Preface to Research Writing Rewired: Lessons That Ground Students’ Digital Learning by Dawn Reed and Troy Hicks

Reading, Writing, and Inquiry With Adolescents

I am not a teacher, but an awakener. —Robert Frost

Over the past twenty years, English teachers have been confronted with a variety of challenges and opportunities related to the changing nature of texts and language. In particular, two major transformations have occurred:

  • Educational standards like the Common Core have become more prominent both in the United States and around the world, raising serious questions about student learning, teacher effectiveness, and the fundamental goals of education.
  • The Internet has changed our lives, affecting the way that we produce, publish, and encounter texts, and expanding our content area of English language arts expertise to include film, media, and digital literacies. The key principle that remains the foundation of our work is the task of teaching English, which involves connecting students with language and helping them interpret what they read, see, and hear, as well as the language they employ when sending their own ideas, questions, and reflections out to the world. We agree with Randy Bomer’s (2011) description of the type of English class we must create for our students:

The agenda of supporting each student in developing the habits and projects in literacy allows an English class to be designed as a unified and simple curriculum that can contain much diversity and complexity, as we all learn what a literate life is made of, while diverse individuals pursue projects that are meaningful to them. (p. 6)

Indeed, it is specifically because of the two transformations outlined earlier—the increasingly myopic view of standards and assessments that dominate the current discourse about schools, as well as the changing nature of communication and commerce in our global world—that we as teachers must support individual students even more thoughtfully now than we have done in the past. Diverse classrooms require us to acknowledge individuality while, at the same time, helping students develop effective literacy skills for both college and the workplace, as well as for their civic and personal lives.

In this unique moment, where we feel substantive changes could happen for teaching and learning, we are committed to connect students through language and help them learn how to read and write their worlds. Specifically, our goal for Research Writing Rewired: Lessons That Ground Students’ Digital Learning is to explore how teachers can help students integrate inquiry-based research approaches with digital reading and writing in the classroom—and assess those approaches effectively.

Why “Rewire” Research Writing?

Let’s face it. The “research paper” has a bad reputation. Tedious note taking. Copying and pasting from sources. No critical thinking. Shallow arguments. And so on. This book challenges the negative stereotypes in several ways:

  • It exhibits the role that inquiry plays in sparking creativity and producing authentic writing.
  • It demonstrates how students and teachers can work collaboratively to explore research processes and create engaging products, employing a variety of modes and media.
  • It describes methods for integrating and employing technology, including a number of free resources that are available on the web and apps on smartphones and tablets.
  • It shows why we—as teachers, researchers, and writers ourselves— enjoy the research process, a stance that can empower our students as they become researchers, too.

Throughout this book, as well as in our classrooms, we work to help students develop the skills they need to act as genuine researchers, not to merely finish a research paper. These skills are transferable to other projects they will do in school and in other contexts and are critical to college, career, and civic readiness.

The Contents of This Book

The chapters in this book describe an inquiry-based unit we created for Dawn’s high school English classroom. The unit integrates digital writing and research, as many projects today do in some way or another. However, we aimed to make this integration a seamless process. We didn’t just integrate technology when it seemed convenient; instead, a variety of technologies were integral to the research process. Additionally, we share our reflections on student learning, as well as the reflections of Dawn’s students on what they’ve learned. While some readers may be able to take our unit and use it in its entirety, we recognize that this is rarely possible with any professional text, nor is that our goal here. Rather, we wanted to share research practices and technology tools that could be modified and used in a variety of classroom situations and circumstances. Our sincere hope is that the book will inspire you to engage in thoughtful inquiry with your own students, using digital tools that will rewire their research and writing experience.

