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Empathy and Elaboration: Using 21st Century Tools to Enhance Creative Writing


So often in my teaching career - and as a student, actually - I have seen and heard teachers forbid the use of the powerful computers inside students' pockets, scold a student for having consulted Wikipedia, restricted Internet use to sites they approved, and regard the online writing and social networking the students conduct as a "waste of time." I have also faced opposition from these same teachers when I use wikis, social media, and encourage the use of laptops and cell phones as tools for the classroom. What I try to explain is that the students carry with them and engage in valuable tools and activities every day that can enhance classroom discussion and overall learning. Not only can we enhance our lessons, but we teach students how to use the technology in their hands effectively, and take away the taboo of these devices.

Originally titled "Tweeting in Character," this module was developed by a collaborative team of teachers and Indiana University researcher Dan Hickey and graduate students in an effort to teach writing and character empathy through the use of Twitter and FanFiction. This was implemented at Eastern Greene Schools with Gail Finn, in conjunction with the Monroe Eastern Greene Network (MEGN) project. The project was organized by Terry Daugherty and Lori Richmond, then Director of Learning for Eastern Greene Schools and now Superintendent of Greenecastle.

Collaboration between teachers continues today.

Empathy and Elaboration: Using 21st Century Tools to Enhance Creative Writing focuses on appropriation and remixing - drawing tools and ideas from a text and “remixing” the stories in a new way. In this case, students explore and take on the personality traits of a character in Homer’s The Odyssey and, after developing sufficient understanding of and empathy for that character, extend their story in the medium of a fanfiction piece. In addition to students practicing skills related to character analysis, plot development, and creative writing, they also learn to use social networking sites productively and safely, as well as to publish their story to a closed site on the web.

Define Fanfiction: The encyclopedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story: that is, they introduce potential plots which can not be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own. Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader's desire to "fill in the gaps" they have discovered in the commercially produced material (Henry Jenkins).

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<p>The idea behind using Twitter in the classroom was to help to increase student engagement when using traditional texts. The idea was that with increased engagement, these text and the content standards being tested would provide a greater opportunity for learning for more students.</p> <p>One of the first challenges that I faced when starting this project was getting Twitter through our school’s Internet filter. I had to write a proposal to the administration stating the purpose of the project and how long the project would last. I did not have a lot of trouble with this issue, but I know some teachers have had a lot of difficulty.</p> <p>The second challenge that I faced was that many students had little experience with Twitter. I had to introduce them to the social media sight and teach many new concepts (hashtags, retweets, and using @ before another users name to tag them). These concepts were important because we used these items to help follow our class and to keep our Twitter feed updated at all times. </p> <p>When we first attempted this project, setting up Twitter names was a lot easier than it is now. There weren’t restrictions on how many usernames I could create in a day and no flags that stopped me from continuing. I allowed students to choose their character, and then we practiced a few generic tweets in character. I had the students simply pretend they were in character a week before the play starts. Once that task was accomplished, we started reading the play. Typically we spent about 5 days per act reading and interacting in character. </p> <p>The next challenge that we faced was teaching students to multi-task. Trying to read in character and then Tweet in character was difficult for some students. I started out by reading just a few exchanges of dialogue and then stopping and encouraging each student to Tweet. This was a great opportunity to model good Tweeting and to emphasize that we were not Tweeting what had just happened, but what the individuals were thinking as the events occurred.</p> <p>At the end of the second day of reading and Tweeting, the class discussed whether they wanted me to continue to stop them to Tweet or allow them to Tweet as they felt the need. The majority felt that stopping to allow them to Tweet was interfering with the flow of the play, so they wanted to Tweet as they kept reading. This worked for most classes, but for the classes with struggling readers there seemed to still be some disconnect. In order to help these students, I used the audio version of the text. Students were still assigned an individual character to Tweet as, but this took away the disconnect for students who struggled to keep up with the reading. </p> <p>The second year that we ‘Tweeted’ in character, I added an extra character. It had bothered me throughout the first use of Twitter that I had not been able to incorporate the author’s purpose as much as I could. It occurred to me to create a Twitter account for Arthur Miller and have a student ‘Tweet’ as the author. This helped to incorporate those standards and allowed me to more easily reinforce the themes from that perspective.</p> <p>I really like this activity. I know that my students were more engaged with the text and they seemed to have been able to transfer the concepts to other tasks. I have moved The Crucible to the second semester this year. In the past I have always read it during the Puritan period of American literature because that is where it is in the textbook. However, I like the idea of reading the play at the same time as the American History classes are learning about McCarthyism and the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. It just seems to fit better…and can also act as a refresher on Puritan Period. </p>