About Dana Huff

Wife, mother, indie writer, reader, book and education blogger, Technology Integration Specialist, and English teacher.  Fangirl.

Covering Isn’t Teaching… Or Learning

surface photo

Right about this time of year, teachers everywhere (particularly secondary school teachers) are looking at the calendar and freaking out about what they haven’t covered.

I, like many teachers, have fallen into the trap of thinking that certain content has to be covered, even at the expense of engaging in deeper learning, because of time constraints. I should have known better. Because my family moved around quite a bit, I went to three different high schools. I had what I perceived as “gaps” in my education. I didn’t read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t learn much about history after World War II. I could think of other examples of things everyone is supposed to learn in high school, but you get the general idea. I’m not sure if I realized I had gaps when I was in school. I did have a sense that I missed things because the school I left hadn’t covered them yet, and the school I moved to had already covered them.

At some point I started to worry I wasn’t ready for college and asked my English teacher for a reading list. Just to cover my bases, I found a library book that had a list of books every student should read before they went to college. I’m not sure, but I think the list was about 100 years old. It was a great, long list alphabetized by title. I stalled out in the middle of Agamemnon. I managed to make it through college without reading Agamemnon, and given I graduated magna cum laude, I suppose I did okay. In fact, I managed to make it all the way to last summer before finally reading Agamemnon, and though I enjoyed it just fine, I think I could have lived my whole life without reading Agamemnon and nothing dire would have happened.

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that the most important thing we do is help students learn how to learn. If you can learn how to learn, you can teach yourself anything, and if you need help, you can generally figure out who can help you learn it.

I have loved reading since before I could read by myself. I taught myself all about dinosaurs when I was little. I found all sorts of books about dinosaurs. As I grew older, I turned to books to learn about ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, and making soap. Books are a great way to teach yourself.

If we English teachers can cultivate a love of reading and help students learn to think and learn, the content we use can take a variety of forms. Students don’t have to read Agamemnon in particular in order to be prepared for college or the world. But they do have to learn to read critically, identify themes, analyze ideas. The particular content we use doesn’t matter as much as what we do with it. Just because I covered material doesn’t mean students learned it. I have learned over time that if I really want students to learn content, then I need to let them wrestle with it. That takes time. If I rush it, students will not learn it. Oh, they might know it long enough to do some assessment, but they don’t really learn it. Are they going to be able to apply the information? Who decides what information is critical and what isn’t? And why?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was my crutch, and I covered it. It’s liberating not to have a textbook. It forced me to think about broad themes and ideas and create units of study based on those big ideas. Unless I completely misread my students, I think it’s more engaging, too.

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe urge teachers to ask, “What should [the students] walk out the door able to understand, regardless of what activities or texts we use?” and “What is evidence of such ability?” (17). Only after those questions are answered should teachers ask, “What texts, activities, and methods will best enable such a result?” (17). Much of the time, the texts come first. After first reading Understanding by Design, I realized my problem as a teacher was that I relied on covering material, and then I was upset when students didn’t learn. As Wiggins and McTighe state, “When our teaching merely covers content without subjecting it to inquiry, we may well be perpetrating the very misunderstanding and amnesia we decry” (132).

We don’t have all the time in the world to teach everything worth knowing. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime, or even in several lifetimes, to do that job. As teachers, we do have the ability to ignite curiosity. We should be figuring out how to create curious learners instead of worrying about covering material.

I came across these resources that might be of interest:

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Evolution

gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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Intense Debate Comments

Hi folks,

Just a quick blog post to let you know I am switching off Intense Debate for comments. I have grown frustrated by two issues:

  1. Even frequent commenters are thrown into moderation every single time because they don’t login using one of the accounts associated with Intense Debate (Intense Debate itself, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress).
  2. Despite the fact that WordPress itself has a feature that allows me to close comments on old posts, Intense Debate bypasses this setting and allows comments on old posts. Comments on old posts are always of two kinds 1) spam, 2) disagreeable trolls who haven’t realized the conversation ended seven years ago. And the only person who sees those two types of comments is me, anyway, as everyone else has moved on.

