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Pen Campbell, Third Coast Writing Project

Pen Campbell, Third Coast Writing Project

Written by Henry Cohn-Geltner
June 14, 2010

“Many times, students and adults go into the process unsure of a lot – it’s a new experience. They may not like their voice and don’t want it to be heard. Sometimes the process is viewed as “hard” or “too complicated”; but the great thing is that while on one hand it is new for many, and pretty challenging for many, it’s also very engaging, and so they want to do it (though seniors in the last few weeks of school, sometimes, not so much – but even almost all of them get sucked in eventually). There’s often a real excitement in the end product and the satisfaction of having conquered the process that, I confess, isn’t as obvious as often with writing on the page. And perhaps that’s because, as a secondary teacher, I’m not seeing them when they first learn to write, when the joy of acquisition is still fresh.”

Perhaps, excitement of learning and creating with digital media is exciting because many students are now, for the first time, using it in schools and it is new and fresh.  Pen Campbell has been able to give this joy to students and teachers as a high school teacher at St. Joseph High School in St. Joseph, Michigan and as the co-director of the Third Coast Writing Project, in a variety of workshops and activities promoting the use of digital technology to understand media literacy, technical literacy, genre writing, and composition.  

An environment is created in which the teacher can model how to problem-solve as a skill necessary for success in life rather than someone who has all the answers for the students to turn to anytime there is an issue.  This also means that that teacher can turn to the students when there are difficulties and give them the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise.  Since, the teacher is not always the one with the answers, students must challenge themselves to become independent and many of the projects that are done involve work that takes place outside of the classroom.  Much of the writing and thinking about visual storytelling take place outside of the class setting, further facilitated by her students access to computers and Internet at home, as well as some “ancillary toys”, such as video and digital cameras, sound recording equipment, iPods and data storage devices, and scanners.  

The technology and use of digital tools is not what is focused on, though, as much as the writing process.  There is a great emphasis on employing standard writing practices with students when they produce digital stories.  Before gathering of images and video, students will write, usually on 3×5 index cards, both front and back, in order to concretize their ideas and the meanings that they wish to convey because their final voiceover scripts will be about one or two pages.  This is supported by a number of pre-writing exercises, such as quickwriting, thinking about place and time, and having conversations with partners, which help the students think about the theme of the narrative they wish to tell, place their story in a historical context, and make personal connections to their lives and the other content they are learning.

Throughout the process, the students are thinking about the composition of images and audio, with a critical eye ready to make adjustments to their script or find images that better represent what they are trying to say because it is very important for the students to think beyond illustrative language and find representations that employ visual metaphor.  This helps convey that the images they choose possess as much meaning as the words being spoken and the more figurative they can become in their composition, the more powerful their story will be for the audience.  This revision process happens once images and audio are placed together in sequence, but also through reading scripts while writing.  It is acceptable to start and stop reading your own writing, and students and teachers should read to each other in order to fix troubled language.

The final product should be clear and concise, considering the needs of the audience.  Part of being able to create a digital story is knowing what information they will need to keep the story going and when that information needs to be delivered.  This is further enhanced because information is given in a number of ways, using the digital form, via text, audio, and visual texts.  Therefore, selecting projects that are manageable for students will allow them to complete strong projects and take a high stake in their writing.

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