Learning to Write by Blogging with Purpose

As we think about the types of writing we ask students to do in school, and whether or not they feel it is for a real audience and purpose, can it even come close to this?

Nick Barnowski is in multitask mode. His fingers dance around a keyboard, keeping up his end of the bargain in a back and forth two-way Instant Message conversation.

He stops momentarily, leans back in his office chair and trades glances between the flat panel monitor and his visiting afternoon appointment that sits across the desk from him.

A stack of business cards sits in a tray on the front of the desk, which takes up a portion of the home office where he spends much of his time. On the walls, his hockey-playing career is chronicled with framed team photos, sharing the same space with a larger photo of the Detroit Red Wings skating around the ice with the Stanley Cup in their possession.

Recently things have been hectic. There has been an online sports Web blog to update, television, radio and newspaper interviews to be done, e-mail correspondence to attend to, and of course, the sixth grade to complete.

That’s right. The owner of one of America Online’s most popular sports Web blogs is 12. As in four years shy of his driver’s license 12.

Lansing State Journal: Popular sports-blog writer is 6th-grader with a full schedule

The rest of the story is even more interesting, as it talks about Nicks experience as a writer and what his teacher, who subscribes to the blog, thinks about this, too. Earlier today, some ELA consultants were asking me how and why we might do workshops on blogging (and try to overcome the MySpace crisis), and I think that this is a good example of positive blogging that I will use in the future.

Missing the (Power)Point

What is it with our affliction with Power Point? Check out today’s Foxtrot:

FoxTrot by Bill Amend – September 8, 2006

Over the years, I have seen many cartoons, articles, and voices in education and the media taking pot shots at Power Point without ever really talking about the root of the problem: lacking a point for the presentation itself. Everyone from the Onion to Wikipedia takes shots at it. There is even the infamous Gettysburg Address made from a PPT template.
Rather than blaming the tool, why aren’t we talking more about how and why we compose with PowerPoint or other slide show programs? And, while Microsoft and other software makers would invite us to think that PowerPoint is just a tool…

“We are trying to make PowerPoint a much more intuitive product,” said John Duncan, product manager for Microsoft Office. “We are in the business of giving people easy-to-use tools. It is up to the users in terms of how they want to use them.”

Wired News: “The PowerPoint Amateur Hour”

… we also know that writers are bound by the affordances and constraints of what the software itself presents. But, it isn’t always about the tool.
Case in point: I was sitting through a session where a tech-savvy presenter wanted to share some information about a project, but said at the beginning how much he hated Power Point presentations. He then went on to his website, turned on a CSS template for a his presentation page, and created a bulleted list of points that he could scroll through screen by screen, just like a slide show. And then he talked. And talked. And talked. No bells and whistles. No audience interaction. Just a Power Point talk with the unofficial Power Point to go with it.

There are many harsh critiques of PPT, to be sure. For instance, check out the work of Edward Tufte. Some of this criticism is well-deserved, as Tufte points out here and here. And, the classic essay in for educators considering the use of PPT, McKenzie’s Scoring Power Points, is still worth a read. Given the new Michigan high school standards and expectations for students to create and publish digital media, I think that these three pieces should be required reading for teachers.
All that said, I am not quite so ready to dismiss PPT outright, although I want to be sure that we are using it in schools for more engaging purposes than what I imagine Paige has created for her book report. I recall the one time when a seventh grade student of mine made a really slick PPT – with different fonts, slide backgrounds, and animations (as her computer lab teacher taught her to do, sigh…) – about Roosevelt and his role in WWII. Unfortunately, she spent so much time on the PPT (and I, as a new teacher, forgot to scaffold her in the research process), that it was about one Teddy Roosevelt, not Franklin. Did PPT cause that problem? Partially, as the cut and paste ease of making the presentation was appealing. But part of it was just poor teaching and no self-monitoring by the student.

