Writing & Teaching in the Digital Age

Draft: Sept. 29, 2011

Writing & Teaching in the Digital Age: Looking Back, Moving Forward & Building Community

By Hayley Strandberg

“We are the makers of meaning, and we can move into [the future] with a theory that puts us and our sign-making at the centre – not free to do as we would wish, but not as the victims of forces beyond our control either” (Kress 176).

You don’t need to be a teacher or a writer to know that we’re in the midst of a new media age that is radically changing the way we read, write and teach.  Web 2.0 has ushered in an era of new literacy. The new literacy is not about consumption. It is participatory, collaborative, performative and production-oriented (Lunsford). A recent study of Stanford undergraduates reveals the validity of this “new” literacy. Twenty-first century students read and write in ways profoundly different than students of the 20th century.

As a society, we have profoundly changed how we write and to whom we write. On Amazon, we review books and on Yelp, we review restaurants. On facebook, we post and comment on photos of our friends and we’re quick to re-tweet articles of interest.

The institution of school, however, is still catching up to the increasingly global world outside of it.

As a high school English teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve often engaged in speculative rhetoric about “old” v. “new” media. I’ve spent so much time and energy defending traditional text and questioning the integration of technology into the classroom. I’ve spent far more time as a digital spectator than as a digital participant.

When my school announced that we would be moving to a 1:1 laptop program in fall 2011, my heart sank. What would this mean for the study of literature?  What would this do to treasured classroom discussion?

A Summer of Investigation & Exploration

I made the decision to face reality and engage with the technology I was skeptical of when I learned Dixie Goswami would be teaching a groundbreaking course titled Interpretive Communities: Using Digital Tools and Social Networking to Engage Readers and Writers at The Bread Loaf School of English.  and now consider myself a participant in the movement that I once just watched and listened to.

Over the 6-week course I learned and realized the following:

(1)    The digital text exists and is here to stay. We are scared of it – as educators, readers and writers – because we are still trying to make meaning of it. Many texts are so new, genre-bending and multi-modal that we are often unsure how to critique or event talk about what we read and produce.

(2)    The digital world is inherently democratic. Those kept out of this world lose their voice. Digital literacy is a human rights issue.

(3)    The new cultural elite know how to use technology. They don’t just use and consume the digital – they create and produce the digital.

(4)    The digital world is overwhelming – we will never understand how to navigate it as well as we would like. But it’s important for writers and teachers to learn what they can as “professional amateurs.”

(5)    The digital world has tremendous potential for community building and community organizing. Online Interpretive Communities are able to invite social and collective reading of texts that transform and enrich the reading of a text.

When Vermont writer and teacher John Elder visited the class of 18 graduate students, he said that “the poem is the table at which we gather.”

The metaphor is perfect. Looking at the nodding heads of my fellow students, I felt that it was as true as true as ever. The poem continues to unite classrooms across the country. The thing that separates the poem of old from the poem of new is simple. Today’s poem is likely read or found on a screen. The poem is the table at which we gather, but the screen is the table cloth that first catches our eyes.

Building an Interpretive Community

Over the course of five weeks, production teams of 3-5 students built online interpretive communities around a selection of texts.  Inspired by the interpretive community as discussed by Yale and Bread loaf professor Robert Stepto in his book A Home Elsewhere, an interpretive community invites social and collective readings of texts. It is not competitive – it is collaborative and invites both listening and storytelling. Interpretive communities at their best invite collective readings but allow for individual response. All production teams shared the goal of successfully creating such an interpretive community.

In addition to Stepto’s text, production teams built interpretive communities around three texts: John Elder’s The Frog Run and Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender. My team’s focus was on Stepto’s text.

Our instructors Dixie Goswami and Shel Sax set up a class blog for us to begin to engage with the texts and each other. The blog also became a place for production teams to organize their work, to share resources and to record and report their progress and process. Students frequently posted on this blog and visited it daily.

My team’s call was great – to extend and build the interpretive community Stepto had already created with the book itself. Our time was short. Our challenges were many – learning the technology and working together as a team of five strong-willed leaders proved particularly difficult. We learned early on that honoring the voice of the individual is challenging when honoring the collective is a priority.

The speculative and explorative spirit of this one-of-a-kind course both gifted us and overwhelmed us with a world of possibility.