I’m just tired of dealing with it. I am going to try something different, and I wanted to let you know just in case comments are wonky. I may need some time to straighten out the comments. Thanks for your patience.

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NCTE 2014 Recap

Audience at B.24

Audience at B.24. Photo by Lisa Iaccarino

NCTE is over. My brain is full. I have a few major takeaways:

  1. My students are not given nearly enough opportunities for independent reading. As in none, really. I am not going to go so far as to flagellate myself for malpractice, but I definitely need to bring in opportunities for students to select what they read. There is a good balance I can strike with required reading and self-selected reading.
  2. My classroom library needs an overhaul. I have two bookshelves (inherited) in my classroom. One is broken. The other is leaning precariously against classroom heating system. Both of them need to go. I want my students to be able to peruse the shelves. Seeing a picture of Penny Kittle’s classroom library gave me serious shelf envy. My husband and I talked about it, and he would be thrilled if I would get some of our books out of the house and into my classroom. I really just need to get some shelves and fill them.
  3. I missed YA fiction. I haven’t read any in a while, and one aspect of NCTE that I have always enjoyed is the access to titles and conversations about YA literature. I had Eleanor & Park on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet. I started reading it last night, and I didn’t stop until I was done. I found John Green’s quote particularly compelling: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” You know what book I keep thinking about now that I’ve finished Eleanor & Park? Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. I fell in love with that book hard. I wore out my copy. I still remember the cover.

Tiger EyesMore soon. Still decompressing.

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NCTE Bound

letter N letter C letter T letter E

I’m starting to get excited about the annual NCTE convention this year. I will be presenting Writing Workshop with two colleagues who are sharing their experiences with student blogging and online discussion forums. Here are our session details:

NCTE SessionI’m also looking forward to visiting all the Folger folks and seeing Julius Caesar at the Folger theater with my friend, Glenda.

Are you going to NCTE?

NCTE image made with Spell with Flickr

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Tales from Writing Workshop

writing photoWhile my students engaged in writing workshop with short persuasive speeches, this year’s workshop really began in earnest this week with essays about the definition of an American. My students have read the frequently taught and anthologized letter by Crèvecoeur in which he offers his famous definition of an American. I won’t link to any particular version because I used a condensed version I edited myself. My students compared their definitions to his. I imagine it’s a fairly standard assignment for that particular piece of early American literature. We workshopped two essays in each of my American literature English classes. My goal is to offer each student in my classes an opportunity to workshop their writing.

As we workshopped the first essay in one of my classes, I could hear the student next to the essay’s writer talking to the essay writer (and not in an out-loud-I’m-sharing-feedback-for-workshop way). I asked him what was wrong; he seemed if not exactly distressed at least a little uncomfortable. He said, “Oh, I just need to rethink my whole essay.” I said, “You won’t appreciate my saying this, but my reaction is: good! I’m glad. How much better is it to figure that out in this early drafting stage than get it back and realize you had some problems?” He agreed it was probably better that way and took my teasing—even if did contain a serious message—in good-humored way.

Because I’m nosy, I just checked his Google Doc to see what the revision history looked like. Check this out:Google Docs Revision HistoryThe pink icon belongs to the writer whose essay we were workshopping. I didn’t tell them to share. They just decided to help each other. I was able to see what the suggested edits were—a couple of grammar/mechanics suggestions. More important to me is the number of times the writer made his own edits, and the substance of edits. He’s not finished either. The end of his document contains quite a lot of notes and ideas for proceeding. In any case, the paper isn’t due until next Thursday.

The evening after this writing workshop class, I received an email from one of my students. He was requesting that we workshop his essay in the next class, if we had time, and he was hoping he could get some help with development and structure. We did look at his essay. It was well written. Some quotes were tightly integrated; others needed more anchoring. He used outside research. He developed his ideas well. He crafted a fine argument. One of my students (just so happens it was the same one who said he’d need to rethink his essay), remarked that he felt sure the writer would have earned an excellent grade without the help of workshop. I pointed out, “But we made it even better.” I could tell the writer was really happy with the accolades of his classmates:

“Please don’t grade my essay after his, Mrs. Huff.”

