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Students came into class today on fire about the latest news of powerful men who have been fired for sexually predatory behaviors. Part of the conversational aftermath of the #metoo movement is the reminder that these abuses don’t just happen in Hollywood, journalism, or politics. This abuse happens to people who have far less power, who may have nothing to gain – and perhaps a lot to lose – by outing a manager at a fast food job they need, or a predatory president in small business that might contribute meaningfully to the local economy.  Of course, that default setting to “silence” is one way a “system of privilege” works.


My students have been analyzing the essay “What is a ‘System of Privilege’?’” by Allan G. Johnson. Johnson’s tightly written text anchors the chapter on sociological readings my co-author Stuart Greene and I included in the 4th edition of From Inquiry to Academic WritingBecause of the before-class chatter about predatory behavior, I led the students in a visual exercise about gender and privilege that is not original to me, but one I recommend. I wrote on the board: “What do you do every day to protect yourself from sexual assault?" I drew two columns, one for men, and one for women. I called on the men first.  “Uhhhhh….”  Awkward silence. Then laughter. A student ran his fingers through his hair in thoughtful embarrassment and said, “Uh — I keep my pants up? And I try to just … be aware?” That elicited some laughter, but by this point the women were on the edge of their seats, hands shooting up.


What followed was an avalanche of strategies, tactics, and survival skills that are second-nature to women socialized in U.S. culture. As my handwriting reveals, I could hardly write fast enough to keep up with the torrent of routine behaviors women use to keep themselves safe, from walking in darkened parking lots with “Wolverine keys” at the ready, to buddy systems to watch drinks and get home safely, to a range of small weapons tucked into purses. The air was charged. Women were angry, but also seemed vindicated to share this anger.


I made room for some silence as we looked at the evidence on the board before asking: “So, what do we make of this?”  One person immediately said: “That is privilege. Some people never have to think about sexual violence. Other people have to think about it all the time.”  Some of the men talked about how their female friends frequently ask them to serve as their “bodyguards” at concerts or at bars. Other men nodded, one noting, “Even though I’m smaller than some of my female friends, they still see me as their protector. I don’t know how to feel about that.”


We dove into Johnson’s essay, then, and students made connections to insights by Jean Kilbourne on “‘Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt’: Advertising and Violence,” and the lively analysis by Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden of alternatives to toxic masculinity in animated films in the essay, “Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar.”


With a little prompting, students could draw out intersectional insights that unpacked these simple categories of “male” and “female” behavior. As Traci Gardner reminds us in her powerful post Who Counts When We Talk about Sexual Harassment? repeating simplistic gender binaries erases the experiences of trans* and gender-nonconforming people, as well as sexual violence experienced by men. Further, an intersectional analysis reminds us that men of color receive fear responses that are often heightened, as the terrible record of police violence reminds us. Male students let down their guard as they revealed their hurt feelings when women cross the street to avoid them, or pull their purses close when they pass, or assume they are “players.” Privilege might empower some, but it warps the human experience of all.


At the end of class, dozens of students spontaneously lined up to take photos of the board to share on social media. Their words are now part of the cultural conversation.  #StudentsToo.


Photo Credit: April Lidinsky


Like many (perhaps most) teachers of writing in the United States, I have been disillusioned, disheartened, and increasingly disturbed by the mean-spirited political discourse coming from the president and his administration, and I’ve been nearly overwhelmed by the cynicism and hypocrisy of the Congress. But with every new attack on the truth, on ethical behavior, and on the principles of justice and fairness for all, not just the few, I renew my commitment to the teaching of rhetoric. And I don’t mean teaching logical fallacies or proper style or Toulmin argument, though all of these have a place in a course on rhetoric. What I do mean is teaching rhetoric as the art, theory, and practice of ethical communication, as a way to live well and honestly in this world, and as a guide to coming to sound conclusions and to sharing those conclusions with others in respectful ways.


