NWP: Network Relevance Through Versatility

“Writing is my life, not a hobby, and I am honored to be a part of this program.”

“I don’t think of myself as a writer, but it was awesome to be involved in this interesting workshop.  The volunteer teachers were very helpful.”

With all of the talk of recent about educational funding and what counts as “quality” teaching and learning, I can help but be drawn back again and again to the words of our youngest writers above, as they find their voice and views on the world through writing.  I have seen this happen countless time through my work with the Minnesota Writing Project, a local site of the larger network, the National Writing Project.  The work of NWP, especially as it plays out locally at MWP, is much more than a teacher organization.  While yes, the organization support the professional development of teachers as literacy advocates and instructional leaders, it also supports the literacy learning of a diverse set of community members including K12 students and college students working toward their teaching degrees. Through its many partnerships with institutional and community agencies, NWP has become a multi-pronged network for literacy engagement. Take for instance, the Young Writers Conference, an ongoing youth program through MWP that involves the participation of various educators to support student and learning.

What is the Young Writers’ Conference??

The Young Writers Conference is offered through a special partnership with the St. Paul School District. The Conference is an opportunity for schools to inspire some of their best student writers by bringing them to the University of Minnesota campus and fostering interaction with other student writers.

60 students (grades 6-12)

3 days at either the  Bell Natural History Museum

Cross-disciplinary writing experience

Focus on non-fiction writing

This year’s conference centered on the theme of sustainable shelters, which allowed students to incorporate elements of environmental awareness in their fiction and non-fiction writings. To inspire writing and reflect on the stories in nature-based settings, students were given journals to write in, collect their drawings, and remix images into their own artistic creations. Final writings were shared with the larger group and then published in an online anthology.

In addition to supporting young writers, the program supports educators at a variety of stages in their careers.  An essential component of the program involves providing experiences for pre-service teachers to work with young writers in real writing contexts, helping them to sort through “what really works” amid the pages and pages of reading they do in their education classes.

We can not underestimate the complexity of literacy learning and how it involves learning across multiple contexts and relationships. With this comes the need for quality professional development programming, such as that of NWP that is not only ongoing but versatile in the ways it provides support for both teachers and students alike.



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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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NCTE & NWP in Orlando

This is my fourth year in a row attending both the NWP & NCTE conferences.  I look forward to this conference all year because it is here at the intersection of both NWP & NCTE that I feel most at home professional and intellectually.

Attending NCTE I am able to tap into the key content areas that interests me most, which at the moment are digital media, writing, & social equity as they relate to English education and literacy in general.  Yet it is through my participation at NWP events, which also address these topics, that I am able to engage in the practices of learning that most confirm the reasons I became teacher 12 years ago and the reasons I am still teaching today.  These practices include courageous conversations, creative problem solving, collaborative program building etc.

I firmly believe that it is through my engagement with the writing project, working with teachers from a variety of classroom contexts K-college that I am able to put into action any of the social equity & digital media content that I study and write about for say “NCTE audiences.” The research and writing I do within the NCTE world helps me to think through the ideas, in an intense “writing to learn” process. Yet it is through the collaborative network learning of NWP model, that these ideas are significantly revised and collectively refined in ways that make them sustainable and relevant. Without the work I do with NWP, I feel that much of the work I do for NCTE would only have meaning for a small audience and perhaps never be considered for purposes of action within classrooms or among teachers.

I think specifically of the work I have been doing with NWP related to recruiting and retaining diversity within the writing project.  I have been studying many ideas related to diversity and social equity for the past five years, however, it isn’t until you sit down and try to really enact these ideas within real contexts such as a dynamic and living network of teachers, that you are able to see how what these ideas look like when connection with real people and classroom contexts.

Beside strengthening already existing relations with mentors and colleagues, I also met many new people I hope to continue bumping into.  First, I met a woman from University of Michigan, Andrea Zellner, who gave a talk on distributed identities. Also, there was a woman from Columbia University, Lori Falchi, who attended my talk.  She had such fantastic questions that pushed my understanding of local practices within literacy contexts. Other creative thinkers I want to keep in touch with are Chuck Jurich, from the High Desert Writing Project in New Mexico, and the educator collective making up the NWP Multimodal Assessment Project housed at the equally delicious Digital Is.

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I believe in professional communities…

On Monday I met with 15 other educators, who teach across the metro area in elementary, middle, secondary, and college classrooms. Our reason for gathering was our shared commitment to not only the Minnesota Writing Project (MWP), the organization that introduced us to each other, but also to meeting the needs of diverse learners both in the form of our students and fellow teachers.

We started our discussion by listening to Tarack MacLain read his list of 30 things he believes.  Tarack’s courageous list invited us to reflect on our own beliefs and how these beliefs brought us to MWP and continue to shape the work we do.

For me personally, it was my belief in writing as a route to personal empowerment that first brought me back to graduate school and then to MWP.  I remember watching my ninth grade students reinvent themselves through their writing.  What has kept me involved over the past four years has been the professional community I have found.  No where at my school was I able to have the discussions about writing pedagogy or teaching in general like I was able to have with the groups of teachers I met through MWP.

Whether it was being out of a district setting that freed our discussions or the intense focus on writing that made the conversations emerge naturally, I was impressed by how we could talk for hours about teaching, and I wasn’t seen as a “brown noser” for wanting to talk about how to grade writing or how my gender and race impacted my teaching.  I had found an intellectual and professional home.  This home nurtured me, including my professional voice and purpose in ways that my teaching and coursework had not.

Going forward, I believe MWP through its teacher-centered stance and network relations with the National Writing Project has the potential to bring about change in education, to make schooling relevant for diverse learners, in ways not possible through teacher education programs.

In supporting teachers in their daily work in the classroom and not just preservice training, MWP/NWP provides a professional home away from school, that is ongoing, where educators can negotiate their own identities as teachers, writers, leaders, parents, and politicians in order to develop their own voice to impact change in their home schools and districts.

I know that the work of change does not happen overnight but rather bit by bit, summer institute by summer institute as our local network grows and takes shape according to its shared values.  For now, I am happy to say that I have values and I have a home.

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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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digital storytelling as pedagogy

The Pedagogy of Digital Storytelling in the College Classroom

The digitalstory that Rachel Raimist, Walt Jacobs, and I co-created was featured today on the CLA homepage. Rachel was truly the editing artist behind this piece.  That said, I so enjoyed the collaborative process we used to create this piece.  We brainstormed our ideas using synchronous and asynchronous chat on Google.wave.  We used this discussion as the basis of our voice over. Rachel then made the final revisions to each of our voice-over scripts, which we then recorded and uploaded to Media Mill. Rachel was then able to access all of the media from our individual digital story pieces and mix them into the final product.

This video will eventually be featured along side an article we wrote  together for Seminar.net, explaining the design of the Fall 2008 course, Digital Storytelling in and with Communities of Color.

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To engage or not to engage: tool choice and identity

I stumbled across the Technium, a blog by Kevin Kelly that explores technology’s impact on culture, or perhaps I should say technology’s encompassing of culture.  Kelly describes “Technium” as …

It’s a word I’ve reluctantly coined to designate the greater sphere of technology – one that goes beyond hardware to include culture, law, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. In short, the Technium is anything that springs from the human mind. It includes hard technology, but much else of human creation as well. I see this extended face of technology as a whole system with its own dynamics.

At first glance, his ideas seem similar to McLuhan‘s view of the media as deterministic.  Yet, his stance seems to take on a more ecological angle, arguing that technology is an organism, in itself … see interview excerpt below.

What I am most drawn to in this interview is his discussion of identity as a matter of refusing technologies. In other words, our choice to take up or engage with a certain hardware or software has just as much impact on one’s identity, if not more, than what we do choose to use. These ideas are further explored in the essay Identity from What-Is-Not.

This makes me think about my choices not to use Twitter, or Delicious.  While I find these software programs and the social practices they motivate to be very interesting in terms of collaborative construction and distribution of knowledge, I haven’t yet felt a strong enough need to personally engage.  This focus on the “process of refusal” is a fascinating and powerful line of inquiry for me to explore in terms of my interests in identity and student engagement with digital media.

Thank you Kevin Kelly.  I can’t wait for your book to come out.

