December 17, 2008

Wiki pages to guide unit on The Great Gatsby

Go to THIS PAGE to see my final project for Rick Beach's course on Teaching Digital Writing. I've attempted to fashion a wiki site that will contribute to student engagement and understanding in the hypothetical classroom that I would love to teach. Also, I've included descriptions of potential digital writing projects that could be used to engage students and as a tool for assessing their learning.

Considering opportunities afforded by portfolios in the classroom

Throughout my experience in public high school in Kentucky, my peers and I were frequently burdened by English teachers with the responsibility of creating formal portfolios of our best work for final submission in our Senior year of high school. Like my peers, I was frequently annoyed with the task of sorting through my work, assessing why certain papers stood out above others, and noticing and correcting mistakes in those papers. By the time it was completed however, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity afforded by the assignment to reflect on not just the texts within the portfolio, but also my impressions of what high school had meant to me as well as where I felt I was headed intellectually, professionally, etc. I took the opportunity to let the teachers assessing my work know that I didn’t really think that the work in the portfolio did justice to my voice, interests, or passions as a writer given the academic nature of the work expected of me. Without question, there was a sense of artificiality that I felt was connected to that portfolio, and a reflection letter provided a unique opportunity to be authentic and to stand out. I had not been fully encouraged to give real voice to the included submissions in the portfolio, but I somehow gathered that authenticity was important in a reflective letter that numerous teachers might read. As far as I knew, the audience tripled from one teacher to at least three assessors.

In this early example of my experience with portfolios, two things stand out to me: (1) the need for the audience to be expanded beyond that of a single teacher in order for meaningful work to be done; and (2) opportunities for personal reflection facilitate the development of voice, a powerful tool that will serve the student well in a wide variety of professions and activities. Reviewing the contents of the blog entries that I have included as assignments in Rick Beach’s course “Teaching Digital Writing? at the University of Minnesota, I have noted the following developments in my own work and the implications that they may have on future classes that I may teach:

- The importance of dynamic, engaging media, hyperlinks, hypertexts to engage both the author and the audience; these qualities facilitate author initiative; in short, timeliness required to complete the work provides opportunities for revision and reflection on the content and process.
- Familiarity and practice with engaging, dynamic media provides opportunities for expanding audience to peers through comments.
- As I shifted my focus to learning the process of creating new media, my work became less traditionally academic or formal.

I moved from merely adding a few hyperlinks within my blog postings to creating personally meaningful podcasts, films, presentations, and voicethreads – all of which I will continue to use in both personal and professional settings. I became more familiar with the utility of blogs as portfolios and wikis as a central one-stop location for class news, assignments, and student work. I’m glad I got to explore ComicLife also, which provides opportunities for students to create their own texts in the medium of comic books and graphic novels. Also, I recognized my expectations of successful role-plays and I think that if I were to include an on-line role-play in a class, I would need to properly scaffold the work to encourage meaningful dialogue among students.

Given the chance to fully utilize available technologies in a classroom, I would probably have students create portfolios by a similar design as had been created in this course. I would have the class use blogs as the preferred media for constructing a final portfolio, and gradually provide opportunities for students to work with varied new media so that they will have both meaningful texts to create as well as opportunities to reflect on the process of learning new technologies, media, and narrative forms. Ideally, they would have opportunities to produce video, audio, and other visual works that require careful planning, technical mastery, and editorial finishing.

December 16, 2008

Valuing peer criticism as well as teacher feedback

As I’m completing my work on a final project in a U of MN course centered around teaching digital writing, I’ve begun by constructing a rubric on how student work might be graded for a project centered around the production of individual/group videos using iMovie or Windows Media Maker. Find the rubric here. As you can see, there is as much emphasis on the post-production reflection as there is on the actual creation of an individual film. Similarly, student feedback among peers is greatly valued over the more mundane tasks of timely completion and successful embedding of videos.

For this project, students will receive traditional feedback from their teacher, as demonstrated in the rubric. Also, the quality of the feedback that they provide to their peers is directly recognized in the rubric, while demonstrating the value of critical audience response as well as opening up the audience from single person (teacher) to a wider group of peers and even open to the general public.

Engaging authors and audiences with iMovie 08

This afternoon I played around with iMovie 08 in an effort to explore the design and user-friendliness of iMovie. I was incredibly impressed by how intuitive the program was after having struggled with an earlier version of the program about a year ago. To emphasize the wistful attitude that I took while performing this task, I chose my two cats as the stars of this film. Using new and older footage of the cats at play, I created a film that introduces them to an audience while providing various character insights (none too deep given the subjects). See the film embedded below.

I had no trouble adding footage from a digital camera; clipping scenes accordingly to eliminate dull footage and maximize the joy of the audience; including transitional sequences and titles to avoid jump cuts between unrelated footage; and adding rolling credits and an audio file of a classical piece by Strauss to emphasize the medium of film/video. While editing, I realized that the original audio that had been recorded often disrupted the continuum of the music, so I quickly found the audio editing tool and minimized the intrusive effects.

Overall, the only point of which I struggled was figuring out how to export and compress the file so that it would not be overly large, and so that it could be easily embedded on YouTube and this blog. If I was teaching a class on how to use iMovie to produce videos, it would be necessary to model how to save videos appropriately either through a video tutorial or in class. Also, I would want to provide a written text that students could refer to during this process. Further, I don’t think that this film does as much as it can with using various shots to influence/enhance a film narrative’s structure. As the narrative is mostly developed in the transitional frames, this wasn’t too big a problem.

