Monday, November 14, 2011

Bringing students back into "closer contact with words"

I started this week's readings with Kadjer's chapter, "The Visual Think-Aloud," which provided an assignment that, as my post's title suggests, situates students into "closer contact with words" (p. 73). In this chapter she tells us of a story of a sixth grade boy, Rai, who reads at the level of a second grader, a problem all too familiar in the United States' public school system. Kadjer recounts the tale of how Rai became active with a book he had barely understood earlier in the semester. The assignment required a series of steps—not unlike the ones we completed when composing our digital storytelling assignments—that necessitated Rai to do some active thinking about the book, a process the author knew was lacking given his literacy deficiencies.

I have to admit, when I approach most of these technology assignments that Kadjer presents, I'm the first to vehemently question their relevance. "What about the research!" I usually postulate. "How is this going to teach a kid how to write a good research paper? How is it going to help him get into college? How is it going to help him survive in a college-level composition class?" However, my notions of "relevance" were completely dashed as Kadjer recounted this classroom experience. I found myself qualifying my earlier questions: "How can students write about books and peck away at a research paper if they can barely read?" It's a humbling quandary.

As the chapter progresses, we see not only Rai's connecting and engaging with the text, but we also see an unexpected sophistication when he chooses a Rothko painting (see below) from the National Gallery of Art's website: "I matched the images to what went on in my head. I saw colors—cold colors—like in the painting. It feels empty, just like in the main character of the novel. He can't even use his own words" (p. 76).
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969

The younger generation's ability to connect with text via technology is not a new phenomenon (at least it isn't to us taking this course). Gunther Kress argues that "words are always general and, therefore, vague. Words being nearly empty of meaning need filling with the hearer and/or reader's meaning" (p. 15), whereas "unlike words, depictions are full of meaning; they are always specific" (p. 15). He's not alone. Bolter also argues that "in the electronic writing space, where every reading of a text is a realization or indeed a rewriting of the text, to read is to interpret" (p. 183). Kadjer cites Kylene Beers, who writes that "it's more critical for dependent readers to talk about texts during the reading than after it" (p. 72).

In other words, what all of these articles suggest is that reading is typically successful when the reader can visualize both simple and complicated actions within the text, while simultaneously being able to produce related connections from other texts, pieces of art, and/or historical prescience.

Kadjer outlines how to coax that interpretation by asking students to incorporate technology and media from outside the classroom to brainstorm this interpretation, so it's not necessary to reproduce them here. But what we should pay attention to are the projects' limitations: It was challenging to ensure equal technological access among her students; server space, especially with iMovie files, was problematic because of its size constraints; students were faced with the demoralizing reality of losing all of their work due to client/application crashes; and, the sole arbiter of all teaching issues, time was always limited.

Janet Swenson echoes these limitations: "All of these needs are dependent upon unified policies and support at the systemic level. However, in an era of declining budgets and increasingly reductive views of assessment, we have to admit we don't know how this could or would be funded. It is apt to fall to individual educators to decide the extent to which they will prioritize this work and then to finance it from their own pockets. Yes, it is unfair ... and characteristic of the profession" (p. 366).

So what now? I leave you with these questions:

1. Swenson writes:
"Introduction of visual images into print texts might also allow us to resurrect seldom used genres. ... Living Newspapers, popular during the Depression Era, dramatized newspaper accounts of human interest stories with social and political  implications, punctuated by statistics related to the issue illustrated in the narrative and music used as satire. ... [T]he genre would work well in a Web-based environment in which students could locate the newspaper article, write the script, research the statistics, create charts and graphs to illustrate those, and sample music for song lyrics that would add an ironic twist" (p. 364). 
  • While this project gives students a chance to work with research materials and sources in a "new" way, it's the harsh reality that if the student moves to another city or town, or plans to attend college, s/he will be expected to know how to write a plain-jane research paper. 
  • Provided that we can assume the students in your class are at, right below, or right above the average reading level for their grade, how do you ensure that—when the student leaves your classroom—s/he knows how to write a research paper? 
  • Is it possible to work to complete both a "Living Newspaper" project while also expecting the students to produce a research paper in the same semester?
  • How do you incorporate a student whose reading level is drastically below his/her grade level? How do you help him/her succeed with limited time and limited resources?
  • Are these projects restrictions to more "traditional" approaches to school assignments like the research paper or five-paragraph essay? Why or why not?
2. On page 364 of her essay, Swenson cites Ellen Gruber Garvey's description of books in the early modern period:
"The first commonplace books appeared during the Renaissance and contained hand-copied excerpts from manuscripts—and, eventually, from printed books—along with personal annotations. As Garvey describes, these were succeeded by something closer to what we think of as scrapbooks. In them, people of a literary bent would paste photographs or cuttings from magazines and newspapers. Between the keepsakes, they would scribble appropriate scraps of prose or poetry, or associated thoughts that might profit from later revision."
  • Newspaper clippings, photographs, and personal annotations may seem to be primitive resources by today's standards, but they are still considered "multimedia" because they draw across multiple platforms of mediums (i.e., media) to comprise one project. 
  • While this idea of a scrapbook is suitably low-tech, do you think it would be enough of a low-tech assignment to avoid the problems of equal access to technology? 
  • Again, do think this could be angled toward a more traditional research project, or even a more technologically savvy one?
3. And a more open-ended question to give your brain a rest: Do you have any other techniques to help students "visualize" words and interpret text? What are they? Are there limitations to what you can do? Are there consistent benefits to this approach?

