Rethinking Writing Genres

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As an English teacher with a minor in History, I’ve often wondered aloud to my colleagues in the Social Studies department about how they are able to continue cramming more and more history into the same size school year as the decades wear on.  Part of the answer, of course, is that what we think of as “modern” or recent history mostly goes unstudied–if it’s still fresh in the collective memory of society, chances are it’s getting only light attention in classrooms.  There are only so many hours in the school year, and the older stuff makes more curricular sense in a lot of ways (A student might absorb some sense of the Post-9/11 era at home or through media.  The significance of the Tennessee Valley Authority?  …Not so much.)

I couldn’t say why this year was the first time I made the connection, but it suddenly occurred to me as my PLC sat down to plan our first unit calendar that the curriculum of English classrooms has begun to mirror the struggles of history classrooms.  For one thing, the Canon that once dominated every English classroom in the land has slowly but surely been chipped away at in favor of at least some balance with more modern and diverse text selections.  The problem is, text selection is only one piece to the puzzle…

The Comfort of Canon

What gave me pause as we talked through our first unit (which will include a lil bit of Gatsby and a lil bit of All American Boys) was how little we’ve responded as a content area to issues of modernization in writing genres.  I’m always intrigued and inspired in late August as colleagues tweet and blog and email about their inspirations and goals for student writers:  More poetry, livelier narratives, more relevant and insightful research.  It’s all wonderful stuff…but it all falls into the same writing categories students were producing back when…well when the Tennessee Valley Authority was hard at work building the infrastructure of modern America.  

Are all of those genres still valid?  For the most part, yes.  But as my PLC talked through our organization for the first eight weeks, we spent a lot of time considering where and how we could balance those genres with more modern writing elements.  It was no easy task and we aren’t content yet, but I think it’s worth considering in every English department.

I was lucky enough to hear Chris Lehman speak this summer, and one of his most striking remarks was about a new responsibility English teachers must take on with their students:  Teaching them how to create a responsible, productive “Digital Identity”.  While his point was more about teachers making sure they were tech savvy enough to pass that skill set along to students, I was more taken aback by the notion as it applies to how we ask students to write.  

So as you organize your writing units this year, consider balancing the “classic” writing genres with modern writing genres and contexts that our students will be asked to engage with in their lifetimes.  If those genres are uncomfortable spaces for us, that doesn’t mean we can leave it to our students to become literate in them on their own.  

Providing Proof in a Post-Truth Age

One thing that none of us can avoid as educators is the changing face of evidence and argument in public forums.  The very concept of a “fact” has been slyly subverted as of late, which makes it our duty to double down on strong argumentative writing skills and deep analysis of evidence.  I’d argue that students should spend as much time deciding what *constitutes* good evidence as they do picking out actually data and citations for their work.  

For that matter, if you’re going to teach students rhetoric (and you should), then you should also donate some time in your writing unit to teaching logical fallacies and helping your students learn how the two collide (and why it’s bad practice to try and hornswaggle their readers by using either of them in lieu of powerful evidence).  There’s already enough dishonest and disingenuous writing in the world–students should be taught to write ethically and responsibly, not just persuasively.  

They should also be taught how the face of argumentative writing itself is changing–If we’re still teaching students MLA citations and footnotes, are we also teaching them how to create blogs or online argumentative pieces using hyperlinks to their sources?  I haven’t read a scholarly article with footnoting recently, except in a couple handouts at some education conferences.  I’m glad I know how to interpret them, but for every one of those pieces, I’ve read a few dozen online articles where my follow-up research involved clicking through highlighted text to view a source firsthand.  I’ve written a slew of them too, for this site and others.  Hyperlinking is easy, but it can also be used cleverly and even entertainingly by a talented writer.  Students should have it in their toolbox.

Keeping Up with the Changing Face of Language

We know English is malleable–like all languages–but sometimes our exploration of it remains fairly rigid.  In the spaces where our students will do much of their personal and professional writing, the language changes rapidly and regularly.  We have to help them learn to navigate those choppy waters.  If we’re teaching students how to use powerful diction and syntax, are we applying those lessons to the mediums where they will be the most sorely tested as writers?  I would argue that there is no better measure of a writer’s ability to compose precisely than the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter.  Yes, it often employs a shorthand that would not be appropriate in other writing mediums, but that seems to speak more to a literacy need of the modern student than to an excuse to avoid helping students learn to compose in one of the most widely-used forms of social media in the world.  

Publishing and Performing in Modern Media

Well-organized units that include opportunities for students to “publish” their work also need to provide some space for newer forms.  While we all know that authentic writing provides student motivation and tends to produce better writing, we overlook a lot of the non-traditional modes of publishing one’s thoughts that have now become fairly mainstream beyond our classrooms.  

When our students write informative essays or journalistic pieces, are they also getting opportunities to streamline those factual reports into “threads”?  (It’s a Twitter thing!  They’re very informative and astonishingly concise!)  For that matter, do they know how to convey an argumentative or persuasive perspective as either a fully-formed text or as a sequential string of discrete ideas, complete with hyperlinks to evidence and data?  Most journalists and pundits employ such fast-track means of writing as often as traditional columns and reporting now.  

Check out the excerpt of a Twitter thread below–it’s practically a new genre of writing and yet the core tenets of what we teach about argument are all there (including cited evidence in the form of an infographic).  

thread

image via Twitter

Creating Spaces for Digital Places

One easy way to build such modern writing forms into your existing units is to have students learn to create their own online spaces to write in.  They could post in a website that you build, or create a Weebly, or perhaps create a Twitter account dedicated only to private tweets between members of your class community.  The important thing is that we help guide them through experiences as digital writers as often as we guide them as traditional ones.  We forget sometimes that just because students are deeply attached to their technology doesn’t mean that they have a good sense of how to use it productively.  

It’s hard to set any genre aside, but it’s also important to recognize the extent to which English teachers are creatures of habit–our units might be thematically organized or organized around writing or literature genres, but there is a hazard to students when we lean too hard in favor of concepts like “canon” or “tradition” instead of recognizing the ways writing is rapidly changing in various mediums, even as the core tenets (we love those!) remain the same.  As you begin to structure your units this year, consider the question of how often your students are given the chance to engage in modern writing genres.  

Are there spaces in your units where students could explore writing in new mediums?

Do you already incorporate more modern or digital forms of writing in your curriculum?  Share your ideas with us! @zigthinks

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