  1. Inspired storytelling: Engaging the Writer

In the spirit of an interpretive community, we decided early on we wanted to create a website that invited readers of AHE to share their own stories. Our first challenge was figuring out how to best invite them to do that. Stepto’s personal essay is about his first year in college. It’s also about the 1963 March on Washington and the cultural climate at the time. What kind of stories did we want to invite and how did we want to invite them? Since few Bread Loaf students had been alive for the March on Washington, we decided to encourage students to share the story of President Obama’s election in light of their own life. After a fellow student in the class showed us how to use a new feature of Google Maps to place stories on a world map. A single click on an icon would bring up an image of the storyteller, the text of the story and a link to a podcast recording. Having just received a podcast tutorial, we were eager to put our new knowledge to use. Since Stepto’s text merged the public with the private, the global with the personal, it seemed especially appropriate to use the map feature to ground and connect individual narratives.

Before we could get others to share their stories, we knew we would have to tell our own. Each team member wrote her own story and created her own podcast for the map. Spanning from Zimbabwe to Alaska, we liked what our map visually communicated – a real variety of voice within a single community that was also a global community.We had started to create what Stepto calls a “community chorus.”

Group members disagreed on the extent to which these narrative should have a similar focus. In the end, each group member told a story she felt compelled to share in response to Stepto’s text. As of September 2011, nobody outside of our group has added their narratives to the map as our website has invited. This is likely due to (1) our minimal use social media tools like Facebook to encourage digital writers and readers to participate and (2) the personal nature of the story we are asking readers and writers to share with digital “strangers.”

Though we didn’t engage many writers, we seemed to have engaged quite an audience of readers and listeners. After just a week and a half, our map had over 1100 views.

Writing my narrative about Obama’s election was both challenging and enriching. Because Stepto’s story so thoughtfully explored the personal in light of the historic, I had an excellent model. The interpretive community we were forming was really an extension of his….the community begins with writers like Stepto who reach into the world beyond them. Writing storytellers share their stories as citizens of the world, as readers themselves who, in writing, commune with other writers. This is at the heart of any interpretive community. It must be inherently literary though it need not be traditionally literary.

        2. Watching the Book: Engaging the potential reader

After two publishers from Monk Books shared a book trailer of a Mark Strand poetry collection with our class, my team knew we wanted to create one for AHE. The book trailer for Strand’s Mystery and Solitude in Topeka was an engaging, artistic masterpiece.

As Strand read a poem from the collection, pensive instrumental music plays in the background. A camera follows an old man’s walk through the city. The prospect of using our website to attract future readers of AHE was exciting and added a new dimension to the work we had already done. With our limited time and iMovie schools, we were able to produce a 1.5 minute movie featuring footage from the March on Washington and Stepto’s voice, reading from Greyhound. We decided it would be a prominent part of our homepage and that the film would appeal to past and future readers alike.

Our greatest challenge in creating the book trailer was learning the technology. Through trial and error and experimentation we completed our production. Though time is always an issue, more direct instruction in film production, like we receive in Photoshop and GarageBand, would have allowed us to work more efficiently and to produce higher quality work.

  1. Keeping the “I” in Interpretive Community … and Letting it Go

My team’s initial vision was to create a place where readers could engage with Stepto’s story and also share their own. As excited readers, our initial vision expanded to include a place for “intertextual” reader response to the texts, such as Obama’s Dreams of My Father, that Stepto references in his book and a timeline of historical events that Stepto referenced.

While I initially saw these strands of response as a threat to our initial vision, I realized that a true interpretive community allows for such diversity of response. These projects were largely taken on by individuals within the team because they were inspired to respond to the text in a particular way. This seemed like the natural way to go, but it can also compromise the cohesiveness of a project. Individuals in all of the teams seemed to be struggling with juggling several ideas at once though they never seemed to struggle staying engaged with the idea they found the most interesting. Bringing all of our ideas together was not easy, and group members began viewing one person’s idea as a threat to their own or to the community as a whole. We were having trouble getting along.

In the Afterward, Stepto writes that many texts “incite competitive authoring” (145). This is the last thing we wanted to do, yet it seemed we were on that path. How could we create an online community that was non-competitive when its authors were in conflict and competition with each other?

