Thinking about Critical Media Literacy

Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Susi Elkins, a colleague at MSU that I originally met when I visited her class’s digital portfolio presentation a few summers ago. She plans to develop a critical media literacy professional development session for local teachers, and we talked at length about what might happen in such a session. It has been nearly a week since the discussion, but I will try to capture some of the main ideas here.

First, we talked about what teachers want to get out of a three-hour session. From my experience, they want to find something practical that connects to what they already know and do. Many teachers say, “If I can go to a PD session and come out with one good idea…” So, Susi and discussed what makes a good PD session: a timely and relevant topic, hands-on activities, enough theory and background to situate the work without overloading, and leaving with a strong idea of what to do the next day in the classroom.

We then discussed a number of critical media literacy tasks in which she might have teachers engage. Being a producer at WKAR, she has had numerous experiences that help her think about programming in a way that I, and I imagine most ELA teachers, haven’t thought of. The idea of “expertise” — and what makes someone qualified to talk about something — came up, too, and that is something that I deal with all the time. My answer to that question, especially when working with other teachers, is to acknowledge the collective expertise in the room and to then say that we will be working through things together. You do acknowledge your position as an expert on the content, and their position as teachers. 99 times out of 100, that has worked for me as a professional development leader.

Then, we talked about the good stuff: what is critical media literacy and what would she want her participants to take from the session. My understanding of her goal was two-fold: to engage in discussions about the definition and importance of critical media literacy and to work through a sample lesson on critical media literacy in which the teachers would develop a text from some stock footage that she would bring. I thought that both of these goals seemed appropriate and, given the three hours that she would have to deliver the session, quite ambitious! That said, we discussed many activities that she could do like juxtaposing different takes from different sources on the same story, analyzing the messages in advertisements, and discussing how certain facts, statistics, and polls are employed. All of these strategies would be applicable, we felt, to ELA teachers and hopefully to other content area teachers, too (since her audience might include all subject areas).

We then talked about the production aspect. I suggested that she use JumpCut to have teachers develop competing versions of a single commercial or advertisement based off of the same basic media elements. We also talked about the Educational Video Center (although the name escaped me at the time), and the curriculum that they share in the Teaching Youth Media book. We also discussed Hey Kidz! Buy This Book, a guide for tweens about media literacy. I particularly liked that text when I read it had a great list of propaganda techniques with particular examples so as to make it clear to kids what the different techniques were and how they worked. We talked, too, about possibly using AdBusters. I suggest that Susi might have each teacher use the same media elements and adopt a different technique in the video he or she was creating.

All told, this was a great discussion. I was able to share some ideas that I had about critical media literacy and professional development and Susi gave me some ideas for future collaborations and other resources. In particular, she pointed me to Anastasia Goodstein’s work (this site, YPulse, appears to be her professional blog) as well as “Don’t Buy It” from PBS Kids. I mentioned that it would be great if our digital storytelling camp students this summer could visit the WKAR studio, so that might happen, too. All in all, I enjoyed talking with Susi, and I look forward to future collaborations with her.

Reflection on the “New Literacies” Workshops


So, many things to think about based on Friday’s workshops, but first and foremost a hearty thanks to the 15 teachers who led these “new literacies” workshops:

There are multiple thoughts, and layers of thought, that I have about the day. First and foremost, this group did an outstanding job of dealing with the technology that was dealt to them in the computer labs on campus. Not that the labs were bad, but that there were some glitches here and there and one computer froze completely on the digital storytelling presenters, causing them to lose most of a collaborative project they were producing. There were minor glitches in scheduling and the like, but overall the day went smoothly and I thank everyone for their flexibility and patience.

Second, I am happy to report that over 50 teachers attended the seven sets of workshops. Now, this may not sound like a large number, but the fact that these teachers had to pre-register and also attend the Bright Ideas conference on Saturday meant that they were committing to a full weekend of PD. Given that Bright Ideas only had 250 total pre-registered people, that means that 20% of them chose to come to this set of workshops. To me, that is amazing. Last summer, we struggled to get even five people in each of our sessions on technology (part of that was timing, I am sure), but to have 50 show up in one day was incredible.

