Talking (and tweeting) about Digital Storytelling

I am honored and excited to be hosting #engchat this Monday (Feb. 14 – at 7 pm) as we talk about digital storytelling across secondary curricula.  “Host” seems to be a tricky word to use here – especially as I think  of the speedy flow of engaged discussion that grows out of each #engchat session as some of the best learning and thinking I do all week.  So, perhaps I get to take on the role of loudest learner in the group.  It doesn’t sound as elegant as “host,” but if I’m being honest with you and with myself, I can’t imagine inhabiting a different role.

All of that said, I’ve been playing with some questions that might help to get us thinking prior to our discussion…

1.  Digital storytelling has been a part of my work in schools and in my “real” life now for the better part of 10 years.  My “tinkering” lead me to work directly with Joe Lambert and the folks at the Center for Digital Storytelling at UC Berkeley, both as a writer/learner and a teacher who was hungry to elevate some of the writing students were doing within out personal narrative/memoir units.  That experience led me to have a very particular definition in mind for a digital story.  As I was working in very web 1.0 teaching contexts (web 2.0 had yet to really permeate our digital lives and practices), these were 2 to at the most 5 minute digital videos in which students wrote (both with their words and images) a story that emerged from their unique lived experiences.  I thought of this as “pre-test” writing as we were all required to submit a five-paragraph memoir as a part of the yearly writing assessment, and students whose writing grew out of a digital story demonstrated incredible growth in purpose, description, precision and, perhaps most important of all, voice.   Similar to what I’d always known as a teacher, some stories came from rich and raw places (i.e., Rachel, an eleventh grade student who worked through the loss of her mother to breast cancer) and others were reminders that our students are also kids at play (i.e., Bryson’s sixth grade story about his attempts to “booby-trap” his suburban Pennsylvania backyard for any approaching lions).  We were unified across classrooms in that we were always scrapping around for tools – an outdated version of iMovie here, a new Dell with MovieMaker there, and, in the best of cases, a copy of Final Cut or Premiere.  Okay, as we’re friends – the truth was most likely that we also had all of those versions in one computer lab that held one computer for every two or three students in the class.  (I’m sure you never experienced that – right???)  All in all, the experiences I had crafting these digital stories with students were some of the most incredible I have had as a teacher and a learner.  I learned the importance of seeing each student in order to really be able to learn together.  I learned the importance of opening up what counted as “valued  communication” in the classroom and valuing the literacies that students brought.

But, something began to change as more and more teachers and students were engaged in “digital storytelling.”  I saw the term start to morph and apply to powerpoints, videos of class mock trials, etc.  And, as the explosion of content creation/web 2.0 tools hit, that expansion of the term grew even larger.  That’s all a long way into my first question:

What IS a digital story?  How are you using that term with your student writers?

2.  In reading over what I’ve just written, I don’t want to create the impression that I’m not a big, big fan of what Levine calls “web 2.0 ways to tell a story.”  In fact, I use Voicethread, Storybird, and Flickr in a variety of ways to support the storytelling of kids with whom I work.  Those are pretty “known” tools/writing spaces – and I’d expect that to especially be the case within the #engchat community.  So, that said…

What are the web 2.0 spaces that you are using to work with your classroom storytelling?  Are you leveraging the community/collaborative/2.0 nature of those spaces and tools ?  How has that impacted/changed writing in your classroom?  (or, has it…)

