‘Writing to Learn’ in the 21st Century

“…in the meantime, we are going to concentrate on writing itself, on how to become a better writer, because, for one thing, becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Several years ago while co-teaching a tenth grade humanities class,…

…I was also doing research on the relationship of writing, both formal and informal, for how a student evolved in his or her ability to read and think critically. It was research I had been interested in since reading William Zinsser’s book, Writing to Learn, at the end of the last century, and I have always subscribed to two of his claims on writing as core beliefs for my writing and teaching philosophy for K-12 students and adults. Those beliefs though, have evolved given the reading and writing options available today in a ‘new’ century that is soon to be 20 years in

Zinsser’s first claim was that, “Writing and thinking and learning were(are) the same process.” Relative to this notion, he went on to note “writing across the curriculum wasn’t just a method of getting students to write who were afraid of writing. It was also a method of getting students to learn who were afraid of learning.” His second claim was, “ Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly…” So what about writing in the 21st Century world that offers a range of technology that marginalizes and even eliminates paper in many cases?

In classrooms, I have observed students who write and think better through the keyboard and screen; but there also students who respond better with a pencil or pen in hand to paper to develop their thinking around matters important to them or make meaning of the reading being done. Then there are pencils for tablets and voice options for ‘writing’ as well.  Beyond the options available for writing and reading, there are also the complications (testing, assessment, etc.) that have created imbalance between what is a formal or informal writing experience, and the impact it may have on providing conditions and motivations for reading and shared thinking.

As educators, it’s important that we get a grasp on options and best practices for literacy across the curriculum…perhaps expand our views of what literacy may mean in a 21st Century school and classroom. One baseline remains universal though; writing, reading and critical thinking/reasoning are essential components to whatever view one might have for a 21st Century literacy construct. If, as Anne Lamott suggests, that becoming a better writer leads to being a better reader, then we must be able to utilize the expanding list of writing options to personalize and create experiences for students that have them become invested writers who read and think critically.

Some possibilities to consider integrating into one’s 21st Century teaching philosophy regarding literacy can be drawn from Lisa Nielsen’s Ten 21st Century Education Quotes I Carry With Me. A few that resonate for me include:

  • For writing: Digital media enables us to build more stages for our kids to express themselves. (Marco Torres)
  • For Reading: We need to replicate in the classroom the world in which students are living. A reminder of Paulo Freire’s Read the world in order to read the word
  • For critical thinking: What gets us in trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)

As an educator, what notions of literacy do you want to carry into your current practice and share with students? Lisa Nielsen provides some diverse quotes to examine one’s own thinking, and there is much to consider in creating 21st century options for reading, writing and critical thinking for both children and adults. But it starts with writing and creating the conditions for writing along with the reciprocity it has with reading.

“Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. The thing you had to force yourself to do-the actual act of writing-turns out to be the best part…The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life



Share This:

Share this:

Leave a comment