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New Media, New Literacies and the Adolescent Learner

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New Media, New Literacies and the Adolescent Learner

Abstract and Figures

The goal of this research study was to develop a conceptualization of the relationship between new digital media and adolescent students' writing of poetry while immersed in using new media. More specifically, the research focused on the performative affordances of new media and how these interacted with the students' creative processes as they created digital poems. The article examines eight themes that emerged during the study, including the multimodal, multilinear and collaborative nature of the poems, the role of audience and identity in the creative process, and the shifting views of poetry the students experienced.
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E–Learning
Volume 6 Number 3 2009
www.wwwords.co.uk/ELEA
259 http://dx.doi.org/10.2304/elea.2009.6.3.259
New Media, New Literacies
and the Adolescent Learner
JANETTE HUGHES
Faculty of Education,
University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Canada
ABSTRACT The goal of this research study was to develop a conceptualization of the relationship
between new digital media and adolescent students’ writing of poetry while immersed in using new
media. More specifically, the research focused on the performative affordances of new media and how
these interacted with the students’ creative processes as they created digital poems. The article
examines eight themes that emerged during the study, including the multimodal, multilinear and
collaborative nature of the poems, the role of audience and identity in the creative process, and the
shifting views of poetry the students experienced.
It would be an understatement to say that adolescence is a period of complex human development.
Adolescents face a number of challenges during these years of rapid personal change marked by
physical, emotional, social, moral and cognitive development. The challenge for English language
arts educators is to ensure that adolescents have avenues to explore their identities and to express
themselves in purposeful ways in safe, non-threatening environments: places free of judgment
where they can explore issues of relevance to themselves. They also require acknowledgement and
incorporation of their social worlds in the classroom, and these social worlds include digital spaces
such as Facebook, MSN, MySpace, YouTube and various other Web 2.0 technologies.
Within a multiliteracies framework there is an emphasis on students as producers or
‘Designers’ rather than just consumers of text (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). Youth are naturally
concerned with emerging identities, and they are trying to find ways to express themselves.
Through poetry writing, adolescents can give voice to those things that concern them most. We
need to provide them with opportunities to think about who they are and what they want to
represent to the world through not only what they say but also how they say it.
The objective of this research [1] is to develop a conceptualization of the relationship between
new media and adolescent students’ writing of poetry while immersed in using new media. More
specifically, the research focuses on the following questions: 1. How do the performative
affordances of new media interact with the students’ creative processes? 2. How do students use
and possibly re-purpose the digital tools at their disposal? 3. How are students’ views of poetry
reshaped in the process of writing poetry in a media-rich environment?
It is important to better understand how students, who have grown up in a digital age, use
and interact with new media in the context of their writing. This helps in the development of a
theoretical basis for teaching practices that aim to draw and build upon the digital literacies that
students already possess, albeit in a nascent form, and which remain largely untapped in classroom
contexts.
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Context
Why Poetry?
This research project is born out of my interest in and experiences with technology in the English
language arts classroom as well as my love of poetry and my curiosity and concern about the fate
of poetry in a digital age. Although poetry is part of the language arts curriculum, my impression is
that it is not addressed by some teachers, addressed superficially by others, and addressed explicitly
and in a sophisticated manner by only a few. Much has been written about the problems associated
with teaching poetry (Andrews, 1991; Benton, 1999, 2000; Pike, 2000). More than genres such as
novels or plays, poetry seems to elicit the most ‘groans’ from students. Often English teachers
report feeling less comfortable teaching poetry either because they aren’t sure how to teach it
effectively, or because they find it elusive themselves (Lockward, 1994). Benton’s 1998 survey of
100 secondary English teachers in the United Kingdom indicates that lack of time due to systemic
constraints (e.g. National Curriculum and standardized tests) plays a large role in determining
whether poetry gets adequate coverage in the classroom. Benton reports that the teachers’ ‘most
pressing concern was that time which they had formerly given to poetry was now pre-empted by
other aspects of the English curriculum: the [phrase] used very often was that poetry gets
“squeezed out”’ (p. 86). As an Ontario classroom teacher for 14 years, I share this concern given
our current packed curriculum, and an over-emphasis on accountability which is manifested
through Education Quality and Accountability Office testing. As Benton’s survey suggests, a
‘conveyor-belt approach’ to teaching poetry – an emphasis on critical analysis in a limited time
frame – results in loss of spontaneity, little time to read poetry for pleasure and little room for
personal response (p. 87).
