My story with technology starts many years ago when Lil Brannon, as a new site director for the UNC-Charlotte Writing Project, and I attended an NWP conference. Talk at that conference swirled around technology, technology grants, technology in the schools, technology in our daily lives. We looked at each other as we heard person after person talk about technology. And we decided that I would take a leadership role in advancing our site with technology. I knew a little about computers; I owned a cell phone; and I had encouraged my students to take active roles in technology-driven projects at the junior high level. We set out to add this piece to our writing project site.
The next year Lil decided to send me to Marshall University in West Virginia for a technology workshop. The paper specifically said Experienced, but we figured I could learn quickly. That didn’t prove to be the case and to make matters worse, I fell and broke my ankle a week before I was to depart. So I arrived at the university in a wheel chair, needing much more help both with navigation and with technology than any of us had imagined. Will Banks came to my aid—both pushing me around town and around the university and with the background technology pieces I seemed to be missing. It was during this time that I saw the true spirit of Writing Project folks as everyone attempted to make me feel a part of the group.
I took home hundreds of ideas, set up Nice Net accounts for all my classes and demanded that my students write weekly responses to literature, questions, and other students. I taught them about Flick’r and about the very beginnings of digital storytelling that I gleaned from Peter Kittle. Lil and I planned our first summer technology workshop and we were off. I believe we had twelve participants and we taught such basics as how to negotiate Microsoft Word as well as the beginnings of blogging—Nice Net—and its advantages for students. Some of our students who were already somewhat tech savvy took off into parts unknown, such as creating websites, podcasting, and other things that were in their infancy. Lil and I smiled as we watched the excitement over these technological accomplishments grow.
By the next year we had moved from PowerPoint to MovieMaker and our technology institute took off with cumbersome video cameras whose recorded images required much revamping before Microsoft would recognize the file. The next year we had discovered the Flip video cameras and could send all participants out to make movies at lightning speed.
Not only was our technology use growing, so was the number of folks who were good at technology—really good. We began to put theory behind our technology projects and to study the results of each area we entered. We worked with still cameras and students whose English was a second language. We talked. We became more sophisticated. We built websites, praised Google, checked out new Web 2.0 options on a daily basis. We established a technology team that would work with members of our site and school systems all over our area.
With the advent of smart phones, tablets, and other gadgets, we think we are unstoppable as technology gurus on the cutting edge and as innovators in school technology practices. I still lag behind the others and sometimes I forget to tweet at a meeting or record my Facebook status, but my students handle computers and computer projects with ease, figuring a way to read tweets during the recent Egyptian protest and now at the Wall Street protest when the school computers wouldn’t go to Twitter. They are quick to set up a video or create a podcast.
And all this started many years ago when Lil Brannon and I decided to break out of isolation and join the tech world.
Students Create Stories
Reflection has always been a part of my daily life and moved easily into my teaching practice. Creative writing courses have always been somewhat of a stepchild for my high school—a dumping ground for students with no place to go. Since the course offers numerous opportunities for students to choose their genre(s) and to write outside the restrictions of five paragraphs, six sentences in each paragraph, and thesis statement in fifth sentence of first paragraph, I see it as an important part of the school day and I set out to make it important to the students. I do not give grades in the class other than 100 points for completion and a zero for not turning in the work so the challenge was to find some sort of reflective device that tied the writing experience together and gave the students an opportunity to reflect on their progress throughout the semester.
They already were keeping a three-part portfolio that got fatter during the year, but that did not tie the work together. Neither did the six-week reflections that included a listing of all their reading in all their classes and pleasure reading. The answer lay in the final exam. Rather than give them a written exam that look strangely like a regurgitation of English terms and grammar, they could use new technology to create a review of their year and share it with the other members of their class. This was ten years ago and is still an integral part of my creative writing classes. The early ones were PowerPoint slide presentations that simply talked about their work. The assignment actually said: Prepare a PowerPoint slide presentation that reflects some aspect of your work that went particularly well. Your reflection will become a writing lesson for the other members of the class. This early technology and reflection led to digital storytelling and students early in the semester rather than at the end of the semester telling their own stories of literacy, working with other students in the development of a series of literacy narratives, and doing another digital story at the end of the semester on their progress. I have found these early stories to be tools for helping me to develop meaningful assignments as well as to introduce students to introspection. Even though we go through the steps of writing—listing, drafting, editing, writing, the final product often seems richer in a digital form than on the flat pieces of paper. We can actually see the story and hear the writer’s voice. And from there, we can move on to stronger voices.
Reflection in PowerPoint
One of my students, a tenth-grader and a second-year creative writing student, had spent most of the semester working on poetry—specifically, imitating Emily Dickinson. She first read volumes of Dickinson’s work then began to write her own poems using all of Dickinson’s techniques.
Her piece is unique in that she included her own poems and talked frankly about where she felt she needed improvement. The imitation and reflection she did during that semester led her to develop her own style during the next two years.
Moving to Movie Maker
PowerPoint did the job and I collected a number of wonderful pieces over the years. As I worked with students, I found more uses for electronic media, including offering a space for voices that were silent in the classroom. One young man—a senior who was taking the class to complete an elective requirement—sat on the front row with his back to the majority of the students and usually spoke only on Fridays when he was required to deliver a “Golden Line” from a book he was reading and explain to the class why that was a “Golden Line.” He turned in the obligatory essays, poems, and short stories, but did not talk. A number of our “privileged” students also were in that class—girls who spent their afternoons and evenings in the neighboring city shopping at an upscale mall. Often when we shared our freewrites theirs were filled with what they saw as inconveniences they had to endure from the working class. For instance, they resented truck drivers who slowed down or otherwise impeded a quick 35-mile drive to the shopping mall. They seemed to write endless tirades about their aggravations. As they read, the young man seemed to become quieter and his body language indicated a new level of discomfort. His father was a truck driver. I asked him to give a rebuttal and he refused. So I suggested that he write the other side of the road story in pictures and music. “Make some pictures of trucks,” I said, “and let’s try this new technology, MovieMaker, and see how it looks. Here is Derrick’s story.
Telling a Bigger Story
Several years later, Cassie came to my Creative Writing class. She was different from many of the students and wanted to tell her story with an eye toward creating an understanding about herself and her friends who dressed differently and talked differently from many of the other students.
Sometimes Cassie was angry and sometimes she was thoughtful, but Cassie’s presence was undeniable. Her final piece reflects how far student use of PowerPoint has come and how students began to use this medium to say things to their peers that they could not just say in class.
Cassie currently is doing her student teaching and hopes to become a high school English teacher.
These are just a few of the images from Cassie’s project. Click on the links below to read the powerful text Cassie wrote in the notes for each slide.
So What Does It All Mean?
Today my students are working on many projects—more than one at a time and when I look back, I see how far we have come in such a short time. They create Glogs, use cartoon sites to make poetry books, publish their work on the web and I marvel at their ability to do all these things. But the most important part is that while they feel comfortable with the technology and do it with ease, they take on the more difficult challenge of telling their own stories. The sense of community that we have developed in the classroom provides a sense of safety that allows the storytelling to occur.
Ever evolving technology gives students a variety of choices in how to tell their stories—from blogs to movies. In their stories students interrupt the dominant narratives of identity by creating their own alternative stories and weave a rich fabric of who they are.