Tips to Teach Composition for 21st Century Students
Teaching Composition for 21st Century Students
At this time in a number of countries around the world, researchers are developing robots to teach toddler pre-schoolers a second language. In this way, these little children will be fluent in a second language (with small child fluency) by the time they begin school. The Atlantic Monthly highlighted this in a recent article When Class Is Run By a Robot. As much as we in English Departments like to affirm the importance of having a human educator involved in the teaching of composition and writing, I think that we are naïve if we do not consider what will become available as the intelligence and responsiveness of digital options increase.
The Five Paragraph Essay
I have a confession to make regarding the five paragraph essay taught in most high school and college composition classes in the United States. Actually, I have two confessions to make.
I have to make a confession, of sorts, here. When I was in graduate school, I was taught to teach college freshmen to write with the structure of the infamous Five Paragraph Essay: introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs each with one coherent idea and a briefly developed example, and a final concluding paragraph that summarizes the whole essay. This is not my confession. My confession is this: I have never written a Five Paragraph Essay. I had never even heard of such a thing until, as a doctoral student at a large public university, I was expected to teach my students to write them.
Until I became a doctoral student, I had never read a five paragraph essay, at least as far as I know. The format was unlike anything I had ever read. It was more like the simple three step proofs from my undergraduate logic and mathematics classes than from anything that I had encountered in my humanities or social science classes. And I could not recollect any writer of any note who had written in such a fashion.
So what does the formulaic five paragraph essay have to do with robots teaching toddlers and small children a second language? If the focus of a composition or writing class is on the five paragraph essay, I do think that we are naïve to not consider that such teaching might be automated one day, and perhaps sooner than many of us would like to imagine. For now, it is important for us to focus more on the sort of writing that most students will be doing in the workplace and prepare them for their postgraduate writing.
[In fact, I know of NO jobs in which the five paragraph essay is part of the job. Even the actual writing that English teachers do (e.g., lesson plans, comments on papers, blogs, scholarly articles, book reviews, etc.) takes very different forms than the five paragraph essay. ]
5 New Directions for the Teaching of Composition and Writing
It is crucial that the various composition and writing classes teach students how to write well for THEIR lives and work. Most teachers and professors learned to write prior to the advent of blogs, Tweets, YouTube, and Vine, and the contemporary writing classroom continues to teach forms of writing that may not be preparing our students as effectively as we would like for the writing that they will need to be doing throughout their future lives and work. Let me highlight 5 Key Areas for New Directions in Teaching Writing that we would be wise to be thinking about and using to transform our writing classrooms.
1. More Creative Use of Technology
There is no question that our lives, communities, and the workplace are being radically transformed through the new developments in technology that we are seeing come about almost on a daily basis. While the pace of these changes may seem dizzying, it is crucial that we stay abreast of these changes and teach our students how to write effectively and appropriately with the consequence that virtually no digital text can be considered private. Teachers of writing and composition need to explore the wide range of resources available online for writing, including being open to using new digital programs in support of student writing development.
2. Greater Recognition of the Growing Importance of Social Media as New Composition Forms
The importance of social media whether textual (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, etc.), audio (e.g., Spotify, Podcasts), photographic (e.g., Instagram, SnapChat), or video (e.g., YouTube, Vine, NetFlix) is growing with the increasing developments in technology. This means that writing and composition must also change significantly beyond the five paragraph essay. Regardless of how most teachers and professors learned to write and teach writing, student today need solid guidance for the social media “writing” that they will do throughout their lives and careers.
For more developed writing beyond the brevity of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, the most prevalent form of longer online writing is the blog. Even blogs are changing since their inception around the turn of the century. Today, blogs are shorter, more tightly focused, and often brief developments of topics that writers later develop into longer work in the form of essays, articles, and books. The first generation of blogs were often the equivalent of 4-5 typed pages of text, more like personalized college essays. Now blogs are shorter, tighter, focused more on information of value to readers, and oriented to the reader with a “you attitude.” Here where blogs include personalized examples as in my two confessions above, those take more support roles with the predominant focus being informative. There is much that students need to learn to be effective bloggers, and we would do well to spend time in various classes helping students to develop and practice their skills in blogging prior to their emergence in the workplace where they may need to already know how to do this.
4. Twitter and LinkedIn
Even with the current challenges of Twitter.com, there is no question that growing numbers of people are finding the possibilities of quick connections through Twitter valuable. Much like a group gathering, Twitter provides the dynamic opportunity for a number of people participating in a Twitter Chat to engage directly with each other, sharing thoughts, information, resources, and stories. The brevity of Twitter enables the sharing of ideas, opinions, facts, and resources with an efficiency of text and image. Viewers/readers can see in a glance what something is and what it is about and then determine almost instantly if it is something to spend more time on by clicking on a link, messaging the sender, or following up otherwise. Students need to learn how to work with Twitter in socially appropriate ways, with a focused brevity suitable for serious use, and with a heightened appreciation of the broader reach of Twitter.
5. Increasing Turn to Collaborative Process of Writing in Teams
Writing is being done more and more in teams. Now company reports can be automatically produced by a computer that has been fed the needed data and that then generates the needed narrative reports that are generally pretty formulaic anyway. If people are producing longer documents, more often than not, those are being produced within teams and committees. If a team or committee is made up of individuals who have not learned how to write collaboratively, then the process will become more complex and more time consuming. We will do all students a great service by teaching them and providing them with extensive practice in collaborative writing.
Teaching Writing for 21st Century Students
With the new forms of writing made possible via technology, it is crucial that we develop new tools and pedagogies for teaching our students how to improve their written, audio, pictorial, and video communications for their use throughout their lives and careers. This also means helping them learn how to read and decode the increasingly diverse forms of writing and communication they are presented with. These are creative composition and critical thinking skills that employers say their employees need. Educators at all three primary, secondary, and tertiary education levels are now beginning to reconsider and reconceptualize new ways to help students better prepare for their futures as communicators in the workplace. Even though our students may be ahead of us with technology in many ways, they still need our help.