Writing in the 21st Century

“Meet the new boss…same as the old boss.” The Who

Writing in the 21st Century

Today people write as never before—texting, on blogs, with video cameras and cell phones, and, yes, even with traditional pen and paper. People write at home, at work, inside and out of school.

This is a fascinating article sent to me by one of my colleagues, Kevin Menton, here at Santa Monica College.

I just read the article and it makes these key points about the changing nature of writing in the 21st century:

  • Historically reading has been available and widespread while writing has been hard work and not feasible for the general population.
  • Composition has not been highly regarded nor given priority in the universities.
  • Composition instruction this century has emphasized technique and process over reflection and creation.
  • With the advent of the Internet and especially Web 2.0, it’s easy to write, and many people are.
  • Students are much savvier than teachers and test makers, there is a world of opportunity and creative energy waiting for educators to channel.
  • Teachers need to articulate all these changes going on for students.
  • A new model of writing needs to implemented in K-12 to reflect all these changes and opportunities.

The author of the report refers to a teacher in Newark New Jersey, Matthew Key, who is changing the instructional model. Supposedly. Anyway after a little research…found the article…Putting Technology In It’s Place.

The 21st century definition of literacy according to the NCTE (English Teachers) is…

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

* Develop proficiency with the tools of technology

* Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally

* Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes

* Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information

* Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts

* Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

So Daniel Cano, one of my mentors at SMC, proposed these set of questions in response to all of this:

“This strikes me as something critical to the teaching of writing. Just the idea that someone is questioning 21st Century writing is hopeful, and since it’s the NCTE, that makes it even better. We can talk about changing pedagogical approaches and topics that interest students, but is it time to question writing itself, what is effective writing today and where it is going? It begs the question “are college writing classes relevant to 21st Century students, especially the large numbers of minority, low income, and older returning students?” Are those of us who have been teaching more than ten years locked in a time warp? How have our writing and literature classes changed to meet this new epoch?”


In so many ways the Internet will revolutionize every aspect of our lives.

This used to be conjecture, then a trend, now a blaring fact (teenagers spend 30 hours online in one study), now it’s a transformative role in our economic lives. While brick and mortar businesses are closing right and left, Amazon.com had record sales this Christmas season. More and more people around the world are going online every single day. Our lives are becoming the Internet. The merger between the two is hard to even differentiate.

And with a horrible economic crisis that is bring more and more people here in the United States into despair (10% of Los Angeles residents are now unemployed)…there needs to be serious, serious questioning into whether schools are actually preparing us for this new economy or not. And this is what literacy ultimately means in my opinion, do we understand how to read, comprehend, and then get our message across using the primary communication channels and technologies of the age (print, writing, books, broadcast, and now Internet).

And with an almost Draconian California budget coming down the pipelines…with every single school district having to cut millions from their operations…well…

“It’s Hard!” The Who

In other words, for students and part-time teachers like myself, the question of literacy is being supplanted by very basic needs for survival. The underlying despair and struggles our students and the school districts will be making such a high tension environment the next few years that I’m not sure how such traditional questions of discussing the literary merits of traditional forms such as the essay and research paper will mean much at all.

These economic hard times will be especially hard felt by minority and urban students (the majority of my students). Which means more students not affording $80 textbooks, more students missing class due to work, more students not finishing classes due to helping out their families, and more resistance to teaching that does not address these struggles.

And yet, with all these changes going on, the same B.S English textbooks I had to struggle with as a community college student still dominate the curriculum. A five hundred page tome that teaches grammar, technique, essay analysis, documentation, argumentation, antiquated essay forms, and the research paper.

None of which seems to be emphasized in the NCTE definition of literacy.

So what do we do? We try to force our students more and more to fit into old models. We come up with elaborate scoring systems…10 points for this…-10 points for that…five page essay prompts…more and more work for them to do…maybe get them into groups every now and then…you know…do some collaborative activities.

Meanwhile we wonder why we get another plagiarized essay analyzing The Catcher in The Rye. We wonder why our students have that glazed zombie look in their eyes every class. We wonder why they have so little to say on so many interesting topics.

As we experience all this, reading rates are dropping year after year. Students are now struggling to just read and comprehend standard literary classics such as 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird. So what do we do? Give them reading journals, study guides, more summaries to write, more…more…more…anything to FORCE THEM TO READ.

Their writing isn’t much better. The Y generation has now grown up texting so half of their sentences with no punctuation and the simplest of grammar is how they spend the majority of their writing time. Their writing is devoid of reflection, substance, voice, rhetoric, voice, documentation, and analysis. Teachers are overwhelmed by the task ahead of them every semester. Going home with 150 essays to read and correct and give comments is exhausting and not feasible for a college teacher to do five times a semester AND improve such low writing levels.

I’ve tried. Any you know what happens? I have no time or energy left at the end of the day for researching 21st century literacy or technology or blogging. So I get caught up in the cycle of give essays -> see bad writing -> give MORE writing -> get frustrated -> teach harder -> students resist all the work -> get more bad essays -> everyone’s tired by end of semester.

