Rethinking Expertise in a Digital Writing Workshop

Kristen-Turnerby guest blogger and Literacy for All Featured Speaker Kristen Hawley Turner

Kristen is an associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies at Fordham University in New York City. Her research focuses on the intersections between technology and literacy, and she works with teachers across content areas to implement effective literacy instruction and to incorporate technology in meaningful ways. She is a Teacher Consultant for the National Writing Project and the director of the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative.

“Was anyone able to get a video into Corkulous?”

Maryrose scanned her third grade classroom, her eyes coming to rest on Ricky, who had his hand in the air.

“Ricky, you know how to insert a video?” she clarified. The boy nodded. “Okay, everyone.  Ricky is the video man.” With this comment, Maryrose identified Ricky as an expert in that day’s writing workshop, and during the next half hour, I saw several of his classmates approach him for a tutorial.

In their unit on research, the students were creating biographical timelines of famous individuals; they used iPads for both web-based research and creating their projects, yet they also moved easily between the device and their traditional writing notebooks, where they took notes by hand that they then typed into the Corkulous app. It was the first time Maryrose had incorporated iPads into her classroom, and she was excited to see how her students might use them.

This shift in writing workshop pedagogy — adding technology to traditional methods — helps children to develop knowledge and skills that are critical to writing in a digital age. George Hillocks has suggested that writers need knowledge of “discourse” and “substance” in order to create effective written products. Hillocks has argued that each genre of writing consists of underlying structures (e.g., argument, narration, lists) and adheres to particular conventions that help to define the genre. Writers need to know these structures and conventional elements — called discourse, or more simply, form.

Furthermore, writers need to know what they are writing about, and they need to know how to find the substance of their writing. Adding appropriate details in an essay, for instance, may mean incorporating statistics or a quote from an expert. In a story, however, details may come in the form of an elaborate description of the setting or characters. This substance — the “stuff” that makes good writing good — is the content.

In short, Hillocks says that writers need knowledge of content in addition to knowledge of form. Writing workshop approaches have provided young writers the opportunities to learn about form, often via mini-lessons, and to generate content through revision in both writer’s notebooks and in written drafts.

However, writing in a digital age is different than traditional writing. Technologies have made new genres possible, even as they transform the forms of traditional genres like research papers. For example, embedded videos, images, and links can be used to enhance more traditional arguments or narratives in creative, thoughtful ways. On the other hand, digital genres, like digital stories or blog posts, represent new types of writing that open up possibilities for collaboration among readers and writers. These possibilities are exciting, but they place increased demands on writers.

Troy Hicks and I have argued that digital writing requires knowledge of various technologies — such as blogs, wikis, or video editing tools — and how those particular technologies can help writers to compose a product. In other words, in addition to knowing the structures and conventions of a digital genre, as well as the content of the desired writing, writers also need to understand how technology can help them to generate the substance or to create the product. In Hillocks’ terms, both the form and the content can change, based on the influence of digital writing technologies.

For Maryrose’s third graders to create effective timelines, they needed to use their devices to locate facts, dates, and appropriate visuals (e.g., images, videos), all to support their purposes of creating biographies. They also needed to know how to create a timeline using the appropriate app. Though they had practiced creating timelines using paper and pencil earlier in the year, this task asked more of them. It required them to learn how the device might support them in their writing — and how to troubleshoot problems in writing that would not occur in traditional forms.

As they worked, the students considered a variety of options as digital writers. Along with learning about the lives of their chosen person, students selected appropriate videos, images, and facts to include in their timelines.

At one point during the lesson, I saw Zeke ask his buddy, “Edward, do you know how to put in a picture?” Their tablemate, Dex, watched over Zeke’s shoulder while Edward demonstrated on Zeke’s iPad. When the three of them could not figure out how to shrink the image to fit where Zeke wanted it, Matt joined to show them how to do it. In less than a minute, Zeke had accomplished his goal of inserting the image into his timeline — and Maryrose was never called to the table. Instead, she was conferencing with another group, coaching them on the content of their timelines.

All four boys returned immediately to their own projects, each one likely having gained some knowledge of technology that would aid him in his own writing, contributing to both form and content. A few minutes later, Edward picked up his iPad and crossed the room to Ricky, saying to no one in particular, “I need to ask Ricky how to do a video.” The students knew what they needed to accomplish, they relied on their peers to help them learn, and ultimately, they developed their technological knowledge that would support their digital writing.

Incorporating technology can be intimidating to teachers who do not feel like experts in using devices, but Maryrose knew that she didn’t need to be the only expert in the classroom. She called on her students, empowered them to coach others, and learned alongside them. She took a risk in her classroom because she knew that students need to learn how technology might help or inhibit their writing in various genres.

This goal is important for all teachers of writing to consider. Technology affords writers many opportunities. For example, Maryrose’s students were able to create timelines with embedded videos and links to additional information. These types of data contributed to products that were much different than the paper and pencil timelines they produced earlier in the year. However, technology alone will not make writing better. Skills of research, including selection of evidence, are even more important as writers consider the content of their pieces. They should not be distracted by digital “bells and whistles” that can drown out their messages.

Because more and more writing is digital in the real world, it is important for young students to learn skills of technology and to understand how various technologies can shape a message, both in content and form. Maryrose’s third graders are developing in these areas — and she has empowered them to do so by seeing each other as experts in the classroom.


Kristen Hawley Turner is presenting at the 2014 Literacy for All Conference in Providence, RI on Monday, November 3 and Tuesday, November 4 (



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