*** Just for fun, take a moment to read "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes. Any time we discuss take-home assignments or essays for this class, I think of this poem. If it doesn't change your life, you can blame me for the wasted time in discussion on Wednesday. :) ***

Image source: National Gallery of Art


  1. Excellent post and brilliant questions, Alex. I want to address point 2 regarding "commonplace books" because it represents what I believe to be an incomplete understanding of the history of technology on the part of most scholars of digital textuality. With the exception of Bolter, what each of the writers of the course readings for this week assume is that digital media are the direct descendants of print culture. If, for example, we turn to the passage in Swenson's article (364), we see the claim that "the first commonplace books appeared during the Renaissance." If we limit our understanding of book to a "printed" one, this is true, but if we include earlier handwritten books, this is patently untrue. See This may seem like minor quibbling, but if we accept arguments such as Kress's that the "constellation of image and screen" is "new" (18), we are not considering the relevance of earlier examples such as illuminated manuscripts in which image and text would often depend upon each other. I'm not suggesting that we revert to medieval pedagogy. Rather, the fact that visual literacy is reemerging as a cultural value suggests that some older ways of understanding the world had been limited by the relatively fixed nature of printed texts. In my mind, this means we should not see images as a threat and work to develop ways, such as Kajder's, to incorporate this literate skill into our instruction. I believe the relevance of the visual to learning has always existed - we have just suppressed and disenfranchised it.

  2. Yo Alex, great post. It certainly deals with a lot of things facing teachers in general these days.

    There's a mush of content in my brain that prevents me from recalling *when* I read this, but I recall engaging with an article which called into question a situation very similar to Rai's. The student was incapable of reading very well, but was capable of engaging with the texts outside of the written manner. The idea that the book was putting forward is that children come equipped with means for analyzing "texts" that may not be strictly written. Therefore as teachers it is up to us to a) not dismiss them as unintelligent because of a lack of reading and writing proficiency, and b) come up with differentiated means of instruction.

    The article itself - which is steadily breaking its way through my haze of caffeine and a lack-of-sleep-stupor was dealing primarily with ELL students. Though it did pause to reflect, as do seemingly all texts, that it would be worth applying this to students en masse.

    The only problem that can be raised is that the curricular standards and measurements for AYR don't take into account these Fuzzy Feeling methods. It's a drag, man! A drag that we must deal with. Even if we can get Rai to own his own sense of interpretation, and have him analyze a text through different means - does any of those matter when he's staring worriedly at the MCAS?

    My perpetually middle-of-the-road manner of looking at things says yes, but it's a challenge to harness such an approach effectively while balancing The Man looking over your shoulder.

    You ask a panoply of great questions, the majority of which I could babble on over for countless paragraphs. I think the most interesting questions (to me, as a prospective teacher looking for help) is "How do you ensure a student can write a research paper" and "What do you do with students with limited proficiency?"

    I find them both intriguing because I struggle to find an answer to them. How can we ensure that students thrive? Can we even do so? I'm halfway between saying "We can only do our best!" and some range of wild optimism.

    The truth lies in the middle somewhere, of course. Though truth be told judging from the students I tutor here on campus, often students get passed through high school completely incapable of writing a research paper. The reasons of which I won't be reductive enough to assume. Poor teaching? Poor school? Not enough parental involvement? Undiagnosed learning disability? Lack of discipline? Daunting curriculum standards?

    On, and on, and on.
    I think the best method for getting through to all students is by attacking the text through a variety of methods. Much like suggested in the reading, much like we discuss in class. The methods can be movies, reading the text aloud, play acting a scene, drawing an interpretation of the chapter.

    I guess I am a sucker for differentiated instruction in a reasonable manner. I view it as a method for reaching curriculum standards in manners that may reach more people, and frankly keep the classroom more fun.

    Also, daps for the Langston Hughes poem. He’s fantastic.