Through our students’ inquiry and research, we highlight digital writing tools, in the form of both web services and apps for mobile devices. The purpose of sharing these tools is not to define a single, preset suite of tools that students must go through in order to complete a research project. Nor is it our intention to propose a certain linear order. Rather, books need to be a bit more orderly than our teaching sometimes is; so, while we have organized the digital writing tools roughly in the order in which they might be used, we want to acknowledge the recursive and messy nature of the writing process during research. Students could use any or all of these tools at any time. You may choose to focus in on one tool at a time in order to help students develop their skills and, more importantly, learn how to create an effective and accurate research project. Moreover, we recognize that every teaching context is different. While this book is based on our work within Dawn’s high school classroom, throughout the text we offer what Swenson and Mitchell (2006) have called “extensions and adaptations” to help readers identify what “would be necessary for the lesson to work as well with diverse groups of students in other contexts and/or that might enrich the demonstration in its current context” (p. 6).

Dawn often captures her vision of purposeful technology integration in the classroom with the common aphorism “Dream big, start small.” While we acknowledge that it can be a challenge to integrate everything at once, the ideas in this book will inspire you to start so you can get to the dream of creating your own inquiry-based, technology-rich unit and, in turn, rewire the research and writing process for your students.

Chapter Descriptions

In the introduction, we explore the development of our technology infused inquiry-based curriculum. This chapter describes the pedagogical and practical moves we made to promote sophisticated thinking and rich writing experiences. These decisions extend beyond the unit we are describing here to teaching decisions that we make each day. These moves include our considerations of the five Ts: teens, timing, topics, texts, and technology. We also explain how we teach students to use the MAPS heuristic for writing and thinking. Traditionally, this heuristic includes mode, audience, purpose, and situation. As you will see, we’ve added another essential M to this heuristic: media.

The introduction also examines broad curricular considerations, including essential ideas, unit objectives, and assessment. We look at curricular components such as technology decisions and differentiation. Our goal is to provide readers with a clear overview of the unit we created for Dawn’s students, including the thinking process behind that creation.

In Chapters 1 through 5, we go into the classroom as we guide students through the inquiry process week by week, including lessons and handouts. Additionally, we offer technology tips, as well as extensions and adaptations for lessons, suggesting other topics, resources, or tools that you may find useful as your students consider different content, time frames, or inquiry questions. While we have neatly broken these chapters into weeklong segments of instruction, please understand that the actual unit was not quite this tidy. The lessons presented in the book are based on a fifty-five minute class period, but in our case, some class periods were shorter.

Also, while all the lessons are presented as sequential, we recognize that some could be interchanged and taught in a different order, developed further, broken into several classroom periods, and/or used as a frame for an entire unit. In Chapter 6, we return to the principles that we lay out in the introduction, reflecting on what Dawn’s students learned throughout the inquiry. We also briefly explore the issue of assessment, discussing how and why we evaluated and responded to the various pieces of writing—from initial blog posts through the dual summative assessments: an inquiry-based research essay and media project.

Finally, we invite you to go online at to experience the short videos we have created to complement and extend the content of this book. In each chapter, you will find QR codes that will lead you to classroom videos that illustrate how Dawn taught these lessons. These videos are designed to be examples for teachers as you create your digital reading and writing workshop.

Our Guiding Principles

Both of us can trace many of the pedagogical principles that guide our instruction back to our experience as writing consultants at the Michigan State University (MSU) Writing Center. This is where we each discovered the central tenet captured in Stephen North’s foundational article “The Idea of a Writing Center” (1984):

[I]n a writing center the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction. In axiom form it goes like this: Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing. (p. 438)

This goal, simple as it sounds, suggests that teaching writing no longer is about fixing errors; instead, it requires making a shift in our thinking about what it means to work with students to help them develop and improve their skills as writers. Our goal is to teach skills that students will carry with them throughout their education and into their career. The aim of completing a single project is not enough.

We have also learned a great deal from our experiences with MSU’s Red Cedar Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project (NWP)—a network of nearly two hundred sites where K–12 teachers and university faculty work together to develop meaningful professional development opportunities centered on writing. Among the stated principles of the NWP, one in particular stands out for us as we consider our relationship as collaborators over the past decade, and specifically related to this project:

Teachers who are well informed and effective in their practice can be successful teachers of other teachers as well as partners in educational research, development, and implementation. Collectively, teacher-leaders are our greatest resource for educational reform. (NWP, n.d.)

