Monday, June 5, 2017

Does digital writing or digital literacy really matter?

After completing the reading with this week, I am left with one question: Does digital writing or digital literacy really matter? For my students, I say no.

I agree with the text that writing, which can be defined as: "an important act and an essential tool for learning and social participation," is important for all people in the modern American world (DeVoss, 1). We can use writing to express our ideas, thoughts, questions and, most importantly, to communicate with our future selves, or others over the course of time. But what is the point in writing your ideas, thoughts, questions if no one cares to listen because you are black, poor, or disenfranchised in another manner?

Since the beginning of the year, I have tried every day to give my students a reason to write their best work, or any work, in order to express or explain themselves about anything. In response, they say, " who cares about what they have to say?" And when I tell them that I care in what they have to say, we both realize that I am not enough. I cannot push them to validate themselves in one year, if they have had years before me where they are told that their views do not matter or, worse, are wrong. For, when we speak on the behalf of others for so long, they lose the thunder in their voice, or, for these students that I teach, they lose the faith in themselves.

As a result, this year my focus was pushing these students to believe in their voice outside of their writing instead of using writing to validate themselves in the traditional sense. I focused on student discourse, relating between one another. And towards the end of the year we began writing more and more, non-academically. Although most English teachers would scoff at me for this decision, I realized that in their academic writing students were regurgitating back my own words with little to no conviction or personality. In order to save them and myself, I decided that the main focus should be their security in themselves as learners.

I write this anecdote to say, that yes, writing is important. But other students have more important things that they need to learn and excel in before we have these conversations about writing. And, I will argue that the same implications for writing translates over to focus on digital writing, digital learning, and digital literacy. Yes, it is important for some. But no, I refuse to focus on using Google Classroom, when my students are convinced, due to the powers at be, that their voices are stupid, and therefore do not matter. Instead, I like to focus on things that will help them and eventually we will be able to catch up to the rest of the world.

I think that more often than not, we in urban education look at the suburban schools and envy everything that they have. They have laptops, so we want laptops. They are using internet platforms for learning, so we want to use internet platforms for learning. And believe it or not we do find the funding to accomplish all of these acts. However, we do not fix the real problems. What is the point of teaching students to write a collaborative essay using Google Documents, if they are not on a fifth grade reading level? Yes, they will write a paper. And most teachers will "meet them where they are at," and use that as an excuse for passing them along. However, they will still be reading on a fifth grade level by the end of the year. I think that we, as educators, need to prioritize where we put our focus within our classroom; and for me, and my students, I am not focused on digital writing.


  1. I completely agree with the overlook of urban education. As someone who grew up in poverty and attended many schools that convinced me that I don't have a worthwhile voice, I can say for certain that in those communities the change needs to begin there. I suggest Dr. Chris Emdin for effective strategies. Also, I recommend connecting with 826 Boston if your school isn't already affiliated with them. They are amazing at the Burke High School here in Dorchester.

    1. 826 Boston really is a great program focused on the student's voice, whatever it may be. There are plenty of volunteers to attempt and give every students individual advice and encouragement.

    2. I volunteer at 826! It's a great organization. I volunteer with their weekend tutoring program at their location in Roxbury, but I know that they have writing rooms in a couple of high schools -- the books they produce are absolutely beautiful and give students a space to tell their stories.

  2. I think a lot about what you said in class. The majority of my education has been focused on the majority, whether its history, science, culture etc. America has always been labeled as the melting pot, meaning it is hard to differentiate groups. But as we know that is not the truth. Driving 5 miles in Boston it is evident of the vastly different communities. That being said the book we are assigned is what we are assigned. While I agree with you, that your students are mostly left out. The book in the future will hopefully open up new concepts for me, that I may be able to use, or recognize as a possibility in the future. I hope that you are able to discover through this book new avenues of approach with your students that could facilitate your students problems.

  3. I agree that I think the text caters to a specific type of student. Furthermore, most texts on teaching grossly oversimplify what a classroom actually looks like as well as the students it contains. I teach mostly to the book's target audience and I still find most of the examples in the introduction impractical for my group of students. To me, it sounds as if you are doing exactly what your students need. Good classroom practices often require the teacher to separate their students from the skills they are supposed to learn and think about what the students actually need to learn. Who cares if they can write a 5 paragraph essay if they see themselves as a useless member of society? Sometimes I find myself so focused on the small details and what the Common Core thinks my students should know that I forget to look at the big picture. Would I rather have a struggling student learn how to analyze a text or learn how to believe that they matter in society even if they can't do the former? In a perfect world, I would say both. Unfortunately, most classrooms aren't neat rooms with excited students who just want to learn like education texts make them out to be.

