“As writing has changed with computer-mediated, networked environments, so too have our conceptions about what it means to be literate.” ~Troy Hicks (The Digital Writing Workshop 2009)
I had an interesting conversation with my father a couple of weeks ago. My father, Jim Armstrong, is the least “New Age” person I know (or so I thought).
“The universe sends you messages,” he told me, “you just have to know how to listen.”
To say the least, I was stunned. Before long Dad would be doing Yoga and drinking green smoothies with Mike and I. Laughter accompanied our conversation and we both savored the moment we were sharing. As a teenager I went out-of-my-way to disagree with everything my father said. I even went so far as to declare myself a Republican because I had a crush on Alex P. Keaton on the television series Family Ties. At thirty-nine I am embracing every word that Dad professes and I cannot agree with him more. My antenna is up and I am intently trying to listen.
The winter of 08-09 Heather and I were curious about the buzzing at National Writing Project conferences about digital storytelling. It was a strange new language to us and we were constantly trying to decipher what people were saying. At the same time Upper Peninsula Writing Project Tech Liaison Sara Beauchamp (Hicks) was coaxing us in that sweet and passionate way of hers to take the leap of turning our writing into digital stories. We were interested, but apprehensive and not very secure in our scope of technological abilities. Looking back now I realize that this was a pivotal moment in our teaching career. Cliché and all it is important for the teacher to become the student. We were writers. We loved to write and we wrote often. We were UPWP teachers who participated in writing marathons and entertained ourselves by writing collaborative poetry. Yes, it is true we have even been known to encourage poetry from complete strangers while waiting for a table at a busy restaurant in Indianapolis or while on the subway in New York City. Heather and I even helped encourage our Principal at Gwinn High School, Kevin Luokkala, to write and recite quite a few lines of poetry once while at a conference in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Wait. Stop. Halt. Tuck the romantic and unrealistic ideas away. Digital Storytelling was not our comfort zone. It did not matter how easily we could spit out a metaphor and file phrases into manicured sentences. In the eighties I may have written magical stories on the Commodore 64 Dad bought for my brother Jamie and I. At the same time, thirty miles away, Heather the future journalist was plucking out witty family newsletters on her Smith-Corona typewriter. You get the idea. We had a long way to go to be digitally literate. Yet, we were curious. We had questions. Slowly we were putting one foot in front of the other until we were engaged in a steady rhythm. Okay, maybe it was not as elegant as a slow-and-steady waltz. The universe pushed us.
The night was ordinary. A UPWP leadership team meeting held at the very unassuming Wahlstrom’s Restaurant in Harvey. Heather probably had soup (she always has soup) and I had an idea up my sleeve. More often-than-not my mouth moves faster than my brain and Heather always gets tugged into impulsively schemed projects. UPWP Co-Director Suzanne Standerford was enticing us with a RSN Special Focus Mini-Grant which was directed specifically at technology. We were hungry that night. Our hunger was not for the comfort food on Wahlstrom’s menu. We had the appetite for resources that every teacher in this stumbling economy craves. We were hungry for a challenge and something to tug our classroom and student writing down a new avenue. We, along with our students, were living and breathing digital stories that needed room to grow and develop. The popularity of social networking sites, YouTube and on-line communities were popping up everywhere. Blogs and email (or whatever new inventions lurked in the distance) were the communication tools that our students would be using in the future. We felt we would be doing our students a disservice if we did not engage in conversations about technology driven communication and digital literacy. It had been a few years since we engaged in the NWP Rural Poetry Initiative and still had that promise to keep place conscious writing alive at our site. This would allow us to take our writing into the digital age and allow us to reinvent ourselves and writing.
Heather was the more computer savvy of the two of us. She taught yearbook and journalism and used fancy software with her students. I was the one who was constantly bombarding fellow teacher Shannon Ruiz to assist me in even the simplest grade book and Moodle operation. I think it is fair to say that Heather and I both felt a bit helpless. We did not even know what digital storytelling was, but our hunger was guiding us.
Sara’s voice constantly echoed in our ears and we knew we must learn the genre first to help our students navigate their own writing into digital pieces and spaces. At this point I pushed and agreed to author a mini-grant. Heather may have looked worried at the time, but I knew she secretly was jumping up and down with excitement.
