The Reading Teacher: Writing and Digital Literacies

Between my wife and I, we get a lot of teaching and educational journals. In the latest edition of The Reading Teacher, Bridget Dalton writes about the connections between multimodal composition and the Common Core standards, and she notices many openings for bringing technology and emerging literacies into classroom instruction. I agree, although I would have liked more overt references to how technology is changing our view of writing in the Common Core, but maybe that is asking too much at this point.

I liked the way Dalton defines what is happening:

“The fixed display of the printed page is being transformed on the screen into an interactive, dynamic experience that can be manipulated across time and space by the reader/viewer and the author.” — page 334.

She then ventures into the idea of a Digital Writing Workshop (which Troy Hicks has also done with depth in his Digital Writing Workshop book) and touches on issues of developing not just scaffolding of instruction with technology and composition, but also, establishing the idea of a “design community.” I love this concept, since design is a critical part of digital composition — particularly as we merge media together into something new. And, to be frank, not many teachers teach design.

One area of interest for me is in a section Dalton entitles “Pitfalls!” where she tries to lay out things to avoid. I liked her idea that we, teacher, cannot scaffold too much because that limits what students envision for themselves. She also encourages teachers to dive in and not wait for expertise to arrive. The only way to know the possibilities is by doing it, playing with it, and using it.

But she also suggests that writing not come first. She suggests that while “… we often ask students to write first and then to enhance what they’ve written with media. For many multimedia compositions, this is not the way to go.” While she acknowledges that some students benefit from writing first, others need to create first and then backtrack to writing.

I’m mixed on this.

While I agree with Dalton that there is a “back-and-forth” to digital composing — a constant shifting in strategies that can seem disorientating but often has a certain logic to it — I still believe that writing remains at the heart of digital composition, even if it is reflective writing that gets them started. My view of technology is that ideas are best developed by writing,  and then creating, and I have come to this by watching too many of students lose focus on their work because they did not have their ideas in place as guideposts (which I always tell them can be reshaped by their experiences in a project).

Still, I see where she is coming from, and when we think of the various strategies of our students as writers and media creators, it may make sense to have a bigger picture of what helps who. The tricky part is providing them with enough varied experiences, and reflective moments, to understand what works best for them. And those reflective moments? Yeah. That would be writing.

In another part of The Reading Teacher, Ernest Morrell lays out a rationale for a new column he is doing around youth literacies, and why digital literacies will be at the heart of his writing. Morrell (who gives powerful speeches about technology and the culture of kids, and is the new president of NCTE) notes that while technology is everywhere in the lives of young people, “…there is still a great deal that these youth have to learn about how to process the information they are innundated with via these new portals of information.”

I agree, and hope that Morrell’s work will further dive the division of the digital native/immigrant into the ground, and also, buffer the idea that teachers and librarians are in the ideal place to help young people navigate and make sense of this media-rich, technology-infused world, and become critical of it all so that they have choice and agency in their lives. I’m looking forward to following Morrell’s column and learning from his work and his perspectives.

Peace (in the journal),


The Scientific Themes of Their Video Games

Science Themes for Video Games 2012
These are the scientific themes that my students are developing for their video game projects. It’s no surprise that the Layers of the Earth is top choice, since the symbolic use of “levels” in the gaming platform transforms nicely into the “layers” of the Earth. They had to choose an idea from their Geology unit, and they will be working in specific scientific vocabulary into their game, along with a “story frame.” Many are now deep in their game development, even though we just started talking about storyboarding yesterday. But who am I to hold back the wave of interest and creativity?

Peace (in the theme),


Revisiting my Women in Science video game

Women in Science title
Those who are regular readers here know that I advocate working alongside students as writers and creators when doing projects. Last year, as part of our first video game design unit, I created the following video game. Since they were doing a science theme, I wanted to do a science theme. But I was wary of doing a game too close to what theirs should be built around (geology concept), so I decided to do a game about famous women scientists. It would also give them a lesson in recognizing the achievements of women in scientific discovery.

