Students as Scribes: Responding to Literature and Society Through Writing
“Every writer’s challenge is returning to the page,” explains Pat Mora (298). As English and literacy educators, we can attest to this statement in and out of the classroom setting. Moreover, the challenge resonates with many of our students who are engaged in handwriting through print or by using a digital device on a daily basis. The labor to communicate ideas and experience is challenging with varied writing demands, but the process can be filled with discovery and fulfillment by responding to literature and society through writing. In our classrooms, we serve as guides and coaches for our students as we mediate various literate cultures, clarify our ideas, identify relationships, and make meaning in the world.
For the study of literature and society to unfold with relevance, we must acknowledge that students bring cultural and linguistic wealth, which resembles that of the ancient scribes who understood the arts of writing across various media during a period Sandra Cisneros calls “BC—Before Computers” (3). Historically, in many societies, scribes wrote books and documents by hand through hieroglyphics, copies, cuneiform, and other forms of scripted text. Their contributions were significant in the formation of civilizations and cultures.
On a daily basis, students depend on the elements of literacy: listening, memorizing, noticing, observing, performing, questioning, reading, speaking, thinking (metacognition), viewing, and writing. Thus, in the classroom, these elements are supported and enacted to ensure that literature is alive and present for close reading and conceptual understanding. In the literature classroom, this can be a boon if we are intentional in our planning, instruction, activities, and evaluation. In short, Klinkenborg advises the scribe: “Your job as a writer is making sentences. Writing well and reading well mean paying attention to all the subtleties embodied in a sentence” (13, 16).
Today, our students must navigate language and decode text in various devices, formats, and platforms that resemble a twenty-first century scribe. In fact, as they labor through these literacies and meanings, students bring into our classrooms background and prior knowledge that can be instructive for the study of literature and society. We must be deliberate as educators in the literary readings that we assign, cultural and linguistic connections we discuss, and overall concepts that we seek to advance through writing in our field and across the disciplines. We can value the full range of platforms and communications that our students adopt as scribes by adopting media that complements learning and teaching for understanding.
We can support the writing that we plan, assign, and evaluate in our students’ role as scribes by instilling a love for world languages and literatures that matter across time and societies, which are in many ways interconnected to their own. For example, assignments that I adopt at the beginning of each semester ask students to share what they wished I knew as their professor, questions they have always wanted to ask a professor, and how they engage in literacy habits in their lives that can inform the course and inquiry about literature. My students’ written contributions inform decisions I make on literary selections and written assignments.
In our instructional planning for literary study, we must know what we want our students to accomplish as scribes, how we will determine if they gained understanding, and what activities they will experience for learning and understanding. Based on McTighe and Wiggins’ method of Backward Design and Sassi and Gere’s reading strategies, the following essential, or guiding, questions are recommended for studying literature and adopting a scribe role:
- What do close readers do, especially when they struggle for meaning and understanding?
- Why am I writing? Who is my audience?
- How do writers capture and maintain their readers’ attention?
- How are narratives about the past and present connected to me?
- Which approaches can I adopt to communicate my thinking and argument?
The act of close reading is not new to language and literacy studies, but the application of literacy strategies with concepts that transfer across the disciplines is a unique way of teaching and learning for understanding. Scribes who write about classics, contemporary classics, and graphic literatures apply many strategies as close readers. For instance, in recent years more students apply inquiry-based strategies to read and think like a writer. This is occurring at a rapid pace to meet the needs of academic writing and on-demand writing.
In the research book The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy, Deborah Brandt notes the current multiple roles and responsibilities performed daily by scribes. She observes, “The status of writing as a dominant form of labor in the U.S. economy puts an unusual degree of pressure on people’s scribal skills, as their writing literacy is deeply pulled into manufacturing, processing, mining, and distributing information and knowledge” (16-17). What we want from our students, who are essentially as scribes in and out of our classrooms, is to meet the varying writing circumstances and situations they will face. We can support our students by making use of their background knowledge and understanding with our literary and writing expertise.
Prompts for E-mails, Microessays, Reading Logs, and Other Planned Writings
The prompts below are recommended for inquiry-based reading and writing with the purpose to advance the concept of “students as scribes.” We can make use of our students’ background knowledge and cultural and linguistic wealth in response to the study of literature and society. Overall, the assignments were developed for a course in response to literature and society.
For sample assignments, please see the Sample Assignments Document.
To get to know students and maintain open communication:
- Invite students to reveal something about themselves as scribes through the prompt “I Wish My Teacher Knew,” as modeled by Colorado educator Kyle Schwartz and reported by Valerie Strauss. We can be deliberate in negotiating our sense of self and even revealing a part of our scribe and teaching lives.
- Collect questions from students through the prompt “Questions I’ve Always Wanted to Ask a Professor.” Use their feedback to become aware of their interests in and perceptions about our profession that may reveal a scribe repertoire.
- Describe how you practice various elements of literacy in your everyday life and activities. Include specific games (board, card, sports, and video), media, performances, readings, and texts. Use students’ responses to plan lessons about literature and society.