The philosophy behind our grant proposal was this, “Our project will allow UPWP Teacher Consultants to mine the rich area of multi-media literacy to highlight their own personal and professional writing, as well as the academic and creative student writing… We will provide TCs with digital story samples, train them in the technology of multi-media literacy, and allow them to turn their own pieces into digital stories that can be modeled in the classroom.”
I will admit that while I was writing the proposal I had beads of nervous perspiration forming on every sentence. A term like multi-media literacy was not in my vernacular and I still was not sure how to even download photos from my camera to my computer. (Even as I type this I’m not sure if download is the right term…perhaps it is upload) Sometimes ignorance is not only blissful but transcending. With a stroke of good fortune the UPWP received the grant.
Our insightful mentor Sara knew that our best resource for digital storytelling was right under our noses. Our students would be able to help us troubleshoot writing in the digital age and part of our proposal involved Heather and I handpicking a group of students for a one day crash course workshop. Fellow UPWP TC Joe Routhier offered up his CADD classroom full of computers and he would help Sara lead the students.
“Ummmm… Mrs. Laitinen,” one student proclaimed with a dramatic eye-roll, “I already know how to create digital stories. I do this all the time on YouTube. But I don’t call it digital storytelling…” This is one of the reasons why Heather and I admire Sara’s brilliance.
After this workshop with our students Heather and I understood a bit more about the genre. That summer we facilitated a UPWP Advanced Institute on digital storytelling and we were active participants in the workshop. Heather created an emotional place-conscious-rich-piece about her Finnish grandmother and I crafted a digital story using Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried, as a mentor text to help me tell the story of my dad’s experience in the Vietnam War and my husband’s deployment to Iraq (check our stories out under the Digital Stories link). Almost two years later Heather and I are still using the digital stories we created as a model and a way to help tell our stories to our students and other educators.
Though Heather and I struggle with firewalls at school and depleting resources to purchase new technology in our district we are trying to add a digital component to our lessons. I recognize the bleary look I get from my students when they tell me, “Mrs. Laitinen, I didn’t sleep last night. I was working on my digital story.” I know how addicting this work is and my advice to anyone dabbling with digital storytelling is to prepare to be consumed, addicted, and inspired.
I cannot even describe the joy I discover when I get an email or have a conversation with a parent about the video his/her student created. 9th graders do not bring essays home for their parents to hang on the refrigerator. They DO have family viewings of a digital version of George Ella Lyon’s, Where I’m From poem. Last year I was delighted to have a handful of parents tell me that their teenagers burnt copies of their digital Identity Project to gift to loved ones.
Heather and I are still engaged in the work of our RSN mini-grant. This July we attended the NWP Rural Sites Resource Development Retreat in Austin, Texas and created a digital story, The Star Project, to chronicle our journey of bringing a Holocaust survivor to the Gwinn school district. After posting the DS on the NWP Site Leaders Ning I received an email from Gavin Tachibana from the NWP office in Berkeley asking us if he could post our video on the NWP YouTube channel as a resource for other teachers. Heather and I were thrilled!
At the UPWP we are still trying to figure out how to market our DS institutes. Perhaps the term is foreign and abstract and educators question the merit of the skill in their classrooms. We firmly believe that the digital story must start with a strong piece of writing. The genre allows the writer to weave a story from various textures to create layers of meaning. It truly embraces the power of voice and marries the narrative with images, dramatic pauses, and music. There is something organic about multi-media literacy and it will be constantly evolving and reshaping our perspective of the world. Heather and I believe that we have to continue to challenge ourselves to become more digitally literate so we can help our students amplify their writing.
Recently we experienced a surreal technology moment. Right after I hit send for the Final Progress Report for our RSN Special Focus Mini-Grant, the NWP posted our digital story, The Star Project, on the NWP Facebook page. I instantly called Heather on the phone to celebrate what is only the beginning of our journey. My dad would say that the universe is trying to tell us something. We are listening. It is an exciting time to be a writing teacher. We feel we are on the cusp of something big. Namaste.