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July 12: Writing in the "Real" World

I have been spending some time catching up on the outstanding discussion underway.  Your ideas are rich, your comments are thoughtful, and the questions and possibilities that have been presented are engaging.

My own interest in problem-based learning and writing in the “real” world has helped to focus my reading lens and identify a few recurring themes in this rich discussion.  Many of you have mentioned the importance of collaboration, shared writing, community building, and relevant and clear communication in your responses to the prompt about writing and literacy learning connections.  These practices, according to many of you, are crucial because they help students to understand the ways in which the choices they make regarding when, how, and why they use writing to communicate to particular audiences can have a profound social impact.  Marsha, Janet, Sheri, and Kevin (among others) have posted responses that focus on student choice, online responsibility and ethics, social justice, and real world change through communication.

Let’s explore this connection between teaching and learning practices and writing in the real world in a bit more detail by “digging in” to some of the resources in Digital Is.  The following four resources provide potential places to start, but you should feel free to explore Digital Is on your own and offer some other points of entry into this topic.  During the process, you might also notice what is missing from the resources, blogs, discussion threads, etc. and suggest some other practices, techniques, and questions for consideration.  The aim here is to use Digital Is to help focus, enrich, and complicate our interest in authentic writing/writing in the real world.

Possible resources to use to get started:

Fourth Grade Service Learning Project:

Redefining Romeo and Juliet: Reclaiming the “Ghetto”:

Literacy in our Lives:

Students Doing History with Voicethread Technology:

Task Discussion

  • Tellio   July 15, 2012, 10:41 a.m.

    I am thinking about the 'text' that arises from these different communities. Specifically, there is a kind of writing that arises from institutional communities like schools.  Are these authentic?  What does that word even signify? Does the school agenda, well-intentioned as it might be, define what is authentic for its students.  Does it  become an authentic school activity first and  whatever it will be, a distant carbon copy second?  There is a reason children reject adult worlds and their 'authenticities'.  They need their own identity.  Kids need to draw their own boundaries if the learning is to be their own.  I suppose that is what I mean by authentic.  Outside and in their own realms, there is not even a slight question about the authenticity of texting or their texts.  
    I. River Otters Have a Home

    So is this project that uses "V-O-I-C-E"  and uses outside sources and  uses school sponsored tools and sharing spaces an authentic one?  For some reason when I saw the otter in the video I thought it might be.  Mostly, however, I think we are on a continuum of authentic here.  Most people consider the term 'authentic' to be an absolute one, but in learning (like politics), we deal in the art of the possible.  There is a realpolitik in which it is of necessity true that there is an institutional authenticity.  And sometimes it imperfectly and happily bleeds over into the personally authentic.  In fact the more the element of decision enters into student hands, the more authentic the project becomes.  Any institutional processes, policies, and procedures that foster the possibility that 'bottom-up' doors are opened should be regarded as authentic.  

    I think that the way they came up with their group project on pollution is an authentic learning connection.  It narrows the focus in the classroom while keeping personal choice open. 

    II. Romeo and Juliet as Cultural Artifact

    The Romeo and Juliet project is on its face a bit personally inauthentic to me.  It mostly seems to satisfy intitutional imperatives  both longstanding (Romeo and Juliet as a ninth grade piece of content) and recent (using technology to address curricular demands).  I don't necessarily consider this to be a bad thing as the teacher here begins almost immediately to move toward personal authenticity: moving from teacher generated tools of analysis to analyzing student generated ghetto versions on the web toward creating their own versions or reacting in their own ways to the disturbing realities of stereotyping.  

    My question here is whether we can make sure that as teachers we add a mechanism whereby students can opt away from the school authentic and toward the student authentic?  Even the best intended projects can become closed loops.  

    III. Literacy Videos and Identity

    The resource "Literacy in Our Lives"  springs from the assumption that reading is about who we are and about all the 'texts' that are out there and about where those texts takes us.
    It is about the personal transformation that occurs when you create a community that is focused in its own way about its own concerns for its own people.

    I love how this project is almost a primer on community organizing.  I am convinced after watching this that teaching could and should be way more political than it is.  This project does this.  It reminds me of what the famous Highlander School founder and community organizer, Myles Horton, once said about how to get communities together:  

    "What you must do is go back, get a simple place, move in and you are there. The situation is there.  You start with this and let it grow.  You knowyour goal.  It will build its own structure and take its own form.  You can go to school all your life, you'll never figure it out because your are trying to get an answer that can only come from the people in the life situation." 

    Horton, Myles. The Long Haul: An Autobiography. Teachers College Press, 1997. Print.

