Reflecting on Digital English in Taiwan

Screen Shot from Peace's Video Project
Screen Shot from Peace’s Video Project

With a little bit of time in Tokyo’s Narita Airport, I figured I should try to capture some of my thinking about teaching my Digital English Learning course at Shih Chien University (USC) in Taipei, Taiwan. As expected, the three weeks have disappeared already, and we focused conversations and class activities on issues such as online privacy, creating a professional digital footprint, participatory culture, media literacy, and, of course, digital writing.

Because I was teaching a course for the Applied Foreign Languages Department, most of my students were studying English. Yet, as with all students we teach across all contexts, my students in this course came with differing levels of proficiency. As the mantra goes, “we teach the students who are in front of us,” and after a few days and some formative assessments, I was able to adjust my expectations and pacing as I learned from them and they from me.

Having never fully learned another language myself — and having little official training in teaching English as a second or other language — I adapted many of the reading and writing strategies that I have used across the years, from teaching middle school to graduate school, and our shared efforts — me teaching, them learning; me learning, them teaching — seemed to work quite well. They produced more and more writing as the weeks went on, and that led to more participation in class. In hindsight, I am sure that I could have scaffolded more interaction in class, and helped them get to know one another better, so if I had that portion of my teaching to do over again, I would focus more intently on community building in the first few days.

Still, I was able to work with them in class as well as through individual writing conferences with many students (on the weekend, no less), and I modeled the researching, thinking, and writing process for them with Google Docs, Citelighter, WriteLab, resources from the Purdue OWL. This also led to modeling and trying a variety of multimedia tools that they could use to create and share their final presentations. Last night, they shared their projects, with most creating work with Prezi and Powtoon.

Most of the projects were quite good, and a few really stood out. One student, TJ, created both a Prezi discussing the positives and negatives of using social media and, embedded within it, he also produced a short live-action film using WeVideo. Using the example of a friend who got in a fight with his girlfriend via social media, TJ demonstrates the ways that he can compose multiple forms of media and blend them together to create an effective argument.

https://prezi.com/embed/dwciewb6g42e/?bgcolor=ffffff&lock_to_path=0&autoplay=0&autohide_ctrls=0&PARENT_REQUEST_ID=e84402de13f4b43a#

Another student, Emma, took the idea of “remix” that we discussed in the class, and created a mash-up of news stories about Snapchat to complement her brief oral presentation.

As mentioned, many students used PowToon, and Banet’s was one of the most powerful examples. Combining critical media literacy skills with his knowledge of social media and fashion, he effectively blended images of fashion, his own voices, and elements from PowToon to create a compelling description of what the industry is doing — and could do better — with social media.

Finally, Peace found that he could not accomplish all his goals with WeVideo, so he turned to iMovie. Combining his own drawings with screencasting and other found images, Peace creates a thoughtful argument about the ways in which students can, and should, take responsibility for their use of technology in learning.

There are more projects than what I can reasonably feature here in a blog post, yet these four represent a great deal of thinking, writing, and learning that has happened in our brief three weeks together. I’ve enjoyed the experience teaching at Shih Chien, and I hope that you enjoy these students’ projects as much as I have enjoyed watching my students create them.


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Digital Mentor Text #6: Feminist Frequency

One last post here on digital mentor texts for the week, with some time to read and reflect planned for the weekend.

I have to admit, my original plan to end the week was an “oldie, but goodie” (we can we consider 2007 “old,” at least in YouTube terms, right?): The Machine is Us/ing Us by Michael Wesch. It’s still worth a watch, for sure, and maybe I will use it to frame my reflection on this process of writing and thinking about digital mentor texts.

For now, I want to share one in a series of videos that I hadn’t seen before this week. Thanks to Ryan Rish for sharing a link to the “Feminist Frequency” series of videos created by Anita Sarkeesian. Ryan tweeted a link to the first of Anita’s videos in the “Tropes vs. Women” series, and that led me to the FF website, where there are many, many more of Anita’s videos. I watched a few, very much enjoying Anita’s critical, feminist reading of popular culture. She doesn’t hold back in her commentary — either with the critique or the humor — and some of the videos wouldn’t work well in middle, or in some instances, even high school classrooms.

That said, here is one that I think would fit a broader audience, and there are quite a few points/questions about digital writing that can be made from this mentor text.