  3. Part I
    I really like the way you framed this post – weaving Kajder in and out and posing questions. It really got me thinking. And Theme for English B…while I’ve taught this poem, I never really thought about it in the way you suggested. I love it.

    So I’m not so much a deconstructionist (if there is such a thing), but I found myself digging deep into your comment, “The younger generation’s ability to connect with text via technology is not a new phenomenon.” For some reason I found myself thinking, “well – what is the younger generation?” and “what does she mean by ‘connect’?” then “what is a true connection, anyway?” and “texts – what constitutes as texts?: articles, text-messages, books,” and then “do students connect with text via technology like we think they do?” I’m not sure they do, actually. I’ll just use “younger generation” to mean college students for the moment…the ones I’ve worked with over the past two years aren’t “connecting” with texts via technology. They connect with each other via technology, and to their worlds, and because their research processes are determined by our school’s online databases they do connect “to” texts, but I’m not sure they connect “with” texts. Their connection might be surface level. I’m working on it, though. They’re not reading much on their Kindles (I’ve asked), and they prefer to have tangible, paper-form items in front of them when they’re working. But I wonder when reading for pleasure – what do they prefer? Well – I don’t quite know, but this deconstruction did get me thinking about your question…with Swenson’s ideas on using resurrected genres, if students will know how to write a research paper. I’m not 100% on what you mean by “plain-jane,” but I’m going with a no on this one. HOWEVER – what they might learn is more so a process of their own thinking and idea organization. Sure – this is elementary, but she further states that “[d]espite threats of expulsion, students continue to copy and paste from online text” (365); she’s right. In helping students use newspapers, scripts, statistics and charts and graphs, we might be encouraging them to think for themselves and showing them, therefore, the value in original thought and “connection.” (I’m dealing with a student’s plagiarism case right now and I find myself wondering – what could have I have done differently?)

  4. Part II
    Furthermore, I am incredibly intrigued by your question about how we can measure (or just know one way or the other) whether or not a student can write a research paper when s/he leaves our classroom. Good question. I’ve been pondering this exact question for the past three weeks (or three years). The only way I know how to assess this is to constantly ask my students to make their processes explicit to me somehow. I ask them in class, as I did today, and I ask them to reflect in writing as I’m attempting to do with a letter assignment I’m giving them related to their research topics. But still – I don’t know that they’re making connections between the texts they find. I’ll see on December 6th if they’re able to synthesize the information, but I won’t know they’ve “connected” with it or truly made sense of it. They’ll reflect on their processes in their final essays, too, but still, I can’t know for sure. I can only hope they walk away with a process of connecting texts to each other in a way that helps them in future classes. Something in Bolter got me thinking about the value of using technology in a new way, though (like we have, and like Kadjer talks a lot about). “Intertextual relationships occur everywhere in print – in novels, gothic romances, popular magazines encyclopedias, grammars, and dictionaries [dictionaries, really?] - yet the electronic space seems to refashion print technology to allow the reader to visualize and realize intertextuality” (quoted in Culler 178). Perhaps THIS ought to be what I’m aiming for. If we ask students to somehow mix research with a representation of something that shows “visualization and realization of intertextuality,” then maybe we can be sure students leave us having met the outcomes we’d intended. I can see the reasoning…I’m just not sure how to “teach” this.

    Lastly – I’m with you in questioning some of Kajder’s projects. While I’m of her camp conceptually (and excitedly, I’ll admit), realistically I’m just not sure I can adapt these ideas. As you mentioned, time is a huge factor in the drawbacks she mentions and I have little as it is. I’d have to assign much of this outside of class (like our instructor has), and I’m not sure I’d have the class time to check up on 20 students’ videos, for example. I did latch onto one idea, however, where she talks about students “adding periodic inference statements” by following Beers’ formula of “It says…I say…” (70) This might be something I adapt for students’ deconstruction of argumentative essays, or even research material. I might change it to something like: “They say…I wonder…” or “They say…I need to know…” or some combination of all three. I think this is the trick with projects like the ones Kajder writes about…how can we adapt them into intelligent and well thought-out lessons that work for us, but still keep some of the technological flair? I don’t know…I’m working on that, too. We’ll get there.

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  6. Alex, I like the way in which you set an opposition between the living newspaper and the traditional research paper assignment, posing the question which assignments work and in what contexts. I believe that students, regardless of grade level or reading/writing ability, need to be exposed to a variety of writing and reading. We cater to individual student needs and different learning styles, so we must also take into consideration the need to write for different audiences. What might work for one student might not work for another; therefore, students need an opportunity to complete different forms of writing. One might argue that students should pick and choose which method of writing works for them, but it is our responsibility as educators to prepare students for future college and career plans and this requires being able to write a research paper.