It is its conciseness, its brevity, its ability to convey so much in such a limited space that is the
poem’s appeal. Contemporary Canadian poet Molly Peacock (http://www.mollypeacock.org)
(1999) calls poetry the ‘screen-size’ art – an art that ‘offers depth in a moment, using the depth of a
moment’ and she argues that a poem fits on a mental screen, allowing a thought to ‘pierce our
busyness’ (p. 13, original emphasis). Peacock describes poetry as the ‘fusion of three arts: music,
storytelling, and painting’ where the line represents the poem’s music, the sentence explains the
story and the image displays the ‘vision’ of the poet (p. 19). Poetry barrages the reader with images,
in rapid-fire succession, in a short space of time. Although all text is multimodal to some degree,
poetry is arguably more multimodal than other genres. Although there are those who have always
used rich and innovative ways to read and teach poetry, the traditional mode for teaching poetry
has been through print text, with a focus on finding one meaning to be dissected or a content to be
apprehended (Andrews, 1991; Benton, 1999, 2000; Peacock, 1999; Pike, 2000; Nichols, 2002).
Why Digital Media?
The potential role of new media in the English language arts classroom is only beginning to be
explored and although scholarly discussion surrounding this new field is growing, there is much
work to be done if we are to understand how emerging technologies are changing literacy
practices. The argument for a pedagogy that takes into account, not only traditional print and oral
literacies, but also visual and multimodal representations, has been well established in the literature
(Luke, 1996; New London Group, 1996; Lankshear & Knobel, 1998; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Kress,
2000, 2003; Hammett & Barrell, 2002; Knobel & Lankshear, 2006). However, we know from
studies in the areas of multiple literacies, New Literacy studies, multimodal literacies, and digital
literacies that students bring with them very sophisticated sets of skills that remain untapped in the
classroom setting (Short et al, 2000; Alvermann, 2002; Mackey, 2002; McClay & Weeks, 2002;
Alvermann & Xu, 2003; Dyson, 2003; Gee, 2003; Kress, 2003; Millard, 2003; Cook, 2005; Pahl &
Rowsell, 2005).
In today’s world, literacy includes knowledge about how texts are produced and how
multimodal forms of representation work together to convey meaning. Our students are growing
up digitally literate. Students need to be given opportunities in school to construct knowledge and
understanding using the kinds of new digital media that figure largely in their out-of-school lives.
Kress (2003) argues that very soon the screen will govern all of our communication practices and
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language use. Students will understand language use within an electronic medium. As Pahl &
Rowsell (2005) point out: ‘Language is not, and clearly will not be, printed texts with incidental
images, but instead texts of all kinds with colour, different fonts, on monitors or mobile phones
with sound, gesture and movement’ (p. 4). In digital environments words are no longer static, black
squiggles on a white page. They can change size and colour, they can rotate, jump, twirl and fly in,
and they can fade and intensify. Different modalities – aural, visual, gestural, spatial and linguistic –
come together in one environment in ways that reshape the relationship between printed word and
image or printed word and sound (Jewitt, 2006). This change in the materiality of text inevitably
changes the way we read or receive the text and has important implications for the way we
construct or write our own texts.
New Media as Performance Media
Considering poetry in the context of new media, I am drawn to attend to the role of performance
in poetry and, more specifically, to digital performance. Digital communication has an immersive
and performative potential. The online world, which only a few years ago was mostly text based, is
now a performative medium. The tools used to develop the interactive content typically found on
the Web, such as sleek advertisements and interactive educational content, are programming
environments such as Flash and Director. Note the language used by the programmers: in these
environments you program on what is called a stage, where the objects you create are referred to as
actors, and where actors participate in scenes, interacting with other actors based on their
programmed behaviours that are written in scripts.