I spent time this weekend playing my game (and realizing how challenging it can be … but not impossible!). I don’t think I will change much about it, but I did want to share out some things in Gamestar Mechanic that show how helpful the site is for young game developers like my students.

First, the game:

Next, the site provides useful stats so that you can determine the level of challenge based on actions of players:
Women in Science Stats

Finally, a new tool in Gamestar is the ability to create visual level maps. Here are the three levels of my game:
WomeninScience Map1

Women in Science map2

Women in Science map3

Peace (in the science of the game),


After Digital Writing Month: A Continued Conversation

(Note: When Digital Writing Month came to a close, Anna Smith and I decided that we wanted to keep the conversations about digital writing going. Our plan is to do it multimodally — using various platforms to engage in a discussion about the ways technology is influencing our perceptions of literacy. We’re doing this as a series of blog posts over at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site, and when we are done, we will collect them all into a Resource at Digital Is. — Kevin)

Creating Conversation: Composing in the Digital Age

One of the many potentials of the shifts in envisioning writing in multimodal spaces is the chance for new conversations — for stretching out thinking beyond your own physical space and joining in discussions about the changes now underfoot. During November 2012’s Digital Writing Month, educators and writers and others from across many teaching levels and learning domains — from public schools to college universities and beyond — were engaged in a deep exploration of digital tools and ideas, and many participants shared reflective practice on what those digital choices were doing to their conceptions of writing.

As two explorers during Digital Writing Month, Kevin Hodgson and I, Anna Smith, have decided to continue that conversation through consideration of digital literacies and contemporary composition by coordinating a multimodal conversation that begins with the idea of Digital Writing Month and then stretches outwards from there. Kevin, a sixth grade teacher in Western Massachusetts and a member of the National Writing Project, and I, Anna, a secondary teacher, teacher educator and co-author of Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, will be jumping, leaping and diving from digital media platform to digital media platform in their conversation, as we first reflect on literacies in the 21st Century and then ask, and respond to, each others’ questions.

We also encourage YOU to join us in these conversations. Take part in this digital tapestry of ideas and reflections! You can find these conversations on our Digital Is blog posts: Kevin’s Blog Posts and Anna’s Blog Posts. Feel free to comment and respond in kind. We will then be curating these conversations, including YOUR contributions in a Resource Page. Kevin is up first, so check out his blog to see how this conversation gets started!


Here was the first salvo in our conversations. I created a video piece for Anna, remembering an experience that opened my eyes to the possibilities of online writing, and I end by asking her to respond. But you can, too, either here or at Digital Is.

And part of what we are doing is reflecting on our experiences. I created a comic reflection of what it means to use video as your canvas for this kind of talk.
Reflecting on a Video Conversation

Peace (in the convo),


Dear Parents: Why We Are Designing Video Games

The other day, I asked one of my classes of students what their parents were saying about the start of our video game unit. Mostly, it was “get off the computer” and “why are you playing video games for homework” and such. Hmmm. I felt like we needed to let parents know why we are doing what we are doing, and invite them to see some of our past work.

So, we worked up this note that we sent home on Friday.

Dear parents and guardians,

We are about to start an innovative collaborative project that connects science, English Language Arts and technology together through a video game design unit. You may be wondering what role video games and gaming might have in the classroom. Our goal with this project, which we piloted last year, is to increase vocabulary and content knowledge of a difficult Geology unit in Science class, investigate how game design theory can inform creative and informational writing, and engage students in literacies that incorporate but also move beyond traditional reading and writing. We are using a site called Gamestar Mechanic (  and students will be designing, building and then publishing a video game along a scientific theme. Gamestar Mechanic is a site that is built around teaching of game design, and as students play games, they are learning the fundamentals of game design, and earning the right to publish their own games in the Gamestar community. There will also be the option to submit their games to the 2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge. (STEM means science, technology, engineering and math). Last year, Norris students submitted about 15 games to the challenge. (We didn’t win but the level of competition was another motivational strategy for many students). I’ll provide more information when it comes available.
The goal of this collaborative project between science and ELA is to teach students how to understand and use the elements of good design, how to use a story narrative to structure a gaming experience, and how to connect good writing practice with game design theory. We also want to shift our students from their role as players of games to the role of creators of content. This shift is vitally important in the information age. We documented much of our work last year and I invite you to look at the website that we created. This resource has become a model for work in many classrooms around the country, and other parts of the world.
I also encourage you to look over the packet of project guidelines that students will be receiving early next week.