We take this stance as educators and researchers, and it has guided many of our collaborations (e.g., Hicks & Reed, 2007; Reed & Hicks, 2009) as well as our work with other teachers (e.g., Autrey et al., 2005; Borsheim, Merritt, & Reed, 2008; Hicks, Busch-Grabmeyer, Hyler, & Smoker, 2013; Hicks et al., 2007; Homan & Reed, 2014; Hyler & Hicks, 2014; Olinghouse, Zheng, & Reed, 2010).

As teachers of writing—and, since both of us are active as leaders in professional development settings, as teachers of other teachers—we follow three guiding principles in our approach to English instruction:

1. We create a focus on inquiry-driven research.

2. We give students a variety of writing experiences.

3. We support connected learning in the English classroom.

In the following sections, we discuss each of these elements in more detail to help you make effective choices for your own classroom and curriculum.

Guiding Principle 1: Create a Focus on Inquiry-Driven Research

In Ken Macrorie’s classic book on rethinking what it means for students to be researchers, The I-search Paper (1988), in the unpaginated preface, he makes the case for individual agency in the research process:

I search. That’s the truth of any inquiry. Re-search doesn’t say it, rather implies complete detachment, absolute objectivity. Time to clear the miasma and admit that the best searchers act both subjectively and objectively. . . . (n.p.)

Macrorie warns that too often—and particularly in school assignments— the act of research has become mired in a quest for what others have to say. Thus, the types of writing that tend to happen in school quite often become what Anne Whitney (2011) describes as “schoolish.” Instead, we should help students approach research as a personal quest, an individual inquiry.

More recently, Jim Burke, the author of What’s the Big Idea? Question-Driven Units to Motivate Reading, Writing, and Thinking (2010), outlines the use of questions as a teaching strategy, beginning with Socrates and tracing the idea of inquiry all the way up to Wiggins and McTighe (2005). While Burke is clearly an advocate for helping students ask questions, he also makes the case that questions alone are not enough to drive curriculum or teaching. Specifically, he notes that

students who are guided by questions need help learning how to steer their way through such uncharted waters. Without guidance and accountability, students can wander from the topic they are investigating, arriving at the final with little more than a summary or an extended digression. (Burke, 2010, p. 40)

In other words, unless teachers provide proper scaffolding and support, inquiry-based instruction can quickly turn into mass chaos. We have found that an inquiry-based approach to learning and writing requires that students be taught explicitly, through

• Models of quality writing

• Feedback on their own writing

• Opportunities to explore various genres, audiences, and purposes for writing

Research, from this perspective, is generated from authentic questions and individual needs; teachers and students, working together, generate big questions that can inspire sustained writing over the course of the entire unit and across multiple writing opportunities.

Again, it is worth reiterating that, even though teachers encourage students to make choices throughout an inquiry-driven unit, we do not leave them to go it alone; this approach also requires a great deal of teacher guidance, scaffolding, and support. Teachers use their personal experiences as readers and writers to make their own questioning and thinking process visible for students. At the same time, they encourage students to select topics that are in some way tied to the students’ own interests, experiences, and/or passions. Teachers also collaborate with students as they ask questions, and they help students explore their findings through rich and thoughtful discussions that encourage critical thinking.

Guiding Principle 2: Give Students a Variety of Writing Experiences

Just as Ken Macrorie inspired a shift in our approach to personal inquiry, research in writing instruction over the past thirty years has demonstrated that we must provide students with a variety of writing experiences, support them through the process, and invite them to think about various genres, audiences, and purposes (Applebee & Langer, 2013; Graham & Perin, 2007; Hillocks, 1986). For instance, in their book Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (2012), Campbell and Latimer note that it is essential to move students into more detailed and enhanced writing:

