The Current Logo

Writing as Collaborative Creation

Written by Dave Boardman
October 18, 2010

Victor leaves us speechless as his life history, compressed into a two minute digital story, is screened before our class. For the nearly silent boy who passes through high school on a fringe of acceptance, the applause marks a rare public recognition of his writer’s voice. The ovation, my students’ choked back tears, and the boy’s own nodding approval as the final images linger on the screen affirm something for me that has been building through an evolving teaching practice: technology helps raise the volume of students’ voices, and its focused use allows for a pedagogy of creation to emerge that makes learning relevant, artful, challenging, meaningful, and fully engaging.

As I reflect on and write about Victor’s transformation from a shy, socially reclusive boy on the outskirts of school society to someone whose voice resonates in a video about his life, I think about my own three children programming computerized Lego Mindstorm robots on the kitchen table to create learning worlds where they develop plot, respond and relate their experiences to those of others, and steadily adapt to changing scenarios. Lincoln Logs and plastic soldiers of my day have been replaced by pattern sensors, worm gears, and ultrasonic receptors. Middle school children revel in the possibilities of iMovie and claymation, and high school vocational students, usually boys uninspired by school, are glued to a computer screen and three-inch manual as they prepare to write a program for a plasma cutter in shop class.

Twenty-first century children are in so many ways creators of their own dynamic and evolving worlds, and the empowerment of actually building something is a moment few of our students get the opportunity to do in school. That sense of ownership and completion is what students like Victor experience when a digital work comes to life. A challenged writer, his work about his life, blended with images, music, and his own recorded voice was an act of creation for an audience that technology allowed him to access and influence. “There was more stuff to do in this one. The other ones, I just wrote it and turned in. This one, I wrote the story, got to record the voice, got some pictures, really made it happen. And when you allow people to do that they just get into it more.” Unfortunately, it is an occasion that is atypical of most schoolrooms today.

In a rural Maine high school of approximately 750 students, Victor connected to a small group of friends and was largely disenfranchised from the steady conversation that makes up the cacophony of high school life. In high school, Victor stood out from the ranks of the Hollister, Old Navy, iPod, and Droid culture that dot the typical classroom. Dressed in the slanted baseball hat from an MTV rapper image, Victor covered his 200-plus frame in a shiny, off-brand running suit, and struggled to squeeze into one of the few extra-large desks for overweight students. The only student of a non-white ethnicity in his class, Victor was one of just several Mexican-American students in our rural Maine district. Weight and attire, symptoms of socioeconomic status, kept him apart from the steady conversation and banter saturating high school life. But in a class digital storytelling project, an audio and visual documentary of a personal narrative, his audience moved heavily in his writing and production process.

In conversations with this boy after his story was viewed by his peers, it was obvious that Victor on this occasion was writing for a wider audience than his teacher. He expressed concern that his colleagues in class would procure a suitable meaning of their own for the work; his issue was not that his meaning would be shared by the class, but that the audience would have the tools, through his images, words, music, and transitions, to devise their own, individual meanings. This boy knew his story had value, and that these people who might disregard him in the hallway might also learn something from his life’s experiences. Victor viewed digital writing as collaborative art.

Victor’s story came at the end of a first year of high school English. The assignment was to develop a narrative about a significant person or experience in the writer’s life – a relatively narrow window since, as one student exclaimed, “I’m only 14. I mean, I don’t have a lot of significant experiences.” True. Responses from students included reflections on relatives, memorable hockey games, and special times with friends. A recent death of one of the students’ classmates saw many attempt reflections of their friend, but few were able to carry the project through to its conclusion without changing topics to one less emotionally draining. Typically, the project takes about two weeks of daily class time and involves numerous revisions, both of the written script and multimedia components. Students find early in the process that the intense focus on one topic requires them to select a subject meaningful enough for them to maintain a willingness to dig in continuously for the duration. Lightweight, or sometimes, deeply painful topics do not often survive.

