Teaching Publishing as a 21st Century Literacy

For years, a common method for teaching writing in elementary and secondary school was the five paragraph essay. Lately this style of essay has fallen out of favor, for a variety of reasons. However, one of the most compelling reasons to avoid teaching the five paragraph essay is that it is a form of writing that isn’t really found out in the wild. That is, you don’t often see these essays outside of the classroom in magazines or newspapers or other public writing venues. It was really the creation of the academy that had very little utility outside of the classroom. It is the writing equivalent of teaching to the test, only in this case instructors made up their own test.

Why is this bad, you ask? Physics tests, for example, don’t have much utility outside of the classroom, but they are still useful teaching tools. The difference is located in the action encouraged by these two scholastic forms. Physics tests are designed to gauge a student’s ability to master a body of knowledge and apply it in a number of situations. I would say that the goal of teaching writing is the same, to help students master the skills necessary for good writing and to teach them to apply those skills in a variety of situations. And this is where the five paragraph essay falls flat: it only trains students to master one skill, and that skill isn’t applicable in many situations outside of the classroom, or even in classrooms that do not specifically teach writing. History and biology instructors aren’t any more eager to read five paragraph essays than magazine publishers are.

Which brings me to the point of this post. One of the goals of education—digital or otherwise—is to prepare students for thinking and doing outside the classroom. And while it is true that the goal of teaching writing has always been to prepare students for writing beyond the walls of the schoolhouse, this is even more the case now that digital publishing has become so widely available in our society. In other words, as much as possible, the task of teaching writing is also teaching writing for public consumption, and teaching writing for public consumption in the network society means teaching writing and publishing as being inseparable.

Publishing is a word that for many evokes images of enormous printing presses or the approval of gatekeepers like editors and publishing houses. But in the network society, the publishing process is less guarded, for one can simply post items to the web where others can see them, and comment on or enter into conversations about them. Yet this simplicity masks a complexity: just because it is easy to share our writing on digital networks, that does not mean that the skills necessary to write successfully in different online environments are themselves easily mastered. Just as being able to format a word-processed document using the MLA format was an unspoken, but essential skill in many writing classes, formatting a blog post or mastering the restraints of Twitter or Facebook are skills students should have some understanding of if they wish to see their writing have an impact in the world.

To this end, here are three short ideas for how teachers can think about the overlapping literacies of writing and publishing.

Published writing is written for an audience. Of course, one could argue that students are writing for their teachers, but this is an artificial situation like that of the five paragraph essay. Even if the teacher is the only person who reads a text, it is beneficial for students to imagine a wider audience and to judge their efforts based on how that audience would react. It is even better to address an actual audience—such as for a blog, or the editors of Wikipedia—and then judge that audience’s real-world reaction to their writing.

Published writing depends on writing technologies. For as long as I’ve been teaching writing, students have had to know how to use word processing software to produce their texts, as many teachers only accept documents that have been produced by this technology. Writing skills have always been dependent on writing technologies, yet writing teachers have been reluctant to teach those technologies. Now that our writing technologies are increasingly synonymous with publishing technologies, perhaps some of the stigma can be eliminated if we recognize that these literacies are essential to writing for our students.

Published writing helps students learn identity creation. Writing instructors have been concerned for a long time about how individual students are able to develop a personal voice and use it to understand themselves better. Now that concern has found an external manifestation in the myriad ways that digital networks force their users to create and maintain identities using writing and other communication media in online environments. Recognizing how identities are formed through public writing benefits not only a student’s writing skills, but also her ability to live in a connected world where online environments are essential to who we are in public.

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