Teens Can Change the World

I have to admit. I have been increasingly obsessed with watching the stats for my blog, mostly because they keep growing. If I look at a bar graph of my number of views each week since I started publishing again, the towers of blue are steadily increasing. And the more the little blue bars grow, the more motivated I feel to write. It’s weird, especially considering that sharing my writing with others used to be something that sent me into fits of anxiety.

And what’s even cooler is that people are talking with me about my blog and starting to share it with others. Bloggers that I don’t even know are liking my posts. And just yesterday, a principal tweeted that she was going to share my most recent post with her staff. And here I am sitting on my couch with a laptop (usually with a glass of wine) writing whatever comes to mind. It is one of the most empowering feelings I’ve ever had, and I also feel like I’m becoming part of this incredible community of readers, writers, and educators, especially since there are so many bloggers out there that I completely admire.

In thinking about my own excitement and empowerment, I began to reflect again about this idea of citizen journalism–something that my husband inspired me to write about because of the way he is harnessing its power to create his own charcuterie business. It’s this idea that anyone can be a published author–from YouTube creators to Yelp reviewers. Of course, because this blog is all about how we can start to inspire our high school students to be members of literacy communities by engaging them in authentic reading and writing work–the reading and writing work that is similar to what adults do in school, work, and life–an exploration of citizen journalism, and by extension, blogging, seems to be a natural fit here.

Then I started thinking about something. Blogging isn’t just something that teenagers could do. It’s something that they are already doing. In fact, there are some teen bloggers that are so successful that they are literally impacting popular culture. Take Tavi Gevinson, for example. This Style Rookie blogger started out blogging about fashion when she was 11. Eleven! Now she’s 16, and she’s appeared on shows like The Colbert Report and Jimmy Fallon and has even been profiled in The New York Times. Recently, she started her own magazine with Jane Pratt, the original founder of 90s-mag phenomenon, Sassy. Did I mention she’s 16?

I mean, this well-adjusted, wise-beyond-her-years adolescent even has her own TED talk. And it’s good. See?

Gevinson isn’t the only teen blogger out there. There’s also Spencer Tweedy. Yes, he’s the son of the front man for Wilco, but he’s still only a high school student. His blog, The Weblog of Spencer Tweedy, showcases everything from pictures of his pasta-making parties to videos he’s made for his biology class.

There’s also The First Lime, a blog by 14-year-old Monica, who writes about music, photography, and her own DIY projects. It’s actually pretty adorable.

But not quite as adorable as Know and Tell Crafts, a crafty blog written by a 13-year-old boy (yes, boy) who crochets. You go, kiddo.

These kids are writers. They are creating their own niches in literacy communities.

I wonder how they do in English.

Now imagine if we showed our high school students these blogs. Imagine that we used these as mentor texts and talked about the ways in which these teens thought about their task, purpose, and audience. If you look at the literacy skills of these young bloggers, they’re actually pretty impressive. They need to understand their audience (and how their language and topics can best engage their audience), they need to understand how to create visual images that echo the tone created by their verbal messages, and they need, in some cases, be willing to experiment with a variety of genres in their writing (all based on their task’s unique purpose) Take Ty’s most recent post that combines images of his latest project (a mock headboard created with electrical tape) with a list of tips to consider when using electrical tape. It goes beyond the simple and predictable “how to.”

In thinking about the Common Core, I turn to the expectations to grow digitally literate citizens. Look, for example, at Writing Standard 6 for grades 9-10: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” If that doesn’t describe blogging, then I don’t know what does.

And in eleventh grade, that expectation ramps up: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.”

Think about these teen bloggers. Not only have they learned how to harness the power of digital media to project their voices, but they are also always making new decisions about content–based on what their audience wants and needs. These kids are the poster children for digital literacy.

How can we, too, use these writers as models to inspire all of our students to see writing as a way to speak up, to teach, to contribute?

Postscript

Possible Units

  • Social Media/Blogging
  • Argument Writing
  • Informational/Explanatory Writing
  • Narrative Writing
  • Research Skills

Possible Essential Questions

  • Why write?
  • What does it mean to teach and learn?
  • Where is my voice? How can I make it heard? What happens when I do?
  • What is the role of media in my life? What is the role of media in our lives?

Possible Common Core State Standards

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informational/explanatory pieces
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Produce writing taking into consideration task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to publish writing
  • Writing 7: Conduct short or sustained research projects, using an independently designed question
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Social Media: Not Just for Sharing Pictures of Grumpy Cat

This week, my husband started his own Yelp page for his budding smoked and cured meats endeavor, Smoke & Salt. He pushed it out to some of his loyal customers, a couple of whom have already written reviews for his products. He also has a blog and a Facebook page that are both helping him build a following.