In our conversations, Victor talked about technology and audience affording a chance for viewers to interact with his writing in the way we encourage readers to interact with published texts by bringing their own perspectives and background to the material at hand. An avid video gamer, it is hardly unsurprising that Victor looked for more than just words to round out his message. “The writing still would have been good, but with the photos you could see also my perspectives as well as yours, so you get a better understanding of it.” Clearly, a sense of audience weighed heavily in his writing and production process. He was contributing for what I have come to term the “digital hallway,” that dialogue space created through technology that allows for an exchange of ideas and experiences outside the social and physical interactions of the classroom. Victor’s story was happening on the screen, and even as the author and owner of the story, he was also a spectator, retaining both the security of a seat in the audience and ownership at the same time. In a sense, his work was his public avatar, allowing him to provide entry to his personal ideas and experiences on the screen and through the speakers, without actually standing at the head of the class himself. As he spoke about the project and the class’s reception to his work, it became obvious that Victor knew his story had value, that these people who might disregard or even denigrate him in the hallway might also learn something from his life’s experiences.

This boy’s outsider social status had been sanctioned, in a sense, by the educational system itself. Deemed a struggling reader through an eighth grade reading assessment and a record of low academic grades, Victor was assigned to a remedial first-year English class, one that attempted to use targeted instruction to raise reading levels, but that in reality was truly the rock bottom of a three-track system. That the class met nearly 90 minutes for every day of the school year did little to offset the distaste many of these students already had for literacy; the extended schedule, different book selections than those offered students in upper level tracks, and for most of these students, a history in the specialized reading classes of the middle school did little for the students’ self-esteem or sense of themselves as readers, writers, communicators, and learners once they reached high school. In many ways, Victor was adept at avoiding the challenging books or the detailed writing; his placement, within the structures of this heavily tracked system, would have been “appropriate” by the appearances. But a reading score on a standardized test put Victor’s ability on par with some of the top students in the top-tier track. At my urging and his mother’s approval, he willingly made the move from the bottom to top tier and into a vastly different social crowd than he had been accustomed, once his score became known.

Victor’s academic move hadn’t changed his outsider status; now rather than being a member of an “outsider track,” he was an outsider in a mainstream. Yet, whether it was the welcoming atmosphere of the classroom, the comfort he found among a small group of friends in the class, or the steady support offered by an ongoing, writing workshop atmosphere, Victor willingly shared his tribute with a growing number of viewers, and finally the class as a whole.

His story tells of his family’s rise from poverty, his mother’s struggle to make ends meet, care for her sons, and achieve the college education that would allow her to gain the financial security to create a stable home life. The story not only chronicles the family’s pullback from the brink and pays tribute to his mother, but also describes his own coming of age and affirms his own sense of himself as a writer. “The digital story I wrote was about my mom. . .and my life, but most of the stories we wrote were about either books we read or other stuff that’s going on, stuff that’s in a way related, but not as related as the digital story. That was about someone in my life . . . it had a special place, ‘cause it actually meant something.” As he described the script, Victor echoed the value for students on the sense of writing about the self, ideas and events that matter to the writer, at the same time pointing out the difference between “school” writing about “books we read or other stuff,” and self-selected topics that matter to the writer. The maxim, “Write what you know,” made sense to Victor. “If you’re writing about your life, you have more background and experience with it, and you’ll be able to get more stuff out of it. You can read a book, but the facts are always going to stay the same. But if you’re writing about you, there’s always something new happening,” he said.

While written initially as a single text narrative, Victor segregated his text by sections, each line narrating a single photograph, and each recorded individually over several sittings. The resulting transcript, in spite of occasional halting breaks, has the elements of poetry or a country song.

Ever since we were little kids, my mother has always been there for me and my brother.

She has given us a chance to live a happy life with the people that love us.

If it wasn’t for the sacrifices that she made, we would probably still be in Texas living in a shack way too small for happiness to fit.

But she pulled us out of that, and for that, I give her my thanks.

From the time we were very little, she has taken care of us, mostly by herself.

She and my father divorced when I was a year old.

It was a harder struggle in the beginning, when she found herself alone, with two little boys to take care of.

