The Current Logo
A Digital History: Barbie, James Paul Gee and Reading Tests

A Digital History: Barbie, James Paul Gee and Reading Tests

Written by Lacy Manship
November 08, 2011

Image originally uploaded on 2011-10-05 09:29 Steve and I, both National Writing Project Teacher Consultants, were talking about this idea of digital histories and digital right nows on our Google site. This is an online space where we have been working with other folks in the UNC Charlotte Writing Project to ponder the making of our Digital Is resources.
The words from that page are really still singing in my head… digital histories and digital right nows. I am thinking in images of these strands of my histories knotting together with the context of my present, intersecting and pulling with other people’s histories, your histories right now.

It’s a picture that comes out of our site’s reading of a recent article, Composition 2.0: Toward a Multilingual and Multimodal Framework (Fraiberg, 2010). In this piece, Fraiberg pulls out this concept of how worlds are figured and refigured as people knot and re-knot their thinking together with “languages, texts, tools, objects, symbols, and tropes” (p. 107).

I want to put my finger on the tensions that exist in those knots and see about re-presenting our identities as writing teachers.

Fraiberg, S. (2010). Composition 2.0: Toward a multilingual and multimodal framework. College Composition and Communication, 62, 100 – 126.

Open Fraiberg Composition 2.0.pdf

Digital Histories


In another meeting, this time F2F with my UNC Charlotte Writing Project friends, I think backwards in sticky notes to timeline my digital history. I try in these notes to show the stickiness of my history, the ways it is glued to dominant narratives, the “common stories… correspond[ing] to prevailing cultural representations” (Alexander, 2011, p. 609).

In those years Grandma’s house was a rainbow of green shag, red-rosed wallpaper, brown and mustard Frigidaire. In the red room I’m playing on the floor with Barbie dolls in a sea of burgundy and blood carpeting. A dark head tiptoes into the room, “I’m going to be hiding in the green room. You find me after the battle, okay?” That was my cousin, Little Dana, head wrapped up in army bandana and torso strapped over with new electronic shooting target and lazer guns. All the boy cousins got these for Christmas in 1986, while Lucy, Elizabeth and I played with the newest Barbie edition.

The shoot ’em up game, once created with pointed finger, cocked thumb, and pretend death throws, now is mediated by the tangible gun and red, blinking killshot sensor. The technology of Barbie, plastic breasts, no nipples, rock hard hips and the tiniest toes, pre-positioned for high heels was not new at all that Christmas. Lazer guns set and doll wrapped up pretty under the tree, neither really new, the blinking lights and plasticed woman, just different ways to embody a dominant narrative.

Image originally uploaded on 2011-11-06 13:31

Image originally uploaded on 2011-11-06 14:32
Alexander, K.P. (2011). Successes, victims, and prodigies: “Master” and “little” cultural narratives in the literacy narrative genre. College Composition and Communication, 62, 608 – 633.

Digital Now

Follow me down this thread of history up to last summer, when my UNC Charlotte Writing Project colleagues, Sally Griffin, Lil Brannon, Jennifer Ward and I sat in Lil’s office after a Partnership School workshop talking through the day.

Lacy: Right, so, Lil, you know we’ve been reading this Gee stuff about video games and learning.  And that is doing all this stuff to help us think about our digital learning narratives…

Lil: So what’s happening with the narratives?

Lacy: So we are still getting caught up in some of this bootstrap stuff in these narratives, you know?  Like that I did this all by myself, and ended up on the mountain top.

Sally: And we’re getting into all this about video games in schools.

Lacy: Uh-huh, and it ties into the narratives, right?  Good Video Games and Good Learning is like morphing into this flowery idea of technology in the classroom, as like, the new save-the-world technique.  Everyone is thinking of the next best game to teach whatever skill.

Lil: Say more, Lacy.

Lacy: Well, like, I’m wondering about how to screw with that idea- it’s not new and it’s not the new part that makes it interesting or useful.  And, like, there is all this other background and history stuff that I want to get into.  I keep thinking about Dana Sutcliff’s demo from Summer Institute.