Given the chance to integrate video production in the curriculum, I would ideally give the students the chance to make a relatively brief, similarly playful narrative for an initial assignment. This initial assignment would facilitate engagement and humor. A final assignment might require that students develop more serious ideas and expressions around issues that have personally meaningful significance to them (e.g., family histories, dramatic interpretations of texts, editorial positions, journalistic inquiry, etc.).

December 15, 2008

The interactive potential of PowerPoint presentations

Here, I’ve used Google Documents to create an interactive PowerPoint presentation exploring the cultural and historical narrative traditions presented in Gerald Vizenor’s book of poems titled Spring in the Summer. Given the challenge to make a PowerPoint presentation more interactive than it already may be, I attempted to add some closing questions for the audience to consider. Specifically, I’ve asked them to think of examples of other texts that similarly develop and embellish cultural and narrative traditions. I’ve also included links to a couple websites that I thought might improve engagement further (respectively, a link to a Wikipedia page about the author and a link to a Google Book Search result that allows users to preview the literature). Given the chance to make further changes, I might provide links or footnotes to more challenging vocabulary within the presentation.

This document is publicly viewable at the following url:

Personally, I don’t think that a PowerPoint presentation is particularly interactive unless its author and audience can have a relatively synchronous back and forth of dialogue. I understand that if the presentation cannot be made live by its author or an expert, then an audio explanation of the presentation might serve to improve audience interaction with the text. For that matter, an engaging audio file of any written text might improve engagement among many readers/audiences.

It’s interesting to recognize how useful Google Docs is as a tool for peer review of finished and unfinished texts. Ease of use facilitated by intuitive design makes this a worthwhile program to take advantage of in numerous professions including those related to the field of Education.

November 4, 2008

Creating engaging and memorable texts as podcasts

Working with GarageBand editing tools to create an original podcast, the power of this medium as a potential teaching tool becomes readily apparent. Like any other project, to be successful in this medium students would have to make creative and editorial decisions about content, while directly interacting with the process of creating the text. In my initial foray into creating podcasts, I chose to expand upon a previous blog post focused on explaining the historical significance of Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music? (1952). If you would like to subscribe to and listen to my latest podcast, which is hosted on MediaMill (a University of MN server), right-click (or control-click on MAC) on THIS LINK, then select "Copy Link Location". After you have done that, open iTunes, browse to the "Advanced" menu, then select "Subscribe to Podcast". When the dialog box opens, paste the link that you just copied into that box by pressing control-v (or command-v on Mac, or go to Edit>paste) and hit OK.

The podcast should show up in your "Podcasts" list under the main heading of "Library" in your iTunes interface.

You can also listen to the individual recording of the aforementioned podcast episode in the embedded mp3 file below.

In many respects, as a primary text to build upon had already been written, the process of editing the podcast took center stage. Without question, however, it is absolutely important that a script, notes, or some other primary text is written to guide the presenter of the podcast narrative as he or she is recording the narrative. After recording my voice, the relatively tedious task of editing the numerous false starts and bad takes helped the narrative to take shape that had integrity and continuity. After this step, I selected the selections of music that I wanted to include to demonstrate details within the music to help reinforce the ideas in the narrative. Upon reflection, I found that fading into music was a much more powerful editorial decision when the music directly related to the narrative concepts and statements that preceded them. For instance, in retrospect, when providing historical context of the United States circa 1952, I wish that I had chosen to refer to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog? after mentioning the song by The Weavers so there could be no confusion about which song was being played following what had just been said. Also, it became clear to me after the fact that it would have proven effective to have better rehearsed my narrative prior to recording. The challenge to speak with an engaging, interested tone can be a great obstacle for many people with aversions to the sounds of their own recorded voice.

Given the chance to conduct a podcast interview with Skype software, I would probably focus on interviewing practicing teachers to elicit their thoughts on teaching in the 21st Century (e.g., what challenges they face competing with cultural influences in the lives of students, parents, administrators, and fellow teachers), with consideration to how they view the future of teaching and what technologies they think will be a part of those classrooms. In the following podcast episode centered around interviews conducted via Skype, I try out the software by briefly speaking with Annie Welch, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, about the recent news of Barack Obama's election win. Find the RSS feed for this podcast here, and click on the embedded file below to listen to it right away.

Without question, the experience of working with Skype calls was pretty easy and intuitive. In my own day to day life, I would probably try to get folks on board for using Skype as a means of making calls instead of telephones if I wasn't already paying for unlimited long distance calls. The obvious obstacle that students and teachers have using Skype in the classroom is what's expected: lack of technology (e.g., internet and computer accessibility, microphone/headphones accessibility) and coordinating phone calls with people who are not ALWAYS online. Room for improvement is pretty high with this example, but I just wanted to get a feel for what's required. Generally, if I wanted to create a more interesting recording, I would have put more thought into the content, and possibly prepped Annie for what we'd talk about. I was also impressed by the high quality of the audio when using Skype. Ideas for classroom practice include: conference calls about group projects, synchronous chats, book club discussions, dramatic interpretations and explications of texts, etc.