Our instructors called in the campus acting troupe for reinforcement. They modeled how they work out scenes with each other. At first I was amused and a little bit offended. We were grad students –did we really need actors to teach us how to act?  But looking back, I realize that after that day everyone started getting along a little better. With Dixie’s coaching, our group was able to unite several ideas with a multi-tabbed homepage that attempted to bring it all together.

Showing is often more powerful than telling. Once we saw how to work together from the actors and once we saw our different voices pulled together on the homepage, our nervous solos joined what we had set out to create: a powerful chorus.

2. Going Live

On July 27, 2011 our interpretive communities “went live” and were formally presented to our school community.  Each team created a page to the program that invited attendees to “join our interpretive community.”

We attracted a modest audience of about 20 guests. Each group presented their interpretive community, bringing it to life by displaying and explaining its unique interactive elements. All groups ended their presentations with an invitation to participate and engage in the community.

Our project wouldn’t have been the same without the event which successfully (1) gave groups a deadline and sense of purpose throughout the production (2) gave us a clear audience and (3) recognized that our online communities are most importantly human communities that crave and want interaction with each other. All of the teams had various plans and hopes for our websites after the summer, but the Bread Loaf community united all of our communities.

Individual Projects & New Beginnings

The course culminated with the presentation of individual projects. This project offered an important outlet for individual response that the team project could only partially allow. Some students wrote grants and developed curriculum and others wrote scholarly pieces. Each presentation was “live blogged.”

I was inspired to respond to Eudora Welty’s autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings. As an inspired reader and new digital adventurer, I felt compelled to create a web site that allowed me to respond with the screen in mind. As a class, we had been talking so much about the interplay between text, image and sound that the digital world allows. I really wanted to stretch myself to use image and sound mindfully in the writing I produced.

My website www.writersbeginnings.com is broken up into three sections inspired by the three parts of Welty’s book: Listening, Learning to see & Finding a voice. Each part includes my own corresponding literacy narrative, a narrative that I tie to Welty’s through image, word and sound.  As I struggled to produce something that could both transform the digital world and be transformed by it, I decided to create my first digital story. It is embedded into the “Learning to see” section of my website.

The site is still in progress, but has grown (as sites and ideas so often do) to include a place for the sharing and discussion of other writers’ beginnings. Currently, the “beginnings” of Joan Didion, Tracy K. Smith, and Jhumpa Lahiri are featured.

Expanding the Chorus: Integrating Interpretive Communities into Secondary Instruction

Thought my group’s interpretive community has not had the afterlife that we initially imagined for it, the creation of the interpretive community has activated my imagination and creativity in a way that has transfromed my teaching. By deeply engaging in a creative act that is also a critical literary response, I developed the technology skills and languaged that I needed to more completely engage with and respond to text, both digital and print. The personal transformation that came out of this project is perhaps more important and powerful than the product itself.

As I begin this school year, the essential questions is no longer what will I teach? In the 21st century classroom, the essential question is what will students create?

This school year I plan on having my students create their own interpretive communities. I will model this project after the one I completed at Bread Loaf. I’m certain that these projects will move in directions I have yet to anticipate and that their pathways will not always be clear. But I know that I must all students to take the driver’s seat. By asking students to reflect and articulate what they learn, I will track growth and have a record and understanding of what they learned. Though I will not tell them where to go, I will give them as many tools and models as I can to support them.

Though good teachers set goal and objectives, I realize that I can’t dictate what my students learn. Some of the most important learning students do transcends the articulated standards and curriculum. But I have learned from Interpretive Communities that students (and teachers) learn the most when they create and when they engage. If we put engagement and creation at the center of the classroom, what we have to teacher — what students have to learn — might be beyond our imagination. As teachers in this digital age, we are true pioneers. The best thing we can do is articulate the learning process of our students and begin to devleop effect methods and rubrics for assessment. We must travel in this new frontier as journalists, researchers and developers. We must create what doesn’t exist.

More than 70 years ago, Louise Rosenblatt, an expert theorist of the teaching of English, wrote that “literature makes comprehensible the myriad ways in which human beings meet the infinite possibilities that life offers” (6). Today, with the extraordinary storytelling of Stepto, Alvarez and Elder, this potential of literature is truer than ever. For 21st century students, however, literature does not just make them comprehend  how humans confront the infinite possibilities of life. Literature allows them to discover, creat and confront these new possibilities in the first place. As we move forward in this digital age, our young people will be the powerful ones to ask and to answer a difficult question: What are the most important things to confront?