Through social media and blogging, he has networked with seasoned chefs, seduced new customers, and shared his charcuterie story. He is continually becoming a part of the bacon community (yes, I said bacon community), and he is accomplishing this through literacy.

My husband’s experience has really been making me think recently about this idea of citizen journalism. This phenomenon of reporting has its roots in the infancy of our country when regular people created and distributed political pamphlets to spread their beliefs. With the spread of the Internet and all of the tools that come with it, however, literally anyone can be a citizen journalist. Take Yelp, for example. Anyone can write a review of a business, and people really do read them. Speaking from personal experience, my husband and I recently chose our current pest control company based on Yelp reviews. And, of course, Jeff is also using the power of Yelp to grow his business.

Think also about the power of social media. Almost all of our teenage (or pre-teen) students are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or something else. They are using these tools to socialize with their friends and, in some cases, comment on life.

And then there’s Arab Spring.

The world held its breath when, in January 2011, Egypt erupted into revolution and forced its leader out of power. This revolution, which was sparked on Facebook by a 29-year-old Google exec in Dubai, and which continued on Twitter and in other social media outlets, made it plain to everyone in the world that social networks could be used for more than sharing pictures of vacations, children, and restaurant meals. Much more.

To read or hear an account of how Wael Ghonim helped to begin a revolution is to understand the true impact literacy–and citizen journalism–can have on the world. Take this segment from a New York Times review of Ghonim’s memoir, Revolution 2.0:

Ghonim drew on his considerable skill and knowledge as an online marketer while running the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page. Early on, he decided that creating the page, as opposed to a Facebook group, would be a better way to spread information. More important, he knew that maintaining an informal, authentic tone was crucial to amassing allies. People had to see themselves in the page. “Using the pronoun I was critical to establishing the fact that the page was not managed by an organization, political party or movement of any kind,” he writes. “On the contrary, the writer was an ordinary Egyptian devastated by the brutality inflicted on Khaled Said and motivated to seek justice.”

He polled the page’s users and sought ideas from others, like how best to publicize a rally — through printed fliers and mass text messaging, it turned out. (“Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook,” he notes.) He tried to be as inclusive as possible, as when he changed the name of the page’s biggest scheduled rally from “Celebrating Egyptian Police Day — January 25” to “January 25: Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment.” “We needed to have everyone join forces: workers, human rights activists, government employees and others who had grown tired of the regime’s policies,” he writes. “If the invitation to take to the streets had been based solely on human rights, then only a certain segment of Egyptian society would have participated.”

This Times article attributes these skills to Ghonim’s prowess as an Internet marketer, and I’m sure that helped, but if you think about it, the skills demonstrated in his decision-making are also the skills of a highly-literate person. Take, for example, his decision to use a Facebook page, as opposed to a Facebook group. In the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, the writers call for students who can “use technology and digital media strategically and capably” and then go on to explain that students should be “familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals” (p. 7). This is exactly what Ghonim did when he chose the tool with which he’d communicate both ideas and events with the page’s followers.

In addition, his choice to use the pronoun I in his posts (instead of we) was also an intentional decision based on his purpose and audience. When we connect this to an image of literacy as described in the Common Core, there are natural connections: “Students appreciate nuances, such as how the composition of an audience should affect tone when speaking and how the connotations of words affect meaning” (p. 7).

Finally, when he chose to change the name of his Facebook event, this decision was also driven by what he knew about his audience and the unique demands of his task and purpose.

Is this a somewhat extreme and extenuating example? You could say that. But why couldn’t any one of our students be like Ghonim, using the power of technology and social media to create lasting change?

In order to accomplish this, it is important to think about how the power of technology can be harnessed to initiate students into communities of literacy. Because that’s the power of digital tools–not simply to create cool stuff, but also to share these creations and interact with the world outside the walls of our schools.

There are already avenues for citizen journalists to be heard. Certainly, there are tools such as blogging sites and tools to design webpages. However, there are also citizen media outlets: places like Allvoices, Demotix, CNN iReport, NowPublic, and others to help people dip their toes in the citizen journalism pool. There are also places for teens to publish for an all-teen audience–places like TeenInk.

We need to show our students that literacy matters, that our voices matter. We need to show them how to navigate and use digital tools not just to create new material to share with their classmates and teacher, but to share with the world. By doing this, we may discover other revolutions waiting to happen.

