Amplifying Student Voices
Digital Writing Changes Everything
As a new teacher 10 years ago, I was a judicious writing instructor. I thought carefully about assignments, offered student choice, tried to make assignments relevant. Day after day when computers were in short supply and I didn’t know how to incorporate the few I had available to the best benefit – writing happened something like this: we started an assignment, went through the cyclical draft-write-edit-revise writing process with me marking up at least one draft, then giving extensive comments on the final, usually after about five hours of reviewing for a class of 20 essays.
In spite of giving up my evenings, early mornings and weekends, few students ever read my comments. Most looked at the grade, filed it away to throw out later, or just tossed it in the trash. I wonder if the comments weren’t more to defend the grade than to actually instruct my students. I can’t think of many for whom the process held much meaning; in fact the one memory that lingers (or maybe haunts) from those days is the image of an overeager mother thanking me for “copyediting” her daughter’s essay. The student didn’t care about the writing; she was a typical “good” student doing what she knew she had to for the grade.
Students often have writing experiences like those encountered in my early classrooms; they write because they are forced for an audience not of their choosing: their teacher. Compound that with formulaic structures, outdated modes like the barren, first-person removed essay, and even the idea that ancillary media – video, audio, images – are unwelcome in school writing. It’s little wonder that students generally find little opportunity to get excited about school-related writing: they have been systematically, and thoroughly robbed of their voice.
Technology, digital writing, changes all that. Consider this:
Back in 2005, nearly all of my students had the opportunity to join in Maine to California, a weblog shared by my students in Winthrop, Maine, and those of Joel Arquillos, then a social studies teacher at Galileo Academy of Science and Technology in San Francisco, now the director of 826LA, the Los Angeles writing center. Overnight, they went from writing—or not—for me, their sole audience, to instead writing to a group of teenagers on the other side of the country.
Everything changed. They suddenly found they were writing as conversation, the same thing they were already doing on their MySpace pages, Live Journal and Deviant Art sites, but this time, this writing was valued in school. They used their own language, they wrote about things that mattered to them, and they responded to the writing of another part of their online community. Yes, in a sense, this was another “forced audience,” since we kept the weblog closed to the general public, but my students found themselves connecting with the audience through interest, age, socioeconomic background, even through the diversity that we lacked in Maine but was prevalent throughout their audience in California. And they always had the choice of skipping this audience and just writing for me again. Not surprisingly, no one selected that option.
Over time, maybe as computers became a more integral part of school and my teaching practice, I realized a few things; those students who wrote in class were writing for the grade, not for themselves, their peers, or because they loved the practice of telling stories, creating worlds, or exploring thoughts. Their forced performance space was the front corner of my teacher desk, and I was their compulsory audience.
Here’s what Joel told the New York Times when they wrote about our project in a piece on new digital writing tools in classrooms
“I want to give these kids the tools to say, ‘Hey, my voice is important in this world,’ ” Mr. Arquillos said after the yearlong experiment. “This blog helps me do that.”
The George Lucas Foundation publication Edutopia also wrote about our collaboration in an article that stressed the online community created when students are allowed to use their voice in what I called the “digital hallway.”
The change from traditional, non-digital writing to technology-enhanced writing didn’t come without difficulty: allowing students to write for an audience outside of my four walls meant I couldn’t control what they wrote about, or more problematic for me as an English teacher: how they wrote. I wondered, does digital writing mean I ignore the texting slang, that absence of vowels, even the flirtations with poetry or rap that might skirt—or jump over—the traditions of English diction? Here’s what I quickly realized: when students find a genuine audience for their writing – standing in the way of how that writing takes place is counterproductive. I explored the issue through the eyes of Derek, one of the students who seemed to live on the Maine to California blog, in a chapter I wrote for Teaching the Neglected “R”: Rethinking Writing Instruction in Secondary Classrooms published by Heinemann in 2007. Years later, as my students still explore the different ways technology allows them to write, from weblogs to fan-vids, that question of “Is this really writing?” persists. Digital writing is something different, something steadily changing as the technology opens up new approaches and different possibilities. Even when the words are spoken instead of typed, flashed on a screen, or come blazoned with animation and guitars, or even posted on Glogster, the question still persists, and my answer is usually, “Yes. It’s still writing.”