The other reason that this PPT issue caught my attention today is that earlier I talked to language arts consultants from around the state about doing digital storytelling workshops and, of course, the question of software came up. One person asked about PPT, in particular, because that was the only multimedia program that she knew how to use. Could that work for digital storytelling? While I think there are better programs for this, I said yes, PPT could work.
Honestly, if David Byrne can make PPT into art, then we can surely use it to make digital stories. But, remember, it is about the art, the story. Not the program. If they are pointless stories, then we will have the same reaction to PPT digital stories as Roger does to his co-workers and, perhaps, his daughter. Let’s keep the family happy and teach students like her how to make a point with multimedia, not just get lost in it.

Blogged with Flock

Dr. Jabari Mahiri – Engaging “New Literacies” of Youth in Urban Schools

I am blogging notes from Dr. Jabari Mahiri’s “Engaging “New Literacies” of Youth in Urban Schools” Presentation here at MSU. Here is the official description of the talk:

Jabari Mahiri, Professor of Literacy and Education at the University
of California at Berkeley, will be visiting MSU to consult with
faculty on Urban Literacy and Education. Dr. Mahiri is the author of
several articles and books on youth culture and urban literacy,
including Shooting for Excellence: African American and Youth
Culture in New Century Schools (1998), What They Don’t Learn in
School. Literacy in the Lives of Urban Youth ( 2004), and Teaching in
New Times: Bridging Diversity and Achievement (forthcoming).
In his talk, Mahiri will address the nature of contemporary youth
culture influenced both by the digital age and the age of hip-hop. He
will show how schools need to change in this new century to better
accommodate and build upon these new literacies that are the
substance of experiences for many contemporary youth.

Here are notes from his talk:

