Friday, January 13, 2017

What Is Primary Writing?

I will state up front that I have never taught a Primary language arts class.
So how’s this? I’m now going to write a blog post about teaching writing in the Primary grades, as an Intermediate teacher!
This is why I feel I am qualified to do so: many of those little primary learners eventually ended up in my grade 7 and 8 classes. I would have liked them to have had a “do-over”… a second chance at gaining expressive skills, and building on success from year to year.
My reason for writing is to muse and wonder about the use of technology in day-to-day writing classes in the primary grades:
  • At what age or grade do we start supporting students with technology as an integral part of their program?
  • What is the value of restricting children to printing or writing by hand, especially those with an identification?
  • How much time should be spent on that, relative to learning effective technology-based writing tools?
  • Considering the the SAMR model, is writing in primary something we should measure against SAMR? Or not?
  • Is it time to go multi-modal in all aspects of literacy? Will that help us as teachers foster the 6Cs of 21st century learning?
In writing this post, I got interested in comparing the SAMR model (substitution, augmentation, modification, redefinition) to the way we foster writing skills in the continuum of grades from K to 8. Can we re-define writing, and still have it count as writing?
Here are some results of a simple definition search for the word “writing.” They range from very limited, to definitions that are open to 21st century interpretation.
Here are two old-school definitions:
·      Google: the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper and composing text.
·      Merriam-Webster: the act or process of one who writes, such as: the act or art of forming visible letters or characters.
But personally, I was intrigued by the following definitions.
·      Free Dictionary: The act or process of producing and recording words in a form that can be read and understood.
·      Wikipedia: Writing is a medium of human communication that represents language and emotion through the inscription or recording of signs and symbols.
I know that for some teachers, this topic is old news, and something they have examined in their own practice over a period of years. For example, one of Aviva Dunsiger’s posts that I have cited below is from 2010… However, I believe there are many other teachers who have not reflected on this, or who hold strong beliefs on methods of teaching writing without technology. This means that our schools are taking a wide range of approaches, and I’m not sure that students en masse benefit.
Is it still a valid teaching strategy to have a whole class of grade 1 or 2 students write a journal entry in a notebook every day? Is it really necessary that young, identified students struggle every day with their pencil and paper? I know they certainly struggled in grade 8, in the years before classroom technology.
Based on my Grade 7 and 8 students, my observation is that this kind of routine is not the best way to build a confident writer. It builds a school-hater instead.
I frequently saw the results in Intermediate - the students arrive still unable to formulate a written piece longer than a sentence or two, or maybe a paragraph. Even worse to me was what I called "self-limiting" or "self-censoring." This what occurs when a student who struggles with written output learns how to write the absolute minimum to avoid having the teacher tell them to complete their work. These well-informed, articulate and opinionated young people would simply write the shortest sentences in the shortest paragraphs, in order to pass under the radar. And then be able to shrug off any suggestion to extend their thinking. As they were also moving into grades where marks count and permit access to some careers, this was heartbreaking on a number of levels.
These were bright kids, full of creative ideas. In Grade 1 or 2, we might say that they were unable to get this onto the paper. By grade 8, they are unwilling as well as unable.
I found it extremely difficult to reverse this mindset and raise ability levels in the course of one year, for the following reason.
For me, the worst realization of all happened when we began to see the availability of SEA laptops and iPods and audio recorders for some students, combined with more computer lab time. Even with new tools available, the self-limiting was so ingrained that they still struggled to express themselves in a grade-appropriate manner.
So my final question is: why are we waiting "until they are older" to provide daily tech support as an integral part of our students' programs?
I think it would be great if primary students were able to use speech-to-text apps or audio recorders as a matter of course, to support not just their day-to-day learning but to build patterns of thinking and expression that are a true reflection of their capabilities.
Not to mention the wide range of multi-modal apps such as Adobe Spark that truly open up the “writing” experience.
Here are a few inspiring and thought-provoking sources:

Edutopia, November 26, 2013
With what we'll call Writing 3.0, students and teachers can:
·       Organize and draft through handwriting, drawing, text and voice
·       Collaborate and incorporate multimodal feedback
·       Create a final product that demonstrates mastery and communicates understanding beyond the literal confines of paper
 iTeach with iPads Blog, February 16, 2016
Aviva Dunsiger – Is It Writing?
Living Avivaloca, April 11, 2015
Aviva Dunsiger – Redefining Writing
Living Avivaloca, January 16, 2010



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