Further Defining Digital Literacies: Narrative Disruption and Story Amplification

Defining Digital Literacies NCTE narrativesI’m slowly reading and digesting, the National Council of Teachers of English revised definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, and I am appreciating the depth of the inquiry.

Words have power. Stories have power. Who gets to tell those stories with those words wields power, and shapes the narratives. A critical look at this truth of storytelling is the center of the section of the definition of Digital Literacies where the use of multi-modal narratives either hem or cloud in our understanding of the diverse world, or open it up to new views.

This particular section of the NCTE document (second to last section) focuses on providing our students with access, understanding and use of digital tools — from audio, to video, to game design, to image, to words, to whatever we can’t yet imagine — to tell and share their own stories in meaningful ways in digital spaces as well as critique others. (There is a token nod to ‘print-based literacies,’ too). There’s a bit too much educational jargon in this section for my tastes but I still appreciate the depth of the thinking and the phrase of “heightened awareness” rings true.

The definition section here also hints at understanding the pros and cons of these various digital tools, in ways these tools might expand our sense of self and community — for example, how visuals might add an emotional impact a story — and maybe work to inhibit these same aspects, too — so how visuals might emotionally impact a story, but with false heartstrings.

This passage stood out for me, too:

“Learners also need sustained opportunities to produce counter-narratives that expose and interrupt misguided texts that do not represent the fullness of their identities or life complexities. “

The phrases of “misguided texts” is both powerful — yes, to countering destructive narratives that misinform us — and troublesome — who determines what text is “misguided” and needs disrupting? And how does one teach that kind of lens without shaping our students’ world in our own set of values? I suppose we teachers accomplish this by making sure our students question everything, even us, with a critical eye, but particularly, to question those texts that focus on their own heritage, their own language, their own customs and religions, their own communities.

The next sentence also helps answer this question, too, by noting that

“… learners need opportunities within the curriculum to author multimodal stories in order to examine power, equity, and identities and grow as digitally savvy and civic-minded citizens.”

Literacies are a key to the world. Stories can unlock the doors, or bar them shut. Honing literary techniques to tell our stories and to parse through the stories of others is a key skill in the digital age we live in. We could all practice more of that.

Peace (disruption),

Slice of Life: No Guitar … No Problem

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

It’s often during in-between moments — the lull of the evening — where I will grab my acoustic guitar and just play for a bit as a way to step aside from the day. A sort of acoustic reprieve. Sometimes, new songs emerge from these burst of playing sessions. Mostly, not. Usually, it’s just a chance to play.

I had this inspiration to maybe try to write another holiday song because I had challenged my teenage son to make a holiday song, as he is an accomplished beat-maker with Logic, and he just laughed me off. I went upstairs to get my guitar … only to suddenly remember that I had left my guitar in my classroom at school. I have been doing some guitar playing with a student who is writing his own holiday song that he wants to perform in front of classmates.


I still had this melody and idea of bells jangling around in my head, so I queued up an online music production platform I use quite a bit — Soundtrap — and plugged in my small MIDI keyboard, and then began to compose the holiday song. It’s built off the echoes of the main Jingle Bells riff, and I had quite fun laying in sounds. The song structure is pretty simple: melody-break-melody.

After finishing the track, I decided I wanted to make the audio track into a video version, so I searched around for some copyright-free video of snow falling — I wanted the visuals to be simple but moving — and then used iMovie to quickly pull the audio and video together.

So, you know, happy holidays and all that …

Peace (play it forward),

Further Defining Digital Literacies: Global Connections and Intentional Relationships

Defining Digital Literacies NCTE collaborationsI’m slowly reading and digesting, and appreciating, the National Council of Teachers of English revised definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, and I am appreciating the depth of the inquiry.

I teach in a pretty insular community, in a classroom that is set off from other parts of the building (it’s inside the school but not near any other classrooms). It can be a pretty isolating experience, both from a teaching experience (no adjoining door to say hello to a neighbor) and a learning experience (the town is overwhelmingly white middle class suburbia).

This boxed-in mentality has often spurred me to try to find ways to connect my students to the larger world, and this section of the definition by NCTE speaks to that aspect, I think. Solving problems and pushing into shared inquiry, through help of larger connections and relationships, seems important in an ever-connected world where more and more of the work we do, and the learning we tackle, requires collaboration and teams.

The phrasing of “technology allows a wider range of voices to be heard” resonates with me, for I fear I don’t do this nearly enough, often to the detriment of my students’ experiences in the larger world. That said, past projects like Voices on the Gulf and Youth Radio and current projects like Connecting the Coasts (where my students in Massachusetts have been sharing and connecting with California friends via Flipgrid) have opened doors for some relationships and connections, pulling my sixth graders into something broader than the town they live, in progressive Western Massachusetts (although the town I teach is very conservative, an outlier in our area).

The definition talks about helping learners find voices different from their own, and perspectives different than their own, and this can be another sort of challenge. I often felt as if the Letters to the Next President project — while incredibly powerful in the way it brought writing and argument of high school writers to the surface in an array of important topics — did not do justice to the conservative voices of youth, that the platform had an overwhelming progressive vibe to it (which resonated with me and my views, perhaps, but seeing it through young writer’s eyes who has opposing views, it could be daunting). This is not a criticism of the work done by facilitators of Letters to the Next President — they worked hard to surface many diverse voices.

This surfacing of ideas in online spaces, in particular, is always a challenge — how to teach young people to be strong in opinions, and civil in their discussions –how to be persuasive in their arguments but open to other points to view. Heck, this is not just a challenge for young people. This is the challenge for all of us these days.