    IV.  VoiceThreads (VT)

    Learners are presented with a question. They are confronted with the reality of internment camps and asked to respond as human beings by drawing and writing further. They imagine themselves into the world of their question by playing the role of a child in the internment camp.

    Their fictional voice gets spoken on VT and the whole world can hear it and see the background of their art at the same time. They can see it, too. More people come in and they begin to realize how writing and art (their own writing and art) are worthy of response by an adult who went through the ordeal. It is a whole thing and that is rare in school. A complete thought and project.  

    But it is the teacher's complete thought and project it seems to me. I would like for it take the next step and have student voices rise up to decide where to go next. That would make it a an open instead of a closed loop project.  I am not against closed loops, I just think we need to understand their limitations. 


    There were over thirty separate items to consider in answering this task.Thanks for the chance to think out loud and ramble. Here was a bit of my process in doing so.  I do this in an attempt to make transparent the literacy connections especially the digital ones I made.  I used a tool called  OutWit Hub to pull all the links off the page.  This tool allows you to get rid of the extraneous links and then save to an Excel file.  After I did that I uploaded it to Google Docs and worked from there.  I created a columns for my responses and then started exploring the four suggested sites.  If I had it to do over, I would not create this separate column, I would just use the comment function in Google Docs to make notes.  It was an inelegant process, but it did allow me to bump up against a lot of text, talk, and video.  Grand, but it takes time to work this way so while I take responsibility for any foolishness I also think we need to be careful about the volume of material that an assignment can imply.  I really did love that river otter.


    One aspect that is missing from almost all of the projects is discussion.  I owe it to them to return and make more comments.  As one of my favorite writers, Venkatesh Rao writes, "The comments section of any half-decent blog is a meaning factory."
    I want more meaning from the comment factory in these discussion boards.

  • Sheri Edwards   July 13, 2012, 8:33 p.m.

    I loved all the work the teachers and students did in each of the projects. They are all reflective of the possibilities we could accomplish in connected classrooms. I am in awe of the knowledge base and experience with digital literacy in this groupl You all rock!

    I posted my reflection in a blog (actually I cross-posted it in two blogs). 



    I love Kevin's flow of words and images in Powtoon. I'll need to try that. I seldom write on paper anymore; more often I just lose it. I am an avid user of Google Apps; they are powerful for collecting, creating, and curating easily. My students love Google Apps. The read online and take notes with another window open. Often they take notes with a shared document to collaborate. We just started portfolios last spring, although their sites are private. When the students reach grade eight, we will transfer thier work to their own account with parent permission. Most of my students prefer Google Apps to pencil.

    Again, Tellio's Explain Everything is my favorite app on the iPad; I use it to teach staff about tech with their iPads. If I had a set of iPads in my classroom, students would be creating with it, and VoiceThread.

    Our school just purchased a site license for VoiceThread. I find it a powerful tool for students which can be created on the computer and on the iPad. It is amazing because it is the easiest way to upload a video that schools can view (YouTube, still restricted), and can include text and explanation also. One of our favorite Voicethreads was a collaborative work with three schools across the United States to President Obama, Yes, We Can. Now that we have a site license, more teachers should be able to dip their toes into tech.

    The projects on Digital Is are inspiring. Digital Is provides a place to gather resources, discuss, and plan such projects based on the resources and models provided. I love but have not participated for a few years. This Blogging Collection is my next step; my students are excited to create their own blogs -- and blogs are writing, which is what I will teach. The blog is the vehicle for the voice. 

    Let's spread the word about Digital Is and P2PU; between the two, powerful connecting and collaborating can occur. 


  • Kate Blinn   July 13, 2012, 8:33 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Sheri Edwards   July 13, 2012, 8:33 p.m.
    Thanks for your email. I no longer work at the National Writing Project. If you have questions or concerns about Digital Is or Connected Learning at NWP, email Christina Cantrill at If you have questions related to YOUmedia or Learning Labs, email Elyse Eidman-Aadahl at If you need to reach someone in the Philadelphia office of the NWP, email Nicki Lewis at Very best, Kate Leuschke Blinn
  • Christina Cantrill   July 13, 2012, 11:12 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Kate Blinn   July 13, 2012, 8:33 p.m.

    (Hello all -- just a quick note to explain Kate's email if it isn't obvious ... It is true, today was Kate was an orginal organizer of this group and today was her last day at the NWP as she heads off to a new exciting job as an outreach academic librarian an Earlham College. I removed Kate as an organizer here so that her email doesn't bounce like this ... but will invite her back via her new email to join us in the conversation!)

  • This comment was deleted.
  • Tellio   July 15, 2012, 11:05 a.m.
    In Reply To:   mratzel   July 13, 2012, 9:17 a.m.

