writing is thinking


Note: This post originally appeared March 17, 2011, at Cooperative Catalyst as part of the #blog4nwp effort.

As William Zinsser famously said, “Writing is thinking on paper.”

I would amend that to say, “Writing at its most authentic is thinking on paper … and through video … and via audio … and through gaming … and on social media … and … and … and …”

I’ve strengthened this belief over the years through my association with teachers – many affiliated with the National Writing Project – who work with their students to compose as a means to think. To think for and about themselves, to think about others, to think about the world in which they live – and then communicate their thinking to a larger audience beyond the teacher.

I’ve been fortunate, in other words, to see work shared by colleagues. Colleagues who understand that by disseminating practice and our questions about the teaching of writing, we can build knowledge together – teachers and students alike.

Writing is thinking …

Most recently, NWP teachers have been writing and thinking at the recently launched Digital Is website. They’ve been sharing among other things student writing, composed digitally and for authentic purposes. The platform the site is built upon makes it possible to generate conversations about these resources, which are freely available to anyone connected to the Internet. Here are a few examples from Digital Is that have stayed with me:

Oakland State of Mind

G Reyes, a Bay Area Writing Project teacher, led the out-of-school group, Youth Roots, in creating this counter-narrative to the stories told about their community. This composition empowers teens to think critically about the institutional forces – the media, etc. – that shape perceptions of their community and then use the tools of youth culture, like music and video, to reshape the story from their perspective. (Youth Roots)

Writing in the Digital Age

In this piece, Joel Malley, of the Western New York Writing Project, chronicles the processes his students go through as they write digitally and in various media. I am particularly struck by the notion that regardless of what his students engage in, whether it’s mass media and film production or AP Literature, “storytelling is the basis for everything.” Then, in addition, it is through writing and responding to one another’s writing that they grow as learners. (Writing in the Digital Age)

Wanna See the Movie?

Lacy Manship of the UNCC Writing Project in North Carolina recounts what happened when she gave her first graders a flip videocamera and the locus of control in this multi-page Digital Is resource. What she shares are not polished student pieces, with discrete beginnings, middles and endings. Instead, Lacy shows us that if we allow students, even as young as first grade, the power to compose pieces about their world, and if we’re willing to pay attention, we can learn a lot.

Given just one video … I can look deeply at what children know and do in a given context. For instance, one of many possible analyses is to see this as documentation of Joanna and Joslyn’s literacy learning. Here I have documentation of oral composition of a story, ability to take on the voice of characters, and ability to create a collaborative and linguistically hybrid text. This clip alone provides data I can endlessly analyze, use to invite further reflection from the learners, center family conference discussions around, and use to support thinking about curriculum and instruction for these children and others.

Even more politically powerful is that these videos are made by the children. So in assessing their learning, I am basing analysis upon what they are choosing to show me. This move pushes at dominant assessment practices that place the locus of power in testing companies, state and district agencies, or teachers alone. With student made documentaries as data, students and teachers together can create rich contexts and narratives through which to talk about student learning. Socializing assessment can happen if decisions about what counts as data moves from top down models to collective decisions between students and teachers.

(Wanna See the Movie?)

Writing is thinking …

I’m currently reading Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson. In his chapter on what he calls the “slow hunch,” he upends the notion of the “aha” moment as being the result of an individual’s spontaneous and sole genius. Instead, he argues that we accumulate ideas that build upon another through our encounters with others and the world around us – the slow hunch, if you will. And the way to keep track of those hunches, the way to accrete ideas, is through writing. From Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection to Tim Berners-Lee and the development of the World Wide Web, Johnson makes the case that networks and writing are two critical elements for innovation to occur.

I think of Digital Is as our slow hunch. Digital Is represents the accumulation of ideas, generated by teachers from all over the country, about what it means to write with students today and what it may mean tomorrow. We are each of us building upon the thoughts and questions and practices of others in order to form a collective vision of the future that is greater than what would otherwise be possible if we were toiling away in our own little silos.

The National Writing Project and its Digital Is platform are at their core dedicated to the development of networks. And writing. And, of course, thinking.