RIP, all of my hopes and dreams for the PDF

I love a good PDF. This is a sample of a PDF I made for a class assignment. I made it in Pages on the MacBook using a template that came with the computer. It is pretty. It has pizzazz. It was easy to create. What’s not to love?

Descriptive Essay

I will tell you what’s not to love. This is a document that I created with myself in mind. It fits the way I read online. It appeals to my sense of design. It is for someone who works and learns like I do: on a computer.

Unfortunately, that model just doesn’t work for students anymore. They do most of their online browsing from their phones. I have always loved the PDF because of its fixed graphic format, but that’s the very reason that it is no longer the best format for classroom materials. Fixed formats are good for computers, but they are not good for phones. PDFs are just not that readable on phones. They might still look pretty, but they aren’t readable in any truly efficient manner.

Move over PDF. The future of classroom handouts is ePub.

We have to meet our students where they are, and that means we have to deliver material in formats they can easily access. For smartphones, that means ePub and other ebook formats.

PDFs are still great for conference handouts and workplace documents meant to be shared with people who also work at computers all day, but they just aren’t what our students need anymore.

No one hates to admit that more than I do. Rest in peace, my beautiful and long-lived relationship with the PDF for classroom purposes.

Twitpic as Writing Prompt

I uploaded one picture to Twitpic just to see how it works. I’m no expert, but I have been wondering about easy ways to have students do their own version of the kind of photo-blogging I’ve been doing lately over on my other blog.

I had a colleague once who would send her students out across the campus once a semester or so armed with Polaroid cameras. Oh, how I miss the Polaroid. Unfortunately, I don’t actually know what was going on with those cameras. I only know what I always assumed. I think she was sending them on a visual scavenger hunt and then using whatever pictures they came back with as writing prompts. Pre-blog blogging and an excellent plan

In the pre-digi age, I once read about a teacher that got a grant to send disposable cameras home with her students. They took pictures in their neighborhoods. The teacher had them developed. The class made a scrapbook, and each student contributed writing assignments to go with the pictures. I thought at the time it was a great way to infuse some real meaning and real enthusiasm into the writing. I still think so.

I also think that paying for film is a bit on the absurd side when most of the students are walking around with digital camera phones in their pockets. So in the spirit of everything old is new again I suggest Twitpic as a way to gather photographs that students collect. They can then be projected in class to be used as writing prompts, linked to blogs for photo-blogging, or used as part of a class Twitter stream.

Writing About Digital Ethics

I’ve decided to use the theme “digital ethics” in my Composition II class this semester. I like to use themes in the research writing classes because they give us a way to bond as a class around discussable issues rather than just MLA procedures, which quite frankly are not the deal they once were to me.

I’m working on putting together a blog for that mainly for me to introduce them to ideas from which they then might brainstorm their own research projects. I have my own list of ideas I still haven’t added to the class blog, but I’d really like to get some feedback from others as well.

What topics based around the idea of digital ethics would you like to see your own students researching and writing about? What resources would you point them to?

I’d love to hear…

Twitter as Assignment

David Carr’s New York Times article, “Why Twitter Will Endure,” reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write about classroom uses for Twitter. I found the article by way of Twitter, though by the time I read it and decided to write about it, I could no longer remember who linked to it. This memory lapse in itself brings up issues of how Twitter works, how attribution and documentation work in the digital world–all worthy of discussion in the classroom.

Because I wouldn’t accept “I don’t remember” from a student if attribution were required or even appropriate, I made myself scroll back through several pages of tweets until I found this:

For anyone interested in why Brian Williams is an idiot, here is the link to the Time article in question.

Williams’ dismissal of Twitter aside, Carr makes some great points. I don’t know if I agree that Twitter is really “plumbing” as he asserts. Something new always comes along, after all. I do think it is here for a long stretch, though, and I think Twitter represents a communications style and way of thinking about information flow that will endure for quite some time. That’s why it’s worth bringing to the classroom experience.

Daisy Pignetti, among others, has done quite a bit of research and experimenting with Twitter as a classroom tool. I’ve followed her work along with listserv discussions on the topic for as much as a couple of years. I’ve also seen some really interesting professional uses of Twitter through conference backchatter, article sharing, and real, helpful discussions of academic issues.

