffs form Elvis or quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald, they hold up well but do seem dated.

Then I ventured into the wilds of the World Wide Web to untangle the puzzle before me. One does not really get un-stymied in a web search so much as you become misdirected and mislead by simple answers to complex questions.

The solutions suggested by the internet are more flash than impact.  Clever algorithms that would check student grammar but without context or explanation, Apps that would help students brainstorm or graphically organize their thoughts in pretty ways.

Beyond the flash and dazzle of internet marketing:

  • The power of peer editing a document in Google Docs is a stand-alone game changer. Real-time, and anytime comments, a track-able history of who has written what and the just ability to point students to resources with a quick link has changed classroom group work from a slow methodical drudgery into an active debate.

It turns out what digitization and technology offer young writers is an audience that cares about whatever my students care about.  Good, even great 21st-century writing is hidden all over the web like trees within a vast forest.

YouTube scripts,


Fan fiction,

Blog posts,

Even the comment chains and Facebook posts.

The fundamental difference, if not the only difference between these and the assignment we have used for eons is the audience. Having an audience increases engagement, engagement increase effort and effort increase success.

21st-century writing comes in different forms that need to be explored and individually weighed for their value, but there is an abundance of value there.


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