Why Digital Writing Assignments Matter

I’m getting ready to pack up the DVDs in my house and EBay them or give them away, whichever happens first. They’re taking up space, and they’re no longer necessary. I have Comcast On Demand, Hulu.com, iTunes Movies, other ways to watch whatever I want whenever I want. DVDs had a good run, but I’m over them.

Likewise, I’m looking around my house thinking, “Is it necessary to keep this many books?” I love them, yes. I love having them close at hand. But for entertainment and academic purposes, are they necessary? If I need a particular book, I can get it on the spot from Kindle or Audible. They’re even easier to find on Amazon than on the unorganized shelves in my house.

I’m not over books, but I’m thinking about the way I collect them in different ways. I’m doing this because everything about the way I find and interact with information is changing. It’s changing for our students as well, and we all need to think about that.

We English teachers live by the essay paradigm. We teach people year after year how to make a product designed for a world oriented toward print. Yet when they leave us, they will live in worlds oriented toward digital media. What are we doing to prepare them for that? What are we doing to even prepare ourselves?

The first step is to recognize that digital writing is different.

(1) It is interactive. It links to other pieces of writing. It draws in information that exists outside itself, and it is produced with the possibility that others will link to it or add to it in some way.
(3) It is multi-media. Digital writing can integrate pictures, audio, video, and other forms of media into the writing itself.
(3) It has a different relationship to audience. Often the audience can talk back, like in the comments feature on a blog, but more than that, digital writing more likely to be public writing than print assignments in a classroom. Even if the audience is just the class, digital writing is very often published writing.
(4) It offers different possibilities for design. When students write essays to print and submit, they don’t select layouts, theme patterns, and background colors. They probably don’t put any real thought into type faces or headings. And it is only the rare student who inserts a graphic illustration in the middle of a paragraph. Digital writing wants them to do all of these things, and they need the practice at recognizing the impact of their choices.
(5) It has its own taxonomy. Digital writing comes with an organization system of categories and tags and so forth that does not exist in print. Successfully implementing this system requires a mindset more than a skill set. Students need exposure to it to prepare themselves for becoming producers of information in the work force.
(6) It has its own system of referencing. Links, retweets, and other common digital practices do more than create an interactive element to writing. They also reference sources. This is not your grandfather’s MLA.

We could go on no doubt, but the important thing is we recognize the need for paradigm shifts in teaching in order to match paradigm shifts in the world around us. Essays have their place, but it’s time to start moving them to the blogs and the wikis. It’s time to find out what else they can do.

My Life in the Blogs: Part III, Project Blogs

Project blogs are perhaps the most useful concept for the classroom because they are devoted to a specific purpose that often has a defined beginning and end. When I first started blogging I read a lot of advice that all had to do with building a long-term audience for a blog. Update frequently and consistently for an extended period of time, the bloggers always said.

That’s good advice if that’s the kind of blog you’re after. But you don’t have to be a blogger for the long haul to make good use of the blog as a project space.

My first project blog lasted for 24 hours. Those were the terms decided beforehand. It was called Blogathon for Pearlington, and I did it with Joanna Howard to commemorate and raise money for victims of Katrina. We posted updates every thirty minutes for 24 hours. We sent links to all of our friends, and we asked them to support the hurricane recovery efforts. By the time we blogged for 24 hours and followed up for a couple of weeks, we had 81 posts, all telling the story of the small town of Pearlington and the devastation along the Gulf Coast.

We hear a lot of talk about service learning these days. Blogging for charity or to raise awareness of a cause is a great student service learning project.

Other project blogs I’ve done are A Welty a Day and Media Memoir.

I did the Welty blog to celebrate Eudora Welty’s centennial. I started out to post a new entry every day as I blogged my way through Eudora Welty’s Collected Stories. That sort of worked out. I didn’t always post every day, and I got busy and quit before I’d made it through the last section of the collection. But that’s okay. It’s still there, and I can go back to it whenever I want. I probably will at some point. Regardless, I got a lot out of doing it, and I think this kind of reading response blog is a great exercise for students. I wouldn’t require students to post every day, though. That’s tough. I’d suggest twice a week.

I set Media Memoir up as a sample electronic literacy project for the South Mississippi Writing Project. It’s a compilation of media memories just as it sounds, with links and YouTube videos and such embedded in the posts. It was lots of fun to create, and I would very much encourage similar projects with students. This kind of project is so enjoyable that you don’t notice how much you are learning from doing it.

My Life in the Blogs: Part II, Creative Writing Blogs

I’ve set up a little house of blogs at Writerly Haphazardry. Unfortunately, the reason I chose the title continues to hold true. My blogging there is haphazard at best. I’m a very busy person. For most of the year, I’m more likely the have teaching issues on my mind than anything else. Thus, there’s more to say on Teacherly Tech right now than on Writerly Haphazardry, but it’s all me, and it’s all writing I love.

