This post is written by NCTE student member Kathryn Caprino and guest Melissa Davenport.
We met when Melissa agreed to enroll in a six-week online study group about the connections between digital writing and critical literacy I (Katie) was facilitating. An avid digital writer, Melissa wrote frequently on her blog. When I observed Melissa and her students, one thing I noticed was that Melissa’s students were given time in class to write.
Work commitments prevented Melissa from finishing the entire six-week study group, but she believes her time in the study group has informed her writing pedagogy greatly.
It’s been a year since the online study group, and Melissa and I want to share a few tips that might help you think about writing instruction in your classroom.
Be a digital writer. One of the requirements for teachers to participate in the online study group was that they were active digital writers. We cannot overemphasize the importance of teachers being digital writers. An active digital writer, Melissa blogs regularly about running.
During the online study group, Melissa talked to me about her need to have time to write herself. She also emphasized the importance of writing for an authentic audience. It is no surprise, then, that her students are provided time to free write and have opportunities to create solutions for problems and share these solutions digitally with a real audience.
Let students have time for free writing. We often think about giving students time to read in the ELA classroom, but how often do we provide time for students to write? Melissa’s students love to write, but she’s noticed that sometimes writing time can be too structured or too focused on a particular purpose or receiving feedback. So she’s given her students this year more time to free write, and there have been some positive outcomes.
Some of her students ask to free write more. Right now students have about 20 minutes of free writing built into their weeks, but some students elect to have more because they want to write on Independent Reading Day.
What’s more, Melissa has noticed that as students are given more time to write, they explore genres and topics that they may not have explored in the past. Students write lots of fiction, especially fantasy. This is important to Melissa since fiction writing is not a large part of the curriculum. Students also produce a surprising amount of poetry during their free write sessions.
It seems that if we want our students to be writers, we need to provide them time in class to develop as writers. If we have our way, more students will have independent writing time during their ELA classes.
Have students write for an authentic audience. We know that too often the teacher is the only audience for students’ writing. This year, however, Melissa has committed to helping her students have authentic audiences.
Her Change the World project is one of her favorites. A collaborative endeavor with the math teacher on her team, the project encouraged students to explore a real-world problem. Students had to collect data about the topic and develop a way to solve the problem. Melissa and her colleague wanted students to have an authentic audience, so students posted their problems and solutions in a digital space to convince community members about the nature of the problem and their responsibility to get involved.
Students selected topics based on changes they would like to see made. Students were put into groups based on the topics they originally formed. Melissa was shocked during this process. Kids who never ever speak to each other raced across the room, saying, “You have to work with me,” because they had similar ideas for their research. Topics ranged from equal access to education to gun control to Black Lives Matter. Once they were into a particular topic, “students’ eyes opened,” says Melissa. “Just a little reading, research, and writing about gun control meant they suddenly had all sorts of critical questions.”
There were some topics that were more challenging to approach. Melissa and her students talked about the sensitivity of the materials they might come across and how to search safely by using Google Safe Search, filters, and very specific search terms. Overall, Melissa was impressed at the level of maturity students showed throughout.
Melissa and her colleague were impressed with the ownership students took in the project. Some students followed up with organizations to see about how the issues they chose for their projects were actually being addressed. Melissa and her math teacher collaborator worked with the students on this project. Whereas Melissa helped students spot bias in research, use key search terms, and how digital content differs from content in a standard essay, the math teacher helped students learn various ways to represent data. Future directions for the project might include a collaborative effort with the World History class in order to deepen connections for students.
This Change the World project meets one of the central goals of the online study group: to help students use digital writing to take action.
What is intriguing about this reflective look into Melissa’s classroom is I really do not know exactly what to attribute to the online study group about critical literacy and digital writing and what to attribute to Melissa’s effective writing pedagogy. But I do know that Melissa is firm in her conviction that middle school writers should be given time to write and writing projects that have authentic audiences. And the first step she took in this direction may have been to become a digital writer herself.
Melissa Davenport is an English Language Arts teacher at Cary Academy in Cary, North Carolina. After spending five years in Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools and completing her Masters in K-12, she joined Cary Academy in 2012. In addition to being a classroom teacher, Davenport coaches middle school tennis, advises the Writing Club, and serves as seventh grade team leader.
Kathryn (Katie) Caprino is a clinical assistant professor in English education at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. She teaches courses in English methods, children’s literature, and technology and media. She researches teachers as digital writers and preservice English teachers.