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multigenre synergy

multigenre wordle

This week the teachers in my Digital Writing class collaborated to create a multigenre piece titled “A Soldier’s Blog.” Not only was the piece multigenre, taking up letter, postcard, recipie, poetry, and news story genres, it also was multimodal AND multimedia, combining pictures, voice, linguistic text and music, into wiki pages, VoiceThread, Garage Band, & Photo Story.

While I was a bit nervous about taking on such a complex task in single class setting, thinking it might be overwhelming to those who don’t compose digitally on a regular basis, the process and final piece were as one student summarized “amazing.”  They all wrote and composed such wonderful pieces.  Not only did I finish class feeling exuberant and enthused by the energy of accomplishment in the room, but the teachers also felt invigorated by the experience.  The Wordle above catches the words they used to summarize their experience.

It is moments like these that make me feel so fortunate to do the work I do, working with such creative and thoughtful professionals.

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creatural existence

creatural existence for human beings is about maximizing meaning, but through the operation of sensuous embodiment including, these days, through the technological extension of the senses. (Embodiment and Education pg 75)

So the sensitive body, deeply in communion with its environment, is not a body over which mind has control.  In other words, it is not that body which educational theorising has assumed — a separate entity in a wold of material objects–but rather is of the very same stuff of its environs, living and non-living bodies.  As such it is never fixed but rather emerges again and again out of a constantly changing web of relations to an environment of things, people, projects, demands and the earth with its species and features (pg 75)

In Marjorie O’Loughlin’s philosophical exploration of the body and learning, she presents an ecological model of subjectivity, which she describes as “creatural living” (Embodiment and Education)

Creatural living challenges dualist notions of mind and body by presenting the body as the locus of knowing and action, the site where meaning making occurs via multisensorial embodiment with ones environment. Yet, O’Loughlin extends this multisensorial experience beyond that of the traditional senses of vision, aural, touch, taste, etc. to the sensations made possible through activities and practice within systemic collaborations between bodies and technologies (pg 66-67).  As O’Loughlin clarifies:

So it might be said not that we are what we do, but rather that the doing itself is governed by what we have, so to speak, in our hands at the moment of action.  Technologies therefore cannot be characterised either as mere tools for human use on the one hand or as uncontrollable forces which ultimately take control over all aspects of human life, removing from it any real sence of agency. Rather to the extent that actors are altered by what they use (what they do with what they have at hand, so to speak), they extend the boundaries of their individual bodies beyond the skin. (pg 67)

In this sense, the practices we take up in partnership with technological hardware and software not only extend the boundaries of the body beyond the skin, but also envelop activity as a practice of embodiment.

O’Loughlin goes on to describe these practices as “tied inextricably to a vast repertoire of bodily dispositions, which also bear the imprint or shape of the resident technologies inhabiting various sites which are the particular places in which those bodies are niched” (p.70)  This repertoire then becomes the basis from which “individuals make themselves corporeally,” a set of practices that not only “expresses who they are” but also ” “affords them a wealth of opportunity for creative endeavors” (p. 70).  In other words, these practices are potent in their ability to reproduce or create anew opportunities to speak and make meaning. Repeated, ritualized, and patterned, these practices form repertoires, which become the crux of making meaning, the site of body building.

It is important to keep in mind, that the body does not harness and command the technologies as tools for its own individual doing, rather the technologies are senses that expand the body’s capability for knowing.

As O’Loughlin describes

It is the body (not simply a guiding consciousness) that understands its world, and it is the body which holds within it those intentional threads that run outward to the world: the body’s grasping of the world is like a set of invisible but intelligent threads streaming out between body and the specific world wth which  each body is familiar.” (p. 81)

In other words, it is the body that understands the world, not the consciousness. Via its extended multisensorial network, the body is able to sense, interpret, and create beyond its abilities otherwise.

In this networked sense of the body, agency is thus constructed across networks of relations between animate and non-animate objects and not housed within individuals. (p. 67).   For example …

What then does this mean for education?

Well, according to O’Loughlin, our current educational systems and culture at large have a “fear of idleness” and thus over-regulate children’s lives with activities and tasks.  This in turn, limits children’s embodied knowing by hindering their “instinct to roam” and learn via engagement and entanglement with a variety of objects animate and inanimate (p. 91)

How then might hybrid learning experiences promote more embodied awareness and effective agency?

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