Teaching Writing in Rural Canadian Classrooms

Article excerpt

Writing is becoming increasingly important in the social and work lives of all citizens. The need for effective writing skills for employment is growing every year, making the ability to write effectively using print and digital technology 'not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many' (National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 11). Writing is more than a tool for students to communicate what they have learned; it is also a tool for thinking and learning (Shanahan, 2007), a communication tool for developing relationships with others, and a liberating, creative endeavour that builds students' self-confidence (National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2003).

Yet, less and less time is devoted to writing instruction in the school day (National Council of Teachers of English, 2008) and, as an American national study of students' writing in grades 4, 8 and 12 shows, many students 'cannot write well enough to meet the demands they face in higher education and the emerging workplace' ((National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 16). Indeed, Applebee and Langer (2006) assert that 'we are living in an educational era where . writing has evaporated from public concern' (pp. 28-29). As such, writing instruction is worthy of the attention of all educators.

Equally important is research on literacy instruction with teachers who teach writing in rural communities, as Donehower, Hogg and Schell (2007) argue that literacy research is 'skewed toward urban sites and subjects. Many of our theories and research paradigms for literacy presume an urban or semi-urban setting and do not account for the experiences and realities of rural places and peoples' (p. 12). Furthermore, in spite of the strong community connections, strong social relationships and bonds, small school and class size, community to school connectedness, and increased parental involvement, rural students are not doing as well as their urban counterparts in Australia, Canada and the United States (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2010; Cartwright & Allen, 2002; Clarke, Imrich, Surgenor & Wells, 2003). This disparity, in addition to my own experience as a middle-years student and later as a teacher in rural communities, prompted my interest in conducting research with rural teachers.

This research investigates the ways in which 50 grades 4-8 rural teachers in Canada's 10 provinces teach writing within their particular local contexts. The study addresses these research questions:

1. What are teachers' perceptions of the role of writing within the community and how do teachers draw on resources from their local communities to teach writing?

2. How do teachers teach writing and how do these practices support teachers' goals for their students as writers?

A review of relevant aspects of multiliteracies theory, the framework underpinning the research is followed by an analysis of interviews with the 50 teachers. This paper concludes with implications for research and for enhancing writing instruction in rural communities.

Theoretical framework: multiliteracies theory

Multiliteracies theorists view literacy as a set of social practices influenced by the local contexts in which individuals engage in reading and writing and by broader, more global perspectives and values. As Street (1995) explains, multiliteracy theory views literacy as an 'ideological practice, implicated in power relations and embedded in specific cultural meanings and practices' (p. 1). The act of writing involves considering how ideas can be communicated to others using letters, grammatical constructions and forms of various genres, together with a consideration of the audience and purpose for the writing. The words and sentence structures that are used, the tone of the language, and the choice of fonts, forms, images, and layouts on a page or screen are all dependent on the writer's understanding of the social expectations of particular audiences and writers in particular social settings at particular times. …