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Teaching Generation Text: Real Writing in a Virtual World

Published on: October 25, 2012

Texting studentOn a Friday afternoon early in the school year, my creative writing students type furiously on their laptops during five minutes of warm-up freewriting, prompted by a picture of a girl peering into a dark cave and the words: “Tell this story.”

Laura, an enthusiastic ninth-grader, raises her hand: “In this class, do we have to write about the real world? Or can we make things happen in a different world?” I smile. “You can set your stories in any world you like,” I say. “Cool!” she exclaims. “The girl in this picture reminds me of a character I’ve written for my video game!” She resumes typing away.

As an English teacher, I am devoted to books — the physical ones — and to helping my students think about the beauty and the ugliness of “the real world.” I deplore the countless hours many of my students spend gaming. But Laura loves writing, and has written volumes about her game world. How could I squelch this passion by suggesting its context is wrong? And if gaming inspires this kind of joyful creativity in my students, is it really my nemesis?

Over the weekend, a few students e-mail me about homework. Most of the e-mails are 95 percent error-free, but one is typical of the punctuation-deprived messages I refer to as “letters from Generation Text.” It reads: “I had a soccer tournament this weekend and face planted lol but now i have a bad headache can i have an extention on the homework. and can I talk to you about the homework on Monday.”

Laura’s love for her online world and Generation Text’s slapdash e-mails are just two small examples of the plugged-in world my students inhabit. Increasingly, I feel my classroom should not resist but rather welcome this world’s influence, and I am not alone. English educators are currently engaged in a complex conversation about how, if, when and where to change our methods and materials to best prepare our students for the online, media-saturated 21st century.

Metaphors and more

Although pedagogical theories and approaches continually evolve, English teachers have taught the same fundamentals through the same basic methods for decades. We ask students to read “classic” examples of great literature and to grind out thousands of pages in critical analysis essays about the themes of those texts. Two of our favorite things to teach are thesis statements and the difference between a metaphor and a simile.

But in the context of the information bombardment my students experience as they approach adulthood, does formal literary analysis really matter? After all, outside of school, virtually none of them experiences literary analysis as part of their daily intake of information and ideas.

A 2008 survey by The National Writing Project showed that 86 percent of teenagers believe writing well is essential to success. Since the rise of smartphones and social media, teenagers only have more communication vehicles at their fingertips. It seems clear, then, that the teaching of writing should evolve beyond the high school English curriculum of our parents’ generation. The question is, how will it evolve, and into what?

First, we must rethink what kind of writing preteens and teenagers should be doing at school. Instead of the tired five-paragraph critical analysis essay, Nancie Atwell advocates in her book The Reading Zone something called the “letter essay.” In this type of essay, students address their teacher and provide analysis of a book, but also express their personal response: why they chose to read it, what they liked and didn’t like, who else might like the book. The teacher’s comments are given in the form of a response to the student’s letter, and the student responds again, addressing the questions and issues raised by the teacher.

Certainly, critical analysis and argument skills are essential. Educators, parents and students agree on four essential skills that writing instruction should promote: 1) the ability to find, filter and judge a variety of sources; 2) the ability to interpret meaning from many different kinds of texts; 3) the ability to think critically about the ideas, arguments and implications of those texts; 4) the ability to clearly and forcefully communicate via writing.

Making writing more relevant

Students should read and write texts relevant to our world. Thomas Newkirk, author of books on teaching and literacy, notes in his book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones that literature has had a stranglehold on middle- and high-school writing instruction. Newkirk urges educators to free writing from an almost exclusively literary context by emphasizing writing in all subjects and considering a variety of writing genres and approaches.

Many teachers are already doing so. They document student blogging, storyboard projects and collaborative social-networking-based writing. Perhaps it is now important that English teachers cover subjects such as the differences in tone between text messages to friends versus to colleagues and adults. A 2011 English Journal article describes using mass-market video games in the classroom as a “platform for teaching the writing process, writing genres and purpose of audience.”

What are the pitfalls of harnessing the power of our students’ digital world? One risk is quantity over quality. One teacher noted that his class produced 650 blog posts during the course of one unit. On how many of those blog posts was that teacher able to give feedback? What skills were developed in those posts? And isn’t it possible that video games are as limiting as the thesis statement and five-paragraph essay?

Real-world literacy

As I prepare my lessons for next week, I decide to create an online discussion board for students’ outside reading and organize the discussion around current issues, so that they analyze their texts in a meaningful conversation rather than as a one-off presentation or paper. And I am considering, not without trepidation, how to incorporate student blogging into my classes.

We teachers and parents face a bigger learning curve than our “digital native” students and children. We owe it to them to meet this challenge, to be students of their world. As a teacher, I need to be open to change; good teachers continually experiment.

What can parents do? First and foremost, talk to your tweens and teens — about their school day, and about the issues of their world and yours. And yes, continue buying them good books, taking them to cultural events and moving them outside their comfort zones. One of the best things you may ever do is to make sure your digital native knows there is an exciting world beyond the one of Warcraft.

Elena Olsen, Ph.D., teaches upper-school English at Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland.

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