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Digital Writing with Troy Hicks (PODCAST)

Choice Literacy

In this podcast, Franki Sibberson chats with Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop. You can catch up with Troy at his Digital Writing, Digital Teaching blog:

A full transcript of the podcast is available below the player.


Franki Sibberson: Troy, can you define digital writing and digital writing workshop for us? Why do you think it's an important thing for teachers to think about right now?

Troy Hicks: Digital writing, to borrow a definition from the recent book I co-authored and was published by NWP called Because Digital Writing Matters, we defined digital writing in that book as "the compositions created with and often times for reading and/or viewing the computer or other devices connected to the Internet." So to stop sounding so academic for a moment and actually talk about what that means, I kind of see digital writing as three broad types of things, and of course, we could probably elaborate on each of these and come up with hundreds of different examples.

But I kind of see it as three things. One would be writing and responding on sites like blogs or micro-blogging like Twitter, or social networks like Facebook or Ning, but basically creating text and sharing text, and also including links and images and things like that, but creating essentially text-based documents. The second major component to digital writing that I see would be using Web-based tools, like the whole Google Doc suite or Zoho suite, things like that to make Office-style spreadsheets and presentations, so actually using Web-based tools to create collaboratively coauthored documents. 

And then the third type of broad category of digital writing that I see would be composing multimedia, so podcasts much like this, or also creating digital stories, or Prezis, or any other type of thing that mixes and mashes video, audio, text, any number of types of textual representations and putting them into one. So with that definition of digital writing, then I think of a mash-up for digital writing plus writing workshop. For most teachers that concept of the writing workshop, where students have choice in their topics and genres, where teachers use mini-lessons and conferring to guide writers, where students share and respond to each other and then publish their work - this is familiar because it's something that people have known for a long time, with Donald Graves, Donald Murray, Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, Penny Kittle, Ralph Fletcher. The list continues to go on and on. 

Now we take that concept of writing workshop and mash it together with digital writing, so you have the digital writing workshop. I think it's particularly important, now more than ever, because writing has always been about technology. Even a pencil and paper are a particular kind of technology. But we need to think more and more, even in the last few years, about how things have changed. We have computers and smartphones and video cameras and all these devices that allow us to do - and in some cases, not to do - different types of writing with visual and text and images and so forth. So writing technology has always been intertwined, and with digital tools it just continues to take new shapes and forms, and teachers should be on the forefront of thinking about digital writing and how their students are composing. That's why I would say it's pretty important.

Franki Sibberson: I love the way you just broke that up into those three categories. That made so much sense for me because I think about all as one and I never broke it up like that. Thank you.

Troy Hicks: Oh, thank you. It's a good question.

Franki Sibberson: How have you seen the needs of students writers change in the last few years as it relates to this?

Troy Hicks: It's interesting. I've been working on a collaborative co-authored article for English Journal here with Bud Hunt and Sara Kajder and Carl Young, and we keep talking about the fact that in some ways it's the same as it ever was. Students need time, material, space. We as writing teachers know that writing is a process, it's great for them to publish, the Internet provides them opportunities to publish, and yet, in some ways, we wonder why is this not happening. We've known this, literally for decades that kids need time and space and materials to write, and they need thoughtful, consistent feedback from teachers and peers. And, of course, we have those pressures of standardized testing that come on top of us too. 

So have the needs of writers really changed that much in the last few years? I don't know that they've changed a whole lot, although it feels like it sometimes because now their work is much more public, as soon as it goes online it opens up issues of privacy and filtering and cyber-bullying and all these things that seem to be kind of new concepts but really it's the same things that have been happening forever but just in a different space. 

But the other thing that's really interesting to me, Jeff Grabill, Bill Hart-Davidson, and some folks at the MSJ Writing in Digital Environments Research Center, the WIDE research center, just published this piece where the number one type of writing that college freshmen are doing is texting, and yet they don't see that as writing. This is something that we need to help them understand. Writing has always been about purpose and audience and situation, and even though the modes and the media continue to change, it's still "I'm creating a message and I'm sending it to somebody, and I have an intent with that message and most of the time I hope to have them respond in some way." In some ways the needs of student writers haven't changed at all, and yet the tools continue to change and so we need to think about how that affects that whole process.

Franki Sibberson: That leads me right into this next question. What do you think is different and what's the same when it comes to writing workshops/digital writing workshops?