Still, I’ve struggled with how to make Twitter work for students. If it is nothing more than a way for me to communicate to them, I can use any of a number of other tools–Blackboard announcements, Facebook, blogs, and so forth. If it is a way for them to communicate with each other, it gets messy, difficult for me to even understand how to track and assess. As a research tool, Twitter is perhaps a little too random. It will lead you to information but not through the most direct path.

That has me thinking about why I use Twitter and why I think it is important. David Carr’s article does resonate with my own experience. Twitter is about who you follow, not about who follows you or even who responds to you. Twitter is a way to receive varied information in one place, to get a sense not only of what’s happening, but of how people are responding to it.

This morning, in addition to David Carr’s article, I read an article about dolphin intelligence (via @courosa), saw some animations of mathematical equations (via @web20classroom), and browsed through lists of iPhone apps (via @mashable) all while doing other things and only casually paying attention to Twitter. This is my equivalent of what my father has done for years in reading the morning paper over a cup of coffee. I don’t know what I’m looking for. I’m just browsing through whatever information is there.

I do know who I am following, though, in the same way my father knew why he subscribed to certain newspapers and news magazines. He prioritized based on the kind of information he most wanted to know–local, conservative, etc.

I find people to follow who are likely to tweet things I feel I need to know. Sometimes I follow people because I think they are clever, but mostly I follow for information.

This is the kind of Twitter use the classroom needs. Thus, I think the best use I could get out of Twitter in my particular classroom situation would be to assign Twitter journals. Students would find people to follow on topics of interest to them and keep a journal of the most interesting bits of news and ideas found.

The best way I think would be to do this through blogs. Then it becomes a circulatory process just as it is for many professional writers. Find information within the stream. Write about that information. Feed what you’ve written back into the stream. Watch for reactions. And so forth.

I can see teaching an entire composition class as a Twitter to blog to Twitter to blog to Twitter process. I think that would make for a truly vibrant learning experience for all. Even as just one aspect of the class or one project, though, it would be well worth doing.

The Book into Blog Project, Day 2

In my second day of setting up Journally, I made it to 30 prompt postings, and I added some pages. They need a lot more work. I also need to add some external links, and I want to add a WordPress plug-in that will generate a sidebar widget for showing random posts. Somewhere in there I need to go back through and make sure all of my posts are tagged and add a sidebar widget for a tag cloud. I may have to wrap presents and bake cookies first.

I’m in good shape to meet my goal of have 50 prompt postings on there by the time school starts back. I want to get up to about 200 fairly quickly after that. In my mind 200 is a nice hefty number where the blog can be left alone to stand as a product on its own rather than a process.

That’s my thinking. I’ll put a lot of work into this up front and then mostly leave it be for people to use. Maybe a few times a year I’ll add new prompts and do general maintenance updates on the site. During poetry month, for example, I might add new prompts for people trying to do poem-a-days.

This is one example of when a blog doesn’t have to be a blog. Journally is a blog, but it’s also a resource that will not have to be updated as a blog once it reaches a certain level of completion. Categories, tags, pages, parent/child designations for pages and categories all make it so much easier to use a blogging platform to create a digitally navigable book as opposed to the kind of blog that once included “frequently updated” in its definition. I believe I’ve written about this before. Now I’m working on doing it.

On Getting Journally

I’ve devoted a good chunk of the day, when I wasn’t doing laundry or last-minute shopping, to setting up a new blog. Meet Journally. It’s a blog of journal prompts for students in composition and creative writing classes, or for anyone I suppose who wants to keep a personal journal.

I still have quite a bit to do to shape it up, but I hope before the holiday break is over to have a fairly robust collection of prompts built up. Okay, my goal is to have at least 50 prompts posted before I start back to school in January. Judge for yourself whether you’d call that robust. It’s a start anyway.

I hope people will send their students to this blog, not only to find journaling ideas, but also to post pieces of their work in the comments. We’ll see if that ever takes off.

I’ve dreamed for years of putting together a creative writing exercise book, and at one time I had hundreds of those one-liner writing prompts saved. I don’t even know if I still have them. If I do, they are on my office computer. Everything posted to the Journally blog so far, I wrote last night. On a whim.

