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Transforming the World One Story At a Time: A Preservice Teacher's Reflection

Written by Cindy O'Donnell-Allen
December 20, 2012


     By Adam Mackie

To speak a true word is to transform the world.”

Paulo Freire

Sarah, one of three fifth and sixth grade students gathered around a Mac laptop, reads an ode about the different kinds of hair in her family. She describes her mother’s hair as short and brown and how in the summer it puffs up like a cupcake. Sarah says her sister’s hair blows in the wind like a weeping willow tree and limns about her father’s balding head. The tone and mood of Sarah’s poem “Hair” precisely captures Sandra Cisneros’ vignette “Hairs” in The House on Mango Street, combining truth with a little bit of humor. Sarah poetically matches Cisneros’ words: “Everybody in our family has different hair” (6). Sarah (a pseudonym) is one of 18 participants in the “Saving Our Stories (SOS) Project,” a week-long, Summer 2010 workshop sponsored by the Colorado State University Writing Project (CSUWP).

Then as a graduate student and pre-service teacher at Colorado State University (CSU), I joined a concurrent Teaching with Technology workshop comprised of other pre-service teachers and K-12 teachers. I was excited to learn more about teaching and learning using digital technology and how to better implement digital media and learning into my language arts and composition classrooms. I also was eager to gain practical experience teaching students like Sarah how to create digital compositions. Many of the teachers, including myself, had been to a digital writing workshop with Troy Hicks, an author of Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments (2010), earlier in the week at the CSU campus. During the workshop with Hicks at CSU, I worked alongside two other pre-service teachers to practice composing a digital story and collaborated on a piece titled “Digital Storytelling with Troy Hicks.” We sought to carry out the principles we learned from Hicks into the SOS workshop, striving to teach students sound writing skills first and then teaching them how to use digital technology second.

As a whole group, we met for approximately three hours in the morning throughout the week of the SOS workshop. We started the day with a daily writing session where all the teachers posted and responded to assigned readings, and each other, in an online discussion forum created on a group Ning. Later, in small groups, I joined two other teachers and recorded podcasts into GarageBand on Mac laptops that captured our thinking and our dialogue. The podcast discussions gave me the opportunity to hear how other teachers imagined using podcasts to save the stories of students in their upcoming classrooms and to share my own.

The morning workshop prepared me for the mindset I needed to effectively assist Sarah and her classmates in their digital writing pursuits later in the afternoon. I formed a small group with Jenny St. Romain, English teacher at a local high school, and Stephanie Griffin, another pre-service teacher attending the workshop. Our discussion focused on how we planned to use digital technology in our classrooms. Part one of these discussions can be accessed here and part two can be accessed here.

The workshop afforded a space for me to discuss digital technology with other teachers and gave me an opportunity to practice using Apple applications, such as iPhoto and GarageBand. After receiving instruction about how to use the necessary digital technology, it was time to put theory into practice as we worked with the students from the Saving Our Stories Project. The objective was to teach students a way to write about their culture and heritage in the form of digital odes using tried and true, pen and pad, writing practices as well as writing practices involving 21st-century, digital technology. Along with The House on Mango Street, the class also used excerpts from Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things and Gary Soto’s Neighborhood Odes as mentor texts.

Cameron Shinn, one of three co-directors of the SOS Project, said that the teaching objectives also aimed at showing students that writing could be fun, exploratory, conducted with digital technology, and capable of connecting to a person’s culture and heritage. The students went on a field trip to Museo del Las Tres Colonias, a museum in the Fort Collins community that “provides a living history of Hispanic life” during the 20th-century. Shinn told a story about how one student saw a sign that read, “No Dogs or Mexicans.” The student was appalled at how such a comparison could be made, which led to many teaching moments related to discrimination and acceptance throughout the rest of the week.

The SOS Project is a way to teach students how to use digital writing to “hang on to rich pieces of history,” Shinn said.

Shinn further explained how the program introduces students to multiple forms of media, from digital photography to audio recording, and gives students a safe place to explore their personal cultural backgrounds through both traditional and digital forms of writing. He said the aim is to empower both teachers and students and awaken them to exciting new forms of literaries in the 21st-century.

The culturally relevant podcast that Sarah created accomplished the purpose of using digital writing to express her family’s culture and heritage in an exciting and engaging fashion. Sarah and the other students I worked with during the SOS workshop gained skills that will potentially follow them well beyond the summer into many different facets of their lives. I am confident that Sarah will use the skills gained at the SOS workshop to accomplish her future writing goals whether she goes on to be a public broadcaster of podcasts or not.

Through writing, reading, and recording her ode, Sarah was able to accomplish the purpose of saving a story relevant to her life. At the end of the week, parents were invited for a viewing of all the students’ work that was compiled on a Ning platform. The stories demonstrated both a student accomplishment and the power of digital writing assignments. Videographers from the open access channel for Poudre School District even created a documentary that included interviews with students and teachers about the service work they were performing.

Sarah’s ode about her family’s hair was just one of many digitally saved stories that students produced during the workshop. The podcast that Sarah created was made, not for a compulsory grade, but as an activity she chose during her summer months. Sarah also learned how writing is conducted for multiple purposes: for preserving stories about her family, for communicating alphabetically with pen and paper, for recording digital podcasts, and just for fun.

My involvement with the SOS Project continues. In Summer 2011, I was invited to join two CSU Writing Project fellows to facilitate another weeklong workshop called Teaching with Technology. We planned a schedule for the week and brainstormed ideas for what would be most useful for teachers to take away from the workshop. I gave mentoring presentations to teachers on how to use digital tools creatively and modeled classroom activities that were designed to show how digital media and learning could be used in a 21st-century classroom. An example of a blog discussion we held during the workshop can be accessed here.

SOS reaffirmed for me the transformative power of storytelling and helped shape my current vision and philosophy as a poet, teacher, administrator, and teacher researcher. Following my summer with SOS, I applied and was accepted into the 2011 Summer Institute of the CSUWP and became a fellow. I continue to be transformed as I write poems, tell stories, such as this one, teach composition, literature, and professional development full-time at CSU, or spend time with my wife and two children in Fort Collins. 

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