English teachers embrace 21st century composition skills

The National Council of Teachers of English isn't merely acquiescing to texting, blogging, video journalism, and all that newfangled tech stuff. In a fiery policy paper on "Writing in the 21st Century," past NCTE president Kathleen Blake Yancey makes a positive case for teachers to rethink how they teach "composing" skills in the classroom.

Composing, in other words, means effective communication by any means available -- not only pen and paper. The paper (PDF available here) gives the example of a 16-year-old girl who combined e-mail and photos to alert authorities and the media to an imminent disaster in her hometown. Texting, video, e-mail, and blogging all have authorship, and all deserve to be considered, states the paper, as the culture moves away from more traditional ideas of who writes and why.

Composing differs from more traditional ideas of writing in several ways. It doesn't produce discrete drafts; instead, composers will usually refine their work within the same draft, then hit publish when it's finished. (Exhibit A: This article. I'm writing on a screen in Betanews' publishing system and will tweak the copy a couple of times before posting it to the site, but there'll be no separate draft existing somewhere in the world. Exhibit B: Your Facebook page. Exhibit C: Most of the blogosphere.) In addition, we learn to compose from each other, not from a teacher-student relationship; no one has to go to class or apprentice under an experienced user become a Twitter user, much less to get a credential certifying that one's qualified to Twitter.

(The "peer co-apprenticeship" model, by the way, is precisely the thing that gives some traditional members of the press fits and causes them to talk about the prospect of "licensing" journalists. It's too early to know whether the NCTE's thinking will cause that sort of bloviation to spread to other corners of the profession, but the phrase "pushing the river uphill" comes to mind.)

And, the paper states, to compose well, you've got to have research and discernment skills far, far above those we used to deploy when reading and writing. The Internet, as the paper says, "presents a unique challenge to scholarship," both in good ways (useful search engines) and bad (the difficulty of verifying the source and slant of information one finds).

That may be the most challenging aspect of the composing revolution, which has been on the march since the rise of the personal computer and word-processing technology. The Yancey report is asking not that the teachers scrap their pens and notepads, but that they acknowledge that the tools young writers need have changed.

"The issue now," says the paper, "is distinguishing between rich resources and the online collection of surface facts, misinformation, and the inexcusable lies that masquerade as the truth. It will be hard for our students to be thoughtful citizens without this ability to discern the useful from the irrelevant."

In other words, a little less fretting about lolspeak such as "srsly" or the shortcuts texters use, please, and more help for young composers to develop lifelong skills in effective communication and information sifting. Purists may sigh at the memory of writing classes of yore, but if the change results in smarter, clearer-thinking Net citizens, who would say it nay?

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