Cultivating Creative Writers

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As I mentioned yesterday I finished reading Rewired over the weekend and I made quite a few connections throughout the book.  One of these relates directly to a project I will be starting in a few weeks – the Area 3 Writing Project Summer Invitational Institute.  In Rewired, Rosen discusses how much the iGeneration likes to write.  According to the PEW Internet and American Life Project, “the vast majority of teens have created their own content for the Internet, including blogs, webpages, artwork, photography, stories and videos.”  Each of these are a type of writing.  These “new texts” are not limited to words; they are not limited by classic grammar rules; they are not limited by standard page layouts; and they certainly are not limited to pencil and paper.  These “new texts” are often multimodal – meaning they make use of digital images, audio and video clips, and links to other websites.  Now before you start panicking about the eminent death of formal writing take a moment to listen to some of the research on this type of multimodal writing with new texts described by Rosen:

  • “There is actually very little hard data that kids’ writing is getting worse.” pg. 133
  • “Data from multiple studies suggests writing produced in technology-based environments can have positive effects.” pg. 133
  • “Researchers have found that kids who write more – even using shortcuts, textisms, and other seemingly non-English-based language forms – write better English essays.” pg. 233

Now you might be wondering how this can possibly be?  It seems to contradict every notion we’ve ever been taught.  If you want to improve students grammar and writing skills on formal writing assignmetns, shouldn’t you force them to always write formally?  Well Rosen describes two theories as to why the research is showing that this might not be the case (pg.223).

  1. Writing Begets Writing – “The more you write, regardless of format, the better you understand how to put together sentences and thoughts into a constructed whole.”
  2. Brain Associations – “The act of writing seemingly inane instant messages helps the brain develop the associations that are needed to master higher-order concepts.”

While I have to admit the first one makes sense, the second theory is actually the one that caught my attention because it drew me back into something else Rosen mentioned earlier in the book.  During the chapter on creativity (“Tapping into a Very Creative Generation of Students”) Rosen talked about creativity and the brain, along with how multimodal writing encourages students to think more deeply about concepts (pg. 145-146).

“When playing around online – making multimedia presentations that engage the senses, emotions, and intellect – iGeners presumably are activating more brain areas that would otherwise be involved in comparitively static activites such as listening to a lecture or doing math drills.  Interestingly, one of the leading theories linking brain areas to creativity suggests that the ability to simultaneously activate different concepts housed in different brain areas leads to more creativity.  In other words, by connecting previously disconnected concepts in the mind a student can generate a novel idea, solution, or concept.  Psychologists call this “divergent thinking…”

“In summary, the activation of an subsequent communication between seemingly disparate brain regions may foster divergent thinking and lead to enhanced creativity.  Extending this idea, one can speculate that creating user-generated content that contains both written words (left hemisphere) and audios and videos (right hemisphere) allows and encourages the student to process information in more depth.”

“From an educational perspective, then, the power behind iGeners’ content creation lies not only in their genuinely high levels of motivation and satisfaction in doing so, but also in their interest in making and posting works that involve both their left and right hemispheres.  Tapping into these high levels of emotional involvement and taking full advantage of their potential for raising the level of engagement in schoolwork remains the the job of teachers, parents, and school officials.

“By designing thoughtful, curriculum-driven, UGC (user-generated content) projects, students’ eagerness and excitement can be directed toward goal-driven outcomes.”

Therefore, when students create and publish new, multimodal texts not only will they be highly engaged, but they will also be involved in an activity that allows them to process information more in depth.  One of my recent professional learning projects, has been using Google Earth as a writing tool.  As I prepared for my Google Earth presentation at CUE 2010 I created a Google Earth biography of Rosa Parks as an example.  While I read and processed various pieces of information to create a text-based Microsoft Word file from which I could copy and paste information for each placemark, I can honestly say that my strongest memories of her biography involved linking the text to images, video, and Google Earth views as I “wrote” my final project – a biographical tour of Rosa’s life.  Rosen suggests that educational models which make use of mulitmodal user-generated content should have the following components (pg. 147):

  1. Technological Tools:  Students need to have access to technical tools to produce high-quality content at a very low cost.  Today any device, such as a laptop, iPod Touch, netbook, or wireless slate can be used to produce multimodal writing.
  2. Purpose:  Classroom projects must be designed to leverage student creativity while still having an instructional purpose.  As Debra Pickering would say, “What’s your learning goal?”
  3. Audience:  With the use of the Internet students have the ability to publish and receive feedback from authentic audiences.  This might include classmates, other teachers, parents, family members, or the world at-large depending how the project is constructed and what would be appropriate for the age-level of the students.
  4. New Text:  Use writing projects to “tap into students’ skills and desires to create new texts that combine media in novel ways to simultaneously demonstrate learning.”

In a few weeks the Area 3 Writing Project Summer Invitational Institute will begin.  While the focus of the institute has always been on improving teacher’s writing skills I know that this year we will also be looking at the link between writing, multimodal texts, and technology.  I look forward to taking what I have learned from from both Rosen in Rewired and Troy Hicks in the Digital Writing Workshop, and building upon it through the Summer Invitational to support teachers and students in the development of more effective oral and written communication skills.  In my district this has become a big focus of the conversation surrounding “21st century skills” and it also links directly to our need for improving student reading and writing scores on state-wide tests.  I also believe multimodal writing also presents an opportunity to help students build other 21st century skills including media literacy, critical thinking, problem solving.  On top of that the Summer Institute will just be plain fun and an excellent opportunity to be creative.  :-)

Joe

Photo: Engross by Inf3ktion on Flickr

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