    On a positive note, I believe technology can be used to foster learning for all students. It is going to look different in every school and I think individual teachers need more freedom to be able to tailor their curriculum to satisfy the needs of their specific students. I thought your Instragram idea was a great way to get students talking and interested and I think administrators need to loosen the reigns a bit in that regard.

  4. Thank you, Jamilla, for your honest and strident critique of the introduction to this book, which I agree is largely focused on an audience of teachers who are not teaching underserved populations. Much of what you write (and shared last night) indicates that you are working within an environment of despair, which is a culture that cannot be resisted easily. I have taught (and currently teach) students who have little to no hope for the future, and given our current political situation, it is even more difficult to convince them otherwise. Your comments, therefore, have me wondering about what should be done. I'm convinced by your argument that digital writing does not matter for your students, but that's a different statement than saying it it shouldn't matter. Based on what you write here, it seems that the main obstacle is the lack of a receptive audience for their voices. Is there a way in which digital platforms might be oriented towards their particular needs and communities first? If Google Classroom is not worth the learning curve for your students, then what is? I guess what I'm getting at is this: do we resign ourselves to the situation in which underserved populations just learn to read and write with analog tools (i.e. handed down copies of Mice and Men and sheets of paper) and risk their isolation and/or perpetuate their disenfranchisement? Or do we begin to try small ways (such as your Instagram idea or even limited blog writing?) in which these students might find ways to share their voices beyond their communities and increase the possibility that their voices could be heard?

  5. I really applaud you for thinking about how to best support your students. I really believe in breaking rules (as much as possible) when the rules don't serve students. I teach at Bunker Hill where many BPS students go, so I have somewhat of a similar population. Though I do have the students who are able (often barely) to make it to college. I've also taught for a while in GED and alternative high school programs with disconnected young people. I've also been an organizer, so I tend to think more like a teacher/organizer. Are there ways you can use digital writing or other digital forms of expression to engage students in issues they care about in ways they can see their voice mattering? Can you turn their justified anger or hopelessness or fear into positive action through writing and expressive arts? I think picking an issue that can lead to a small win can help students see that their voices matter. What's a gripe that the students have about the school that they could use digital expression to powerfully convey a message and seek change around? Pick a small, specific ask. Or start smaller... what's an issue they have with your classroom and ask them to propose a change through some form of digital writing and then move to the school level? At one of the GED program's I taught at, one of the students in my class was killed as a result of gang activity. (He was one of my favorites). After students got together to create a street memorial for him, I worked with students to create a documentary about youth violence in their neighborhoods and the root causes -- lack of investment, lack of jobs, etc. They took video editing and filming classes at the local access station and produced a documentary. They interviewed Felix Arroyo (former city councilor) and some other leaders in the movement to support youth. They got to see that their voice mattered. I should remember but can't exactly -- we had some public viewing of the film in a way that was intended to affect a change -- like increasing funding for summer youth employment. I forget. Anyway, maybe this is one way to engage your students in digital writing while engaging in activity where they see they have a voice?

  6. I want to reiterate what I said back in class last night--that much of what I'm saying here is coming from a position that's far removed from your experience, and that I don't pretend to know if any of my suggestions are practical or workable. It's rough hearing that the situation seems so hopeless in your school, and I think it would be fair to say that our entire class probably shares in your discontent towards the political and academic institutions that are letting your students down.

    I do wonder, though, if digital writing might offer a way to more directly empower your students in a way that (in Erin's words from last night) subverts some of the power structures that currently work against them. In the past few years, we've seen marginalized groups use social media as a tool to spread awareness of their situation and advocate for themselves, the recent refugee crisis in Syria being one example. I'm not saying it's fair or just that your students need to advocate for basic rights that other students receive, but I wonder if maybe some of what we learn this semester might them begin to challenge the belief that their voice doesn't matter. Projects like the community-based research project described on page 10 BCWM seem adaptable and like a great starting point, and I hope that some of what we cover in the next few weeks ends up helping you address the significant challenges you face at your school.

  7. Jamilla, excellent blog post. You seriously identified a problem in the reading’s intended audience and subject, to which I completely agree. “In each of these vignettes we see many elements of classroom practices and academic learning that would look familiar to teachers and families,” (DeVoss). The problem with this statement is that I don’t see much of what she describes as being familiar. I work as an academic support teacher at my local high school, and as I was reading through the material for this week, I found myself commenting on how often DeVoss was picturing the ideal, mainstream classroom. As an academic support teacher, every one of my students has an IEP or some sort of behavioral issue. That being said, the fight she talks about in the form of educating students on digital literacy and writing is important, but it seems that she presses this issue in the light of a typical, suburban, mainstream classroom.