I write this because I did it for years. And I want to say THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE. The last year of my teaching I’ve been breaking out of this cycle and it is less work for me, less work for students, and yet the writing is getting better in my classes? How can that be? Well that I will have to leave for another blog post.

And I think Paulo Freire and the critical pedagogy teachers also give alternatives. The key here is getting out of the industrial, banking model of education to something more organic…more traditional…more collaborative and empowering. Something more student based and creative.

So Daniel, I think that the college classroom that sits studying essays on abstract topics such as Globalization or the Death Penalty or Immigration…then asks students to write an argumentative/research based essay of their own that follows all these RULES…and then the teacher grades these PAPER documents alone…well, this model could be in trouble…and is not a model that has much relevance with the technological trends we see occuring.

In fact, I think the only use of it is to prepare you for the next level of college English. And with this Internet transformation occurring all around us…and the growth of web 2.0 social networks…and the coming educational budget challenges…and the coming economic hard times…I wonder what use is the argumentative essay at all. I’ve made this point before…I question the use of the argumentative FRAME as a communicative tool. Dialogue seems far more deeper and meaningful.

I know that’s very opinionated.

So teachers from your epoch…well there are certainly a lot of changes a foot. But reading and writing and thinking skills and sharing our literary heritage are here to stay. We all have a lot to learn from one another.

Yet you folks have this WEALTH of knowledge to transfer on literature, poetry, or in your case…writing. I just hope that in the pursuit of the research paper we are not losing the opportunity to learn REAL KNOWLEDGE from our previous generations.

And I think that is where there is some real work to be done. Merging my generation’s technical skills with the wisdom of the elders to make a new vision.

So what would that be?

Well that’s a discussion for another day…But what I would like to point out the skills and knowledge I had to use in order to write this blog post…

  1. Had to set up a blog on WordPress.com. That way I could publish my thoughts for the global teaching community to read…when they find me. Otherwise all this just stays in the email dialogue between you and I. And I think this dialogue IS IMPORTANT and WORTH SHARING.
  2. Competency with the wordpress backend program.
  3. Be able to open up an email and cut and paste hyperlinks and quotes.
  4. Used Scribefire (a plug in for Firefox) to move quickly between all these documents.
  5. Had to look at all these sources of information…from three different websites…then create hyperlinks back to them so others could find them to check out the thoughts themselves.
  6. Then reflect on your question with some basic facts of what I perceive going on. Then compose a well thought out answer using a language that is readable by a larger audience.
  7. I had to know how to use HTML tagging because the blog post looked screwed up and I had to fix it.
  8. Needed the courage to disagree and question a valued mentor and thought leader at SMC in such a way as to continue further dialogue. In other words, I had to present my ideas in way that promotes rather than discourages discussion.
  9. Publish all this information on my blog.
  10. Be connected to other bloggers so I could find out about thought leaders like Sir Ken Robinson.
  11. Trouble shoot getting that damn video on my blog below. Could now get it to post. Damn WordPress. Spend like 20 minutes trouble shooting alone and could not get the video to look like a video.!!!!
  12. Try to get some people to read my blog after writing this.

Whew that’s a lot. And what I think might be some clues to what we might need to be teaching for 21st century literacy.

God bless you Daniel, and thanks for creating the space at SMC where this kind of dialogue can take place in person. You and I have talked about this before, now the challenge and next step is to take that sacred space you’ve created and put it up online also.

Thanks Kevin for the links on literacy…you’re a hell of a researcher.

Talk soon,


P.S I thought I’d share some MULTIMEDIA TEXTS with you guys also. Sir Ken Robinson on why the Internet will change the model of education/writing that has so dominated our classrooms for the last 100 years.

This is a MUST watch video for any educator.


One Response to “Writing in the 21st Century”

  1. Kevin Menton Says:

    Another thought-provoking posting, Gary.

    I definitely believe that educators NEED to change our definition of what literacy is in the 21st century to include multimedia. I thought Ken Robinson eloquently and entertainingly expressed this notion that education must acknowledge and change with the new paradigm arising from accelerating technologies. To do otherwise is to become increasingly irrelevant.

    Having said that, I am still left wondering how I can ignore basic or traditional forms of literacy (i.e. reading and writing). If we focus student attention on reading, analyzing, and producing the rhetoric of multimedia, yet students cannot read or compose linear thoughts in traditional sentences, how will this affect our society? In other words, how do we address the idea that reading and writing are necessary? Are you suggesting that new technologies are rendering reading and writing somehow unnecessary?

    The Robinson video was excellent. I will be sharing it with my English 1 students in our class on the future and globalization. (I think you are wrong to dismiss specific subjects as somehow irrelevant. Globalization has very real manifestations that affect our students directly as does capital punishment. I would suggest that any content can provide a context for learning. Rather, it is the methods and their results with which we should be concerned.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: