National Writing Project

NWP Teachers Relaunch Writing with Digital Tools

Publication: Education Week
Date: April 7, 2011

Summary: Drawing on the experience of Writing Project teachers, an Education Week article makes a case for digital writing that promotes collaboration, enhances students' voice, and supports skill building.


"Schools are in catch-up mode," says Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, director of national programs and site development for the National Writing Project, in a recent Education Week article, "Writing Re-Launched: Teaching with Digital Tools ."

She is referring to the irony that most schools still employ pen, paper, and print dictionaries at a time when real-world writing makes full use of technology.

Eidman-Aadahl, the co-author of NWP's book Because Digital Writing Matters, argues that digital writing assignments "match the real world" and give students experience composing "in forms people will actually use."

Digital Writing in the Classroom

The Ed Week article provides several examples of NWP teachers who have put the tools of technology to work in their classrooms.

After taking an NWP technology workshop, Elissa Loeb Waldman, a seventh grade English teacher at Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, added a multimedia component to a district-mandated research project, requiring technology-based graphics to supplement students' written findings about challenges minorities faced during World War II.

Joel Malley, an English teacher at New York's Cheektowaga Central High School and a technology liaison for the Western New York Writing Project, took his students to a local nature reserve, where they used flip cameras to shoot close-ups of exhibits. They then wrote poems about the experience. Back in the classroom, they composed short films that made use of the footage and the poetry. The final product was a DVD featured at a fundraising event for the nature reserve.

Digital Writing and Traditional Writing

The Education Week piece calls attention to the ways digital writing differs from traditional writing. For example, pen-and-paper writing is necessarily a one-person undertaking, while digital writing encourages collaborative projects.

Eidman-Aadahl makes the point that collaboration in school was once thought to be cheating. But in real-world situations like the workplace, "collaborative writing is huge."

Encouraging the use of online tools like Google Docs, Malley assigns students to create research papers together, adding to and editing each other's works.

Google Docs also allows useful collaboration between students and teachers. Malley says he is now available to "zip in and help when kids need something specific," whether he is across the room or across town—so he can provide, say, grammar instruction in context and at the point of need.

Digital Writing: Writing for a Wider Audience

Traditional school writing usually meant writing for the teacher. That's changed. With digital writing and videos, students know that their work will be out there for the world to see. Malley considers this a positive development: His students use social networking sites and have found that the more compelling their voice, the more reader comments they get. "That drives them," says Malley.

Joseph McCaleb, director of the University of Maryland Writing Project, sees digital writing as a tool to encourage students to write about matters that have strong meaning for them. If, for instance, a student films a public service announcement about recycling, he or she knows the piece will be out in the world and can make a difference.

A Pathway to Traditional Writing Skills

For a short film to work, says Malley, students must know how to shape a story or make an argument. They learn that providing a compelling voice-over is as important as mastering technical skills. In this way, digital writing serves rather than detracts from the fundamentals of school, like test preparation, by enhancing students' drive to learn the basics.

Waldman too sees her focus on technology as a way to better do her job. "If [these tools] meet a need I haven't been able to meet or accomplish—the objective of increasing student willingness to invest their time—I'm willing to put in the time to learn them," she says.

NWP's Digital Writing Resources

You might say that NWP was an early adopter when it came to exploring ways to use digital tools to teach writing. As a result, it has a number of resources to help teachers:

  • Because Digital Writing Matters examines what teachers, administrators, and parents can do to help schools meet the challenges of digital writing and equip students with technology-related communication skills. The book considers such questions as "What are fair ways to assess digital writing?" and "How does digital writing support learning across the disciplines?"
  • Digital a website that collects ideas, resources, reflections, and stories about what it means to teach writing in our digital, interconnected world.
  • Writing and Technology is a collection of articles by NWP teachers covering everything from using blogs in the classroom to digital comics to writing collaboratively with Wikipedia.

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