Book review: Teaching the New Writing: Technology, change, and assessment in the 21st-century classroom
Printable version

Jenna McWilliams (Indiana University)

Ann Herrington, Kevin Hodgson, and Charles Moran. Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press; and Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project (2009). ISBN: 978-0807749647

The National Writing Project is perhaps the most enduring teacher development network in the country. Started in 1974 as the Bay Area Writing Project, based at the University of California, Berkeley, the project quickly grew, both in funding and popularity, and today the NWP has more than 200 sites nationwide.

Many have argued that a significant reason for the ongoing success of this program is its decision to host NWP sites at local universities. According to NWP supporters, this pairing allows for stability, ongoing professional development opportunities, and a higher degree of buy-in from faculty at local schools and at the university. One wonders if this model limits access to NWP involvement to the teachers who work in and around colleges -- these are, after all, the teachers who already have the most access to research and university resources -- while traditionally underserved rural or geographically isolated teachers and their students are unable to access this resource.

Still, it's hard to argue with success, and the NWP is nothing if not successful. The pairing of K-12 teachers with higher ed faculty makes for an interesting and fruitful partnership, as evidenced by the NWP's new book, Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom.

The editors of the book represent the typical NWP distribution: Anne Herrington is an English professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Charles Moran is an Emeritus Professor of English at the same university, while Kevin Hodgson is a 6th grade teacher at an elementary school in Southampton, MA, in addition to serving as a technology liaison to the National Writing Project. Together, Herrington, Hodgson, and Moran have compiled an anthology of chapters from NWP-affiliated educators, clustering the writings into elementary and middle school, secondary education, and college. The opening chapter, written by Herrington and Moran, identifies two key purposes for this book:

[T]he chapters support grounded generalizations about how our understandings of writing are changing and how this broader conception of writing--and the skills it draws on--aligns, or does not align, with current standardized testing. Equally, if not more importantly, the collection provides guidance and support to teachers generally, giving them models of teachers who have, despite pressures to do otherwise, engaged the new writing in their classrooms, identifying learning objectives and assessment criteria for their e-writing projects.

The book succeeds wildly at both goals, painting a picture of a slow but revolutionary change in what it means to write, and to teach writing, in a participatory culture.

The chapters are generally structured around a "how I did it" narrative, with teachers describing their work with a particular type of technology or tool. The narratives are specific: Marva Solomon, describing her work with struggling elementary ELL students, goes beyond explaining that she integrated digital storytelling into tutoring sessions; she identifies the software she used (, gives an honest sample of the type of writing students produced (a description of mummies that begins: "hacifes was a great leadr but he was a she because her dad died. she wuted to be a fero so she put on a fakn berd."), and presents her assessment rubric for the project.

Paul Allison, describing his work integrating social networking into his writing classroom, describes the major resources that supported students' blogging activities (Google Blog Search, Google Reader, Flickr, and so on), describes the look and feel of his social networking classroom, and identifies his rationale for a blogging curriculum:

Students in my blogging classes develop the learning dispositions that Suzie Boss and Jane Krauss (2007) say "the best projects share." My students exhibit "important learning dispositions, including persistence, risk-taking, confidence, resilience, self-reflection, and cooperation" (p. 65).

In addition, I think that the studiolike atmosphere that I seek comes from a curriculum that asks students to do two things first: find something to be passionate about, and connect with others who share this passion. students are also asked to evaluate their own progress each day, and to choose from many options what to do with their time.

The drive in these narratives is toward considering how new media technologies, and the accompanying valued mindsets, skillsets, and practices, change how we think about writing. Allison writes that "social networking technology allows us to ask the essential question: How do you get your work noticed online?" In "Senior Boards: Multimedia Presentations from Yearlong Research and Community-Based Culminating Project," Bryan Ripley Crandall describes his effort to shift senior project requirements to prepare learners for "writing for the real world":

[A]s an English teacher, I've had to adapt with new technology to keep up. I feel obligated to provide students the best technological resources I can because I recognize an online, digital life is what my students know and where they'll be in the future. Digital literacy is a growing expectation of higher education, employers, parents, and students.

Here, Crandall points to two key sentiments that run through Teaching the New Writing: That writing teachers recognize the need to integrate new media technologies and practices into their classrooms, and that they feel a little desperate at finding strategies for keeping up with the technological and cultural changes that give rise to this need.

