We are graduating bad writers. Despite increases in the number of students finishing high school and enrolling in four-year colleges, poor writing is ubiquitous. Students with subpar writing skills end up struggling in English 101 or in remedial college classes. Many resort to using “paper mills,” or paying online writing services to craft essays, or even dissertations, for them.
Having taught writing to students in high school, college, and at a correctional institution, I have found commonalities in poor writing habits across these settings. The degree of struggle runs the spectrum, from writers who are barely able to write a sensible paragraph to hidden gems who are steeped in trepidation.
After working in a high-performing high school in Plainville, Conn., which has adopted 1:1 technology, I’m convinced we’ve stumbled on the elixir for writing ailments.
The 1:1 technology initiative provides each student with a light, wireless laptop to use both inside and outside of school. Emerging writers need a modern tool with which to flex their writing muscles, precisely what the 1:1 technology offers—convenience, freedom, and more instant and frequent feedback, extending the dialogue beyond the classroom walls. The learning is dynamic, personalized, and organic, leading to less scripted and stilted writing.
The classroom ambiance is a writing instructor’s dream—the dim lights, soft clicking, students wired into writing. And how can we discount the trees spared—in the billions.
Paper and pencil is like parchment and charcoal to the tech-savvy students of the digital era. We have pushed and prodded and forced our students to endure an archaic model of education for too long, and in the process, created a generation of dysfunctional writers burdened with an assortment of neurotic writing habits.
I’ve observed a myriad of writing neuroses, mostly anxiety induced—from the gifted writer’s eloquent style obscured by awkward phrasing and grammar faux pas, to the passive aggressive writer’s intentional misspellings and punctuation omissions, to the inept yet honest writer lacking finesse and deficient in the most basic skills. These perplexing behaviors are learned over time, perhaps in response to a forced writing instruction deemed irrelevant to the 21st-century student, and considered banal in comparison to a rich technological world outside the classroom walls.
One-to-one technology gives tech-savvy students a greater level of comfort with the writing process. The more familiar and comfortable the student feels, the more inspired he or she will be to write, freely and more frequently.
When students are frustrated with writing instruction, it is revealed in the product—the poor writing they produce and their indifference or shame of it. For some, the awkward writing is intentional, almost retaliatory. And for others, sadly, it is their best, even if it is incoherent.
Writing should be exploratory and organic in nature. All students deserve the opportunity to use technology and to type their ideas freely and uninhibitedly. Writing rarely takes a linear course. In fact, the finish line is nonexistent, as the writer is continually revising and improving. High-quality writing instruction requires the most efficient tool to manage multiple drafts and revisions. An English teacher working with a pen and paper is at a disadvantage.
I am witness to it. In our study of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies last spring, my freshmen chose a character to analyze. They typed freely, unencumbered, explored “Ralph’s inept leadership,” Jack’s “descent into savagery,” Simon’s “innate morality,” Piggy’s “social awkwardness,” along with Golding’s take on our brutish nature. Only in a few situations did I have to remind them to “elaborate.” The ideas flowed, unimpeded. Afterward, we took it a step further, and students provided a psychological report of their character in a creatively designed presentation via Google Slides.
Nevertheless, despite the many benefits, some critics view 1:1 technology as the leviathan of the modern classroom, pointing to the potential data mining, privacy breaches, and early recruitment to a lifetime of Google, for instance.
Yet, technology is here to stay, and it is our job as educators to be flexible and progressive, rather than encouraging neurotic behaviors and a resistance to writing.
The day before spring break, I reminded students to keep at their essays and fine-tune their theses. With their laptops they have a solid footing, and I am confident they will be writing and sending me ideas, drafts, and revisions along the way.
I’m hopeful that 1:1 technology initiatives help students feel unfettered freedom to hone their writing skills and build confidence and expertise—eventually putting the paper mills out of business once and for all.