In an interview at the end of his senior-year English class, Derek told me that writing on the weblog meant that “You don’t have your teacher telling you that this is the correct punctuation or this is the right way your sentence structure needs to be. It’s written as you feel it should be written. If you want to use slang or something, you put it in there. I mean, you can’t tell somebody how to write. They write the way they do, and on the blog, you can do that. You write the way you do.”
Readers can see Derek and several other students talk about this project and others in a film I produced for the Maine Writing Project: Reading, Writing and Computers: A Look at Technology and Literacy in Maine.
In Teaching the Neglected “R” I wrote, “I still wonder at Derek’s thought, that ‘you can’t tell somebody how to write.’ Many writing teachers would disagree, and at times, I do as well. But Derek wasn’t talking about the formal writing that develops a first impression with a new employer, or persuades an opponent to cross sides in an argument. His highly revised, formal writing produced a serious, reflective college essay, as well as an A grade in my course. The weblog, though, was often the place where he put his thoughts together and tried out his ideas, a space where he wrote the way he wanted to. And finally he wanted to write.”
In my teaching life, the words of Derek and his friends, kids who used writing to impress, communicate, hang out, and play, keep coming back to me as current students continually change the definition of what writing is as they explore and mix genres, sometimes creating new ones along the way. What’s impressive is that voice, that sense of individuality that gets stripped out of much academic writing, drives the process. One student, Josh, has steadily found avenues through multimedia to exercise his writer’s voice in ways that non-digital writing doesn’t offer. Josh’s digital story as a first-year English student traced his path of learning to play the guitar. It was his start in high school of exploring non-traditional forms of writing.
He produced his narrative knowing it would be shown in a class film festival, one of 20 stories we’d share in a class festival that semester. The piece might have some technical flaws, but consider this: a teenage boy spent days writing, editing, revising, and performing a story of his life, knowing the work would be shared before a live audience, and later, shared in this global community of teachers. Clearly, he was engaged in a way traditional writing approaches often to fail to engage. Josh was asked to become part of what Jenkins et al. (2007) term today’s “participatory culture.”
Writes Jenkins, “…we are moving away from a world in which some produce and many consume media, toward one in which everyone has a more active stake in the culture that is produced.” He and his team add: “Participatory culture is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that makes it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways.”
Josh and other students routinely produce media, writing, that looks markedly different from what was created in classrooms just a short time earlier. The relevance of voice in digital writing lies in that same sense of freedom that students like Derek found when writing for a weblog audience, the thought that somehow their ideas would be out there in the public arena, whether it was in a quest for YouTube hits, or just to establish a presence among their digital peers. In this participatory culture, wrote Jenkins and his colleagues, “Not every member must contribute, but all must believe they are free to contribute when ready and that what they contribute will be appropriately valued.”
Building on the Voices of Others
Building on the Voices of Others
Sometimes students find their writer voices through the voices of others, and any look at popular media today will show the myriad ways that youth write in a digital world by appropriating and remixing existing content, putting their own spin on work that already exists and that somehow might add to their own. A year after his first multimedia project, Josh, the student I refer to in Amplifying Student Voices, developed a music video through appropriation, building on the Nada Surf song, “See These Bones.” The final product doesn’t contain a single word of Josh’s own, but the process of crafting images of his own to illuminate the song makes the end-product one of writing.
Is this truly writing? In the traditional sense, maybe not. Digitally? Absolutely. Josh wrote this with a concept and a camera, wielding pixels, not a pen. His words don’t rely on spelling for clarity; instead, they rely on tone, shade, movement, and the lack thereof. The project was a stepping stone toward his piece, Change, a sensitive look at the societal and individual impact of economic hard times in Maine. Using the techniques from his music video, Josh’s digital writing was more purpose-directed in this project; his video was developed for the National Writing Project and Pearson Foundation’s Letters to the Next President, an online forum for youth to communicate their ideas about the pressing issues of the day. Building on the success of his music video style, this time Josh was crafting media and using his voice for a social purpose.