    Like any assignment, I believe skills should build on one another and this can be done by starting with a living newspaper assignment and maybe working towards the writing of a traditional newspaper. Kress, in “Gains and Losses,” discusses the printed text, stating, “At the level of chapters, order is fixed. It is also fixed within the chapters and on the page in the reading path that organizes the reader’s encounter with the text” (7). In the same way that the printed text is “fixed,” the traditional research paper seems fixed—merely a space to be filled in a certain order with information that people may already know about. Kress discusses the benefits of the webpage as a place that hosts multiple paths with varied links that the reader can click on. I see the living newspaper assignment, or the “nontraditional research paper” to be comparable to this example. If the students can begin their task of researching by traversing multiple paths and considering varied factors such as statistics, video, and transcripts, they could develop a research paper that provides more than readily known information about an event such as The Great Depression.

    On a separate note, I’d like to comment on your inclusion of the Langston Hughe’s poem and your inquiry about any suggestions to help visualize text. I think one of the biggest factors to consider in teaching students is to ask what they see as their strengths/weaknesses. Students cannot always give exact answers, but they can give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t. The speaker in Hughe’s poem states, “ As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me---,“ and signals towards the idea that teaching and learning is a reciprocal process. Just like Bolter points out about the active participation of the hypertext stating, “The capacity of the hypertext […] keeps the reader from falling too long into passivity” (170), the classroom needs to be a place that actively engages the students and allows them to explore multiple paths. Teachers cannot do the same vocabulary exercises with students, assuming that they work so they should continue using them. Instead teachers need to explore new ways to challenge students and also ask for student feedback. Many of my students told me that making flashcards doesn’t help them in studying, and I’ve adapted my vocabulary homework to fit these students’ needs. Instead, students have decided to write conversations using the vocabulary words; I’ve even suggested that students engage in conversations with one another via online methods in order to help learn the vocabulary. Hopefully, with the new introduction of our class wiki, I can try this out and will have some information to share.

  7. "How can students write about books and peck away at a research paper if they can barely read?"

    I have often pondered this question myself. Each education class I take scares me a little bit more by the increasing possibility that even at the high school level I may have students that can’t read. What is good about any of Kajder’s activities is that students are asked to express their thoughts in different, usually visual, ways. For students who struggle with reading or writing this is gold because it provides them a different outlet to share their brilliant ideas.

    The problem with Kajder and the challenge to us as teachers is to take the next step. Yes, I see the value in starting where the students are and showing them the validity of what they have to offer to a classroom. However we must be the mediators between the visual-think-aloud and the research paper. There are skills learned through this activity that can be applied to the research paper, such as thinking critically or specificity of language. One of the major elements of success here is that the students are driving the project. The students pick the topic and get a chance to share about things they really want to talk about.

    So what is the next step? Perhaps before they write about a topic, students get the chance to do research for some visual presentation. Then they have to use a combination of images, text and audio to present the information. Then you ask them to take all that information and simply write it all out. The bottom line is that this whole thing is a process.

    I think the reason students have been having so much trouble with writing is that teachers keep wanting to start in the same place every year, in terms of writing, whereas their students are in a completely different place. We need to get a sense of where our students are and use activities like Kajder’s to bring them to where they need to be.

  8. Alex, you bring up some interesting questions about this week’s readings. You ask "How can students write about books and peck away at a research paper if they can barely read?" I often ask myself this question as well. It establishes the visual and textual compositions as opposing forces. Whenever I’m confronted with two drastically opposing pedagogical choices, I think about Neal Bruss’ seemingly simple response, “You’ve got to do it all”. With this week’s readings, I found myself saying that a lot. Kajder’s perspective on using visual technology seems unique, but as we all know, it’s actually old. Because it harkens back to Middle Age illumination (Alex Mueller) students aren’t that far removed from the simple structures needed for essay writing. Truthfully, there are many shared skills that students utilize when creating a visual representation of an idea. That common ground should be centered on the imagination. As most of us can judge from the latest CGI movies, technology can either enhance or stifle the imagination. It all depends on who you are. For many of my students, it offers a great way to examine the art of composition. For others, it serves as only a distraction. Like I said earlier, it all depends on the student or class.