I’ve already received a few responses from parents, thanking us for the information and expressing excitement about the way the project is going to engage their children.

Peace (in the sharing),


Three Cups of Tea: Does It Matter If It’s True?

We’ve just completed our study and reading of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea (Young Reader’s Edition) as a unit in media criticism as much as reading non-fiction text. I’ll be sharing out the wide range of sources that we brought to our discussions about the story as well as the work that Mortenson has been doing to build schools in the Middle East. One of the topics that opened up long discussions with my sixth graders after watching and reading criticism of the book (via 60 Minutes and more) was the role that “truth” plays in a non-fiction “story.”

As part of our final assessment, I asked my students: Does it matter if the stories that made up Three Cups of Tea are true? Here are some responses, which shows some nice depth of thinking and critical analysis of both the story and the criticism of the story We talked a lot about the balance — of the work being done to help educate girls and the impact of a story on people, and how writers sometimes bend the truth to fit the narrative, and also, the concept of a ghostwriter telling someone else’s story:

“It matters that it’s true. It’s how you think about the book. If you were just looking for a book with heart and meaning, then it wouldn’t really matter. If you are looking for a true story that you can rely on, then, yes it would matter. It all depends on how you look at it.”

“It doesn’t matter if the Three Cups of Tea book is true or not. Why I think that is because it still shows other parts of the world that are very poor and they don’t have an easy life or an easy way to get educated. That was the main idea of the whole book so if it was true or not, the book still got that point across.”

“I think it matters — a lot! — if the story is true. Many people have given donations to the CAI (Central Asia Institute) and if the money goes somewhere else, other than the schools, then that is not good. It’s kind of like stealing and lying. Greg can say it’s fully true, but if it’s not, then it is a lie!”

“I personally think it is bad to lie, unless it is about something good. The book, Three Cups of Tea, may or may not be completely true. I don’t care if it isn’t true because it is teaching you to stand up and do the right thing. So, even though lying is bad, it is okay if it sends a good image to others.”

“I think it both does and doesn’t matter whether the story in Three Cups of Tea is true. Even if the story is a lie, Greg Mortenson still helped thousands of children, and people are still donating to a good cause. But it also DOES matter because thousands of dollars could have been donated because people thought they were supporting one thing but that thing may not exist. Greg Mortenson was made out to be this big, buff, mountain-climbing superhero, but what if he’s just a regular guy, who did some good?”

Peace (in being critical),

Book Review: E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core

This is a bizarre book. Which is not to say the second installment in William Joyce’s new series of The Guardians of Childhood is not interesting, but it is bizarre. E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core picks up the story where the first book — about Nicholas St. North — ends, and the battles against Pitch, the Nightmare King, continues. While the first book established the mythology of Santa Claus (although, never outright), this one establishes the myth of the Easter Bunny (but again, never outright).

Here, our heroes — Nicholas St. North, the wizard Ombric and the girl, Katherine — must venture down into the center of the earth to save their young friends who have been kidnapped by Pitch (who wants to use them as leverage to gain access to magical powers). Along the way, they meet and learn about the Pooka, a long-eared, long-lived creature called Bunnymund who hails from outer space who keeps tabs on the Earth from the center of the planet. This is the bunny, and he has an army of warrior eggs which made my son crack up every time he saw pictures. They are funny things – eggs armed to the teeth with bows and arrows.