The main page there is for general writing–creative non-fiction, thoughts on life and the world, or whatever. Then there are the poetry and fiction blogs in their own separate spaces: Poetry Haphazardry and Haphazard Fiction.

Most people don’t compartmentalize their blogs like this. Most bloggers probably just have one blog. I have three registered domain names just for myself, and that’s not counting the places I’ve set up on free sites like Blogger and WordPress.com. I compartmentalize because I write a lot, and I write in many directions. I don’t assume people who read my teaching articles want to read my poetry or people who read my poetry want to read my creative non-fiction. I have separate blogs for separate audiences, but there’s actually even more to my reasoning for three domain names than that.

I’m building collections of work. My poetry blog is a book of poetry, or it will be when I put enough poems there. My fiction blog is a novel-in-progress. This is just one way books are compiled in the digital age.

The first time a poet was offered a piece of paper to write on that poet would have said, “Oooo, let me see how that works.” Not, “No thanks, I’m too busy etching on this clay tablet.” I think of myself as a poet first, and poets are naturally curious people.

Consider that when assigning student blogs. Consider how students can build beautiful and creative collections that they can feel proud of. Consider giving them some room to experiment, to fulfill their natural urges to find out how things work. Help them think of what they are doing as making a work of art rather than simply finishing an assignment.

Cool Tech Tool: Visual CV

Visual CV is a must for job seekers.   It’s an online resume building tool that provides space for uploading portfolio artifacts and gives custom options for publishing the portfolio as a website.  CVs can be saved or  emailed as pdfs.  This is a must more robust tool than resume templates or wizards in word processing programs, and it produces a fine looking document.  It’s an easy answer for teachers and students covering job search units, and it’s an easy answer to portfolio building.  NCTE recommends electronic portfolios for all students, and indeed they will need them on the job market.  This is a great way for a student to set up a web presence to impress potential employers and potential graduate schools alike.

Cool Tech Tool: Tumblr

Tumblr is possibly the coolest of cool.  It’s for blogging, micro-blogging, audio-blogging, video and photo sharing, pushing content to social networking sites, and possibly things I haven’t figured out yet given I’ve only just now joined.  It seems to be a wonderful option for keeping an audio journal.  It allows you to upload one mp3 of up to 10 mb per day.  Given that this is a free site and that’s the only restriction, this is a fantastic answer to audio blogging.  Most free blogs don’t allow enough file storage space to keep going all that terribly long at the rate of 10 mb per day.  And if you need life to be even simpler than an upload, you can phone in your voice recording.  Nice.

Tumblr doesn’t host videos, but it does provide an easy way to link to them in YouTube.  It does allow for uploading photos into posts.  With themes that show one post at a time with clickable arrows to scroll through to subsequent posts, it looks like a very promising place for gallery style photo-blogs.

The built-in Facebook and Twitter connections mean Tumblr could be used simply as a way to manage content being pushed out to other systems, but it might also serve as a space for a full blog.  Like I said…nice.

See me on Tumblr.

Cool Tech Tool: Picnik

Picnik is absolutely one of my favorite online tech tools.  It’s a photo editor and so much more.  Mostly, though, it’s incredibly easy to use, and it is free…unless of course you want the premium service.  If you just need to resize and crop a little, or even if you need to overlay some text on an image, but you lack the time or inclination to use a complicated photo editor, this is for you.

It offers simple ways to send photos on to Flickr, Facebook, and other popular sites, and the ease of use means even the most rank amateur can photo blog or at least photo share.  If you plan to do any kind of photography projects with students, and you aren’t teaching graphics design, this one’s a must.

Cool Tech Tool: UberNote

Ubernote is an online notebook program that could be a very useful research project management tool.  It allows for saving bookmarks, copying in clips from web pages, and writing notes.  You can even email in notes to yourself, making it a convenient place to store information found during a library visit.

You might even consider it as a journaling tool if you want to keep a private journal online where you can access it from multiple computers or even from your mobile phone.  Because notes can be tagged and organized, finding specific entries again when you want to read them should be a snap.

Try it out, and if it’s sort of what you’re looking for but not quite, read this article at Mashable to find out about other online notebook tools.

Featured Blog(s): Parts-n-Pieces + Composing with Images



Composing with Images


Billie Hara writes about teaching, academic and social issues, and photography (among other things) at Parts-n-Pieces.  She’s also kept a photo blog called Project 365 for several years.  She’s done stunning work with both her writing and her photography.  Visit her blog when you have plenty of time to browse.

Now Billie has started a new photo project along with Bill Wolff who has his own great blog at Composing Spaces. Each week at Composing with Images Billie and Bill post side-by-side images related to a central theme.  The photography is fantastic, and the concept is a truly innovative approach to photo-blogging.

Featured Blog: 2 Board Alley

Another blog of interest to two-year college teachers, Joanna Howard writes about teaching, community college issues, yoga, family, cats, academic life, technology and creativity at 2 Board Alley.   You’ll find teaching materials and tips on this blog, but it’s also a great example of a successful blending of the personal and the professional in a public journal.