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Pairing Poetry and Technology: Teaching from the “Outside Inward”



In this article, an instructional coach and a classroom teacher describe a two-week instructional unit that integrates poetry and digital storytelling tools.
English Journal 104.4 (2015): 59–64
Kendall, Marie Howe, Mark Hillringhouse, and
others (65). She discovered in talking with teach-
ing colleagues that most “said they’d never had an
English teacher who taught poetry effectively and,
therefore, they had no models to emulate” (65). I
have found comparable sentiments among teach-
ers as I have conducted professional development
workshops that focus on teaching poetry. Teach-
ers often do not feel fully equipped to initiate stu-
dents into the world of poetry. The result is that
they rely on overly familiar poems and methods
of studying them, so that students are introduced
to only a limited range of poetic styles, subjects,
and authors. These instructional choices are often
the result of feeling “unsure what to talk about or
where to begin the discussion” (Lockward 67). It is
important for students to understand the architec-
ture of a poem, but it is crucial, if we want students
to appreciate poetry’s impact, for us to teach verse
from what Horine terms “the outside inward to the
soul of the poem” (24).
This article describes an initiative, the
“Transpoemation Project,” in which a group of
ninth graders in an urban high school interacted
with poetry in unexpected ways, employing 21st-
century literacies that challenged the students to
become “active constructors of meaning” (Gainer
and Lapp 63). The multi-phased assignment culmi-
nated with the creation of “digital shorts”—com-
pact “films” that combine text, images, and music.
The films later became part of a “premiere” event,
eaching poetry offers both chal-
lenges and promises for student
engagement and response. Because
of the ways many students interact
with poems in school settings—with an emphasis
on the technical elements of poems, rather than on
the emotional resonances they evoke—for many
learners, poetry can often seem elusive and uncom-
monly difficult. This is not a new phenomenon.
In her article “Teaching Poetry in High School,”
published in English Journal in 1926, Clara Horine
laments the “average high-school pupil’s indiffer-
ence to [poetry, which] in some instances [amounts]
to positive distaste or contempt” (23). She contin-
ues, however, by suggesting that the fault lies pri-
marily with teachers, who may “have been violating
in our practice some of the fundamental principles
of the art of poetry” (23). She admonishes her read-
ers at the time: “We teachers must remember that
poetry is essentially an art to be appreciated, not
a body of information to be imparted” (35). More
than 80 years later, the instructional issues she
describes in the article—an over-emphasis on form;
a focus on explication (rather than appreciation);
and a tendency to overlook the poem’s musical ele-
ments (which are best heard when poems are read
aloud)—are still plaguing us.
“Poetry is the genre most English teach-
ers seem least comfortable with,” Diane Lockward
explains in an article that offers teaching advice
she gathered from interviews with poets Robert
Toby Emert
In this article, an
instructional coach and
a classroom teacher
describe a two-week
instructional unit that
integrates poetry and
digital storytelling
Pairing Poetry and
Technology: Teaching
from the “Outside Inward”
Could it be that poetry is so unpopular because we introduce our students to it improperly?
—Virginia Rohr, “On Teaching Poetry”
EJ_Mar2015_01_B_021-089.indd 59 3/9/15 4:39 PM
Copyright © 2015 by the National Council of Teachers of English. All rights reserved.
Pairing Poetry and Technology: Teaching from the “Outside Inward”
March 2015
during which each student introduced his or her
poetry project to classmates and invited guests. The
premiere offered the students an authentic audience
for their work as well as the opportunity to make an
oral presentation. To negotiate the requirements of
the project, the students engaged in a range of lit-
eracy activities. They read, interpreted, discussed,
translated, imagined, revised, visualized, analyzed,
synthesized, evaluated, and created—skills that
are prized in any classroom and that play a leading
role in the standards that appear in language arts
Contextualizing the Transpoemation
Project: The Backstory
I first visited the ninth graders involved in the
Transpoemation Project late in the academic year.
