Teaching 21st Century Writing: Are Instagram Captions a Genre Now?
Many students today do the majority of their reading and writing on their phones. They live in a world where social media savvy and the ability to express themselves through photos, videos, audio clips, emojis, and virtual stickers is a big part of their success.
Not just socially, but likely in their future careers. Being able to write an e-mail newsletter, run a business Instagram account, Tweet for their corporation, start a podcast, or put together a great pitch video script are real assets in many fields these days, and that's not likely to go away.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm far from suggesting we scrap traditional writing genres in favor of Tweeting. But I think we connect with our students and the online world that is very real to them when we incorporate assignments that help them learn more about modern forms of communication. Personally, though I won my high school's English award and then went on to get a B.A. and an M.A. in English, I have had to learn for myself how to write and record podcasts, design videos, create social media accounts and write their content, and write for blogs. These are all the essential skills of my profession, as they are for many people today. Knowledge of these skills empowers students in communicating effectively in the world they really do live in.
So let's dive in. How can we help students get their feet wet in 21st century writing forms?
There are so many different directions you can go with this, so I'm just going to help you get warmed up. We'll dive into five popular digital age genres and look at ways you could build them into class assignments. No doubt you'll be brainstorming lots of ideas of your own by the time we're through.
One of the great easy wins of letting students blog is the authentic audience they will instantly gain. When students put up a free Blogger or Wordpress blog, they are immediately in touch with the entire world. Let's consider three ways to help students experiment with blogging.
Individually: If you are in need of a writing unit anywhere in your curriculum, or perhaps a 20% time project that is writing-focused, you can let students launch blogs of their own. Setting up a blog on one of the free sites out there takes only a few minutes, and from there you can begin assigning posts. You can keep it free form, or do what I do, and assign specific types of posts. For example, for one assignment students write a review within the subject they are blogging about, for another a list post, for another a video round-up with commentary, etc. Have them email you the links to their posts for easy check-ins, or create a class blog and link everyone's work from there, so you can all comment on each other's work.
Group: If you'd like a less time-consuming blogging project, consider putting up a class blog around some theme and letting students contribute a post now and then. For example, you could create an independent reading blog and let students snap photos of their books and write reviews for the blog once each term. Not only will they have access to a growing library of peer reviews, but so will other students around the world. You could design a blog around any subject of interest to your students, letting everyone contribute posts or media throughout the year and watching your audience grow together.
Novel-Based: Another fun way to experiment within this type of writing is to let students blog form the perspective of a character. I once had students design a blog from the perspective of Jane Austen's Emma. They had to choose a theme, write several posts, and design the sidebar and media for the site, all based carefully on their understanding of the text. The final products not only showed depth of analysis about Emma, but they also showed a growing ability to work within a new medium, blogging.
Podcasts are only getting more popular, with trends in listening data going up and up. This is a whole new, and somewhat flashier, way to work on writing speeches.
If you want to help your students gain confidence with both writing and speaking (and who doesn't?) assigning them both through a podcast is perfect. You can have students write and record a This American Life - style podcast featuring stories and interviews related to a certain theme from your class, or have them research, write and record a podcast based on one of their own personal interests.
Whatever the podcast is about, it will give them the opportunity to work on a new type of writing. Consider listening to a few popular podcasts as you get started - This American Life and Serial would be good places to start. You could also give an assignment to students to find a podcast on a subject that interests them, listen to it, and then report back to the class about the style of writing and speaking, the use of interviews and music, the segmenting, etc. Then you could come up with ideas together on what should be included in their own podcasts.
Instagram is a unique social media platform, theoretically focused on photographs but increasingly a place where people go to write, write back, and connect. Your students will probably love the chance to explore some beautiful accounts with you, examining the types of captions that readers connect to and what makes the writing powerful.
You can choose Instagram accounts that you love, or better yet, let your students nominate Instagrammers that they admire, making it clear, of course, that the accounts must be absolutely appropriate beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Once you've taken a little tour of the Gram, let students design imagined accounts, either under a theme from your course like "The American Dream", for a character from one of your novels, or to represent their own responses to a book or unit. Guide them in combining images and captions to share their understanding of the concepts you are exploring.
Aaah, e-mail. Much as we all complain about it, it sure is handy. Teaching students to write good e-mails, and letting them practice, are great gifts we can give them. After a conversation about what should go into an e-mail, try an assignment like this...
Invite students to e-mail you and share three things about themselves they want you to know
Invite students to draft e-mails to the school principal or superintendent, discussing ideas or proposals they believe would make the school a better place
Let students e-mail someone they are grateful for around Thanksgiving, writing a little about what the recipient means to them
Invite students to e-mail a local politician, laying out an opinion around an issue that is affecting them
Or you can take the literary angle, and experiment with assignments in which one character e-mails another, allowing students to practice e-mail writing while they dive into textual analysis.
For many kids, video is the holy grail. They'd rather be watching a video than doing just about anything else. So when you begin to teach them how to create one of their own, they are likely to give you a little more of their attention than average. Don't worry if you aren't overly techy. Just give the assignment, guide students in searching for the answers to their questions online, and give them your blessing to share their knowledge with each other and figure out what to do.
You could assign a video that explores a thesis instead of a paper. Let student draft their arguments, write a video narrative, and string together images that will help prove their voice-over points instead of using only the written word.
Or guide students in creating personal essay videos before they write college essays. How would they represent themselves with video? Start there, then eventually try to capture the nuance and detail of the video in just the written word.
Really, we're just scratching the surface here. There are a million ways you could use 21st century writing forms in class, and I would need a much longer post to dive into the full details of how to do it. But in the end, all you have to do is decide to start. Explore the form you want to try and let students participate in the process of helping everyone learn about it. Then craft an assignment that suits your students and your curriculum. You won't be sorry.
If you'd like to help your students dive into 21st century writing, blogging is an easy way to do it. I created this complete blogging curriculum to help you guide them in writing varied posts for a blog on whatever topic they choose. This can stand alone as a writing unit, or work into your curriculum as a weekly activity.
About the Author: Betsy Potash
After almost a decade of teaching across all the high school levels and grades, in both the United States and abroad, Betsy now spends her time helping high school English teachers escape the podium and teach creatively.
Betsy runs the blog Spark Creativity and has also written for Independent School Magazine, English Journal, Reading Today, ReadWriteThink.org and Classroom Notes Plus. Her degrees and a lot of happy memories come from Pomona College (B.A., English) and Middlebury (M.A., English). Betsy loves to travel the world (she'll be back, Morocco!), play playdoh with her little ones, and cook a range of desserts that would make the Hogwarts house elves proud.
When it comes to writing instruction, she brings a creative twist. Whether it's teaching students to use quotation burgers in their formal papers or launching a student-authored one act play festival, Betsy always hopes to help students enjoy writing by keeping it fun and engaging.
Hang with Betsy in her Facebook group, Creative High School English, or tune in to her show, The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast. Or of course, there's always Instagram, Pinterest, or her actual website.