I’m concerned that as writing courses get cut and trimmed and squeezed (some schools now have only one required writing course and few elective ones; some have none), that teachers of writing may feel that they don’t have time or space for teaching rhetoric: it’s all they can do to guide students through the construction of major writing assignments and provide them with detailed, constructive feedback. And such assignments and feedback on those assignments are very important, but if those assignments, those pieces of writing, are seen simply as assignments, things to be completed and moved on from, then we’ve missed an opportunity to embed them in rhetorical theory and practice. It’s better, I believe, to have fewer assignments and to embed them in clear rhetorical situations, ideally ones chosen and explored by the students themselves, than to leave out attention to rhetorical contexts that shape any piece of writing (or speaking).


That means taking time to explain a little about rhetoric’s history, to give examples of how rhetorical principles and strategies have worked to empower truths and expose lies, and to ask students how firmly they stand behind the words that they write and how much ownership of and responsibility for those words they take. In short, teaching rhetoric in our writing classes leads us to ask students to examine their own positions, their own ethics, their own commitments. And doing so, I believe, leads students not only to better writing and communication, but also to better understanding of the role they can play in unmasking lies and disinformation, in rejecting hypocrisy and cynicism, and in upholding public commitment to truth and to verifiable facts. Imagine how public and political discourse would change if we adopted these principles and lived by them!


As always, thinking about students and everything they have to offer us is my antidote for despair, as is teaching rhetoric!


Credit: Pixaby Image 2557396 by StockSnap, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License


When Things Fall Apart – But the Work Must Continue

When the semester began, my students were going to work with a colleague of mine in the Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) region on a project to support local schools combatting ISIS recruitment efforts. The same political turmoil which would allow such ISIS recruitment, however, ultimately pulled the project under and, more tragically, led to my partner and friend being the object of political persecution. In response, the project had to shift to working with another set of schools, also in the MENA region, where a discussion was held on human, political, and gender rights.


This reframed project then encountered complications locally in Syracuse. The project had intended for about eight high school students at a local community center to join the emerging discussion about human rights. Instead, almost twenty students from all ages joined. This provided more input and interaction, but also changed the work my students would be undertaking at the center, and significantly altered the planned discussion with the MENA students.


All this affected students’ individual and group work. Our imagined “prompt” group, for instance, had been assigned the task of developing discussion questions for all the partners. Given the disruptions, they had to create questions for a different type of audience than initially imagined. And, once younger students in Syracuse joined, prompts had to be replaced with more activity-based work. Mid-way through the course, then, their group mission shifted significantly, as did that of each working group in class, in response to every transformation of the process.


Given this experience both in the current project and in projects past, I have come to believe that the key to any assessment of a community project is to embed it not in the successes of the partnerships, but in moments of struggle and collapse. Not only are such moments more common in any community effort, but they also ask the students to place themselves in the work of praxis – connecting theory and strategy to produce a desired goal. I always tell my students the moments of disruption/change are the “teachable moments.” My assessment of their work, then, focuses in on how their individual and group praxis enabled the project to move forward. And as a class, we’ll produce a set of materials and discussions to gauge this aspect of our work.


What is Community? How did you help to create/sustain it?

At the outset of the term, the students read theoretical works about how communities emerge and gain power, and historical pieces about the specific communities/regions in which they would be working. For one of their final assignments, students test how these theories stood up against the community work they undertook this term. How did the difficult daily work of our project enable them to develop their own theories of what makes communities emerge or fall apart?


I am also asking them to generate a portfolio demonstrating the concrete work they did to support the community conversation. This might be emails to other students, drafts of prompts, discarded website projects, etc. The goal is to create a map of their involvement and the particular strategy that emerged for them and for their group’s project. Here the question is not so much a theoretical “What is community?” but an organizational question of “How is community created?” Students will write a short essay describing their emerging sense of community organizing.


How did we work together?