3.  No matter if you’re working digital storytelling into a unit on creative non-fiction writing or another on phases of the moon (as is happened for one of my sons), we all have to wrestle a bit with how we meaningfully assess these kinds of  multimodal compositions – and, if you’re leveraging the collaborative capacities of some of the tools, multimodal compositions that might be collectively composed/created.  I’ll never forget meeting David, a seventh grade student writer who had written a brilliant, though lengthy (72 slides!) VoiceThread to capture a travel narrative.  Where he was the only student in the classroom to do a digital (read here as not print-based) project, his work was still evaluated using a rubric valuing topic sentence construction over some of the ways he was using images to do narrative work.  Epic fail.  In my practice, I have tinkered with rubrics for individual assignments, regularly working to bring the best of what we look for in a print-based writing task (i.e., a memoir) alongside what a multimodal composition affords (i.e., choice of media, alignment of mode and content with purpose and audience, technical effects).  Each time, I’ve gotten “close” but have jotted multiple notes for revision and re-thinking.   I co-construct rubrics with students each term, but we still find that the creative capacity of what we create (and share) shifts even as we work within the project. There are multiple layers to this question, but…

How do you evaluate/assess digital stories differently from print texts?  Has that informed or influenced your teaching in other ways?

4.  As this post is getting a little out of hand, I’ll list a few additional questions, invite you to add yours to the comments, and, more importantly, invite you to join us tomorrow night at 7.

How is the writing process different when composing a digital story?  How do we respond to that as teachers so that all students have different (and needed) scaffolds in place to help them find success?

How do we make sure that STORYTELLING doesn’t get overshadowed by the “digital” parts of this work?

It seems that everywhere I look, we are thinking about (and playing with) mobile devices.  What does digital storytelling look like on a mobile phone or an iPad?  What are your “apps for that?”

P.S. If you are looking for some advanced reading, I’ve written about digital storytelling in English Journal (2004), Learning and Leading with Technology (2004 & 2005), and in Bringing the Outside In (chapters 2 and 4).  I’d also recommend Troy Hicks’ now seminal text, The Digital Writing Workshop,  and Joe Lambert’s Digital Storytelling:  Capturing Lives, Creating Communities.  And, in the meantime, I’ll round-up some examples we can unpack and talk about tomorrow.

NCTE 2010 – An Invitation…

Last year at NCTE, we began a conversation, Three Reports from Cyberspace. We thank Jeff Golub and Jim Strickland for organizing the session, and Helen Wierenga for being our responder. And, we thank all of you, because what happened during the session was, quite simply, amazing.

Bud, Troy, and the entire audience were engaged in a continual conversation that moved from notes appearing on the screen, to questions from the audience, back to one of one of them answering on stage, and out to the wider world through Twitter and Etherpad. Sara’s thinking was with us in the room, even though she wasn’t physically present.  Over the course of the hour, we shared a number of examples from our own teaching and research that helped illuminate issues related to filtering, curriculum, assessment, and teaching in digital spaces. We were, in short, completely engaged in the conversation, in “multitasking” at its best. And that brings us to where we are now, preparing to offer more reports from cyberspace.

So, why write about that here, three weeks from the next session/conversation?

We do so as an invitation.

A conference session is a waypoint, a time and place to check in on where we’ve been, but more important, where we’re going.  So before we get to that waypoint, let’s take a moment to share our own reports from cyberspace as a way of starting this conversation.  Here is a link to an open Google Doc where we’ve left space for you to jot some thoughts as we move into our time together.  If you can join us for the session at NCTE, great.  But if not, and you’d still like to report or check in, feel free to do so.

Here are some prompts that will take us into our session.  Help yourself to whichever one(s) will be the most useful in your thinking and reporting:

  • What’s the state of your educational cyberspace at this moment in November 2010?  What’s good?  What’s scary?  What’s working?  What’s not?
  • What needs doing?  Fixing?  Raising up?
  • Where are you focusing your attention?
  • Where are we going with all of this Internet stuff?  What’s new?  What’s good?
  • Finally, what do you hope to leave our session with?  What’s next?  So what?

Please take a few minutes and share your reports from cyberspace. We suspect you have something to teach us, and we’re ready to learn.

If the reporting ends at the session, then we’ve failed. Conferences are notorious spaces, in that we all get together and get excited, but then the momentum seems to die. Help us figure out where to go and what to do next. In a time of increased standards and assessments, when everyone is an expert on matters of teaching and learning, and reading and writing, we need to tell our stories. It’s never been more important to be thoughtful out loud.

