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Learning Alongside: Embracing Digital Storytelling with Social Justice in Mind



No living thing is unitary in nature; every such thing is a plurality. Even the organism which appears to us as an individual exists as a collection of independent entities. - Goethe

Every fall, Coloradans head to the mountains to see the aspens turn. For just a few weeks, the stands of trembling green leaves that have shaded us through summer hikes transform into gorgeous golden ribbons weaving down the mountainside through the pines. At no time of the year is it more evident that aspens grow not as lone trees, but in colonies, many qualifying as one of the largest organisms in the world. This is because the root system of each colony is intertwined into a single rhizome so that every tree in the stand is connected to every other tree nearby, sometimes covering as many as twenty acres.

The rhizome metaphor works well to describe the “colony” of three interrelated projects that we--co-authors Adam Mackie, Cindy O'Donnell-Allen, and Jenny St. Romain-- describe in this resource. Focused on digital storytelling, teaching to learn, and enacting social justice, these projects involve elementary students, preservice teachers, and practicing teachers. The colony was originally inspired by a question emerging in the 2009 summer institute of the Colorado State University Writing Project: “What if we formed a partnership between young writers and community members to collect oral histories about Fort Collins?”

This question was the impetus for designing a “Saving Our Stories” digital writing workshop for English Language Learners held during the summer at a local elementary school. That workshop was the impetus for two other programs: 1) a professional development institute on teaching with technology also held at the school, and 2) a service-learning project taken on by preservice teachers charged with creating and implementing writing curriculum informed by principles of culturally relevant teaching.

We invite you to browse this set of resources with these questions in mind:

  • What is the potential for writing, in all its forms—digital and analog—to save stories that matter but would otherwise be lost in students’ lives, families, and communities?
  • How can technology support hands-on, interactive literacy learning for students and teachers as well?
  • How can learning to write, learning to teach, and teaching to learn with technology enact social justice on behalf of students, teachers, and their communities?
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<p>I really appreciated the metaphor of the aspen trees acting as one colony, even though they are often seen as individuals among the crowd. Often, I think we as future and present teachers get stuck into these narrow lanes that prevent our minds from making conenctions to other areas in education. It becomes "I need to address this core standard", and "this ELL needs additionaly resources", and "I need to incorporate this genre into my instruction". It's hard to step-back and realize that though we catergorize many things under education, at the end of the day it's just that: education. There is no reason why we as teachers can't combine multiple elements in creative and interesting ways. In the "Keeping it Real" section, I thought it was neat that a documentary poet came in to show that something labeled as "boring historical non-fiction" can be metamorphized into a work of art.&nbsp;</p> <p>It was also reassuring to me that the "SOS" project will be putting some of the social justice theories we have been learning into contect. The question from CSU students at the beginning sounds remarkably like my own thoughts and musings. Learning about something so non-physical and then trying to conceptualize it as an active part of your pedagogy is overwhelming and challenging. Tying it back into the above point, I found it quite impressive that one project would cover this challenge, and address other needs as well.&nbsp;</p> <p>Promoting social justice in the classroom is an extremely important learning experience for the student and the educator. Especially when this is tied into the school's residing community. Combine this with technological writing skills that are imperative for today's workforce, students are truly receiving the roundest education possible.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
<p>I want to say something meaningful or intelligent in response to your post, Nick. However, it would seem as though I am drawing a blank. I feel like I have so many questions about this whole project and I am nervous to begin...</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I guess for me to feel connected to the project, I need to be actually working on it and have my mind deeply intertwined with it.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>And all of what you said made me nervous too. Talking about "combining multiple elements in creative and interesting ways?" I am kind of panicking. It's like, what happens when the kids squeeze all the fresh ideas out of me? And they need more creativity in the classroom and they need me to be more interesting and I am like an old, wet mop?&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Does there come a time when we must rely on our students to be the creative cats and have them come up with ways they want to learn? How long before that gets old?&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I just want to scream. I just want someone to tell me...it'll be okay, technology will keep evolving as will your teaching strategies, and at the end of the day, the month, the school year....it'll all be worth the trouble you are going through right now. One day you will have the most rewarding job on the planet...</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Wow. Feels good to vent. Ha I suppose I could relate this the Rhizome Metaphor. We're in this together, growing as teachers together, and learning together, and preparing ourselves for our students together.</p> <p>Cheesy? Extremely. True? I'd like to think so.</p>
<p>The biggest learning come for me when I fail. I can sit in a classroom all day and write lesson plans as a student learning how to teach, but real life situation where I get to draw something up and execute that plan will teach me much more. Especially if the plan that I have drawn up fails in execution. I look forward to seeing what will work and what will fail in any given situation during rea-life experiences.&nbsp;</p> <p>My second thought went to one about the students. I believe that this is a very important and valuable experience for the ELL students who are able to participate, however the number of students who are able to participate is a relativly low number. I just wonder if it is possible in the future to expand this program around the state or even around the country so that more people can participate and share stories about the USA that would otherwise be lost. Helping a few students each year is a great first step and I fully support the program, I just can't help but think about "What if" and the possibilites that it could take on in a larger sense.&nbsp;</p>
<p>I agree with you, Tyler, about the best learning coming out of failures. &nbsp;Currently I am a tutor with the AVID program at Wellington Middle School, and one of my initial worries was that I wouldn't know the answers to all the questions the students would pose. &nbsp;I was willing to tutor any subject, but I wasn't sure I'd know enough. &nbsp;My coach told me that actually all I had to be able to do was teach the students how to find the answers themselves.</p> <p>What if that's how we thought about our entire role as teachers? &nbsp;We don't give the answers; we teach students how to find them. &nbsp;That not only removes pressure from teachers, but it enables students. &nbsp;This is especially applicable with technology. &nbsp;The next time the technology fails in front of students, instead of getting flustered, I can realize that this is actually the perfect learning opportunity. &nbsp;Plus, finding the answers together builds community.</p> <p>Thank you for pointing out that failures can actually be the biggest successes.</p>
<p>This article made me think of one piece of technology in particular; Twitter! Twitter, for example, if you're unable to watch a professional football game can become a story-telling device unlike any we've seen before. The isolation of the millions of writers that may be posting in regards to the game result in short concise snapshots of what they are seeing, questions and frustrations they have, special events that are happening at the live venue, who their favorite players are and so on. In it's entirity a thread of tweets regarding some event will embody the ideas of all of the authors at that moment of time and will give the reader a minute to minute story of that which the reader cannot personally experience. Twitter, however, also allows for every reader to become an author and vice versa. For this reason, the story that twitter is telling is not a narrative but a discussion with live interaction between others.&nbsp;</p> <p>Technology, like Twitter, can begin to change how we view the experiences that we missed out on, which I feel is the primary purpose of storytelling. Blogs and other technologies can also provide a storytelling venue with a different type of audience involvement, which is important because some stories need not be a discussion, but need just to be told by the person whose story it is.&nbsp;</p> <p>We are in a vast state of change in regards to how we share our experiences with others. Book and analog storytelling will never completely be replaced, however technology will allow for more voices and more stories to be told by those individuals that prior to the form of technology they prefer, may have felt voiceless.</p>