Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Here is my official bio: Dr. Troy Hicks is an associate professor of English at Central Michigan University and focuses his work on the teaching of writing, literacy and technology, and teacher education and professional development. A former middle school teacher, he collaborates with K–12 colleagues and explores how they implement newer literacies in their classrooms. Hicks directs CMU’s Chippewa River Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and he frequently conducts professional development workshops related to writing and technology. Also, Hicks is author of the Heinemann titles Crafting Digital Writing (2013) and The Digital Writing Workshop (2009) as well as a co-author of Because Digital Writing Matters (Jossey-Bass, 2010) in addition to numerous journal articles and book chapters. In March 2011, Hicks was honored with CMU's Provost's Award for junior faculty who have demonstrated outstanding achievement in research and creative activity.
And, unofficially, I enjoy spending time with my blended family of six (yes, six!) kids and my wife, Sara. We are big fans of MSU Spartan football and basketball, and tried to keep our kids involved in sports, arts, and music.
You have many excellent books, and one of them is called, "Because Digital Writing Matters." So tell us why does it matter?
In short, digital writing matters because it is now and will continue to be our primary mode of communication in school, work, and life. While we may have impassioned debates about the place of cursive writing in school, and whether or not texting and Twitter our destroying the English language, the simple fact is that we are all digital writers in one way or another. As our students become more accustomed to using computers, tablets, smart phones, and other technologies in their personal lives, we as educators are obligated to help them use the same technologies to become more critical, creative, and confident as literate citizens.
Tell us a little bit about the writing workshop idea.
Based on the findings of Donald Murray, Lucy Calkins, and other teacher researchers in the 1970s and 80s, we came to understand that students are able to flourish as writers when they are presented with models of good writing, provided time for writing, offered specific feedback on their writing, and have opportunity to share their writing with a variety of audiences. Thus, the writing workshop idea was born as a teaching strategy to provide time and structure for students to become writers.
Over the past few decades, research has shown that students who engage in writing workshop practices perform demonstrably better as writers on standardized tests and through other measures. Sadly, in an era where we are consistently scrutinized by standards and standardized testing, many teachers feel they cannot afford the time to teach students with a writing workshop approach when, in fact, it is this approach that will best prepare their writers for the demands of college, career, and life.
How has technology redefined the writing workshop process? What activities can students can engage in?
As I first documented in my book The Digital Writing Workshop, writing now includes more than just alphabetic text on a page or screen. From designing websites and presentations to crafting multimedia pieces with audio and video, students have the opportunity to compose digital writing with a variety of programs, apps, and websites. This involves a variety of choices about fonts, colors, designs, images, and other media components.
Yet, at the same time, the core principles of the writing workshop such as student choice, consistent feedback, and collaboration remain the same. Technology may allow our students to write in more ways, with more media, yet we still need to provide them with safe spaces to share their writing. In other words, individual teachers in the classroom communities that they create still matter a great deal, despite the kinds of technology we have.
In terms of specific types of digital writing activities, I have seen numerous practices emerge over the past few years including:
blogging and social networking
collaborative word processing, including review and revision
wiki writing and editing
digital storytelling, podcasting, and other forms of audio and video production
and, more recently, social media writing (short forms such as tweets)
For each of these types of digital writing, students have a variety of choices to make in terms of particular programs or websites that they may use as well as the types of audiences and purposes they will engage. Some tasks may remain more academic, like composing an argumentative essay even though it may be posted on a blog. Other tasks, however, may employ fewer “traditional” academic skills and more real-world writing practices such as real-time collaboration and preparing a group presentation.
This is by far one of my favorite quotes from you, "By engaging students in real writing tasks and using technology in such a way that it complements their innate need to find purposes and audiences for their work, we can have them engaged in a digital writing process that focuses first on the writer, then on the writing, and lastly on the technology." Many teachers are fearful that technology is here to replace them or fearful about their knowledge in using technology. What would you say to them?