I was observing in their classroom in my role as an
itinerant literacy coach charged with assisting their
first-year teacher in developing lessons to engage
what were considered by the school to be unco-
operative and difficult learners. The initial year of
high school for these students had been marked by
upheaval. Their Teach for America member teacher
had struggled to get his professional footing and
did not return after the winter break. They then
suffered ten weeks of revolving-door substitutes
before a full-time replacement English teacher was
hired. When I entered the classroom in April, the
new teacher was sitting in a
student desk near the back
of the room, talking loudly
on her cell phone. One stu-
dent stood beside the teacher,
clearly agitated. I realized
that the teacher was explain-
ing to the student’s parent
that her daughter was being
disrespectful in class. After
handing the phone to the student, who listened,
then handed the phone back to the teacher, and
slammed her body into a desk, the teacher called
another student to stand beside her and began dial-
ing that student’s home phone number.
In our debriefing session after the lesson,
I asked the teacher to tell me about the phone
calls. She expressed her frustration with the class
and her determination to end the school year on a
positive note. As we brainstormed ideas for a final
assignment that might address the students’ needs
and engage them in a deep way, we discussed the
potential of pairing poetry, which many of the stu-
dents struggled with, and technology, which even
the most recalcitrant students often find naturally
interesting. The teacher confessed that she did not
feel she had the technical expertise to teach a unit
that involved any sort of filmmaking, so we agreed
to co-teach the unit, drawing on the digital sto-
rytelling work I had done with students in other
Five weeks later, the ninth graders concluded
their year by showcasing the digital shorts they had
developed to illustrate the text of an original poem.
All 17 students in the class completed the assign-
ment, the first such feat in the entire academic year.
Thus is the potential power of poetry and of mul-
timodal projects that coax struggling students to
work tenaciously through a complex assignment.
The project also provided the students opportuni-
ties to engage with a “creative process that required
[them] to visualize and use their imaginations”
(Czarnecki 18). The students were encouraged to
read like writers and filmmakers, noting structure,
tone, word choice, imagistic language, and ele-
ments of style.
Exploring Poetry through Digital Media
Tools: The Rationale
Lynne Dorfman and Rose Capelli point out in Poetry
Mentor Texts that exposing students to poems and
asking them to imitate elements of the composition
of a poem helps them reflect on their own literary
practices. “Mentor texts provide multiple opportu-
nities for scaffolding . . . aspects of good writing,”
they suggest (8). The Transpoemation Project relies
on strategic close reading of a mentor poem to assist
students as they compose poems of their own. Mike
Schmoker calls this kind of attentive reading of a
text “the first step to deep understanding” (491).
The goal is for the students to generate a draft of an
original poem in a few class meetings that can then
be translated visually, using simple moviemaking
software. A second goal for this particular group
of ninth graders was to involve them in a project
that enticed them to demonstrate their capacity
to tackle an academic task with commitment and
The assignment asked the
students to attend to the
writer’s use of language
and to analyze themes,
but it also asked them to
be playful in their
interactions with the text.
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English Journal
Toby Emert
enthusiasm. The assignment asked the students to
attend to the writer’s use of language and to ana-
lyze themes, but it also asked them to be play-
ful in their interactions with the text, imitating
poetic structures and language patterns. The poet
Robert Kendall warns us that “students tend to
be bored by talk about technique or theory,” the
default method for many teachers when they teach
poetry (qtd. in Lockward 67). We heeded this cau-
tion in the development of the unit, focusing on
instructional activities that the students could not
complete without assistance (offering a “high chal-
lenge”), but also scaffolding the work to enable
them to successfully complete the tasks they were
given (providing “high support”). Rather than
teach any poetic element in isolation, we instead
integrated discussions of rhythm, literary devices,
line readings, historical context, and biographical
influences evident in a poet’s work into our conver-
sations about translating language from written to
pictographic form. Knowing that they were creat-
ing films of the poems they were writing helped
the students examine the effects of imagistic lines
as well as the connotative and denotative uses of
language. Furthermore, translating a poem from
the page to the screen highlighted the importance
of analysis: students reading the same poem may
interpret the lines in quite different ways, and the
aesthetic choices they make as they animate the
poems with media invite readers/viewers to expe-
rience the “filmmaker’s” interpretation of the text.