October 28, 2008

Using Comic Life as a medium for digital storytelling

This morning, I used images found on Flickr, along with the comic book format afforded by Comic Life to create a digital story. The primary text I used was a poem I wrote while teaching English in Japan. You will need to download Comic Life to view the file here.

Without question, the two most time-consuming steps to this project were the written composition of the primary text, and the selection of appropriate images to enhance the digital story. Although there is a wide variety of diverse, specific images to be found on Flickr, navigating through the search results is a fairly time-consuming process, especially if you have a slow internet connection. Often I found that many of my searches provided results that seemed to be entirely off topic. The ease of use afforded by the Comic Life software, however, provided opportunities to play with design and ideas in a multitude of ways. There may be some limits in the scope of the work that can be created, but such limits can be used in exploring the medium of graphic novels and comic books. Such an exploration can be connected with an on-going critical discussion about genre and different media.

When creating their own digital stories using Comic Life, students could use digital cameras to capture images of their biographical information, personal interests, volunteer projects, work environments, or community identities to tell stories relevant in shaping their own identities. Similarly, students could use images on Flickr to zero in on topics and issues not limited to their own experiences. Flickr provides access to images that might not be accessible to students, either because of their historical, geographical, or cultural content. So, using images available on Flickr, students could create narratives of women in Meiji-era Japan, or research the experiences of African-American slaves in the early 19th century. Often, the images that can be found on Flickr function as texts on their own, and can facilitate student writing about specific details in the lives of the subjects depicted.

Setting up a class wiki

One of my assignments for the Digital Writing course at the University of Minnesota was to set up a wiki that could be used in a Language Arts classroom. My class wiki can be found here. As I'm not currently teaching any classes, I have maintained a fairly bare-bones design of the content of the wiki.

After reviewing my own work, as well as the work of my peers, it's clear that there may be several advantages and challenges to creating a course wiki or wikibook. First of all, many of my peers created wikis that served as a central platform for doing on-line work for the course. One clear advantage is that students can use the wiki as a central location for sharing information; when working on group projects, students can use the wiki as a central location to navigate the work that's complete and that which is needed. Students can use the wiki to share resources that might be useful for research projects, cutting out some of the work of seeking out valuable resources. Also, many of my peers provided a page on their course wikis that afforded easy access to student blogs -- a clear effort at supporting students' individual learning and facilitating the sharing of their identities. Through these links, students can review and reflect upon the work of their peers, and learn to provide useful feedback in their responses.

Wikibooks can be a good medium for students working in literature circles. With wikibooks, students can collaborate on providing summaries, character sketches, thematic idea maps, critical inquiries, literary analyses, reviews, and recommendations, among other forms of writing. The potential for their writing to be a visual medium in addition to being a written medium enhances the potential for communicating in dynamic, engaging ways.

Some of the challenges that present themselves when using wikis to guide student participation include the following:

- As always, a technology literacy/accessibility gap will exist for many students.
- Students need to learn how to research topics on their own, and not to strictly rely on the resources found by others.
- Time spent using the wiki ought to be validated by a clear purpose for using the wiki. In other words, using the wiki should be the best way of achieving the desired results.
- Students may neglect to provide timely feedback on their blogs.
- The challenge of evenly distributing the workload, and clearly communicating about compositional edits, exists in all forms of collaborative writing.
- Creating a well-designed wiki that is not overly complex, such that students can easily navigate to the resources they need.

October 21, 2008

Reflection of on-line role-play: Single-sex schooling

Although my initial reaction to the idea of single-sex schooling might be characterized as dismissive, after considering the arguments I began to warm up to the idea. My position became more conservative, in the sense of being interested primarily in best practices to yield results that are self-sustaining, and an improvement upon current practices. Instead of dismissing single-sex schooling as something that seemed old-fashioned, I gradually took the position that the focus of education ought to primarily rest in teaching students content-specific material, as well as strategies for cooperative work. The social implications of separating schools according to sex are negligible, as students would have opportunities to interact with students of the opposite sex outside of school. We need to focus on best practices for teaching students, as well as creating social environments that best facilitate learning.

As a moderate supporter of single-sex schooling in an on-line role-play, I attempted to make subtle arguments that we need to avoid knee-jerk reactions that dismiss single-sex schooling. I tried not to be confrontational, and remain objective about the need to remain open to the idea. As of now, I don't know how effective my reasoning was at convincing others of my position. A criticism I have with role-plays is that it facilitates conflict and position-taking, but doesn't necessarily put students in a position where they feel the need to compromise their positions, or consider that they were wrong. I don't know if this is just a cultural thing, in that we learn to defend positions even if that means sacrificing logic. Debate is too often framed as some sort of emotional-cathartic process. In short, I wonder if role-play facilitates meaningful consideration of ideas so much as trying to pick apart your opponent's arguments.

The school board members worked well as relatively objective voices, asking questions to help us consider what would be best for the school. Also, I think that those people playing experts (either pro or con) had the most convincing arguments, as they often based ideas in research.

September 30, 2008

A reading of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Junkman's Obbligato" taken from his collection "A Coney Island of the Mind"

Above is my first attempt at using VoiceThread as a medium for visually depicting story-telling with images found on Flickr. Admittedly, my "dramatic" reading isn't so great at times, but still. . . Ferlinghetti was amazing. Also, I believe you can see this VoiceThread at this web address.