  • Intro
    • In California, teachers must get a BA/BS and then come back for a masters in a graduate school, and I am interested in looking at the cultural gap that happens when teachers get done with school, get their credential, and then head into classrooms.
    • Thinking about changing a clock. We we wait for the seasons to change instead of changing the clock. This is indicative of our mechanical age vs. a digital age and how we think about working in this age.
    • Looking at “digital natives in the age of hip-hop” as compared to digital tourists; the tourists often have to ask the natives about how to work in these spaces.
  • Current Work
    • Looking at an 8th grade school and how a teacher engaged her students in “digital DJing”
    • From 3 R’s to 3 C’s article – the current age of testing contrasts with the digital age
    • Harpers – Grand Theft Education and Your Child’s Mind
    • “Digital Natives in the Age of Hip Hop” – trying to look at those who produce and consume music
    • “Literacies in the Lives of Urban Youths”
  • Main Talk
    • Dewey – Experience and Education – I want to make the case that much of what we are arguing for today was already laid out by Dewey in 1938
      • He argued for “the necessity of introduction of a new order of conceptions leading to new modes of practice”
    • I want to argue for a “new order of conceptions” linked to the emergence of new literacies which can facilitate educators developing “new modes of practice.”
      • Imagine that a frozen man, someone who had been frozen for 100 years, walked into society today. What would be different? How would schools be nearly the same?
    • Manovich (2001) argues from a “new media” that combines graphics, moving images, sounds, shapes, and other forms of texts into data that was computable — things that are able to be cut and pasted with greater mobility amongst texts
      • The computer was able to bring all of these media into one little box. To lose one’s computer would be problematic. A laptop is worth more than the $2000 of machinery…
    • The computer doesn’t say “I am going to tell you what medium to make texts in.” Instead, it offers you variability to create new media with new literacies in a variety of ways.
    • Wired Magazine – The rise of the cut and paste culture.
      • I argue that hip hop culture was one of the first to cut and paste and remix.
    • “Translating” dialects of youth culture – what effects does this have on parenting and their perception of kids living online
  • Three Digital Kids
    • Two are my twin daughters – one thing that the screen allows is a collectivity that a page will not. Kids can look at the same screen and do work together much easier. My granddaughter is then adopting the habits of the older children.
    • Example of college students writing on computers – they were willing to work on each others’ texts because it was mailable. As a teacher, you are putting your signs up over a student’s sign. Violation of space and ownership.
    • NPR story on digital kids.
  • Digital environments as social space
    • Teens spend more time online than with other media
    • These technologies allow for high levels of socializing that have kids engaging with one another, even if they are not in the same physical space
  • Genres of video games – adults need to understand this
    • Gee recognizes transformations play out in video games and how the theory of learning from video games is better for an interconnected, global society
    • Games encompass a variety of attitudes and actions – it is a lifestyle choice
      • Youth culture is composed from music, fashion, and sports – all these lifestyle choices are represented in some of these video games. What fantasies do they allow children to play out?
      • Where do the images of manhood/womanhood come from?
        • Kids making their bodies look like celebrities and other characters
        • Nissan with integrated XBox
  • A definition of literacy
    • We need a definition that tries to comprehend how people are making meaning from texts
    • SKILL(s) in the PRODUCTION(s) of TEXT(s) to make MEANING(s) in CONTEXT(s)
    • NCTE’s definition – a text is any segment of language or symbol that creates a unit of meaning including print texts, spoken texts, visual representations, and lived experiences
    • Ideas refer to each view held by the learner
      • Generating
      • Expanding
      • Sorting
      • Evaluating
      • Synthesizing
    • Youth Radio example – boxers or briefs
      • Created a full and articulated argument with a thesis, different kinds of support, and a counterargument
  • Technology Mindsets
    • Learners who have grown up digital have different views and approaches to learning, they want to multi task. (Lankshear and Knobel, 2006)
    • We need new terminology to capture what is going on. Gee suggests that we look at it as a “semiotic domain” where there is an accumulation of significations in a variety of textual mediums brought together in a domain.
    • Marjorie Siegel (1995) – transmediation
    • If we are not allowing for different ways for students to develop meaning, just because of what we think of as school, then we are limiting them. It is in multimodal and multimedia opportunities guided by creative and caring adults that children may find their own medium in which they can be expressive.
    • Dewey’s questions of school experiences are still relevant today
    • New literacies as modes of experience
    • “Understanding Youth Experiences in the Age of Hip-Hop”
    • How do we manage this in relation to standards? How do we come up with new assessment techniques for these new literacies?
      • How do we effectively engage students in assessment processes?
    • Youth as Decision-Makers and Leaders
      • We need to go to places where youth are engaged in literacy practices outside of school and understand how and why these are working in other settings.
      • We need to understand that youth are not deficient adults – youth that are creating these phenomenal texts are treated differently in these youth organizations; it is not the same type of relationships that we see in schools where it is adults sharing what they know
      • Digital DJing
  • Questions and Answers
    • Q: The thing that I see in high schools is that one wishes for youth to be more critical of the culture that they are getting through the media. The commercialization and values that are represented are not always the best. How could we help students “talk back to the media” and engage in critical literacy in thinking about when to slow down to read a text?
      • A: Gee talks about dominant discourses and powerful discourses. Powerful discourses are powerful because they help critique the dominant discourse. Kids are creating things (like spoken word poetry) that do critique the media. Listening to a spoken word text – thinking about how this youth connects his own interests, uses public service announcement genre to critique corporate and media interests. This can still integrate in with regular school topics like alliteration, rhythm, etc.
    • Q: Digital immigrants vs. digital native? Too much of a binary?
      • A: It gives us some point to talk about. There is a certain bit of exploration that digital natives will take that digital immigrants will not. For instance, I was trying to connect to a wifi network. I didn’t know how to turn my laptop on 10 years ago, and now I will search through many wifi networds until I can connect with one. It is a disposition towards exploring technology tha digital natives possess that I think separates the two.
    • Q: I am young, and do many of these things, so I don’t understand what the “traditional literacies” are.
      • A: One example is thinking about how many times a person is cited. For example, when I did a citation search for Shirley Brice Heather on Google, I found 30,000 hits. Citation is a relatively simple concept. Doing it with Google is what makes it different.