Using Words for Good

Something I love deeply and profoundly about teaching writing and reading is the ability to delve into what words can do and how they do those things. Words are amazing. They can literally create realities. J.L. Austin’s description of a “performative utterance” has forever shifted my understanding of the power of language. Austin explores the ability of words to perform and accomplish things, noting that sometimes,

“the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action – it is not …. just saying something” (7).

Composition and communication affect change. The prospect of this is so beautiful and so terrifying that it sometimes makes me weep.

As an English teacher, this prospect is one of my driving motivators. If we are dealing in creating and consuming words and texts, we are necessarily wrestling with what those words and texts do. The power and influence we are toying with is not something to be taken lightly. The ways this truth impacts my lessons, assignments, and demeanor in the classroom are diverse, shifting, and complex. I can’t say I entirely understand them myself. However, just the other day, my wonderful school, Lexington Christian Academy, hosted a small event that I thought truly encapsulated the importance of teaching and then allowing students to deal wisely with their meaning making and composition.

As most truly great ideas are, this one was cooked up by the students involved in the student-led Peer Issues Group (PIG). The idea was simple: to anonymously post encouraging phrases written by students in the student bathroom, and to allow other students to anonymously share some of their struggles and encouragement. This was a bathroom graffiti-style activity and, since I often use the student bathroom in order to avoid an infinitesimally longer walk to the faculty bathroom, I was able to bask in its glory.

Students blew me away with the vulnerability, tenderness, and strength of their anonymous words. With their simple, brief compositions, they managed to support, build community with, and listen to one another. Their words DID something. What they wrote mattered, and you could feel it as you stood there and read what they had to say. The activity was simple, but, in my opinion, powerfully demonstrated the ability of words to create real change and exert real influence in individuals and communities.

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For what I have learned will never be the last time, I sat there learning from my students, letting my students’ words teach me about the power of allowing them and helping them to use their words for good. I’m still working to learn the lesson.

 

What is this, an art room or something?

If I had a nickel for every time someone walked into my room and asked this question with a smirk on their face…

I’m not offended by it; in fact, quite the opposite is true. What I could do without, however, is the tone in which the question is often pronounced. The asker almost always seems to be suggesting a subtle amusement at the frivolity of a room that should be dedicated to “serious literary scholarship.” It’s as if they are skeptical that real academic rigor in the literary discipline could possibly occur in a room such as this one.

This question, and the attitude that so often accompanies it, represents a school of thought that I find deeply concerning when it comes to the way we tend to approach the study of the English language. In our concern surrounding declining literacy rates and plummeting standardized test scores, we seem to have lost sight of something big. Reading and writing are artistic endeavors. Scholarship in the realms of composition and meaningful interactions with texts has to take place against a backdrop of curiosity, play, and creativity. I have seen this most poignantly in my own teaching. When students are able to play with texts, probe them, translate them into different modes, and wrestle with them, their work comes alive. This kind of learning, in my opinion, relies very heavily on the affordances of incorporating multimodality into the English classroom, which I’ve blogged about before. It also relies on an emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of composition and reading. Why can’t my classroom be an English room and an art room and a science room and a programming room and whatever else my kids want to mess around with in order to create and interact with texts?

When we panic in the face of test scores and standards, we end up stifling our students under the weight of our own ideas on what makes for competitive literary studies.  We suffocate their ability to love reading and writing in our efforts to make them literate. Instead, I believe our goal should be to teach them how to dive headlong into all the different ways meaning can be made and experienced through composition.

And so, when I am asked that dismissive question about my room and, by extension, my student’s work, I proudly answer: Yep, among other things. 

And if you want to see some legitimate literary scholarship performed in ways that may fall under the category of art, feast your eyes on the smart and explorative compositions by many of my students in the slide show below. It strikes me as very worth noting that a good portion of these works were done entirely voluntarily, in addition to required classwork, simply because those students felt like they wanted to augment the meaning of their pieces using some of the tools at their disposal.

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Many of these images above show visual representations of academic essays, illustrations from short stories, or brainstorms for poetry. And if you think these artistic endeavors didn’t make for some wildly excellent written texts, you obviously haven’t read my students’ work.

Using Digital Activities in the Classroom – Part 4 of 5: Storify

I am absolutely loving my first year of full-time lead teaching; however, it has been consuming enough to take me until now to get to the next installment in my series on using digital activities in the classroom, introduced in this post.

As I slowly work through this series, I’m going to use this post to explore a tool that I have only recently added to my digital toolbox: Storify.

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This post in my digital classroom activities series just HAPPENS to coincide with a little side venture that my teacher-friends Anne Mooney, Megan Grandmont, and myself  undertook this past summer in which we argued in a group text thread over the difference between transmodal and transmedia composition and then converted the whole conversation into a Storify story. The whole thing was loads of fun and you can read about it in this blog post. Coming off of completing this side-project, however, I am extra enthusiastic about the affordances of Storify and how it can be used in a high school classroom!

