Sunday, November 21, 2010

Digital Literacy?

Every year hundreds upon hundreds of Teacher Consultants from the more than two hundred sites of the National Writing Project gather for an annual meeting, and every year members of the West Texas Writing Project are there. This year's meeting in Orlando was my fourth opportunity to learn alongside so many talented and dedicated teachers about cutting edge topics in education.

Of course, anytime someone uses a phrase like "cutting edge" in the same breath with "education," it's a safe bet the conversation is going to have something to do with the use of technology. I know from my work with the NWP that such conversations often end up sprinkled with phrases like "digital literacy," the topic of the first round table session I chose to visit at this year's annual meeting.

This is a term I've wondered about a great deal the last few years, particularly as I've noticed it emerge as a growing topic of interest in the writing project. I must admit that the cynical side of me has wondered whether it might not just be a trendy buzzword. In fact, my conservative side has even wondered if it--whatever "it" is exactly--could ultimately just be a distraction from the solid and substantive written discourse that has been the currency of academic progress for three millennia.

Apparently, I'm not entirely alone in my wonderings. That is, at least I'm not the only one wondering what exactly this "it" is since our roundtable on digital literacy hosted by representatives from a dozen different sites around the nation began with an invitation for all of us to explore what digital literacy means and whether it really is a "new" form of literacy at all.

In the course of that reflection (written reflection, of course, this is the NWP after all) I found myself thinking about the book I was reading on the plane while heading out to Orlando, Pandora's Seed by Spencer Wells. In it Wells chronicles what he calls the "unforeseen cost of civilization," the myriad ways that settling down in cities and growing out own food has reshaped our bodies and minds. One of the take away ideas from Wells' book that I couldn't help but think about when considering digital literacy is that there's no going back.

So it was time to indulge my pragmatist side and stop letting those other sides label digital literacy a catchphrase or try to look down their noses at the new fangled. Whatever digital literacy might mean for reading and writing in the 21st century, its ascension is inevitable. Every teacher in the country knows that there is something new at work in our children's lives. There are words buzzing around the air at all times, 140 character tweets and heavily abbreviated SMS text messages whiz right through the walls of our classrooms.

Twitter makes for a great example. I actually have a twitter account. I use it to disseminate assignments and directions to my Academic Decathlon team without actually understanding why it is that teenagers find such a limited medium so fascinating. Leave it to a Writing Project Teacher Consultant to open my eyes. At the round table, Katherine Frank from the Southern Colorado Writing Project described how jettisoning clunky online classroom message boards in favor of Twitter inspired her students to be succinct, yet powerful in their responses to literature--and to each other.   I've always fretted over Twitter's 140 character limit as a testament to the online tool's utter vapidity, but she reminded us that one of the essential operations of poetry is to compress language. Like a poetry exercise, Twitter helped her students begin playing with text in ways she hadn't anticipated, making the 140 character limit...liberating.

There are obviously worlds of possibility beyond Twitter, too.  For example, Chuck Jurich from the High Desert Writing Project shared his experiences running an after-school video production club for elementary school students. He found that making videos forced revision into all the open spaces of the writing process. I found myself wondering whether having students turn their papers into mini-documentaries might encourage them to really revise their ideas between drafts. For years the availability of cameras would have made an idea like that spurious at best, but today, a quarter of the students in my high school classes have iPhones, iPods or Android phones capable of video editing on the fly.

So by the end of my first roundtable in Orlando, it was my rosy-eyed, optimist self who prevailed. Digital literacy isn't a threat to the currency of academic discourse. It's the same currency, newly minted. It is, as one of the TC's in our roundtable explained, just "writing with electricity."

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