Life Writing and Authentic Tasks

I was discouraged last week.

On three occasions I heard variations of the phrase “You don’t need computers to teach 21st Century Literacy.” As I thought about those comments after the fact, I crafted a comeback – teaching modern literacy without computers is like teaching writing with out pen and paper. And even though I enjoy a pithy retort, I felt that my argument needed more substance. An article given to me by Darin Johnson, Clive Thompson’s “The New Literacy” and a conversation about Understanding by Design with Joan Martz-Kerwusik fleshed out the argument I was seeking.

Thompson’s article is based on the work of Andrea Lundsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University. Two terms in the article caught my eye. The first term  is life writing, used to describe blog posts, status updates and texting. Up until now, I have been referring to these forms as conversational writing, but I have never researched the term to see who else is using it. I like life writing better as it highlights the true nature of these forms – although they are often conversational in tone, they do not always require a reply. I also liked Lundsford’s use of the term Kairos as a literacy skill. In rhetoric terms, Kairos is ones ability to “asses[] their audience and adapt[] their tone and technique to best get their point across.” When we consider the amount of writing our kids are doing for an audience other than a teacher, it is easy to see how these become important skills, and ones they are very adept at.

With this in mind, let us consider one of our district initiatives, Understanding by Design. This is a great process by which we are redesigning our units, assessments and lessons to appeal to 21st century learning and teaching. However, I find it interesting that as we stress the importance of authentic, real world transfer tasks, we overlook life writing as a viable literacy skill. As well, Kairos becomes even more imparivite when we look at Stage 2 of UbD – Assessment Evidence. Stage 2 asks us to use GRASPS (Goal, Role, Audience, Situation, Performance,and Standards) when designing performance tasks.

If our students are actively engaged in life writing, and life writing is a viable and effective form of communication, should we consider using status updates, blog entries and responses, texting, and tweets as transfer tasks when designing our units?

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