During the process of arranging this set of images, at first I simply wanted to find pictures focused on the natural beauty in the United States, but as one of my favorite American tourist traps is Carhenge, I had to include more images of American waste. This includes relics of a past not too distant, whose original purpose was that of leisure or practicality, until gradually those things are replaced by new, sometimes inferior, technologies. As autumn begins here in Minnesota, the spirit of the season surely encouraged many of the images here. And the choice of reading Ferlinghetti's work seems to be an apt metaphor for what inspired me to collect this images as one text. This may be the story of us all, leaving past things in the hope of a brighter future. The only problem is that when we decide to leave something behind, we're adding waste to our world.

Considering how I might encourage students to use similar programs in their own writing, or creation of their own digital literature, the first step of creating a model of what's the technology's capabilities is complete. Undoubtedly, this would be a good way for them to enhance autobiographical texts and other creative writing exercises. This could also be used as a way to create a "how to" video, which instructs people how to perform a given task. VoiceThread texts can also be used as an alternative text to other texts the students' write in a class. For instance, they can use VoiceThread as a means of reflecting on previous work that they've done for other classes. Also, the creation of a rubric for such a task would be relatively straight-forward. Expectations might include continuity of ideas; fluid organization; references where applicable; the inclusion of both voice and text functions; and a clear purpose for the text's existence.

September 22, 2008

Working with digital maps, and The Great Gatsby

Here's a quick brainstorm of ideas that might be worth bringing up with a class that's studying The Great Gatsby. The program I used to create this is called Inspiration.

In addition to the above digital map that might be used as a visual tool for explaining the myriad, interrelated themes in The Great Gatsby, I wanted to provide a brief reflection on how digital maps might be used in the classroom to assist students in exploring relationships between different topics.

First, digital maps are essentially a visual depiction of how various facets affect others, revealing relationships within a sort of inter-web-like structure. Standing alone, an isolated image may be interpreted by its audience as something that relates to other things or events, but when ideas and images are explicitly placed strategically among one another, the relationships that previously required an audience to imagine become more explicit.

To help students learn to work with digital maps, the design structure of these tools needs to be scaffolded to students, along with a written explanation as reference. Clearly, there are various media and tools available to relay information and ideas in such a way. Also, the design of digital maps provides opportunities for more interactive work. The time required for them to master new media may further result in more sustained thinking and focusing on ideas. Lastly, digital maps can be used as a peer review tool if students are asked to build upon other maps to illustrate their thinking about their peers' works providing opportunities for peer review and collaboration. Such an activity can encourage students to think deeply about specific topics, while holding them responsible for (at least loosely) grappling with the ideas and work of their peers on other related topics.

September 16, 2008

Search methods employed in collecting information

Working with databases, library catalogs, and internet search engines are the most basic means that I have historically used in work and education environments when searching for information relevant to topics that I am researching. Something that is easily taken for granted is that I have learned this through both practice and instruction, often from mentors and teachers in my life. Generally, much of my writing in the post-bac program at the University of Minnesota has revolved around critiquing and responding to course readings. In this type of response, I might consult text indexes for specific passages on given topics. Also, in more broad research endeavors, I have found that as a university student, the Academic Search Premier database has often been very reliable in helping me find peer-reviewed resources to reference in my writing. The summaries provided in these databases are often quite helpful in determining the relevance, credibility, and utility of such resources as well.

When guiding students in the process of identifying the most useful information there are a few basic criteria that I would emphasize. It might be useful to provide a rubric of such criteria so that students consider all of these issues when performing research.

- Is the data timely? Is it the most up-to-date information available?
- Is the resource credible? Are the authors noticeably biased or affiliated with entities that would typically have a reason to be biased?
- Is the information valid? Does this information definitely relate to your topic, or is it tangential?
- Is the information specific or general? (Sometimes general information can help us begin to frame arguments in a certain way, therefore providing much needed assistance in understanding a topic, but ultimately students should know that they need to base their arguments on specific facts, or quantifiable data.)
- Does the sum of all of your research help you synthesize your argument(s) to specific main points that are both relevant and helpful in persuading your audience of the meaningfulness of your position?

Synthesis of research can be quite tricky for many students, and as educators, it is important that we recognize that learning this skill is a process for young adults. Further, it is often an ongoing process as new technology provides access to other useful and practical means of research (e.g., RSS feeds). Still, as individuals become interested in more specific fields through experience, their knowledge base of relevant, credible sources of data should also increase, making it easier for such specific research to take shape.

In regards to how I will use RSS feeds for my own benefit, I feel that I have already used some of this technology in the creation of an iGoogle homepage. This homepage provides a list of bookmarks to sites that I frequently access, and allows me to get this information from any place with internet access. Also, on this homepage I have links to many different news resources that can help me focus on what news is most interesting to me, as well as helping me recognize what news is most frequently reported by these varied resources. Still, I worry that the ease of setting up RSS feeds has a real potential to create information overload and clutter. I also question the value of spending a great deal of time compiling RSS feeds in a central location if so much information will continue to accumulate over time. I appreciate the easy access to information provided by various internet resources, but I worry about whether too much time will be spent sorting through this information if I buy in to the idea of using RSS feeds to compile new data/research relevant to my own work. Hopefully, I can gain a greater appreciation for what sort of practical uses that RSS technology affords to both educators as well as the more general public.