    An issue that I see within my own school is that administration and certain teachers are trying their best to maintain or develop digital skills for their students, always pushing for new technologies or platforms of education. This may work for the typical student, but the many students who have learning disabilities are left to their own panic, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Constantly, I am having to work with students who are on the verge of tears about a new format or activity that involves the computer or a software that they do not understand. Sure, the computers are available, but are students being properly trained to use them? I would, in my opinion, say no. In fact, many of my students, feeling that they are not on par with their peers, especially when it comes to digital literacy and writing, lose motivation, not only with these certain activities, but also in the class as a whole.

    However, - and this is where we may differ on some level - I do believe, as the title of the book states, that digital writing does matter. DeVoss states, “writing instruction appropriate for the world today requires us to consider what new skills and disposition students might need for the digital age,” (DeVoss, 11). Despite my, or your, students not being completely digitally literate, this does not mean that they are not living in a time when the digital is almost essential, if not in an academic setting, then surly in a career or military-minded path. The skills that can be developed and honed through the use of technology are very much important, especially when considering a student’s future prospects and future outside of school.

    These are not standards and beliefs held only by teachers and administrators, but, as DeVoss mentions, are contentions held by parents and families as well: “families are interested in seeing schools take advantage of new digital tools to help students learn and compose” (DeVoss, 9). You may say that these are most likely the families of the same white, middle class America that DeVoss’ book seems so geared towards, but I believe every parent should want the best for their child; learning and honing digital literacy skills is a way for them to progress in the world.

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  9. Jamilla, framing this post vis a vis the institutional context in which you work – a context admittedly ignored by this book – complicates the discourse in useful ways. I agree that focusing on writing (let alone digital writing) is perhaps unproductive when students are not reading at the requisite grade level. However, because I don’t want to feel like either you or I have wasted $20 purchasing this textbook, I want to consider the ways in which it might be helpful for both you and me. With that said, there might be more sympathy between your position and that of DeVoss et al., insofar that as you pointed out she asserts that writing is “an important act and an essential tool for learning and social participation” (my emphasis, 1). I absolutely think that focusing on “student discourse” might be helpful, i.e. how they relate to themselves and each other through writing. This chapter, and certainly chapter 2, stress writing as a socially situated activity for the purpose of engaging in a participatory culture in which we are more than passive consumers of media – ultimately, I think its aim is more emancipatory than we have been giving it credit for. You point out that yoru students are disenfranchised, and feel that their voice does not matter. I wonder if digital writing holds out the promise of providing your students with mediums and objects of investigation which can counteract this, i.e. aren’t they already composing digitally on social media platforms? I understand that the institution you work for does not want you to involve commercial social media platforms, however, LMS’s such as Schoology mimic the conventions of the various social media platforms, perhaps you might benefit from using such an LMS. It might satisfy the needs of both parties, as the students would be engaging on a platform similar to those with which they already compose, and the institution would not be nervous about the inclusion of seemingly non-academic platforms. In terms of the object of investigation, I think you are right in trying to engender a sense of authority on the part of the students, or a feeling of having the right to use first person when engaging with a topic. However, isn’t the next step, towards peer review of ideas and composition easier once you have established your discourse community within the classroom easier once you have done so? It seems that you don’t want them to write canned answer book reports – and I don’t blame you – but can’t they instead compose about composition by investigating their own writing and the writing of others? Finally, I think that our class has been framing digital writing through the lens of the technology rather than the spirit of digital culture. It might be helpful to orient ourselves away from the technology proper and instead consider the concepts of participatory culture on 11-12, which apply to both digital and non-digital texts.

  10. Jamilla,

    One thing in your blog that stuck out for me was when you said you want your students to know that they matter. You mentioned in class that you telling them that they matter isn’t enough. I wonder if digital writing would be a good way for students to be able to get that affirmation from like-minded people online. Is there another school/class you could pair with so students could write for an audience like them? You mentioned that they use Snapchat. Could there be a way to introduce audience and purpose by using that particular platform as an entrypoint? DeVos et al. point out, “Teachers of writing have a crucial role in supporting students in understanding the complexities of communicating in a twenty-first century world”. If students had a better understanding of how to communicate effectively with an audience, then surely they would be able to be better writers in the ways they are actually writing. It may sound idealistic, but I teach ELLs from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and it floored me when I found out all the composing my students do outside of school. I took a survey of this outside writing in September, and I have been using it to build on my students existing knowledge/experiences all year.

    I do agree with you that giving lower performing students the same tools as high performing students does not bridge the gap. There are much deeper institutional, political, and historical reasons that certain groups of students outperform others, and these can’t be fixed by spending money on apps and laptops.

