Composing Community

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My friend and RCWP colleague, Marcus Brown, has been working for about a year to open the Village Summit in the house next door to his Lansing home. You can read about many of the trials and tribulations that Marcus, his wife, and everyone involved in creating the Village Summit have had to endure in this article from the Lansing State Journal.

In trying to figure out a way that I could help Marcus and his cause, he suggested that I spend some time with him and help develop a website for the center that highlights its services and activities. And here is where the power of  digital writing comes into the picture…

Marcus and I began talking about this last year and began a Google Site for his organization. As it does, time slipped by, we both neglected the website for a long while, and kind of forgot about it. But, when talking with him over breakfast in December, and trying to figure out how I could help, he began discussing all the ways in which we wanted to use a website to reach out to his community — people in his neighborhood helping with the Village Summit, other community organizations, the Lansing Mayor’s Office and City Council, and beyond. I was thinking about the software that he could use to compose this site, immediately moving my mind to the suite of tools that Google offers including Sites, Picasa, Maps, and Calendar. After working together for the better part of two hours, we updated the site, adding images, maps, and a calendar, not to mention a good deal of Marcus’s writing and poetry that show his passion for education and serving his community.

And, so, in less than two hours, the Village Summit had a (revised) website.

On the one hand, we could look at this as nothing remarkable. Yep, we have Google Sites and can insert plug-ins and, wow, doesn’t that make life easier for us when we make web pages.

Yet, in digging a little deeper and thinking about the socio-cultural, technical, and political literacy practices associated with how Marcus composed a site about a community center for a variety of audiences and purposes, I find the digital writing task in which the two of us were engaged to be quite fascinating. To be sure, even a few years ago, he could have created a similar site with a variety of web-based tools or software. It would have taken awhile, and he would have likely had to use a site like Geocities that put ads on his work (or buy a domain).

But, using this suite of Google tools, and having a specific set of purposes and audiences in mind, he was able to compose a multimedia text — a website that employs text, links to videos, images, and maps — to distribute his message. Composing community. All in about two hours. In less time than it used to take us to design, produce content for, and upload a basic website using Dreamweaver and FTP.

And, it’s free.

And, it’s collaborative, so others can add content.

And, it’s a public voice for a community that, even a few years ago may not have had the time or resources to develop a web-based message.

To me, as a teacher of digital writing, this was really an epiphany. Yes, of course I knew that anyone could hop online and make a site, or a blog, or a wiki, or a twitter account. Yes, I realized that our digital writing can be collaborative and shared widely. Yet, I didn’t think very clearly, until that day when Marcus and I met, about the power of digital writing — in really just a moment — to compose entire communities, to bring something into existence in ways that would have been difficult or impossible even a few years ago. I had heard of it happening with different tools, over time. But, in just under two hours, we were able to take what Marcus had started a year ago as a dream, and what we initially tried to capture on the web last summer, and brought them both together.

For me, watching Marcus connect his many literacy practices and personal passions to create this website show the heart of what it means to be multiliterate in a digital world.

Thanks, Marcus, for reminding me of it, and for all that you do to serve your community.

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Story on CRWP from The News @ Central

From our site visit earlier this winter, the media and public relations team at CMU has put together an article and podcast about the Chippewa River Writing Project. I find it fitting that as we pursue digital writing within the project that the way in which it was announced to the CMU community comes in the form of a web-based article and podcast.

CMU becomes site for National Writing Project

The National Writing Project, a federally funded professional development program with nearly 200 sites, provides over 7,000 programs for K-16 teachers across the country, reaching more than 135,000 participants in 2008. The CRWP was one of ten new sites established in the U.S. this year.

“We aim to develop programs unique to CRWP that will distinguish us in the state and nation by addressing the issues that face us in northeastern Michigan. We will do so by utilizing technology for distance learning and building on the strengths of the English department and interests of local teachers,” said Troy Hicks, a CMU English faculty member and director of the CRWP.

Hicks is optimistic about the impact the writing project site will have on teachers in the area.

“My goal is to establish the CRWP as a site that partners with teachers in suburban and rural settings throughout northeastern Michigan, utilizing technology to both support their professional learning as well as to become a key component in their own teaching,” Hicks said.

My journey with the National Writing Project began in 2003 with my participation in my first summer institute at Red Cedar Writing Project and has continued to take me in places, personally and professionally, that I could not have imagined. To say that beginning a new writing project is a dream come true, despite the cliche, would be an understatement. So, it is with great anticipation that I look forward to our summer institute that begins in a few short weeks.

As a key component of the summer institute, we have created a wiki to organize, share, and archive our writing, teaching demos, and discussions. My hope is that by working with a digital writing space as our main point of contact in the summer institute, we will establish the habits of mind that will make collaborating and communication with digital writing tools a part of the fabric of our writing project. Because our service area will cover so many rural communities in northern Michigan, my plan is to engage teachers and students in digital writing so that they have opportunities to connect outside of their classroom, school, and district in meaningful ways, with technology being a part of an equation that focuses first on the writer and then on the mode and media of the writing.

So, as the summer institute gets closer and I have more opportunities to think about how we are engaging in digital writing, my hope is to capture some of that thinking here. In additional to having human subjects research approval and media releases from all the participants in the summer institute, my plan is to blog more regularly so we can really document how a digital writing project unfolds in its first year.

Wish us luck, and feel free to join the wiki and contribute, too!

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Congrats to Janet and all RCWP Teachers

Been a long time since I’ve been blogging… hope to get “caught up” on some emerging ideas over spring break. But, for now, here is some good news from RCWP. Congrats to Janet for her leadership and all my colleagues whose work made this award possible!

The Engaged Scholar – Featured MSU Engaged Faculty – Janet A. Swenson

Janet Swenson knows that effective communication depends on far more than simply the written word. Over the past few years numerous powerful and inexpensive communication technologies have become available to the average user. Cell phones enhanced with camera, video, and keyboard capacities, along with fully functioning, highly portable mini-notebook computers, have emerged in conjunction with Internet-based social networking and collaborative writing opportunities.

Since 1993 Swenson has directed the Red Cedar Writing Project (RCWP), an educational outreach program and professional development network that serves teachers of writing at all grade levels. RCWP is also MSU’s site of the National Writing Project, which aims to improve student achievement across the United States by improving the teaching of writing and improving learning. Keeping pace with emerging technologies is one of the ways that RCWP does that.