Troy Hicks: Not to sound completely repetitive here, but it is, it's kind of the same as it ever was, like we still need to give kids time and space. But then the obvious, it almost goes unstated but actually is worth really unpacking a little bit is the technology. You have lots of critics out there now of our kind of hyperspeed, hypertext world, that give lots of criticisms about how this is the dumbest generation and we wallow in the shallows of the Internet and so forth. I think that we need to keep that in mind, like what's the purpose for using the technology? 

Even if you're in a one-to-one environment where you're able to have fingertip access all the time for every student, or if you're only able to get to the computer lab once a month, or if you're not even able to do that and have students have to access the Internet outside the school, I think that we need to keep thinking about the principles - again, the conferring, the mini-lessons that talk about craft. What is it that we can do and expect students to do? Now, of course, if they have the tablet or the netbook in front of them every day, they're going to be able to do a lot more and different things than if they don't, but then the question is, are we doing this just as an add-on or are we actually meaningfully talking about how to cite your sources while you're doing research on Google, and actually, how to do research on Google so you get good results? 

And are you thoughtfully integrating those sources or are you just copying and pasting, or worse yet, are you just plagiarizing them? What are the lessons that can be learned along the way? So I think when you have a vast amount of technology at your fingertips, it can feel very different than what we've become accustomed to in a writing workshop because yeah, you're very often talking about the technology yet, at the same time, I don't think it should feel much different at all because you should still be talking about writing and what good writers do, and looking at models, and asking students to think carefully and thoughtfully about what they're crafting and who they're going to share it with.

Franki Sibberson: We can't lose what we know about writing workshops. When you think about technology and the role it plays in digital writing, how do we as teachers balance these tools with what we know about the teaching of writing so that it's not about the technology?

Troy Hicks: Right. Well, I think that there are a couple of issues here. One, of course, I look at my own children. You sit here at home and they have to type something up and they hop on Google Docs, and we're fortunate enough to have multiple computers and high-speed Internet here at home and our kids are able to do that. And it's funny because they hop on and then they see the little squiggly line and they go, "Oh, that's spelled wrong," and they try to correct it. So in some ways the technology starts taking over some of those basic functions, and it's still pretty important for them to know homonyms and understand that there are different ways to spell things and you've got to be careful, and this and that. 

But I think that the thing that's most interesting for me about what's happening in technology in the last couple of years -- and if you think about what are the types of digital text that we want students to create -- clearly we still want them to be able to write a good story, to craft a good essay, to write the research paper, but if we're asking them to create digital stories or podcasts or other types of multimedia, it used to be that you'd carry around, in your backpack -- when I would go to a workshop or something I'd have my digital camera, my Flip video camera, my headset microphone, my digital voice recorder, and my laptop computer -- and how I can pretty much do all of that with my unnamed smartphone that I carry in my pocket. 

So as those things continue to change and get smaller and converge, I think it's going to be important to teach kids how to use them in thoughtful, responsible ways, but also still have access to the types of computers and video cameras and software and things that will make for good digital writing space. You can do a lot on your smartphone but you can't do everything. So I think the technologies are pretty important but I still think craft is even more important than that.

Franki Sibberson: Do you think that the craft of writing changes because of these new tools and formats? When you talked, when you go back to those first three categories of digital writing you talked about at the beginning - does that change what we need to do as teachers in terms of craft?

Troy Hicks: I think it does. I think because the shape of writing changes that the craft of writing has to change, too. So if I'm presenting something in the format of an essay, as compared to a slide deck, as compared to a short, one-minute video, as compared to a website - all of those things can be talking about the same topic. You know, if I'm doing my senior research project on water pollution, I could present that same information but it would all be presented in very different ways. In a video you may want to cut, and start by having a picture of a serene lake and river and then cut to something that's really yucky and polluted and try to show, oh gosh, how stark this contrast is. In an essay you might create that visual picture but it might not be as effective, especially if your audience is really looking for you to get to your thesis right away. 

So I think you want to talk with kids about how the different types of writing allow you to tell the same story or make the same argument but make it in a slightly different way. And I think that's where the craft comes in. Having a slide with a title may be appropriate for some slide shows, but in others it may not. Maybe you don't want to really reveal your title and your main point until the very end, depending on how you're presenting it. So I think approaching it through kind of a lens of genre study -- where we really unpack the genre and think about what the characteristics are and what makes some things more effective and other things not as effective -- works really well with digital text too.

Franki Sibberson: What's a good way for us as teachers to start incorporating more digital writing into the classroom? It seems overwhelming, there's just so much to think about and do. What's a good starting place for teachers?