The point I am making is that new media, unlike the printed page, are (much more so)
performance media. Writing poetry in new media blurs the boundary between a poem and its
performance and reminds us of poetry’s oral origins. It is difficult to distinguish between what is
typically considered to be poetry (the printed poem) and what is a poetry performance, as the
reading, the music, the images, and perhaps even the stories (on digital video) can be integral
components of the digitally authored poem. It is clear that the whole package is important – the
poem on the page, the poem in the air as it is spoken aloud, and the poem as it is presented or
performed. New media lift the poem from the print-bound page, offering the opportunity to
integrate all aspects of poetry presentation and make them accessible in a public and non-linear
way. However, the shift from a print culture to a culture suffused with new media has not yet been
realized in the classroom, particularly in the area of poetry study.
Before immersing myself in using and researching new media, I would have considered a
poem and its performance to be two distinct, separate artefacts. A poet writes a poem – that is
poetry. A poet reads a poem – that is performance. I would have seen the poem ending at the edge
of the page and the performance starting on the stage. However, as my research progressed I
realized that this perception – this separation of poetry and performance – is rooted in a view of
poetry as a printed artefact. Imagine how a poem might be written differently if the poet uses new
media during the creation process. Would it be simply a set of stanzas on the screen, mimicking the
printed form? Or might it be read aloud, with only some of the words printed on the screen?
Images might be incorporated to express the feelings that the poet wants to convey or perhaps
some form of music might be added at appropriate places in the reading of the poem, or video clips
of the poet telling a story related to the poem, or the inclusion of different versions of the poem,
perhaps earlier drafts or simply alternate versions. The question then becomes, ‘Where does the
poem end, and where does its performance begin?’
Why Performance?
Although it is often perceived in a linear projection as the final stage in the writing process,
performance or publication can also be viewed as an integral part of the response and editing cycle.
Teachers have long engaged in informal means of ‘publishing’ their students’ work, whether it is
bound in class anthologies, fixed to classroom bulletin boards or, more recently, posted to
classroom websites. Some teachers organize poetry cafés with their students, either in the
classroom or for the school community. There are numerous forums for the formal publication of
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student poetry that range from journals or magazines such as What if?, a print collection of quality
fiction, poetry and editorials written by and for young Canadians, and online poetry ezines, such as
Re:Verse, which is sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets (http://www.poets.ca). Online
poetry forums such as youngpoets.ca (http://www.youngpoets.ca/) encourage students to post
their work and receive feedback and writing advice from moderators or online mentors and,
finally, consider the burgeoning number of teen blogs, as many adolescents engage in what
Lankshear & Knobel (2003) call ‘self-broadcasting.’
Each new performance of a poem represents the individual’s interpretation and response.
Having been engaged with the text, the reader/performer offers a synthesis forged from his or her
experiences with the poem’s ‘sound and rhythm and image and idea’ (Rosenblatt, 1976, p. 278).
The notion of performance supports Rosenblatt’s metaphor of a silent reader who ‘performs the
poem or the novel, as the violinist performs the sonata. But the instrument on which the reader
plays, and from which he evokes the work, is – himself’ (p. 279). However, as Athanases (2005)
points out, the kind of performance referred to here is more than just metaphorically ‘performing’
through silent reading. Rather ‘students turn a poem text into a notated script that guides an actual
performance of particular embodied feelings and meanings’ (p. 89).
Such an approach views performance as a vehicle for exploration and learning, rather than as
a fixed product to be rehearsed and delivered as a final event. Students do indeed rehearse, but the
rehearsal process is accompanied by reflection and is an integral part of the learning experience. As
Athanases (2005) points out: ‘This model differs from those that treat performance as a fun, add-on
activity by viewing performance as a creative but deliberate process interwoven with other literacy
events’ (p. 89). This approach also recognizes the fluid and temporal nature of response and
interpretation as with every performance our interpretations and responses evolve.
The Project
Methodology
To develop a conceptualization of the relationship between new media and students’ writing of
poetry while immersed in using new media, in-depth, qualitative data were collected using the
process outlined below. Because I seek an in-depth understanding of how students use new media
in the meaning-making process, my focus is on the particular rather than on the general, seeking to
capture the nuances, the situational contexts, and the passion of those participating.