Postscript

Possible Unit Ideas:

  • Social media awareness and use
  • Digital literacy
  • Argument/persuasion
  • Revolution

Possible Essential Questions:

  • What is our individual responsibility? What is our collective responsibility?
  • How does one voice become many?
  • Why write?
  • Whose voice is being heard, and whose is being left out?

Possible Connecting Common Core State Standards:

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Ensure that writing is appropriate for task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to produce and publish individual or shared writing products
  • Writing 8: Gather quality information; present the information thoughtfully and effectively

Other ideas? Share in the comments.

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The Power of Freedom

I knew from the moment I applied for summer school that my primary focus in class would be on writing. As a Writing Project teacher, I believe in the power of writing to open new doors for kids and to give them a voice. I wanted them to be able to think creatively and independently and to actually see themselves as writers. As I think kids’ writing identities all emerge at different times and in different ways, I didn’t exactly know what this would look like, but I felt like I might know it when I saw it.

With the ideas of independence, voice, and identity in mind, I was so looking forward to beginning our mini unit on argument with my kids last week. I thought for sure this would get them going. I mean, it’s teenagers’ job to argue, isn’t it?

I thought we might be onto something when my kids began spouting all the topics they could argue about–everything from social networking sites to sports teams to social issues. I told them that the topic from their argument paper was completely their choice, and they flourished.

Of course, generating ideas is only one small part of the writing process, and as I reflected on the expectations of the Common Core State Standards, I realized that students really needed to know how to build a coherent and cohesive argument, as they learned how to develop reasons, include valid evidence, and acknowledge and address counterarguments. Honestly, though, those particular expectations aren’t too different from the standards that we currently have in California. What makes the Common Core different, though, is that students are expected to be able to independently make strategic decisions about how they use the writing process, conduct research, and display the information they have gathered. And with limited resources in summer school, I wasn’t sure how this would go.

But what I love about teenagers is that they’re always wondering what’s possible.

My first reminder of this was when a student, Jack, who has been building a definitive argument to settle, once and for all, the debate of the best player in the NBA, asked if he could use a chart in his paper. When he showed it to me later, I saw a data-nerd’s dream come true: three columns comparing the stats of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James (Jack’s pick for best in the NBA). He had organized information regarding average points, free throw percentage, three point percentage, rebounds, blocks, and other relevant bits of information. He was determined to prove that James was superior to both Bryant and Durant, especially given the fact that Bryant has four more championship rings than James and is widely recognized by basketball fans as the best player in the NBA.

On his chart he had determined that James had outperformed both Bryant and Durant in all categories but two, and in those two categories, James had lost by tiny margins. The paragraph surrounding the data he had gathered outlined his analysis of these players’ successes.

While he was sharing this research with me, another student was working the room, interviewing all of the students about which shoe brand–Converse or Vans–was superior. He was tallying his results and determining the categories for his comparison–styling, cost, and durability. Of course, he had already looked up the price ranges for both brands and found that, by far, Converse were much more expensive than Vans. When I talked to him about his survey later, he talked about his frustration that, while Converse was the preferred brand by his peers, it was definitely the pricier option. He was trying to determine how to handle that pressing issue in his paper.

When I was talking to these boys and witnessing their enthusiasm as they were working through what evidence was truly going to convince their audience that their opinion was the one and only correct one, I realized that these boys had found their voice. I never told them to integrate charts or to do surveys. They discovered these ideas all on their own as we discussed all the different types of evidence writers can use. These boys had a purpose, and they were on a mission. All of a sudden they realized that their purpose was not to force their points into a predetermined structure; it was to determine how best to communicate their information in order to persuade their audience that their opinion was the correct one. And they did this because they owned their argument. They did this because they found their voice.

So even though I never predicted this level of engagement with these particular students, I realized that, plain and simple, these kids had become writers.

I Thought You Said We Were Reading!

Even though I am teaching a full semester of English 1 (ninth grade) in summer school, I knew going in, with all of the intricacies of this abbreviated course, that I would never even come close to teaching even a large portion of the standards to mastery. Because of this, I made a very strategic decision to look forward instead of behind.

Especially since the ninth grade ELA standards (both current and CCSS) loop into tenth grade, I asked myself, What skills will most help students next year? From there, I divided those standards into two large groups: reading and writing. This is because those two “R”s are the primary reason many of my students are sitting in front of me. My goal was to prepare them for the inevitability that someone will, at some point in the future (and probably some time next year), hand them a piece of hard text and simply say, “Read this.”

