Measuring Progress and Surveying the Mess on #DLDay14

This morning I rolled out of bed at 4:30 AM, anxious to get the day started. Digital Learning Day (#dlday)! Twenty-four hours of recognition and celebration of teachers and students engaging in meaningful digital work. On the way out of the door I grabbed my DSLR camera, my monopod and my shotgun microphone.

Today I was going to capture and share the progress my students are enjoying in their journey as digital makers. I was going to interview my kids about the affordances and drawbacks of working in a digital environment and gain their insights into places where educators could push the boundaries and leverage technology to improve education.

I have the tools to tell that story. A camera. Professional style lighting. Students engaged in digital projects in the midst of a year of making. A laptop for every child in my classroom.

However, what was missing was the simple narrative of deep insight and steady progress. Instead, what I saw transpire in my classroom was a sloppy mess. Instead of documenting the affordances and drawbacks of digital learning, I was living them.

A little backstory. Currently my Digital Writing Workshop students are working on a month long digital film project. It is their third major film project in this senior year elective as they have already finished two short form documentaries. They have two options for this project; #Nerdlution and Project Awesome. If a student chose #Nerdlution then, in the spirit of the recent Twitter movement led by Colby Sharp and others, he or she had to adopt a habit, make a life change for 14 days and then tell the story of this journey. Students who had no interest in adopting a change simply had to tell the story of something awesome in their lives. Thus, Project Awesome, the other option.

The progression of this project was as follows. First, students were required to write a research paper to support their film project, either investigating the habit they wanted to adopt, inquiring into strategies for finding success in habit formation, or in some way deepening their knowledge about the aspect in their life — be it hobby, talent, little brother, or interest — that is awesome.

After the research phase it was time to design. Students needed to consider the variety of tools they had at their disposal — voiceover narration, cutaway shots, interviews, varying types of shots and angles — and figure out a way to craft that narrative. Storyboarding and voiceover script writing ensued.

Ideally, the transition from step to step would be easily navigated by students. Research. Design. Make. 1, 2, 3.

But today, as I walked around my classroom, four days before the project due date, checking for progress and looking for students to interview, I was confronted with a different reality. Students were all over the place. I had 46 students at varying levels of engagement, 46 students at varying degrees of productivity, and 46 students at different stages of progress.

Some students were treading water. “I didn’t get my footage.” “I’m getting footage tomorrow.” “I left my camera at home.” “I just logged out.” “My footage was here yesterday — I don’t know what happened to it.” These students chit chatted idly. Daily conferences monitoring progress, suggesting next steps and troubleshooting stories had produced no sense of urgency as the clock ticked towards the due date.

Other students were nearing completion, staring into their computers, headphones and brains jacked in, designing, revising and refining their stories.

It was messy and I know how this mess goes. I have seen this pattern over the past five years of teaching this senior elective. Some students get footage early, continually refine their projects and blossom as storytellers. Others procrastinate until the due dates arrive (and in some cases pass), hastily throw some clips together, receive a mediocre grade or worse and repeat the same process for the next project. Some students come in with years of experience editing digital video or a natural affinity and thrive. Other students struggle to remember their Google Docs passwords and founder. Some kids easily manage multi step projects across long periods of time while others need continual prompting and handholding.

Managing students in a digital project based learning environment can be messy. This is difficult to admit, but it is the truth. Sometimes this mess can be invigorating. Sometimes this mess can be demoralizing.

It would be nice if I could share a quick profile documentary of wide eyed students, mouths agape, plugged in and churning out powerful story after digital story. I would love to tell the story of the panacea. But this wouldn’t be the truth.

So, tomorrow I will again get up at 4:30. I will come to my classroom and meet students where they are. I will troubleshoot microphone problems, listen to excuses about forgotten cords and lostfootage, conference about story, high five a few overachievers, hold the hands of a few procrastinators, encourage, remind someone to save raw footage to the H:// drive, and ultimately continue to push and demand more.

Teaching and learning and digital making is rarely easy. When teaching digital making in creative spaces some messes are inevitable. This is my takeaway from #DLDay14: storytelling is a struggle and nowhere is this more true than with students trying to find their digital way.