A compelling aspect of exploring digital literature is that, at its heart, lies the appeal of good old-fashioned storytelling. Humans are storytelling creatures. We have been for thousands upon thousands of years, predating the advent of writing. Stories helped our ancestors pass on knowledge, share history, and create meaning in a world of randomness and chaos (Delistraty, 2014). A human brain responds uniquely to a good story, the cortex lighting up as if the events or descriptions in a book were really happening. Stories are a fundamental human communication method (Widrich, 2012).

What is eminently exciting is that we are living in a time where the ways to tell a good story are expanding. Authors are no longer confined to the written word, on pages, tucked away in physical books. The rapid expansion and ongoing convergence of media forms has given us the tools to tell stories in new ways: transmedia mashups of sound, word, and video, interactive reading experiences, nonlinear pathways through texts, hyperlinking, participatory and social reading experiences, and emergent narratives shaped by the user. Although many offer suggestions (Unsworth, 2006; Lamb, 2011), these digital stories are becoming increasingly hard to categorise as forms intertwine in creative and unique ways (as discussed in this reflective blog post).

Making these developments even more revolutionary is the fact that these tools of authorship and creation are available to anyone with a device or internet connection. Authorship is democratising – anyone can be a storyteller, have an authentic audience and a meaningful voice on a world stage (Richards, 2010). This is particularly useful when considering narrative creation as a teacher; putting digital authorship tools in the hands of students, letting them create rather than only consume, is a powerful pedagogical imperative (Tapscott & Williams, 2008). The value of leveraging digital storytelling in education is strong, as it allows students to explore their inner voice, create meaning for themselves, and then share their experiences and perspectives with a wider community (Rosenthal, 2015). This can be a platform for transformative, meaningful learning allowing students multiple means of representation, engagement, and expression.

It’s important for teachers and other stakeholders to understand though, that digital literature and the tools to create digital literature should not be considered as the only option – that all reading and story creation needs to be solely digital. It’s not a case of digital OR physical, it’s a case of digital AND physical. Students need a balanced mix of media and mediums, one which a skilled teacher can traverse and draw out the unique intricacies, the pros and cons, of each (Sadokierski, 2013). The role of the teacher is to manage this pedagogical mix (as discussed in this reflective blog post).

Because there are differences here. While the message remains the same (“a good story is a good story”, as I mentioned in the Module 1.2 discussion forum) the medium it comes wrapped in requires proficiency with different literacies in order to unpack the semiotic resources entangled within the artefact (Walsh, 2013). Traditional reading literacy revolved around the decoding of text, but if we expand our notions of what reading is (and should be): “Reading is the process of constructing meaning from symbols”, we can expand reading literacy to the comprehension of visual elements, layout, sound, navigation, interactive elements, participatory networks, and even gameplay design and mechanics (Leu et al, 2011; Walsh, 2013).

Many have claimed that the partial move to digital-based stories are diluting the experience of reading – that there are too many distractions and so children (in particular) lose the hermeneutic immersion required for deep reading (James & de Kock, 2013). They are not wrong. There are many examples of digital stories which are low-quality, don’t offer the opportunity for adaptation or feedback, accessibility or usability restrictions, or contain a poor “goodness of fit” between their designed elements (Roskos et al, 2014). It’s important to also consider physical issues such as eye-strain on longer stretches of screen-based reading (Huang, 2012) and the technical limitations of going digital such as battery, internet connection, licensing, purchasing, and equitable access.

These are not reasons to avoid digital literature, though. They are considerations for teachers to face, to understand the variables, and to plan and implement carefully and with a pedagogical purpose (“complexity and all”, as I mentioned in the Module 2.3 discussion forum). Quality digital literature needs to be selected and evaluated and aligned with learning outcomes. This is often tricky in the overly curated app stores and when considering budget, DRM, and licensing issues. Alternative means of sourcing digital texts exist however via public domain, creative commons, and free for personal use literature. 

In summation, literature in digital environments contains much potential – both in the reading and the creating – for students: the amplification of voice, the connection of readers to one another, sharing perspectives and opinions, creation over consumption, developing skills and transmedia literacies, and simply enjoying the eternal joy of reading a good story. Knowledgeable teachers will be able to evaluate digital literature with a “teacherly eye”, consider it’s uniqueness, and embed it within units and learning at school effectively (an example of this can be seen in this blog post).

 


References

Delistraty, C. 2014. The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/11/the-psychological-comforts-of-storytelling/381964/

Huang, H. (2012). E-reading and e-discussion: EFL learners’ perceptions of an e-book reading program. Computer assisted language learning, 26(3).

James, R. & de Kock, L. (2013). The digital David and the Gutenberg Goliath: The rise of the ‘enhanced’ e-book, English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies, 30(1).

Lamb, A. (2011). Reading redefined for a transmedia universe. Learning and Leading with Technology, 39(3), 12-17.

Leu, D.J. et al (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1).

Richards, R. (2010). Digital citizenship and Web 2.0 tools. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(2), 516-522.