Introducing the Transpoemation Project to
Students: The Instructional Approach
We introduced the two-week unit by asking the
students to read and respond to Audre Lorde’s
poem, “Hanging Fire,” which features a 14-year-
old speaker commenting on the unfairness of what
she perceives to be the world around her. The poem
begins: “I am fourteen / and my skin has betrayed
me” (Lorde 308). These lines are followed by the
refrain, “and momma’s in the bedroom / with the
door closed” (308). In fact, this refrain concludes Futcher
EJ_Mar2015_01_B_021-089.indd 61 3/9/15 4:39 PM
Pairing Poetry and Technology: Teaching from the “Outside Inward”
March 2015
each of the poem’s three stanzas. We chose this
poem for the students to read and respond to for
a number of reasons: Lorde, an African American
writer renowned for her feminist ideals and activ-
ism, is a revered but understudied voice in the high
school curriculum; the teenaged speaker is approxi-
mately the same age as the ninth-grade students
involved in the project, and, as such, the speaker’s
misgivings about the world represent the ego con-
cerns of adolescence; and the features of the poem
(the stanzas, the refrain, the catalogue of laments)
allow for easy emulation. We wanted the students
to feel immediately drawn to both the language
and the content of the poem.
In the first lesson of the unit, I read the three-
stanza poem aloud to the students as they viewed it
on a screen at the front of the classroom. We then
read the poem together, with one student volunteer-
ing to read each stanza and with the class reading the
refrain in unison. The choral reading of the refrain
emphasized its significance to both the theme and
the rhythm of the poem. It was only after listening
to the poem that we began to discuss the speaker,
tone, themes, and literary features. The students
were immediately interested to hear the voice of a
14-year-old; seeing a poem written in the voice of
a contemporary teenager was unexpected. After lis-
tening to the poem, we examined Lorde’s choices as
a writer: the repetition, wordplay, line breaks, exag-
gerations. We then looked closely at the language
of the poem, beginning with the two-word title,
“Hanging Fire”—which seems connected to the
content of the poem in only a metaphorical way—
and discussed the images those words conjured for
us. We also reviewed each stanza of the poem and
analyzed how the list of complaints the speaker
has about her life are enumerated and then punc-
tuated by the refrain. This technique of examining
the poem, only after experiencing it as a read-aloud,
offered the students an opportunity to develop an
interest in the poem before beginning to parse it.
Later, in small groups, the students revis-
ited the structural features of the poem as they
used a template to answer a series of questions that
allowed them to write their own lines, mirroring
Lorde’s. For example, to help the students create a
title for their own poems, modeled after Lorde’s, we
asked them to note that Lorde has used a participial
adjective (“hanging”) followed by an unexpected
noun (“fire”). They then drafted titles that fol-
lowed the same structure. This exercise emphasized
the importance of the title of a poem, which often
acts to contextualize what follows, but it also dem-
onstrated an unfamiliar technique—forced con-
nection, “an exercise in creative thinking” (Cox,
Default, and Hopkins 81)—for generating an
interesting title. The students drafted titles such as
“Aging Wisdom,” “Falling Memories,” “Dangling
Sky,” and “Bettering Yesterday,” imitating Lorde’s
construction but also making the titles their own.
Using Lorde’s title as a model allowed the students
to easily create interesting and “poetic” titles, a
writing skill they typically struggle with.
We were intentional in our use of instruc-
tional language, describing this phase of the assign-
ment to the students as apprenticeship—that phase
of learning to do something in which we study the
work of a master and “copy” it as a technique that
allows us to move toward mastery ourselves. We
wanted to distinguish the exercise in mimicry from
plagiarism or misappropriation of Lorde’s ideas and
language. We explained, for example, that many
young artists spend hours in museums and galler-
ies looking closely at elements of a fine painting,
trying to replicate the technique the artist used to
render a painting’s subjects. The point of such an
exercise is to become practiced at the skill required
to produce something artful; the skill can then be
personalized, manipulated, and re-imagined to cre-
ate something new.
Once the students had drafted poems of their
own, they worked in small groups to revise, and then
we moved to the computer lab where they learned
to use MovieMaker, free editing software available
for personal computers. None of the students had
used this program before, but as I have observed in
teaching editing to students in the past (see Emert,
“Interactive,” “Transpoemations”), they picked up
the requisite skills quickly. In addition to learning
about MovieMaker, the students also practiced more
familiar technology skills, such as searching the
Internet for images; downloading, saving, and filing
documents for later use; keyboarding; and creating
an organization system that allows for easy access to
the elements of the digital project—skills that are
transferable to other school assignments.
