Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multimedia Skills

By Katie Ash — June 13, 2011 10 min read
STUDENT BLOGGER: Jose Arroyo, 18, above far right, gets help from teacher Ted Nellen during a Cyber English class at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in New York City.
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Being literate in the 21st century goes beyond the ability to read text, many of today’s language arts teachers say. Learners must be able to synthesize and utilize a wide variety of media—such as video, audio, and still images—to express themselves and compete in a global, collaborative environment.

“Kids are graduating into a world where they need to be able to convey a message on a giant screen for a PowerPoint or a smartphone screen,” said Jim Burke, an English teacher at the 1,350-student Burlingame High School outside San Francisco. “So making choices about size and format and media is kind of becoming interesting and a kind of increasingly substantive question.”

Both teachers and students have to be thoughtful and intentional, though, about the objectives of teaching with technology and how technology is used in the classroom, he cautions.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘What is the problem for which this is the solution?’ ” said Mr. Burke, who also founded the English Companion Ning, a closed social-networking site where more than 27,000 English teachers share ideas, post comments, and otherwise make contact with one another.

“I don’t use wikis with my students to have them create wikis,” he said. “I use wikis to create online digital anthologies.”

Focusing on the learning objective vs. what tool or technology to use is critical, he says.

And for some teachers, simply having access to technology, let alone the professional development and support needed to implement it effectively, is still a struggle.

Recently, Mr. Burke has begun asking his students to turn in “digital essays,” which incorporate images, audio, and video into a traditional research paper.

“It adds substance and depth in a whole new way,” he said. His students use PowerPoint software to include multimedia in their essays and use online tools such as Prezi, a presentation and storytelling tool, to embed slide shows into their work. The students are still required to write an in-depth essay, but adding multimedia allows them to connect what they are writing about with other ideas or examples, said Mr. Burke.

Jasmin Perez is an 18-year-old senior in Mr. Burke’s class. She enjoyed writing the digital essay because it gave her “a chance to show off my creative and artistic side, which I am more in sync with,” she said.

Ms. Perez added, “Digital writing does come with its challenges, one of which is doing more research. It does take up more of my time to write these essays because I have to be able to ‘think outside the box’ to be able to connect pictures with the words I am using. I also have to find pictures and videos that would create a tone for the paper which I believe can make a stronger claim,” she said.

They might have trouble with writing an essay, but they can create a beautiful video and convey their understanding of a piece of literature in that way. It values different learning styles and talents people have."

In Dana Huff’s classroom at the 227-student Weber School, a private, Jewish high school in Atlanta, students create websites about different authors through Google. Ms. Huff encourages her students to explore any angle they choose on their authors, an approach that allows the students to pursue their own interests.

“Incorporating more student choice and allowing them to sort of play to their own strengths is great,” she said. “They might have trouble with writing an essay, but they can create a beautiful video and convey their understanding of a piece of literature in that way. It values different learning styles and talents people have.”

That’s not to say that students don’t need to know how to write essays, says Ms. Huff, but using both traditional and more modern learning techniques can open the door for more opportunities and modes of expression.

She also uses technology to bring literature to life for her students.

Ms. Huff had her students create a radio play acting out a scene from “Macbeth,” for instance, and to help them grasp the concept of a Byronic hero, a romanticized but flawed character typified by the English poet Lord Byron, she shows YouTube clips from modern-day films.

“Students are so visual,” she said. “Technology opens up more avenues for [student] learning and helps them connect things to what they’re already learning.”

But again, that doesn’t mean that students should not practice writing traditional essays, says Ms. Huff. She uses both traditional methods of essay writing in addition to her technology-infused lessons.

Reflecting on Learning

Troy Hicks, an assistant professor of English at Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant, works with teachers to explain how to incorporate technology into K-12 language arts classrooms.

Teaching students how to use digital tools not only to consume media, but also to create it themselves, is an important part of their education, he argues.

“We need to help students think about how as writers they are making good, responsible, thoughtful choices about the ways they represent themselves, other people, topics, and issues,” he said.

Mr. Hicks recommends digital storytelling for students, which allows them to create three- to five-minute videos with their own narration. They can embed sound effects, music, and special transition effects between each frame, he says.

And to be able to assess what students are doing and creating, he says, students can use Jing—a Web-based screencasting tool—to make presentations that explain how they crafted their digital stories.

“We want to invite students to reflect on their own learning using the tools that are available to them,” he said.

Although new tools allow students to write using different methods, teachers must be careful to use them in meaningful ways, says Mr. Hicks.

“With digital writing, I agree that we need to move beyond the ‘wow’ factor. Yet I think that there are times where students can compose and collaborate on digital texts in ways that they couldn’t have possibly imagined with simply having pencil and paper,” he said.

“Digital writing, like all kinds of writing, requires teachers to create authentic assignments, share good mentor texts, model the process of composing a digital text, confer with students, invite them to confer with one another, and assess the writing as both a process and a product,” said Mr. Hicks. “Whether this happens with pencils and paper, or with pixels, this is difficult work.”

Although e-books are not yet widely used in K-12 classes, reading digital text does open up some questions for 21st-century writers and readers, Mr. Hicks says.