Rosenthal, S.T. (2015). Digital storytelling: What it is… and… what it is NOT. Retrieved from http://langwitches.org/blog/2015/08/18/digital-storytelling-what-it-is-and-what-it-is-not

Roskos, K., Burstein, K., Yi Shang, Gray, E. (2014). Young children’s engagement with e-books at school: Does device matter? SAGE Open, 4(1).

Sadokierski, Z. (2013, November 12). What is a book in the digital age? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/what-is-a-book-in-the-digital-age-19071

Tapscott, D., & Williams, A. D. (2008). Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. Penguin.

Unsworth, L. (2006). E-literature for children: Enhancing digital literacy learning. Taylor & Francis.

Walsh, M. (2013). Literature in a digital environment (Ch. 13). In L. McDonald (Ed.), A literature companion for teachers. Marrickville, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA).

Widrich, 7. 2012. The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains. Retrieved from http://lifehacker.com/5965703/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains

I’ve been dabbling with digital badges in my literacy sessions for the last two weeks. I made up a bunch of interesting badges on Credly such as ‘Feedbacker’ for asking others for feedback, ‘Thesaurus Rex’ for upgrading words with a thesaurus, ‘Curious George’ for asking a great question or wondering about something, ‘Plan(et)’ for having a full and well thought out plan, as well as one week only badges related to the writing of the week. Students then insert the badges they earn into their ePortfolios.

Here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • They are motivating for almost all of my (most especially my) reluctant writers. I’ve gotten writing this week which was more carefully edited, more thoughtfully constructed, and in which more time was spent on, than what I was getting previously.
  • They provide a checklist of things to remember in the writing process. Planning – editing – feedback (both giving and receiving) + holding your ideas lightly and being curious. In the hubub of getting a draft out and delivered, these things can be put to the side. Badges provide a visual prompt and motivation to make sure to do these things independently.
  • They provide a talking point and buzz. They are conversation starters with parents and friends and prompts into talking about the writing process.
  • They can be reflective prompts. “So you got the planning badge – what happened with the editing? What can we do differently next time to meet the requirements of the badge?”
  • They appeal to the hoarders and collectors. Students are watching their badge page fill with badges as they achieve them each week – it’s a visual sign they are achieving those particular elements of writing.

But where does the line end? How long should I keep this up? I’m painfully aware that extrinsic motivation / external awards (as Mr Dan Pink explains) are not particularly helpful in the long run. Am I building a reliance on these badges? Am I only able to get decent writing if there is a reward at the end?

On the other hand – these students are now more regularly displaying characteristics of good writers.

Perhaps these badges are the ‘training wheels’ needed to build up the routines and habits around the writing process – much like this #28daysofwriting gig. At some stage the training wheels go, but only when they are ready and have built the confidence and expertise needed. Perhaps it is a just a Term 1 thing? At the moment, I’m happy with how things are going, but keeping an eye to the future when we move past badges into more intrinsic motivations for writing.

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There are a few traditional staples which spring to mind when you think of Author’s Purpose – to persuade, to inform, to describe, to entertain. They do indeed intermingle and intertwine almost always, but they are there, and they are handy when breaking down a text or writing your own. They’re more than handy, actually. Figuring out the purpose of a communication can reveal it’s intended audience, explain language and structure, and empowers an author to make their own informed, purposeful choices from these elements.

A completely valid purpose which you don’t see very often, though, is … to think.

You can conceive of this in a few different ways. The first of which is in the more poetic, expressive sense of the word. Many people author something to make sense of how they are feeling – to think through their emotions. Some people write to get all their thoughts out of their head, and to be able to think more clearly. For some, grappling with this process of scribing your thoughts and bringing them into reality can enable you to stumble upon meaning, to come to terms, and to get closer to truths. Your purpose for writing is to provide the conditions for which this kind of thinking provides fertile ground to emerge from.

The other side of the “To Think” purpose for writing is related, but slightly different. You can write to make sense of complex ideas and to find connections, new avenues of thought and inspirations where there were previously none. Many writers would do this at the start of the writing process – scribbling down their half-brewed thoughts, potential plot lines and themes.

An example from myself – I spent the summer holidays immersed in a some key educational books, blog posts, and research papers. To make sense of all this input, I needed to output. So I wrote down all the little chunks of knowledge and thoughts which resonated with me on Post-It notes and stuck them to a wall in my house. I was writing to enable thinking. I could then see the big picture of all the bits I was learning and from there, start to find patterns and goals and clusters of similar and dissimilar pieces of the puzzle. I arranged and rearranged my Post-It notes as I synthesised my thoughts, combining ideas and extending others. Eventually it lead me to some professional goals and areas of focus for me as I entered Term 1, 2015.

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This kind of writing is done best in a form which is easy to move around or change – hence the use of Post-It notes but also whiteboards, blackboards etc. It speaks to the fact that thinking is not set, it’s in the process of being discovered, so you will need to erase and go over and scribble and change. It’s tentative writing. Writing straight into a document on a screen makes you write a certain way, confined by the boundaries of the screen, the linear lines, and the quirks of the particular programme. It doesn’t particularly lend itself to highly-flexible, visible, moveable, collaborative types of thinking and writing.