“Wow, that was amazing.”

“That was awesome.”

“Way to set the bar high.”

I would love to have a picture of his beaming face.

Today, a student in that class came by during our cooperative/collaborative learning time. “After reading that essay yesterday, I realized I need some help with mine.”

Students have an authentic audience of their peers in writing workshop. They learn to be much stronger writers and editors as a result of sharing their own work and reading their peers’ work. My student writers probably did more for helping their peers with their own essays this week than I could have done all year. I’m willing to bet quite a few of them turned to their work with a more critical eye after seeing the possibilities. And it’s only a few weeks into the year.

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Using Evernote for Lesson Plans

Before I get into the meat of this post, I wanted to mention that I’ve been having some issues with pages taking a long time to load and general slowness on this site. I put in a help ticket with my web host after trying to fix it myself without much success. The site appears to be running more smoothly, so even though I haven’t heard from my host, I am wondering if they took a look already and figured out the problem. At any rate, please be patient with me if you are having issues.

This year, I am trying a new experiment using Evernote for my lesson plans. I love Evernote. I use it quite extensively for personal note-taking, such as keeping my soap-making journal, planning trips, and the random article or PDF I want to save. I have Evernote Premium, which allows me to annotate and take notes on PDF’s as well. I also have offline access to notes, higher monthly uploads, and some other additional features, but I mainly wanted to be able to annotate PDF’s without using a separate app.

As much as I use Evernote, I wasn’t really using it for lesson planning at all. When I inquired on Twitter, I discovered Jim Burke would not be publishing a 2014-2015 Teacher’s Daybook. I had decided to go back to the Daybook after trying an electronic planbook that was brilliant, but just wasn’t working for me (not sure why). I was bummed about the Daybook, and though Jim publishes the templates online, I just didn’t want to print them out. Something told me that I wouldn’t stick with it. I happened on Nick Provenzano’s post about using Evernote to plan a while back, and I decided to give it a shot, particularly since I already liked Evernote.

First, I created Evernote notebooks for each of my classes. This process is fairly straightforward, so I’ll skip the explanation, but if you have trouble with it, feel free to ask for clarification in the comments.

I created a calendar template next. The dates can easily be changed each month. In order to create new calendar notes, I use the following process:

  • Navigate to the appropriate notebook (in my case, World Literature II or American Studies in Literature—whatever you called your class).
  • Add a new note and name it with the correct month and year.
  • Go to my calendar template note and copy the text in the note (the calendar grid).
  • Paste the text into my new note.

After I created the calendar template, I created a daily lesson plan template. This template suits my needs. It includes my school’s Portrait of a Learner (objectives), which are not as extensive or complicated as CCSS. This template forces me to think about a good hook or interest grabber at the start and how to tie everything back together at the end of the lesson with a good wrap up. In between, I can list all the parts of the lesson with detail. I can think about which areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy the lesson addresses and be thoughtful about the kind of homework (if any) required. My favorite part, however, is a reflection. After the lesson, at the end of the day usually, I take about five minutes and write short reflections on the lessons.

I can link the daily lessons on the calendar template by right-clicking on the note and selecting “Copy Note Link” in Evernote. Here is Evernote’s Knowledge Base article on this topic in case you need help. Then I paste that note link on the appropriate date in the calendar, and I have a nice, linked up monthly planner that organizes my daily plans.

In addition, I use tags, such as unit titles, course titles, book or other literary work titles, authors, and types of lesson (e. g. writing workshop) to further link my notes. I can then search my notebooks using any of these tags and see all my lessons from a given unit, course, etc.

Evernote notebooks can be shared, so using Evernote is a solution for teachers who are planning together as well.

So far, I am liking it quite a bit. I’ll keep you posted on the experiment.