Anyway, I appreciated this part of the defining of Digital Literacies, for it forced me to reflect again critically on what I am doing, or am not doing, and what I have done, and can still yet do, better — both within my classroom itself, and by connecting my classroom to the larger and more diverse world beyond.

Peace (opening doors),

Twitter Analysis: Digging Deeper into Write Out (part one)

Collage of WriteOut via GephiThanks to my friend, Sarah H, I took part in a three week online course around social media data analysis, and also with huge thanks to Sarah, she had been collecting Twitter information from the start of October’s Write Out project (connecting educators and students to place-based writing, and to the National Day on Writing), and she shared her files with me to use in the course.

I’ll share more some other time about the in-depth observations that I made, but the course itself revolved around three main tools for data analysis — TAGS, which can gather tweets into a spreadsheet; Tableau, which digs down into that data for more in-depth analysis of who was doing what, when, and with whom, etc; and Gephi, which can visualize nodes, clusters, connections and more. (The image above is a collage of some of the views I created with Gephi, to observe the interactions off the main hub of activity).

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by exploring some of these tools, but the course — called Social Media Analytics, offered through FutureLearn — was very helpful, in the ways they had us looking at the larger picture of social media landscapes (mostly Twitter, since others — like Facebook — are closed off from most analysis tools) before learning, systematically and step-by-step, how to set up and use Tableau and Gephi.

Personally, I found Tableau to be more useful than Gephi for the inquiry I was doing — which was based around my own questions of making visible the interactions that took place during Write Out and reflecting on ways to expand the reach of Write Out next year.

A handful of us, who already knew each other from other projects and connections, also created a private back-channel in the CLMOOC Slack, where we could share and ask questions of each other. I found that helpful for the beginning of the course, in particular.

I’ll write and share more later …

Peace (in the data stream),

Book Review: Tubes (A Journey to the Center of the Internet)

Andrew Blum’s journey to the center of the Internet, as he calls it, begins when a squirrel nibbles the wires of his house, shutting his online access of. This event sparks a years-long journey of curiosity to figure out how the wires all connect, and how data flows through the physical space of the world.

In Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Blum brings us along with him. It’s a pretty fascinating ride, if a bit technical at times, as he researches, investigates, and visits some of the main hubs of the dispersed Internet, from data centers to undersea cables to spaces below buildings in urban centers to isolated rural places — all forging different kinds of connection so that when I hit “publish” on this blog post and you click to read what I wrote, the data flows rather seamlessly (or so it appears) through fibers, wires, and yes, tubes of light.

There are moments where Blum geeks out a bit too much for my tastes, but I understand why he goes into such descriptions about routers, packets and fibers. What I was more interested in is how he frames the flow of information with the physical aspects of the world — the way we can imagine data moving along the contours of our Earth, and the ways in which those same contours provide barriers of access, too.

Overall, though, Tubes gives the reader a fuller sense of the digital world — sparking some appreciation for the original design of a distributed networked space and for the rather fragile elements that make up what we mostly take for granted. Some hubs are monumentally important, and yet, as Blum describes them, neither as secure as one would expect nor as reliable as they could be.

I really appreciated these final thoughts of Blum, who seeks to humanize his research, and ground it in the world we live in, not the virtual one we imagine when we use our technology.

“What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.”

— from Tubes by Andrew Blum, page 268

Peace (flowing through us all),

Further Defining Digital Literacies: Access and Equity

Defining Digital Literacies NCTE access

I’m slowly reading and digesting, and appreciating, the National Council of Teachers of English revised definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, and I am appreciating the depth of the inquiry.

Issues of access often take a back seat in discussions about digital literacies but here, in this definition, NCTE tackles it head-on early in its inquiry. And it’s not just who has what available — in other words, does the digital divide create unseen barriers for students — but also, how students with disabilities can access the same information and technology and tools as their peers.

I remember having a long discussion in a course about “alt text” on images via Twitter and other social networking platforms, and many of us worked on a public statement, urging Twitter to make the option for “alt text” writing on images for screen readers a default (it was an option one could turn on but I think it is now the default, so … progress). I am also thinking of how text-to-speech options, and how color-coding/highlighting/organizational possibilities, and how speech-to-text options all open the door to all of our students in terms of access.

Socio-economics play a role, too. I’ve done consulting work in schools where the computers are used for one thing: testing. Technology was only means of data gathering, and not a way for students to gather information and compose in different media. Student agency was nearly absent for the sake of constant testing.

One question within the NCTE definition seemed rather intriguing, as it brings to the surface an awareness of gaps. It asks:

Do learners recognize information gaps or information poverty?

and the follow up question:

Do learners advocate for their own individual and community’s access to texts and tools?

I wonder how teachers can best make those gaps visible to all students — this gets at the heart of equity — and how to help students advocate for places where the gaps exist? It seems to me that collaborations between classes — ie, Connected Learning principles — and better educator awareness might address this kind of question, but the fact is that for most of us, we don’t know what we don’t have because we made do with what we’ve got.

I think we all know we need to do better — with better-funded school libraries and information systems (that open doors for access, not just surveil our students), and classrooms, and teacher programs that incorporate these ideals in meaningful ways.

I was thinking of the mission statement of our Western Massachusetts Writing Project as I was reading this section of the Digital Literacies definition, as access and equity and social justice are front and center in all the work we do with students and teachers and school districts.

Peace (thinking),