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Welcome to my digital sandbox

** Since I often ask my student to compose a welcome letter for their professional spaces online, I figured I should do the same. Here goes.**


Teaching at UWM (February 2015)

I am a professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where I teach classes related to content area reading, new literacies, and English education. Previous to my move to Milwaukee in 2013, I lived, taught, and studied in the Twin Cities metro area of Minnesota.

While completing my PhD at the University of Minnesota, I worked with many juicy thinkers at the Minnesota Writing Project and the Center for Writing.  My years in Minnesota allowed me to work with undergraduate students and preservice and practicing teachers from a variety of disciplines. It is my work with learners big and small (I used to teach 5th grade as well as middle school and high school language arts) that inspires me to think about how all of us learn through writing with pen and paper or composition via images, sound, and motion online.


E, G & O – First week of school 2015

When I’m not teaching or researching literacy, I spend much of my time with my family. I have been married for twelve years to my husband, Jimmy. We have three sons: Oliver, Elias, and Gil, who range in age from 10 to 2 years.  Needless to say we have a very energetic home full of building with Legos & Minecraft, and much painting, drawing, music playing and dancing. One of our favorite times of the day is bedtime stories.  We are currently reading the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins.  The books are full of underworld adventures with talking bugs and feisty, raucous rats.

In addition to spending time with my family, I love to make movies. Although I’m not a professional movie maker, I am a huge advocate for digital video composition as medium for exploring the potentials of storytelling as well as creating and sharing content knowledge. Thus, it often is a big part of my courses. I find that composing with images, music, and the human voice makes for a very potent storytelling experience both for the author and audience . Even as reading and writing practices migrate to online spaces, story continues to be a prominent vehicle for learning.  Here is a “digital story” I helped to make about some ways that digital storytelling can be used as a method of teaching. “The Pedagogy of Digital Storytelling in the College Classroom” (12:00).

If you happen to be taking a course with me, the best way to get in touch with me outside of class is via email.  I am online most of the day, checking email and Twitter quite regularly. That said, I do unplug at night to be present with my family and to sleep!

I look forward to learning more about you and your story.



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Affordances … #BlackLivesMatter … Hmm

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The word “affordances” is tossed around a lot these days.  If we are not careful with how we use it, I fear that it may become a phrase or word of invitation opening up more questions than it offers specificity.  In many ways this has been the case with words such as “engagement” or “literacy.”  While I think invitations to think deeper are important and should be maintained, I also think that some words, such as “affordances” might offer a productive angle into our understandings of making meaning using digital technologies.

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As part of my work  with the NCTE New Literacies CEE subgroup (Commission on English Education), I’ve recently reviewed two articles that I think ask us to re-examine our understandings of the construct “affordances.”  I welcome suggestions for further reading or questions to push us deeper in thinking about this potentially powerful concept.

In the first article, Ranker (2015) calls for a deeper understanding and usage of the construct of “affordances” when conceptualizing and designing literacy experiences that incorporate technologies and multiple media. Analyzing a tool or platform for affordances involves examining its “distinct possibilities and limitations for exploring and representing meaning.” To illustrate, Ranker analyzes the affordances of blogs and digital video, discussing the distinct possibilities of textual linkage and written interaction in blogging as well as montage in digital video.

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The next article and it’s corresponding video (McDonald & Woo, 2015) showcase the people behind the top three Twitter handles in the #Blacklivesmatter movement: Johnetta Elzie (@Nettaaaaaaa), DeRay Mckesson (@deray) and Zelli Imani (@zellieimani). The article talks briefly of the specific affordances of Twitter as social media platform to start a political movements (e.g. Black Lives Matter). The companion video is also powerful for providing visual montage and voice to protestors as they read their tweets.

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Together, these two pieces invite us to revisit our understanding and usage of the concept “affordances.” How might a more disciplined use on the construct “affordances” push us beyond novelty and “show and tell” when discussing digital technologies?

Articles Mentioned Above:

Ranker, J. (2015). The Affordances of Blogs and Digital Video: New Potentials for Exploring Topics and Representing Meaning. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 58(7), 568-578.

McDonald & Woo (August 10, 2015). They Helped Make Twitter Matter in Ferguson Protests. New York Times.

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Visualizing Content Knowledge

My #Currins545 Students (Reading in josh hthe Content Areas) have just completed their visualization projects for the semester.  Having used this assignment for three semesters, I’ve noticed how this project really tends to signal a turning point in the course, a moment in which the students experience hands-on a deeper understanding of their content.

It seems that so much of the semester is spent walking around the content, through readings and discussion that attempt to list and emphasize what the disciplinary content is and how to scaffold learning of that content. While this is important and creates a necessary space to identify key pedagogical content knowledge, the visualization project seems to cut straight to the heart of how we use visualization to build knowledge in the content areas.

KevinThe visualization project requires students to make a visualization, using a web 2.0 software of their choice, to visualize an aspect of their discipline. Thus far in the semester, the students have been maintaining an inquiry blog about some topic in their discipline so selecting an idea to illustrate or visualize follows easily from this inquiry project.

What impressed me most this semester is how deeply the students were able to analyze their own processes of visualization and then connect it to either their own learning or student learning. Below are some of the visualizations that the students created as well as a selection of their insights on visualizing content knowledge. (Click on links or images below to view complete visualization.)

Visualizing abstract concepts as events

In the examples below, students have taken an abstract concept from their discipline and turned it into an event to be represented either on a timeline or infographic.  First listed, Zak uses the interactive timeline software Dipity to visualizes the notion of authorship and its evolution over time. Similar in approach, Kevin also uses Dipity to illustrate the largely unknown relationship between Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X, exploring how the two hardly knew each other were both such key players in the Civil Rights movement. Next Josh uses the infographic software Piktochart to illustrate the notion of “urban” as it was first enacted by Rome, the first urban city.  Finally, Erin  uses annotation software ThingLink to explore the elements of emotion, color, and form in the work of Wassili Kandinsky.

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“In Grey” by Wassily Kandinsky

The Evolution of Authorship” – Interactive timeline created by Zak Koehn

MLK & Malcolm X” – Interactive timeline created by Kevin Dyke

The First Super City: Rome” – Infographic created by Josh Luterbach

Emotion and Color in Kandinsky” – Image annotation created by Erin Rademacher

Using visual design to organize information from several sources

Many of the students commented on the affordances of visualization and graphic design as vehicles for spatially organizing their thoughts.  Emphasizing more the canvas of the screen instead of the page, several students the spatial assets of visualization, which allowed them to explore the deeper nuances of ideas through purposeful selections of color scheme, font, spatial formatting and blank space. To begin, both Angela and Steffanie use Piktochart to tackle gigantic content topics. Angela takes on the Great Depression, breaking it down to the dust bowl as a lens into daily life, while Steffanie takes the many works of Shakespeare, looking specifically at the female roles. Josh researches the mining induced mudslides of Indonesia, using ThingLink to annotate the activist artwork of Justseeds.

The Dust Bowl” – Infographic created by Angela Gerloski

The Women of Shakespeare” – Infographic created by Steffanie Rowinsky

We Agree: A Crisis In Common” – Image annotation created by Josh Heinrich

Visualizing process

Another set of projects used visualization to distill and prioritize the core aspects of various processes.  To keep this blog entry from becoming too long, I will just include one example of this type. Here tracy uses still photography and movie maker to make a how-to video for making murals.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 12.43.09 PMMake your Mark in Milwaukee: Episode 1: Make a Mural” – digital video created by Tracy Rolkosky

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Visualization for Learning

As I explore the potentials of media production for learning, I am brought again and again to the idea of visualization as a learning strategy. What exactly is it about making our own representations (visual or other nonlinguistic modes) that helps us to better understand the content we are exploring?

Visual notetaking

“Drawing in Class: Visual Notetaking” Rachel Smith TEDx

I know that some describe this process as one of Dual Coding (Clark and Paivio, 1991), in that creating representations in both linguistic and nonlinguistic modes requires us to process the information using distinct yet interconnected “codes.”  Others describe the process of visualization in terms of multimodality (Gunther & Kress, 2001) and transmediation (Suhor, 1984), which both posit more sophisticated understandings of information when translation across multiple modes. Visual note-taker, Rachel Smith, describes her process of visual notetaking as focused listening.  (Check out her TEDx talk featured above “Drawing in Class“). Whatever the case, I see, feel, and at times even hear, the difference and depth of learning that occurs when learners are asked to visualize what they know.

In sharing this finding with teacher candidates who want to know what they can do tomorrow to promote learning in their content areas, I find that there is little out there exploring digital composition as form of content learning beyond anecdotal descriptions of increased motivation. While motivation is integral to learning, I’m curious to know more about how the messy work of multimodal composition contributes to deeper learning and comprehension.

Below are a list of resources that start exploring the question on just the levels of drawing and sketching as vehicles for deeper learning.  I hope to add to this understanding with resources that discuss more involved forms of visualization and representation such as media production and sound design.


  • Albright (2002) – Engaging adolescent readers with picture book read-alouds in the content areas
  • Bruce (2011) – Reframing the Text: Using Storyboards to Engage Students in Reading
  • Hasset & Schieble (2007) – Finding Space and Time for the Visual in K-12 Literacy Instruction
  • Hibbing (2002) – Using Visual Images to Improve Comprehension for Struggling Reader
  • Schmidt (2013) – Sketch as Response and Assessment: From Misunderstanding to Better Judgement

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Hacking books

Hacking Picture Books. I love this concept. It is such a literal use of “cut and paste” and yet such a fundamental practice for critical literacy. Thanks to Amy Stornaiuolo for sharing her photos of the messy yet critically freeing process.

Amy Stornaiuolo

Note: I cross-posted this as a resource at the Digital Is website!

Last month I went to the Educon conference at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia for the first time and was so excited to see all of the amazing work being done by educators to incorporate digital literacies into their practices and classrooms. I was particularly inspired by the hackjam run by Meenoo Rami and Chad Sansing (watch it livehere or read about Chad’s reflections on it here). Immediately I saw how this activity might be a generative one for my digital literacies class at the University of Pennsylvania to help us consider more carefully the ideas of participatory learningcomposing as making, and hacker literacies.

One of the central ideas I was hoping we could explore was how play and Making can help to transform our teaching/learning practices. Hacking (or tweaking…

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My dissertation (in progress)


Already 31,200 words!!  I’m not surprised that “media” and “voice” came in large. On the other hand, “Chandra” and “focus” were surprising.

Thank you Wordle


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Mining for Insights: RFD 2010-2011

Candance and Theresa

It was almost a year ago that Theresa Behnke and I attended the Recruiting for Diversity (RFD) Conference in Minneapolis, MN, as part of NWP’s larger Project Outreach Initiative. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, the friendships that we would develop or the courageous conversations that would be had. What we did know was that we needed guidance and resources for examining our summer institute selection practices and the continuity programming at MWP.

The June 2010 Recruiting for Diversity Conference proved to be very helpful in providing a space for thinking critically about our programming in terms of what’s working, what needs further development, and what’s missing completely.

Bisti Inspiration

We entered the June 2010 conversations with a somewhat limited understanding of how “diversity” is recruited and maintained in writing project work.  Through thoughtful conversations with other writing project leaders (a special shout out to the crew from Bisti National Writing Project) and from poignant readings we attained new lenses for looking at our site’s work. The notions of access and relevance deepened our understandings of the structural constraints and habitual practices that often limit the diversity of participation in ways unseen.

Seeing recruitment as merely a single tool to approach diversity, Theresa and I returned to our site leaders determined to pose important questions about the “relevance” of our programming.  In other words, how might we shift the emphasis of our programming so that it becomes relevant to the needs of a more diverse set of teachers with varying  cultural and disciplinary backgrounds?  Furthermore, we were inspired to explore how our programming might also shift to meet the needs of teachers working with diverse learners.

writing our way into answers and more questions

This exploration into the relevance of MWP programming began shortly after our return form the RFD meeting in Minneapolis.  First we met with our site’s core leaders on July 15th for a two and a half hour meeting. In this meeting we did an abbreviated review of the site data research we had done for RFD, which lead to discussion of different things that could be done in the realms of Summer Institute, Continuity, and Inservice.  This leadership meeting was then followed by an Advisory Board Meeting which harnessed the reflective power of the “Four Faces” activity to discuss the many identities of MWP and how these identities may or may not be seen as relevant or accessible to teachers from different disciplines and backgrounds.  These initial meetings allowed for important conversations and questions to be raised.  After meetings with leadership, sharing questions and concerns we made several small changes.  Some of these changes and/or additions are listed below.  Included with them are links to related publicity and documents, which may be useful as resources for other sites.

July 2010 – Our first implementation in regards to relevance and access was to make it more clearly known to incoming TCs that there are various opportunities to stay involved, some of which invovle leadership roles. To do this we created a leadership opportunity survey to give out to 2010 summer institute participants. This form was inspired by the survey created by Thomas Ferrel and Katie Kline of the Greater Kansas City Writing Project. For more ideas about how the summer institute can be used to forge a diversity of leadership and continued involvement read Kline and Ferrel’s short article “Changing the Face of Leadership

Frank Sentwali

October 2010 – In terms of relevant programming, we selected a topic for our annual Fall Workshop that addresses the needs of Diverse Learners. We titled the event “Expanding the Boundaries of Literacy” and invited local experts and artists, including spoken word artist Frank Sentwali to discuss the many faces of literacy. See specific event posting on MWP Website for more information.

October 2010 – To forward the thinking about access, relevance, and diversity, we needed to create a space within MWP of like-minded educators to come together, talk and plan. To do this we re-established the Urban Sites sub network within MWP. This involved making Theresa Behnke the Program Leader for the group.

November 2010 — Theresa and I attended the follow-up workshop in Orlando, FL–a time to reflect on what we’ve accomplished.

January 2011- June 2011 – To keep our newly established Urban Sites group in tact, Theresa Behnke organized a book study group. Teachers involved include TCs who stated an interest in being part of the urban sites and/or diverse learners sub-network.  Also select TCs were invited to participate based on their work with diverse learners. The book selected by the group members was Becoming Otherwise: Enhancing Critical Reading Perspectives by Ruth Vinz et. al. We will select our next book at the final meeting in June.

March 2011 – Efforts toward relevant programming continued through providing a winter workshop that addressed the needs of diverse learners. This workshop was offered within a series of four workshops done in partnership with the MN Department of Education. All of the workshops focused on implementation of the newly revised MN 2010 English Language Arts Standards. (See specific event posting or visit MWP News & Events page on Website)

Fall  2010 – We redesigned our brochure for the 2011 Summer Institute. Revisions included changes in images to reflect a more diverse participant population, including men who have been very strong leaders in our site yet are not always visible. Also we made significant changes in the language we used to describe the activities and goals of the institute (see excerpt).  These changes were done to be more inclusive to teachers who may not see themselves as writers per se  and to welcome teachers from disciplines other than English Language Arts. The complete revised brochure can be downloaded at the bottom of  the MWP Summer Institute Page.

April 2011 — Theresa attends the Urban Sites Conference in Boston, MA — a much needed time for intellectual rejuvenation and inspiration.

Working Through Challenges

While we definitely have run into challenges in our efforts to bring access, relevance, and diversity to our site, especially given the national funding crisis of recent, I still believe that transformations can occur. While these changes may be occurring primarily at the level of publicity documents, they have opened up avenues of discussion that were not present beforehand.  These avenues are becoming more established in our larger leadership conversations, making more space in our mind to examine our existing habits and imagine new ways of doing things.

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documentary as critical engagement

I have the fortunate opportunity to be part of two high school classrooms that focus on the literacy craft and social purpose of documentary.

In class this week, we’ve been watching two documentaries, The Heart of the Game (2005) directed by Ward Serril, and War Photographer (2001) directed by Christian Frei. Also this week, a colleague of mine, Damiana Gibbons, made her own piece, Marching for Democracy, documenting the recent protests related to collective bargaining in Madison, WI. While on the surface these pieces may seem very different, they have much in common in terms of how they speak to the power of documentary as a medium to evoke emotion and move people to action.

