Digital Mentor Text #1: “The Majestic Plastic Bag”

There are already some great conversations getting started about mentor texts in the digital writing workshop, and I have lots of reading to catch up on!

Before I share my thoughts on the first video, I have to say that I am truly humbled to see how the ideas that I have been thinking about, reflecting on, and continuing to develop for years — especially related to the digital writing workshop — are coming through in so many other teachers’ voices. For that, I am both humbled and truly thankful.

When Franki shared her session about digital mentor texts at the conference in October and again at NCTE, I saw the ideas that I introduced in the book take yet another form, and gain momentum from another thoughtful, reflective teacher. Being able to write this series with my long-time NWP colleague, Kevin, as well as the many new colleagues I have met in the past three years — Franki, Bill, Katie, and Tony — is a great way to think about my next book, this next semester, and the future of digital writing in our schools and classrooms.

So, all that said, it is time to jump into a first video. For each video that I share this week, I will try to offer a few questions and ideas for you as a bit of pre-viewing thinking, then I will post the video and/or link to it on YouTube, and then will offer some kind of video annotation/commentary. I do all of this both to show examples of great mentor texts as well as to share, at least indirectly, ways of responding to digital videos. While I will not talk a great deal about assessment, at least not in the descriptions of the videos, I do hope that you will think about how tools (like my use of Jing today) can help you assess digital writing, both formatively and summatively.

For the first professionally-produced video that could work as digital mentor text, I thank my editor from Heinemann, Tobey Antao, for pointing out this mockumentary, “The Majestic Plastic Bag,” produced by Heal the Bay, located in Santa Monica, CA. A smart and concise summary comes from Sami Grover on Threehugger.com.

For the first time ever, a team of crack wildlife film makers have tracked the “majestic” plastic bag on its long journey from its urban birthplace all the way to its natural habitat—the pacific ocean. Quite remarkable. Narrated by Jeremy Irons, this BBC-style mockumentary captures the journey of one lone plastic bag as it traverses many dangers—from terriers to park services—on its long and arduous journey to join its fellow petroleum products in their natural and enduring habitat—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Created by Heal the Bay, the video is a fun, and in many ways eerily (and ironically) beautiful, call to action. Campaigners are urging Californians to support to support AB 1998, a California bill that would ban plastic bags at major retailers.

While the statewide ban did not go into effect, the video offers us some lessons as a digital mentor text, especially in relation to point of view, and of parody. So, please watch the video, then my commentary (my apologies in advance for the screencast, as it is taking a long time to buffer and I am not quite sure why).

I am using Jing for the annotation, and while this allows me to put audio comments on the version of the film playing in the background, it does not necessarily allow me to create an online space for students to respond and have a discussion. I tried using VideoANT, and may again later in the week, but this particular video didn’t work well with that annotation tool. That said, everything about using technology in education comes down to the fact that we often need to improvise, and this works fine. So, here is my “director’s cut” type of commentary, via Jing.

http://content.screencast.com/users/hickstro/folders/Jing/media/cb4a7126-4b8b-4295-897e-d7fd44bd71a5/jingswfplayer.swf

As a professionally-produced digital mentor text, The Majestic Plastic Bag has quite a few points to take in mind as we talk with students.

  • In order to enjoy this film — or any other parody — a viewer has to have enough knowledge about the genre being parodied, as well as enough knowledge about the topic in order to make things funny. This reminds me of Barry Lane’s ideas behind Wacky We-Search, where the facts are presented in a different, humorous manner, rather than in a straight “research paper” kind of way. Humor — good humor — requires the writer to bring wit and insight to a topic through creative ideas and expression. While I hesitate to make connections to texts that we may not be able to use in school, obviously The Onion, the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report offer us many opportunities to examine parody.
  • This particular film uses a variety of action shots — close ups, mid-range, and wide-angle — to show the journey of the bag. Music and sound effects also help to set the mood of the movie, mimicking the style of a nature documentary with perfect precision. Two University of Minnesota professors offer some great resources on documentary film-making techniques: Robert Yaknhe’s list and Richard Beach’s strategies from the Teaching Media Literacy wiki. Helping students understanding the techniques, those moves that a digital writer can make, will help them craft a better video. Doing digital writing well is not just a copy/paste, point/click endeavor. It requires technique.
  • Finally, as a film ultimately intended to be persuasive, not just informational, this film speaks to the larger political purposes of designing, composing, publishing, and distributing digital writing. As a video on YouTube, it is easy for people to tweet or post to social networks, and of course is open for commentary. Also, this film brought in Jeremy Irons as a narrator, sure to help its search/ranking on Google and YouTube. The filmmaker and Heal the Bay have been very savvy in producing this film, widely appealing to a variety of audiences, just in time for the vote in CA. Also, it is brief and clearly a parody, which helps its ability to “go viral.”  I am not sure how popular it was in the regular media outlets, as most Google searching reveals links from niche websites focusing on environmental issues, yet the nearly 1.6 million views suggest that it did have a wide reach.

