Exploring Connected Learning as a Framework for Digital Literacy Teacher Education
The Genius Hour Project
As part of my course exploring Connected Learning as a framework for teacher education, I engaged my students in a Genius Hour project. Check out the YouTube video that explains the project. Also, here is how I explained it to my students: As part of its business model, Google encourages its developers to spend 20% of their work time engaged in passion projects of their own choosing. The idea is that when creative people are given the opportunity to play and explore what interests them, they will develop innovative ideas and achieve a level of personal and professional fulfillment that will ultimately benefit everyone – the employees and the company. This practice helped inspire the idea for Genius Hour, which is an educational model being used in classrooms across the country. If interest-driven learning, problem solving, and creativity works for Google, why can’t it work for our public education system? Instead of always telling students what to do, why not see what happens when direct their own learning? We are going to adopt this model in our classroom. The only way that you will feel comfortable integrating new and multimodal literacies into your English instruction is if you have the chance to gain mastery of tools on your own first. And I’m not going to tell you which tools to choose – that’s up to you. You are going to choose a digital tool that you want to learn more about and conduct your own exploration into how it works, what you can do with it, and how it can be used in the English classroom. You should choose a tool that you are NOT FAMILIAR WITH – this should be a journey of discovery! You should also choose a tool that is NOT DIRECTLY EDUCATIONAL – I want you to make those connections. You will give a 15-minute interactive presentation to your classmates that answers the following 5 questions: 1. What kind of learning curve did you have to navigate to start using this tool? 2. What did you find interesting as you explored what others have done with this tool? 3. What have you created with this tool? 4. What can you ask us to do with this tool during your presentation? 5. What can English teachers do with this tool?
Blog #1: Storybird
By Rebecca Guerrero
When I first embarked on the decision to explore the website Storybird.com, I went in as an artist, a literature geek, and a future educator, completely sold on the idea that art and writing can be a beautiful meeting place for learning to occur. While the school landscape is often regrettably bogged down by standardized test prep, research has shown that incorporation of the arts promotes the kind of critical thinking skills students will utilize in life.
Storybird, which told me immediately that it was a visual storytelling community, did not disappoint my expectations in this respect. After perusing and creating I was convinced that the educational opportunities of the site were limited only by an educator’s own imagination and dedication to thoughtful curriculum building.
Storybird features a rather large library of images provided by professional artists for use by amateur writers, students, and professional writers alike to create their own picture books, short stories, and poetry. The idea behind the site is that anyone can come here, read stories and poetry, create their own work, and share it with a larger audience for reading or even for sale. As I explored I was struck with the sheer volume of poems, children’s stories, and novels, where new writers were developing followings, commenting on each other’s work, and remarking on the beauty of the art that accompanied it.
The forms available for this creation come with varied levels of writing freedom. Picture books and larger chapter books can be completed in any way the author chooses, so long as the images used all come from the same artist for the sake of continuity. Poetry, however, is presented more as a game where writers must choose from a provided pool of words and impose them on an image of their choice to make their poem, working with the limitation of only a few describing words which can be refreshed, but not added to from your own vocabulary.
Approaching the site for the first time is not a daunting process. Aside from the simple layout and welcoming images, Storybird has easy to locate tabs that describe exactly what can be done on the site: Read, Create, Shop, and Studio. While the first three were self-explanatory, I was interested in Studio and discovered that this was a section of the site designed specifically for educators to create digital classrooms. When you sign up for a free teacher’s account, your studio page will be set up with a tab for students, assignments of your own design, a blog containing relevant writing resources, and a classroom library featuring student work.
Using the assignments tab you can create lessons that specify an assignment (limited to 500 words or less), link to multimedia resources, limit the student to just one or all writing forms, and limit the student to just one or all artists on the site. It is then up to the student to learn to limit their searches to relevant images and artists as there are thousands to choose from. Having tried this process out on my peers, I can say with confidence that Studio is simple to navigate and a great facilitator of student interaction as they can comment on each other’s creations in the class library.
In playing with Storybird I created a few poems and a children’s picture book I titled Everyday Adventurers. For the picture book I was able to exercise my full creativity, deciding on my own rhyming scheme and drawing from my pool of vocabulary and writing strategies to create the story guided by the images of my favorite artist on the site. When creating the poems I was forced to get creative with what was provided to me, choosing words that spoke to the mood of the images I chose. These activities made me think of various lessons that Storybird could employ, teaching about tone and multiple points of view.
