Digital Composition and Storytelling

Midyear Reflections: Challenges of Supporting Student Digital Nonfiction Composition

One of my professional and library program goals for 2011-12 was to further explore definitions, best practices, assessment,  and applications of digital composition to build on my initial efforts to support digital writing in multiple content areas from the spring of 2011.  In spite of my background in literacy and language (my M.Ed. is in English Education, and I taught high school English for several years), I am definitely in the messy “mucking around” phase of trying to make progress on these goals.

While I’ve attempted to teach and scaffold in varying degrees nonfiction digital composition in collaboration with classroom teachers , and  I’ve read two professional texts on digital writing from the National Writing Project, a sense of meaningful progress and feeling like I’ve made much significant progress elude me at the end of this first semester.  I’ve been trying to focus on the intersection of framing digital writing through Dr. Barbara Stripling’s inquiry lens (particularly when it comes to construction and expression in relation to digital composition), but I still feel disoriented and lacking the skills or knowledge I need to better support student digital nonfiction composition.  My colleague Kristin Fontichiaro inspired me earlier this year to hone in on helping teachers and students go beyond surface level knowledge and the “shininess” of students merely producing something with a web 2.0 tool and to look at how digitally created content reflects rigor in terms of content and composition.

My primary roles in collaborative partnerships with teachers this fall in either introducing digital nonfiction composition or building on previous efforts to teach these processes and skills have included:

  • sharing resources with teachers about digital composition
  • helping teachers think about criteria for evaluating the work in terms of content as well as the design of the digital composition
  • searching for other rubrics that might be available for sharing and using those as a starting point for creating our own rubrics that are customized for a specific project
  • in the words of Kristin Fontichiaro, “nudging” teachers to think about formative assessments and not just summative assessments  (one of the most difficult endeavors of the overall process)
  • creating graphic organizers to help students “storyboard” their digital texts
  • creating research guides and tutorials on digital composition mediums and providing instruction/facilitating discussion on best practices for crafting an effective digital composition in a particular  medium
  • providing students opportunities to explore exemplar and less than exemplary examples of digital compositions composed by others in VoiceThread and Prezi and to provide feedback on what they as students think creates an effective digital composition in these mediums
  • providing students technical support as well as feedback on design as they actually compose their digital nonfiction texts

I am grateful for teachers who have been willing to venture into these new waters of composition as the whole concept is definitely new and fuzzy for all of us.    As with most collaborative projects, the depth and degree of the collaboration varies along a spectrum for minimal support to intense, in-depth involvement.   With some projects, I was involved at all stages of instructional design; with others, teachers took on most of the ownership of the project once I had helped plant the seeds and provided some support.  As I reflect on the experiences from the first semester, here are some initial observations and thoughts that will be areas of deeper inquiry for me as a teacher and librarian next semester:

  • Finding what I thought represented “exemplar” digital texts was challenging as I found it difficult to find examples I thought represented exemplary work in terms of the content quality (having depth, being more inquiry driven) and the actual design of the digital text.    Perhaps they are out there, and I just need to improve my search skills in finding them, particularly those created by high school students.  I’m hopeful that as we do more digital writing, I’ll be able to incorporate examples into the research guides for these projects from our own students.  If any readers know a repository of exemplary digital texts, please feel free to share in the comments. [postscript:  this post about digital mentor texts just came to my inbox via Google Alerts, so perhaps this endeavor will be helpful].
  • I felt frustrated in the professional books I read this fall in that they never seemed to address concrete strategies for scaffolding the digital composition process or effective assessment strategies.  Again, perhaps I overlooked these details in the reading?  While the texts I read seemed to outline and give an overview of the digital composition mediums and provided rationales (which were quite good) for digital composition, they seemed to come up short in details that would help one teach these mediums and skills with depth and rigor.
  • Since these efforts at digital composition were the first efforts for most students, I felt torn as I was helping assess student work when teachers allowed me to help them in this phase of instruction.  Trying to balance the tension between holding standards for digital writing and keeping in mind that these efforts for the students was the first for most of them created a tremendous amount of angst on my part as I didn’t want to be too generous or too stingy in my expectations; some of the teachers I worked with shared this concern as well as they weren’t quite sure in their mind what exactly exemplary work would look like and didn’t want to be too hard on the students.    It’s a balancing act trying to help students and teachers alike begin to conceptualize what exemplary, original work might look like.  Helping nudge students and teachers to see that merely creating something in one of these new mediums in and of itself is not necessarily exemplary work is more difficult than one might think.  I’ve tried to help students and teachers consider the qualities of  texts that help create rich, nuanced nonfiction narratives that blend critical thinking, effective design elements (multimedia and traditional text), and thoughtful research to support the narrative.
  • Helping students work through the confusion and discomfort they may feel as they are being asked to compose in a new medium that is unfamiliar and very different from writing in a traditional text narrative (which is difficult for many students as well).  When students have asked if they can compose a written draft of their ideas in essay format before composing the digital text, I’ve encouraged them do so if they think doing so would be helpful.  Additionally, some students felt tremendous anxiety that they were not writing a traditional report or research paper and were not being “prepared” for the work other teachers might ask them to do.
  • A challenge that was unique to the English Department was trying to honor teacher requests to incorporate the Schaffer writing method into digital composition since this writing model was adopted by the department a few years ago as part of the effort to improve state writing test scores.   Again, I felt tension in trying to be respectful of where teachers were coming from with this mindset and mandate and my own reservations about a “formula” for teaching student writing.   The jury is out for me as to whether using the language of this writing method (chunks, commentary, concrete details) was more helpful or limiting in helping students storyboard, plan, and organize their digital texts.
  • How do I provide more support and infuse more formative assessments to help students reflect more deeply and critically on the research they are doing and infusing into their digital nonfiction compositions?  Did the stress or newness of composing a digital text impact the quality and depth of research students engaged in?  I keep going back to Stripling’s conceptualization of digital literacy and inquiry skills (and actually explicitly framed our work through this lens with one group of students–more on that in a future blog post).
  • Continuing to raise student AND teacher awareness of the importance of attribution and use of Creative Commons licensed multimedia in these projects.
  • How to help teachers build in more hands-on class time for composing these digital texts in the library—some teachers dedicated a tremendous amount of time while others did feel they could provide students a liberal number of days in class to work on these projects.  I believe that having time to craft and compose in class is extremely important, especially when we are dealing with fledgling researchers and writers.
  • Are these mediums of digital composition appropriate for every student?  To what extent should choice be provided so that students do have choice but don’t fall back on mediums that are comfortable and provide little challenge to push their digital composition skills?
  • How do I do better job of helping students articulate the learning goals in these projects and to take on more ownership and involvement in constructive, meaningful assessment of their work?
  • How do I better appropriate my time and instructional services in the face of cuts and changes to library staff?

Ultimately, I think some of these challenges come back to the larger challenge of encouraging teachers and students to take an inquiry, participatory stance on learning (more on that in an upcoming blog post in a few days), but I do wonder if others who are trying to implement thoughtful digital nonfiction composition are facing similar challenges.  The positive aspect of this muddiness is that I’m learning through trial and error, and I hope that by sharing my worries and wonderings, others can contribute to this conversation with their own experiences or resources that support this kind of work.  I’ll also share students’ thoughts on the process of digital composition and their reactions to this medium in a new blog post before the first of the new year.  What I do know is that I need to immerse myself more deeply into the work of others out there who are taking on similar endeavors in this area and to be patient as I continue to learn from our messy play and experimentation with students and teachers.

I thought I would include some artifacts and student work that have come out of these efforts and welcome any constructive feedback those of you with more experience in teaching and supporting digital composition may have.

Sample Research Guides for Digital Nonfiction Composition (includes resources, rubrics, instructional materials)

Sample Student Digital Nonfiction Compositions ( a mix of what I might consider approaching exemplary as well as links to multiple student examples that represent a range of digital compositions along a continuum)

Sample Graphic Organizers to Scaffold Digital Composition

Spotlight on Multigenre Elements: Fictional Text Messages of Historical Figures

Check out this multigenre element created by a student who illustrated Thomas Paine’s views on government using fictional text messages.  The student used his/her iPhone to create the fictional text message and utilized the iPhone’s screenshot capability to capture the “texts.”  The images were then pulled off the phone and imported into Glogster, and the Glogster was embedded into the project wiki page.  Many thanks to Ms. Lisa Kennedy, 11th American Literature/Composition teacher, for collaborating with the library on this project!

Digital Storytelling for Communities

“New digital tools enable a strongly “participatory culture.”

from Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments (National Writing Project) 

I am completely enthralled with  this Prezi from Erin Watkins and her classmates!  This presentation dovetails with my interest and focus on digital composition in The Unquiet Library and our instructional collaboration this academic year.