Heeding Lessons from the Girls
What the girls teach us about response in digital environments is timely given the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in forty-six states. As Carol Booth Olson, Robin C. Scarcella, and Tina Matuchniak explain in Helping English Learners to Write: Meeting Common Core Standards, Grades 6-12,
[T]he CCSS present a vision of what it means to be literate in the 21st century and call for all students, including ELs [English Learners], to develop critical reading skills necessary for a deep understanding of complex texts, and critical writing skills needed to write about those texts. […] [T]he CCSS set a high bar for all students and prioritize the ability to analyze and interpret challenging texts and to write about those texts using academic discourse in extended pieces of writing with the expressed goal of ensuring that students graduate from high school college and career ready (p. xii).
Even with its arguable limitations (Baker, 2014; Khrais, 2014; and Wiley, 2014), the CCSSI places significant focus on writing in ways that demand cross-institutional conversations, if not partnerships, among high school and university faculty (Ferguson, 2014) and students. OWLs complement this focus by increasing students’ ability to solicit feedback about their writing. (Notably, use of digital tools, collaboration with peers and adults, and revision are clearly articulated goals within the standards ). Furthermore, lessons from the girls can help us process the authentic feedback gathered by the non-profit, education organization Project Tomorrow’s 2013 Speak Up National Research Project. Led by Julie Evans (2013), this survey gathers insights from students, parents, and educators about educational technology. The data help local and regional leaders understand “how today’s students are using technology for learning, both in and out of school, and their aspirations for new digital learning experiences” (p. 2).
This new knowledge can lead to changes in educational policy and praxis. As a result of the 2013 survey, we know, for instance, that girls, more than boys, engage in digital activities to support their school work and self-directed learning away from school (pp. 4, 8). Specific to the lessons learned in the OWL research presented here, in nearly every survey category, girls engage in more digital writing activities than boys (the exceptions include HTML coding and conversational texting about gaming) (p. 6). Importantly, the survey data reinforce the lessons learned from our OWL users. Even more, together the Speak Up survey responses and this OWL research help us reimagine this university-to-high-school OWL while providing a model for other cross-institutional partnerships.
The girls’ insights about the limitations of this OWL also help to address two research gaps: 1) the role of high school OWLs on students’ writing and revision processes, and 2) the role of writers as solicitors of feedback, not as mere receivers of response. The limitations the girls identified evince their desire to strengthen their writerly agency—the girls wanted this OWL to function, and they had particular expectations of the feedback they received. Even more, the limitations the girls identified on this OWL move beyond a mere list of suggestions for change. Girls made clear that (most of the time) they required a dialogic OWL where engaged discussion resulted in formative feedback for the girls. The limitations the girls identified on this OWL help teachers and scholars of response imagine a theoretically and pedagogically sound dialogic (OWL) pedagogy for solicitors of response.
As we listened to these girls talk about this OWL and about themselves as writers, we cannot help but to hear their emerging writerly agency. We hear them insist on what Adrienne Rich (1979) calls “student’s own reality” (p. 68). We hear them express genuine interest in writing meaningful texts. We hear them tell their stories while sharing desires to find listening, engaged audiences–real people who want to read their words. We hear them interact with consultants, exercising their rhetorical agency, crafting their language for (and at times in spite of) their audience. These girls do what Stallings and Formo’s (2014) research indicates textbooks implore writers to do: “Get Feedback!” The girls’ willingness to interact with consultants on the OWL and with us in the interviews accomplishes even more: These girls implicitly request a pedagogical theory of response that puts student writers at the center of a dialogic feedback process.