  11. I absolutely get where you're coming from, Jamilla. It's difficult to even begin to think about digital writing and all these new technologies when you have students with such diverse needs. I think you are right to focus on what you know your students need: getting them to recognize their own voices and realize that their voices do matter. I know that's much easier said than done, but it's clear that you really care about your students and advocate for them. What you said last night about having your students talk in pairs so that they can hear their own voices really stuck with me: how can your students even begin to think about writing if they have been conditioned to think that they have nothing worthwhile to say, or that no one is listening? With all that's going on in our country and our world, especially with regard to education, it gives me hope when I know that there are teachers like you out there.

    I, too, found myself questioning the introduction to WDWM. Like I said last night, I was initially excited about the opportunities to teach writing using all kinds of technology and online resources. I could picture my (imaginary) future students typing away at their blog posts on poetry, or creating their own digital stories. But when I thought back to my own middle and high school years, that vision began to fade as I looked at the examples given on page 10. Sure, my AP and honors peers would have been all over a project like that, but what about the rest of the school population? What about students in the "academic" track who aren't heading to college? What about students who don't have access to computers outside of school? Do projects like these privilege those in upper-level tracks and those who can afford technology? What I dislike about most teaching books is that they make everything sound so easy, as if students will be perfectly enthusiastic and capable of using different technological tools (if they were honest about how difficult it was, they wouldn't sell any books). The reality is so different, even in a suburban high school like mine.

    I also agree with you that technology is not the most important thing to focus on sometimes, especially when there is so much else -- common core, standardized tests, classroom management -- to juggle. And that just because the technology is available doesn't mean it is useful, or easy to use. A high school student I tutored recently told me that it bothers him that his school spends so much money on computers and other technological tools, but never spend time or money on giving students the teaching and instruction they need. He feels that it's all for show with no real effects.

    Maybe you could find some blogs or vlogs written and created by students with similar backgrounds to your own. Show them in class, or read them aloud to your students, and let them listen. Have them follow blogs that interest them. They might see there is a place online where they can make their voices heard, and connect with others who have gone through similar experiences. Maybe they'll want to try writing or making their own videos. Again, much easier said than done, but you never know if exposing your students to others out there who are writing and sharing their ideas could spark something in one of your own.

    I will end with another plug for 826 Boston. A recent 826 publication that might be of interest to you is called "Attendance Would Be 100%." It was written by BPS students, and it is a collection of their essays about how they would improve public education in Boston if they had the power to do so. What's really cool about it is that copies of the book were given to Mayor Walsh and other higher-ups in the city to encourage consider the students' voices. I could see having students read some of these essays, and even try writing their own.

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  13. It seems that my thoughts coincide with most of the posts on here. I agree with you when you say that texts like this aren’t tailored to the populations that most matter in terms of educational success. As Jillian stated in her comment, “most texts on teaching grossly oversimplify what a classroom actually looks like as well as the students it contains.” That’s why I feel that it’s so important to pre-assess our students’ technological experiences, in the same way we do in regards to past reading/writing experiences. If we can figure out what it is our students already know, we can choose tools that they can adapt to easily, with specific comparisons to their prior digital experiences and with specific (quick) training incorporated. Erin mentioned that she utilizes surveying to figure this out in her classroom at the beginning of the year, I LOVE that idea.

    Brandon mentions, “The skills that can be developed and honed through the use of technology are very much important, especially when considering a student’s future prospects and future outside of school.” While I COMPLETELY see why you don’t prioritize technology with your class, I can also see how this focus may be beneficial to help students adapt to the digital world we live in. This doesn’t necessarily require a huge adaptation, just some simple tasks that may help them improve their flexibility and skills regarding a few different digital contexts. I think that by meeting students where they currently are in their technological confidence, we can aim to bring to light the unknown resources available within technology that they can utilize in their everyday lives. At the same time, and as others have said, it’s equally important to find resources that relate specifically to the lives of these kids. Of course, this isn’t an easy task to overcome, but hopefully we’ll find answers together throughout this course. Shana’s experience with incorporating technology (the documentary) is a great example of that!

    As Jillian explains in her comment, the digital tools we utilize in our classrooms will always look different, “and I think individual teachers need more freedom to be able to tailor their curriculum to satisfy the needs of their specific students.” While you may have had trouble utilizing instagram, maybe there is a similar resource that the school DOESN’T have blocked which they can use in a similar fashion, that way, you could slowly extending their comfort zones in relation to the digital tools they encounter, therefore making them more adaptable in future contexts. Because the tools available are always changing, and because our students are so diverse, I think that the biggest challenge will be for teachers to actively (and continuously), search for specific tools that may enhance our classroom- hopefully, this course will be a good starting point for that endeavor.


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