Bud Hunt, Troy Hicks, and Sara Kajder

PS – If you can’t make the session, but will be at NCTE, you’ll have another chance to join us immediately after this session at the Middle Level Get Together.  We’d love to see you, and hear your report(s), wherever you’ll choose to join us.

Ratcheting up my learning from a distance…

The past few weeks have each been marked with really exciting opportunities to work alongside teachers as we consider what new literacies pedagogies mean for our teaching. An exciting month… Toronto, Kansas, Kentucky, Texas, New York, Maine — and in each place, with each group there is something comforting (and, in all honesty, increasingly challenging) in knowing that we’re all thinking deeply and intentionally about how we leverage new tools to help engage the learners with whom we work.

As much as I learn from setting up, facilitating and engaging in the discussion that workshops and face to face sessions open up, my learning jumped into an entirely new place yesterday. And, I get increasingly excited as I continue to think on it…

While preparing my remarks for a literacy institute at Fordham University, I started my computer, fired up my wireless, and, as I do now out of habit, fired up Twitter. I’d known that NECC was this week (as I’m missing being there and have caught more than enough flack that my schedule wouldn’t allow for me to be there), but really “knew” that something was happening as my TweetDeck “overfloweth.”

With a partial eye on what was happening in the room and some attention on the slides I was receiving ahead of my talk, my attention was captivated by the stream of content coming out of the EduBloggerCon 2009.

I was able to attend sessions without ever stepping foot in the room – and it was dizzying. Where I’ve had instances of these experiences in the past, I’ve never had such an onslaught of immersive media and discussions. I found myself viewing a ustream feed, tweeting and receiving tweets, following discussions in coveritlive, viewing pics shared in flickr — and was literally swimming in resources, discussions, perspective, and ideas. As a learner, I found myself “in the zone” or in a state of “flow.”

I “sat in on” three sessions over the course of the day – a couple of hours of content that continued to push and challenge my thinking as I spent subsequent hours making meaning with and exploring what I learned. Robust. I have many, many questions (some that I hope you can help me consider and others that I’m hoping my continued “participation” in the fuller conference this week – while in Maine this time – will begin to explore).

I want my students to be engaged in interest-driven, participatory learning. I want them “immersed” and swimming with the same giddiness and flow that I was feeling. Was my learning a result of the combination of my specific network (of experts), the tools which brought content and the dialogue which wrapped around it straight to me, and the questions/goals that I brought to the interaction — or was it something else? How do I use that experience to inform my pedagogy? What kinds of scaffolds do kids need to be able to move through the multiple data streams (or do they need them at all)? And, the question I’m mulling over now… was I engaging in new literacy practices or simply using familiar literacy practices within a different learning space?

One thing IS certain. I’ll be following closely over the days to come…

Where I’ve been – and a possible shift in where I’m going…

I am a tenure-track assistant professor four years out of my doctoral program (and two years into my current appointment).  What that means is that I often feel split right down the middle when it comes to the writing I want to do vs. the writing that “counts.”   And, my absence from my blog writing has much to do with this – as time spent blogging is time apart from data sets and writing publications that stand a chance of getting cited in other spaces, etc.   My reviewers offer steady feedback that my “academic writing” is strong, but that pulling away from practitioner pieces (and talks) would demonstrate “more commitment to impact (again as measured by the values of the university).”