She only had a high school education, and the only job she knew was being a waitress.

Sometimes she worked nights and weekends. She hated working those hours, because she wanted to be with us.

She worked as a waitress for a while but there wasn’t enough money to keep up with the rent and bills, so she decided to go to business school to learn to type and get some computer training.

It was hard on all of us, ‘cause she worked full-time at night waiting tables and was in school full-time during the day.

After my mother’s graduation she got a job working in an office as a secretary.

There was more money coming in after that, and my mom was able to come home every night to me and my brother.

The reason my mom means so much to me is because she has always been there for me and made sacrifices for when times were at the hardest for her.

She worked hard and let nothing stop her from getting us what we needed.

She now works for the state and still tries to improve her education by attending classes at community college.

I am now in high school and my brother is grown up and now a father himself.

Living with my mother all these years has taught me a lot, like trying your best and never taking no for an answer, look out for the ones you love, and the best way to get ahead is to get started.

So with all my heart, I say, I am very proud to be my mother’s son.

As the digital story plays, gentle piano music provides the background for Victor’s voice, while a blend of family photographs and Internet stock photography, largely from Image After, a high-quality site used for class projects, changes on the screen. While some students used a relatively arbitrary, untimed blend of images, Victor’s photographs matched precisely with his words, even at times creating unnatural breaks in his line pattern; his emphasis aimed more to provide definitive links between image and words, focusing more on meaning rather than aesthetics. Many of the images, a broken egg to represent the break-up of his parents’ marriage, a photograph of his mother in a restaurant’s colonial waitress attire, or a street sign traffic arrow to mark the words “And the best way to get ahead is to get started,” provided symbolic connections that some students in their first year of high school find difficult to establish. Other selections, a tiny ramshackle hut in a valley to signify “a shack way too small for happiness to fit,” or a stark photograph of the two unsmiling brothers outside an apartment complex offered stark graphic images to represent parts of Victor’s life suggested by the days of his mother attending school during the day and working full-time jobs at night to make ends meet.

His emphasis during the production process focused on securing the right mix of photographs and narration – that definitive, precise link established in his work, influenced the way he created his digital story, as well as the word selection. At several places in his project, Victor created halting pauses in the recorded narration as the transition occurred between photographs. When I showed him another method of recording that might smooth some of those transitions, albeit, at the expense of some of the tight links between photos and narration, Victor turned down the idea, opting instead to link specific words with matching photos. At the time, I saw his decision as one based on ease; recording sentences or phrases was a more manageable step for some students either not accustomed to the technology. But on further reflection and our conversation after the project, it became apparent the issue was instead one of control; this was clearly his story, and that ownership came through the telling as well as the creation. Before his work was screened for the full class, he showed the digital story to several classmates. “They said it was good, real good. They said they liked it, and they could feel the emotion in it.” The red-eyed students as the work’s final image, a family portrait of Victor, his brother and his mom, confirmed that indeed, his emotion was easily grasped by the audience.

Victor’s work was both testimony to his mother’s diligence at providing a stable, secure home for her sons, as well as a stark admission of where he comes from, with a hint that his mother’s virtues will prove a guide for his own life. Victor’s mother’s story, and through her, his own story, was one of success and learning, and he offered that model to his classmates not only in celebration of that achievement, but with the hope that others may benefit from the lesson.

The idea that students will publicly celebrate achievements through multimedia presentations of their writing has been documented by other researchers. Steven Goodman, founder of the Educational Video Center in New York, found students experiencing similar increases in ideas of empowerment when they presented works in a documentary filmmaking class he studied in a NYC high school and portrayed in a 2003 study. “The documentary-making process gave the East City High School students something they rarely found at school or elsewhere in their lives: a visible victory. . . With their video, the students could literally show off their ideas and creativity to teachers, family, friends, neighbors, and whomever else they could get to watch it.” (Goodman 2003).