Which leads me to my next thought — this was the culmination of many years of work for our Writing Project. Having been a Lead Site from NWP’s Technology Initiative for the past three years, we were looking to really put into action a professional development model from all that we had learned (one of the primary goals of the grant). Last spring, when all of the lead sites met in San Francisco, the research group that NWP hired to evaluate the Tech Initiative had said that the data from our sites pointed to the fact that doing professional development related to technology was “both different and harder” than the already difficult task of delivering literacy PD. So, to see seven workshops, five of which were run by our own TCs, come to fruition last week made for a great culmination of our work. Of course, now we need to market these workshops more directly to schools, but that is on the horizon.

Another interesting part of the workshops came in my discussions with Rick and Mitch about the one that they led on graphic novels. I had originally planned for them to be in a computer lab, hoping that they might introduce participants to a program like Comic Life or any number of online comic creators. For a variety of good reasons — mainly that they had more to do in three hours than they could have reasonably accomplished in two days of PD — they decided not to use the computers. As Rick and I talked about the “technology” components of these workshops, I had to keep reminding myself that the focus, as always, is on literacy.

Thus, the “New Literacies” being part of the title and, as Knobel and Lankshear would argue, part of the mindset that one must take when engaging in these practices, even if they aren’t necessarily digital. Renee and Angie shared this quote from a recent Knobel and Lanskshear article that I think sums it up well. The authors argue that there is a new mindset that we have to adopt in the post-industrial world, one that recognizes the influence of technology at a deeper level than to just say, as the first mindset does, that things have only become more “technologized”:

For us, new literacies are informed by the second mindset and reflect the kinds of assumptions and values that define this second mindset. They do not have to involve the use of digitalelectronic apparatuses such as computers or the Internet, although they mostly do. They must however, be imbued with the second mindset.

Discussing New Literacies
Michele Knobel, Colin Lankshear. Language Arts. Urbana: Sep 2006. Vol. 84, Iss. 1; p. 78 (9 pages)

Thus, as I think about Rick’s concern that I wanted them to use the computers despite all the ideas that they wanted to cover related to reading and writing comics, understanding visual literacy, and engaging reluctant students, I have to wonder how much we need to be talking about this new mindset first, technology second. Even with our best efforts to do so, I think that I may have been pushing the technology aspects of these workshops more than, perhaps, I should have. However, I think that everyone who presented (as I helped them prepare and talked to them during the day) did keep their attention on literacy practices. So, this is not to say that we did anything wrong, but more to say that we need to remain ever-conscious of how we frame these issues as we present more and more PD.

So, those are the thoughts for now. I hope more will come after I read some of the evaluations for the workshops and from any comments, questions, or ideas that come from all of you. Thanks to everyone who has written me about, helped facilitate, or actually attended these workshops. It was a great day, and I look forward to doing something like it again soon.

Preparing for Our “New Literacies” Workshops

Tomorrow, after many months of planning and a few hectic days this week getting everything in order, we will have 15 teachers presenting to 50 of their peers in the RCWP-sponsored New Media & New Literacies = New Expectations & New Opportunities Workshops. Here is a list of the sessions:

  • Blogging and Podcasting
  • Digital Storytelling
  • Of Secondary Worlds: Using MOOs and Second Life in English Language Arts
  • Hooking Writers with New Literacies
  • Teaching English in a Digital Age
  • Reading and Writing Graphic Novels
  • Teaching Collaborative Writing Using Web-based Tools

This workshop had been a labor of love and represents, I feel, both a large portion of the work of our writing project over the past few years and, simultaneously, an enactment of all the things that I believe as a teacher educator when it comes to technology and literacy.

First, as a portion of the work of our writing project, this day represents 10 of our teachers moving into leadership and professional development roles in ways that we hadn’t even imagined just a few years ago. Thanks to a Lead Technology Initiative Grant from the National Writing Project, RCWP has been able to focus on effective models of professional development for our teacher consultants. Over the past three years, our two main goals have been to get teachers blogging, wikiing, and podcasting from the NWP annual meeting each November and then to present a series of tech workshops in the summer of 2006.

