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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Troy Hicks: A Conversation About Digital Writing

Troy Hicks

"There is not a writer in our classrooms today who will not be producing something with a digital writing tool in her or his lifetime." -- Troy Hicks

Troy Hicks frequently uses the words "intentional" and "deliberate" to highlight the need for writers to conscientiously think through composing digital texts. Those two words could just as easily describe the author's thoughtful affect on Paul Allison's Teachers Teaching Teachers or the degree to which his new book, Crafting Digital Writing: Composing Texts Across Media and Genres, methodically articulates how 4th-12th grade instructors can introduce technology tools, mentor texts, composing practices, and heuristics for helping students write.

"We have all these devices and technologies available to us. How are we being intentional? How are we being thoughtful -- taking time to craft writing with these digital tools?"

A professor of English Education at Central Michigan University and Director of the Chippewa Writing Project, Dr. Hicks published The Digital Writing Workshop in 2009. His YouTube summary of this book describes five writers' workshop principles that remain, regardless of available technology. To help stakeholders understand and support schools' digital writing initiatives, he coauthored Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments in 2010 with Danielle Nicole DeVoss and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl.

Why Teach Students to Craft Digital Writing?

Throughout Crafting Digital Writing are counter-arguments to those who might resist teaching students to compose digital texts on the grounds that:

  1. Standardized tests reward mastery of traditional writing genres.
    Hicks: "[We] can no longer cling to the idea that producing good test-takers will yield the types of writers who will succeed in college, career, and life." Besides, crafting digital writing corresponds with the Common Core's CCR Anchor Standards and Habits of Mind set forth by the Council of Writing Program Administrators among other authorities.
  2. Students need intensive help with writing, not technology.
    Hicks (extending on a quote by Lucy Calkins): "Teach the writer, then the writing, then the technology."
  3. Students inserting txting language into formal essays confirms that technology is harming students' ability to write.
    Hicks: "No formal study has shown that 'txting' ruins student writing." When txting pops up in essays, "Teach students to code switch back and forth between formal and informal discourses."

Crafting Digital Writing

Crafting Digital Writing capitalizes on Troy Hicks' MAPS heuristic -- mode (genre), media, audience, purpose, situation -- that helps writers understand the contexts in which they compose and reach their writing goals. Each chapter describes how to craft different digital texts: web, presentations, audio, video and social media. For each genre, Hicks analyzes a representative mentor text using MAPS, discusses genre conventions and composing obstacles, makes curriculum connections, introduces a range of tools, summarizes the composing process specific to each genre, presents rubrics, and provides multiple student examples or links to projects on the web. In short, Hicks economically lays out the fundamental resources teachers need in order to help students successfully negotiate multiple forms of digital writing.

To compliment Crafting Digital Writing, the book's companion wiki contains abundant links and resources associated with each of the chapters. A Websites and Apps page offers even more tools; members are invited to contribute resources to help keep the space up to date. QR codes appear throughout the book to relieve readers of typing out long hyperlinks. When asked during a recent presentation why his latest text was not published as an e-book, Hicks sighs, "The ironies abound."

Exchanging knowledge through conversation with students or colleagues is a theme that runs through Troy Hicks' writing. This ethos is also modeled in the author's conference workshops and webinars, articles, blog posts, Twitter exchanges, and through interactions with Crafting Digital Writing's Google+ community. It was in this latter space that Dr. Hicks answered a couple questions about his book.

Intention and Innovation

Edutopia: Crafting Digital Writing offers multiple examples of successful digital texts, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch, for example. RSA Animate and The Story of Stuff Project host several of my favorites. What is the one piece of digital writing that resonates with you most? Why?

Troy Hicks: The one piece of digital writing that continues to resonate for me, even though I don't mention it in the book, is Michael Wesch's The Machine Is Us/Using Us. I think that he released that in 2008 or so, and at that time I thought his innovative manner of screen casting combined with zooming and refocusing was amazing. Plus, he uses the computer as a key actor in the text, but it is all controlled by him. The last part, where he types that we will need to "rethink a few things" still resonates for me. I sometimes still show that video in professional development sessions, and I admire the time he took to plan, record and edit that piece.

Edutopia: You write, "It is time to give up on the idea that we are doing students a service by limiting the range of writing experiences we offer." Would you agree that teaching has become more complex with the advent of digital tools? What advice do you give to new teachers who are apprehensive about the complexity of teaching composition in the digital age?

Troy Hicks: I don't know that teaching has become more complex, per se. The best writing teachers have always invited their students to compose in a range of genres for a variety of audiences and purposes. I would say that digital writing "generatively complicates" the art of teaching writing, but that we shouldn't let the variety of new technologies overwhelm us. Instead, we need to refocus on what we know to be true about teaching individual writers -- with choice, time and response -- as well as how to teach specific kinds of writing -- with models, scaffolding and practice. The digital tools offer students new opportunities, no doubt, but they still need to be intentional in the way that they craft their pieces of digital writing. To that end, even a young teacher still has more experience as a reader and writer (both traditionally and digitally) than his or her students, and if a technology is confusing then it provides him or her the opportunity to model the thinking and writing process. So, my advice, in short -- keep the bigger picture in mind, give yourself and your students permission to play (and fail) with the tools, and then work intentionally as you model the digital writing process.

There’s that word again.

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