The Paradox of Promise and Practice

Sometimes, there is a bit of serendipity to my reading. The other day, I noticed that Troy Hicks  and Bud Hunt (my friends from the National Writing Project) were hosting the Twitter-based #Engchat with Sara Kjader (another friend). I had not really meant to have enough time to jump into the conversation, but in a short stretch before reading to my son before bed, I watched the stream of chats about digital literacy and added a few ideas, too. I then left the conversation.

The next day, I decided to check out the #Engchat hashtag and saw a note from Troy, thanking NCTE for allowing access to an article in English Journal that the three of them, plus Carl Young (another friend from the Massachusetts New Literacies Project), had published, entitled “Same as It Ever Was: Enacting the Promise of Teaching, Writing and New Media.” I was hooked first by the reference to the Talking Heads (see how important a title can be?) but then got intrigued by the article, in which the four of them scoured through the English Journal archives to determine whether mentions of Digital Literacy and Media had represented teachers moving ideas into practice in the classroom.

Well, they found a good number of references to digital work and influence of media and technology on the lives of young writers, but not nearly enough articles about teachers actually using technology with their students. In other words, educators were noticing the shifts, but not necessarily taking part in it. And I would argue that still continues to this day, although I do believe that is slowly changing.

Sara, Bud, Troy and Carl noticed some themes of writers as they were doing their indepth reading of English Journal articles:

  • There was an understanding that all students can write and should be encouraged to be published writers;
  • Technology, if used purposefully, could influence, support and extend writing practices;
  • But, not much has changed in the English classroom over the past 100 years.

“… yet EJ writers seem continually to look to the future for the answers to questions raised about bringing new tools and possibilities into the classroom. They assume change would emerge down the road, perhaps when technology becomes more ubiquitous, or at the dawn of the 21st Century.” (70)

In other words, they were not becoming the change they want to be, in the words of a famous bumper sticker. They were stuck in what the writers call “the paradox of promise and practice.”

I appreciated the writers’ deeper look at the literature in this very influential journal, and also appreciate that some teachers are contrained by a variety of factors: budgets, access, lack of professional development, and uncertainty about where technology might lead them. These are all valid concerns …. and yet … and yet, our students are moving into such a rapidly changing world where critical thinking skills, connectiveness, and fluid, adaptable technology abilities will be in high demand. We can’t keep writing about the possibilities, we need to make those possibilities happen for our students.

Carl, Bud, Troy and Sara leave us with a call for teachers to “not be afraid” of those possibilities, and urged us to “…fully embrace the playground of words and texts and ideas and the tools available to create and share them as our domain as language artists.” (73). This is your time, not tomorrow.

Peace (in the sharing),

PS — I believe the article is still available for free. Here is the link that Troy tweeted:


  1. And as usual, opposite coasts, like minds. I am sitting here on the couch planning the last three weeks of school, trying to figure out how to share the most important work of the year. This summer I am spending time figuring out a way to better document the work we do with our EL students with the infusion of technology, and does it make a difference?
    Currently, we are working on an end of the year reflection piece and a survey for students to give us feedback. Too bad I didn’t think of it as we began the project. However, many of our students will be looping with us next year, so we will be able to use this survey and data as comparison data next year.
    What I am discovering at the moment is writing depth cannot be measured by a fill in the bubble test, so first step for the summer research is to start considering how to create measurable assessments that focus on student growth in writing. The second part, how technology influences that growth is even more elusive in ways to measure it. Perhaps that is why you don’t get teacher voices in describing what they are doing in the classroom, because it is such a slippery slope in trying to measure it.
    I am attending ISTE this summer, hopefully there will be sessions on how to measure impact on technology on student growth and progress. I will share our anectdotal responses and results from our survey in my blog in the coming weeks.

  2. There are a couple of issues at play here, and I’m speaking frankly as someone who just exited the public teaching profession (English teacher) and am now designing online training courses for adults. The issues I see effecting this hypothesis:
    1) Teachers have time to write articles? Sorry, had to put that out there. When I was teaching most of my writing was reflective of practice but was used for my personal professional development. Just because teachers aren’t writing about how they implement digital literacy, doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it. Technology has become a tool just like a pen and pencil, so those who do write for the public may not be approaching this topic because they may feel it’s like writing about how teachers use pencils and paper in the classroom.
    2) The all-encompassing standardized testing. I noticed over the course of my 10 years teaching that the more emphasis there was on standardized testing, the less teachers felt they could utilize time to emphasize writing. Even the standardized tests in writing hold nothing over the emphasis on the reading comprehension tests due to how the standards are written. Digital literacy may be taking a back seat to writing, which is taking a back seat to reading. (A paradox, indeed).
    3) Too much choice can sometimes slow the adoption of ideas in the classroom. For instance, a teacher may find it difficult to articulate to students how to find credible resources online just using Google, but if they’re given tools like databases that can reliably pick through credible resources ( it may make it easier to scaffold those ideas into how it applies to other searches.

    It would be wonderful to see standardized tests turn into something more of synthesis of ideas, where students are judged on writing or progress measured via portfolios. Because this is a task much bigger than institutions are willing to commit, students may not be getting as much of the digital literacy aspect as we all would like to see.

    • Well, the shift to Common Core and then the PARCC assessment will make some of those changes. Not sure if that is good or not, to be honest, but the one-day testing is moving out and the extended portfolio is moving in. Now, how that will all unfold is something we will no doubt worry about in the next year or two (so, it behooves us to pay attention). I agree with your other points, too, and your first one about “who has time to write” and therefore, might affect the validity of the article is worth noting. But even without the article, the teachers I teach with and the teachers I work with in PD sessions seem to reflect the same ideas: looks good but we’re not doing it. Yet? I hope it is “not yet.” The article asks, well, when?
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it, Holly.

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