Our work occurred as a collective that attempted to move toward the same goal. During our final class, my hope is to begin with the “strategic maps” created by students to retell the history of their work, referring to how our theoretical understanding was altered by experience. Specifically, the students will have to collectively consider how our original goals were tempered: What can we reasonably have expected individual students or groups to have completed? What might we have done differently? This will lead to the creation of a “collective rubric” on which individual/group products can be understood. The goal here is to show that in such work, assessment is about how to understand not only what happened but what needs to happen next.


How do we value the work?

Hopefully through the work of the class and these final assignments, students have come to understand that they are being assessed for their ability to theorize and strategize towards a collective goal within a dynamic environment. Here the “point” is not so much being “correct,” but working through specific concrete issues with tactical moves and conceptual continuity. It is the overcoming, not the denial of obstacles and set-backs, that will ultimately earn them the “A.”


In this way, a student that can theorize about community, but cannot document the specific tasks they took to actually instantiate or rebuild that community, would not receive an “A.” Nor would the student who can list multiple tasks, but has no conception on why they were done. It is the student who can weave both together, who has learned to work through disruption to enable continued progress, that has truly understood the nature of praxis in any community project.


Final Note: The Community Response#

In the vast majority of such projects, I invite the community partners to attend final class discussions about problems faced, work achieved, and next steps. The global nature of this project made that difficult, to say the least. In my next and last post of the year, I will talk about strategies for community input within a global context.

Every so often, I encounter myths about my work as a community college writing instructor, and I feel compelled to disabuse my well-meaning friends or colleagues of their mistaken assumptions. For example, I have been asked (more than once) how I can possibly continue in such a “boring” line of work; surely it must get tedious teaching the same thing over and over again. “After all,” they hint, “there’s a reason that the ‘grunt work’ you are doing in first-year and developmental writing often falls to those who are lowest on the academic hierarchy!”


At this point, I smile and share a little secret: in over 20 years of teaching IRW, first-year composition, grammar, and ESL courses, I have never taught the same course twice. Granted, the institutions, course names, and even textbooks might be the same, and the syllabi might be quite similar. But my classroom is an on-going laboratory, and the content and pedagogy of my courses evolves continually. How can I possibly be bored when I am waiting to observe just how the latest adjustment will influence the writing, reading, thinking, and “languaging” that I see in my students?


Here’s a simple example. Like many writing instructors, I assign a literacy narrative in my first-year/ALP course. I first incorporated this assignment in my courses as a novice instructor working in a “process approach”: I spent time with my students in pre-writing activities, creating time-lines and freewriting about powerful memories. We then worked through multiple drafts before editing the final version. Later, as colleges moved to integrate reading more explicitly into the classroom, I began to ask students to read literacy narratives and react or respond to them in the context of their own writing; the assignment shifted to focus more on reading skills and the value of connections between texts and students’ experiences. More recently, under the influence of the Writing about Writing (WAW) approach to composition pedagogy, I have added excerpts from theoretical readings (from articles by James Gee or John Swales, for example) as students prepare to write literacy narratives; such excerpts provide students with a language lens through which they can analyze and reflect on their experiences. We are still working through a process and focusing on reading, but I’ve extended the assignment to address a vocabulary for interpretation and analysis.


This coming semester, I am considering another change to my assignment. In this case, it will be a change in sequence. I have always done the literacy narrative as the first paper in the course, but I would like to see what happens if I make it the final paper instead (or perhaps I can structure it as a two-part paper, with both an initial and final version). I plan to incorporate more structured reflection into the course as a whole, and I would like to give the students a chance to use that reflection as primary research—in conjunction with a semester of assigned readings—to develop the literacy narrative at the end of the term. Perhaps that would spark more analysis, more reflection, more metacognition, or perhaps even a stronger foundation for my students to transfer writing knowledge and writing habits to new contexts.


I’m excited about the possibilities for instruction based on a change in my assignment sequence. My enthusiasm certainly marks me as a very specific kind of teaching-nerd, but I am perfectly ok with that.


What changes are you planning for your spring composition or IRW courses? What do you hope to see as a result? I would love to hear from you.


Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

Screenshot of Jazz Jennings' Twitter Profile, on November 30, 2017Inspired by Virginia Tech Libraries’ digital literacy initiative, I am sharing a series of activities that ask students to examine how digital technology shapes literacy and the ways that people interact with others in my recent posts. So far, I have posted an activity on the definitions of digital native and digital literacy and an activity on digital literacy and online identity.

This week I have a collaborative research project that students complete to learn more about how online identities work. Depending upon the depth of research you ask for, this activity will take anywhere from one to two weeks of class sessions for collaborative work and presentations.

The Assignment

In this scenario-based assignment, your group has been hired by the manager of a public figure to assess the online identity of their client. The manager wants an honest and objective presentation on the client, showing both the good and the bad. Your group will present to the manager, the public figure, and other members of the figure’s inner circle. The manager will use the information your group shares to create a plan to strengthen the client’s online reputation and improve the client’s overall reception with the public.

Step 1: Set up group collaboration rules and decide how you want to share the information that you gather with one another. You might set up a shared folder on Google Drive, for example, so that everyone can access what you find.

Step 2: Choose a public figure to investigate. For the purposes of this assignment, a public figure can be someone such as a celebrity, artist, writer, politician, public official, or industry leader. The public figure you choose must be a living person. Do not choose a fictional character, for instance. Additionally, to avoid any potential invasion of privacy, do not choose any students on campus. Be sure that you receive approval for your public figure before you proceed to the next step of the assignment.

Step 3: Create a list of the online places that your public figure has posted information or where others post information in response to or about your figure. Include the name and the link. Additionally, spend some time assessing the reputation of the sites and consider whether each site is a positive, neutral, or negative impact on the figure’s identity. Check places like the following:

  • Social media sites (like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram)
  • Professional networking and job search sites (like LinkedIn)
  • Blogging sites
  • Personal and work websites
  • Video sharing sites (like YouTube, Vine, and Vimeo)
  • Hobby or special interest sites (places where the figure might post or comment)
  • News and current event sites (that might publish stories or interviews about the figure)

Step 4: Gather evidence of the public figure’s online identity. . Consider what the person chooses to put online (personally or through a proxy) and what others put online about that person by examining and collecting information like the following:

  • the words that the figure posts
  • the images that the figure posts
  • the facts that the figure posts
  • the opinions that the figure shares
  • the products and services that the figure endorses
  • the people that the figure recommends or mentions
  • the messages that the figure shares (e.g., retweets, forwards)

Step 5: Review all the information that you have gathered. As a group, look for patterns and connections that appear among the different sites, building an online identity for the public figure you have researched. As you draw conclusions, use the journalist’s questions to think through ideas:

  • who does the figure care about, talk about, appear with, and so forth
  • what does the figure do, use, care about, and so on
  • where does the figure go, visit, stay, and so forth
  • when does the figure seem to be active (what time of day? what days of the week? any special events?)
  • why does the figure share information online (what is the purpose or goal of the online identity?)
  • how does the figure share information online (posts personally, forwards a lot of information, has a PR manager to do the work)
  • how often does the figure share information online

Step 6: Use your research and analysis to create a seven to eight minute group presentation that describes the online identity of the public figure you have examined to the manager, the public figure, and other members of the figure’s inner circle. Share the conclusions that you have drawn about the strengths and weaknesses of the public figure’s online identity, including concrete details from your research as support. Conclude your presentation with some suggestions to strengthen the public figure’s online reputation and improve their overall reception with the public.

What’s Next?

After working together to investigate someone’s online identity, students should be ready to examine their own online identities independently—and that is the topic of my next posts. I will share some specific activities that ask students to examine their online identities and consider what they can do to improve their reputation as digital natives. If you have suggestions for activities or questions about how to talk about these issues in the classroom, please leave me a comment below.


[Photo: Screenshot of Jazz Jennings' Twitter Profile, taken on November 30, 2017]

Consider for a moment the instances in your life when you were lost. Perhaps anxiety heightened your feelings of being lost and originated from events personal, professional, or academic. Perhaps you were faced with a decision to write a memoir, to start a new job, or to stand on your own in front of a class as a teacher for the first time. How did you see your way forward? How did you cross the divide?