Jennifer: Where she had all those different pieces of media showing all the perspectives on Iraq?

Lacy: Yes!  I, like, want to do that with video games and get a critical stance on the, like, connection between violence, military, corporations, gaming … I’m thinking I will find pieces of media that do different things with the ideas.

Jennifer: Okay, so then we can write about them in our daybooks and talk about them?  And then our own digital narratives will…

Sally: You know this all goes back to the mills.  The workers and the damn owners- they live off the sweat off the laborer’s back.

Gee, J. P. (2007). Good Video Games and Good Learning. NY: Peter Lang.

In Critique of Gaming

Typical professional development recreates the typical kind of schooling. There are right and wrong answers. Teachers, like good students, should play nicely with the toys given. In our workshop, we have given Good Video Games and Good Learning as a way of unpacking ideas about learning. The dominant narrative of school told us to take this at the surface level and apply it directly as: find video games to teach skills.

In this Writing Project Partnership School workshop, though, we were working to unleash counter ideas of learning. Our interest was in creating space for teachers to figure out and question and create. The video game text seemed to be something that could get us there, but because of the master narrative of school acting through us, Gee’s ideas were getting packaged up into learning to be consumed, not critiqued. New media without some questions about why?, where does this come from? and to whose benefit? could become just more packaged toys, more ways to reproduce dominant narratives.

And, new media could also provide access to multiple ways of thinking about an idea, like video games or digital literacy, and spaces to put our thinking up against and in intersection with other people’s.
Below are links to media that built space for critical conversation around an idea, video games, that our workshop had up to this point narrated as “good.”

Image originally uploaded on 2011-10-25 13:43

Airforce Recruitment Website


Image originally uploaded on 2011-10-25 13:31

NPR Militainment Podcast

Army Experience Protest

It’s All Good…Right?

Like the teachers around me, eating up the possibilities of video games as the next new best thing, I know this feeling of going along with the program.

I am such a good student. The good girl, with the “right” ideas impressed from many childhood moments of play and reinstated over and over again throughout my schooling and in so many other knots of my life.

I was a first grade teacher the year that the DIBELS reading and phonics test turned digital. The other teachers and I sat in the hallways for a full week three or more times a year reading questions from a PDA screen to our 6 and 7 year old students. We tapped in their right and wrong answers as the on screen timer ticked down. Then, immediately, scores and labels of “at-risk” or “progress-monitor” peeled across the screen. Our attention was zoomed into these devices, while a child sat reading.

It might not have showed in my plans for readers and writers workshop or the classroom layout into centers, but these digital scores that zipped right over to the county office and to my principal’s desktop, in the same moment that they flashed on my tiny PDA screen, consumed my thinking. All my professionalism as an early childhood teacher, zapped away as the competition and the need to please took over. All I could think of is how if Phillipe could get 2 more points on Non-Sense Words, I would look like a good teacher, Phillipe could look like a good student. Even though the narrative of assessment in our classroom was all about self reflection and digital portfolios, the narrative of the DIBELS’ PDA entered too through my words and stance in small moments.

I know really well what it means to be a good student, a good teacher. Even as I try to work myself up as a critical pedagogue, I AM still the dominant narrative. I can’t remove myself from my history of the technology of dolls that enforce just look the right way, it doesn’t matter what you think. Look good in body or in the body of the test scores. Lazer guns blink fake shots on your chest, making violence up as imaginary. Not created by Mattel or the military droid company Recon or DIBELS learning systems.

In my memory, the dark red fingers of the carpet crawl up the thin and curvy plastic limbs of Malibu Barbie, but only pretend blood, just my imagination, and the “15 out of 24” DIBELS score bloodies my interactions with students even in a play-based classroom, but it’s just my imagination, has nothing to do with the technologies of the corporate testing agenda and the master narratives that narrate our teaching and learning.


Want to know more about the people and ideas behind this resource? Click the image below to link to Digital Is (K)not, a resource to tie resources together created by the UNC Charlotte Writing Project.

Image originally uploaded on 2011-11-01 10:48

Related posts