First, thank you. I'm glad that you find this quote useful and I appreciate that you picked it out. While I know that many teachers are afraid of using technology because the Internet may go down, students may find a way to act inappropriate, or the technology itself is just difficult to understand, I would strongly encourage teachers to keep their focus on writers and writing. As successful, intelligent adults who have navigated college, earned a job, and are currently working with young people, teachers have all the skills in place to use technology in their classrooms so long as they invite students into the process.
In other words, we need to allow students the time to play, and trust that they, too, want to do good work. Ask them to help you figure out how the technology works by approaching the task as partners. One of the lines that I use when helping teachers during conferences and workshops is that, in our modern world, "We are all learning, all the time." Invite your students to learn with you, and position yourself alongside them. I am sure that they can teach you something about the technology, while you continue to focus on the skills and processes that will guide them as writers.
Is digital writing only for the English classroom or can it support learning across all disciplines
Digital writing has the potential to enhance all subjects. For instance, in my most recent book, Crafting Digital Writing, there are examples of one teacher who taught a unit on the Titanic. Rather than having all her students create standard presentations, she asked them to use a variety of different tools including Glogster for digital posters and Capzles for interactive timelines. These forms of digital writing allowed for students to explore different aspects of the Titanic tragedy in order to make conceptual connections and gain a better sense of the chronology. This is just one example of how digital writing can support learning across all disciplines, and I'm sure the our colleagues who teach and other content areas can come up with some additional examples that would make for some critically-thinking, creatively-inspired projects.
Often times it is easy for content to get lost between the bells and whistles of digital media. What advice do you have for teachers when it comes time to assessing digital work to ensure that learning objectives are being met.
This is a smart question, one that I have grappled with for many years and still do not have a firm answer for because it is very difficult for us to separate content and form. This is why evaluating writing is so hard. With digital writing, we can hardly understand the content (words, images, and ideas) without the other (colors, fonts, timing, effects) as we are thinking about the overall effect of a piece of digital writing. However, I do have a few ideas.
First, as my colleague Kristen Turner and I recently implored in an article, we need to "Stop counting slides." Or images, or links, or whatever component of digital media. Just like the word count for an essay, as soon as we put that kind of constraint on our students' final products, we are likely to end up with exactly what we are looking for. If we only ask for five links, then chances are that's what we are going to get. Model what you would like to see students do with their digital writing, and then turn them loose. If it is not good enough, then guide them and encourage them to do more.
Second, when it comes to the actual assessment, I know that we are in many ways still tied to rubrics and a grading scale. However, we also have access to a variety of tools that students can use to offer their own meta-commentary and reflection. For instance, if you are having students create a digital essay including hyperlinks and images, have your students record a brief screencast in which they describe to you why and how they chose the links and images that they did. Think of it as a “director's commentary,” and ask your students to describe what it is they have learned in the process. Digital tools such as Jing, Skitch, Screencast-o-matic, Educreations and others make this process of annotation both simple and fun.
Finally, due to its very nature, digital work wants to be shared. Move beyond the four walls of your classroom and even the peers that your students meet with every day. Instead, connect with other teachers and students to share work and provide comments and feedback to one another. While these comments are not meant to be grades, nor should they be construed as evaluative, chances are that they can be quite authentic if you structure the task in that manner. For instance, if your students are blogging, invite them to read the blogs of other students and to engage in conversation around shared interests. This kind of recursive dialogue and examination of other students' work has the potential to help your own students improve.
What advice do you have for teachers who have never done this before and would like to begin engaging students in the digital writing workshop?
For someone who has never done this type of work at all, I would strongly encourage you to become familiar with Google Drive, in particular Google Docs, and learn about how you and your students can share work in the cloud. Rather than having to e-mail multiple drafts of word processed documents, you and your students can communicate on the same web based document. By using Google Docs, you'll be able to respond more efficiently to your students work and help them move forward in the writing process no matter what the genre.
What are your favorite iPad apps to use for digital writing?
Probably my best answer to that would be summed up in this recent blog post: writerswhocare.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/teaching-writing-tablet-style
Troy thank you so much for taking this time to speak with us, we really appreciate it and value your input.
If you would like to read more from Troy Hicks check out these resources:
Books' wiki: http://digitalwritingworkshop.wikispaces.com/home
Publications that are all available freely on the web: http://hickstro.org/writing/
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