    Love ExplainEverything.  This is my summer for really adding it to my repertoire and then performing with it.  Lest anyone think this is a panacea let me point out that this tool is iPad only.  I don't know of an Android version.  If you are using it with an iPad the First, be aware that it is a real resource hog and can take a long time to render and condense an uploadable video.  YMMV on that.  Perhaps newer iPad go faster?  Save regularly and save often for the usual reasons.  It is a bit 'hinkty' in its navigation and is a bit of dance until you get the hang of it. Having a DropBox/Evernote account is a must as is a utility for converting files into pdf. 

    I finally learned how to insert a browser into it this summer and to manage its use while recording.  You need to figure out how to put this tool into your own workflow as it suits you.

  • Susan   July 12, 2012, 7:02 a.m.

    I have some thoughts about the Romeo and Juliet unit, but I'm afraid they'll take me off in another direction. So instead, I'll focus on the Voice Thread video. I find VT a great tool, and used it when I collaborated with a teacher in Ontario. We put our students on teams to explore social justice issues. (You can see their individual projects in the sidebar.) The project was a great success in that students used a variety of means to connect: texting, skype, emails, and google docs. They learned to prioritize their research and figure out ways to present their ideas to others. That said, I wish we had given them choice in the tool. We chose VT because of the easy ability to share and compile comments across a long distance. However some students had other ideas about presenting (and some did include videos in their VTs). I often wonder what might have happened if we had given them full choice in how to present and defend their positions. Nevertheless, the project remains one of my favorites for all the reasons you mentioned, Katherine.

  • Christina Cantrill   July 12, 2012, 2:33 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Susan   July 12, 2012, 7:02 a.m.

    Hi Susan, I wish I could see the work you did with your students but I'm on an ipad right now and they aren't playing for me here. Looking forward to doing so this weekend though when I'm back in front of a computer. (Would this be a project you'd be interested in eventually writing about for Just a thought and happy to chat about this more.)

    One of the things I appreciate in Gail's interview related to the Change Writers project is where she talks about students "doing" history. And you are right, in doing history as a historian, choosing the tool is critically important and a key piece of being an author in that community. In this case VT does seem like a powerful tool, with the ability for others to respond and comment and add to the collection. And I wonder what other creative ways could be thought of too -- if you look at the broader resource in which this VT is embedded (you can navigate it along the right column) you'll see a range of tools the students used in the various classrooms involved so I imagine if they kept going many things would have been possible.

    It's a great question!

  • Christina Cantrill   July 13, 2012, 8:28 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Susan   July 12, 2012, 7:02 a.m.

    btw Susan ... I meant to add that I think it would be great to go down a different path too around Romeo and Juliet unit if you are interested in doing so. This piece brings up critical issues that are really important in considering what it means to write in networked and social ways so I think it could be valueable to take it in various directions.

  • Susan   July 13, 2012, 1:04 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Christina Cantrill   July 13, 2012, 8:28 a.m.

    Christine, I might do that. My partner Heather wrote up quite a bit, and I have bits and pieces of reflection on my blog, too. I'll see if I can put something together.

    I was interested in the Romeo and Juliet unit as I, too, used clips from Zeffirelli and Luhrmann to talk about context and universality of ideas with my kids. The visuals added a new way of analyzing the play for language, theme, and conflict. I had not thought about ways to add social learning at that point, but I would certainly do that now. What I noticed were the comments about "mocking" and lack of truth to some of the videos others had made. I remembered my own students saying the same about Luhrmann's movie. For the most part, most thought the violence was gratuitous and unnecessary, the costumes a distraction. The various student reactions (mine and Antero's) got me thinking:)

  • KevinHodgson   July 12, 2012, 6:24 a.m.

    I spent some time look at the Literacy in Our Lives resource. I've been interested in the ideas of the intersections and near-misses of the literacies that my students are engaging in outside of the classroom and what we focus on inside the classroom. What I found interesting in this resource is how much of what students were talking about in terms of literacy was school-based expectations, and not so much personal literacy. I didn't hear much about texting, about engaging in gaming communities, about curating videos on Youtube, about social networking. So I wonder if they were thinking of literacy in their lives, or in the school lives?

    I guess we teachers always seem to put filters on these kinds of discussions. But I am intrigued by the kinds of writing, reading, listening and speaking that my student are doing, and how to make that more visible so that we can then tap into that for learning. (The flip side to that point is: do we then ruin the literacies that are so important to them by schoolifying it).


    This brings me back to the podcasting we did early in the school year for the National Day on Writing, where students wrote and podcasted on the question of: Why I Write.


  • KevinHodgson   July 13, 2012, 5:55 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   July 12, 2012, 6:24 a.m.