Students could be asked to read a short story or poem and find images on the site that they feel accurately represent that story based on tone. Conversely, students could be asked to use the same image from the site and construct a poem or short story around it. Both activities would require students to use analytical skills to determine the tone of the poem or image, and seeing their classmate’s varied work would impress upon them the multiple points of view that inform the creation of meaning. Ideas for using this tool for meaningful lesson planning are endless.
Storybird in the English Classroom
In thinking about Storybird in the classroom, I thought about the theory of connected learning and the many ways this site encourages interest driven production. The texts created through Storybird by students allow freedom of expression that is production centered, peer supported through site interaction, openly networked through sharing with the wider storytelling community, and academically oriented through the assignments the educator provides based on class goals and overarching concepts being studied within a unit.
Moreover, this site could potentially be revolutionary for ESL classrooms where reluctant readers and writers have trouble connecting with and evoking the meaning of texts. Using images as a bridge to literacy, Storybird might help students create their own meaning and understanding with words. It became clear to me when navigating this site that it would not be difficult to justify its use in the classroom, even one under pressure to focus on standardized test preparation, as its use aligns with various elements of the Common Core such as various text types, production and distribution, range of writing, grammar, vocabulary, and style.
Storybird, while set up beautifully for educators, is not a teaching site. This website is available for anyone, and is set up as a community where artists can collaborate with writers to create impactful stories. It is up to the educator, then, to use the site to its fullest potential, working it into conceptual units as they see fit, and capitalizing on its many elements in ways that best suit the needs of their own unique classrooms.
Blog #2: Civilization
By Aaron Goulette
While undertaking my New and Multimodal Literary course at my university, I was tasked with finding new forms of teaching literacy and English-based skills using a variety of web applications. During one of our readings, Civilization had been discussed as encouraging forms of connected learning opportunities as well as a strong tool for meta-analysis and logic. As a gamer myself, I felt the need to jump on this opportunity. After searching for what others had done, such as the attempt of a Norwegian English / Social Science course using Civilization as a learning tool I realized I was not alone. The potential is there, but the key is knowing how to tap into it.
For my research, I selected Sid Meier’s Civilization V to undertake this task. The sole task of the player is to create a Civilization from any era to outclass or out score other players in the game based the following criteria: Warfare, Culture, Technology, or Score.
To put it in a simpler manner, players will confront different problems based on their method and approach to winning. A player who is more of a warmonger, for example, will more than likely have other civilizations respond negatively (or positively) towards their actions. A United Nations will form, embargos could be enforced on them, bans on trade between their civilization are implemented, full alliances could be shattered, all because of one particular act. For that player, the game is already lost because of one decision to focus on warfare than any other trait.
Other players could resort to the “Cultural Win”, a more difficult but enlightening win that requires a civilization to max out all cultural ideologies, create works of art, tourism, and even your own religion that creates such a powerful influence, no civilization could stop it. To quote a player I met online. “I laughed maniacally as my enemies drowned in a sea of blue jeans and pop songs created by my people for the next 1000 years.” Alternatively, players could pursue the technology space race, or win by a fixed timer where a final score is calculated.
Of course, you’re probably asking, “What does this have to do with English and Multimodality?” First, you need to consider the meta-uses of the game after play. CIV 5 by itself is not the golden ticket that will fix literacy. Rather, it is what you do with it afterwards or even during the game using other web applications that will make students appreciate its multimodal approach. For most students, this is already an excellent opportunity to include a form of connected learning, as it easily enhances their interaction and relates to many of the social aspects of their lives. Adding further, should players confront each other in a multiplayer session, how they react to each other as diplomats could have interesting implications and teachable moments for later in the classroom. Eventually you could even add to fictional or non-fictional scenarios to help students understand how the POV of a world leader would affect their decision-making, a technique used in other lesson plans across the net.
While playing the game, I was frequently reminded of various works from ancient authors. Specifically, Vergil and Homer. We often take Homer and Vergil’s words as one of the few accounts of the Trojan war and the events that transpired, despite the fact that they come from entirely different perspectives from one another. At that moment I thought, “What if students created their own perspectives, or their own epic poem, based on their actions in a game of CIV 5?” Point of view instantly went hand and hand with this. The idea was to have students document their gameplay in several snippets, through screenshots the use of screen-casting (another multimodal tool that students can use to exhibit their storytelling technique) to tell their tales of their nation. Imagine students documenting a “great war” between opposing nations, both of which have their legitimate reasons for doing so, and neither side seeing iself as the “enemy”. Even these dialectical entries or blog posts that students created while they documented their civilizations history could serve as invaluable to cross-curricular studies. Consider a student responding to a problem that world leaders have actually faced. How would they react? What would people think about them afterwards? Would people eventually forget and move on, or would it be a stigma on your country? All this takes place in a single-game of civilization.