Besides the topic itself — the gendered way in which television advertisements for toys position our sons and daughters — the video itself helps me think about a number of issues:

  • First and foremost, how Anita employs techniques from and pushes against the styles of  the typical format of television news and Hollywood style talk shows. What are the moves that she makes — as a newscaster, as a producer, as a video editor splicing together elements from commercials — that make this an effective digital mentor text?
  • In her framing of ads for  boys vs. girls, Anita talks about how boys are able to “make” or “construct” things, and how that is the foundation for creativity and a fulfilling adult life. She then juxtaposes that analysis with comments on the girls’ commercials, ones that she describes as __. However, the girls are making something, albeit snow, hairstyles, cupcakes and the like. Yet, one could argue that the boys’ act of “making” — following the directions to build a Lego set, for instance — is actually conformist, not creative. This could make for an interesting discussion in, you guessed it, a student-produced video essay/response.
  • Clearly, and without hesitation, Anita has an agenda is these videos. From the logical sequence of the segments to her word choice and tone of voice — “How fun!” with a sarcastic tone and giddy shrug of the shoulders — she makes her concerns known. This is both a strength of these videos (making them emotionally engaging and compelling to view) and a weakness, in that there is no viable counter-argument.
    • That said, the argument that she makes is persuasive, relying on ethos (her appeal to authority, in that she is certainly knowledgable, and has taken considerable time to produce the video), pathos (her appeal to the audience’s emotions, in that she is a passionate speaker and picks pertinent examples), and logos (her appeal to logic, in that she uses both actual examples of commercials aimed at children and statistics from the advertising industry to back up her claims).
    • She also extends her argument to the video game and technology industry, not just television commercials.
    • She makes a strong claim, too, towards the end: All advertising towards young people needs to stop, no exceptions.
  • Finally, there are significant issues surrounding copyright and fair use — because she uses so many clips from popular media — and she includes a disclaimer at the end of each video describing how she meets the standards for fair use. As an example of how someone can employ copyrighted materials in service of commentary and critique, Anita’s work provides a great example, even though she has suffered take down notices, too.

All that said, Anita’s work with Feminist Frequency is amazing, and leads me to think about how we could also invite students to do feminist critiques of Disney films or other pop culture icons. That would provide better fodder for a persuasive essay or research paper than the old stand-bys of school lunches, uniforms, and vacation lengths.

And, with this being my last official entry in the digital mentor text series, I want to send a hearty thanks to my colleagues, BillKatieKevinTony and, especially Franki, for inspiring us to do the series. I have many posts to read, review, and reflect upon, and I have appreciated having some company this week in the edublogosphere.

Until next time…

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Digital Mentor Text #3: “The Power of Words”

My third contribution to the digital mentor text series centers on the idea of creating a short, live action film. As I mentioned in my post last week, and Franki reiterated, so many times in video production we give students the camera and simply hope that something good comes from it. As (digital) writers, we need to help them become much more intentional about their storytelling.

This short film, “The Power of Words,” went viral (I first saw it from a forwarded email). Sadly, the concept was not original, yet this short commercial gained more traction than the original short movie, “Historia de un letrero, The Story of a Sign.” Yet, that is part of what makes this digital mentor text — an imitation or, more artistically stated, an homage — so interesting. Matt Eventoff has outlined a number of key points related to the construction of the film (as well as implications for public speaking and advertising), so I won’t repeat all of them here, and Lou Hoffman interviews the filmmaker, who acknowledges the influence of the original film. Take a moment to view the video, then let’s think about how we can watch this as a digital mentor text.

There are times when we ask our students to imitate published authors, and to do so quite intentionally. We recognize this not as an act of plagiarism, but as a way for them to study and learn technique. It is interesting to think about the different teachable moments that could come from this conversation about the idea itself — and whether it is “unique” as an intellectual property — as well as about the media employed in the film, thus raising questions about copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons. In academia, it is so ironic that we are all about enforcing the idea that students come up with original writing and that they don’t steal the words of someone else, yet we cram five-paragraph essays and scripted research papers down their throats. If we invite them to imitate a digital mentor text, we need to help them learn how to do it appropriately, and do it well.

I think that this film, as an imitation of another Cannes Festival short, can tell help us generate a number of important questions about when, how, and why we may want to use imitation. Obviously, there are so many examples of what we could want our students to do ranging from movie trailers to PSAs, yet the idea of creating a short film, especially one that imitates an existing film, could be useful for a variety of reasons.

  • What are the decisions that the digital writers will have to make about the characters, setting, dialogue, framing, pacing, and other related elements of the film itself? How might you adapt this to your own context?
  • What is the main message from the original film and how is that message conveyed? Are there elements in the original film that could be replaced? What must stay the same?
  • In what ways can you construct a complete narrative to fit within a certain timeframe, both in terms of the time you have to film it as well as the total length you want for the film? (This reminds me, in some way, of creating a six word story).
  • What are the rhetorical techniques at play in this film? Why did the filmmaker(s) construct it in the manner that he/she/they did? What can you, as a digital writer, learn from that construction?

So, those are some thoughts on this short film, one that was created in the image of another short film. If the film itself doesn’t raise some questions for you, then I at least hope that this idea of imitation — when, how, and why to use imitation — certainly does.