This series is tied into the movie franchise now underway, and Joyce is clearly developing alternative histories to common icons of holidays and stories and traditions — next up is the Tooth Fairy. While I find myself slipping in cynicism (thinking: these books are merely props for the movies aimed at kids like my son), I also find myself acquiescing to the adventure of the stories, and the ways that Joyce weaves magic and adventure, along with the power of belief, into the narratives. The books are good for read-aloud, and my son is thoroughly enjoying them. He gasped when it seemed as if North was going to die from a sword wound by Pitch. He jumped off the couch with a prediction about the connections between Pitch and Katherine. He guffawed at the sight of Bunnymund using his power to transform into a bunny warrior.

And in the end, that’s what’s important, right?

Peace (in the center of the earth),

PS — by the way, the bunny looks very different in the book as compared to the movie. The beefed up the movie version into more of a warrior, and adding Hugh Jackman’s voice gave him more depth as warrior.


A Brief History of Video Games and bit of Pac Man

This is helpful to show my students, so they get a sense of where video games came from, and where they are going, as we work on video game design in our classroom over the next two weeks. Plus, it reinforces our work around remixing content in new ways.

And check out how one of my students used the Pac Man concept in our game building site — Gamestar Mechanic — and began exploring the remixing aspect of it on his own:

And then I noticed that another student, inspired by the Pac Man remix, made his own remix, making fun of Pac Man concept. He calls is Wac Mon:

Peace (in the game),

Considering Internet Gaming Addiction

Yet another thing to make me feel guilty ….

I was on my way home from a meeting the other day when I heard an NPR news report about the changes being done to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), and the controversies over the shifts in how we term “grief” after the death of a loved one. At the end of the report, almost as an aside, they mentioned that the issue of “Internet Use Disorder” and video gaming addiction has been added as an area of “study” by the group of researcher/psychiatrists who make changes to the manual, which establishes what is considered a valid diagnosis and how ailments should be treated.

Over at Slate, this is how they put it:

“Essentially, they’re saying that some people who spend a lot of time on the Internet demonstrate similar symptoms to people diagnosed with other addiction disorders, and that the psychiatric community should study it and consider promoting it to a full-blown disorder down the road. ” — from Slate

And Forbes notes:

“Internet Use Disorder has the many of the basic hallmarks of any other addiction. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the crafters of the DSM-V, a person with IUD will experience “preoccupation” with the internet or internet gaming, withdrawal symptoms when the substance (internet) is no longer available, tolerance (the need to spend more and more time on the internet to achieve the same “high”), loss of other interests, unsuccessful attempts to quit, and use of the internet to improve or escape dysphoric mood.” – from Forbes

It seems that video gaming, in particular, have come under scrutiny. And while some basic research yields some news stories that are alarming (although that could be said about any topic you search for), I have yet to see any empirical research data about the negative impact of gaming.

Which is not to say I don’t worry about it. I have three boys, and the older ones play a lot of games and use a lot of apps, and we are constantly seeking a balance between time on technology and time to run around outside in the fresh air. But I still worry about the amount of time my own kids spent with technology, and I worry when I hear students talk about their weekend activities that revolve around gaming, and only gaming.

And here I am, launching into a full-blown video game design unit with my sixth graders! Sigh.

I’ll be honest — even as a full believer in the power of technology and digital tools to expand writing and communication possibilities, and as an advocate for putting more tools into the hands of young people so that they can learn to make choices and have agency when it comes to their digital activity, I also worry every now and then that I am going down the wrong track, and encouraging a reliance on the screen. But, by framing my work around composing and critical thinking and engagement, I convince myself and, I think, my constituents (parents) that our work is powerful and meaningful and worth the screen time.

I hope I am right.

Peace (in the reflection),



My NCTE Ignite Session: Short Form Writing

My friend, Sandy Hayes, has edited and published all of the Ignite sessions from NCTE (Ignite sessions had a format of 20 slides, transitioning every 20 seconds), and here, I talk about short-form writing and what it mean to our definitions of what writing is, and becoming, and whether we validate the many shortened ways that people write in different spaces.

(I’ll share out other Ignite sessions over the coming days, too. There are some wonderful presentations in the mix!)
Peace (in the ignite),