From there, I was reminded of Orwell’s 1984, where in a previous project, I tasked students with making websites of their own corrupt versions of Oceania, complete with constitutions, propaganda messages, and much more. Had I implemented CIV 5, students would create propaganda that defended their own actions and create an interpretation of major events. For example, can the unwanted religious assault from a civilization be seen as negative? How would the other country respond to it? The potential for real-world or even literary connections is absolutely astounding, but as I have stated before, the game will not do this for you on its own. In the 1984 scenario, the multimodality was still there. There was still writing based assignments, multimedia presentations, image creation, and video. The game served as the “database” or crux of all student work.
Of course, there are… implications. Your school district may or may not be ok with the idea of using this type of software due to social stigmas of gaming in general. CIV 5 was not designed for educational use, shown clearly by its method of downloading it (via Steam, a gaming download service). It requires network services for multiplayer (though an entire match can be played on a single computer with multiple players), and must be able to navigate firewalls already put in place by your district.
The game itself also comes with its share of flaws. It is remarkably complex, and has a very high learning curve. Expect students to play several matches before fully realizing how the game works. Then delve into the deeper aspects by providing them with scenarios. Gameplay is extremely long, one game took 3-4 hours on the fastest time settings, though it is possible to change server settings to add time limits, change eras, or win requirements.
Civilization V, despite its complex nuances, has diverse and meaningful effects via non-traditional modalities that can provide meaningful experiences to help students understand content. If you are willing to deal with the learning curve and focus on the meta-aspect of the game, with other applications, (a term dubbed as “App Smashing”) Civilization can easily serve as a tool to enhance your classroom.
Blog #3: Storium
By Courtney Magnuson
What if there was a way to make writing fun for students in a game-like setting? Now there is! Storium is an online creative writing website that incorporates a game-like feeling with the introduction of player cards and attributes (strengths and weaknesses) that the writer gets to choose. The website is easy and fun to use, while creating an incentive to flex those writing muscles.
I played with Storium for a few weeks and once I got over the initial learning curve, I was able to see how the website can be used in an ELA classroom. Signing up for the site is quick, painless, and free. You only need an email, username, and password. Once I signed up for the site I did a bit of browsing. I browsed through the stories in progress and I went through the forum.
All stories are public and can be read by anyone. I read a few stories that sounded interesting to me so I could understand the basics of how the game/storytelling elements worked. I then then went to the forum, which is always a good place to go to begin understanding a new website. I went through the forums called ‘Help for Newcomers’ and ‘Looking for Group’. The ‘Help for Newcomers’ forum helped me understand how the site worked a little better. Once I was comfortable with the idea of beginning my own story I entered the ‘Looking for Group’ forum where I posted my “players wanted” ad.
I decided I wanted to start a story based on a literary work (Hamlet, The Odyssey, The Great Gatsby, etc.) and people on the forum were replying that they would like to join a Hamlet themed story. The story I ultimately ended up narrating was a modernized version of Hamlet, titled This Be Madness- Hamlet AU.
Before I created the game, I also had to learn about the point system the characters can use within the story (which is explained in detail in the link provided). The narrator can set up obstacles within the story that the characters can choose to overcome with their pre-chosen strengths. This game aspect of the story does not have to be utilized if the narrator or players do not wish to use it.
Creating the game is rather simple, there are pre-made worlds you can choose from that come with their own set of characters which accompany the world. Once you choose the setting you are then allowed to invite your players to your story. Once the players accept the invitation they are prompted to create an account if they don’t have one, then they create their own characters.
The player has different character cards to choose from depending on the chosen setting. These cards include a character’s nature, strengths, weaknesses, and subplots. The player can create their own biography for the character they are playing and upload an avatar, as well. The narrator writes out the first scene of the story and the rest of the players respond with their character’s reaction.