Luke (2003) calls for researchers to ‘craft new hybrid methodologies and theories that, in
effect, must play catch-up with the unprecedented textual and social practices that students are
already engaging in, often on the sly’ (p. 402). I’ve chosen to blend grounded theory methodology
(Charmaz, 2000) with my developing notion of research as performance (Hughes, 2008). I employ
techniques of induction and deduction to develop a theory around how students use new media to
write their own poetry.
Data, in the form of video, photos and other material artefacts from classroom sessions, as
well as semi-structured interviews with the teacher and selected students, field journals and open-
ended survey responses, were collected from two grade 11 (ages 15-16) academic English classes of
approximately 28 students each, taught by the same teacher. I conducted a content analysis of the
transcribed interviews, videotaped classroom interactions, and the digital artefacts created by the
students in order to identify themes informing a conceptualization of how authoring poetry with
new media might change the way students construct texts and how the shift in process reorganized
or restructured their thinking about poetry. Every attempt was made to share and discuss the data
analysis with the participants in the study, to check its integrity and to add to its robustness based
on their feedback.
Procedure
The overall expectations for the grade 11 academic English course (ENG3U
http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/english1112currb.txt) in Ontario include
analyzing how techniques, vocabulary, voice and style are used by writers, and producing writing
for a variety of purposes using appropriate forms, techniques, vocabulary, voice and style. Working
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in conjunction with the classroom teacher, the poetry project that focuses on these expectations
was designed and implemented, with a particular emphasis on performance. Students explored the
role of performance in the reading and writing of poetry and they performed their own poetry in a
variety of ways, including digital performance. As a class, we viewed several sample digital poems
and we discussed the students’ responses to them focusing on both form and content. We
examined the various modes of expression, looking at the visual images, the written text, the
narration (voice) and the musical soundtracks that played in the background, and considered how
these different modes converged and spoke to each other. Students were given a choice of what
software they used for this digital performance. For example, they could use PhotoStory3, iPhoto,
PowerPoint or Corel Presentations, iMovie or even Flash, if they had learned that software in another
course. These software programs are either free downloads or licensed by the Ontario Ministry of
Education for use by students and teachers. Other than showing the students what was possible
with the technology, we did not direct them to write the print version of the poem first, nor did we
suggest they work from images to text in the creation of the poem. We wanted to see what would
happen if they had all options open to them from the beginning of the project.
Findings
After examining the more than 50 digital poems created by these adolescents, their pre-project and
post-project surveys about their feelings about poetry and their responses to the digital poetry
project, my field notes and transcripts of interviews with selected students, I have identified eight
themes in my analysis of the data in the first year of this 3-year project.
Multimodal expression. It is not surprising that the digital poems created by these adolescents are
multimodal given the materiality of the computer and the software at their disposal. The students
combined a variety of modes of expression, including images (both still photos and video), oral
readings, musical soundtracks (original and commercially produced), and text that is haptic, with
attention paid not only to language but how the text ‘behaves’ on screen with its changing fonts,
colours, sizes and the way it enters and exits the performance. This multimedia ensemble
combined modalities that added layers of meaning that might not be conveyed in a strictly print
format.
Although most of the students were already familiar with creating a variety of multimedia
texts and many had used the software for other purposes, none of them had ever attempted to
author a digital poem. For some students, the convergence of text, sound and image came more
naturally than for others; however, as noted above, we showed the classes examples
(http://faculty.uoit.ca/hughes/clip3.html) of digital poems and examined how the various
components interacted to create meaning.[2] We discussed the use of literal versus more abstract
images to try to stretch the students’ imaginations and to get them thinking metaphorically. We
drew attention to the way different fonts were used, and how using different colours and sizes
might complement or disrupt the meaning of the actual words. We also examined how transitions
and other special effects (use of watercolour or sepia features, for example) were used to either
enhance or detract from the poem. This analysis and discussion during the viewing of sample
digital poems helped students consider how they would use image, sound and text in the creation
of their own poems. Students used a wide array of special features and experimented with the
many different ways of combining text, sound and image in their own digital poems, which is
evident in the examples included later in this article.