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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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Fox News HackJam

At the WIDE-EMU Un-Conference, Andrea Zellner introduced us to Hackasuarus and the idea that we can remix websites as a form of digital writing and expression. So, given the very limited time that we had, I wanted to try to make something that was a political commentary. This was an interesting digital writing process, as I had to quickly learn how to use the Hackasaurus “X-Ray Goggles” then identify a website that I wanted to critique, find alternative images to place in that website (alternate logo and alternate ad) and use a photo editing service to hack together two sections of the image (to remove a banner ad) before posting to Flickr.

That’s a heck of a lot to do in just 15 minutes, and it raises questions about what we are able (and should do) with students in our writing classrooms, but here is my final image:

Fox New Hack Jam

Quite a neat idea, and one that I need to consider as I think about teaching ENG 201 next semester…

Post created by Troy HicksOriginally posted on the NWP HackJam blog, 10/16/11.

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Quick Thoughts on the State of Tech Ed

Earlier today, I was sent a request for an email interview from a CMU undergraduate. I only had a quick turnaround time to reply (so she could get enough info to write her paper about technology in education), but her deadline encouraged me to be brief in my responses. With her permission, I share her questions and my answers here. As I prepare for many professional development events coming up in the next few weeks, this was a good time to capture some of my thoughts in such a succinct manner.

What are some specific topics you have researched in technology?
My research focuses on the ways that teachers integrate technology into writing instruction. In particular, I am interested in how K-12 teachers blend a writing workshop approach to instruction with specific technologies such as blogs, wikis, collaborative word processing, digital stories, and other multimedia to engage students in meaningful writing and learning.
What are the “hot topics” right now?
Given President Obama’s interest in STEM and the new national educational technology plan, I think that the main focus on technology use in education is for science and math instruction. Also, with the push towards more student engagement, paperless classrooms, increased wireless broadband access, and tablet computing, I think that we have an interesting opportunity to change the ways that teaching and learning takes place inside and outside of school.
Describe the current debates of using technology in the classroom
I think that the main debate centers less on why we should use technology, as that is more or less a given, and more on why to use it. On the one hand, we have advocates for online/virtual learning that acts as a supplement or replacement for instruction. On the other, we have advocates who suggest that students should be using the technology to communicate and create, not just for remediation. As we continue to push for technology in schools, I hope that we invite students to be collaborators,  communicators, and creators, and not just to reinforce old models of instruction with newer, shinier tools.
Have you read any informational journals or books on technology?
I do read journals and books, and those are helpful resources, but get most of my news comes from educational bloggers/tweeters and eSchool News.
How do you conduct research?
For the most part, I do research with teachers as we co-design curriculum and instruction that is technologically-rich and pedagogically-sound. This involves time talking and planning with teachers, working with them and their students, doing follow-up interviews and surveys, and then integrating my thoughts and ideas into the existing literature and knowledge about technology in education and writing.
Where do you get funding to support your research?
Mostly from grant dollars which allow me to have release time. For instance, we currently have a grant from the National Writing Project for our local CMU site, the Chippewa River Writing Project. Also, I am working on a Title II Professional Development grant, WRITE NOW.
If I were to look for sources to write grants, where would I go?
For your own classroom, you would look most likely to local sources like community or school foundations. For the district or regional level, you would look to other agencies such as the Michigan Department of Education or National Writing Project.
What are the most enjoyable parts of being a researcher?
For me, the most enjoyable part of being a researcher is working with teachers to help them develop their own passions and ideas into classroom practice. The second most enjoyable part is being able to write and talk about those ideas in my own CMU classes and in professional development sessions that I lead around the country.
Do you ever work with a partner? How?
I am almost always working with partners. From the teachers that I meet with and plan projects to other CMU staff and faculty who help me develop and implement grants, I am working with partners all the time. Especially with writing, I am constantly working with colleagues to do grant applications, human subjects research applications, chapters, articles, books, and presentations.
What are the frustrations of being a researcher?
My main frustration is that I have to divert my attention away from research, writing, and collaboration to write reports and attend meetings that have little to do with my research. Yet, I understand that this is how the university works, and I really do enjoy being a researcher so I am willing to put up with the frustrations.
What do you think will come with the future of technology in education?
That’s a huge question. While I am not 100% sure of what will come, what I would hope will come is something like this: all teachers and students will have ubiquitous and uninterrupted one-to-one access to a tablet or other computing device, high speed wireless internet, and numerous online, open educational resources. This would allow for anytime, anywhere learning that truly pushes us to be instructional coaches and leaders for our students, since the answer to simple questions will only be a Google search away, and we can spend our time answering the bigger, more complicated questions through project-based learning.
Are there are connections to other disciplines? Or opportunities for interdisciplinary research?
Yes, there are many, many opportunities for this when you think about writing and technology. I think that you could connect to any discipline given the interest that you can generate from working with colleagues in that discipline. In particular, I am interested in how English teachers and librarian/media specialists could work together to address concerns about information literacy, copyright, and plagiarism.


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Notes from Erin Reilly’s “Remix Culture for Learning” at SITE 2010

The Gap Between Life and Art: Remix Culture for Learning

Erin Reilly, University of Southern California


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