National Writing Project

Teacher Uses Email to Teach Basics of Written Word

By: Kristina Torres
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 2
Date: 2006

Summary: A middle school teacher describes how she stepped away from traditional "skill and drill" writing exercises and started teaching students to write clear, concise emails.


Throughout the school year that winds up this week, Janice Ramsey has taught writing to 96 eighth-graders a day. Not all of them jumped at the chance to learn to write well.

In fact, many of Ramsey's students walked through her classroom door last August armed with four key words in any adolescent's arsenal:

You can't make me.

They didn't know what they were in for.

Ramsey's students are part of a 'tech native' generation.

Ramsey's students are part of a "tech native" generation—students who are as well-versed in instant messaging as they are in their ABCs. To reach them, Ramsey, a language arts teacher at Booth Middle School in Cherokee County, Georgia, developed an unusual curriculum this year that was such a hit with students it could make its way into other metro Atlanta classrooms within the next couple of years.

Its secret weapon? Email.

Electronic communication is necessary in today's working world. That reality prompted Ramsey to think: Why not use what kids already know to give them an aha! moment about writing skills and expression?

"Everybody has email access; I want to bring these things into the classroom," said Ramsey, a 13-year educator who eschews age-old "skill-and-drill" teaching techniques because she has found they don't connect with students.

"If kids are invested in what they're doing, you're going to have higher-quality work," she said. "They come to you for information instead of you forcing information on them."

Ramsey teaches her students that email is a form of written communication that requires the same fundamentals as taking a pen and writing on paper. Writers in any form need to consider: Who is your audience; what is your purpose in writing; what style and voice do you want to get across; and how do you grammatically structure what you write?

Students connect more to the electronic medium email provides them, she said.

"It's better than doing `work,'" said Brock Bunch, one of Ramsey's eighth grade students.

Ramsey's effort has more behind it than one teacher's positive thinking. She is part of a team of educators working through the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project—based at Kennesaw State University—to develop everyday ways for teachers to use technology as they teach writing.

The work is an outgrowth of the National Writing Project, a professional development program for teachers begun in 1974 at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ramsey and other team members, who are experimenting with various approaches to improve students' writing skills, will present their findings for review by other education professionals starting in June. The process allows the team to refine their work before it is eventually distributed on behalf of the local writing project to other interested teachers.

"Literacy instruction and written instruction tend to be quite old-fashioned; we're still working from a 1950s model," said Jennifer Stone, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Most workplaces include some form of email. Most financial things, most personal things, often include online literacies that schools are not preparing kids to do."

Ramsey is naturally curious about how the world relates to her classroom. That curiosity brought her to the idea of using email to teach her students writing, and it can be summed up by an article she saw in the New York Times more than a year ago that offered this staggering assessment: Businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion annually to teach white-collar professionals how to write clear, concise emails, reports, and other texts. Ramsey thought those kinds of basics should start way earlier—in places like her classroom.

"What is associated with email? Plain old letter-writing," Ramsey said. She starts her students on the road to good writing by focusing on electronic letters before building up to reports, essays, biographies, and poems, all of which have some sort of electronic component.

Ramsey acknowledges she has been able to be more innovative in part because she works in a tech-friendly school system, one that provided her in January with 16 wireless laptop computers in addition to her classroom's five desktop computers. One of her goals has been to develop her approach in a way that can be widely applied to other schools. But she acknowledged that one of the challenges has been refining the curriculum for teachers with fewer resources.

Ramsey admitted she was afraid other teachers would think she was crazy for straying from "what's tried and true." But her students proved that fear wrong.

"It has empowered them; it refined their thinking," she said. "Grammatical structure became what they were thinking, because they didn't want to look foolish. And they all got good grades."

©2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reprinted with permission from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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