There were a few interesting findings I discovered while playing with Storium. Firstly, the game experience is unlike anything I have come across with writing role-playing websites. The game aspect would be a factor to help students become more engaged with the writing and differentiate it from other writing assignments. Storium has nine free starter worlds to choose from with the free account and offers the option to create your own world from start is you are feeling adventurous. The player cards were also an interesting find since each person can fully customize their character to their own liking. This could also be helpful for those who feel they are not creative enough to create their own character from scratch.
I saw infinite potential for Storium to be implemented into the ELA classroom. It is essentially getting students excited about writing with a game aspect that usual assignments do not have. Teachers can tweak a writing assignment on Storium to be about any book, play, short story, etc. Students can pick or be assigned characters to portray in the game.
Henry Jenkins discusses the importance of a participatory culture for students in which they have a sense of belonging and community. This sense of belonging/community can be felt within Storium. Students would have a character to play who is a vital role within the story. The story could not go on without their input, which would make a student feel valued and important within this web-based community.
Researchers have found that students are not being given opportunities within the classroom to collaborate which makes it harder for them to engage in productive collaboration. Working collaboratively helps students to be more engaged when sharing responses since it provides them with a sense of purpose and audience. When using Storium, students would have the opportunity to collaborate with their peers which would give them a sense of purpose. Their writing would also be seen by others besides the teacher, making them want to put more effort into their responses.
Blog #4: Podcasting
By Dana Proctor
I have never been very good with computers. Since childhood, I have always favored putting pen to paper and most often use technology to craft traditional texts in my academic and personal writing. By a narrow margin, I escaped college without need of a smart phone and use my laptop to a fraction of its full potential. Having always had access to various digital tools, I am living proof that such resources are not inherently valuable, but rather only as useful and constructive as the instruction that accompanies them.
In a recent project for my multimodal literacies course, I explored the podcast medium and potential uses for these digital texts in secondary classrooms. I had never listened to a podcast before this assignment; I had not even noticed that Apple’s podcast app came as a standard download on my phone until a classmate pointed it out to me. What is a podcast? How do I find a channel that interests me? How do I make a podcast? Where do I publish it? Though I brought little prior knowledge to this assignment, I found the learning curve moderate and quickly began navigating tools like Voice Memo, GarageBand and Podbean in my efforts to record, edit, and publish my very first episode.
Before producing a podcast of my own, I searched through iTunes and websites like PodBean to learn more about what others were already doing with this medium. Like many of its nearly 40 million listeners, I quickly lost myself in the story told by Serial, a podcast sponsored by NPR’s seminal broadcast This American Life. In a captivating hybrid of investigative, editorial, and narrative writing, Serial tells one story each season, producing weekly episodes in real time. In its first season the podcast examined the 1999 murder of a Baltimore teen and the case against her ex-boyfriend, currently serving a life sentence for the crime. Offering producers and consumers low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, this podcast modeled the medium’s potential for involvement in participatory cultures. Millions tuned in to hear the story artfully unfold, while Adnan Syed, the convict at the center of season one, has since returned to court with a new defense bolstered by the evidence gathered and presented by the podcast’s production team.
I also found useful examples of how podcasts might be used in secondary school classrooms. Through PodBean I listened to podcasts published by students in a Tennessee magnet school, most often reviews and interviews produced by students working in pairs or groups. Published periodically over the course of the year, these student podcasts exemplified important tenets of connected learning allowing students the freedom to publish personally relevant content for real purposes and real audiences.
When it came time to publish a work of my own, I looked to two tools to which I already had access but had never explored: the Voice Memo app by iPhone and GarageBand for Mac. I found many useful tutorials online and quickly learned the basics of editing audio in GarageBand (Audacity is another great tool for PC users). Through trial and error, I learned that using the Voice Memo app on my phone and downloading the audio files into GarageBand through iTunes provided the clearest, most consistent sound. I even turned my closet into a temporary sound studio that offered insulation from distracting background noise. To involve my classmates in this part of the project, I asked them to record their own answers to the same prompt. Each of these recordings was its own digital text, and together they served as the textual evidence for claims I made about literature for youth and the reading done by young people. To publish my final draft, I created a PodBean channel called New and Multimodal Literacies, choosing a title and profile image, writing a channel description, and tagging our podcast as K-12 Education so that other educators can easily find our episodes.
