Saturday, August 7, 2010

Writing Tools

Last week I spent four days with 120 of my elementary teacher colleagues in the MPS Summer Science Institute. This was a premiere staff development of the MPS. We were treated to some very effective hands-on learning lessons that we'll be able to use with our students. Well, that is if we can fit it in to our class schedules. There's a little competition from the Literacy and Math Departments for minutes of instruction, but that's a blog for another day.

What's on my mind now is the full day session we spent the first day with Karen Worth. Ms Worth is a delightful person; she's got the personality that every parent hopes their kid's 1st grade teacher will possess.

The day long session was an in person delivery of her book, The Essentials of Science and Literacy: A Guide for Teachers -we got a paperback copy of the book, too. The day included a demonstration of how to conduct an inquiry discussion in a circle, and video showing us some of the finer points of leading discussions, and we talked about writing, why it's important. Mostly, the day was a power point version of the book - talking about science and writing about science is important. Got that! The link above will let you sample a chapter and get a good feel for the book.

Here's my concern - the book is prescribing 19th Century teaching techniques, maybe 18th Century, whenever it was that was before we started separating science from the 'other' subject areas. It's a good thing to integrate reading, writing, math, and the arts with science; that's not my concern. My concern is that Ms Worth and her book ignore the tools that scientists use for writing, math, and integrating art with science.

We're a full decade into the 21st Century. Twenty five years ago, Donald Murray, the father of the process theory of writing instruction, in the revision of his seminal book , A Writer Teaches Writing noticed how useful computers were for writing. Murray probably wouldn't consider his observations to be scientific, but when it comes to writing about writing, he had a pretty good grasp of the 'current research' on how you teach writing. The appendix of his book lists almost everything that's been said about the teaching of writing in the 20th Century.

Murray said:

“The principal advantages of the word processor include:

* A good typist can type aster on a word processor than on a typewriter, because the typist is typing only one continuous line. The machine does the carriage return automatically, and this speeds up the process immensely. A poor typist can type quickly on the machine and then clean up errors easily later.

* The writer has increased freedom to create a discovery draft without worrying about anything that will have to be corrected later. The writer can feel an enormous freedom to get something down that will be developed and refined later. I have found, for example, that sometimes I write in bursts of one to five paragraphs on the word processor; then cut, add, and reorder, shaping the fragment’ the polish it line by line, checking each word, each phrase, each sentence; then write in another burst. That’s a very different pattern for me, and it’s made possible by the word processor.

* The writer can produce a section of a longer piece of writing whenever it comes to mind, because it can be moved around easily and inserted wherever it belongs later on.

* The writer doesn’t have to worry about the internal order of paragraphs as much as in ‘normal’ (my emphasis) writing. The writer can get the paragraphs down, then reorder them easily later.

* The three main functions of revising and editing - cutting, adding, and reordering - can be done with amazing skill and ease on a word processor. The writer can cut - zap - just like that. The writer can insert easily, and since most writing is undeveloped, the word processor makes it easy to do the necessary developing. The writer can reorder words, sentences, paragraphs, sections and re-reorder.

* The writer can see a clear text immediately after each change instead of the messy, scrawled-over drafts that are normal for a writer (using paper and pen.)

* The act of writing that always has been a satisfying form of play for most prolific writers is available as play to more people. For many people, the word processor does seem to make writing a game. They can enjoy the fun of making a text come clear on the tube.

* Many word processor have programs that spell. Educators may worry about this, but the fact is that many writers - present company included - are poor spellers, and the ability of the machine to check this allows spelling to b put in its proper lace, at the end of the writing process, so that it is not a matter of primary anxiety on every draft.

* The writing can be stored away easily and recalled whenever the writer has somethingv to do to the draft. These changes may be small or large. No matter, they can be added to the draft, and the draft can be stored away efficiently, ready to be called up again.

* Most writers will confess that in the past they have not made changes that should have been made because of the time and energy it took to produce a new draft. With a word processor you don’t have to worry. The draft remains flexible, changeable, until it is printed.

* The writing remains in process for a longer time. There is a wonderful impermanence about the draft on the video tube. It is always writing in process, ready to be changed.”

So, writing is crucial to learning, in any subject, and technology has been observed by someone who knows writing to be a tremendous aid in writing. Why is there even a question about whether or not technology has an effect on teaching and learning, and why wouldn't we want to use computers in a science classroom ?

Murray never got to use modern learning management systems like Moodle to teach writing, but if he had, I’m sure he would have been as appreciative of Moodle as he was of word processors. Moodle allows teachers to do all of the things that Murray advocates but even more quickly and more easily. All of the advantages of the word processor that Murray delineates are extended and expanded with Moodle. I’ve taught reading and writing to 3rd and 4th graders without word processors, with word processors but without Moodle, and with Moodle. There’s no reason not to use Moodle, or Google apps, or one of the many new technologies that adds global collaboration to the advantages that Murray listed of using word processors in the writing process. I really never want to see the tears welling up behind the eyes of another 3rd grader when I tell them that most everything they’ve written needs to be reordered when they’ve just labored mightily with a pencil to get their story onto the page, especially when the usual response to revising with a computer is, "Hey, this is kinda fun." The computer provides the power and access to language that most of us adults who've used a computer for a while have come to expect. For me, the question is not whether or not technology has an effect in the classroom, it’s why isn’t everyone using technology in the classroom.

So why, then, does Ms Worth actually caution against using technology in an elementary science classroom. And why does the MPS, in 2010, buy books for their elementary science teachers that don't even mention how the current tools of science might be used in a classroom? Those are really important questions.


  1. Those are really important questions. I wish more schools and administrators were asking them. I suspect that there are some fundamentally good ideas in the books, the problem is that no one is seeking to balance that with really good science websites, blogs, etc. that talk about how technology can be used to enhance the science classroom. If you have an iPod Touch, iPad, or iPhone, I highly recommend downloading Go Sky Watch. It is a planetarium in your hands and has convinced more than one science teacher in my life how technology can enrich the science classroom!

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