Part III: My Inquiry
Inquiry is the component that underlies everything in this project: my initial question, supporting curriculum design, and reflection as well as my students’ inquiry process culminating in their reflective essays. As I discussed earlier, when I introduced the digital story project to my students, I told them about my Summer Institute experience and my inquiry and encouraged them to be part of the inquiry, too. Like me, reflecting on my practice, they would be reflecting on their experience. Their reflections while helping me with my inquiry could help them to become metacognitive writers and more proficient critical thinkers. We would all be researchers together—recording and analyzing our data. At first they weren’t sure what all this would mean, but delighted with the computers and making digital stories, they were willing to participate.
Overall what did I discover? I can now answer my question, “Is it possible to teach academic writing as digital composition?” with a resounding YES! –with the caveat that the focus needs to be on the “teach” in the question. Organized instruction is key in both traditional and digital composition classes. I found it works to start with a focus on the composition elements as usual and add instructional components to support the thinking for the digital elements. The operative word overall is INSTRUCTION—teaching that supports academic content and critical thinking in both composition and technology. The result can be effective 21st century practice.
The evidence that led to my conclusion: Student digital story and reflective essay final products as well as my observations of student process and behavior during the project.
The narratives for the digital stories can stand alone as well-crafted written pieces that meet both of the original composition assignments’ academic goals and standards. There is evidence of an understanding of thesis and organized support, analytical thinking, a sense of purpose, audience and voice. (See “Richmond” and “Sesame Street“)
Even though I am so proud of the students’ digital stories and never tire of watching them, their reflective essays written at the end of the project is the most exhilarating evidence for me. First I asked students to reflect on their experience with our digital story project overall. This very open-ended prompt allowed them to discuss any part of their experience. I wanted to make sure they had the freedom to discuss honestly whatever mattered to them. Then I asked them to think about the question “Does the digital story project help you with academic writing?” and to discuss what—if anything—they learned about writing. This question directly addressed what I wanted to learn in my inquiry. I also wanted to give students the opportunity to reflect on their own learning and hopefully realize and be pleased with their academic accomplishments. I am encouraged by the result that so many of the essays authentically document the effectiveness of the project from the students’ point of view and in their own voice. (See Rodolfo’s reflections and collected student reflections from My Generation Assignment.)
As students were working I observed genuine enthusiasm for the project. Of course they were totally excited and engaged while working on the computers during the Pearson Residency, but they also were more engaged than usual in the drafting stages of the process. They seemed to care more about the quality of their writing as soon as they realized that the essay would be the actual narrative for their digital story. They cared about learning the concept of thesis in a way I rarely saw in the traditional assignment process. Once students realized that their digital story wouldn’t work if it had nothing to say, they cared about their thesis statement. They seriously discussed their purpose and intended effect on the audience. They got the idea of “audience” which was never as evident in the traditional essay process. They really cared that their story had its intended effect when they knew it would be shown to a large audience of their peers. Students better understood the concept of “voice” in writing because their essay text was the voiceover for their digital story. They began realizing that their “voice” in academic writing could be powerful and actually sound real like their own speaking voice.
Future Implications: I recommend teachers try integrating digital composition into the traditional curriculum. It’s definitely worth considering despite real-world drawbacks such as technology issues and time constraints. I was fortunate to be able to work with Pearson who provided the computers and software and hands-on instruction for my students and training for me. There are varied resources available for teachers who are willing to search for them if their schools, like mine, do not have adequate computer labs and tech support. Also many students are tech savvy and willing to assist teachers and other students.
Time is a real issue in our demanding environment of standards and assessment. A digital composition project can be lengthy—mine took about 4 weeks of class time plus a week actually making the digital stories during the Pearson Residency. But I would argue it was time well spent that didn’t take time away from academic instruction. Project based instruction doesn’t prohibit other things from going on at the same time. We still worked on other components of my class curriculum while the digital story project was ongoing. And the project didn’t take the place of required standard-based instruction because the whole project incorporated traditional composition instruction and rigorous academic standards. Furthermore the technology is an asset, a motivating factor that provides students with 21st century academic, vocational, and social skills.
The digital story project was definitely a positive, worthwhile experience for me and for my students.