A few other examples of writing “To Think”:

  • Planning of any kind (like planning an assignment)
  • Annotating and marking up some text
  • Writing a To Do list or reminders
  • Brainstorming
  • Collating information when the links are yet unclear
  • An ideas wallet and bug list
  • Our weekly timetable at school, before it is finalised

Empowering students with the language and ways of doing that this term suggests, opens up a range of interesting avenues. Is writing to think something you can get better at? Does it happen at certain stages of the writing / creative process? How might it be woven into other parts of school / home life? How can this kind of writing and thinking boost serendipitous and innovative outcomes?

Many worlds collide when you interact with texts (texts used as a loose catch-all word for any kind of communication – movies, music, art) to gain meaning.

There is The World of the Writer – what experiences and contexts the writer draws upon to create meaning, for a certain purpose. Then there is The World of the Text – the authenticity of the piece; it’s ability to stand-alone and be genuine. And of course, The World of the Reader – what prior knowledge, experiences and purposes the reader brings into the fray.

These worlds jiggle and jostle together; combining and flowing into each other, creating meaning for the reader.

It’s our job as teachers to help scaffold the understanding of deep meaning by drawing attention to these different worlds. What is the author trying to convince us of? What knowledge claims is the author making? What is my own prior knowledge of this? What bias and assumptions do I bring to the reading? Why am I reading this? Am I learning anything? Is this changing me? How?

Every text has the potential to be a rich battleground of these competing worlds – one in which you can activate knowledge skills such as critiquing, creating, customising, interrogating, elaborating, remixing, and challenging what is put in front of you. Investigating the different layers of a text contributes to an understanding that the world is complex, and the more we can draw attention to that and analyse those complexities, the more students can unravel them and understand how to live more critically, fully, and actively in this world.

Ask students to share what they are thinking – they are being bombarded with texts day in and out seeking to manipulate their understandings. Advertising is a particularly pernicious one, but what meaning are kids absorbing from the 6:00 o’clock news? Cartoons? Pop songs on the radio? Magazine covers?

It’s imperative we help students become active, critical users of the world around them, not simply consumers. Examining the different worlds of context which are mushed together when interacting with a text can contribute towards a deeper, more active, critical understanding of the world in which we live.

After a bit of reflection and professional reading over the holidays, here is what I want each and every lesson / experience / sequence of learning I facilitate to include. They are my Rules of Thumb for Designing Good Learning Experiences, circa early 2015.

  • Rich, deep, meaningful, original tasks: PUZZLE, PROBLEM, PROVOCATION, EXPLORE, PLAY, CHALLENGE – students will “work the hard parts”
  • Integrate reading, writing and inquiry – all ‘modules’ pre-planned and available so
    • A) students have the responsibility of choosing their own pathway through the learning and
    • B) so they can see “the whole game” of learning – see how each piece helps them develop new understandings, skills, and knowledge and
    • C) So I know I have coverage of all the things I know are important: content knowledge + web/visual literacy + disposition exercising (The Magnificent 8) + knowledge skills + creativity
  • Designed to be tight enough to be focused (creative constraints), but flexible enough to be self-negotiated
  • Be designed for M.V.T.A (Minimum Viable Teacher Assistance)
  • A catchy title and an interesting, original task + an introduction video (ie, a Generative Topic)
  • A WALT (We are learning to…) and a TIB (This is because…)
  • Linked reading / audio / video resources + official reading objectives
  • Linked knowledge building workshops / Snappers + official writing objectives
  • Scaffold appropriately with examples / models / exemplars (for practice, play, imitation, imagination, and simulations)
  • Online / offline component with a bias towards leveraging the opportunities provided by digital tech
  • Each will have a S.T.A.R moment (Something They’ll Always Remember)
  • Offer autonomy, mastery and purpose
  • Have “checkpoints” for feedback (self, peer, teacher)
  • Have a “want to know more?” or further curiosity prompts
  • Each will be aware of what the assessment is that term and contain elements of practice (you gotta do what you gotta do!)
  • Outcomes will be defined across understandings, skills, abilities and dispositions (within the process and final product) and digital badges provided based on these outcomes
  • Each will contain a reflection piece based upon the overall understandings of the inquiry + reflecting on the learning muscles being exercised + the inquiry process

My role then changes to:

  • “a stream of highly contingent, situation, problem and person-specific interventions and provocations – not nuggets of truth” – Claxton
  • Pushing, prodding, tilting towards understanding
  • Providing the knowledge or guidance needed at that time
  • Questioning, facilitating discussions
  • Providing EXCELLENT feedback based on content, understandings, AND dispositions
  • Tracking quality learning, ensuring engagement. Following up / chasing up.
  • Modelling good thinking and learning dispositions

Designing these kinds of learning experiences takes time, but that’s the bread and butter of teaching; it’s the stuff we should be spending our time on, wading through these complexities to facilitate challenging, interesting learning for our students.

Now….to actually sit down and get to it!