September 10, 2008

Links to Teaching Related Websites

Teaching Related Websites

ADL Curriculum Connection
Creative Writing Prompts
Digital Campus
EdTech Weekly, podcast
Educational Jargon Generator
English Teacher Blog
The Expanding Canon
FOUND Magazine
Internet Archive
LD Online
Multigenre Literature
My Favorite Word
National Council of Teachers of English
National Public Radio
National Writing Project
The OWL at Purdue (online writing lab, MLA and APA formatting)
Picture Books for Teaching 6 Traits Writing
Poetry Course Syllabi
Public Broadcasting Service
Read Write Think
Teachers Teaching Teachers, podcast
Teaching Digital Writing wiki
Teaching Literature
Teaching Media Literacy website: Links for teaching media, film, television, news, film adaptations
Teaching Media Literacy wiki: Resources, links, and student work related to teaching media
Women of Web 2.0, podcast

Professional Teacher Blogs

Chris Baker's blog
Meaghan Decker's blog
Candance Doerr's blog
Jean Engebretson's blog
Elizabeth Flaschberger's blog
Brianna Fleetham's blog
Denise Goldman's blog
David Gower's blog
Jessie Hausman's blog
Genevieve Hollerich's blog
Nick Ingles's blog
Steve Markey's blog
Lisa McWilliams's blog
Nathan Meyer's blog
Katie Noack's blog
Sarah Omernik's blog
Joe Pastoor's blog
Maggie Quam's blog
Annie Swerkstrom's blog
Angela Tilbury's blog
Emily Ward's blog
Laura Wavra's blog
Katie Yunker's blog

September 9, 2008

The utility and value of blogs

As a brief exercise in speculating about the utility and value of using blogs as a means of communication in both our everyday lives, as well as a tool for teaching writing in the classroom, in the following passages I will lay out the groundwork for my thinking on these issues. Undoubtedly, one of the great challenges of teaching writing in schools is providing meaningful entry points for students into the work they are encouraged to do by teachers. Too often students are expected to write for an audience of one -- their teacher -- who assesses the value of students' ideas, formality of expression, logical strand(s), and skill with grammatical forms. Inevitably, students often distance themselves from the myriad feedback they receive from different teachers. Some will focus too much on spelling and grammar errors, whereas others may be unfairly critical of a student's limited scope in thinking about a topic. Through the use of blogs in the classroom, a teacher can refashion the traditional classroom into a learning space where peer feedback is as strongly valued and encouraged as the teacher's feedback. With the proper use of scaffolding, blogs can be used as a means of expanding the students' audience to the whole classroom, and possibly into the school community, or other communities where ideas can be shared and developed.

Interestingly, digital writing offers the opportunity of both collaborative thinking and on-going revision. This may create opportunities for a more focused understanding of a topic, but I worry about the idea of texts being open to frequent revision. There is something empowering in the opportunity to read first drafts and original editions of texts. Perhaps those texts are closer to an author's original intentions or ideas. Also, in the process of editing crucial facts or opinions may be deleted from a text (in some cases to further an audience's understanding of a text; in other cases, to eliminate ideas that may challenge the veracity of an author's intended message). However, there is equal potential of digital writings to become more complex in scope as others may become more simplified.

Briefly, I'll list a few ways that we can use blogs in our everyday lives. Here, I've intentionally been fairly general to avoid repetition:

- Ongoing journal writings, snapshots into one's daily life, etc.
- Sharing of opinions on current events, debateable issues, or cultural artifacts (television programming, popular music, film, etc.); for instance, I keep a blog about music through the MOG website.
- Synthesizing critical inquiry with original texts through hypertext or embedding of pictures or videos
- Recording meaningful events in the news, so they are not lost to a community's collective memory
- Developing a space for identity to be cultivated and shared
- Creating arguments that use supporting data and media through hypertext, etc.

I feel that all of the above ways of using blogs can be utilized by teachers to reach the educational goals and standards that are expected of students who graduate from schools. Blogs can provide safe spaces for students to share ideas, but they are not fail-safe tools. Teachers need to model for students proper communicative conduct in digital spaces, just as they do for the physical classroom. Also, for blogs to work in the classroom, students need to know that they are held accountable for the ideas they share in these spaces. Lastly, I worry about how meaningful, or just plain memorable, digital spaces are for students. There is something empowering about learning in a physical space with your peers, where non-verbal communication and immediate audience response help students more fully clarify their argumentative positions so that their message is best communicated. Simply put, one of the most challenging issues with written texts is that they can so often be misunderstood by various audiences.

Essentially, in the course led by Richard Beach titled "Teaching Digital Writing: Blogs, Wikis, Online talk, Podcasting, and E-portfolios to Teach Writing" (link to course wiki), I want to explore various technologies that can be used for the purpose of teaching reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. I think that these activities will help me appreciate the most meaningful work that good teachers do, as I recognize that many tasks can be done through a variety of media. I want to broaden my scope of what constitutes as an English/Language Arts classroom, while holding on to what has worked in the past.

Bad pop music rant, and ensuing conversation


The following is an assignment from a class at the University of Minnesota focusing on Media Literacy Studies. The assignment is an exercise in appreciating the culture of the middle school or high school student by way of making a case for the value of a given popular song, artist, or genre that is undervalued, or routinely criticized by critics. The discussion that follows centers around a conflict of whether or not utilizing undervalued pop music in the classroom may affect some students’ senses of agency. Also, central to the conflict is an inherent evaluation that teachers have to make when selecting texts that are appropriate for the goals of their teaching. I begin with the assignment guidelines, followed by my initial submission of the assignment. After feeling that I had not adopted the position that I had been instructed to do, I felt the need to engage my professors in a brief exchange about the nature of the assignment. The sequence of email correspondences follow my initial posting of the assignment. I have changed the names of professors to avoid any unnecessary conflicts that could ensue.