The focus on multimodal expression in this project also prompted the students to reconsider
their ideas about literacy and their own literate practices. At the outset of the project the students
had a very conventional notion of literacy defined as the reading and writing of print text. Although
they were using a wide variety of new technologies that required various literacy skills outside of
school, they did not identify these as literacy practices. At the end of the project, their views of
literacy had expanded to include multimodal/digital forms of expression.
Multilinear authoring process. The students did not simply use new media (MovieMaker in this case) as
an alternative to pen and paper to represent their understanding. Creating poetry (and I would
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suggest, other forms of writing as well) in a digital environment requires a different kind of
authorship and offers insights into how context shapes meaning. The authoring process the
students engaged in was multilinear and varied from student to student. Some students wrote the
text of their poems first and then digitized it (see Figure 1); some worked with images first and then
wrote the text from the images; many moved back and forth between the media. In comparison, in
my work with teacher candidates writing digital poems, I have observed that most write the text
first and then add images, sound and special effects. Of course, our teacher candidates are adults
who did not grow up immersed in the digital world of these adolescents.
Figure 1. From page to screen.
It is also interesting to note that for many of the students, their adolescents-with-media identity
exists in the home, rather than at school. A primary reason seemed to be that they found it
inconvenient to have to transfer the poem back and forth from school to home on a memory stick.
Some of the students who attempted to do this encountered compatibility problems between the
versions of the software that they had at home, and the version that existed at school. Students
were, however, given adequate time to complete the digital poem entirely at school, so taking it
home was not necessary, yet many of them chose to do so. We have to ask ourselves why so many
chose to work from home. Consider the typical environments for computers in schools – in labs
where computers are lined up back to back in long lines (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. The school’s computer lab.
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There is a sense of mass production and institutionalization. I wonder how many of us, as scholars,
would be able to do our best writing in a lab at the university. At home, many students have their
own spaces where they can work comfortably with technology. When asked why they chose to
work at home, students reported that it was ‘easier’ to work on the digital poem at home where
they had access to all of their pictures and other materials, and that they were ‘more familiar’ with
their own technology.
Personalized technology. Connected to this idea that students found it easier to work with their own
technology, rather than use the school’s facilities, is the notion that the technology they were using
was personalized. It is interesting to note that most of the digital tools the students used were not
production tools; they were generic and they were not designed with the purpose of creating
digital poetry. The tools are at once more complex (compared to paper and pencil), and the work
environments, more personalized (the types and versions of software we use, for example). It could
also be argued that once we immerse ourselves in something, it becomes personal – and using a
different computer is difficult. As an instructor in a preservice teacher education program that is
laptop based, I witness this kind of personalization all the time. Many of my students name and
decorate their laptops and imbue them with personality. The adolescents involved in this project
were similarly attached to their media. One frustrated student humanized her computers and
complained that her ‘computers don’t seem to like each other, and would not cooperate.’
The students used technologies that were also accessories and accoutrements. We saw every
colour of iPod imaginable and the students changed the skins on their iPods and cell phones to
match the outfit of the day. They used their iPods and MP3 players to save and transfer their digital
poems from computer to computer. Some students used their cell phones to take pictures for their
digital poems, even though several high-quality digital cameras were available for them to use in
class and to sign out to use outside of school. Several of the students had their own laptops, or
brought in laptops belonging to a family member. It was not uncommon to see students using all
of these technologies simultaneously. The two girls in this picture, for example, are working on a
laptop, while using an iPod and looking at pictures they have stored on a digital camera (see
Figure 3). And the tools were not all technological; for example, some of the students used their
own musical instruments to record a soundtrack for the poem and, in one poem, a student used his
guitar as the actor in the performance.
Figure 3. Juggling multiple technologies.
Students also used MovieMaker, which is available free in the public domain. It is interesting to note
that Word (as one example) is not free, but a multimedia tool such as MovieMaker is free, when the
direction we seem to be going in as a society is a multimedia one.