“If kids can engage with [e-books], and they stumble over a word, and they press their finger on it and a definition pops up, that’s going to fundamentally change the way they read,” he says. “How do we as writers think about what readers experience when they experience their text digitally?”

Technology can also provide an opportunity to open students up to a more global worldview, said Glenda Funk, an English teacher at the 1,300-student Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho. She has teamed up with a teacher in California to create a Ning site where both classes can converse with each other.

“We’re sort of an [isolated] community here,” Ms. Funk said. “So we’re teaching students how to use social networking in a responsible manner and how to have a conversation with other students who might not be like they are.”

She says it’s difficult, however, for her to secure access to computers for her students. The school’s computer labs are often tied up for state testing, and many of her students do not have Internet access or computers at home.

In addition, she says, her district often blocks digital tools that she would like to use. For the class project with Ning, for instance, Ms. Funk had to appeal to the district to first unblock the site.

Cyber English

The ability to distribute and publish student work through the Internet has also contributed to a shift in the way that students think about their writing, experts say. In fact, this phenomenon is the basis of a new line of classes called Cyber English, pioneered by high school English teacher Ted Nellen, who teaches at the 600-student Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in New York City.

“Every one of my kids is a publisher,” he said.

In his Cyber English class, every student spends most of the class period writing on a computer, Mr. Nellen says. He is able to check on students’ progress by viewing each student’s computer screen through his own.

He asks each student to create a Web page to house his or her writing, which means that his students learn how to code through HTML.

Using websites allows students to embed video, audio, and images into their writing, Mr. Nellen says, and having an authentic audience encourages students to do their best work.

Plus, at the end of the year, students have archives of their work that they can carry with them and that they can review to see their progress.

Rafael Nunez is a student in Mr. Nellen’s class. “Cyber English, in my opinion, emphasized motivation,” he said. “Although Mr. Nellen was definitely guiding me and the other students throughout the class, it felt more like an independent venture.”

Website code appears on an interactive whiteboard, at left, next to a poster promoting a performance of “Macbeth” during Mr. Nellen’s Cyber English class. His students learn basic html coding so they can publish their works of writing to their own Web pages.

Dawn Hogue, an English teacher at the 560-student Sheboygan Falls High School in Wisconsin, also teaches Cyber English.

“We do a lot of writing,” she said. “Probably more writing than they’ve done in school before. And most of that writing is published on the Web. That’s really the crux of it.”

Her students do monthly cyber journals in which they reflect on how using a computer in English changes how they learn, she says. They also reflect on what they are currently reading.

“When [student] writing becomes public, it ceases to be this assignment they just hand in for the teacher,” Ms. Hogue said. “At some point, the shift happens in their minds that anybody could be reading this, and it really needs to look good.”

Unlike Mr. Nellen, Ms. Hogue uses blogging platforms as a way to publish student work, so her students do not need to know coding languages to publish their work. While using blogs makes it easier for students to jump right into the writing without a lot of technical knowledge, they do lose some of the individuality and personalization that comes with creating a Web page from scratch, says Ms. Hogue, who also teaches in a 1-to-1 computing environment with her Cyber English class where each student uses a desktop computer.

“When [their writing] is on the Web, it’s not static. It’s fluent, it’s alive, it’s changing,” she said. “[Students] love to go back and read their own work, and when they see their work, they continue to revise it over time.”

Sara Kajder, an assistant professor of English education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in Blacksburg, has also noticed the impact of Web publishing on student writing.

Ms. Kajder, who trains teachers and works with middle and high school students, says that when students turn in a traditional five-paragraph essay, they typically forget about the assignment after they receive a grade.

But when the writing is posted on a blog, they go back to it and interact with it more, she says.

‘Secret to Technology’

Ms. Kajder says it can be hard for some teachers to embrace the shift that technology brings into the classroom.

“We’re learning alongside students,” she said, “and that changes some of the dynamics in the classroom.”

Having a constricted curriculum can also make it difficult for teachers to find the time to incorporate new methods and innovative technologies, Ms. Kajder says.

Carla Beard, an English teacher at Connersville High School in Illinois, has maintained a website called Web English Teacher” that provides links to thousands of resources for English teachers.

In her classroom, Ms. Beard uses Moodle, an open-source learning-management system, to create online quizzes for her students. The grades they receive on the quizzes don’t count toward a final grade unless students receive an A, in which case they are automatically exempt from the test, she says.

“That’s the secret to technology integration,” Ms. Beard said. “We have to ask, ‘What can we do with technology that we can’t do any other way?’ ”

Bill Bass, a former English teacher who is a technology-integration specialist at the 17,500-student Parkway school district in Chesterfield, Mo., outside St. Louis, says that it’s less about the technology tools that you have, and more about how you use them.

For instance, he recently witnessed a presentation created by students using Google Earth.

“They were using it as their presentation tool, but it was truly being used to enhance their presentation and message, as opposed to being their message,” he said.

“The tool doesn’t matter anymore. The operating system doesn’t matter anymore. The device is starting to matter less and less,” said Mr. Bass. “You have to know how to navigate those tools and discern the important information from the superfluous information.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multimedia Skills


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