Tomorrow, along with 5 other teachers from around the state and one other writing project, these teachers who were all just on the cusp of learning about technology in the past few years will now be leading critical and creative sessions about reading and writing with technology. Having individually worked with many of these teachers and watched them grow over the past three years, I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see them taking the lead on this initiative. I hope that this work continues now in K-12 schools through professional development, and not just special campus events like this one.

Second, because I have worked with most of these teachers and learned about technology along with them, I very much appreciate the time, effort, and preparation that they have put into all of this. Just last week, one of them was telling me how unprepared she felt to lead this session, until she begin listing all the things she wanted participants to do and realized that 3 hours wouldn’t be close to enough. Another teacher told me how she has been going through her workshop agenda with her kids as a mini-unit on technology and realized how much she has learned. She noted that these “digital natives” are woefully unaware of anything besides MySpace and, perhaps, Facebook, and thus knows that she is doing the right types of things with technology in her classroom.

To sum up briefly, I am very much looking forward to seeing how tomorrow unfolds for all of my friends and colleagues. I am convinced that we are combining the best of the NWP model of “teachers teaching teachers” with high-quality technology instruction. I am glad to know that this model has attracted 50 other educators to our workshops tomorrow and even more excited to see where it goes next.

Reflections on the weekend to follow soon…

Notes on “Identity Interface: Rhetorical Analysis, Graphic Design, and Comics”

Notes from another CCCC session that I found engaging. In this session, the presenter spent a good deal of time thinking about design from the standpoint of a writing teacher, and I found her angle on it informative. In particular, I found her categories of balance, unity, gestalt, and hierarchy a more nuanced way of talking about the Robin Williams principles of contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity. I hadn’t really thought about using Homestar Runner for a writing assignment, but now I might.

Here are some notes:

Chandra Lewis-Qualls – “Identity Interface: Rhetorical Analysis, Graphic Design, and Comics”

  • Intro
    • How is identity created in online comics, analyzing with graphic design theories
    • Her subject position: I am a feminist rhetorician interested in visual design and communication, deeply immersed in gaming
  • Graphic Design
    • Mildred Friedman — “Graphic design is an art form that depends for its efficacy on the degree to which words and images communicate a coherent message.”
    • You get the effect of the intent based on what isn’t explicitly evident
  • Why Use Graphic Design?
    • By focusing on design strategies, we can discern alternate ways to shape idetity online
    • Graphic design has a longer history that visual rhetoric and insights from the field could prove valuable
    • It opens up conversations between academics and designers
  • 1964 “The First Things First Manifesto”
    • Graphic design has a long history of critique and wanted to point out the fact that design is not neutral and has value; they were pushing against the consumer and material aspects of graphic design and wanted to share their thoughts on it
  • New Media Analysis
    • Cheryl Ball has suggested that we need to analyze “the semiotic elements [of new media]”
    • New Media critics often look at five major design features and ignores the sub-texts of design
  • Graphic Design Components
    • Balance — controlling the negative space, creating visual interest
      • How are the elements arranged?
      • What effect does this have on the composition as a whole?
    • Unity — creating harmony with a color, shape, or typeface
      • What are the elements that create unity in this piece?
    • Gestalt — the combination of elements create an idea or message that isn’t explicit, but is an underlying argument in the design
      • What is the opinion underlying the design
    • Hierarchy — dominant element in the design of various levels of interest
      • How to create interest
  • Branding and Identity
    • Multiple experience with the product
    • Created through advertising, design, and media
    • A symbolic embodiment of the product
    • Creates associations and expectations
    • Includes explicit logo, fonts, color schemes, etc
  • Focus on web comics
    • Try to create an embodied experience for the characters
    • Homestar
    • Irreverent surreal humor
    • Strongbad’s identity
    • Types answers to visitors and is very sarcastic
  • Using these concepts in class
    • How do you visually convey your identity online (ethos)
    • Freshmen create a MySpace page
    • Upper level students create a digital portfolio to represent their work