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Collaborative ethos. Although each student was required to author his/her own digital poem,
students frequently shared their poems throughout the creative process and particularly while they
were editing. Collaboration has been a component of the writing process for years. It is not
uncommon for students to peer edit each other’s work or offer feedback to friends. The creative
process itself is often seen as solitary and critics of screens (whether they be computers or hand-
held gaming devices) often comment that they isolate students from each other and society;
however, we found that students collaborated in a myriad of ways throughout this project (see
Figures 4 and 5).
They helped each other take photos and many of them used images of their friends and
family in their performances. They helped each other with technical problems and offered each
other feedback through each stage of the process. Collaboration was evident in other ways too. For
example, three boys worked together to perform their poems as songs. They each wrote their own
text (lyrics), but they worked together to perform the song and edit the video footage. One student
even collaborated with her mother to write a song to accompany her poem.
Figure 4. Collaborating on writing. Figure 5. Peer sharing and revising.
Audience focused. One of the things the majority of the students said they liked about the project was
that they felt they were writing for an audience (see Figure 6). We discussed the idea of screening
the poems when they were finished, but also the idea that we might ‘publish’ them on a class
website or, for those who wanted, on YouTube. Several of the students talked about emailing the
digital poems to family and friends; some talked about putting them on their websites and blogs.
Figure 6. Sharing the digital poem with an audience.
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Many shared their poems with their immediate families and came back to school talking about how
their mother or father had cried because they were moved by the poem
(http://faculty.uoit.ca/hughes/clip5.html). A student who wrote about parent/child relationships
used family photographs. During the screening of the poem in class, several of the students
responded with tears because it was so touching. In the feedback session the student shared that
she had shown the poem to her family, who were also emotionally moved, and that her mother
had asked for a copy to keep and to send to other members of the family. This was an assignment
that brought the family together and helped them celebrate their relationships – a response that is
seldom generated by school work, or inspired by poetry authored in print text. The students
seemed to be responding to the performative potential of new media by authoring performance
poetry.
Performance oriented. Writing poetry with new media, with all of its affordances, shifts the writing of
poetry to a performance-oriented craft. Students were given a choice whether or not to use their
own voices to narrate or read the poem. The majority of the students chose to use a musical
soundtrack (either commercial or original) and text on screen despite the fact that we discussed
copyright. Of course, copyright issues for music and images raise ethical concerns, but the
explosion of new media on the Read/Write Web (a place where collective intelligence and
collaboration is at the forefront) also calls into question notions of ownership and authorship. This
is a discussion that lies beyond the scope of this particular article and further investigation needs to
be undertaken into how students are using new media in the cut-and-paste culture they live in.
When I asked those students who didn’t choose to use their literal voice why they had made this
decision, most of them responded that they didn’t like the sound of their own voice, they didn’t
feel confident enough, or that they wanted the music and its lyrics to convey a parallel message for
them.
The performances (http://faculty.uoit.ca/hughes/clip8.html) were also embodied. Whether
the images were still shots or video clips, many of the students captured their own facial
expressions, gestures, and poses, as is evident in Figures 7 and 8. Four of the poems were musical
performances, with lyrics, music and video created by the students.
Figure 7. A performance on stage. Figure 8. A musical performance.
Identity focused. The digital poems were identity focused, which is not surprising given adolescents’
focus on exploration of self and their roles in the world. Some students wrote about the importance
of music, dance, video-gaming, anime, and sports in their lives. They wrote about personal
concerns – the pressure on the dancer to stay thin; the loss of a friend to drunk-driving; steroid use;
the pressures of school and homework.
Students wrote about issues that concerned them. They wrote about social justice issues
poverty (http://faculty.uoit.ca/hughes/clip9.html), war, treatment of women, violence and
weapons. In most cases, they put themselves into the poems, by including images of themselves,
their families and friends, and by linking these issues to their lives. They wrote about how to make
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change. After barraging the reader with images of poverty from the media, one student includes a
whole series of images of her friends holding up signs promoting an end to poverty.
Students not only connected their writing to themselves, they also performed in their worlds
– they used clips from YouTube and DVDs, and drew on their knowledge of and passion for music
videos, anime and video games. One student wrote a poem
(http://faculty.uoit.ca/hughes/clip10.html) about the life of a soldier in which he juxtaposes
images from several online war games with real images of soldiers, past and present. He doesn’t
glorify war (as most war video games do), but talks about the control the State has over a soldier’s
life – an interesting parallel to the control the gamer has over his characters in the virtual world.