In the lab the students worked to translate
the lines of their poems visually. Their engagement
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English Journal
Toby Emert
with the assignment was evidenced by their choice
to repeatedly revise their image choices and their
work to divide the lines in their poems so that they
appeared on the screen in ways that created both
meaning and impact for viewers. For example, one
student chose to present a list of phrases in her
poem so that parts of each phrase appeared individ-
ually on the screen; this choice developed a momen-
tum for that segment of the film as each phrase
built on the one before it. Her original line read, “I
want to go to college, but what if I don’t get in?”
For the film she broke the line at the comma, so
on the screen, viewers experienced the line as two
parts: an assertion on one screen (“I want to go to
college.”) followed by a question on the next screen
(“But what if I don’t get in?”). She continued split-
ting her lines in this way, creating a rhythmic par-
allelism in the film. This decision allowed us to talk
with her about how parallelism operates as a rhetor-
ical device in writing and its effect on an audience.
After creating the drafted versions of their
films, we asked the students, as they revised, to con-
sider the kinds of details that might affect the audi-
ence’s experience of viewing the projects. We focused
especially on the significance of timing and coached
the students to read the text of their poems aloud as
they revised and to make decisions about the length
of time it might take readers to comprehend the
lines before moving to the next image or line. This
emphasis on timing highlighted the importance of
audience awareness. We also introduced the students
to copyright-free music sites and taught them how to
download a “soundtrack” that fit the mood and tone
of the poem. Perhaps not surprisingly, given what
research suggests about the potential power of ado-
lescents’ interaction with digital tools, the students
pushed themselves in ways that were uncharacter-
istic of the work they had been doing in their En-
glish class throughout the year. They struggled with
the elements of the assignment, but they also per-
severed. And they worked with significant focus to
produce a film that they felt interested in and proud
of. One of the students wrote in her notes about the
project when asked to reflect on her experience of
making the film: “This was different because we
never did anything like this because our class can’t
handle it.” The student’s perception of herself and
her peers—that they could not “handle” a complex
literacy assignment that asked them to think deeply
and produce quality digital projects—attests to the
difficult experiences of the class throughout the aca-
demic year, which had led them to view themselves
as “troublemakers.” The evidence of their work on
the “transpoemations” contradicts that perception.
Given a provocative poem, a challenging assign-
ment, access to technology tools, and support that
allows for success, the students proved themselves
both capable and committed.
At the premiere event
that concluded the unit, the
students introduced their
projects to their peers and a
group of teachers and adminis-
trators whom they had invited
to the event. Their enthusi-
asm for the work they had done was evident, as was
their clear understanding of the process they had
engaged with as they moved from analyzing Lorde’s
poem to creating original poems to translating
their written text to a visual format. One student
characterized the assignment as “cool” when asked
by one of the administrators to describe the proj-
ect: “You had to think on the spot. When you were
done, you put a movie to it. This made it some-
what cool.” Other students noted the experiential
nature of the project as compared to other English
class assignments (“It was more hands-on”) and the
enjoyment factor (“Making the poem was fun, but
making the movie was even better”). Most telling,
however, was the pride the students displayed as
they explained the project to their guests and intro-
duced their individual films. The contrast between
the class session in which the students premiered
their projects and the earlier session I had observed
was remarkable. It served as a testament to the
power of poetry, when studied from what Horine
called the “outside inward” (making personal con-
nections before we focus on the technical features of
the poem), to engage even struggling students in
significant ways.
Reflecting on the Implementation of the
“Transpoemation Project”: The
Jillian L. Wendt, in a review of the current litera-
ture about the modalities of literacy and the lack
of basic literacy skills among secondary students,
The students pushed
themselves in ways that
were uncharacteristic of
the work they had been
doing in their English
class throughout the year.