Reposting: On a “feed”ing frenzy

In August of 2005, I started blogging on the domain that Steve and I bought to host our now defunct podcast. In October, I posted my thoughts on M.T. Anderson’s book, feed. Soon after, I loaned it to Davin, (who I mention in the post below) and just yesterday he stopped by for a surprise visit to return the book. So, with that in mind, I thought that it was timely to repost this summary of the book from my original blog from way back in the day. You know, like less than two years ago, right? Enjoy!

feed coverWell, this has been an up and down weekend. Another chance to talk with pre-service English teachers on Friday about wikis and the like was followed by work and email until one in the morning that night (sad, but true). Then, Saturday, brought a cool, but comfortable day for Spartan football and, inevitably, a blown chance to go 5-2 on the season. Today was spent largely outside doing yard chores, waiting another weekend for our late-turning leaves to fill dozens of lawn bags. Which brings me to now, and the fact that I feel like I need to write about something engaging and, hopefully, useful, so I can cap off the weekend in a positive manner.

So, I will write a little bit about feed, by M. T. Anderson. And, despite the fact that it isn’t the most positive book in the world, there is plenty that it has to say about our consumer culture, internet technology, and what we really value in life. Perfect fiction for me. Here goes…

My introduction to this text was from a colleague, Ninna Roth, who was using it as a part of the Greenrock High School Writers Retreat a few years ago. She told me that it was, by far, the most incredible book that she had ever read (although, like every English teacher, I think her favorites are constantly changing). At any rate, I let the book linger on my shelf for quite some time and, over the summer, mentioned to my son (now a sixth grader) that a friend told me it was a good book. He was interested, so I passed the book on to him with the intention of reading along with him. Well, he read fast. And, he told me, many times, that this was a book that I might not approve of him reading (more on that soon), although it all worked out in the end, because I read it recently and we had many interesting points of discussion to talk about. A few of them included the peer pressure on teens and the constant desire for them to want. To want things. Objects. People. I could put a whole post up on that aspect of it. But this blog is supposed to focus more on technology, so that is where I will go.

The “feed” referred to in the title of Anderson’s text is an extension of today’s always-on internet that is hard-wired, literally, into a person’s limbic system. The feed is available to use for chatting others, pulling up information, getting directions, playing games, “going mal,” and any number of other types of internet that we would use. Although, in Anderson’s world, the feed is tied into the brain, so there are no glasses to wear, headsets to don; people are hooked up from the word go and can be online, all the time. This, of course, allows for the other pervasive online activity to happen, too—advertising. The feed, through some sophisticated demographic profiling and GPS tracking can, without fail, give information to a person looking at a product on a shelf (or merely driving by a store or having a particular emotion that the product could help offset) better than any salesperson could ever hope to. The co-opting force of the dollar has taken over the feed, the internet, and is what—we find out later—makes the whole system run.

Anderson’s main character, Titus, is a typical teen in this connected world. To make a long story short, he meets up with an anti-establishment type, Violet, and they go through a series of events together that bring them together and push them apart at the same time. She attempts to resist the feed, in all its forms. I won’t spoil the end, but thought that you should know a little more about it before I get back to the technology. Wow, this is an unfocused book review. Sorry.

So, back to the tech aspects of it. First, I was trying to figure out if Anderson was truly prescient in his titling of the book, or if he just got lucky. In 2002, when it came out, I hadn’t heard of feeds, or RSS, and I wonder if many others had either. Although Wikipedia points to 1999 as the year feeds really kicked in, I thought that Anderson was just lucky. Then, I was talking with a friend and colleague at MSU, Davin Granroth, and he politely reminded me that news organizations like AP and UPI have been sending news over the wire, “feeding” it to newspapers and other journalists for years. Thanks, Davin, for pointing that out (and please excuse my ignorance of journalism. Duh.).

