Connected Learning Professional Learning

Michigan Network Learns Together About 21st Century Literacies


Teachers need more time and space to work on integrating technologies into literacy practice.

That was the realization that sparked “Writing In Digital Environments: Pedagogies And Theories”—WIDE PATHS—a four-day workshop designed for the National Writing Projects of Michigan (NWPM) network by Michigan’s Red Cedar Writing Project (RCWP) in collaboration with Michigan State University. The workshop was held August 10–13, 2009, on the Michigan State University campus, which is also the home of the Writing in Digital Environments research center.

In explaining the title, Janet Swenson, director of RCWP, said, “It took just a bit of thinking to realize that it is ‘pedagogies and theories’ that compose the path beneath our feet.”

“We needed to widen the paths that we were inviting teachers to walk,” added Swenson. “We needed to make what we were doing easier to start, easier to traverse, easier to walk with others, and definitely more enjoyable.”

As an NWP Lead Technology site, the Red Cedar Writing Project had been developing WIDE PATHS workshops for Red Cedar teacher-consultants and for professional development settings, but this four-day August workshop was designed specifically for colleagues across the entire state network.

The intention was that other sites might design local professional learning opportunities, and perhaps plan additional statewide technology offerings in subsequent years.

Visual Studies, Collaborative Writing, and Social Networking

The workshop was organized around three strands, each of which was led by a pair of facilitators: Visual Studies (Danielle DeVoss and Dawn Reed); Collaborative Writing (David Sheridan and Aram Kabodian); and Social Networking (Andrea Zellner and Bud Hunt).

At the beginning and the end of every day, there were opportunities for participants to mingle and reflect across the strands, but for most of each day they were in seminar-sized groups with intensive opportunities to experiment with technologies, to reflect on these experiments, and to discuss implications with passionate colleagues.

Nine of the eleven NWP sites in Michigan sent teams of three to the workshop, one participant for each of the three strands. Teacher-consultants and site leaders who participated ranged widely in terms of their years of NWP site experience and their technological acumen.

The Red Cedar Writing Project provided food, materials, and a $400 stipend for each participant, while other sites covered the costs of lodging or commuting for their team members.

Jianna Taylor, an Oakland (MI) Writing Project teacher-consultant and high school teacher attended the Visual Studies strand, and got her hands “dirty” by working with PowerPoint and a Web presentation tool called Prezi, and then created digital movies, using iMovie and Windows MovieMaker, that discussed practical classroom applications of the technology.

“We talked a lot about what it means to be visually and digitally literate, and how we analyze images, and we began creating action plans to help us become technology advocates in our schools and districts,” said Taylor.

Elaine Karls, an advisory board member from the Saginaw Bay Writing Project and English professor at Delta College, appreciated the fact that Visual Studies facilitator Danielle DeVoss “literally handed out flash drives loaded with her own ‘best practices’ materials and encouraged us to ‘use, remix, share.'”

Subsequently, Karls and a colleague have submitted an internal grant request to integrate visual strategies into their composition and art appreciation courses.

“I wouldn’t have been equipped to do this without the WIDE PATHS experience,” she says.

Each strand was influenced by the insights and talents of participants. For example, in one strand a conversation on copyright and intellectual property became the focus one morning at the request of the participants. The facilitators ended up sharing additional resources different from those that had been selected in the planning and design efforts.

Swenson said, “Some of the most valuable information came from a participant who was able to illustrate our concerns by showing us a video she’d made that YouTube had pulled down because they thought it violated copyright, and explaining what she had to do to have it restored.”

Evaluation and Beyond

The design and facilitation team created an exit survey (PDF) wanting to learn as much as they could about the ways participants made sense of the experience, and about the plans that were percolating as a result.

Each of the co-facilitators received the feedback on his or her particular strand, and the survey results were also compiled and written into a narrative report for the National Writing Project.

All the while, the design and facilitation team gathered data to keep track of the experience along the way and tell the story of WIDE PATHS. They posted their plans on a WIDE PATHS 09 wiki, inviting participants to join the wiki and post their reflections; they collected detailed survey responses; and they kept careful field notes.

The state network also benefited directly from the convening of multiple sites around technology and writing; a National Writing Projects of Michigan NING (a social networking site) was set up and launched at WIDE PATHS, and the participants logged on.

Directors and other site leaders from the sites that sent teams to WIDE PATHS have been discussing follow-up on the National Writing Projects listserve. Jan Sabin, co-director of the Upper Peninsula Writing Project, wrote, “It seems critical to follow up on the WIDE PATHS experiences, individually and collectively. I am anxious to spend time with the folks from the UPWP that attended. It is on our fall leadership team meeting agenda.”

Michigan site directors met as a network while attending the NWP 2009 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and WIDE PATHS conversations were an important agenda item for the state Directors’ Retreat in early 2010.

Minigrants from NWP’s State and Regional Networks program have aided site leaders as they attempt to extend the impact of this experience and similar learning at local sites to the design of local professional learning opportunities.

As Janet Swenson and Andrea Zellner noted, the Red Cedar Writing Project’s work on technology and literacy was “enriched by sharing with our colleagues.” Almost every site in the state directly benefited from Red Cedar’s gift of time, careful planning, and well-nurtured, deep learning.

Now it is up to the teacher-consultants, working in their classrooms, and to the Michigan state network to collectively “change the landscape in the ways we think about student literacy in digital environments,” as their Red Cedar hosts had envisioned.