I’m sitting in a classroom at Northern Michigan University, watching the rain drizzle outside the window. Amy and I are leading a “Digital Storytelling Using a Mentor Text” workshop this week, and the participants – all Writing Project teachers – sit around the table wearing headphones, playing and replaying pieces of their stories, and adding those final perfectionist touches to their projects. We’re going to watch the videos this afternoon as we wrap up the class.
Amy and I have made other digital stories, but we aren’t experts. In truth, we are teaching the class to learn along with our Writing Project colleagues. When we think we have one strategy mastered, the software changes, the computer glitches, or other challenges arise. Crafting a digital story is rigorous. Participants tell us they spend more time consumed in this than they do in a typical summer college course.
We decided to focus the digital stories on mentor texts so that we all can use the projects in our classrooms, and perhaps also for presentations. I chose Walter Dean Myers’ Bad Boy for my mentor text. I like to start the school year by having my sophomores read this memoir. We can relate to Walter’s struggles growing up, his reading and writing experiences, and his escapades at school. No, we didn’t grow up in Harlem in the 1940s, but Walter captures the experience of being human so well that we identify with him, or feel like he could have been our childhood friend. We root for Walter, and want him to succeed. When I tell my students that he’s written over 85 books, they are astounded that someone with hardships like he went through in school can grow up to be so successful. They find hope in his story.
In 2005, a group of Upper Peninsula Writing Project teachers, led by NMU education professors Sandra Imdieke and Suzanne Standerford, traveled to the explore the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. This is known to be one of the world’s greatest collections of children’s literature resources. We were fortunate to have Sandra guide us in our research; she is an expert on children’s literature, and was recently appointed chair of the 2013 Caldecott Award Selection Committee. She also serves as a consultant to the Newbery Award Selection Committee. It is fascinating to sit with Sandra and listen to her talk passionately about all the books she reads on behalf of children, in order to help them find top quality literature. I’ll admit, Sandra Imdieke maintains a rockstar/goddess kind of status from the perspective of an English teacher, former librarian wannabe, and biobliphile like me.
I first became familiar with Walter Dean Myers’ works at the Kerlan, and focused my research efforts on two of his titles for young adults – Bad Boy and Monster. I wrote a reflection on my research (originally intended to be a chapter of a book), but did not publish it. For the past six years, I’ve had this experience simmering in the back of my mind, knowing that someday it would resurface. It turns out that time is now.
Another reason I picked Bad Boy as the mentor text for my digital story is because I thought that describing my reading and writing experiences would be a great way to introduce myself to my new students. They could use my memoir and Walter’s as models for writing their own literacy memoirs. The literacy memoir assignment, which I’ve used and adapted over several years, tells me a lot about my students, their backgrounds, their impressions of school, and their outlooks on reading and writing. It shows me how to move forward with them and immediately helps me identify their reading preferences and inhibitions.
Putting together a digital story feels like giving birth. After spending hours writing, revising, searching for family photos, finding music, recording voice, and playing with transitions and timings, I feel exhausted. Through that process, though, I’ve created a new piece of me, one I’m ready to share with my family and friends. This one is called “Meet Me at the Library.” You’ll find out why when you watch the video. I’ve always loved libraries, and hope to see you there with book in hand!