by Jessica S. Early
I was filled with anxiety and hesitation before attending this year’s NCTE annual conference. After living through a global pandemic and growing increasingly familiar with Zoom meetings, I was nervous about gathering with so many people again. NCTE had not convened in person for two years and, like many English language arts teachers and teacher educators from around the country, I didn’t know what to expect. But what we found was a renewed sense of connectivity and inspiration.
Thousands of English teachers traveled from throughout the United States and beyond to learn from one another and from poets, authors, and scholars. We were gathered in the convention center in Anaheim, California, to do what we have always done as a profession: celebrate and grow in our work. However, what felt unique about this gathering was that we were also there to heal after experiencing the shared trauma of living and teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a time of heightened social and political unrest.
The theme of this year’s conference, “Sueños! Pursuing the Light!,” touched every panel, roundtable, and poster session. Teachers shared the ways they “shined the light” on student’s lived experiences, cultures, languages, and stories. For me, the main takeaway from the conference was the many ways, small and large, that teachers have shined the light on our profession, our students, and our students’ families, even during a time when there was not a lot of light to give. We found innovative and responsive ways to be more inclusive in our instructional practices and text choices, even during a time of heightened book banning and curricular surveillance. We found new methods of supporting students through trauma and disruption by learning about and implementing social and emotional instructional practices in the ELA curriculum. We found writers and poets who connected with the cultures and lived experiences of our students. And we have found ways to tap into our students’ use of and interest in digital technologies.
As we emerge from a time of profound disruption, we are also hungry for new ways to support students in making sense of and engaging with the world they live in. This is a pivotal time to use the teaching of literacy to tap into our students’ lived experiences and stories, and to help them understand how writing and reading are transformative tools that allow them to voice their ideas, plan for their futures, and influence change. Although the pandemic has been a horribly stalling and traumatic time, our students have also seen firsthand, through the digital worlds they are a part of, how youth like themselves are using writing to impact positive change and social movements. In Iran, for example, young women are leading protest movements online. In the U.S., youth led the #BlackLivesMatter movement and continue to push for change in the environmental movement. Young people, even from the isolation of their homes, are masterfully utilizing video and Snapchat and photography to share their ideas and to influence others. As teachers of writing, we want to give students ways of sharing their expertise and interest in digital worlds and to expand their repertoire of written genre form to allow them to engage with real audiences and for purposes that matter deeply to them. One way to do this is by expanding the definition of what counts as writing in our secondary and college writing classrooms. Instead of teaching the same genres again and again, we can teach writing that harnesses students’ ideas and passions in order to prepare them for the kinds of writing that are used in the world.
In my new book, Next Generation Genres, I provide hands-on strategies for teaching innovative genres that tap into student’s interests, ideas, and digital expertise. One example of a genre that does all of this is the public service announcement, described in the below excerpt from Chapter 2.
Walk the hallways of any middle or high school, and you will see students immersed in their digital worlds. Our students write, read, listen, and speak every day using their cell phones, iPads, computers, Air Pods, and watches. For many writing teachers, having students tap into these digital and multimodal literacy practices offers an exciting way to break away from print- only forms of written communication. For others, it can feel challenging to bring unfamiliar or ever-evolving multimodal genre forms into the formal curriculum. Cynthia Selfe (2008) writes, “The traditional language skills of reading and writing are, in short, converging with new multimodal literacy practices and feeding off each other in ways that make learning exciting and challenging for students and teachers from kindergarten to college” (p. 86). Whether eager or anxious about including digital literacies in our writing curriculum, it is impossible to refute the importance of exposing students to multimodal forms of writing and reading. We want to tap into their own digital skills and interests as part of preparing them to be 21st-century writers.
The National Council of Teachers of English (2019), has offered position statements calling for the inclusion of multimodal literacy practices (designing through different genres of communication, including linguistic, visual, and audio) into the curriculum. The PSA (public service announcement) is a perfect example of a genre that allows students to take up digital forms of literacy. It also requires students to write and communicate persuasively, use research, develop a sophisticated understanding of their audience and purpose, and inform or teach. Additionally, the PSA allows students to write for a public audience beyond the teacher and their peers.
PSAs generally promote positive social behaviors through information and a call to action by mixing visual or digital and textual elements that share clear and concise messaging. They are published for television and video, blogs, digital and print media, radio, and billboards. The audience and purpose often determine the medium. Some students have limited to no experience with PSAs and how they operate in the world, but many have experience reading PSAs. Ask what PSAs they have seen recently. For example, I recently asked my first-year college students what knowledge they had reading or writing PSAs. While none of them had ever created a PSA of their own, many of them referred to ones they had seen on Twitter in connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. Others shared that they had seen PSAs in support of Palestine during a recent series of bombings in Gaza, and another student shared a PSA she had seen recently advocating for Pro-Life. Hearing examples of the connections students have with this genre is a powerful way to share its relevance in their lives. I also share examples of PSAs from history, so students may see how this genre has evolved over time. A few great resources for these can be found through the Washington Post’s “The Top 10 PSAs of All Time,” the PSA Research Center’s “A Brief History of Public Service Advertising,” and the Poster House’s “A Brief History of PSA Posters.”
The PSA is an opportunity for students to dive into the research and writing of an individual or shared topic (e.g., the unhoused population) to figure out what they believe about it and, next, what they want people to know and do differently. You can start students thinking about their topics for the PSA assignment by asking them to respond to this prompt: “Something I know and believe about that I want others to know and believe is _____ .”
A sentence starter is a quick and effective way to have students begin brainstorming topics and thinking about issues they care about deeply. Instead of having students choose the topic, you might want to select a current topic in the community that students see or hear about frequently or that feels particularly relevant in the present moment. Or you could pick an issue directly related to a book you are reading as a class, so the writing of the PSA is a direct extension of the reading curriculum.
When inviting students to create PSAs, you can offer the choice between making a print, video, audio, or combined video and audio PSA. This gives students some ownership of presenting their topics and allows them to play with and learn about various digital tools and design elements. You can also keep things simple and have students create analog PSA posters to display at school or in the community. An example of a PSA assignment for sixth–twelfth grades offers three choices in mode. Students can create a written and visual analog poster, a digital PSA video, or a recorded PSA audio. This may be modified to fit grade level and purpose and to include only one of the options for the final product if this feels more manageable in terms of teaching and assessment.
Once students have finalized their PSAs, various digital tools or spaces are available to share their work with a broader audience. These include a class blog; a digital portfolio (such as SeeSaw); a digital collaboration board (such as FlipGrid or Padlet); a class YouTube, TeacherTube, or Vimeo channel; student media contents and events (check out KQED Youth Media Challenges); a class screening; and/or a school newsletter or morning announcements.
Teaching writing forms like the PSA and the other genres I describe in Next Generation Genres shows students how they may use literacy as a powerful tool of expression to influence positive change. Teaching writing is a way to move students out of isolation or despair and into action and agency. For far too long, we have all been surrounded by rhetoric regarding learning loss, social isolation, trauma, and teacher exodus from the profession. But what I take away from these past few days at the NCTE conference is so much more nuanced and inspired than loss and hardship. Instead, the focus of our work is what we have done and continue to do, as teachers of reading and writing: to show up each day and shine light on our students’ lives and to give them new opportunities to use literacy to make positive change in the world around them.
Learn more about Next Generation Genres at wwnorton.com/ngg.