As you think about documentary (or mockumentary/parody) as one possibility for your students, I hope that some of these initial thoughts are helpful for you, both in viewing and composing this type of digital text.

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Digital Mentor Texts Preview

This will be a busy weekend of writing as I prep for our series on mentor texts in the digital writing workshop.

I would like to say that I can write most of these posts as the week progresses, but my past history as a blogger (being somewhat irregular in my posting patterns) as well as the start of the new semester next week tells me that I need to get some things organized this weekend. Also, I want to respond to what Bill, KatieKevinTony and Franki post over the next few days as well, so I am getting as much of my writing done as possible this weekend.

To that end, I have decided to focus my attention on digital mentor texts that are professionally produced videos, readily available on YouTube. I’ve chosen to do this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that when I talk with teachers about digital writing it seems that the most difficult week for them to make —  moving from traditional, textual form of writing into more multimodal pieces —  is this shift to composing video. I think that most teachers can see the value in creating a piece of writing and having a student read it aloud to be recorded as a podcast, and that all teachers recognize the need for our students to become public speakers and to be able to prepare a slide deck for an oral presentation. I also think that many of them see value in using particular tools such as screencasting or Prezi, although the projects that get created sometimes did not go through an entire “writing process” in the way that we would expect the traditional essay, book review, or research paper to go through.

Yet, creating videos, good videos — whether they are live-action, a series of images either digital or hand-drawn, a demonstration via screencast,  or animation —  takes time, energy, and effort that goes above and beyond simply asking students to “make a video” without much direction or support. Many teachers asked me whether or not video production really falls under the purview of English class, rather hoping to delegate it to no luck of course in film production or simply ignoring it altogether. It is one thing to put a flip video camera into a child’s hands and asked them to create something where is this something entirely different to frame that video production process through the lens of writing or, more broadly, composing.

For instance, while I appreciate what Alan Sitomer did with his “digital book report” contest last year, I feel that the production value of the short films could have been much higher had students thought more carefully about the craft of composing video. For instance, the middle school winners who produced the video report on Holes were on target with their general script for the video and the major events they wanted to include from the book. Yet, the video itself moves forward in a very haphazard way, and it is clear that the students are only using the props and locations easily available to them rather than doing any kind of set design or other planning.  I mention these aspects not to criticize the students for what they did, because obviously Alan and the other judges for this contest from the video entertaining and useful. Still, I think that there could be other examples of how students might compose the digital book report that would show more complexity of thought, as well as artistic expression. It’s the difference between handing them a flip camera and giving them an hour to pull something together as compared to spending time talking about the craft of digital writing.

Thus, in focusing on digital video (and on professionally produced digital videos in particular), I want to invite teachers and students to think about how the video was made as well as their emotional and intellectual response to it, yet to also think about how writing —  from brainstorming initial ideas, to creating a script and storyboard, to imagining the types of processes that one must go through to compose a visual text —  plays a major part of the process of creating such a video. I also want to think about some tech tools that we use, like screen casting, and how we might be able to repurpose those tools as a way for reflection and assessment. I will also try to connect the video for each post that I write to some of the larger goals that we have for teaching writing, such as stating a clear thesis, adding appropriate details and examples, and making connections to other texts. Finally, of course, the production of video automatically brings up a number of concerns about copyright and fair use, as well as Creative Commons licensing. since this is a component of our work as English teachers that will only continue to become more and more a part of what we do each day, I think that digital video offers us good opportunities to discuss these issues.

So, those are some thoughts from a Friday morning as I prepare to find some digital mentor texts to write about this weekend. I already received one great lead for my editor at Heinemann, and I have a few other ideas to follow up on.  I look forward to the conversation that will unfold over the next week.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.