National Writing Project

Book Review: The Digital Writing Workshop

By: Ken Martin
Date: February 11, 2010

Summary: Ken Martin, technology liaison with the Maine Writing Project, says this book's emphasis on connecting writing workshops to technology tools will alleviate the fear or preoccupation with which many teachers approach new media.

 

As a K–12 technology integration coach, I often encounter two mindsets when introducing teachers to technology applications. The first is fear of technology—a belief that technology is wholly foreign to teachers' existing practice. The second is preoccupation with technology—a belief that a technology cannot be attempted with students until it has been mastered by the teacher.

In The Digital Writing Workshop —written by Troy Hicks, co-director of the Chippewa River Writing Project in Michigan—I found an ally in addressing both of these attitudes.

Teachers' fear and preoccupation over technology tends to feed an either/or dualism that sets teaching and technology against each other. Experts typically reassure us that "it's about the teaching, not the technology," but this oft-heard mantra is too simplistic to encompass the task teachers face as they adjust to literacy in the 21st century.

Technology and Writing Intertwined

Hicks avoids this pitfall. Instead, he portrays technology and writing as "intricately intertwined" by keeping a firm hand on two visions.

First, he certainly puts students themselves at the center. He says, "I argue here and throughout this book that if we engage students in real writing tasks and we use technology in such a way that it complements their innate need to find purposes and audiences for their work, we can have them engaged in a digital writing process that focuses first on the writer, then on the writing, and lastly on the technology."

At the same time, Hicks consistently maintains that a digital writing workshop is more than old wine in new bottles. He recognizes the profound potential of digital technologies, and throughout he helps us to consider how "a mindset that understands new literacies . . . [can] make the substantive changes to our teaching that need to happen in order to embrace the full potential of collaboration and design that digital writing offers."

It is this capacity to maintain focus on the writer without losing sight of the digital media that encourages us to merge the two in our own work.

There is never a question that Hicks's book is about writing workshop. From the outset, he introduces five core principles of the writing workshop approach: student choice, active revision, author's craft, publication, and broad visions of assessment. What follows is a narrative sequence designed to support our transition from the writing workshop we know to a writing workshop for the 21st century. Each of the five principles is used to anchor a separate chapter in which Hicks also examines technology applications that support that principle.

The result is parallel sequences, one of which substantiates our understanding of writing workshop while the other advances our understanding of technology. Together, these sequences converge to define writing in a digital context.

Technology and the Core Principles of Writing Workshop

In Hicks's discussion of student choice in topic and genre, for example, the emphasis is on student-directed inquiry, and three technologies are presented to help students manage the flood of information available on the Web—RSS (really simple syndication), social bookmarking, and blogs.

The principle of active revision is demonstrated by showing how blogs, wikis, and online word processing help to frame revision not as a corrective procedure but as a continuous process of writing development that involves the collaboration of writer, peers, and teacher—through a blog's commenting functions and the group writing and editing functions of wikis, for example.

When it comes to the author's craft as a principle for instruction (e.g., creating leads, selecting details, writing transitions, and using repetition), Hicks examines how podcasting and digital storytelling help define writing as composition—a multilayered complex that includes images, audio, and video, and requires writers to think critically, with the eyes of both a text editor and a multimedia producer, as they juxtapose different elements to communicate their ideas. These digital tools call on different kinds of knowledge or skill, and thereby multimedia makes author's craft apparent to students in ways not available through text alone.

Hicks uses parallel sequences to map digital technology onto writing workshop, beginning by reviewing a principle in writing workshop as we have known it and then delineating the implications of a digital environment for that principle. Next, he describes an extension of the principle—some comparatively simple way of using digital tools to enhance our existing model. Finally, Hicks moves the discussion into more transformative applications of technology to the principle.

Experts reassure us that "it's about the teaching, not the technology," but this oft-heard mantra is too simplistic.

Consider, for example, chapter 2, where Hicks uses the research paper to address the principle of student choice and discuss tools for managing information on the Internet. He first reviews the traditional process of moving from teacher-selected topics and librarian-selected books to note cards, outline, one draft, and a final copy for the teacher. Then he describes the WebQuest as an approach that uses the Internet to draw in a wider range of sources, but is still too often teacher-directed and may allow students to merely be consumers of information.

Finally, Hicks provides an example of how one teacher uses wiki technology to help students gather information and create an online resource about censorship—that is, to become producers of text. This progression from practice as we know it through a simple extension and into something more transformative is a pattern Hicks uses repeatedly to help us think about what it means to make substantive change in a digital environment.

In chapters 2–4, Hicks places certain specific technologies firmly within the writing workshop context. In chapters 5–6, he builds on this foundation by connecting those technologies to the two remaining principles, publishing student work and assessing it. Student portfolios and class anthologies are an accepted writing workshop approach to publishing student work beyond the classroom. Hicks explains how blogs and online anthologies make these publications more powerful, through the interactivity of peer response groups and comments from the wider audience that's available by publishing online.

But how do the traditional elements of formative and summative assessment apply to digital writing? How does digital writing require us to rethink how we assess writing?

Throughout The Digital Writing Workshop, Hicks has referenced familiar heuristics and rubrics for the writing workshop that he has adapted to digital media. In chapter 6, he takes Jim Burke's (2003) six "traits of effective and ineffective writers"—ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions—and applies them to the technologies he has introduced.

No Blueprint for Digital Writing Workshop

Hicks concludes with a chapter on "creating your digital writing workshop." This is no blueprint. Hicks recognizes that writing workshop principles and the characteristics of technology can anchor what we do, but that each situation is its own special mix of "the students we teach, the subject matter of writing, and the [physical and virtual] spaces in which writing occurs."

What Hicks does provide is critical questions we might consider and action steps we might take in thinking through how to realize the many possibilities of digital writing tools in our own circumstances.

This book is well positioned to meet the wide range of teachers' technology readiness. It is not a how-to book; however, novice readers will find plenty of suggestions throughout that direct them to specific sources on using each application. In addition, Hicks has established a companion website to provide support for those reading the book. Advanced readers may be familiar not just with the technologies but also with some of the transformational applications described for those technologies. Nevertheless, the way Hicks intertwines technology with the writing workshop should provide plenty of new ground for even the most advanced reader.

A wonderful consequence of this range in appeal is the suitability of the text to communities of learners. I can easily see The Digital Writing Workshop as a shared read for a school faculty, a writing project summer institute, or another group interested in advancing their own writing and that of their students. Hicks describes writing, technology integration, and learning as a collaborative experience, and it is easy to see this perspective reflected in The Digital Writing Workshop.

 

Reference

Burke, Jim. 2003. Writing Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

About the Author Ken Martin is the inservice director and technology liaison for the Maine Writing Project. He is currently a part-time instructor and doctoral student at the University of Maine.

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