A High-Tech Solution to the Writing Crisis

Technology alone can't fix America's schools. But it can help teachers make better use of their time.



Imagine in front of you an abysmal high school junior English paper: eight long typed pages about the distinction between revealed and hidden sin in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlett Letter. At least, a teacher assumes that's meant to be the topic of the paper, since the final sentence of the introduction states this point with such surety.

From there, the writer ranges around the whole book, losing the trail of his argument through misplaced modifiers, summarizing here and analyzing there. This student did not simply wrestle with the text; he had an all out brawl with both The Scarlett Letter and the English language: "The flower is the symbol of Hesters spirit and the prison of the Puritan society. The man-made stronghold is a lot bigger than the blossoming that Hester felt alone." Eight pages!

By now, any high school English teacher would be shuddering. In the best of all worlds, when faced with a complex writing assignment, a teacher has the time to roll up her sleeves, sit down with her student, and help him sort out his analysis and determine the best structure for communicating that idea. Even better, the teacher will have already found many small ways to engage with this student about his observations before he submits the entire paper.

Instead, for most teachers, a paper like this is just one of 100 or more she must contend with -- on top of planning her lessons, making copies of materials, worrying about students who didn't submit their papers, and considering which grammar lessons might best help the class. The teacher wants to be like a skilled surgeon faced with a complication, focused only on the true heart and lungs of the paper in front of her. But she is also expected to be the surgical nurse, anesthesiologist, and administrator.

In a world of Judith Hochman and smart teachers like those at New Dorp High School, we need to make it possible, even likely, that a teacher will be able to focus on doing what she is best trained to do: help students develop and express their ideas in writing. It is becoming evident that technology can be designed with this goal in mind, leveraging the power of this smart teacher's attention.

The next generation of technology won't attempt to replace teacher-student interactions. Instead, it will make them more productive than ever.

Very few would dispute that some form of feedback between teacher and student is crucial to a writer's development. We know that technology can get in the way of this crucial relationship. Existing programs, for instance, have tried to automate grammar instruction, and they haven't worked. That's because they ignore the power of a teacher's personal attention. Writing ideas for a machine to parse is far less motivating for a student than expressing them to a fascinated reader (the teacher).

The next generation of technology won't attempt to replace this human connection. Instead, it will actually help build and protect these interactions, making them more productive than ever.

Consider, for example, the teacher who had to respond to this Scarlet Letter paper. (Yes, it lives in paper-and-ink reality, not just in your nightmares.) On every page, she bracketed multiple awkward sentences, circled misspellings or colloquialisms, and corrected misplaced quotation marks. She tried to help the writer pinpoint those places where he is really developing an idea drawn from the text: How does this relate to D's misery? Need to make this cleaner. You need to use words in the quote to analyze his character & show how they show misery.

Presented by

Deborah Reck and Deb Sabin

Deborah Reck has been developing literacy tools for teachers since 1994 and is now chief academic officer for English language arts at Wireless Generation, part of Amplify. Deb Sabin, a former high school teacher, is Wireless Generation's director of English language arts curriculum design.

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