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Book Club Suspended: Falling in Love with Close Reading

The post on chapters 1 and 2 has been up over a week with very little activity in the comments. I think folks are busy going back to school and perhaps don’t have the time they thought they might have to engage in an online book club. I have so much I must read to prepare for the coming school year, and it seems as though the best idea is to suspend the book club.

Perhaps we can start a book club up after the school year begins in earnest and things have settled down for everything.

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Falling in Love with Close Reading: Chapters 1 and 2

I apologize for not getting this first post up sooner. I have been having some problems with my blog. I just installed a plugin that I hope will help prevent some of the slowness and page load issues you might have noticed. However, I used a similar plugin some years ago, and it totally messed up my blog, so if you notice something technically amiss, please let me know. On to the discussion of  Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life.

In chapter one, Lehman and Roberts discuss New Criticism, suggesting that close reading really emerged for the first time as a means of “trying to tune out everything else while looking at the style, words, meter, structure, and so on, of a piece of writing” (2). They go on to discuss the other styles of literary critique that emerged either at the same time as or after New Criticism. It reminds me of something very interesting Jasper Fforde once said at a reading. Jasper Fforde is, if you haven’t heard of him, the writer of the popular Thursday Next series, and honestly, if you are a book nerd of any stripe, you should check out those books—especially the first few. Anyway, this was right after his dystopian novel Shades of Grey came out (not to be confused with the 50 shades variety). In this novel, people can only see one color, so they stratify society based on what color they can see. People who can see only grey are at the bottom. One person at the reading asked Fforde if he was trying to make a comment about racism with the novel. He said truthfully that he hadn’t thought about it, but then he went on to describe reading as a highly creative act. He added that a book only belongs to an author as long as he/she hasn’t shown it to anyone. After that, it belongs to the reader, too, and the reader brings everything he/she has read, experienced, or thought to bear on that book as well. It’s one of my favorite things anyone has ever said. I think it’s true that two people can read entirely different books. In fact, one person can read an entirely different book—I have read books at different times in my life and had very different reactions to them.

Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent, but I feel strongly that we can’t cut the reader out of equation. The reader is possibly more important to me than the author’s life (though I do find I discuss biography more with students when it seems more obvious to me that the author’s life impacted the work in some significant ways).

Lehman and Roberts go on to discuss the place of close reading in the CCSS. I think the bottom of page 3 is the first time I’ve ever seen a tweet cited! It’s interesting to think about the ways in which social media will impact the way we write and what we write about.

One thing I do like about this book is the cutaway figures that pull out the essentials: the definition of close reading on p. 4, the central tenets of close reading instruction on p. 5, and so on. It is helpful to have the big ideas emphasized.

Lehman and Roberts describe the structure they advocate for teaching close reading as a sort of “ritual,” and I like that thinking (7). The ritual involves

  1. Reading through lenses.
  2. Finding patterns.
  3. Using the patterns to understand the text.

When I taught Things Fall Apart for the first time, I feared my students would have a lot of trouble relating to Okonkwo and would probably dislike him quite a great deal. I don’t like him, truth be told, but I am able to sympathize with his plight. Achebe lays that foundation to help us see as readers where Okonkwo’s failings come from. But teenagers are much more critical and have a more difficult time with the other person’s point of view. So I decided that perhaps the way we should read the novel is in a detached way. We took on the role of anthropologists, studying the Ibo (Igbo), and we each picked a lens that interested us: gender, religion, farming, etc. We paid attention to what we could learn about the culture’s beliefs through our chosen lens. I think the students found the book more interesting, and they were able to think perhaps a bit more like scientists.

You know, you don’t have to like the protagonist to like a book. It took me a while to figure that out, as I think it takes most readers a while to figure it out. I love Lolita, for instance, and Wuthering Heights, but I hate the protagonists in those books. I think often times, teenagers have difficulty with books that have antiheroes or unlikeable protagonists because they really want to like and to root for the protagonist. But teaching students to read through lenses and to get at what a character wants and thinks, and what motivates a character, really helps students go beyond a simple gut connection with the lead character.