A few students wrote in-role to tell the story of a sibling, a friend, or themselves at another
time in their lives. One student wrote from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl contemplating
suicide (http://faculty.uoit.ca/hughes/clip6.html). They engaged in telling the reader something
about themselves and the people they care about.
Shifting views of poetry. At the outset of the project, we surveyed the students to see what views they
held of poetry and what their schooled and out-of-school experiences were with poetry.
Approximately half of the students said they either liked poetry or ‘didn’t mind it,’ but a common
response from those who responded that they didn’t like poetry was that it was ‘boring,’ ‘difficult
to understand’ or ‘a waste of time’ since they would not ‘need it’ after high school. Ninety percent
of all of the students surveyed claimed that their schooled experiences with poetry were ‘boring’
and focused on mastering ‘forms and styles.’ Only 10% of the students responded that they read or
write poetry outside of school; these poems were not shared with others. Several of these students
stated that they wrote for themselves, to express their feelings and to work through their emotions.
Students were surveyed, and selectively interviewed, at the end of the project. More than half
of the students who initially said they didn’t like poetry reported that they enjoyed writing a digital
poem. They said it was ‘more exciting’ and the idea of play was mentioned several times. One
student said she ‘enjoyed playing with the text and images’ to see how they might ‘complement
each other.’ One student felt that this project helped ‘level the playing field a bit,’ stating that ‘it
gives you a chance to be more creative if you aren’t good with poetry but you’re good with
computers, it gives you a chance to do good.’ Students who struggled with traditional forms of
writing were motivated and engaged and produced poems of a higher quality than they had
previously.
One of the things that came up over and over in the surveys (when asked about the difference
between composing poetry in a traditional print context and using new media) was that students
felt writing poetry through these media required them to think more carefully or deeply about the
written images they used and to pay more attention to the language of the poem. The majority of
them mentioned that it was ‘another way’ of writing a poem that enabled them to capture an
experience and add meaning to it. One student said creating the digital poem encouraged her to
‘take it from a flat medium to a multimedia, full experience’ and ‘forced [her] to examine it more
closely’ to determine whether the images, sound and text ‘worked together.’
From their responses it was clear that creating a poem with new media does not diminish
print text – the process was still about creating a good poem. A few students found it more
challenging to create a digital poem than a conventional print poem because it was difficult to find
the ‘right’ image to convey what they wanted. Perhaps the question is, not whether to use images,
but ‘what images’? It is not a simple task to join visual images with words. The creator must
possess an expanded set of skills, which includes visual artistry. It is certainly a more complex task
to find or create images that move beyond the literal. Part of our role as English language arts
educators is to help students develop visual literacy. By questioning what images to use and
thinking deeply about that, it also requires them to think deeply about the words they use.
Future Directions
In terms of future directions for this work, the project has so far focused on poetry in a multimodal,
digital environment. Parallel studies occurred in a grade 6/7 gifted classroom and in a grade 8
classroom predominantly made up of English language learners. In the next iteration of the project
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at the secondary school level, we will repeat the process we followed in the first phase of this
project; however, we will also offer students opportunities to use other affordances of Web 2.0
environments. They will be able to use hypertext to add multilinearity to their poems. The poems
these students created were unilinear in their presentation; they had a beginning, a middle and an
end, and we had to view them in the sequence chosen by the poet. I’m interested in exploring how
a hypertext environment changes this. Imagine a poem with some of the words or phrases linked
to images, videos or simply text annotations or, imagine smudges beside the poem, things that
seem to have been erased by the author, which when clicked lead to an earlier or a different
version of that line, or notes by the author to explain their thinking, or to add context. Imagine a
poem whose components (like text, video, audio, image, or combinations of these) exist as distinct
elements on a webpage that can be viewed in any order. To accomplish this, students will use a
wiki, which facilitates collaborative authorship. In a wiki, students can edit the work of others and
the wiki maintains a history of all changes made. Imagine a draft writing process when adolescents
contribute ideas to one another’s poems by ‘writing’ on the same page as the author. They can also
highlight words or phrases and create links to new pages, where they add comments and
suggestions. I will be interested in seeing how adolescents use these affordances to engage in the
poetry-writing process.