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Pairing Poetry and Technology: Teaching from the “Outside Inward”
suggests that “it is imperative that teachers con-
sider the use of new technologies to assist in teach-
ing reading and literacy” (43). We know that
technology “can provide new and exciting pathways
for students to demonstrate their mastery of a topic
or concept” (Kingsley 54). It is important to note,
however, that simply introducing digital technolo-
gies to students is not instructionally sufficient. It
is necessary for teachers to integrate technologies
within their classrooms that match the objectives
they have set for student learning. Poetry, however,
relying as it often does on imagistic and emotion-
ally resonant language, invites us to consider the
use of available multimedia technologies to deepen
students’ understanding and appreciation. The
process of translating verse from the page to the
screen requires students to “solve new problems
and employ creativity and critical thinking,” and to
have multiple interactions with the poems they are
studying and composing (Sadik 488). In the work
on this project, for example, it was impossible for
the students to create the film without significant
re-readings of “Hanging Fire” and of their own
poems. This iterative reading activity bolstered
comprehension and facilitated interpretation. It is
what Schmoker refers to as this “redundant abun-
dance” (492) of thoughtful literacy activities that is
a key to promoting achievement.
Works Cited
Cox, Geof, Chuck Default, and Walt Hopkins. 50 Activities
on Creativity and Problem Solving. Amherst: HRD,
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Czarnecki, Kelly. “How Digital Storytelling Builds 21st
Century Skills.” Library Technology Reports 45.7
(2009): 15–19. Web. 14 June 2014.
Dorfman, Lynne, and Rose Cappelli. Poetry Mentor Texts:
Making Reading and Writing Connections, K–8. Port-
land: Stenhouse, 2012. Print.
Emert, Toby. “Interactive Digital Storytelling with Refugee
Children.” Language Arts 91.6 (2014): 401–15.
———. “‘The Transpoemations Project’: Digital Storytell-
ing, Contemporary Poetry, and Refugee Boys.” Inter-
cultural Education 24.4 (2013): 355–65. Print.
Gainer, Jesse S., and Diane Lapp. “Remixing Old and New
Literacies = Motivated Students.” English Journal
100.1 (2010): 58–64. Print.
Horine, Clara. “Teaching Poetry in High School.” English
Journal 15.1 (1926): 23–35. Web. 19 May 2014.
Kingsley, Karla V. “Empower Diverse Learners with Educa-
tional Technology and Digital Media.” Intervention in
School and Clinic 43.1 (2007): 52–56. Print.
Lockward, Diane. “Poets on Teaching Poetry.” English Jour-
nal 83.5 (1994): 65–70. Web. 19 May 2014.
Lorde, Audre. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York:
Norton, 1997. Print.
Rohr, Virginia. “On Teaching Poetry.” English Journal 36.5
(1947): 257–58. Web. 19 May 2014.
Sadik, Alaa. “Digital Storytelling: A Meaningful Technol-
ogy-Integrated Approach for Engaged Student
Learning.” Educational Technology Research and Devel-
opment 56.4 (2008): 487–506. Print.
Schmoker, Mike. “Radically Redefining Literacy Instruc-
tion: An Immense Opportunity.” Phi Delta Kappan
88.7 (2007): 488–93. Print.
Wendt, Jillian L. “Combating the Crisis in Adolescent Lit-
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room.” American Secondary Education 41.2 (2013):
38–48. Print.
Toby Emert
is chair of the Department of Education at Agnes Scott College, near Atlanta, Georgia, where he teaches courses
in literacy, literature, and the arts. He can be reached at
March 2015
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... The online activities for my lesson however unlike the ones prepared by Curwood and Cowell (2011) were mainly meant to provide a platform for collaboration and not "a complex blending of technical elements and ethos" (p.114) mainly due to the fact that the learners in my context are still at the initial stages of learning online. A review of Emert's (2015) experience when he pairs poetry with technology was also useful in emphasizing the principles of creativity and reaffirming that "Poetry … invites us to consider the use of available multimedia technologies to deepen students' understanding and appreciation" (p.64). For instance the images I chose to provoke students' prior knowledge had the effect of appealing to students' emotions towards the tragic characters/heroes in the literary texts. ...
Technology is rapidly being adopted by institutions of higher education as a tool to enhance collaboration and cognitive development during the learning process. There is extensive literature on successful stories on how Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has been applied in various contexts of learning but each classroom context offers specific dynamics and hence requires different approaches of integrating ICT. In this paper the author shares some experiences where she employed blended learning activities for a poetry lecture. She uses the Think, Explore, Design, Develop, Implement and Evaluate (TEDDIE) learning design model to plan and implement online and face-to-face learning activities and presents evidence from the field to illustrate the possibilities of using ICT to support interactive learning in a poetry lecture.
