Ancient art in a technological age: Today’s writing classes emphasize communication skills

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Last year, Shannon High School English teacher Victoria Ashby tried a new exercise.
The eighth-year teacher wrote a five-paragraph essay about a book her class had read and asked her 16-year-old daughter to translate it. Ashby didn’t want her daughter to turn her work into French or Spanish but into “text-message” speak.
LOL.
The next day, she presented it to her class. After they finished asking her if she was serious, the students began their assignment of translating the passage back into standard English.
“It was the greatest experience I ever had,” said Ashby, who teaches English II and integrated writing at Shannon. “They had to fix something I wrote, and they knew the language, but knew it was inappropriate.”
Today’s writing instructors have a special challenge as they teach students an ancient art in a technological age. They must emphasize formal writing to an audience that has become accustomed to breezy, abbreviated text messaging from a young age.
They also must teach creativity during an era of accountability when student progress is measured by scores on multiple choice standardized tests.
“I think that teaching any content, and particularly teaching language arts, is now harder than it has ever been,” said Kim Patterson, director of the Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute at Mississippi State University.
The challenge has been exacerbated by the proliferation of text messaging. Students enter classrooms with a familiarity for communicating in a language that emphasizes abbreviations and downplays grammar.
“We have set a precedent that slang and acronyms have no place in our class,” said Pasteia Garth, who teaches seventh-grade English at Nettleton Junior High School. “We don’t let kids get away with ‘LOL.’”
There is a place for text message language, Garth said. But there is also a place for standard English.
That was the lesson Ashby was trying to teach her students in having them translate her essay.
“They thought it was the greatest thing that they could write that well,” Ashby said. “That helped their skills and their confidence level.”
Distinguishing between the various forms of expression gives educators an opportunity to teach real-life lessons about audience and purpose, said Ellen Shelton.
Shelton is the director of the University of Mississippi Writing Project. Like its sister organization, MSU’s Mississippi Writing/Thinking Institute, the writing project works with high school teachers to help them instruct students on the subject.
“Writing is still all about communicating and communicating well, no matter the medium,” Shelton said.
Helpful platforms
Shelton, a former high school teacher, said she has seen students’ writing become more concise as they adjust to platforms like Twitter, which restricts messages to 140 characters. She has also seen many of her former students now keep their own blogs, writing often without realizing they are writers.
In fact, teachers have been able to use technology with their instruction. Ashby sometimes uses the classroom projector to have students collaborate on essays with everyone adding their own part to something displayed on the screen. She also posts a student’s work, without identifying the author, and has classmates edit it.
Tools like spell check and grammar check have weakened editing skills, teachers said. Thus, exercises to improve those skills have become important.
Robert Cummings, director of the Center for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi, uses Wikipedia.org for writing assignments he gives to his university students. The website is an encyclopedia that uses content entirely written by the general public all over the world.
Students must find articles on the site, research that topic and add new information. Not only do they have to know the topic well enough to see what new information is needed, but they must also write for a critical public that can either accept or reject their entries.
“Now they are writing for a real external audience that responds to their writing,” Cummings said.
Technology has done nothing to de-emphasize writing, Shelton said.
“To me, there is even more emphasis placed on writing today because we use it in everything we do,” she said. “We communicate via email and text messages and social media. We tweet.”
Mississippi’s curriculum also places more emphasis on writing, requiring students to write extensive pieces as part of the standardized tests they take in fourth, seventh and 10th grade. The 10th-grade writing test is even a requirement for graduation.
Those tests have brought the skill of writing to the forefront, many educators said. Many districts now teach it across multiple academic subjects.
The emphasis has changed, however, Garth said. When she began teaching 10 years ago, the focus was on structure. Today it is on content. In order to get top scores on the state writing test, students can’t follow a formula but must use creativity.
“I think the writing test is good because it pushes for effective communication,” she said. “We get so bogged down in understanding grammar and mechanics that we forget the main reason we need those skills is to be able to communicate.”
In today’s technological world, Patterson said, that is the skill that matters most.
“It is about learning to use language appropriately and accurately, and that happens in context of writing,” she said.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com