What is Storify?
Before we get too far, let me explain what Storify is. Storify is a free, online tool that allows you as the user to draw from multiple social media and online resources including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Soundcloud, Tumblr, and a variety of other sites, curating information to meet your needs. You can also enter urls to find google images or particular sites. The links, images, or videos that you pull from these different resources can then be assembled into a timeline or “story.” The story is entirely linear; each element has to come before or after the others. As you are assembling your story, you can enter text to give the story shape, flow, and cohesion. The end result is a multimedia summary or record of a topic or event with information aggregated from a host of different sources.

Examples:
Perhaps the best way to understand Storify is simply to read through some examples.

  • HERE is an example of an ongoing story started in 2011 by journalist Josh Stearns who used Storify to track the arrests of journalists covering the Occupy protests. The chronological nature of Stearns’ project works well with Storify’s linear structure. Storify’s ability to draw from various social media outlets helps Stearns consolidate a wide array of disparate pieces of information into his story.
  • HERE is a story capturing the unfolding story of an elderly bus monitor who was harassed by some students, triggering a national response of donations so that she could retire early.
  • HERE is an excellent how-to story that guides students through the paper-writing process, offering links to tools and articles as they go.
  • HERE is the story I created with my colleagues to capture our process of working through the difference between the terms “transmodal” and “transmedia.”

The possibilities are pretty immense with Storify, both in terms of using some of the incredible stories that are out there as well as creating some of your own.

Classroom Applications:
Because the possibilities with Storify are so diverse, the potential classroom applications also cover a fairly wide, interdisciplinary gambit. I’ve compiled the following list, which is by no means comprehensive:

  • Research: Storify lends itself to compiling and organizing research because it inherently connects students to a wide variety of sources. It encourages students to consider multimedia options and to arrange those sources in meaningful ways. Because Storify connects users to several social media platforms, it also lends itself to considering the current and real-world impact their subject of research has on the world around them. The ability to include text with any element in the story allows students to create a kind of multimedia annotated bibliography that can be edited and shared at any time. Here is a student example of a more formal annotated bibliography completed in Storify.
  • Drafting and Outlining: Storify can serve as an excellent pre-writing or drafting tool. Although it is designed to curate information from a variety of sources, original writing can play a major role in a story. Students can outline and draft essays, papers, or personal responses in their story, sectioning their work into different blocks of text. Those blocks of texts can be moved around by simply dragging and dropping, encouraging students to consider the flow and chronology of their compositions. Students can then begin to build on those individual text blocks, expanding their outline into a full, written composition.
  • Digital Writing: While the prior two ideas consider Storify to be more of a process tool for students to employ on their way to creating their final product, this suggestion proposes that a Story may make for an excellent final product in and of itself. Combining Storify’s ability to draw on diverse, multimedia documents and to integrate original writing creates the opportunity for students to explore digital writing in new and meaningful ways. Students can create robust, multimodal, and intertextual research papers, reports, or essays using Storify’s platform. These Storify essays, reports, and papers can be brief (like this student essay on the effects of social class on education) or they can be more complex and lengthy (like this student research paper on the responses to a presidential debate). Using a Storify story as a final document can encourage students to think creatively about their writing and research, push themselves to incorporate more multimodality into their composition, and expand their idea of what it means to write in scholarly contexts.

Again, I will stress that this list is by no means comprehensive! There are infinite possibilities when using a program like Storify, each possibility with its own set of potential assignments.

Pros and Cons:
As with any pedagogical tool, there are affordances and constraints to using Storify in the classroom. Some of the cautions and concerns I have personally and that I have found considered in posts like this one from professor and rhetorician Rebecca Harris include asking students to use their recreational social media knowledge for academic and scholarly purposes. Using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to hold academic conversations or pursue academic ends does require students to use familiar tools in an unfamiliar way. While this may end up being an actual strength of the project, I would anticipate it requiring some intentional discussion and exploration at the beginning of any project.

That being said, the potential affordances that accompany work created using Storify are immense. One of the most important aspects of this project in my opinion deals with some of the borderline debilitating anxiety that I see many of my students experience around writing. Despite my students’ incredible skill at composing texts, messages, and captions in social media contexts, sitting down with a pen and paper or at a word processor to craft a composition out of nothing paralyzes them. Storify scaffolds this process for them by resembling more familiar, lower stakes composition contexts and by allowing students to pull in information from a variety of sources to supplement and guide their writing processes. I think my students would feel a little bit more like “the expert” in assignments like these, allowing them the confidence to experiment and play with their composition.

Another major benefit of using Storify to guide classroom writing and research is the way Storify seamlessly integrates multimodality into the research and writing process. Storify anticipates students using videos, images, social media, and links in their work. This can help students push genre norms and experiment with the ways they integrate media into their work.

Needless to say, Storify is currently at the top of my list for digital tools to work into my classroom. As soon as I am able to work one of these assignments into my curriculum, I will report back with findings. In the meantime, if anyone out there has experience or ideas for using Storify stories in student writing, I’d love to hear from you!