What makes a good writer? a good reader? What makes a good citizen? Initially it seems only the first two questions are related, conjoined by an often vague notion–literacy. But in my classroom, I want to challenge this tenuous distinction. Tomorrow’s graduating class will be entering a world that expects mastery over increasingly complex information and communication technologies. Students must to learn how to write clearly and persuasively in traditional compositional modes and genres, such as the critical essay, but they also need to master multimodal composition, social media, and computer skills. They need these skills not simply to be good writers—they need them to participate effectively as citizens in a society that values writing-based literacy, a world hyper-saturated in media and information. But the skills necessary for the literacy of tomorrow cannot come at the cost of the skills necessary for the literacy of today. My aim as a teacher is to practice a pedagogy that enables students to develop durable thinking skills that allow them to navigate texts as canonical as a Shakespearean drama and as uncanonical as a blogpost. Fundamental to my pedagogy is incorporating technology in the classroom in a way that promotes a participatory—rather than consumerist—culture, where students have the agency to produce, rather than simply receive, knowledge.
In her essay “Deep Writing,” literacy scholar Deborah Brandt calls for a pedagogy that can meet these demands of the twenty-first century information economy. “Learning to write with other people, (rather than from authors who address us abstractly as readers) …” Brandt claims, “is a new condition for mass literacy development.” What Brandt is really getting at here is that writing and reading are fundamentally social, participatory acts. We often think of reading and writing as solitary, self-contained processes. However, in my classroom, I push my students to realize that both reading and writing are ways for them to co-construct knowledge with their peers.
Without sacrificing the rigor of traditional reading and writing strategies, I want my students to learn to read and write with each other from the beginning, to build meaning collectively both inside the classroom with their peers and outside of it with their friends and family. When used appropriately, technology is an invaluable aid to this collective meaning-making process, and when students are given the proper technological tools, they intuitively turn outward to each other. For instance, dividing an assigned text between small groups and having the students collectively write a reading response in a Google Doc allows them to create meaning as a class, in real time. Because students are learning to read and write together, instead of only from those “authors who address [them] abstractly as readers,” as Brandt says, they engage more deeply and critically with the text.
When I was a student, I didn’t need my English teachers to motivate me in class because I always had an inchoate sense that, as Stanley Fish said, “the humanities are their own good.” Not every student feels this way about the humanities, however, and sometimes not even shiny gadgets and participatory practices can change that, but both can have an effect on students’ sense of purpose in, autonomy over, and mastery of classroom tasks. At their core, I believe all students simply want to be challenged, but they also want the texts they read and compose to mean something to them, to bring value to their lives. That is why I always try to push students to move beyond the text and into the world, where the proficiencies they’ve learned in the classroom will make them not only better readers and writers, but better citizens as well. Designing open-ended multimodal projects that require students to navigate the creation of meaning together, I believe, is one step towards helping to produce agents rather than consumers.