Sitting in my blog reader this morning was the echo/push that I needed to re-see and possibly affirm my thinking.  I’ve been a hungry reader of danah boyd’s work for several years.  Today’s post to her blog emerged from a talk she presented at last week’s CHI 2009 conference.  In reflecting on what it means for research to have “impact,” she offers:

While it’s easy to argue that publishing at the top journal or conference is the best way to keep an academic job, can we honestly say that publishing in these venues is the best way to have impact? Especially when these articles are locked down and made hard to access?  In my area of research, I would argue that the answer is no… my research has immediately implications and applications. I want to be in conversation with scholars, to be informed by academic thinking and critique, but I also want my research to get into the hands of those who can put it to use.  In my case, that means getting my research out to parents, educators, policy makers, technology developers, and youth, groups who would never think to turn to [a research conference] to learn something. The “impact” of my work cannot be measured by citations or “best paper” awards…. My goal as a researcher is to get my work into the hands of all who find it relevant.
Gutsy, smart, spot-on ideas.

So, in using this as a lens through which to think about my own work, I immediately put pen to paper, writing for a good hour on how I defined impact and what it was I wanted my work to accomplish.  (Why I did so on paper and not within the blog is another post all together.)

Yes, I work in a system that values a certain kind of publishing – and I knew that going into this job.  And, yes, I expected “push-back” when it came to the degree to which I write for teachers.  But, the reality is that my audience doesn’t turn to a journal on research in teacher education to learn.  So, to use danah’s frame, the impact of my work is measured less by citation count than by shifts in teachers’ pedagogy and, perhaps more importantly, the engagement, motivation, and learning of each student in their classrooms.

So, the question emerges… Could a blog be useful in disseminating research findings?  (Or, bigger, can a blog that is mostly public be a space for the meaning making that happens prior to drafting a manuscript?)  What social media are useful in getting my research into the hands of the teachers, parents, administrators, tech coordinators, media/library folks, etc. who need it?  And, is moving down this path generative?

An invitation…

Eleven preservice secondary English teachers in my methods I course here at Virginia Tech will be Ustreaming their end-of-semester 5 minute micropresentation/Pecha Kuchas on Monday at 5:15 ET.

This is a risk for them – and I am certain that they expect no one outside of our immediate class community to be interested in what they have to say about teaching, learning, students, etc.  Can you help me prove them wrong?

Five Minutes…

We do a lot of reading.  That said, there are some folks’ ideas and blog updates that regularly push the boundaries on my thinking.  Chalk up another one for Darren Kuropatwa, Clarence Fisher and friends…

The smart folks at ManACE gathered a lineup of eight presentations (offered by Darren, Clarence and others who I haven’t met but actively read), asking them to talk for 5 minutes using 20 slides (each for 15 seconds).  The prompt – “Awakening Possibilities: Five Minutes to Make a Difference.” I’ve been watching the archived ustream of these talks – struck by the impact that an innovator can have in a brief, packed period of time – and inspired by the potential that this same prompt/task/frame could have in teacher education.

So, a bit of a risk (one that will either play out nicely – or which will crash and burn) – preservice teachers who are closing out their field experiences this month (observation/mirror teaching this term with student teaching next semester) typically write a paper reflecting on the “take-aways” from the semester and forecasting how those ideas will inform their practice in the spring.   The new plan?  Recast (and perhaps disrupt?) the task along the lines of the five minute frame… We’ll include these along with other work in our site within the VT site in iTunesU.  I’m curious about how this will impact breadth and depth of thinking, and how/if students leverage the multimodal writing to communicate/amplify their ideas…  And, in the spirit of modeling the practice that I expect them to carry into the field, I’m compiling one as well.

I’m finding it to be a ridiculously challenging task – in part because I’m never good with a time limit – and because the brevity creates a new issue — meaningfully communicate without becoming a sound-byte.  Luckily, I’m relying on images to do some of the narrative work – but that will only get you so far…

How would you use your five minutes?

NCTE 2008 – thinking about “shifts”…

In many ways, I’m adding to a conversation post-NCTE 2008 (see Bud, Troy, Brendan and others) — but my thoughts are still fresh and new as I wanted to take some of the “break” to move from saturation/incubation to having something coherent to say and explore.