I’m basically building my book online, or at least the journal prompt part of it. That hit me as the thing to do last night when I was too buzzed to sleep from too much Diet Coke. The thought had barely brushed through my mind before I was setting up a new WordPress installation.

In other words, this is absolutely a whim. To justify deciding on the spot to blog instead of putting together a book, I’ll just say this:

(1) Books are too expensive for students. They can’t afford to buy a supplementary exercise book. They need to spend their money on the books about craft and the anthologies of writers worth emulating.
(2) I’m too inconsistent (Haphazard as it were) on writing projects to actually finish a book in a timely fashion. I start projects all the time, but reality always sets in before I can finish, and I remember I’m teaching seven sections of students who want their papers graded and returned.

I could go on and on, though thank goodness I do have enough impulse control left to spare you that. Essentially, I’m thinking that more and more “textbooks” are going to show up online in open formats. Why not make mine one of them? At least this way I’ll find out whether I’m writing anything people can use.

**Cross-posted to Writerly Haphazardry.

Topics for Visual Thinking

One of the realities of the digital world we live in is that much of the reading we do is actually taken from visual cues rather than straight text. We do our reading in digital environs which are inherently multimedia environs. Thus, the visual must be addressed as essential to the literacies we expect of students.

With that in mind, I’ve been gathering and developing visually-oriented writing assignments.

Interview Based Assignments

1. Find an older class yearbook (preferably from at least 20 years before you were born). Look through the yearbook and interview the person it belongs to. You might just sit down and flip through it together, discussing aspects of the yearbook and the memories it represents as you go. After the interview, write about what you’ve learned.
2. Study the work of a visual artist and interview that artist about his/her work. This might include painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design, or even cake decorating if the cakes are truly works of art. Write about what you learn from the artist and the art. With the artist’s permission, include photographs of the work discussed with your writing.
3. The WPA and the FSA collected many photographs of American life during the Great Depression. Study the work of one of those photographers–Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott, Eudora Welty, or others–and find someone who lived during the Depression to talk to about the photographs. Encourage the person you interview to share memories of that time. Write about what you learn.

Scavenger-Style Assignments

1. Go around town taking pictures of the most interesting signs and billboards you can find. Make a digital photo album or movie out of your collection, and write about any patterns, themes, or issues you observe in the collection.
2. Think of a social issue you believe is important to your own town. Take pictures that you believe tell the story of the issue. You might also video scenes that illustrate your issue. Put together a multimedia project with your finds. Write a self-reflection on the process of creating your project.
3. Go on a visual scavenger hunt of your own life looking for images that represent who you are in your home, your vehicle, your workspace, your closet, your backpack, purse, etc. Write an essay with photographs inserted about what you find out about yourself and what you think this does say to others.

Reviews

1. Watch a movie with the sound turned off. Write a review of it based on visual content alone. Read about framing and filming techniques before you begin.
2. Review a website for its visual design. What visual messages are being sent? What design flaws do you see? How could a redesign clarify or enhance the content?
3. Find a collection of photographs on a particular topic, perhaps a photoessay published by a newspaper or news magazine. Write about your emotional and intellectual reactions to the photographs. Analyze and comment on the photographer’s techniques.

These are just a few to get us started. I hope others will contribute ideas.

Topics for People Born After 1990

You know those mindset lists that tell you things like to your current students Harry Potter has always been the most popular book in the universe, M&Ms have always been pink during breast cancer awareness month, whenever the heck that is, and Jetson’s-style video phone calls have always been real–except that they don’t know who the Jetson’s are? You know the ones that make you feel old as the hills and the white elephants combined? I love/hate them. I read them every year with a macabre sense of my own mortality. I read them and laugh/weep.

They drive home the fact that I’m not a teenager. People quit believing I was still having my 29th birthday every year some time back. My students and I are from different generations. It gets harder and harder every year for me to think of writing prompts that appeal to them or even make sense to them. Still, I must try. They write better when they write about things that are meaningful to them. Alas, writing about things that are meaningful to me doesn’t help them nearly as much, aside from the fact, of course, that it helps me get through their papers. Never make them write about things you don’t want to read. That’s a disaster for everyone.