At any rate, the fact that Titus, Violet, and their friends can get news, or a definition, or anything else that they want, anytime, is both exciting and disheartening. For instance, I think of the fact that I carry my life around with me on a laptop and a cell phone. It is sad, but true, that if I lost this laptop, I would be doomed (at least somewhat—I did back it up on an external hard drive last week). Or, the fact that I don’t know phone numbers of my closest relatives and friends, I just pull up their name in my cell phone (which is, after all, my only phone). Or, that I have Max OS X’s Dashboard widgets constantly running so I can look things up on Wikipedia like the history of RSS. In fact, I think that these widgets are about the closest thing to begin connected to the feed that I have experienced so far, although certainly blogs and podcasts are right up there, too.

Also exciting, but scary, is the fact that because no one really has to know anything, School (with a big TM behind it) is really just a holding pen for these kids, even more so than today. They don’t really need to know anything, they can look it up on the feed. They don’t really have to have an opinion on anything, the feed provides it for them. They don’t really have to want anything in life, the feed tells they what they should do for fun, for love, for an image. At one point, a character is discouraged by the poverty he saw on a trip to, I believe, Mexico and then he turns to his friends and says how he can’t think about that because it is so depressing. That is bad in and of itself and then Anderson has the feed, of course, kick into this kid’s brain with something fun so he could, indeed, forget about poverty. Wow. Talk about me media.

Now, I am all for digital literacy. No shocker there. But, Anderson’s text raises some interesting points about being online, all the time. I talked with my son about this a little bit and I don’t think that he fully understands the implications of it, yet. Is he online? Sure he is? Is he pervasively online? No, not like me (always looking for wi fi gets old, right?). So, his general response to the text was that this is an interesting take on things, but not a likely future. I am not sure so. Anderson places it, as best I can tell by a historical reference in the text, at about the year 2200. The fact of the matter is that I think many of the things that he talks about are already happening.

Spam clogs email inboxes. Spyware watches us (especially those using IE). Banner ads and Google links fill our screens. The democratization of all things that the web was supposed to lead us to hasn’t quite come to fruition. Yet. Perhaps if Web 2.0 technologies continue to emerge and if teachers understand how to harness and use them in classrooms, then we stand a chance. If not, then the types of pervasive connectivity that Anderson envisions could come to fruition. We don’t want Web 3.0 (or whatever version it is in 2200) to look like this.

One other quick note about the text before moving into a final anecdote. My son was worried that I would be upset about the language that Anderson has his characters use. The f-bomb is omnipresent and just about everything else from the seven words you can’t say on television appears at one point or another. But, he and I were able to engage in an interesting discussion about discourse and the ways in which certain words become acceptable over time and in different contexts. For Anderson, these cussing terms are becoming so ubiquitous now that in another two hundred years we won’t even think about them as have ever been a curse word. There are other words that a character uses that confuse Titus and he doesn’t want to look the words up (although he could, easily). I think that Anderson makes an interesting point about how technology can influence our language, and it is a warning that we, as English teachers, shouldn’t take lightly.

And, for the promised anecdote, this time with my daughter. Tonight, she was on one of her two favorite websites, Nick Jr. (fortunately, PBS Kids is the other). In the time that it took me to get her on the website and leave the room to go run her bathwater, she was able to play two different games and print two pictures that she made (without having either my wife or I in there to show her the print button on the screen or how to turn on the printer!). She’s three and a half, by the way. While producing content (as best a three-year-old can), she also consumed some major advertising for this Nick Jr. show, to be sure, but also the obligatory commercials that they now put right into their site. When you click into certain games, you are hit with 30 second TV spots from their sponsors. Fortunately, Nick Jr. still gives you the option to skip the ad, if you can click fast enough. What is important to me about this, in the end, is the fact that she knows and understands what it means to be online and that we can play her games here, at home, but not when we are up north (and on, at best, a 28K dial-up). Wow.

In the end, it is interesting to note, in light of what feed’s message shares with us, that this is the type of online interactions that she, my son, and all of us may have to face in the future. How do I get around the advertising and the message that the media is portraying about my body image and sense of self in order to do the things that I find important to do online? I hope that we are teaching our students the critical literacy skills to answer those questions and create their own blogs, podcasts, wikis, and digital videos.