    I also feel that a lot of this trouble comes from a lack of communication between high schools, colleges, and potential employers. A comprehensive writing curriculum that prepares students for MCAS, college, and the work force can never truly exist. It would require a fortune-teller/sage/politician to predict what writing skills will be economically lucrative and academically sound at the time students graduate. The best we can do as educators is develop the skills students need to become better learners. To that end, I like the Kress quote you incorporated, “Gunther Kress argues that ‘words are always general and, therefore, vague. Words being nearly empty of meaning need filling with the hearer and/or reader's meaning’, whereas ‘unlike words, depictions are full of meaning; they are always specific” (15). This semiotic concept seems basic when applied to printed texts, but really puts a new spin on technological texts. Any time students are thinking about thinking, they’re becoming better writers by becoming better thinkers. All too often, education classes overlook this simple fact. Many pedagogies focus too much on writing rather than thinking. It’s like trying to cure a virus with tissues and band aids. The problem needs to be addressed internally. We know the tree by the fruit. So, why should there be a problem with teaching students to compose things via new technologies? How could it make them worse thinkers? The answer is that product based assessments (Alex Mueller) don’t foster the level of intellect being developed through these emerging technologies.

  9. “Gunther Kress argues that ‘words are always general and, therefore, vague. Words being nearly empty of meaning need filling with the hearer and/or reader's meaning’”: Right here, I have a serious disagreement with Kress. Kress is writing a book- we are reading his words, how can they be without meaning? There were no images in his article, and yet here is a class of grad students reading and deciphering his writing. Unlike Kadjer’s student, chances are good we read at grade level, and chances are even better we enjoy reading. We are, after all, a collective group of students studying English by choice. And yet, I still find the need to remind myself that not everyone will appreciate a beautifully written sentence, or paragraph, or novel. I can see how images help to convey meaning. While there is a vast store of amazing literature out there for students to read and decipher, I do see the value of using images with literature. It is challenging to incorporate a student whose reading level is drastically below his/her grade level, but for many educators this is a necessity. I have students with IEPs that are reading below grade level. It is my job to support these students with study guides, additional focus, copies of class notes, and individual time spent on reading skills. Regardless of reading level, all students need to understand how to use study skills to help support their reading. A few years ago, I taught a group of students who had recently moved to the US from Haiti. This group of five boys had very minimal English speaking and reading skills, and yet they were still expected to meet the ninth grade requirement of reading Oliver Twist. I was able to do this with the help of images and also with the help of music, acting, video, and class interpretations. We made visual timelines. These students clearly had a strong intelligence and were able to overcome the huge difficulty of reading Dickens, when English is not the primary level. I guess my point is: sometimes visuals are necessary, sometimes the words are enough. The idea of clippings for a low-tech project work in my classroom all the time: magazines are a huge reusable resource in grade seven! Take younger readers who read Roald Dahl, his words alone are wonderful, creative, and imaginative. He also incorporated simple images with his writing that are almost as lasting. Or Shel Silverstein, his poems are accompanied by images. Many of us fell in love with “The Giving Tree”, because we saw the sadness in the stump of the tree, as our parents read to us the words that the tree was still happy to help the boy: "Well," said the tree…“well, an old stump is good for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest." And the boy did. And the tree was happy”. I don’t know if these simple words would have as much value as they do with the images accompanied: the stump, providing comfort to an old man we first met as a young boy. These little images provide so much more of a story, and add to the heartache. I think kids are learning differently, and I think the only way they will write a better research paper is if they can improve their reading skills. To do this, we need to find ways to attract them to reading. If images help, I’m ready…finally.

  10. Part I:


    The questions you raise about the relevancy of these digital activities, like Kadjer discusses, in a college composition classroom are ones I have built my MA final project around. Activities that use images attached to text or some other modality as an act of composition are particularly troublesome for me. I’m still unsure if it is a formal-enough act of composition worthy of classroom time-- though I feel it is an act of composition. One of the biggest drawbacks of these projects, as you mention and I agree with you, is a departure from traditional form. Form is extremely important for our new college writers to “get.” But form is secondary to and entirely reliant on content in college essays. If our students are unable, for whatever reasons, to make connections between what they know of the world and the new information they come across, they won’t come up with anything to write about.

    I agree these “‘new’ way[s]” do not always resemble the forms of compositions college students are responsible for in academic essays, but they do prepare students to write by means of reading and reconstructing texts in a way that promotes “elemental-meaning making actions” (Berthoff). This is the stuff from which college essays are born.

    Let’s look at the effects the “visual think aloud” had on Rai. By attaching an image to a context provided by verbal text, Rai has abstracted the text to something close to a basic representation of the information. This is Rai’s way of wrapping his head around things. The image becomes a point of opposition, a “speculative instrument” in I.A. Richards’ sense of the term, where something concrete can act as an agent for contrast against new information. Good critical readers do this using real life experiences and natural speculations. This is our way into meaning, our path to making sense of things. For readers like Rai, finding that concrete anchor to form relationships between what he knows of the world and the new information presented to him is the first step to good college writing.

