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Digital Writing and the Common Core: Using Wikis for Collaborative Composing

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My work with digital writing in my Language Arts classroom began in 2008 as I was working on an independent research project for one of my graduate courses.  In thinking about my next steps as a writing teacher, I became interested in digital literacy.  In my research for this project I came across the "Workforce Readiness Report" from the Partnership for 21st Century skills, which concluded that America's students "are ill-prepared for today's (and tomorrow's) workplace."  This is a line we hear all the time, right?  That one and the one about how the percentage of jobs students will have that do not yet exist.  The question really is, though, what does it mean to be digitally literate and prepared for the 21st century?  What skills are needed for students to be prepared?

Not knowing where to begin, I dove in by starting a class Wikispace, a tool I had heard about from a colleague.  I started by spending some time creating the site and launched it the next semester with my AP Literature and Composition students. My understanding of digital writing at the time didn’t go beyond online discussions, so that was the majority of my focus during that semester.  I am not going to spend too much time on the online discussions because I ultimately decided there was much potential outside that type of digital writing, but through the work and reflection with my students and a few epic fails I did come away with the following takeaways:

  • Pre-assigned groups work best
  • Designate a discussion leader
  • Give students clear and explicit guidance in the form and content of a discussion post
  • Allow a multiple week window for discussion
  • Have groups set up protocol for discussion
  • Be sure it is related to the unit of study in a meaningful way

Following one of the later discussions, I asked students to reflect on the discussion experience and saw a lot of responses like this:

  •  “Forgetting [to post] really isn’t an excuse but I just wish there was some way I could get myself excited to be involved or feel like I am involved.  I don’t feel like anything I say matters or makes a difference.”
  • “We could easily have these discussions in class and I would be much more engaged instead of just typing something up real quick and then not checking or discussing it later on.”

But I also got a few of these:

  • “I really enjoy the wiki discussions and when students from other classes comment.”
  • “I like the wiki discussions.  It’s more fun to have discussions with other people then it is to just write a report or summary on a reading by myself.”

So, I wasn’t ready to give up the dream.  I still felt there was potential in this format to create authentic, meaningful learning and writing experiences for my students. The question was how to do this. The answer to my question came in the form of the Common Core State Standards.  Although there are a number of Standards that articulate the principles of digital literacy, the one that has been most valuable to me when it comes to the wiki format is Writing Anchor Standard #6:  “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.”  This standard gave me a very specific focus for the wikispace:  producing, publishing, interacting and collaborating.  From there, I began developing writing tasks with those things in mind.

The first assignment I developed with this in mind was a multimodal, collaborative composition as a culminating project for the unit “Whose story gets told?”.  This assignment required students to compose using features of the wikispace like video embedding, image uploading and hyperlinks.  It was a collaborative composition, created with someone from a different class period and was published to the wikispace for others to view.  Here is an example of one multi-modal essay. 

From there, I started to think about the “real world” function of wikis as a place where anyone can edit pages to share information with a wide audience.  The next writing assignment I created was to try out this kind of composing.  My first unit of the year was an exploration of the question “What do the stories we remember and tell reveal about us?” and involved a reading of Frankenstein and other texts alluded to and inspired by the novel; this unit focuses on analysis of allusions and archetypes.  For this assignment, students worked in groups to research a story or character type that often appears in literature and posted their research to the wikispace to share with students across all classes.  The product of this work was a resource students could consult when they came across a suspected allusion or archetype in a work of literature.  This is what one page of the wiki looks like. 

The final assignment I have created using the wikispace was for a Hamlet unit where each class period had a class-created Essential Question.  After analyzing the form and substance of a blog post, students wrote four weekly blogs on their individual pages and responded to blogs using the discussion feature.  Here is one example.  This assignment was the most enjoyable assignment I have ever graded—for the most part the posts were interesting, to the point and had wonderful voice. 

In his 2007 article, “Educational Relevance:  Can Technology Make a Difference? ,” Danny Kathriner argues that "we should not just review our curricula, but our everyday lessons for relevance, for some connection between students' education, experiences and future" and realize that "a superior tool giving us superior access still does not constitute deep thinking or understanding" because "computers cannot substitute for substance" (p.7).  Kathriner's observations are key to keep in mind as educators modify daily practice to make use of technology.  Given that much of this technology is foreign to educators there is the potential for thinking that simply using a computer, or a powerpoint or another type of technology makes for revolutionary, meaningful teaching.  This is definitely not the case.  As with all teaching strategies and activities we use in our classrooms, we must consider the purpose of using a resource and align our instruction and assignments to that purpose. 

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