Chapter 2 of the book takes the reader through the process of the ritual Lehman and Roberts mention in chapter 1. I was struck by how similar the process for close reading is to “close looking.” I recently took an Art and Inquiry course through MoMA online with Coursera (great course), and one of the techniques for encouraging inquiry is to ask students what they notice and keep probing. The MoMA does this with student visitors. Questioning students about what they notice is akin to the strategy Lehman and Roberts describe as gathering evidence and then developing an idea (12).

Sprinkled throughout the book are QR codes linked to websites and other media mentioned in the text. Scanning a QR code leaves less margin for error than trying to type in a URL, and I rather like the idea that the book feels more dynamic. Obviously, the changing nature of the web will mean that down the road, the codes might not direct to the right link anymore, but it’s a good idea until we figure out how to put dynamic links in a static book.

I’m not sure I’d have chosen the same song to introduce students to close reading (see page 14), but that’s just me. I might not do a song at all. No reason not to do a poem. I assume the song choice was an attempt to connect to the students using music they like, but my experience is that Justin Bieber is a polarizing figure, and aside from that, I mean, the lyrics are not poetry (not that Lehman and Roberts are trying to convince us that they are poetry—just using them as a vehicle for teaching their close reading approach). In fact, they go on to say that choosing a less challenging text when teaching this ritual is helpful because of the confidence it gives students. It also helps the teachers pinpoint which close reading skills students are struggling with (as opposed to struggling with comprehension). I can get behind that logic.

Lehman and Roberts then include a model for the instruction of the ritual on pp. 17-24. I found the model helpful as it drilled down to each part of the close reading ritual to show what teaching it to students could look like. Then, on pp. 25-27, Lehman and Roberts apply the model to informational texts. I found this model helpful, as many books on teaching reading skimp on informational reading.

Lehman and Roberts advise teachers to “plan to pay careful attention to what [the students] produce when working independently” (27). They provide a helpful chart for revising our thinking about a reading and additional tools for providing extra support to students—using conversation (small group discussion) to evaluate evidence, ranking evidence in terms of which details best support students’ thinking, and teaching students when to close read for evidence (29). In addition, and also helpful, is a list of tools for challenging more advanced students: expanding lenses, seeking out contrasting patterns, and using analytical lenses (29).

The chapter closes with a discussion of close reading details in our lives, which I found helpful in thinking about the digital storytelling project I’d like to do with my juniors this year. I scanned the QR code on p. 31 and found it linked to a StoryCorps recording that would be perfect to share with my students as they create their digital stories. I hadn’t thought about doing close readings of the models I might provide for students preparing to create digital stories, but it makes perfect sense.

Please share your thoughts about the chapters in the comments below. Let’s discuss!

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Digital Storytelling Workshop

storytelling photo

Thanks to my school, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a digital storytelling workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Denver at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

I will admit that I went into the workshop with a fair amount of hubris. I thought to myself, I’ve been teaching English for sixteen years. I know a lot about these kinds of projects. I’m a technology integrator. I know iMovie pretty well. I’d go so far as to consider myself an expert in comparison with many teachers—though I’d not go so far as to say I know everything there is to know about it, I can do pretty much everything I might want to do for school purposes. I didn’t really expect to learn very much from this workshop, but I was glad I would have the opportunity to visit my grandparents, who live in the Denver area.

On the first day of the workshop, we engaged in probably the most powerful part of the entire experience (for me), which was a story circle. We were advised to come with a draft of a script, but I tried to sit down and write one, and I found I couldn’t figure out what to say. As it turned out, very few of the participants were prepared with a script. In story circle, we each had twelve minutes to talk about our story, answer questions, ask questions, and obtain feedback from the facilitators and other participants. I think the reason it was such a powerful experience is because it was such a bonding moment. Several of us cried as we reached the heart of what it was we wanted to say, and the facilitators were excellent at provoking us to really think about what story we wanted to tell.

