For all the hype Millennials get, nearly every K-12 student today is part of its successor generation—Gen Z—a group more plugged in and social than ever before. The internet is awash in surveys touting the inseparable connection between kids and technology.
I think students are reading and writing more than ever. Is it quality writing? Not all the time
According to one Common Sense Media report, on any given day, around 60 percent of teens use social media, spending an average of two hours on platforms like Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, all of which are having a big impact in the way they engage with the written word.
“I think students are reading and writing more than ever,” says Jeremy Hyler, an eighth-grade English teacher at Fulton Middle School in Michigan. “Is it quality writing? Not all the time.”
Hyler has co-authored two books including “From Texting to Teaching: Grammar Instruction in a Digital Age,” and has made it his mission to immerse himself in the platforms, rules of conduct and digital argot that comprise the communication habits of a generation where efficiency, humor and graphic media are given priority over formal grammar.
Naturally, social media plays a big part in Hyler’s writing instruction. He acknowledges that a lot of the writing that students do these days is informal and social, and thus today’s writing instruction must focus on teaching students how to artfully master both registers.
“I tell them, ‘I respect the fact that you write in these informal spaces, but I want you to understand that there are these formal spaces you need to learn how to write in as well,” he says. “So let’s mix them together and talk about them both.”
Even in middle school, Hyler still sees students struggle with concepts such as proper capitalization and tone, as they navigate between texting with friends and crafting essays or emails to adults.
“It’s a process. It does not happen overnight,” Hyler says. “But it’s like learning how to write an argument for the SAT. The more they practice it, the better they get. They see the different spaces and learn how to differentiate between them.”
Making it explicit may help. Five years ago, Hyler created a grammar template in Google Slides to teach concepts like complex sentences. Using a mentor text from the curriculum, students analyze a sentence and recreate it for various media and audiences.An example of Jeremy Hyler's social media grammar template
Recently, Hyler’s class read middle-school staple “The Outsiders” and adapted a sentence for Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, email and Google Docs. Afterward, they talked about what a complex sentence might look like on each platform. “Students like it better than having a worksheet that’s boring or repetitive, and because I’m not saying you have to get rid of writing informally,” Hyler says.
The exercise also gives students a chance to explore their creativity as both a writer and a user of social media. To illustrate the complexity of the sentence, “one student used a picture of a Rubic’s Cube, because a Rubic’s Cube is complex,” Hyler says. “I never would have thought of that. I’m thinking of something like a wiring system for an internet network—that’s complex to me.”
The Power of Brevity
When you think of writing on social media, it’s natural to think of the informal tweets and status updates we shoot off every day. But that’s a limited view ignoring all the more formal writing we do for wider audiences on sites like Amazon, Yelp and Airbnb. Literacy consultant Maggie Roberts refers to this type of writing as our “review culture,” and says schools can teach students to approach their writing in these spaces not just as reviewers and consumers—but as writers.
“There’s a real opportunity there to teach the power of brevity—how to say big things with only a few characters,” says Roberts, a former staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. “How do we want to approach word choice or talk about syntax and clarity of voice? It’s a powerful and productive place to teach those concepts of writing.”
Like Hyler, Roberts believes that teachers can take a page from the narrative signatures on each social platform to strengthen student’s writing skills and personal voice. On Twitter, students can use viral tweets as mentor sentences, breaking them apart to discover what made them so popular. Instagram and Twitter, which let users pair images and short videos alongside minimal text to convey ideas, offer a new take on creative writing.
In particular, she points to the work of Chicago teacher Gregory Michie, whose work with students mixes written text with hand-drawn artwork, video and music. “All of that is storytelling,” Roberts says. “It’s the whole blend of images and words—it’s quick little videos or snapshots. That is a story that a writer is telling.”
Of course, there’s still a place for longform essays and formal writing, and strong writing instruction will effectively incorporate both, she says. “Instead of ditch that and teach micro writing, it’s more of an and you can teach micro writing,” Roberts says. “It’s an extension.”
Learning Like Students
In her role as a literacy consultant, Roberts often leads groups of writing teachers in professional development workshops where she encourages teachers to try the writing assignments they assign to students for themselves. But first she has them examine the role formal and informal language plays in their own writing.
“I have the teachers break out their phones and examine the last few texts they sent,” Roberts says. “The goal is to have them figure out: ‘Who was your audience? Where was your conventional language? Your more conventional shorthand?’ Getting teachers really curious about how they engage in those platforms is a really nice first step.”
After that, teachers can consider how they might teach digital writing in their classrooms. “The best advice I can give is to respect the students space, but bring it into their classroom,” Hyler says. Tech adverse teachers may struggle at first, he admits, although even that can turn into an opportunity for learning.
“If you’re unsure of how that lesson would go, learn alongside your students,” Hyler suggests. “Have them show you how they’re writing and ask them questions: ‘Why are you writing that way?’ There’s a lot of power in that.”