To maintain a scribal culture of writing with inquiry:
- Write with your students, recite literary works, and think aloud in ways that make thinking audible (metacognition) in their presence. Include the deliberations, decision-making, and internal conversations that writers, performers, editors, and thinkers adopt as they handwrite, type, revise, organize, delete, and finalize drafts and documents for meaning making. In this exercise, students begin to undertake scribing actions related to make meaning.
- Create shorter scribal exercises such as microscripts, or mini-essays, which can evolve into a longer essay with feedback and trusted sources for reference. Support students to adopt and adapt both text and visualization with their submissions that can begin small in a scribe role and will increase with multiple editing from their instructor and peers.
- Assign peer review of student writing for students to gain insights from a scribal peer and include a follow-up writing conference with your students to support a scribal identity. Lastly, select a few essays for discussion with your teaching colleagues to support writing evaluations with actionable feedback.
In support of a scribal identity through literature and society:
- Promote writing on demand and invite students to practice professional writing by drafting a business letter to an author or an email message to a peer in response to the work they just read. Furthermore, we can experience students practicing close, inferential, and critical reading as scribes. The letter can be sent to the author or a peer can respond to the letter in support of a literary dialogue or exchange.
- Read with inquiry by asking students to annotate print and digital texts with symbols (check, question mark, parentheses, star) that reflect assumptions, comparisons, connections, conclusions, descriptions, explanations, inferences, questioning, and unfamiliar words. After annotating, students share their annotations to reflect close reading strategies such as awareness of (1) what the author communicates through language, (2) how the author is uses language to dive deeper into a concept, and (3) why the theme represents a comment on society and human life and experience.
- Invite students to contribute to the Digital Archives of Literacy Narratives by contributing their own personal literacy narrative and literary analysis in audio, text, and video formats. An additional resource for consideration is StoryCorps, which includes doing interviews based on oral histories and recording local literacy narratives of students and their families. Student contributions can reveal the multiple ways they enact literacies and connect with literature in their everyday lives as e-scribes in a digital role.
For Further Reading and Planning
To advance deeper learning and inquiry:
Adams, Peter. “News Literacy: Critical-Thinking Skills for the 21st Century.” Edutopia. 31 Jan. 2014. Web. 31 Oct 2015. http://www.edutopia.org
Moll, Meghan. “5 Tools to Develop Critical Thinking Skills Before College.” U.S. News. & World Report. 23 June 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2015. http://www.usnews.com
Pappano, Laura. “Learning to Think Outside the Box: Creativity Becomes an Academic Discipline.” The New York Times. 5 Feb. 2014. Web. 5 Nov. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com
To advance writing and breakthroughs:
Clayton, Victoria. “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.” The Atlantic. 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com
Kamentz, Anya. “The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives.” NPREd. 10 July 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2015. http://www.npr.org
Kristof, Nicholas. “Professors, We Need You!” The New York Times. 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com
Rothman, Joshua. “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?” The New Yorker. 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 5 Nov. 2015. http://www.newyorker.com
Strauss, Valerie. ” ‘I wish my teacher knew’ — poignant notes from students.” Web. 19 Feb. 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com
To hear authors on writing, visit:
Archdeacon, Colin. “Why Toni Morrison Keeps Writing.” The New York Times via YouTube. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. http://www.youtube.com
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Advice on Writing From Ta-Nehisi Coates.” The Atlantic via Facebook. 5 Aug. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015. http://www.facebook.com
Knopf Group, Random House. “Sandra Cisneros: Writing.” YouTube. 1 Apr. 2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2015. http://www.youtube.com
Patwegar, Rida. “10 Writing Tips from James Patterson.” Tales of Success. 17 June 2015. Web. 31 Oct. 2015. http://www.talesofsuccess.com
Petit, Zachary. “Sherman Alexie’s Top 10 Pieces of Advice for Writers.” Writer’s Digest. 5 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. http://www.writersdigest.com
Brandt, Deborah. The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy. New York: Cambridge UP, 2014.
Cisneros, Sandra. A House of My Own: Stories from My Life. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.
Digital Archives of Literacy Narratives, DALN. The Ohio State University Libraries, 2015. Web. 1 Nov.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Several Short Sentences about Writing. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.
McTighe, Jay, and Grant Wiggins. Essential Questions: Opening Doors for Understanding. Alexandria,
VA: ASCD, 2013. Print.
Mora, Pat. “A Latina in Kentucky.” The Horn Book Magazine 70.3 (1994): 298-300. Print.
Sassi, Kelly, and Anne Ruggles Gere. Writing on Demand for the Common Core State Standards
Assessments. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2014. Print.
StoryCorps. StoryCorps, Inc., 2015. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.
Strauss, Valerie. “‘I Wish My Teacher Knew’—Poignant Notes from Students” [Answer Sheet]. The
Washington Post. 17 Apr. 2015. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
Joseph Rodríguez, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of literacy and English education in the Department of English at The University of Texas at El Paso. He holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction and a master’s in English. He has taught English and Spanish language arts in public schools and higher education. Joseph’s research interests include the teaching of academic writing, socially responsible biliteracies, and children’s and young adult literatures.