    Not to mention, Rai is learning necessary practices of “reading to write,” which is a trendy modern pedagogical basis for many composition courses. Rai, reluctantly facing a reading task, had been able to make his way through it in ways that mimicked the natural way more apt and enthusiastic readers take things in. Specifically, his reconstruction of the text in his “visual think aloud” shows us he had navigated that dreaded text in way where he learned to abstract to the point of metaphor, to the point of “icon,” which is the type of work with generalities and specifics conducive to good critical reading and reconstructing (writing) of the world: “Rai finally found momentum and comfort as he let go of the need to create realistic images and thought instead of representing what he actually envisioned” (Kadjer 76). Rai let his own authority determine how he construed, and by this he overcame a hurtle for reading comprehension.

  11. Part II:

    So, where does this leave form? Well, in part, “form finds form” as content is developed (Berthoff). Though it is out of the scope of this post to get into, I can “abstract” the basics to this: as relationships are formed between a text and what we know of the world, and between two texts as we see them, paragraphs and essay structures should fill in somewhat naturally. The relationships formed hold them together, and in some sort of basic order or form. For new college writers this form is rough, not readily seen as ordered, but the crude form does reflect the way students construed new information.

    But “form finds form” is not the answer that entirely explains away the big questions you pose. It’s something to consider about the development of writers. But to help students master form, formal mediation in the classroom is necessary. Necessary for college-ready writing, and for formal technical writing when they move on to careers. Rai practiced a way of making sense of things necessary for “reading the world”--in the Freirian sense. And this is important work for any form of writing. Work with images as a tool for reading seems appropriate for the college composition classroom. Reservations stand for a heavy reliance on images as an option for composition however.

  12. Alex,

    Great post! Lots of questions to ponder! I keep coming back to the issue that you raised about “the harsh reality that if the student moves to another city or town, or plans to attend college, s/he will be expected to know how to write a plain-jane research paper.” And I am wondering, like you, how as teachers we can get students to write research papers if they cannot read. I guess like Alex Mueller suggested in terms of our own work, we start where we are. I don’t think there is one answer or one solution, as teachers we will (or already do) have to constantly adapt our lessons to meet the needs of our students. I know there is a lot of pressure and anxiety surrounding text scores and other measures of assessment, but I think if teachers can branch out and adapt their lesson plans to reach students working at all levels, then the test scores will follow. I think Kajder’s methods work—although I have issues with the access to technology and the time constraints many of us will likely face—I cannot ignore the results that she reports.
    I believe that by teaching students to think critically and question their own thinking that the writing will come. If technology and imagery allow educators to help their students make these connections, then I am all for its use in the classroom. I think that skills that Kajder is modeling for her students allow them to build a foundation of critical thinking. Also, Swenson’s idea of “introduc[ing] […] visual images into print texts,” in order to “allow us to resurrect seldom used genres,” like “living newspapers” seems like a great idea. I guess I’m always thinking in terms of high school because that is what I want to teach, but I think this is a great way to get students excited about a project and introduce them to doing research. The assignment has creative elements, which would keep students engaged, and it includes more traditional elements of academic course work. I could see a project like this being extended to include other subjects; the students could research the historical background of the article for History class and analyze the statistical data for their math class. Obviously, this type of project takes major effort and planning on the part of the school, faculty and staff; however, I think it is a really effective way of working across subjects and integrating many mediums into one project. I imagine this type of cross over and collaboration can only build stronger more well-rounded students and a stronger sense of school community.

    Back to the research paper a little, when I entered college and took my first English 101 class, I had never written a research paper in my life. I came to college without any real understanding of what the expectations would be, but I still managed to be quite successful, not because someone laid out the mechanics of an essay for me, but because I could think and read critically. My background is what drives me to want to teach in underprivileged communities, and to ensure that these students have the skills they need to succeed in college, or whatever career they choose. However, while I do not have a magic bullet solution, I do strongly believe that individual teachers and educators can greatly impact individual students. I’m am a strong proponent of comprehensive writing programs, and I strongly believe that giving students critical reading and writing skills will allow them to be successful in most fields. I’m trying really hard not be naïve or idealistic, but I guess I am (idealistic at least!).

  13. Alex, great questions! One of my first thoughts was to your question about what types of assignments work in certain contexts and I agree with Nicole that a variety of writing genres, styles, or techniques should be taught throughout the year. Students should be able to adapt to different audiences and navigate through several modes of writing including the research paper. Thinking of this, I like when Swenson mentions how Berlin argued that “choosing or asking our students to choose a five-paragraph essay as a discursive form—instead of, for instance, a blog—embraces ‘one version of economic, social, and political arrangements over another’” (359). Why can't students be able to switch back and forth through these different discourses? I think knowing or "seeing" the style of different writing genres will inevitably help them understand what is involved in these genres and hopefully how to write more effectively in them.

