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Learning at its Best

Writing is Thinking

As William Zinsser famously said, “Writing is thinking on paper.”

I would amend that to say, “Writing at its most authentic is thinking on paper … and through video … and via audio … and through gaming … and on social media … and … and … and …”

I’ve strengthened this belief over the years through my association with teachers – many affiliated with the National Writing Project – who work with their students to compose as a means to think. To think for and about themselves, to think about others, to think about the world in which they live – and then communicate their thinking to a larger audience beyond the teacher.

I’ve been fortunate, in other words, to see work shared by colleagues. Colleagues who understand that by  disseminating practice and our questions about the teaching of writing, we can build knowledge together – teachers and students alike.

Writing is thinking …

Most recently, NWP teachers have been writing and thinking at the recently launched Digital Is website. They’ve been sharing among other things student writing, composed digitally and for authentic purposes. The platform the site is built upon makes it possible to generate conversations about these resources, which are freely available to anyone connected to the Internet. Here are a few examples from Digital Is that have stayed with me:

Oakland State of Mind

G Reyes, a Bay Area Writing Project teacher, led the out-of-school group, Youth Roots, in creating this counter-narrative to the stories told about their community. This composition empowers teens to think critically about the institutional forces – the media, etc. – that shape perceptions of their community and then use the tools of youth culture, like music and video, to reshape the story from their perspective. (Youth Roots)

Writing in the Digital Age

In this piece, Joel Malley, of the Western New York Writing Project, chronicles the processes his students go through as they write digitally and in various media. I am particularly struck by the notion that regardless of what his students engage in, whether it’s mass media and film production or AP Literature, “storytelling is the basis for everything.” Then, in addition, it is through writing and responding to one another’s writing that they grow as learners. (The Digital Writing Workshop)

Wanna See the Movie?

Lacy Manship of the UNCC Writing Project in North Carolina recounts what happened when she gave her first graders a flip videocamera and the locus of control in this multi-page Digital Is resource. What she shares are not polished student pieces, with discrete beginnings, middles and endings. Instead, Lacy shows us that if we allow students, even as young as first grade, the power to compose pieces about their world, and if we’re willing to pay attention, we can learn a lot.

Given just one video … I can look deeply at what children know and do in a given context.  For instance, one of many possible analyses is to see this as documentation of Joanna and Joslyn’s literacy learning.  Here I have documentation of oral composition of a story, ability to take on the voice of characters, and ability to create a collaborative and linguistically hybrid text. This clip alone provides data I can endlessly analyze, use to invite further reflection from the learners, center family conference discussions around, and use to support thinking about curriculum and instruction for these children and others.

Even more politically powerful is that these videos are made by the children.  So in assessing their learning, I am basing analysis upon what they are choosing to show me. This move pushes at dominant assessment practices that place the locus of power in testing companies, state and district agencies, or teachers alone.  With student made documentaries as data, students and teachers together can create rich contexts and narratives through which to talk about student learning.  Socializing assessment can happen if decisions about what counts as data moves from top down models to collective decisions between students and teachers.

(Wanna See the Movie?)

Writing is thinking …

I’m currently reading Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson. In his chapter on what he calls the “slow hunch,” he upends the notion of the “aha” moment as being the result of an individual’s spontaneous and sole genius. Instead, he argues that we accumulate ideas that build upon another through our encounters with others and the world around us – the slow hunch, if you will. And the way to keep track of those hunches, the way to accrete ideas, is through writing. From Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection to Tim Berners-Lee and the development of the World Wide Web, Johnson makes the case that networks and writing are two critical elements for innovation to occur.

I think of Digital Is as our slow hunch. Digital Is represents the accumulation of ideas, generated by teachers from all over the country, about what it means to write with students today and what it may mean tomorrow. We are each of us building upon the thoughts and questions and practices of others in order to form a collective vision of the future that is greater than what would otherwise be possible if we were toiling away in our own little silos.

The National Writing Project and its Digital Is platform are at their core dedicated to the development of networks. And writing. And, of course, thinking.

About Paul Oh

I'm an educator, writer, sometime runner and soon-to-be dad. I work for the National Writing Project and get a chance to design, play, create and learn with other adults and, when I'm lucky, with kids.


10 thoughts on “Writing is Thinking

  1. I agree with you, Paul, when you note that “…the way to keep track of those hunches, the way to accrete ideas, is through writing.”
    What I find interesting about Digital Is is how the strands of inquiry are beginning to reach in so many different directions, and how those explorations are making more of an impact in our classrooms. Not enough, perhaps, to say change is afoot everywhere, but enough to recognize a path forward.
    The network of NWP folks who are exploring this intersection of writing and technology and learning is powerful, and the folks in our communities of teacher-writers are reflective and thoughtful, and willing to share. I love that.


    Posted by Kevin Hodgson | March 17, 2011, 6:48 pm
    • Thanks, Kevin. I agree that paths forward are taking shape as we engage in these strands of inquiry, to borrow your language. In terms of the idea that the teachers in our network are willing to share, another point Steven Johnson makes in his book is that open networks in which ideas are freely exchanged have proven to be the best incubators of innovation over time. Again, Digital Is meets those criteria.


      Posted by Paul Oh | March 17, 2011, 10:58 pm
  2. Paul, great examples of integrating technology with education in a productive manner. I particularly liked to storytelling examples. One thing that I thought about while watching these short videos is how these students will impact the business environment once they have fully developed. Storytelling is becoming a great source for training and development. The experiences these students gained will only benefit them in there chosen professions in the future.


    Posted by John R. Turner | March 18, 2011, 7:32 am
    • Thanks, John. It seems likely to me that the skills the students in these videos have demonstrated will, like you say, help them as they begin their adult work lives. I would add that, in my opinion possibly more significantly, they’ve been guided towards being active members of our democracy, using the tools of engagement – youtube videos, flip videocameras, digital stories – that are fast becoming prerequisites. They are, in effect, more able to be full and informed members of our “participatory culture,” as Henry Jenkins put it.


      Posted by Paul Oh | March 18, 2011, 12:40 pm
  3. 1. View any classic painting portrait of a truly great man or woman and you’re likely to notice paper writing tablets, a pen, a scroll and or an inkwell or two!
    2. Modern man might also note that the present promoters of enhanced educational programs are using images of students using pens and pencils as their recording devices more and more frequently!
    3. Point#2 is a recent development, because for years the commercialized world of consumerism would be much more likely to portray the keybored user as being the role model for education.

    Posted by James | March 19, 2011, 8:08 pm
  4. Oh by the way…watch out for students who never used cursive writing, especially those who cannot even read it! Encourage these to begin using their fingers more, not the keyboreds!

    Posted by James | March 20, 2011, 7:31 am
  5. Hello Paul, my NWP friend

    I wanted to let you know that I “borrowed” some of your post for a found poem I composed for the #blog4nwp weekend. I was inspired by what I was reading. Thank you for your words, and your thoughts, and if I had to do some slight twisting to make it work in the poem, I hope you accept my forgiveness.

    The poem and podcast is here:

    Kevin Hodgson
    Western Massachusetts Writing Project

    Posted by Kevin Hodgson | March 20, 2011, 9:13 am


  1. Pingback: The #blog4nwp archive « Cooperative Catalyst - March 17, 2011

  2. Pingback: Why the National Writing Project Matters | Kevin's Meandering Mind - March 18, 2011

  3. Pingback: dComposing » writing is thinking - March 21, 2011

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