Because of that goal, I also organized my day into two segments: the times we think like readers and the times we think like writers.

However, something peculiar has been gnawing at my soul over the past several days. During our “Reading Block” of time, when kids are working with text, I have turned to a tool I know helps people both explore and express the larger meaning of the words on the page: Writing. We write about text all the time. We write to explore the meaning of the words. We write to tell each other what the text has taught us.

And each time we do, I hear a similar challenge from at least one (but usually more) of my students: “But this is READING time!”

It disturbs me–not because the kids are complaining; that’s what teenagers DO by nature at times. But because, as educators, I don’t think we’ve done the best job of making sure that our kids understand that the two–reading and writing–are inextricably linked.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing fingers. I think part of our current reality is a byproduct of how our standards are written (at least in California). There really is no expectation, save the literary response essay (which is a make-believe genre anyway), that students are writing about text. And the STAR test doesn’t improve the situation either when all of the questions about text are multiple choice. It sends a very clear message to everyone: writing is something that we do when we don’t read.

Somehow, the kids have gotten that message too. They don’t see reading and writing as activities that go together–they see them as very separate entities whose paths shall never cross. At least, my summer school students see it that way, and my guess is that at least some of their friends do too.

With Common Core on the horizon, this has to change. These new standards purposefully link reading and writing, and moreover–not that I want to get all test-obsessed or anything–the Smarter Balanced Assessment will require students to write about text too.

I’m not saying that our kids need to write a full analysis of every text they read. There are lots of ways kids can write about text to share their ideas–including many technological tools that can help (digital literacy, anyone?).

I’m just saying that maybe we need to make sure that, as teachers, we show our students the beautiful and necessary synergy that exists between the two–and teach our students how they can become even more insightful thinkers if they can simply harness that power.

Small Victories

Before I started teaching summer school this year, I had a vision of my class coming together as this perfect community of writers sent by angels. We would be sharing and celebrating our writing, tears streaming down our faces as we connected at the deepest of spiritual levels. Okay…maybe my fantasies didn’t go quite so far, but I really had imagined a nearly-spiritual experience.

Unfortunately, my reality hasn’t yet shaped up to be quite what I imagined.

Today, my students finished writing their narratives, so I reserved the last 50 minutes of class for us to have a writing celebration. When I told the students at the beginning of this process that they would need to share some of their writing with the class (because we are a community of writers, I explained), you’d thought I’d asked them to drown kittens in the American River. They were aghast. Share their writing??? “Mrs. Kukral,” they said, “you’re crazy.”

I have to admit…I was a little deflated at their less-than-enthusiastic response, but it certainly wasn’t altogether unexpected. After all, sharing our writing with anyone but the teacher simply hasn’t been a norm in our schools, especially our high schools (though that is thankfully changing).

I continued to promise that it would be okay, but I also assured them that it was an expectation. One student said to me, “What if I refuse?” I explained that I wouldn’t cut his arm off or anything, but I did expect for him to choose something from his narrative to share. Refusing just wasn’t an option. I didn’t threaten to take away points. I didn’t threaten to fail him. I didn’t threaten to send him to the office. I just said, “I hope and expect that you will do it. That’s all.” He scowled at me in the endearing way that teenage boys do (I’m actually serious here), we moved on, and didn’t say another word about it.

Of course, this interaction made me think about the Common Core (these days, even a gusty wind will have that effect on me). One feature that I so appreciate about the writing standards is that there is an expectation that students publish their work. Granted, the specific standard (6) says that this should be done via technology in grades 9-10, but we need to start somewhere.

My students’ reactions made me realize just how uncomfortable it is for them to share their writing with anyone, much less the whole world through the Internet. It brought back my memories of last summer when, as a fellow in the Area 3 Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, I had to share my writing with my colleagues. I’m relatively certain I had a couple of anxiety attacks over that too.

And if students are terrified and uncomfortable with sharing even a small segment of their writing with a small group of classmates, then how will they adjust to sharing their writing with everyone who has Internet access? Perhaps it will be easier. Maybe there’s something to be said for not being able to actually see your audience while you’re sharing your work. However, I can imagine that, for some students, this type of publicity will send them over the edge.

This makes me realize that, as with anything, we must create communities where it is safe to be in such a vulnerable position and scaffold this experience for our students. Our students shouldn’t be appalled–or really even surprised–when we expect them to share their writing with others. That’s what writing is about.

The good news, though, is that, today, each one of my students shared at least a small part of their narrative. One of my students shared his entire story, and when he was done, his friend spontaneously shared his own version of the same tale.