Looking Ahead
Researchers are only beginning to understand how multimodal, interactive media successfully
attract, capture, and hold the attention of students (Jonassen, 2000; Gee, 2003; de Castell & Jenson,
2004). Certainly using new media in the reading, writing and representing of poetry motivates
students if only because it offers a new and fresh classroom approach. However, the use of new
media adds elements to the study of poetry that go beyond motivation.
The performative potential of new media encourages students to explore poetry with new
forms of linguistic and visual play, and perhaps helps to move students beyond observing and
analyzing poetry, toward encouraging a dialogue with a poem. It allows students to get inside the
poem, to be co-creator, to play with the language of the poem and to offer their own responses and
interpretations. Poetic language disrupts the familiar and causes us to pay attention not only to
what is being said, but the way it is being said as well. Using new media in the reading, writing and
representing of poetry also causes us to pay attention because the poem is being presented in an
unfamiliar way, where text, image and sound converge in ways that they cannot in conventional
print anthologies.
The notion of poetry as performance supports the view that students need to be producers as
well as consumers of poetry. Youth are naturally concerned with emerging identities, and they are
trying to find ways to express themselves. Through poetry writing, adolescents can give voice to
those things that concern them most and I think it is fitting to conclude with the viewing of one
student’s poem (http://faculty.uoit.ca/hughes/clip7.html) about the importance of voice. We
need to provide students with opportunities to think about who they are and what they want to
represent to the world through not only what they say but also how they say it; writing poetry
using new media offers a fresh way to engage them in the writing process.
It is clear that the whole package is important – the poem on the page, the poem in the air as
it is spoken aloud, and the poem as it is presented or performed. New media lift the poem from the
print-bound page. New media offer the opportunity to integrate all aspects of poetry presentation
and make them accessible in a public and non-linear way. The performance affordances of new
media encourage a sense of audience, and a collective, integrative approach to the creation of
poetry that honours multiple modes of expression. Consider the immensely popular YouTube,
whose motto is ‘broadcast yourself,’ where people from around the world gather to view
performances of various kinds. The new media that are infusing the Web draw us into
performative relationships with and representations of our ‘content,’ whether it is poetry or some
other subject matter. The use of new media to create poetry blurs the line between print poem and
performance. We are forced to ask ourselves, ‘Where does the poem end and the performance
begin?’ A digital poem is not simply a print poem represented through new media; its various
components converge to create a new kind of poem.
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Janette Hughes
270
Despite the popularity of the Web for bringing people together in various ways through new
communication tools, relatively few teachers seem to be tapping into these new technologies. I am
not suggesting that the print form is no longer useful in a digital age, but rather, we have new
forms of expression that extend and (re)shape our ability to express ourselves. Immersing students
in a digital environment that serves as a model for their own digital performances views
performance as a purposeful and creative process interwoven with other literacy events. Such an
approach, which fully engages the student multimodally across the language arts – reading, writing,
viewing, representing, speaking and listening – realizes the pedagogical ideal that students
experience poetry through sustained and active engagement and that they pay attention not only to
the meaning of the poem but also to its music and its artistry.
Notes
[1] This research is made possible through a generous grant from The Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council.
[2] A variety of the digital poems created for this project can be viewed by clicking on the links provided.
All poems are included with the permission of the students and their parents.
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JANETTE HUGHES is Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy in the Faculty of Education at
the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ontario. Her current research
examines the multimodal and performative affordances of new media in literacy teaching and
learning. Her work has appeared in the journal of the National Council of Teachers of English,
Voices from the Middle, English in Education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and
the International Journal of Qualitative Methods. Correspondence: Janette Hughes, Faculty of Education,
University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 11 Simcoe Street North, Oshawa, Ontario L1H 7L7,
Canada (janette.hughes@uoit.ca).
by guest on August 22, 2015ldm.sagepub.comDownloaded from
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