It's a sentiment Herrington and Moran give voice to in the opening chapter, when they explain that

[t]eachers, because they are working closely with young people, often see changes taking place in society before the rest of us. Though they may want to adapt their classroom practice to these changes, they may find adaptation difficult because of the nature of the school and classroom or because change is, for all of us, often difficult. Change may be particularly difficult for teachers who are still relative newcomers to the world of multimedia.

Herrington and Moran eschew Mark Prensky's notion of "digital natives" vs. "digital immigrants" and instead employ terms identified by Lankshear and Knobel in describing the mindsets people bring to what they call "post-typographic texts": People see themselves as either "insiders" or "newcomers." This shift allows for a more complex landscape to emerge, and with it, a more complex, more nuanced narrative of teachers, many of whom are newcomers to new media but, for the sake of their students, become fluent in at least a handful of technologies by investing time and energy in working with them both inside of and outside of the classroom. It's a nice shift because it avoids the unnecessary implications inherent to the natives / immigrant dichotomy: Only natives can have fluency, and immigrants can, at best, "pass" as full members of a (participatory) culture.

In the final chapter of the book, "Technology, Change, and Assessment: What We Have Learned," Herrington, Hodgson, and Moran revisit the issues that gave rise to the book and consider how their thinking has changed in three categories: technology, change, and assessment. They explain that though they started from an assumption that our culture is in the middle of a revolutionary, paradigm-shifting change, what's actually happening--at least in education--is "evolutionary change, incremental and gradual, where the genres and classroom practices of the past provided the foundation for the genres and practices of the present" (p. 200).

Given this, they consider classroom practice and professional development:

[T]he change we are seeing in these chapters is real, but it is gradual, incremental, an extension of and addition to what has come before. This observation has important consequences for preservice and inservice teacher training in technology. Given what we have seen in these chapters, we should not expect that new or veteran teachers will instantly adopt a technology-rich set of classroom practices centered on technology. The usual kind of staff development--the one-shot training workshop mandated by the principal or superintendent--will not produce the desired effect, or perhaps any effect at all. Teachers will bring technology into their classroom practice gradually, over time, and at different rates, with long-term help from colleagues and from professional networks like BreadNet and the National Writing Project. And, most important of all, teachers need to be given time to investigate and use technology themselves, personally and professionally, so that they can themselves assess the ways that these tools can enhance a given curricular unit. Technology for its own sake is not what these educators want or need.

This point is central, not only to the book but to the field of education in general. One key, well-known issue is that stakeholders outside of the classroom--many administrators, policymakers, and politicians--want quick fixes that align student learning objectives with the social revolution enabled by participatory technologies. It's why, for example, so many groups in the public and the private sector are working hard at turning new media literacy practices into quantifiable "skills" and aligning state tests to try to measure those skills. While it's true that new valued practices are emerging out of new media technologies, a key feature of this revolution--and, perhaps, of all revolutions--is that we don't know what will be valued once the dust settles. Trying to quantify and measure so-called "21st-century skills" now is like trying to anticipate the punchline of a joke that hasn't even been told yet. Even if you did get lucky and guess it on your first or second try, you've missed the whole point of the joke.

Teaching the New Writing hammers hard on this point, returning in chapter after chapter to the issue of assessment and the tensions teachers feel between what can feel at times like oppositional forces. Herrington and Moran write that:

[t]eachers are caught in this conflict, for their students' sake wanting to respond to the changes taking place in this thing we call writing, and at the same time wanting their students to do well in the 19th-century school essay called for on standardized tests.

This conflict is exemplified in the only significant critique I would level at this fabulous and exciting text: While it pushes for writing teachers to embrace post-typographic writing, its form is as traditional as can be. The authors spend a lot of time and space describing transmedia activities and multimodal materials that point to a new relationship between the writer and the text. Aside from the question of the effectiveness of describing a digital picture book, for example, as opposed to simply offering the books themselves, there is the question of whether a flat text leverages the very affordances that it embraces. One of the most interesting aspects of writing in a participatory culture is that it affords authentic, ongoing conversation between writer and reader--in many ways, blurring the lines we've traditionally drawn around the notions of "authorship," "scholarship," and "readership." Imagine this book as an online text, with hyperlinks to student work or annotations of multimedia content. If it's true that "writing" extends beyond the printed text, then what better way to demonstrate this than a book that proves it?

To their credit, the writers of this book are aware of this issue, as they pointed out in a recent webcast hosted by EdTechTalk. The editors explained that many authors are working on online complements to their chapters, and it seems likely that we'll see more work in this direction from NWP-affiliated teachers and writers in the near future.