Week 10: Popular Music

Read: David Sanjek "All the Memories Money Can Buy"; Ann Powers "Bread and Butter Songs"

Assignment: In popular music discourse of the post-rock era, the various musics labeled "Pop" are often the most devalued. Think Disco, Bubblegum, Boy Bands, etc. As critics and consumers of music we are often embarrassed about liking certain pop songs or performers, despite our otherwise "good taste." However, as teachers, we often find ourselves in the position of having to know or assimilate pop culture(s) that may be vastly different from our own or counter to our own tastes. The following assignment is conceived to explore ways of using popular music as an active, evolving part of your teaching practice, as well as your social interactions inside and outside of the classroom.

For this assignment you will defend or recover an undervalued pop song, artist, genre (my italics). Please pick a song which you are not too familiar! Reference at least three readings from the semester so far in your analysis. Feel free to argue against a pervasive ideology or political/ cultural/social framework that you think works to preclude a positive evaluation of your chosen song (performer, etc.), and suggest new terms around which we might begin to value such music.

Develop a four-to-five paragraph description/defense and post it in the Discussion Section of Course WebVista website.


Let me precede this posting with a disclaimer of sorts. In an attempt to jump headfirst into this assignment, I chose to write about a song that I only heard for the first time moments before writing the following. Also, I have strong, strong feelings about garbage culture in this country getting worse and worse. Eight years with G.W. Bush in office is absolutely suggestive of an American public whose abilities to discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong, high and low, helpful and harmful (all of which seem to be such basic things) has certainly diminished greatly in recent years. I used to use the term “guilty pleasures? to describe my love for AC/DC, Queen, Electric Light Orchestra, Elton John, Snoop Dogg, Hank Williams Jr., and the list could go on, but I can’t say I really feel that guilty anymore. Snoop and Hank Jr. have questionable messages, for sure, at times. Racism, for one. And Snoop Dogg’s lyrics can usually be counted on for perpetuating misogynistic ideas. But since I can recognize these things I don’t worry about feeling guilty anymore. Essentially, my initial knee-jerk reaction to the pop song I found stands too much in the way of any potential defense of this as anything but the crap that it is. I have not provided any YouTube link to the video, or audio thread, so as to avoid exposing anyone further to its socially corrosive nature. Lastly, I would not ever encourage anyone to value such music, unless it somehow provides a link into understanding our own culture, our human nature, or other such lofty pedagogical goals. Deep down, I feel that any text lends itself to an understanding of such big picture ideas, but if this is the only sort of stuff we engage in we’re essentially doing a time warp to a more primitive age.

When I think of using pop music in a Language Arts classroom, I cannot help but feel for my students who so frequently cannot help but to swallow and regurgitate all the crap U.S. cultural artifacts that record companies, television programmers, and Hollywood executives bombard them with. Without fail, 9 out of 10 popular songs, films, and tv shows are at a level of mediocrity that, my gut reaction tells me, has NO PLACE in my classroom. However, thinking about this assignment of working pop culture into the classroom, if I were to bring in the horrible music that young people know (deep down) is bad, but cannot distinguish from better music because they have not heard it yet, it will most definitely be on my terms.

Any garbage pop song will do. A quick look at MTV’s website reveals a song I’ve never heard: Tokio Hotel’s “Ready, Set, Go!? I watched the video for approximately 45 seconds – long enough to realize what the gimmick is. Clichéd lyrics that speak of anguish, loneliness, isolation: an orgy of teenage emotion (but lacking anything resembling the tightness or subtlety of poetry). A song structure and lead vocals that sound like a bad impression of Billy Corgan’s vocals. And an Eighties glam/metal hair band aesthetic from the lead singer as well. The video and the lyrics, too, feature nods to Orwell and Roger Waters. Scratch Orwell, actually. I doubt anyone involved with this production has read his work; no doubt, they’ve probably just seen the film Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and are replicating the scene where the kids march around with shapeless masks, singing about not needing an education (i.e., thought control). Without question, there would be some dark sarcasm in the classroom, if I were to bring this song, or any other song played on MTV, into my class. Students may identify with the gist of the song, but they ought not to revere a song-writer for putting words to paper that any of their peers could easily replicate.

Students need to know that they are absolutely capable of coming up with poetry, prose, and any other means of reflection through language that are not as easily encapsulated as the message of pop songs.

I have a beef with pop music. Mainly, there is an incredibly vast amount of great music out there being made by talented, young musicians whose messages are literate, sincere, authentic, and often still very much derivative in some way to work that has come before. Unfortunately, these musics/ideas are not nearly as aggressively marketed to the American public as what the majority of the public will learn to love for no other reason than they have no idea that it exists.

So, if I were to bring pop music into my classes, it would mainly be for the following purposes:
- Comparison study of popular artifact with the more significant text of which it is derivative (e.g., how are the central ideas portrayed notably different; which has the deeper meaning; what makes one seem more authentic, or well crafted than the other);
- Explication of clichés in the language used throughout the song;
- The role of image in the creation of an aesthetic (e.g., what does the “look? of the members of the band tell us about who they intend their audience to be?)
- Film techniques such as montage, mise en scene, and cuts that are used throughout the video to enact meaning and engage the audience.