We need to change how we structure our classrooms and how we support students as writers. . . . This process will not be easy, and we have discovered [it] can be messy, and even frustrating, for teachers and students. When we move from asking students to follow a formula to developing an essay based on what they think about literature they have read, we put the emphasis on thinking—deep thinking. We want students to articulate this thinking and support it with evidence from the text. (p. 10)

While the Common Core has placed new emphasis on creating lessons that encourage deep thinking—supported with evidence—the concept has in fact been around for quite some time. In fact, standards documents such as the Standards for the English Language Arts (1996), from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and International Reading Association (recently renamed the International Literacy Association), have long advocated for the types of deeper reading, substantive writing, and engaging content now being suggested by the Common Core. This, in turn, leads us to articulate our own principles about teaching writing, as well as teaching digital writing.

Best Practices in Writing

Key writing skills should be part of any English language arts classroom—no matter what standards your state has in place, or what curriculum guide your school follows. These writing skills promote an ultimate goal of supporting students as critical thinkers, thoughtful readers, multimodal composers, and active citizens.

1. Students will become better writers through holistic, authentic, and varied writing experiences. Providing students with opportunities to write in various genres, for specific purposes and audiences, and with a variety of media will give them the best chance to succeed as writers. Specifically, we agree with the Writing Now research brief created by NCTE (2008a), which notes that

[r]esearch cannot identify one single approach to writing instruction that will be effective with every learner because of the diverse backgrounds and learning styles of students who respond differently to various approaches. (p. 1)

2. Process and product goals are an important part of inquiry. In Writing Next (2007), Graham and Perin highlight a number of specific factors that contribute to student growth as writers:

• The use of writing strategies

• Specific product goals

• Inquiry activities

• A process writing approach

3. Students need authentic purposes and audiences for their writing. Student ownership increases when students have real reasons to write. We agree with others, such as Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde (2012), who also share this belief and support decreasing teacher control of decision making over topics and genres, in favor of student decision making.

4. Writing across the disciplines is important to student learning. To that end, many writing researchers now advocate techniques and approaches that encourage writing across the disciplines and that support English language learners (Applebee & Langer, 2013; Graham, MacArthur, & Fitzgerald, 2013; Jetton & Shanahan, 2012; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).

Best Practices in Digital Writing

Scholars in recent years have documented an increased use of digital writing as a means for students to express their ideas across genres and media. In Because Digital Writing Matters (2010), the National Writing Project (NWP), DeVoss, Eidman-Aadahl, and Hicks contend that “[d]igital writing matters because we live in a networked world and there’s no going back. Because, quite simply, digital is” (p. ix, emphasis in original). Similarly, in Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom (2009), Herrington, Hodgson, and Moran suggest that writing and assessment are changing as teachers “develop curricula that teach students to use new media to compose, [to] communicate with others for a range of purposes, and to understand and act in the world around them” (p. 14).

We concur. Digital writing skills are essential to the classroom as students engage in our global society.

1. Through work with digital writing, learners embrace a wide variety of audiences and purposes for their writing. Additionally, they work on skills and “practices that attend to the wide range of functional, critical, and rhetorical skills” (NWP et al., 2010, p. 13).

2. Digital writing work demands collaboration in a class that is

committed to purposeful, audience-oriented writing . . . digital tools [allow] such writing to happen more efficiently and more powerfully than ever before and in a variety of new media. (NWP et al., 2010, p. 45)

3. Teachers must foster work with digital writing. Integrating digital tools does not simply happen incidentally as students have opportunities to be on the computer or use their smartphones; teachers must include these tools in purposeful instruction. For instance, as later chapters will show, it is possible to incorporate digital writing conversations in the context of writing workshop with the following results:

[B]y building on the writing workshop principles of inquiry and choice, conferring and response, examining author’s craft, publishing beyond the classroom, and broadening our visions of assessment, digital writing tools can sometimes supplement, sometimes enhance, and sometimes completely change the ways in which we work with writers. (Hicks, 2009, p. 125)

Throughout this book, you will see us help students integrate digital tools into their research and writing as a natural part of inquiry, thinking, questioning, reading, and writing.