Victor’s mother cried when she first saw the digital story and took her son’s DVD to her office to show her co-workers. “She said she loved it, and she took it to work today to show everyone on her computer. Yeah, she really liked it a lot,” Victor said with a subdued smile when he recalled the first home screening. “It made me feel good. Not only was it one of the major grades of my class, but it’s also something that my mother really likes.” There are few times when a student writes a paper that is so good that classmates are left awestruck, parents are in tears, or the work is circulated at jobsites, but Victor got that reaction from a video created over two-and-a-half weeks of freshman English class.

Could he have reached the same degree of engagement and self-efficacy with a traditional essay submitted to his teacher? Both projects would have involved writing, collaboration through peer editing, and publication in a sense (a finished paper versus a completed video), but for Victor, the lack of a genuine audience and the absence of technology – the tools of 21st century communication – would have made the experience less valuable. He described the importance of an audience drawing their own meaning from his video, making his dedication to getting the mix of images, music, and words just right. Audience for a teacher-paper did not appear to be a concern.

Technology use in school at times follows the teacher-driven model: an instructor finds a video or students seek out websites on a subject that complements the curriculum, then they discuss or somehow respond to that message. There can be few opportunities for students to create, use the Internet as a forum to which they contribute, or to actually invoke change through the work of school. Following the teacher-centered pattern of traditional schooling denies students like Victor the opportunity to demonstrate learning in a truly authentic manner: communicating a meaningful message directly to an audience of relevance. Experience with my students in an array of technology-rich ventures like podcasting, video creation, collaborative writing exchanges and others echo the experience of Victor; empowering students with the opportunity to use their voices as writers to create change or convey a message engages them academically and raises ideas of their own self-esteem as writers and thinkers. However successful they are in the end may not matter; their voices are amplified through technology, and they are being heard above the din, if only for a moment. As a student in an earlier year’s weblogging project, commented, “Wow. There are actually people out there that think like I do.”

Goodman’s New York experiences mirror what I found over the course of several years; technology-assisted creation prompts students to write with voice and passion. There is a difference when a student screens a work than when he stands before a writing group to share read a piece, or worse, tosses it on a teacher’s desk on the way out. One approach posts the work out in the digital hallway, echoed by Victor’s acknowledgement that the listener will have a say in the final, ultimate meaning. A disc is loaded, the video is played, and the interaction is now between audience and message. The creator becomes a spectator, rather than performer. The other approach, production of a paper, keeps the message close to the writer. The story might be shared personally, an intimate act that many high school writers may find unappealing since it breaks that reluctance many teens have to share their feelings before a public audience. The third divorces the writer from the work altogether, ceding control to the one obviously in power in the classroom.

Victor’s work was shared along its path to creation, but in limited means. His transition from low to high-track came with my suggestion that he work individually with an afterschool writing coach in the school library, an idea he first embraced, then grew to abandon. His script for the digital story underwent three drafts, but Victor revised most of his work on his own, accepting suggestions from editors on the second and third drafts, them mostly making semantic changes in the final round. His approach to editing was, for purposes of meeting a two-minute time frame, focused on “. . . shortening it, getting all the stuff that wasn’t really relevant. Adding stuff, changing one thing that carries something on, but changing it and making it shorter so you get the same thing in less words.” Asked whether more collaboration might have helped improve his narrative, for this piece, at least, Victor preferred to work solo. As he said, it was his life. The combination of his own words, the project as a tribute, and the use of personal family photos clearly bolstered that idea of ownership and personal responsibility for the success of the piece. Victor’s ownership of his story carried through until the time came to share it, until it reached completion in his own eyes.

Technology offers a way for digital natives to communicate in media that value more of the message than merely words, and respects viewers to allow them the freedom to craft their own message from the work. The tools of communication – computers, the Internet, the myriad array of social network possibilities – offer to make the typical classroom a productively disordered place of creation where students view themselves as enactors of change, tellers of stories, and very, very involved learners. For students like Victor, technology provides a platform of equality, where students are empowered with tools to raise their voices above the clamor, to join the conversations of the digital hallway.

References

Goodman, S. (2003). Teaching youth media; A critical guide to literacy, video production, and social change. New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press.

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