Every year, I ask my students — all teachers or studying to become teachers — to recall what they remember about learning to write. For most of them, the answer is very little.
They don’t remember writing much in school, particularly in the early grades. They don’t remember writing about topics they care about. They don’t remember writing for audiences beyond their teacher or for more than a grade. And they certainly don’t remember feeling like writers who are confident in their ideas and abilities.
Recently, many of us have witnessed Chicago youth communicating about and taking action on issues such as police-free schools — organizing marches and protests, using social media to share their opinions and mobilize support, and penning opinion pieces on the topic. Other Chicago children and teens have harnessed social media to raise money for hospitals and created databases to help with vaccine distribution. These youth understand that writing can change the world.
But writing instruction in schools remains stagnant. Research suggests that teachers are underprepared to teach writing, and schools do not teach enough writing, particularly digital writing for broad audiences using tools to combine text, images, audio, and video. Further, many CPS teachers report that they do not have high-quality curriculums and materials and note the unequal access to computing devices and high-speed internet.
I am a writing and literacy researcher. My own research with colleagues in Illinois elementary schools has revealed that when writing does get taught, popular curriculums often emphasize basic skills like spelling and grammar and learning the features of narrative, informational, and persuasive text types. Although we know that writing for purposes and audiences beyond teachers is engaging and meaningful for children, these curriculums almost always orient writing exclusively to teachers for grades.
Dr. Jane Fleming, the director of literacy for Chicago Public Schools, has argued that it’s not enough “to have basic or even proficient literacy skills — students should be graduating with advanced literacy skills.” To that end, we must come to see — and teach — writing not as a set of skills to master but rather as a means to act in the world. While learning how to write is undoubtedly important, children (and teachers) must also experience the powerful reasons why we write: to foster social relationships, engage in civic responsibility, and share information. We must encourage children to use writing as a means to an end, not the end itself. Indeed, it is through deep and meaningful engagements with writing that “the basics” are best learned.
Meaningful writing instruction in schools should meet local parents’ call for more creative and hands-on learning, and support writing for an audience beyond the teacher and a purpose beyond a report card. Children should be given many opportunities to express themselves and to read and write texts with real-world implications. This effort could look like teaching peers and caregivers about their favorite hobbies, be it Roblox or TikTok. Or it could look like interviewing elders about neighborhood histories and crafting short videos to share with their communities.
Writing instruction should also center on children’s interests and concerns. This might be an intergenerational effort to increase environmental sustainability, resulting in a new composting program and a podcast where youth interview community members and local experts. Ultimately, writing to do things in the world, and with and for their friends, families, and communities, will help children see themselves as writers whose perspectives and ideas matter and can have an impact.
With this fall’s planned return to full in-person learning and the impending rollout of the district’s new Skyline curriculum that includes curated texts featuring local authors and issues, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine the ways we teach writing in CPS. We can harness our district’s greatly expanded access to computing devices and the internet to support writing instruction that meets our children’s needs for self-expression and advocacy.
Dr. Rebecca Woodard, Ph.D., is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a former New York City public school teacher who now researches writing and literacy instruction. She is also the parent of two Chicago Public School children. Follow her on Twitter @beccawoodard.