    I saw this piece by Edutopia today: Is the Cell Phone the New Pencil? and found it connected nicely to writing in the lives of young people.

    It features a study of college students and it is no surprise that cell phones have become a primary means for writing. One slightly surprising finding is that students don't place a lot of value in the writing they do in social spaces. I wonder about what that means, and why not.

    Writer Jeff Grabill also explains the comparison of cell phone to pencil, admitting that the analogy doesn't quite work ... and yet ...

    "There are ways that the analogy between the pencil and the cell phone doesn't work, and our data on the use of the phone as a writing technology is layered and complex. Still, the question indexes some interesting changes in the technology itself over a short period of time. I rarely talk on my "phone." I have a colleague who has never set up his voicemail. For both of us, the device is much more valuable as a writing technology than a voice technology. We talk on the phone when we must, but the device enables a number of other communication and coordination functions that we generally find more useful. The techno-cultural dynamics around this single device are worth attending to, but I also think that they are relevant for understanding writing." -- Jeff Grabill

    What do you think? Are cell phones the new pencil?


  • Tellio   July 13, 2012, 7:20 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   July 13, 2012, 5:55 a.m.

    I think it is the new pencil.  I go back to the Greeks on this with their idea of techne.  Techne is the root word in 'technology'.  Techne is craft.  A pencil is a craft tool for artists and practical people.  It helps us to signify a continuum of action in the world ranging from the totally practical grocery list to the imaginative doodle.  The cellphone does the same:  tweet or text to shared video.  Anything that connects us from the wetware of our own consciousness to the world is part of the techne of communication. 

  • Christina Cantrill   July 13, 2012, 8:24 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   July 13, 2012, 5:55 a.m.

    Nice connection, Kevin. I think this would be a nice blog post for DI too btw!

    I like Jeff's description of the ambient nature of writing ... although I have a hard time describing cell phones as pencils because I use pencils for things beyond writing as I use cell phones. However as as devices that can be used to support writing/communicating, yes they both share that feature.

    I am also interested in the role that academic writing plays in this study. In some ways that might support the work that Becky's students are describing in their LIteracy in our Lives piece, ie still a critical part of many young people's lives. I like the way that the podcast you did with your students starts to unpack the "why" of writing though ... I think it starts to get underneath expectations around writing to some of the purposes writing serves, thereby possibly opening the conversation further. 

    I think  the beginning of this video from "Literacies are ..." is provocative -- this is part of a research study of students who are media makers and producers and I think that in their work and words you get a real good sense of the "why" of writing too.  They do this by starting by unpacking the word "illiterate."

  • Susan   July 13, 2012, 8:53 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   July 13, 2012, 5:55 a.m.

    I took my smelly dog in for grooming yesterday, and when I asked if they took credit cards, the ownder whipped out her cell phone. She typed in the number and handed it to me to sign with my finger. I know Apple uses similar technology, but I've never had a very small business owner use his/her own phone before!

  • KevinHodgson   July 13, 2012, 12:12 p.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   July 13, 2012, 5:55 a.m.

    Thinking along these lines had me thinking about words that I have erased over the years ... and how doing that with a pencil (where the smudges often remain as echoes) may evoke a different feeling than when I correct my words with computer. There, the words completely and utterly disappear (unless you use track changes ... hmmm). I decided to try out a new tool -- Powtoon (in beta) -- to see if I could explore that idea.

  • Susan   July 13, 2012, 12:52 p.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   July 13, 2012, 12:12 p.m.

    I love the new presentation, Kevin...and the way the words flow on the screen as you are talking about the idea of words disappearing. It's lyrical.

    As a writer, I often move between screen and pen/paper, though I'm not sure I could tell you what moves me on any given day or moment. Sometimes a pen just feels right. I do find that I write differently on the computer. I tend to revise as I go. I am not as patient. When I write in my notebook, I let words come, knowing I'll go back later to play and manipulate them. Curious.

  • Tellio   July 15, 2012, 10:56 a.m.
    In Reply To:   KevinHodgson   July 12, 2012, 6:24 a.m.

    This goes to the point I made about institutional vs. personal authenticities.  If, as teachers, we stick with a closed loop, institutionally authentic purpose (meaning those acts that serve institutional goals) then we will schoolify the best-intentioned projects.  If we move toward and eventually embrace personally authentic purposes (meaning those acts that serve learner needs and goals) then I am OK with a certain amount of 'schoolfication'.  I think you can always know the difference between the two by asking this question about every teaching act you perform:  who owns it?

    I think the students were getting to owning their own literacy, personally.  There is a lot of un-learning that has to be done to get there.  Sad, isn't it, that this could happen with the greatest natural learners in the world, kids.  But you gotta get the cruft off to get the shine on.