Troy Hicks: I think there are two things. One, there's kind of this teaching behavior and then two, is kind of the actual technology, and it kind of goes with the question of balance you had a moment. So it's kind of like teaching grammar in context kind of moment, where you say, we don't just want to hand out a worksheet on semicolon versus colon and have students complete that and expect that they'd mastered that. Rather, we would teach it using sentence combining and ask them to try to use that in their writing, and help coach them, and show examples and so forth. 

The same is true for digital writing. You wouldn't just come in and say, "Okay, it's Transition Tuesday," and you're going to pull up an iMovie and look at all the transitions and say, "Okay, pick one for your story." You would actually talk about, "Well, why would you, in your story, want to use fade through black as compared to a page-flipping transition? What do those two transitions tell you? As you think about the movies and television shows you've seen, what do those transitions mean?" And so kind of thinking about the grammar of the image and the grammar of the visual composition and things like that. So it's not just teaching how to put a transition in - which is kind of that, okay, I'm going to need to integrate technology into my curriculum type of argument. Instead, you're going to be talking about the craft. So how do you do it? I just say go for it.

I often get asked, "What is the one technology I should learn how to use?" and I once referred to it as the gateway drug of technology in teaching, but I don't know if that's the best analogy. But I said wikis. I think wikis are very flexible. They provide lots of opportunities for you, as teacher, to present course material but also, as students, to represent themselves and create profiles or portfolios. You can embed things like calendars and videos and images and links and RSS feeds -- do all kinds of things like that. And once you get started and you've set it up and it's put in motion, then depending on what you want to do, you can use it for book discussions; you can use it for lesson planning; you can use it on students to share their work; you can do all kinds of things like that. 

And the wonderful thing is it's easy to edit on the fly, as things go along you can make changes, students can make changes. I know in some districts teachers say, "Well, I can't update my teacher website. Literally I have to e-mail the tech support people with the links I want to put on my website," and to me not only is that just ridiculous from a bureaucratic standpoint but it's also completely not connected to the way that most people teach. When I teach, when I want to share something with my students I want to share it right now, not two days from now. So I think that wikis are a really good place for people to start, and if you're worried about it, give it a try, go on YouTube, look up a tutorial. People do screencasts on this stuff all the time. There are great help guides online. People blog about it.

And when all else fails, just ask your students because chances are they know how to click the buttons but they don't necessarily know what it means to be a good reader and writer, and that's the skill that you, as a teacher and an adult in the world, have to offer them. Even if you're afraid of the buttons, you still have many things that you can share about what it means to be a good writer and a good reader, and that's more valuable than any buttons you're going to push.

Franki Sibberson: Your books really impacted me in terms of the best, most concise way for me to start thinking about this as a writing teacher. Other than your books on digital writing and digital writing workshops, what are some other resources, websites for people that you might recommend to teachers who are interested in learning more about digital writing workshops?

Troy Hicks: Well, I think there are a number of different teachers and scholars who are following along this same line, even if they're not using the same exact terminology. You've got people like Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Sara Kajder, Bud Hunt, who is also known as Bud The Teacher on his blog, and then there's a whole ton of resources on the National Writing Project's Digital Is website. You've got folks like Paul Allison and Chris Sloan and Susan Ettenheim who do the Youth Voices Network. You've got Robert Rivera-Amezola who's got his Fourth Grade Service Learning Project on there. 

So there are just tons and tons of resources. And even if people aren't saying "digital writing workshop," it very much follows along with that same kind of thinking. And then, more broadly, I think there are some other people that are doing great things with education, like Jim Burke's got the English Companion Ning; Steve Hargadon has the Future of Education in the Classroom 2.0 and the podcast series and all of that. And then you've got some other big educational thinkers like Sir Ken Robinson, and these Ted Talkers. 

And then you've got all these people that are just interested in digital media and learning, like the MIT MacArthur Series, they have a whole series of books that came out that are available free for download. There is also the Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out that's out there. PBS Frontline had the Digital Nation documentary that came out.

Franki Sibberson: You've just set up a whole year of my professional development now.

Troy Hicks: So I always kind of think of it like, well, I value reading Tweets and being engaged in the conversations with my close colleagues, like that series of Tweets we had about a week ago with you and Paul Hankins and Donalyn Miller. It was just really incredible to watch that whole thing unfold, and I want to play with those ideas a little bit more. But then, yeah, I'm always trying to listen to MPR or watch Ted think about what's coming up and what's next. So that's some of the voices that I listen to.

Choice Literacy