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Evolving Forms of Literacy

Writing and Digital Media

by Paul Barnwell

In some ways, I’m old school.  I love to read books and write Op-Ed pieces, short essays, and I’ve recently attempted to write a short story.  But I also spend a couple of hours of the day reading blogs, seeking out information on the Internet, working on my website, visiting Facebook and or watching a video or two online.  What is literacy?  Do schools do enough to teach and practice evolving literacies?

I recently embarked with 12 fellow teachers at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English on an exploration of digital literacies, attempting to define media literacy, explore the possibilities of empowering students through new media work, and learn various practical classroom applications.  We started on the first day of class by creating media timelines to compare and contrast our personal evolutions of media use and consumption.  The timelines, unsurprisingly, revealed the exponential growth of personal and societal media production and consumption.

By the end of the first week of class, we were neck-deep in the exploration of evolving literacies.

We began with a documentary project on some aspect of literacy, working in production teams of three or four students.  Jeremy Engle of the Youth Media Learning Network in New York City facilitated our projects, which started to blow away our traditional notions of literacy.  It took more critical thinking, processing, collaboration, and creativity than an independent project, essay, or other typical graduate school assignment.  I began thinking about the absurdly lopsided focus on traditional literacies in most standardized curriculums.

What exactly should English and Language Arts teaching look like? Like many active teachers, I’m always seeking to improve my repetoire and classroom instruction.  And there’s no shortage of great ideas and resources out there so the challenge is already daunting.  Thinking about new forms of literacy this summer has expanded my own questions about what English is.  First of all, I’m writing this essay on a blog, a genre I didn’t even think about a few years ago.

Students, of course, enter many classrooms and are stuck reading, writing, and analyzing print media.  Traditional print literacty is necessary, but it’s being overshadowed by the reality of student experience as they try to make sense of the world. Like me, when I’m not participating in some of my “old school” literacies, students are engaged with learning and understanding the world in multiple genres.

Since I teach in a public middle school, traditional literacy skills—centered around interactions between one person or student, paper and pencil, and a tangible text, still rule. This vision of literacy, defined and assessed by high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind, is clearly trumping media literacy in importance.  The effect is a narrow definition of what good writing is.  We need to ask questions about other types of writing forms are useful to society.

I’ve been left to ponder countless questions about how to “read” and “compose” digital documents.  Have I created a concise and clear enough message so that you are still reading and haven’t navigated away from the page via a link?  Can I plan out a multimodal project just like a traditional essay?  Is it a bad thing if a link has piqued your interest?   Were you distracted by any of the uses of multimedia?  Is my content still strong?  How does should I go about citing multi-modal documents as sources of information?  Who owns this information?  All of these questions, in addition to traditional questions about planning out a coherent paper, added a level of richness and complexity to our class assignments during the summer.  They’ve added levels of complexity to my composition of this multi-genre piece.

Our class moved onto podcasts, continued blogging, edited our documentaries, and shared our work with willing audiences by the end of six extensive weeks.  You can call me a convert—I believe I need to integrate skills displayed, described, and implied in this document to my curriculum.  So now what?  After all, the summer experience is not only about me, but about how I can positively affect students.  The Center for Media Literacy is a good place to start.  This experience of embracing possibilities and student-centered media creation is so new, so exciting, and so intimidating in some ways that it’s a challenge to begin forging a vision of incorporating media literacy into an old-school curriculum.  Simply put, what does it mean to teach English nowadays?

By sticking largely to traditional literacies, are we bypassing the production and practice of more useful forms of literacy in schools?  Let’s start by finding ways to negotiate between the world of standardized writing and literacy, and the increasingly valued multimodal, interactive texts that clearly challenge stale ideas.

Paul Barnwell teaches middle school language arts in Shelbyville, Kentucky. His website is

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