When I was a teenager my father was fond of one particular biblical quote. Whether I was coming home past curfew, insisting my homework was done, or spinning a story about why I needed to borrow the car, he would look at me knowingly and say, “Kiddo, there is nothing new under the sun.”
A quick glance into my classroom might cause one to argue otherwise. My classroom is very different from the traditional English classroom I remember from high school. Circular tables are scattered around the classroom whereas in the 1990s I sat in a desk staring down a neatly lined row at a barricade of teacher desk and lectern. In high school I never touched a computer in English class, yet today I have 18 iMacs lining the room, an LCD projector hanging from the ceiling, and access to 14 video cameras and a podcasting recording station. The textbooks we paced through have been replaced by a Schoology social network containing a wiki for each project, embedded mentor texts, notable examples of past student work, links to class readings and an update stream where students share resources and communicate online.
Not only are the physical layout and tools different, but my role as the teacher differs as well. In my Mass Media and Film Production class, a senior English elective, I work side by side with my students in a digital-writing workshop. While we do meet as a group to hold class discussions about class readings, we immediately dive back into the production. My role lies somewhere between executive producer, creative consultant, and coach as I design project parameters, consult with groups, and work with individuals at the point of need. I also read drafts and comment on Google Docs, troubleshoot storyboards, and screen evolving film sequences as students research and compose individually or in small groups.
When students are finished we share our films and celebrate in each other’s creation. Student films are screened and we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each digital story. We learn from each other’s stories, picking up new storytelling techniques and editing tips in the midst of this creative community. When we finish screening, students go home and voluntarily share links to their stories on Facebook and Twitter. As these teenagers grow and become more confident digital storytellers, they begin to self-identify as filmmakers and their engagement in the storytelling process manifests itself in extra hours spent in class completing their stories.
Though my classroom looks different, Jean-Baptiste Karr’s maxim holds true. The more things change, the more they are the same. Whether it is a classic novel, a Whitman poem, a research paper, or sentence diagramming, language arts has always been about communication: telling stories, consuming stories, and conversations between the writer and an audience. Technology has not changed this, but it has enhanced my students’ ability to tell tangible and powerful stories using moving images and sound, has helped kids access rich streams of information, and has helped bring their stories to wider audiences. There may be nothing new under the sun, but the classroom sure seems a lot brighter.
Joel Malley teaches AP literature, along with mass media and film production, at Cheektowaga Central High School outside Buffalo, NY.
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