La poesía es un género literario usado en los primeros años de la vida y educación cotidianamente. A medida que el niño crece, deja gradualmente de utilizarse hasta casi desparecer del currículo en secundaria. Utilizar la poesía en el aula de programas de doble inmersión es un recurso favorecedor del desarrollo lingüístico (en la L1 o L2) y de las habilidades críticas y analíticas. Trabajar con la poesía ayuda a maestros y estudiantes a indagar en cuestiones de identidad lingüística y cultural esenciales para el desarrollo personal de los estudiantes. El presente artículo recoge estrategias y metodología para la utilización de la poesía en programas de doble inmersión. Además, ofrece una reflexión sobre como incluir estas destrezas docentes en los procesos de formación y capacitación de maestros para programas de doble inmersión.
Full-text available
This article describes a literacy intervention—an interactive digital storytelling project—designed to invite limited English proficiency (LEP) learners from refugee families to build new language competencies. The storytelling project served as the central assignment for a five-week summer camp-style experience and required the children to draft narratives and then translate them to visual form, using advanced features of PowerPoint. The children who participated were members of a community-based soccer program for refugees, that, in addition to teaching sportsmanship, offers academic support to the young players. The multi-phased process of composing and revising narratives, translating them to a visual medium, and ultimately presenting the projects to an audience of native English speakers allowed the students to increase their language competency, technology proficiency, interpersonal skills, and academic confidence.
Full-text available
This article describes a five-week summer literacy program designed for a group of 70 multilingual refugee boys resettled from their home countries in Africa and Asia to a city in the Southeastern USA. The students attended local public schools but struggled to experience academic success in the traditional classroom. The summer program addressed this issue by offering the students a curriculum in which they worked, alongside American teachers, in small learning groups, completing activities premised on specific twenty-first century literacies, such as critical thinking and the creative manipulation of texts and technologies. The students interacted with high-interest literature written in English and with selected productivity tools, including the filmmaking software MovieMaker. The program culminated with each student producing a digital story – a ‘transpoemation’ – adapted from an autobiographical response to George Ella Lyon’s poem, ‘Where I’m From.’ The students translated their own poems through a series of scaffolded steps in order to create short films for preview and critique. Working with the computer, with texts they had generated, and with images and music, the students showcased their facility with storytelling, with the English vocabulary they were acquiring, and with visual media, demonstrating a growing sense of academic confidence.
Full-text available
Although research emphasizes the importance of integrating technology into the curriculum, the use of technology can only be effective if teachers themselves possess the expertise to use technology in a meaningful way in the classroom. The aim of this study was to assist Egyptian teachers in developing teaching and learning through the application of a particular digital technology. Students were encouraged to work through the process of producing their own digital stories using MS Photo Story, while being introduced to desktop production and editing tools. They also presented, published and shared their own stories with other students in the class. Quantitative and qualitative instruments, including digital story evaluation rubric, integration of technology observation instruments and interviews for evaluating the effectiveness of digital storytelling into learning were implemented to examine the extent to which students were engaged in authentic learning tasks using digital storytelling. The findings from the analysis of students-produced stories revealed that overall, students did well in their projects and their stories met many of the pedagogical and technical attributes of digital stories. The findings from classroom observations and interviews revealed that despite problems observed and reported by teachers, they believed that the digital storytelling projects could increase students’ understanding of curricular content and they were willing to transform their pedagogy and curriculum to include digital storytelling.
Although literacy has become a multi-faceted aspect of education essential to students’ future success, studies have found that many secondary students lack basic literacy skills. In the past, much of the blame for adolescents’ literacy problems has been placed on elementary teachers, but recent research suggests that secondary teachers must share in the responsibility for teaching literacy. This paper explores the various characteristics and modalities of literacy and reviews current literature in the field including the Common Core State Standards initiative. Most importantly, this paper provides suggestions for integrating literacy learning in the general curriculum at the secondary level with particular attention to content area literacy and technology integration.
The authors apply the concept of remix to literacy to design technology-infused projects that engage students in reading and writing in various social contexts. Specific classroom examples are described.
Teaching Poetry in High School
  • Clara Horine
Horine, Clara. "Teaching Poetry in High School." English Journal 15.1 (1926): 23-35. Web. 19 May 2014.