An Exploration of Literacy in the 21st Century

As high school English teachers, one of our major goals is to create literate students, equipped with flexible and complex writing and composition skills.  We want students to enter colleges and workplaces with a certain competence in formulating and articulating their thoughts, responses, and ideas.  But, in our current era of digital, globalized communication and technological workspaces, what does writing even mean anymore?  What does it mean to teach composition to modern students in ways that prepare them to function expertly in today’s society?

In their 2013 position statement, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), took a stab at answering those questions by attempting to define what it means to be literate in the 21st century.  Their definition pays close attention to the ways in which technology in particular has complicated the idea of literacy for our students, creating a need for students with multiple literacies capable of meeting the diverse needs of today’s diverse society and culture. Their definition goes on to explain that…

“Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to

    • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
    • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
    • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
    • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
    • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts”

The overall theme here and elsewhere is that writing is becoming increasingly screen-based.  Creating literate students, skilled in writing and composition, in the 21st century necessarily involves incorporating technology and digital writing.  Understanding this more complicated view of modern literacy creates an infinite number of new possibilities for writing pedagogy in the high school classroom.  Krista Kennedy and Rebecca Moore Howard point out that “the need to create assignments that reflect the reality of contemporary writing environments remains a pressing pedagogical concern, along with the need to prepare students for workplaces that are increasingly reliant on digital, global communication, and collaborative labor” (44).  As high school teachers developing curricula and assignments intended to prepare our students for their post-high school lives, we need to allow this evolving understanding of 21st century literacies to shape the pedagogical choices we are making.  Digital writing genres such as blogs, twitter, email, and forums are now academic and rhetorical composition situations with which a literature student must be comfortable and confident.  Our assignments must increasingly focus on developing discerning creators and interpreters of multimodal compositions, including composition using images, sounds, and video.  Regardless of our comfort level with the idea, literacy for today’s high school students means something different than it has meant historically.  In order to best serve our students, we as teachers have to adapt our expectations and classroom designs to meet this new understanding of a literate individual.

Over my next few blog posts, I’m going to be exploring some possibilities as to what it looks like to bring this 21st century definition of literacy into the high school English classroom.  I am planning on posting some of my research and ideas surrounding digital writing in the classroom as well as a few of the multimodal projects I have been working on as part of my graduate coursework.  My goal is to share some of my exploration into what literacy looks like for modern high school students and to join in the ongoing conversation of educators who are working through the complications of this new and rich pedagogical landscape.  As always, please do comment, ask questions, criticize, and/or correct!

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10 thoughts on “An Exploration of Literacy in the 21st Century

  1. Anne says:

    I am really excited to see your next few posts about this. Digital reading and writing is something that is so misunderstood and undervalued. I feel very strongly that we need to be teaching digital literacies in our classrooms, and that doing so doesn’t take something away from print, but instead adds to our overall teaching and learning. (But I won’t get any more preachy than that… at least not in this post).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike R. says:

    I think if my high school English teacher told my parents that she was teaching me to be comfortable and confident in digital writing genres they would have been thrilled. My mom was always critical of the fact that her children were being taught the same things that she was taught when she was in school. How many essays really need to be written about The Scarlet Letter?! When will it end?!
    Blogging was always something that interested me but I never thought about it as a discipline. I love this post (and our class) because it legitimizes forms of writing that have been previously viewed as kitschy and amateur.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Danah Rae says:

    Your mom sounds like a really cool lady! Most parents and faculty alike don’t have her kind of perspective.

    And I think you said it really well when you said that we are legitimizing forms of writing that were low value before. In many scenarios, those forms are the main currency for students and adults alike today!

    Like

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