In War Photographer, Frei documents the life of war photographer James Natchwey as he uses his camera to document war.  Some may see Natchwey as suffering from an intense case of adventure lust, yet through viewing the documentary we (or “I” at least) experience Natchwey’s use of photography as a critical stance, a form of civil disobedience in a way. While listening to one of his TED talks Natchwey described the purpose of his lens or stance as a photographer.

“One of the things I had to learn as a journalist is what to do with my anger.  I had to use it, channel its energy, turn it into something that would clarify my image instead of clouding it.”

What Natchwey is saying about war, through his images is so poignant, especially considering everything going on right now not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also  in Libya, as UN Security Council votes to go forward with air strikes.

Also intense, but in a different way, is the documentary, The Heart of the Game which seeks to move its viewers, if not toward social action in the case of Natchwey’s work, then in the form of interpersonal action in local contexts, making decisions that impact intimate relationships, between friends, mentors, and parents. Ward Serril is intentional with his focus on emotion. He describes in his director commentary the role of suffering in the film and his process of making the doc.

“The Buddha said that Life is suffering. Bill Resler says that ‘Life should be fun and if your life isn’t fun you should change it.’  This simple philosophy got me through a lot of dark days during The Heart of the Game. Though Darnellia Russell put it best when she described Resler as’ “loose in the head,” he changed my life for the better.’ I don’t know what the Buddha would say about that, but the Buddha never played basketball.”

The political is always personal, and thus I think this third documentary, March for Democracy, best exemplifies the merging of the political with the personal. In this short documentary (8 minutes) we see a select number of events occurring in Madison, WI, curated for the purposes of sorting through the events and sharing them with family members far off. This documentary brings together the blurring of the personal, the local, and the global. When watching this video I am almost brought to tears.  Hearing the protesters sing “This is what democracy looks like!” I am brought back to the afternoon I visited the protests, Feb. 18, and went into the capital full of upwards to 8,000 people chanting and singing the same line, “This is what democracy looks like!”  Here Gibbons, like Frei, documents the stance of others, in this case the protesters, in a way that allows her to also forge a stance, while not exactly the same as the protesters a critical engagement with the issue.

All three of these documentaries show how making documentary becomes a way to channel (for the composer) and evoke (in the audience) intense emotions. These intense emotions become vehicles for directors, photographers, and viewers to engage with realities and forge stances on issues. These stance may move some to political action, while for others the movement may be more interpersonal, small steps to reconsider one’s relationships and identity in new ways.

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Collaborative Conflict

I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration and conflict lately.  I’m currently trying to wrap my head around the potentials of conflict to allow for new forms of knowledge production, especially knowledge that disrupts dominant narratives.

This video “The Negotiation of Contributions in Public Wikis” by artist and scholar Anne Goldenburg has be me thinking a lot about how we negotiate conflict and how that conflict both motivates and discourages participation and contribution. I especially love the part where  the composers or contributor get upset with each other as the others try to contribute their ideas.  I’m  curious as to how this visual representation of wiki writing will have parallels with the collaborative composition of digital media.

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intellectual truffles

As I gear up for my upcoming dive into an academic year full of digital media composition with two classes of high school students, I can’t help but get excited for these new reads, hot off the press, from one of my favorite journals, Written Communication.

Rethinking Composing in a Digital Age: Authoring Literate Identities Through Multimodal Storytelling

by Lalitha Vasudevan, Katherine Schultz, and Jennifer Bateman


Multimodal Redesign in Filmmaking Practices: An Inquiry of Young Filmmakers’ Deployment of Semiotic Tools in Their Filmmaking Practice

by Øystein Gilje

Both of these articles push our understandings of “composition” and how the communicative mode of making meaning changes, shifts, expands, and is complicated when multiple modes such as image, sound, and motion are thrown into the semiotic mix.  I’m hoping that these articles will push my own thinking in terms of how our social and embodied identities impact these processes composition.

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