And the kid who asked me what I would do if he refused to share?

He was the first one to volunteer.

It’s about the Writing

I am passionate about the teaching of writing. But I have to admit. I wasn’t always. I guess it’s because I didn’t really understand how to do it very well. I thought if I did a two-day PowerPoint about the features of a particular genre (“Here’s how you write a personal narrative, kids.”), guided them through the writing process (in a very linear way), and then showed them a couple of student-written examples, I’d be good to go. The kids would produce amazing writing, and all would be right with the world.

Not surprisingly, it never quite worked out how I imagined it in my mind.

Over the past few years as I’ve started learning more about the teaching of writing, however, I’ve learned how much better I could have been at the beginning of my career. And when I became a part of an amazing community of writers and writing teachers–the Area 3 Writing Project–my understanding of the teaching of writing deepened as much as my passion did. This is mostly because, as part of the Area 3 Writing Project (or any Writing Project site, really), I had to actually become a writer myself.

Why is this important? Obviously, for lots of reasons.

However, as I realize how the expectations for writing change with the shift to Common Core, this idea of teacher-as-writer seems to take on new meaning.

Here’s why:

Let’s start by talking about Writing Standards #5: The revision standard. The anchor standard states the following expectation for students: “Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.”What is most striking to me is this new view of the writing process as, well, an actual process. In the current standard (I live in California), the stages of the writing process are presented as isolated events. For example, Writing Strategies 1.9 in the California ELA 9/10 Content Standards states this: “Revise writing to improve the logic and coherence of the organization and controlling perspective, the precision of word choice, and the tone by taking into consideration the audience, purpose, and formality of the context.”

This, by the way, is the only time that the actual writing process is mentioned in the ELA standards for grades 9 and 10.

The way that the standard is written seems to make the following assumptions:

  • Revision can be isolated from the rest of the writing process
  • Revision is the most important part of the writing process (since it’s the only part mentioned)
  • When we revise, we revise only for certain finite things (like organization or word choice)

In contrast, the Common Core State Standards presents the process for what it is–a connected, non-linear cycle that students should be able to manage independently.

Take the phrase as needed, for example. This implies that students use elements of the writing process in the ways that best serve the needs of their writing. The writing process, then, is not a series of steps to follow in a certain order.

The Common Core also values the idea of independence, so not only should students be able to use the elements of the writing process in a non-linear way, they eventually need to be able to do so independently.

Finally, the Common Core Standards also expect that students are able to try “a new approach.” In order to do this, they need to have a deep understanding of task, purpose, and audience (so that they know when to try a new approach), and they will need to have a deep understanding of the writing process (so that they will know how to try a new approach). And again, they should be independent.

With me so far?

So what does this mean for my summer school class? And where does my involvement with the Writing Project factor in here?

First of all, my summer school students struggle with the very act of writing. Most of them (approximately 80%) have told me they “hate” it. Many of them tell me they think it is a “waste of time” and do not see how it relates to their lives. Of course, when the majority of the writing they do in school is writing that does not speak to them, can we blame them?

Second, my summer school students, for the most part, do not see writing as a process. They think revision means that they should add a couple of words here and there, add two or three sentences, fix the spelling, or even make their piece shorter. I know this because I watched them revise some writing yesterday. These students are not yet using the writing process “as needed” or “trying a new approach.”

Therefore, one thing I’m learning about the Common Core is that we must immerse our students in the process of writing. They need to see all the different ways they can engage in it and use the process the way that real writers do. And when teachers see themselves as writers and are able to to model for students how they use the writing process in authentic ways, it makes a huge difference.

This is where my work with the Writing Project comes in. A few years ago, I would never have been able to tell when a student was or wasn’t authentically using the writing process. As long as they went through the motions of completing the graphic organizers I spent hours creating, I was satisfied. As long as they turned in a rough draft with their final copy, I was convinced I had done my job teaching revision.

Now I know there’s much more to it. Students need to spend time collecting ideas–and they need to be shown how by a teacher who writes. Students need to gather details for their piece, draft, revise, edit, and share their writing with others, and who is a better coach and guide in this process than the teacher who writes?

As I’ve been teaching my summer school class, I have shown my students entries in my writer’s notebook and talked with them about my process as a writer. I am talking with one student about his interest in writing graphic novels and another about his voice as a writer. I would not have been able to have these conversations had I not known what it was like to feel the power of writing in my bones.

And though my day wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, today my students told me that they liked it.