In talking to my colleague Natalie yesterday I definitely have some new thoughts about the direction of my inquiry. She gave me a lot to think about, but the idea that I've been thinking about most is the impact of technology on writing.
She expressed an opinion that I think a lot of teachers (and people in general) hold--that technology and good writing are in opposition to one another. She said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that it seems to her that young people's increasing use of technology is damaging their ability to write. She pointed to their use of what I call contemporary shorthand (or "txt tlk" as web users sometimes refer to it) as an example of how technology is damaging kid's ability to spell, write complete sentences, and organize their writing.
I think perhaps I'm unusual in that I am an English teacher who believes that spelling tests are a waste of time. Although I believe that they are a reliable assessment of a student's ability to spell, I've never read any studies that show that they actually improve student's ability to write. (For more on ways that teachers can use valuable class time to improve student's writing ability check out Because Writing Matters, a publication of the National Writing Project).
Not that my opinion of spelling tests necessarily addresses Natalie's concern, but I think that it gives you an idea of the perspective that I'm coming from. I spent 7 years of my life participating in competitive debate, and during that time I learned, developed, and used a system of shorthand to write down my opponent's arguments that has helped me as a student, as a freelance reporter/writer, and as a teacher. Txt tlk, like debate shorthand, is a useful tool--students use it to make text messaging easier and more efficient. Why can't we teach them that there is a time to use it (in their lecture notes, debate notes, and text messages) and a time not to use it (in formal communication, school papers, and business communication)?
I see an excellent opportunity in the text messaging, emailing, blogging, and My Space visiting world that so many of today's students inhabit. I had a My Space page for about one week before I realized that for a teacher My Space is not the best place to be--I prefer the professionalism of a blog to the informality of that particular networking site. But I remember one string of messages that I sent to a debater of mine about one of the debate cases we were working on. At one point she wrote, "You have a bad sense of paragraphs ;-)." Looking back at my own messages I realized that she was right--I did tend to create huge blocks of impenetrable prose, while she wrote in short, easy-to-read and digest paragraphs that made her messages much better than mine.
It's exactly that kind of breakthrough that technology can give our students. This is a basic organizational tool that can be applied to all kinds of writing. But strangely, even as an English teacher and a professional writer, I didn't understand how and why it applied to web writing. But it does--there is good and bad writing on the Internet just as there is good and bad writing in novels, magazines, newspapers, and student compositions.
I think that by bringing different examples of blogs, posts, emails, and other communication into the classroom for side-by-side comparison we can start to identify some of the things that separate good writing from bad writing. Perhaps then I can finally answer the question "Why are we learning this?" in a way that a fifteen-year-old can understand. Being a good writer will make your My Space page more popular (or in teacher-terms, it makes you a better, more influential member of the world-wide information network that fills up an increasingly large portion of our student's lives).
It's time to stop fighting it and start realizing technologies' potential. The kids are miles ahead of us, but if we keep at it I think that the web can become a teaching tool with incredible power. I really believe that by bringing it into the classroom we can reach kids by making what they learn relevant to what they do now as well as what they will be doing as adults in the twenty-first century.