Thus, I’ve made an effort to come up with writing prompts that we can all care about as well as topics that help us think through issues we face in the world we live in now, as opposed to the one I lived in 20 years ago before many of my students were born.

I’ll just suggest a few now. I hope to come back to this topic later. I hope others will help me brainstorm my way through it.

(1) What’s in your iPod? What do your playlists say about you as a person?
(2) What are the rights and wrongs of text messaging during class?
(3) Should you friend your teachers, employers, or other authority figures on social networking sites?
(4) What are the worst Facebook/MySpace faux pas your friends should be warned against?
(5) What was the most significant TV show (or video game or pop star or other media presence) of your childhood? How did it influence your life?

These are light-hearted topics. The students do have to think a little to put them together, though, and the topics tend to inspire some creative thinking. Of course, we want our students to be writing about “more serious” social issues and ideas as well, but the job for me is to teach writing, and the challenge for me is to at least begin to teach them wherever I find them. Walk through the computer lab one day and count the earbuds if you have any doubt that you’ll find them with their heads in their iPods.

Research Project Sites

It’s that time of year when most eyes are on Santa, but mine are on next semester’s handouts. I’m working on practicing what I’ve been preaching. We need more web writing in writing classes, I told you. We need more multimedia. We need more variety. We need more creativity. All that need requires a whole lot of work and thought. And a lot of popcorn for supper too if you happen to live at my house and you aren’t a cat on a special diet.

My biggest concern is in reworking ENG 1123, or Comp 2. At my school, this is a research class. You know, the one people who don’t like to write and don’t feel confident about documentation put off until the last possible semester due to the sheer dread of it. Making a class where they know they have to write an academic research paper interesting and innovative is a challenge. Honestly, I find bibliographies tedious. I don’t know how to make them anything else for students. That’s why I just send them to EasyBib for the quick path to success with MLA.

The past few years I’ve had sequences of related assignments and a semester theme for that class. The theme gives us something to talk about in class (or on the discussion board for online classes) other than where to put the parenthetical citation and where to put the punctuation on the works cited page. The sequenced assignments give the students time to develop their ideas over time and to understand aspects of research in steps rather than having to take it all on at once. That just makes everyone’s life better.

Still, it’s the class people dread. They already have to do more hands on work than in that class than in most others at the same level. How could I ask them to do even more work by adding multimedia/web assignments to an already full load? I couldn’t. They’d all drop, leaving me with an easy grading load and shaky job security. This isn’t the time for that kind of risk.

What I can do, however, is to transform some of what they are already doing into web-based forms.

This is the thinking that lead me to my Google Sites Project idea. Essentially, I’m having them create a website out of all of their research assignments, nearly all of which they are already doing in my class.

I have added one thing to the web assignment–the creative work. The addition of that assignment makes the number of pages on the website add up to eleven. This is a number that sounds like bonus points are involved to me. English teachers are not mathematicians. They need nice even numbers to work with. Thus my plan is to divvy out ten points per page to add up to a possible 110 points.

I might prefer a more holistic approach to grading, but I need those points so that I can go ahead and award some grades while the site is still a work-in-progress. That’s my compromise. I want the whole research portfolio to receive one grade, and I want the students to have nearly the whole semester to work on it. At a two-year college with open admissions, I can’t assume they understand whether they are on track or not with a semester-long project without giving out some grades along the way. Thus, I’ll have periodic check-points at which I’ll award “as-is” grades to individual pages.

I’m still working out the details. I’m sure I’ll share more ideas along the way, and I would certainly welcome feedback.

This is just one possible way to go about using Google Sites for research projects. In another class, I’d be more likely to assign group projects with GS. It is, after all, a tool designed for collaboration.

I chose Google Sites because my campus went to Gmail for all faculty and students. My students already have access to this without having to register on their own. It is a free tool, though, and easy enough to set up even if everyone has to register for a new email account.

Had the opportunity not been so readily at hand for me, I might not have gone to Google Sites first (I’m more of a WordPress girl), but I think I’m going to be very happy with it. The sites are very easy to work with, and they are more versatile than I’d realized with features like blogs and file storage as optional pages.

So here we go. It seems like a good idea right now. I’ll let you know around next April how I feel about it then.