Opinion

Turn teen texting toward better writing

Teachers who co-opt Web tools for class have the best of both worlds.

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Parents who have struggled to tear a teenager away from Facebook or detach one from texting know that teens increasingly communicate through writing. But how can educators help students carry that motivation for writing from a social world into motivation for writing that will serve them in the classroom? The answer is for teachers to venture into the digital world of "screenagers" and find productive ways to bring social media into the classroom.

The potential of bridging these realms is supported by a new report on teens, technology, and writing by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the College Board. Researchers found that informal writing is an integral part of youth culture: 85 percent of teens communicate through digital writing. Teenagers also overwhelmingly understand the importance of good writing: 86 percent of teens consider formal writing skills essential to future success.

What's exciting is that many teachers have already begun to venture to the far shore in order to build bridges with their students. They are using interactive Web tools such as blogs, podcasts, and wikis in an attempt to mirror the online social networks of youth culture. These teachers are finding that students respond enthusiastically to the opportunity to collaborate, the challenge of publishing for an audience, and the chance to contribute to a learning community, rather than just write for a teacher's binder. (The website Edublogawards.com showcases the best of these learning environments.)

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For example, I've had great success occasionally using instant message conversations as a critical inquiry tool in the classroom. My students love the chance to use their social milieu as a space for learning.

Imagine 20 students in invisible groups of three, all silently, furiously typing and reading, immersed in conversations about the dialogues of Socrates or the teachings of Confucius. That classroom time is incredibly intellectually productive: all 20 students are simultaneously sharpening their arguments, supporting them with evidence, and questioning their colleagues.

My students know that they must practice these analytical conversation skills, which are easily transferred to the realm of formal writing, since I'll be reading and grading a copy of their transcript.

Students who use interactive Web tools in the classroom learn that certain features of effective communication transcend media. Strong arguments; compelling evidence; and clear, concise language are prominent features of analytical writing on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in those oral debates themselves, or on a blog post persuading friends to support a current presidential candidate.

It would be nice if all students wrote essays in their spare time, but Pew tells us that only 8 percent do. Nearly all of them, however, use text and instant messaging, so if the far shore turns out to be a chat room, then we should start teaching critical thinking skills in chat rooms.

One of the remarkable findings of the Pew Internet research is that intellectual stereotypes based on race and class do not hold up under scrutiny. Black and Hispanic teens are more likely than their white peers to write outside school, and 47 percent of black teens keep a journal.

Over half of teenagers from all races and income levels have social networking profiles, like on MySpace or Facebook. This flourishing of creativity and expressiveness should be harnessed in all schools.

Unfortunately, equity in MySpace is not the same as equity in digital educational environments guided by adult educators, and anecdotal evidence suggests that online learning networks are far more common in affluent, white, suburban schools than in hypersegregated, urban schools. Closing the digital divide is not just a matter of plugging in classrooms, but of providing teachers in low-resource schools with the training, prep time, and support to nurture this blossoming of student writing through online learning communities.

Our student bloggers and digital writers of all backgrounds are part of a journaling culture which America has not seen since the great age of diarists during the Transcendental movement, when Thoreau and Emerson recorded their daily lives for eventual public consumption.

Failure to harness that potential energy would prove a terrible misstep at this junction in American education. As educators, we face two choices. We can scorn youth for their emoticons (☺), condemn their abbreviations (Th. Jefferson would have disapproved), and lament the time students spend writing in ways adults do not understand. Or, we can embrace the writing that students do every day, help them learn to use their social networking tools to create learning networks, and ultimately show them how the best elements of their informal communication can lead them to success in their formal writing.

My experience, bolstered by the Pew report, suggests that the most productive option is to listen to our teenagers, bridge the gap between their social and academic worlds, and choose the latter.

Justin Reich is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a codirector of the Center for Teaching History with Technology.

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