    Thinking about your question of can students go from the "Living Newspaper" to the research paper in the same year--I think they can because as I've already said, I think they should be exposed to multiple genres of writing. I also agree with Nicole that students can work their way up to the research paper by working on the Living Newspaper. Swenson backs this up when she quotes Myers (2006)"the definition of new literacies erases these divisions, by describing them as ‘evolving social practices that coalesce new digital tools along with old symbolic tools to achieve key motivating purposes for engagement in the literacy practices’”(353). Can't students use newer technologies like the Living Newspaper to evolve and "practice" tools in working towards the research paper. Will this activity engage students into the research paper?

    One last question that really struck me. How do you know that a student knows how to write a research paper when he/she leaves our classrooms. I haven't really thought about this before. How do we know? I think one answer to this is through their student work and revisions. How did they get from point A to point B (start to finish). I also agree with Lindy that self-reflections can be a really effective tool in seeing what students learned or took from something. I think the best way to get an idea of this is to see them in the process of researching and writing and then reading their final papers.

  14. Alex,

    Very insightful post. I would like to agree with Jay's response, borrowed from Neal Bruss: "You've got to do it all." I think that is appropriate at any level of learning because everyone has to start somewhere, and some have advantages over others. I would like to use this idea to segue into your question: "Are these projects restrictions to more 'traditional' approaches to school assignments like the research paper or five-paragraph essay? Why or why not?" I don't really like the five-paragraph essay, but don't students need to begin somewhere? If you have a student that can barely read and write, then that student has to work harder than others to catch up. You can do that by helping the student complete their assignments in steps. Write a sentence, write more sentences, put it together into a paragraph, and so on and so forth. My son started reading and writing at the same time. It wasn't perfect compositions, nor was the information accurate, but acceptable for his level. He started with one sentence, and then went on to write more sentences the more he wrote. I think the most important thing is to critically assess the actual level the student's reading and writing, instead of where they should be, and then try and work from there. We don't live in an utopia where you progress in school without penalty at your own pace. But, I think that if we could help them succeed by assessing their level realistically, assign manageable homework, and giving them time to catch-up, with the understanding that it gets challenging every step of the way, then the student might actually improve. I just think small steps can be very beneficial.

    Okay, back to your question. As I mentioned previously I used to have a problem with the five paragraph essay. Of course the past tense implies that I don't anymore. The obvious reason for that is in college that doesn't work at all. The structure of the paper works, but not the quantity of paragraphs. In college we problematize the five-paragraph structure and make it more complex. The format is the same: introduction, middle (elaborated supporting evidence for thesis), and conclusion. The five-paragraph essay evolves in college in interesting and beneficial ways. If I understand your question correctly, then I don't think the projects would be restricted to the "traditional essay" because all projects can be tweaked into more complex projects, as well as the five-paragraph essay can be more challenging.

  15. Great discussion. I want to respond briefly to Kellie's objection to Kress's argument that "Words being nearly empty of meaning need filling with the hearer and/or reader's meaning" (15). This is the assumption of most semiotic and reader response theory, which, put another way is: meaning doesn't exist without a reader to decode it. I generally agree with this claim, but I don't understand Kress's contrary claim that "depictions are full of meaning." Even if we agree that words are empty of meaning before used in representation, can't the same be said of images? In other words, do images have meaning without viewers to view it?

  16. Sorry I won't be in class today, but I wanted to weigh in on Alex's great post:

    First of all, I was struck by the political overtones to the Swenson piece, many of the statements challenge my thoughts on academic "standards." With reading, I'm happy to tet the boundaries of the cannon. Bring on the graphic novels, movie adaptations, online journals, and fan fiction, I tend to think. But with writing, I'm much more of a curmudgeon. Authors like Swenson often show me the euro-centric error or my ways.

    I think a teacher can use multimedia tools to model critical thinking in writing.
    If the ultimate goal is critical thinking, then who cares where we pull material from, what format the writing takes, and what medium we're using?

    Someone above said that their first research paper was in a college English 101 class, and that because they could already critically think. That makes sense to me. I think the format issues of a paper are easier to teach yourself than critical reading and writing.

    I think Kajder is making a case here that most students are more comfortable analyzing images before words. I think Kellie is right--images with text are very powerful for early readers (to say nothing of grad students! I just read Nabokov's The Original of Laura, and fell in love with his handwriting more than the text) and give a great entry-point. I've been using visual images more in my lectures lately, and have found my students to be more engaged.

    So why can't we teach sentence structures through magazine articles? And plot from Tv shows? And grammar from bar jokes?