This idea of students developing their own voices by building on the words of others is nothing new; student writers have always stood “on the shoulders of giants,” borrowing words or phrases from other, more advanced writers. In many ways the approach is the mainstay of academic writing. But digital writing allows writers to build on content, developing their own voice through the inclusion of not only another’s words but also their music, images, even stylistic routes.
Consider my student Leeannza’s “Survival Guide” weblog, a collection of posts—both original and dependent on appropriated content. The project replaced a traditional English course final exam; her blog offered a compendium of tips to make it through life, all connecting the assigned and free-choice readings of a semester with her own ideas and judgments, flavored with YouTube vids.
Leeannza’s selection of commercially developed media allowed her to use professional accents to highlight her own voice, enabling her to select work not only because of its professionalism but also because its content complemented her own style. In “Think Before You Speak,” Leeannza uses a contemporary commercial to highlight a relatively minor part of the novel Lord of the Flies, demonstrating how at least for her, one character’s simple act held a modern connection.
Voice reflects the writer, the expected audience, the purpose of the writing. Just as Leeannza appropriated content to highlight what she saw as moments of importance in a survey of an English course, Alex, another teen writer, appropriated with an aim to advance his narrative, as well as his own image as a media producer. Clips from CNN contributed information to his multimedia narrative about Patrick Tillman, the Cardinals football player who enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after 9/11 and died in Afghanistan; the material also gave Alex’s project the image he sought: it sounded and looked professional, blending his own voice and his images with those of professional journalists.
Collaborating to Develop a Cohesive Voice
The idea of appropriating media, using the work of others for one’s own purpose, already exists in the social world inhabited by our students. And obviously, we can see how one writer can build his or her own voice by incorporating the works of others. Digital writing allows students to develop a collaborative voice—a communal voice, in a sense, with ownership resting both in the virtual community and in the writer’s own, appended work. MySpace pages are consistently pumped through the addition of professional music, images, and design, elevating the overall presentation to a professional level. This student’s use of the design potential of MySpace allowed him to take a similar tact as Leeannza, enabling him to cast his voice as that of Don John, one of Shakespeare’s bad guys.
While the possibilities of this piece open themselves for much more development, in this case one writer’s voice builds on another’s. Part of the student’s design takes advantage of the social connection capabilities of MySpace, and wisely. This writer linked his page to that of another Shakespearean MySpace page, giving him the chance to amplify his own work by creating a pre-built sublayer through the “friending” of another MySpace resident.
Collaboration, as in the MySpace example, doesn’t need the knowledge of the participants to take place; a simple search for the appropriate link and that connection is built. Other times, as evidenced by community, purpose-directed weblogs and websites, digital collaboration can allow groups of writers to showcase common styles, complementary approaches, or create media for a common purpose. That might come in a high school online newspaper, designed and written collaboratively with the intention of capturing readers through a shared, multiperspective voice, or through the combined efforts of teams of filmmakers as in the work of two young women who focused their efforts on benefiting a local animal shelter.
“Digital writing” is a tricky term. Writing instructors often see it as a simply computerized writing; words that were once scribed on paper are now typed, manipulated, colorized, shared as an MP3, or printed with funky letters. In the minds of many, the writing—the actual words—remain sacred. The writing defenders argue that it’s the “composition” that has changed, not the writing. For them, the end product remains one of words. I challenge that notion. “Digital” transforms writing. It doesn’t merely make it louder or prettier; it offers potential that did not previously exist. “Digital” allows writing to be made up of words—whether interactive, changeable words or fixed and unchanging words. “Digital” allows writing to be an invitation to participate, to change the words either directly, or via an alteration of meaning through the additional or removal of media. “Digital” allows participants to co-opt media, appropriate and redesign content to shape and amplify their own voice. In the end, writing is about communicating ideas that build or transform community. “Digital” brings that community within the scope of possibility.
Jenkins, H., et al. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Accessed at http://digitallearning.macfound.org.
Newkirk, T., & Kent, R. (2007). Teaching the neglected “R”; Rethinking writing instruction in secondary classrooms. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.