A primary reason I hesitate to bring pop music into my classroom is because I do not wish to isolate myself out of the classroom community by ridiculing students’ tastes in pop culture. Undoubtedly, they might not initially like many of those works I feel they would benefit from having been introduced to. However, the empty-headed pop music they’re force fed daily by everyday media could easily be replaced with the likes of Patrick Wolf, Annie, and Robyn – all young musicians who embody everything great about pop music, exploring sexuality, narcissism, uncertainty, and all other such primitive feeling with artistic merit, having actually written the lyrics and music they perform.

Powers states, “The fact that somebody out there loves a song doesn't mean I can't despise and eventually dismiss it. But it does mean I have to really think about what that song becomes when it's played in a crowded room? (Powers, 244). In a way he’s right, but often if I begin to dwell on why people are drawn to aesthetically vacuous and morally worthless cultural artifacts, my conclusive statements on the condition of humankind diminish a little. Powers makes an example of the reviewer who dismisses works as derivative, but I would not dismiss a work of art for being derivative. Pretty much all the music I love is derivative of something, which speaks more to the idea that everything we come across in this life affects us in meaningful and meaningless ways.

Sanjek speaks of how imposing one’s taste on others does not reflect his feelings about the power of new/other works to affect social transformation. He writes, “Whenever the mainstream taste of the wider public descends into a pattern that the cognoscenti consider debased, the obsession with repertoire emerges in full force. Dismissing the Top Ten out of hand and replacing it with cultish preferences bears an unappetizing similarity to the educated classes barricading themselves against the barbarians at the gates? (Sanjek, 172). To a certain extent, I agree that there is something awful about music critics as purveyors of “cultish? works of art and neasayers to everything that doesn’t fit into their ideal aesthetic world. The same goes for film critics who praise the works of Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, and other such directors in lieu of more popular films whose narrative structure is not so fractured and obscure. But I also feel that a teacher ought to address the negative consequences of a public accepting ANY OLD THING in the place of works that have redeeming social/cultural value. I remember thinking, when I was in high school, that 2 Live Crew’s “Hoochie Mama? was pretty entertaining, even though I knew it was terribly, terribly sexist to the point of suggesting violence against women. The music is infectiously catchy, and irresistible to many impressionable, young people who enjoy such music. But the messages are there, often right out in the open, and young people are more often exposed to those works lacking such socio-cultural value. So, part of our jobs as teachers might be to take an initiative of helping students learn to critique these works, while encouraging them to explore arts and ideas that require a little bit of digging to get to.

In an article about YouTube, Trier suggests a variety of ways of involving students in media study and criticism within the classroom. For instance, he says, “Students could watch these videos outside of class and then write a response. A class discussion on the issue could happen afterward? (Trier, 602). I like the idea of using YouTube videos as texts for students to respond to. I think such an activity could engage students in ways meaningful to their own personal media input experiences.

Initial criticism of assignment

Professor Rice,

Working within some of the parameters of this past week's assignment, I had some problems with trying to defend the integration of bad teenage pop music into the class. I bullet pointed some ideas for critiquing pop music artifacts, which I think could be useful, but I have real problems with drawing any further attention to music/film/tv programming that I feel has no socially redeeming qualities AND has already been forcefed down the public's throat by Clear Channel, News Corporation, General Electric, etc., etc.

So, my reaction to some of the language in the assignment has prompted a very negative, sarcastic, and informal tone within my writing of this assignment. I would have much rather written a defense for bringing in quality contemporary pop music whose content is rich, but whose corporate backing is relatively low (e.g., Annie, Patrick Wolf, Robyn – all essentially, pushing the same sorts of buttons as teen pop stars, except that these are clearly talented musicians). However, the media environment has succeeded to keep these figures from being called "popular" by any reasonably in touch person.

So far, this is the only assignment that I do not feel is worth posting to my blog, so I have posted it to the class discussion board as indicated in the syllabus, instead.

I don't really want to take the time to put my finger on exactly what bugs me about this assignment, but it seems to lend undue credibility to the garbage that students are exposed to everyday on television and radio.

Forgive my late night rant.

I generally enjoy the content of this class's assignments, which has prompted this response. I have tried to be constructive, but I worry that my criticism has come out all wrong.

If so, you have my apologies.

David Gower

Teacher response

HI, David --

I hear you!

Thanks for taking the time to write about this. I'd only say that, as you know, the assignment was meant to challenge this notion that you put forward in your note below:

Meant to challenge, that is, subjective givens/ notions like 'rich', 'quality,' independent, and so on. To put those slippery terms in perspective w. what most folks actually listen to (even if we wish they did not – and I do!)

That said, I hear you and will rethink the assignment...

Cheers, Professor Rice

Teacher Assistant response

Hey David,

I have to agree with Prof. Rice here. I think your discussion board post is a thoughtful defense of your position, but I think it's wide of the mark in terms of addressing the assignment directly. While I applaud taking an anti-corporatist stance, prefiguring teachers (or any one individual or group) as arbiters of "good taste" simply rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic in my mind, cements a potentially adversarial generational relationship (i.e., robs students the agency to advocate for, and listen to, music they actually like, and not just what one might feel they're being "forcefed") and is, ultimately, just bad pedagogy.

