Writing - The Elephant in the Class Room

In the 35 years since I got my first job  teaching writing, a few new tools that make writing easier have been invented. I used a retractable fountain pen, one of the green marble ones, when I was in 3rd grade to write those 'important papers' - really messy.  I thought mechanical pencils were cool -I think the ones I used worked better than the cheap ones floating around my class these days.  Copiers were a big improvement over mimeographs; computers are way better than IBM Selectrics which were way better than Remington 'portables.'  

For the last three years, the 21st Century tool, Moodle,  has enabled me to make writing fun for 8 and 9 year olds, the ones who start welling up with tears when you tell them that all of the words they just managed to get on a piece of paper with a pencil should be reordered or changed. A word processor and the Moodle software make editing, all that adding and subtracting of words, peer comments, and teacher comments easier and doable for the young minds and fingers that are still wrestling with this puzzle called written language. (I share Donald Murray's notion that writers never really quit wrestling with language.)

Moodle was designed in the early days of this century as a distance learning tool.  It's rapidly becoming an invaluable tool for teaching in all kinds of classrooms.  There are over a million teachers in over 200 countries using it, so far.  Last spring on Earth Day, my class was paperless for the day. We took a learning walk and explored the history and science rich neighborhood near our school.  I posted this and and a few other photos when we got back from our walk.  In less than an hour my students had posted over a hundred comments on the pictures. (With a click or two, I can show them to you, too.) 

Moodle also enables me to post pictures from our sessions with the U of Mn Teaching Smart scientists that then serve as prompts for my students to go deeper into their understanding of the activities they do with the scientists by writing and sharing their writing with each other and me. 

         U of Mn  biologist, Brandon Breen, showed the students how to identify scavengers.

Some of those scientists who can't get away from their labs at the University use Moodle to act as online tutors for my 3rd and 4th graders in their science writing- a real win-win-win.  It's real time authentic assessment, and it's engaging students with their wider learning community, connecting them with real doctors of science who know about insects and worms and skulls and rocks and butterflies, the kind of things that excite 8 and 9 year old kids.

Already this year, my students have taken to using our new Google Apps like ducks to water. Google docs adds some nice new capabilities for formatting, printing and sharing that weren't as easily available with Moodle. Google Apps and Moodle work very nicely together.

The 'standards' based curriculum being prescribed by the data-driven accountability that put my school on AYP hardly mentions computers or 21st Century communication tools of any kind (and I don't think that's atypical of most curricula in K-12.)  The guest speaker at our summer elementary science professional development session spent a whole day talking about how important writing is to scientific inquiry, but never said a word about the tools that almost every scientist uses these days to record and write up their data and reports - computers. The irony is that these new writing and reading standards based curricula that ignore computers like the Taliban ignores razors are based on the process theory of writing fathered by Donald Murray who noted way back in 1985 how computers significantly improved the writing process (his observations are listed down the page in this post.) Murray said in his last days, "Click the computer on and I am 17 again, wanting to write and not knowing if I can."[1]

Our students need instruction and practice using the tools that the world is now using and will be using in the future for writing of all kinds.  21st Century tools like Moodle, Google docs, and e-Portfolios can replace data-driven accountability with knowledge and skill driven accountability. The National Education Technology Plan 2010 does a good job laying out the way to get where we need to go; we just need to start working the plan. 

Dan McGuire is the 1976 recipient of the Archer B. Gilfillan Prize for Poetry.  He lives with his wife and children in Minneapolis in the vortex of the Hiawatha, Minnehaha, Nokomis, and Keywadin neighborhoods. He's on Twitter as @sabier


LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

Public Domain
Mind & Brain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
Keep reading Show less

If you want to spot a narcissist, look at the eyebrows

Bushier eyebrows are associated with higher levels of narcissism, according to new research.

Big Think illustration / Actor Peter Gallagher attends the 24th and final 'A Night at Sardi's' to benefit the Alzheimer's Association at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 9, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
  • Science has provided an excellent clue for identifying the narcissists among us.
  • Eyebrows are crucial to recognizing identities.
  • The study provides insight into how we process faces and our latent ability to detect toxic people.
Keep reading Show less

Want to age gracefully? A new study says live meaningfully

Thinking your life is worthwhile is correlated with a variety of positive outcomes.

Surprising Science
  • A new study finds that adults who feel their lives are meaningful have better health and life outcomes.
  • Adults who felt their lives were worthwhile tended to be more social and had healthier habits.
  • The findings could be used to help improve the health of older adults.
Keep reading Show less