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Reflections on Creating "The Digital Writing Workshop" on Prezi

Reflections on Creating "The Digital Writing Workshop" on Prezi

Written by Troy Hicks
October 29, 2010

The Presentation

This Prezi moves through a series of ideas from the book, beginning with the cover, and then through three sections that (roughly) cover the ideas of being digital, crafting digital writing, and teaching in a digital writing workshop, followed by a photo from the classroom of my friend and colleague, Aram Kabodian. Depending on how much time I have, how many questions I want to entertain while talking, and the overall goals I have for the audience I am presenting to, I flex my speed and delivery of the presentation.

On the first “section” (for lack of better term), I show the book cover. I can tell some anecdote about the writing of the book, and I always focus on how the principles of the writing workshop—choice and inquiry, conferring and response, author’s craft, publication, and assessment—are the primary components of the cover, not the fingers typing on the keyboard. I remind people that teaching in a digital writing workshop is about the teaching, not about the technology.

Then, I move through the next three sections and ask my audience to think about what it means to “be digital,” what it means to create “digital writing” and finally what it means to teach in a “digital writing workshop.” For the first section, being digital, I pulled a quote from the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning November 2008 report, “Living and Learning with New Media.” This is a good quote, but confusing, as it conflates “digital” with “new media,” and I may need to find another quote to replace. Yet, I respect the work of the MacArthur group, and I want to reference them in some manner. At any rate, the idea is that we talk about the convergence of new and old media, and the social spaces and opportunities that avail themselves to our students because of this convergence. 

In the next section of the Prezi, I pull a quote from the Writing in Digital Environments Research Center Collective, and their 2005 essay from Kairos, “why teach digital writing?” This quote shows the stance that the WIDE center authors take as writers in digital environments, a stance that shows how we write is nearly as important, if not more so, than what we write. I find this quote compelling as I jump into a list of all the possible tools and spaces—blogs, wikis, podcasts, slide shows, etc—and it helps me talk about how we can do “traditional” writing in digital spaces (e.g., write an essay and comment on our peers’ essays) or that we can actually compose multimedia pieces (e.g., podcasts and digital stories).

In the final section of text, I pull a quote from my book that highlights the importance of the principles of the writing workshop. I build off of Lucy Calkins’ idea that we “teach the writer, then the writing” by saying that we “teach the writer, then the writing, then the technology.” I feel that this is incredibly important to keep in the minds of my colleagues, as many of them get caught up in the idea that they have to completely know and understand the technology before they could even begin thinking about teaching the content. I tell them to trust their kids with the technology, and that they know a thing or two about teaching writing.

Finally, we move to the picture from Aram’s classroom. I tell them over and over that it is not staged, and they generally note the level of engagement and collaboration, the fact that they are using a movie making program, that the books are stacked in the background, and that they are lucky to have so many computers. That said, they also begin to talk about how the process of writing (and collaboration) is both similar to and different from what we traditionally experience when teaching writers, and the fact that their writing has the (almost immediate) potential to reach a wide audience.

In sum, the Prezi allows me the opportunity to talk about the big ideas from the book, and situate the idea of “digital writing” in a larger socio-cultural context. Even a few years ago, asking students to use a word processor was a hassle because of the need to save files from home to school and back again, both in terms of transporting it on a disk (or even flash drive) as well as software compatibility. That doesn’t even account for other forms of production like digital video. Yet, now I think it is fair and reasonable to expect our students to compose in these ways since most of the tools that they need are web-based. While I know and understand that disparities still exist in schools across this country, I come to the conclusion that we simply cannot afford to not teach digital writing any more. In some places, this earns me applause. In others, harsh looks. Still, I think that it is reasonable that we, as educators, begin to understand how and why digital writing works as well as begin thinking about what is reasonable for our students to do.

The Reflection

So, where does this leave me? Clearly, the “bells and whistles” of Prezi are engaging, as the many quotes on their homepage state, and both as a composer of a digital text and as an audience member who has been saturated by many power pointless presentations, any new presentation tool is exciting. And, having given this talk probably 50 times in the past year, having the flexibility to move through it as quickly or as slowly as I want has been nice. In short, I love the idea that Prezi flexes to me, and the fact that I zoom in and out of chunks of the presentation as quickly or as slowly as I want to is helpful, depending on the situation. 

Still, I am afraid that my experience with Prezi leads me to the conclusion that “bells and whistles” are not inherently better for us as presenters. Despite the collaborative capabilities of Prezi, the few times that I have tried to use it with colleagues, I find that we are not as productive as we would like to be and, in the one case where we actually did a presentation with it, we felt kind of lost. Perhaps we were unprepared (which is probably part of the case), or we simply are too used to saying “I’ll present slides 1-5, you present 6-10, etc.” Either way, I need to think more about how and why we might want to invite students to use Prezi, and whether the time invested in it will lead to deeper understanding and greater rhetorical effect. To quote the WIDE group:

From a rhetorical viewpoint, writing concerns not only the words on the page (the product), but also concerns the means and mechanisms for production (that is, process, understood cognitively, socially, and technologically); mechanisms for distribution or delivery (for example, media); invention, exploration, research, methodology, and inquiry procedures; as well as questions of audience, persuasiveness, and impact…

The issue we would like to raise here, though, is a bit more pointed: Are we willing to live up to our shared conception of writing, our rhetorical view? The degree to which we are willing to do so may well determine the biggest difference between those who believe teaching digital writing to be a central as opposed to a specialized practice.

Does Prezi allow us this rhetorical view? Not in and of itself, no. But, what it does do is force the presenter to break out of a six word, six bullet, six slide mode. It allows us to think more creatively about space and design, in turn contributing to our understanding about how and why we want to talk about a topic in a particular way. And, it does encourage us to embed different forms of media into our presentation which, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily all that interesting but, in the context of a digital writing workshop, is potentially revolutionary when we think about the traditional scope and sequence of academic writing.

So, where does this leave me? Still wanting to learn more, explore more, play more. And, to continue teaching and learning in a digital writing workshop.

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