    For the Grls Read! program last semester (working with fellow classmate Melody), we read a "graphic novel" called Doodlebug. The book isn't really a comic in the traditional sense, but rather a handwritten book with illustrations by the main character. It's kind of like reading her journal. I was amazed at how long it took me to read one page because there was SO MUCH to absorb on every page. The girls really got into it because the illustrations were really cute and clever. I think we talked more about the illustrations than the text.

    Also, Lindy: I've been thinking a lot about the plagiarism/"connection" problem myself lately! Some students have plagiarism problems out of confusion (particularly ELL students) Others...well, others think we won't notice. ;)

  17. Alex,
    You asked quite a few tough but interesting questions at the end of your blog. You wanted to know if students could do the newspaper and a research paper in one semester, you wanted to know how to bring the students who are behind up to speed and you wanted to know how to make sure they can write a research paper at the end of the term. I think Jay and Alem were on the right track when they quoted Neal Bruss saying
    “You’ve got to do it all”.

    The visual and/or interactive activities allow them to engage in the texts and learn critical thinking and reading skills that they can not do the research paper with out. If they can't learn these through so called "traditional" methods then you have to turn to the more creative methods. If the student can not engage with a text or think critically, he or she can not write a good, thoughtful paper. At the best, it would be rewording other peoples thoughts and we all know they need to do more than that.

    However, like many of you said, the skills of engaging with the text and thinking critically are not always enough to get you past standardized test and college admissions. That's why you have to do it all. The creative interactive and visual elements should be the start but not the end. Eventually you have to move from the other forms of expression to writing. Ideally, I think you do this within the same unit.Have the students use what they learned making their living newspaper to write a research paper. This way they already have the thoughts and information,they just need to convert it to writing. I think multiple drafts and peer reviews will be needed before some of the students get to where they need to be.

  18. Part two:

    Peer review sessions can be very important for students who are having trouble with the form of the essay or research paper. If you occasionally pair the struggling students with the highest achievers, it will give the struggling students a chance to see what form their paper should take and gives them something more concrete to aim for.

    Another way the struggling students could be helped with the format is if they had sample papers from past classes to look at. I think this situation could tempt some students to plagiarism, but I also think the risks out wiegh the benefits.

    While the students work on converting their creative assignments to writing, it would be helpful to have them keep a journal of their process. When they leave the class room, they will have gotten their critical thinking from the creative assignments, written a research paper and documented the process of writing that paper. They will have the tools they need to write in other situations.

  19. Part 1: I wish I could say where I heard this quote from, but it’s one of my favorites—“Those who cannot imagine, cannot read.” Although reading can lead to abstract thought, that thought depends on concrete, highly visualized experiences of the individual reader. Therefore, all thinking proceeds from the concrete to the abstract, from the visible to the invisible. What I am getting at is, and perhaps this is a sweeping and yet obvious generalization, is that all reading/writing is dependent upon visualization, for any project, any assignment, and even for any research paper. Visualization takes place before, during and after reading and writing, and so we must take into careful consideration what exactly is going on during this visualization process. Here is one idea of how I think we can tackle bringing out the driving language behind what is visible to what is invisible. As an undergraduate student in a freshman composition class my professor used what she called an “image-concept” chart. On one side of the board she wrote “Images and on the other she wrote “concepts”—images, were things that could be felt and seen, and of concepts, were, obviously, intangible abstract ideas. We circled images and wrote concepts in the margins. At first the idea seemed a bit superficial, but in class I can specifically remember having a discussion over whether or not food, in the particular story we were reading should be considered an image or a concept. The image of food represented a number of things for this particular story—hunger, poverty, and class. This assignment stuck with me through my college years for a number of reasons and helped me to directly connect my visualizations—the concrete with the invisible, abstract thoughts in my mind.

    This exercise reminds me of the specific process that is behind the point of the research paper assignment. Is it not to, on some level, visualize at length, an abstract idea that deserves to be made visible through language. By researching, we visualize, translate, interpret, and extend a conversation, therefore committing to a kind of “orbital” reading that Kadjer has laid out for us.

  20. part 2:Alex, you ask "How can students write about books and peck away at a research paper if they can barely read?". I wondered what exactly you meant by “read,” here. I assumed that you are talking about a level of comprehension that is necessary to interpret and take away major concepts from a text. If this is true, then this issue of comprehension should be addressed during the process of visualization at any stage of reading. For me, it all comes down to choices. I think what I mean to say is that, and I think that what Melody was getting at in her post when she said “we must be the mediators between the visual-think-aloud and the research paper” is that we must intercept our students comprehension processes by making them accountable for being the visual learners that they are. It is a recursive process of construction and deconstructing of the visual in order to bring out through language what is within.


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