I started my spiel with the idea that I wasn’t going to cry at all. I told everyone I was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather is a WWII vet, and I decided I would make a digital story about his experiences in WWII. He has some really interesting stories about being inducted into the Navy, joining the Seabees, breaking his glasses and running afoul of postal censors when he wrote home asking for his parents to send him two pairs to replace the broken ones, coming up with a secret code so he could communicate with his mother, and contracting meningitis and causing the Army’s 7th Division to fall under quarantine and have their Christmas leave canceled. A couple of years ago, he was able to travel to Washington, DC on an Honor Flight to see the nation’s capital, specifically the World War II Memorial. He enjoyed the trip a great deal. So, I said to the story circle, that’s what I want to tell a story about.

The facilitator looked at me, a pointed expression on her face, and she asked me, “Dana, how is this story about you?” I was startled by the question, but I thought for a minute, and then, naturally, I burst into tears. It was about me because of everything my grandparents had done for me. It was about me because they are elderly, and I don’t know how much time I have left. It was about me because I will be devastated when they are gone.

With this much-needed clarity, I began to write my script. I was having trouble paring it down to the 300-word suggested limit. I thought I might be able to do 500 words, but 300 was too little to say everything I thought I needed to say. I decided I would just rebel and make a longer video, and I set to work with that script. The facilitator helped me record my voiceover. I interviewed my grandfather, who spoke for an hour about his experiences, and I selected the parts I would use in the story. I scanned lots of pictures my grandparents had around the house.

When I began stitching together the different pieces, I accidentally deleted a whole segment in which my grandfather goes into some detail about having meningitis during the war. After I listened to the video, though, I realized I didn’t exactly need the clip, so I let it go, and I actually managed to get the video at the upper time limit. I never thought I’d do that. It has taken me a couple of weeks’ worth of soul-searching and wrestling to decide whether or not to share the story I created.

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The experience of making the video convinced me to pull digital storytelling into my own curriculum. One natural place I could see it falling is in my American Studies in Literature course. I had already decided to incorporate This American Life into my American literature curriculum, as I see media like podcasts and videos as the new “wave” of writing/storytelling. Well, maybe not so new anymore, but you know how it is in education. Near the end of the year, I plan to explore the theme of the journey. I did not select a large number of works because I knew I wanted to do a culminating project of some kind. The journey, can, of course, be a physical journey. It can also be an inward journey, a self-discovery. Like my video was, after a fashion. Here is another example from the Denver director of the Center for Digital Storytelling:

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It really impacted me when I watched it. Obviously, I would not ask students to tell stories that they are not ready to tell, but I think this could be one of the most powerful experiences for my students:

  • We all have stories, and think about how important it is for us to tell them. Think about how interesting your average episode of This American Life and The Moth is. Think about how entertaining it is to read, say, David Sedaris.
  • We often ask students to read the stories of others, but we don’t ask them to tell their own. We ask them to analyze the stories of others.
  • Digital storytelling is a new way of sharing narrative. In the past, we listened to storytellers. Then we read. I think this might be the next thing. Not that we stopped listing to people tell stories or that will will stop reading. But this adds a new dimension to storytelling.
  • The “writing” aspect of this project is some of the hardest writing I have ever done. I can see people challenging the idea that this is writing, but drafting the whole story was an extremely challenging and rewarding process.

Here is more of Daniel Weinshenker on storytelling:

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One aspect of the process that I will definitely borrow is the story circle. It fits hand-in-glove with the kind of writing workshop I have been doing in my classes.

In the end, I even learned some useful technical tricks that made my video better (and here I thought I was an expert!).

Years ago, I was in Coleman Barks’s last poetry class at the University of Georgia. The final project we did in his class was to bring our own poetry to class and share it. Dr. Barks anthologized it. He told us explicitly that after we studied the great 20th century American poets, we were now among them, the next generation if you will. And I believed it. I want to give that gift to my own students.

If you have a chance to take one of the Center for Digital Storytelling workshops, don’t hesitate. They do excellent work. Next to Folger Teaching Shakespeare PD, it’s the best PD I’ve ever had in my life.

Photo by Jill Clardy

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