From the inception, I think that the theme to this year’s convention was risky — moving from the gentle “nudges” present in previous years to a full-fledged shove into a vision of what the 21st century English classroom could/should/might offer.  Like many first “shots,” there were some new ideas/features to the overall convention that worked – but require some revision before a second attempt.  The tech-to-go kiosks were certainly in this category.  They were an experiment – and one that carried some risk despite the really talented line-up of folks who were facilitating dialogues and “manning” the stations.  It would be significantly less than honest for me to say that I was happy with the space we were given, the set-up, etc. – but I am completely honest in saying that I sincerely hope that what we proved/established was the absolute need for a playground of sorts where teachers come to explore new ideas, ask questions in a “safe” environment, follow-up on an idea heard in a session that tripped their thinking about their teaching – and which necessitated real-time professional development, etc.   And, we need smart, smart people pushing our thinking…

I’m still a little unsure about where NCTE takes this next.  Two years of conventions have paid close attention to new literacies, new pedagogies, etc. – and we’ve seen position statements and research briefs result out of the agendas/platforms anchoring each year.  And, despite this, I’m still hesitant.  There is an “us and them” thinking that seems to emerge from a close read of next year’s proposal that gives me a little pause…  Others will likely have more insights on this – and I look forward to seeing that conversation emerge as we all make meaning out of the convention…

Two big ideas that I’m mulling over right now…

1.  There were two teachers who returned to the tech-to-go sessions for all but two of the sessions – Gale and Cathy, both 10th grade English teachers from Florida.  I overheard their conversation in the hall as they left on Sunday morning, both wanting to stay longer but recognizing that this was ultimately the final “installment” of new topics in the kiosks.  I smiled at the idea – but was seized by where their conversation turned — hinging around the question “but do our students know enough about the technology to do this?”

As much as I wanted to pounce, I pulled back and listened (close proximity provided by a crowded escalator, and long, narrow hallways) as two teachers (who were neither born digital nor living particularly digital lives) came to a big realization — that they had stopped listening to their students’ talk about the literacies that they were bringing into the classroom because the language used about those practices was foreign, unfamiliar, and not “academic.”  And, as teachers, their first goal when they got back to school after the holiday was to listen differently – and to use what they learned from that to drive their teaching in the upcoming term.   (Wow.)

2. Two speakers “riffing” a bit during a presentation on 21st century skills and the young “digital native teachers” who had just been hired into their high school English department… As they described the young teachers’ skills, interests and early teaching, one of the two speakers paused, thought, smiled and shared (clearly thinking this for the first time) – “I think that there is as much difference within this generation of millenial or digital teachers as their is between their generation and mine.”  The room was quiet with nodding – nodding that was marked by thinking as opposed to nodding out of habit or kindness.  (It was infectious to witness a “shifting” in perspective — and to participate in the resulting dialogue of the implications for teachers and students in that school.  Made me REALLY wish we were ustreaming that session…)

3.  An outburst during the middle mosaic – “I’d never imagined that!” (when we too-quickly discussed ways of pulling together the best of our pedagogy and the unique literacies our students bring into the classroom).  Sounded a bit like a “eureka” mixed with the fatigue of Saturday afternoon at a convention – and the bit of “drag” and questioning that comes when we try to fit ideas into the box of the school year as it has already been defined.   (I’ve written that out onto a sticky-note and afixed it to my monitor to make sure I keep hearing – and voicing it.  To me, that comment wasn’t about the technology or learning about new literacies.  It was about what pulls us to spaces like conferences where we work together to make meaning from what happens in our classrooms – and from which we draw new energies for what might come next.)

As always seems to be the case for me, I’m at a place where I have much more thinking to do about what I saw, heard, experienced, and learned this year.   I have a collection of notes scrawled on corners of pages, tattered napkins with ideas that made sense at the time but require some decoding at this point, and bookmarks galore ripe for exploration and thinking. Regardless of where the dialogue in NCTE “shifts” next, I think that the conversation starts on a new age.  I’m impatient for that… (And, different from where I might have been in other years, I don’t think I’m alone.)