Of course, all of this work must be done with careful critical reflection, so that we’re not just engaging in technology for technology’s sake. Specifically, “teachers need to understand how and why to employ technology in specific ways” (Hicks & Turner, 2013, p. 126). Table P.1 contrasts the qualities of poorly designed research writing lessons with well-designed inquiry-based learning and notes how teachers can now include digital writing tools to elevate them even further. Knowing that, as a profession, our writing instruction has not always been the strongest, we outline our own set of principles in Table P.1, principles that shift from older paradigms of “good writing” to newer ideas about integrating inquiry and digital writing tools.

Guiding Principle 3: Support Connected Learning

Based on our involvement with the NWP and the fact that we both enjoy using technology to support student writers, we have become more interested in the principles of connected learning as articulated by the Connected Learning Research Network (CLRN). This group of scholars—including Mimi Ito, Kris Gutiérrez, Sonia Livingstone, Bill Penuel, Jean Rhodes, Katie Salen, Juliet Schor, Julian Sefton-Green, and S. Craig Watkins—has been exploring the ways in which people, especially teens, learn in out-of-school contexts and through the use of social media.

In an infographic created by the CLRN and Digital Media & Learning Research Hub, connected learning is defined as

a model of learning that holds out the possibility of reimagining the experience of education in the information age. It draws on the power of today’s technology to fuse young people’s interests, friendships, and academic achievement through experiences laced with hands-on production, shared purpose, and open networks.

In an infographic created by the CLRN and Digital Media & Learning Research Hub, connected learning is defined as

a model of learning that holds out the possibility of reimagining the experience of education in the information age. It draws on the power of today’s technology to fuse young people’s interests, friendships, and academic achievement through experiences laced with hands-on production, shared purpose, and open networks.

Principles of Connected Learning

These scholars go on to argue that connected learning, as a pedagogical approach, makes learning relevant to all students through real-life work and the need to constantly adapt to new learning contexts. They advocate for

broadened access to learning that is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. Connected learning is realized when a young person is able to pursue a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career success or civic engagement. This model is based on evidence that the most resilient, adaptive, and effective learning involves individual interest as well as social support to overcome adversity and provide recognition. (Ito et al., 2013, p. 4, emphasis in original)

We see connected learning as a model for thinking about who our students are as readers and writers, and about what they are capable of creating with new media and social networks and for a variety of audiences and purposes, including civic engagement. Teachers who support connected learning in the classroom help students create relationships between the various literacy contexts of their lives through careful, critical thinking.

This approach to teaching is discussed in a variety of presentations and publications (e.g., Garcia, 2014; Jenkins & Kelley, 2013; see also digitalis We see the core tenets of connected learning as critical to the manner in which students experience their work, both inside and outside the classroom. The students you will meet in this book explored various technologies (e.g., Wikispaces, Google Docs, and the Youth Voices social network); we also asked them to create their own media composition. While we asked students to research their topics using reliable web databases and published books, we also encouraged them to conduct their own research. By positioning students as active agents in the research process, much as Macrorie began to argue for decades ago, we allowed them to be connected learners as well as readers and writers who participated in broader conversations across their own classroom, community, and the Youth Voices network.

We selected culture awareness and analysis as the focus of our inquiry project because it involves the deep exploration of fiction and nonfiction texts, and calls for visual and media literacy. In the pages that follow, we show teachers how to consider multiple and overlapping needs related to writing instruction and create an opportunity for students to

• Engage fully in the inquiry process

• Explore a topic of importance to them

• Use a variety of digital tools to support their research and writing

• Receive support and opportunities to write for a variety of purposes and audiences

Most important, as English teachers create lessons that focus on inquiry-based learning, offer a variety of genuine writing experiences, and guide students through rich explorations of connected learning, they provide learners with instruction that is progressive, student-centered, technology-rich, and critically literate. They give students the tools they need to successfully navigate new media, express themselves in thoughtful ways, and fully participate in our connected culture.