What happened before what's next?

What are we talking about when we talk about doing collaborative writing projects with students? Isn't all writing collaborative? We compose texts by listening to the voices that have found their way into our heads and by imagining how our readers will respond to our words. When we write, we collaborate with the past and the future.

Teachers who nurture writers in peer response groups understand the collaborative nature of revision, and when we use computer mediated communication in our classrooms, we rely on collaboration as a central tool in the learning process.

Finding voice or hearing voices? Edit

When we write, is it the goal to collaborate with the voices in our heads and in our social world? Or is the writer's task one of finding authentic voice?

Consider how Dan Gillmor, in his recent online book, We the Media (July 2004), refers to voice as the central criteria for judging the quality of weblogs:

"What the best individual blogs tend to have in common is voice—they are clearly written by human beings with genuine human passion" (p. 29). And just a few paragraphs further down, Gillmor writes: "To date, blogs have been a medium mainly for individuals..." (p. 31) (We the Media, Chapter 2)

There is probably something useful here about Gillmor's attempt to define blogging as a personal, passsionate, solitary medium, especially when compared to a wiki, for example. Still this expressivist description of blogging seems incomplete.

Even though we often think of writng as being a very personal act of expressing our voice, writing and thinking are probably more usefully understood as social activities. As Lev Vygotsky taught us, "All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals." This means that thinking is really a process of internalizing the voices we hear in our social lives. (Vygotsky, 1930 Note, in particular, the final 5 paragraphs of this chapter from Mind and Society, where he describes internalization.)

Similarly, when we write we are drawing on the language resources that we have intenalized over many years of talking with others, reading what others write, listening to other language users, or watching others combine language with other media.

Writing in any medium is more or less collaborative, and for many teachers, this a lot more than a theoretical metaphor.

Is Active Listening Collaborative Writing? Edit

In the last quarter of the 20th Century, "the focus of writing pedagogy shift[ed] from from written products to process... as ways of making knowledge--including writing--[became] viewed from a collaborative or social perspective (Andrea H. Herrman, ERIC Digest, EDO-CS-89-01 May 1989). Reading and discussing your writing aloud in a writing group is a pivotal experience for many teachers who participate in Writing Project Summer Institutes across the country. After being a member of a peer-response group many of us revise not only our writing, but also our classrooms, finding ways to nurture more collaborative writing experiences for our students.

Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers (1973, 1998) was an important early guide for how to respond to a peer's writing. And as one example, James R. Elkins' more recent summary for law students (2000) suggests, Elbow's work is still a helpful place to start. Student-writers find their own ways into revision when their peers begin by pointing--repeating specific words, phrases or sentences that stood out for them as they were listening--then move toward summarizing--trying to say the main theme or point in a sentence or two. These two simple moves give students tools they need to give non-judgmental, collaborative feedback to their peers. (Hint: When summarizing, it's easy to turn your statement about a writer's work into a collaborative conversation by raising your voice at the end, and perhaps by adding, "Is that what you are saying?")

A similar result comes when we apply the Rogerian techniques detailed by Eugene Gendlin in Focusing (1978) (See Gendlin's "Short Form") to our writing classrooms. Sondra Perl, professor of English at Herbert Lehmann College, CUNY and founder of the New York City Writing Project, adapted Gendlin's work for writing teachers in her Guidelines for Composing (1980), and more recently in a book and CD, Felt Sense: Writing with the Body (2004).

Composing in a Wiki feels collaborative in new ways Edit

Still, writing in a wiki might be collaborative in radically new ways. How can we develop wiki projects that build on what we already know about collaboration and language and that take advantage of the unique features of this new media environment?

External Links Edit

  1. Online Collaborative Writing
  2. Free High School Science Texts