Though having only scratched the surface of the podcast world, I have great confidence in the potential this medium holds to teach students important skills in crafting texts across various media and genres. While education standards and testing preparation frame curriculum and instruction in many classrooms, digital texts like podcasts provide students opportunity to meet such standards while also engaging them in more authentic social practices for the various uses of digital tools. From planning to publishing, students creating podcasts must pay careful attention to mode, media, audience, purpose and situation. They must practice authentic revision and develop their own strong, credible voices. Throughout the multiple drafts of my own podcast, my thinking evolved alongside my writing. While students often view revision as correcting mistakes in grammar and punctuation, producing a podcast invites students to think more metacognitively throughout the writing process, continually reimagining the text itself.
The podcast form also draws a clear line between students’ own ideas and secondary sources. On the page, students can easily mistake the regurgitation of research as their own original analysis, but literally hearing their own voice as distinct from the others in the podcast, students learn to assert their own ideas and resist allowing the arguments of others to dominate the text. Learning to trust their own voices is pivotal for any young writer, but for ELLs in particular. Podcasts provide these students the unique opportunity to communicate freely without the self-editing that traditional writing typically prompts. In this way, podcasts invite all students into connected learning experiences that challenge the notion of a single, standardized pathway to knowledge and recognize diverse forms of expertise. Students working with podcasts learn practical elements of writing craft and genre, but even more importantly they appreciate the power of spoken word. They learn the value of alternative perspectives and the need for authentic discussion.
Blog #5: HitRecord
By James Ziolkowski
HitRecord is an online community created by Joseph Gordon Levitt where people gather to share their creations that include writing, music, video, and art in an effort to collaborate and create full scale productions that end up on Hitrecord TV. While the overall goals of Hitrecord are aimed at creating productions for television, they are not the only reason people use the site. Hitrecord.org is a space for creativity and networking before it is anything else, and therefore presents an incredible opportunity for classroom utilization.
The site is a lot like Facebook but with media instead of textual status updates. Users are invited to share their creations, issue challenges, and remix or contribute to the creations of other users around the world. The whole purpose of this site is to connect with others who share a particular artistic affinity, and collaborate to produce and create. It is the essence of what Henry Jenkins calls participatory culture. According to Jenkins, participatory culture is “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby experienced participants pass along knowledge to novices. In a participatory culture, members also believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, members care about others’ opinions of what they have created)”. As educators, we have an opportunity to exploit HitRecord as a platform for the exploration of multi-modal literacies in the classroom that are mostly native due to youthful involvement in emerging participatory culture.
The use of HitRecord as a teaching heuristic would also hinge on the idea that our classical, and thus limited, views of literacy should be expanded to include those new varieties arising from technological advances. The New London Group has spoken about this in a journal article titled, A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. They state, “We want to extend the idea and scope of literacy pedagogy to account for the context of our culturally and linguistically diverse and increasingly globalized societies, for the multifarious cultures that interrelate and the plurality of texts that circulate. Second, we argue that literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies”. As we continue to progress as a society, it would make sense to account for and include emerging forms of literacy, especially because so much of a child’s communication in the future will be through the use of those new and emerging literacies.
HitRecord has a relatively simple learning curve. The user interface isn’t much different from other social networking sites, and one who uses Facebook would be able to figure everything out pretty quickly. As a novice, the site can seem overwhelming at first because you are bombarded with images and video on your dashboard (which is essentially a newsfeed). After a few clicks of navigating around the site, everything becomes much more clear and settled. As I explored the site, I realized just how many people are interacting with one another, or remixing content from other users. One of my own videos was even remixed between the time that I started interacting with HitRecord and when I presented my findings in the classroom. Users have used HitRecord to issue their own unique writing prompts and challenge prompts completely independent of those issued by the sites creator, Joseph Gordon Levitt. That particular discovery really opened my eyes to this site as a pedagogical tool as opposed to its other intentions and capabilities.
Finally, my interaction with HitRecord has been a very positive experience. I uploaded two songs quite a while ago, and two videos recently for the purposes of my exploration and exposé. One of my videos was even remixed by two different users as a response to one of the main challenges put forth by Joseph Gordon Levitt. I have responded to other users posts, and even put forth my own challenge for our multi-modal English course. Here is a direct link to my profile.
Ultimately, HitRecord has great potential as a pedagogical tool. However, it is imperative to note that anything uploaded to the site is fair game for other users, and may be downloaded and used in any way they see fit. Once you upload anything to HitRecord, it cannot be taken down. Posts may be hidden from other users, but all posts remain partly HitRecord property. For use in the classroom, an extensive informative handout/consent form should be sent home. Parents and students need to understand that this tool offers a wide variety of classroom opportunities, but that it also has stipulations regarding intellectual property.