I hope you'll reconsider posting a blog post that interrogates your own position a little. Your work thus far on your blog has been exemplary, and I'm sure a response that speaks to working with what you're given in a world of varying tastes, opinions, and attitudes would be a rewarding experience as well as making excellent use of the assignment's critical underpinnings.



Final rebuttal


Although my argument may have the funk of cultural elitism, I attempt to make concessions that ANY pop music artifact COULD (both theoretically and practically) be used as a text that can promote critical thought in the class. Ultimately, though, teachers have to make decisions on the content of their classrooms. I wouldn't want to dwell too long on texts that require critical responses in order to get anything other than entertainment from them, as there are a wide variety of texts whose composition, content, and aesthetic nuances encourage deeper readings and more fully engage their audiences.

While it seems to be unfashionable, and maybe old-fashioned to position my argument in this way, after reading much of Mortimer J. Adler's "How to Read a Book" I can't help but appreciate a place for teachers to encourage the reading of texts that are designed by their authors to DIRECTLY lend themselves to critical interpretations from the audience. On the other hand, purveyors of pop music rarely seem to encourage critical thinking among their audiences. My anti-corporate position aside, I do not mean for my argument to completely dismiss my students' sense of cultural aesthetics. More often than not, I want to encourage my students to bring in their pop culture (and more general) knowledge to inform their studies.

Further, it could be argued that the fact that many students already like certain songs/texts, they may be predisposed to reject other interpretations critical of those works. Also, I feel that music tastes are so broad among students that it would be difficult to settle on one song choice -- that is, many students, within the first few familiar notes of a pop song, could reject the music (and, additionally, its messages and structure) in the same knee-jerk sort of reaction that I had when I listened to Tokio Hotel's song. I tried incorporating popular country music within the context of a middle school classroom -- the response was that practically NO students liked the contemporary POP country song, whereas ALL of the students responded to the song that I "dug up": Loretta Lynn's "Fist City".

I honestly think that students are more likely to engage with unfamiliar pop music songs that they don't already hold negative attitudes towards.

One of the fundamental problems that I have with the assignment is that it seems to suggest all the POSITIVE reasons for bringing in pop music artifacts, but it's not all sun and daisies – especially at this time of year in Minnesota (not withstanding the amazing weather we've had today). Personally, I've tried working with pop music, but it's not easy to keep up with the pop culture tastes of teenagers. Fads come and go, and these kids can have some very (seemingly) fickle attitudes to the disposability of pop songs. They also can smell an unhip teacher from a mile away. That's another reason why I would argue for being more intentional about the content of my classroom.

So, to be clear, I chose not to add this response to my blog because I do not want to be misunderstood by my peers. Also, the syllabus DOES NOT direct us to post this particular assignment to our blog/wiki. I feel that there's a lot of room for divergence of opinions for this assignment, and I'm surprised that my response to this assignment seems to be considered off the mark altogether.

Considering the positive utility of using pop music I stated:

"So, if I were to bring pop music into my classes, it would mainly be for the following purposes:
- Comparison study of popular artifact with the more significant text of which it is derivative (e.g., how are the central ideas portrayed notably different; which has the deeper meaning; what makes one seem more authentic, or well crafted than the other);
- Explication of clichés in the language used throughout the song;
- The role of image in the creation of an aesthetic (e.g., what does the “look? of the members of the band tell us about who they intend their audience to be?)
- Film techniques such as montage, mise en scene, and cuts that are used throughout the video to enact meaning and engage the audience. "

My understanding is that English teachers have not quit teaching "The Classics" to make room for Harry Potter, or other popular fiction that young people who read would read outside of the class anyway. I've gotten some flak from others, too, for seeming to be obsessed with the primacy of canonical texts, but many people would never be introduced to Great Books if it weren't for the push they got from their English teacher along the way. I've written off a lot of canonical texts as old-fashioned, irrelevant, out-of-touch with contemporary readers, but it can be argued that ANY decision of what to teach is political, and reflects the aesthetic, cultural, or other such values of the teacher.

I believe that young people will respond to any GENUINE attempt that I make to bring in pop music into the classroom, but I have a broad definition of pop music, and I don't think that it has to be popular to be considered pop music. This assignment seemed to be predicated on the popularity and youth-orientation of the music in question, which seems too narrow a scope for this task.

I'm sorry that my opinion seems to "[cement] a potentially adversarial generational relationship," but I don't think that's it at all. Students have a wide variety of tastes; and they ARE interested in new music they've never heard before. I don't think that NOT addressing certain pop artifacts directly as PRIMARY CLASSROOM CONTENT robs students of any sort of agency. My decision to avoid certain texts does not strip them of the things they enjoy. If I bring in a text that's similar to the music they already like, they can activate their knowledge of those popular musics, if they choose to, and point out similarities/ differences and why they like/don't like either "their" music or "my" music. I never claimed to be the arbiter of cool.

As far as working with a world of varying tastes, opinions, and attitudes, the students get all of those things from ANY text, in my opinion. And I think they're more likely to recognize that variety if they're listening to and discussing music that's fresh in their mind as something NEW, and not just the same old thing.

Thanks again for your feedback. I hope my tone doesn't seem too adversarial here. I just think there's room for a divergence of opinions, but maybe it's like you said: just bad pedagogy.