And, I hope we know the answer to whether this is the internet of the future well before 2200.

Notes on “Public and Portable Pedagogy: iTunes University and Networked Pedagogies”

Here are some notes from another session at CCCC that focused on the affordances and constraints of using iTunes U to distribute course content. Given the project that I am working on with Dawn right now and her students’ blogging and podcasting, this was a timely session. In particular, I appreciated Reid’s focus on issues of infrastructure. I think that many of us (people in my generation and older) tend to assume that all students know how to find and listen to podcasts — or have the capability to do so — may be false. Even if our students are “digital natives,” that doesn’t make them critical consumers of technology. More on these ideas as I reflect later on the project with Dawn.

For now, a summary of notes from the session. Even if it was more focused on higher ed concerns, the idea that composition and English teachers need to get into the discussions surrounding technology is worth sharing at all grade levels.

Here are some notes:

Alex Reid, Director of Professional writing at SUNY-Cortland – “Public and Portable Pedagogy: iTunes University and Networked Pedagogies”

  • Intro
    • Some numbers: 90 million iPods, 2.17 billion mobile phones, 3G networks
    • Howard Rheinholdt – The mobile internet will allow new things to be done
  • iTunes University
    • Contract with Apple to post files and they can be public or private
    • No wireless/mobile component in the technical sense
    • Yet, the real appeal is that iTunes U works with iPod, laptop, or mobile phone with the appropriate devices and access
  • Launching iTunes U Project
    • DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill’s infrastructure quote
      • “Too often, because of institutional and disciplinary trends, writing teachers are absent from the histories and development of [technology ] standards… It is no longer possible for us to look at a product of new media withough wondering what kinds of material and social realities make it possible.”
    • We need to move beyond the act of composing itself and into broader frames that embrace disciplinarity, culture, and other larger concepts
  • The End of the Sequesterd Campus
    • Porous Boundaries
    • Communication Flows
    • Formal and Informal discourses
    • Richard Lanah — The Economics of Attention — campuses are no longer the sequestered spaces that we imagine them to be as students are constantly in touch with the outside world
  • Actor-Network Theory (Latour)
    • “Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry… No matter how apparently simple a mediator may look, it may become complex; it may lead in multiple directions which will modify all the contradictory accounts attributed to its role.”
    • In other words, there is always something at work in these literacy acts
  • Composing in Media Networks
    • Take, for instance, students workong on a new media project in a computer lab. This scene is taking place in a larger context of the campus community, the infrastructure, market forces, other media, and many other aspects of the event.
    • Lev Manovich — “The Language of New Media” — basically, you are giving up something in the process given the processing speed, the time available, the media itself.
  • Materiality of Networked Composing
    • iTunes U only takes certain kinds of media files and if you don’t compress and save properly, it can make a mess of things
  • Redistributing the Local
    • “What has been designated by the term ‘local interaction’ is the assemblage of all the other local interactions distributed elsewhere in time and space, which have been brought to bear on the secne through the relays of various non-human actors” – Bruno Latour
    • Recognizing how the context (for instance, needing copyright free music) changes in the different composing spaces
  • Networking Disciplinarity
    • “A more complete understanding regarding how information connects in ways traditional English studies does not yet account for — the contradictory, overlapping, open, closed, and fluctuating systems of exchanges that networks create — is a challenge to the disciplinary identity of English as a field and to the identities that teachers and scholars in English embrace and request students to take on in their classrooms” — Jeff Rice
  • Personal Mobile Networks
    • People use these devices to maintain a tight social network of 3-5 people
    • As much as many professors want to keep text messages out of the classroom, students want their MySpace page to be “private,” too. Online identities, however, will be important in a post-graduate career, and so they need to negotiate the information flow in both directions.
  • Conclusions
    • New Information Flows: The professor can’t control the flow of information in and out of the classroom
    • New Authorities: no longer the expert
    • Closed/Secure and Open/Public Networks: what needs to be public, what needs to be private
    • New Habits: we need to create new habits that embrace these new material conditions of composing