Dr. Amanda Hagood

Course Title

Literary Landscapes: Writing the Natural State (Special Topics in Literature, English 395). This was meant to serve as a substitute class for Literature and the Environment, which we offer for an LS credit and an Environmental Studies credit. The course was offered taught Fall Semester, 2012.

Teaching and Learning Goals

I had been reading Dana Wilber’s book iWrite: Using Blogs, Wikis, and Digital Stories in the English Classroom, and I was convinced by her argument that, in our media-saturated world, literacy constitutes more than just being able to assimilate meaning from texts: “Literacy practices are begged than reading and writing text, although that is central to what they do. Literacies also mean making sense of visual and iconic text, nonverbal and other cues, and more, including the contexts in which we read and write. Thinking of teaching literacies recognizes how much we teach when we teach literacy, especially in a world where different kinds of texts and forms proliferate” (22). So I decided to put this idea into practice by having my students write a traditional literary analysis–with the focus on close reading a small but significant piece of a text on our syllabus–and then create a second interpretation of the text in the form of a digital story. I wanted to give them two different ways of thinking through how they experienced a literary text–one analytic and one creative–and two corresponding ways of writing about that text. Since all of our texts focused on Arkansas, I was also hoping this would give them a fun way to leverage personal experiences with the landscape and culture of the state toward some critical thinking about our local “sense of place.”

Teaching Strategies and Tools

I started with a very traditional literary analysis assignment that asked students to produce a short close reading of a text on the syllabus. That was due around the first of October, and, as usual, I returned each graded paper with comments. However, since the next step in the process was to rethink their analysis in terms of a more personal, multimedia response to the chosen text, I made sure at least a few of my comments tended in that direction. The next installment of the assignment, due at the beginning of November, was to create a storyboard for what would eventually become their digital story. Storyboards are essential for creating a digital story, and they are essentially a sketch-up that shows how images (moving or still), script, and sound will come together in the final version of the digital story–the finished storyboard looks a lot like a comic strip.

Because this was very new to most of my students (though not, interestingly, to some of the creative writing and film studies majors), I spent one day of class running a workshop in which I asked students to write 3-5 sentences about a personal memory that one of our readings had stimulated, and then to work with a partner to create a 3-frame storyboard from those 3-5 sentences. I don’t have this exercise available electronically, but I’ll attach it. The story-board assignment was essentially a longer version of this, though I asked them to turn in their script as a separate item. We also reserved one day of class for a peer review in which students worked through a complete draft of their storyboard with a partner (that was a fun day! I think the students were rather amazed at the creativity of their peers). Because these storyboards required a great deal of thought and preparation, I weighted this part of the project comparably to the literary analysis.

The final assignment was the production of the digital story itself (I’ll have to attach this one, too–link’s not working). For this, many different resources were required. First, my students needed to learn to use a digital film editing software–a program that lets you stitch the images you want to use together with a recording of your script. I chose iMovie because it’s already available on most Macs and it’s very easy to use, provided that you have a well-developed storyboard, electronic copies of all the images you want to include, and a quiet space in which to record your soundtrack. I asked Travis Peeples to come in one day at the end of October to give us a tutorial in how to use iMovie–he did a great job! The second important thing to have is a place to store the films once they are completed–they are a bit too bulky to just carry around on a thumb drive. To fill this need, I created an account on YouTube and gave my students the username and password they would need to upload their finished films. I gave them about three weeks to create the digital stories from the storyboards they’d turned in, because video editing takes a good bit of time. For that reason, too, I tasked them to keep their finished videos at 3 minutes or less. I weighted this assignment at about half the value of the storyboard assignment. I also dedicated the last week of class to a mini-film series in which each student would “premiere” his or her work, and sit for a Q & A afterwards.

Beside the people and resources I’ve already mentioned, I found a few other things to help me create this assignment. I really enjoyed the Center for Digital Storytelling‘s website, which talks a lot about the process of creating a digital story in a non-academic environment. I also found a number of sites that offered a list of Seven Elements of digital storytelling (I recreated this in storyboarding assignment for my students’ benefit)–this became a great start for critically examining digital stories and helping my students to do high-quality work. Good examples of digital stories about place or nature were also really helpful for my students to see at the beginning of this assignment, and I found many at Prof. Betsy Bolton’s class website for Writing Nature: Digital Storytelling (English 70G) at Swarthmore College (thanks to Bryan Alexander for steering me to that one).  Last but not least was the Creative Commons website  which I used not only to talk with student about how to select and properly attribute images in their digital stories, but to give them tool to seek out images that are usable under CC licensing.

Experience and Results

At our class website, you can see the work my students produced, much of which is, I think, rather great. The students chose many different ways to approach the assignment. One, for instance, decided to impersonate a character within one of the stories we read, while another decided to use the images from a photoessay about Cadron Creek to create her own reflection about that place. Many students felt that the assignment had accomplished some of what I’d hoped in creating a richer way to think about literature and place. Many felt proud of the work they’d produced, and thought that the assignment had taught some useful skills they could call upon later on. That said, much of this assignment was very new for my students, and I spent a lot of time coaching them through it and alleviating anxiety. One student, too, suggested that the storyboard assignment should not have been quite so heavily weighted.

In terms of technical challenges, it was hard to make sure everyone had the proper computing resources, in part because all the work for any given iMovie project has to be done on the same machine. That meant that anyone who didn’t have her own MacBook had a harder time completing the assignment. There were also a few issues getting the videos properly uploaded to YouTube–occasionally this had to be done two or three times before it would “stick”. As you can probably guess, too, just preparing the students to complete this assignment took more class time than I’d expected. It’s also important to think carefully about students’ privacy concerns and the varying levels of comfort they will have with producing something so personal. For some of my students, what was okay for us to look at in class was definitely not okay for others to see outside of class, and I ended up removing their creations off the YouTube channel and off of our course website after the class was over. It’s important to make sure you understand what students are comfortable with, and to make sure they, in turn, understand how and where the things they produce can be seen. You could easily keep student work “within the class” by changing the privacy settings on the stories you upload so that only those with a password can see them–though you’d have to make sure none of the students came back in and changed someone else’s video’s settings without their knowledge.

I think the most important change I would make in reshaping this assignment would be to put the students in groups for the storyboarding and video editing portion of the assignment. I had originally imagined that working alone would allow each student to encounter the assignment in a very personal and hopefully thought-provoking way–and I believe, to some extent that it did. But I also think that working in groups would unleash a lot of creativity, soothe some of the anxiety, and distribute the workload in a beneficial way. I can imagine grouping students together based on the text they chose to write about in the literary analysis, or even on themes they chose to examine across different texts, and asking them to come together to produce a digital story together. The first step could be getting them to exchange and discuss their literary analysis papers, which might also inspire them to do a higher caliber of work on that assignment, too.

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