Many writers in a first-year composition class find themselves similarly positioned. Financial stress, psychological stress, personal stress, and academic rigor all act as agents challenging persistence in their new academic life. These writers access many tools in order construct the support – or bridges – that facilitate transfer across the divide.


Engagement and a strong self-concept may be two of the most important factors determining resilience and persistence, and self-concept is directly affected by the social support we have around us. One of my goals at the University of Arizona in working with fellow writers is to help them believe that they do belong, that they are supported, and that they can develop agency in accessing support.


Oberg’s Theory of Culture Shock posits that the more unfamiliar a culture is to a newcomer, the more stressful it will be, and Oberg suggests a traveler in a foreign country will pass through stages: 1) the honeymoon stage, 2) adoption of a hostile and aggressive attitude, 3) endurance, then 4) crisis (to leave) or acceptance (to stay) in the new country.


Two points I’d like to make drawing from Oberg:


  1. Writers new to college find themselves similarly positioned.
  2. Writers navigating new genres find themselves similarly positioned.


Genres function in ways not dissimilar to culture. They’re constantly in flux while at the same time possessing conventions and expectations that locals recognize and understand. Further, genres function to stratify locals and non-locals. If you speak the language, the locals more readily accept you (a pathway to social support). If you don’t, those same locals will view you with a skeptical eye (if not outright reject you).


For writers, the closer a new genre is to a familiar genre, the easier it is to transfer knowledge from previous experience toward understanding the new genre. The further apart the new genre is to past genres with which we are familiar, the more difficult it will be to write in the new genre. I consider this the genre divide.




In writing classes, one of my goals is to provide writers with the tools to construct bridges between existing knowledge they have and new forms of knowledge they need. I strive to make them aware of such bridging tools. And there are many.


In An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, one bridging tool we emphasize is the rhetorical context. An example that came up in class this past week was from our Applied Fields chapter. I asked my fellow writers to draft a nursing discharge plan, a genre of which most were unfamiliar. Many approached this assignment by largely mimicking the conventional organizational structures of the example included in the book. In class, however, I recognized the language many writers used in their discharge plan suggested they thought I was the audience. So I challenged them to think about who the author of a nursing discharge plan was, who the audience was (i.e., patients), what the purpose was, and what the topic was of their discharge plan.


In that moment their metacognitive awareness became heightened toward the agency such bridging tools afford. That is, many recognized, “Oh, snap, there are tools I can use to make sense of this new, foreign genre!” There are tools they can use to construct a bridge across the genre divide of past knowledge and new writing contexts.


As first-year writing teachers, we often scaffold assignments in a sequence to construct such bridges for our fellow writers. And in a university with a strong Writing Across the Curriculum program, considerable institutional resources can be applied to help writers persist beyond the borderlands of FYW as they engage more fully in their second, third, and fourth years. Vygotskian scaffolding is well-established pedagogy. However, I’m less certain composition scholars have connected Vygotsky to institutional theory in making the case for Writing Across the Curriculum in higher education.


In the writing classroom, Genre Bridge Theory aligns Wittgenstein’s concept of language games with Vygotsky’s zones of proximal development. One potential critique in so doing is a tendency toward “performativity” of genre conventions rather than truth. My argument would be that truth arises by accessing bridging tools when writers achieve insight, realize the power of their own agency, and visualize and create something wholly original.


In conclusion, I should acknowledge my bias toward process. Rationalists view the purpose of writing as production. They would like to see students write a “perfect” sentence or paper that meets their (i.e., faculty) expectations and the expectations other faculty have of writing. I find rationalist views of teaching writing extraordinarily oppressive as they subordinate truth in favor of performance. Instead I focus my emotional labor toward heightening my fellow writers’ awareness of their own processes so that when they write in unfamiliar genres where they may feel lost, they can draw metacognitively from bridging tools to make sense of the new terrain, to navigate, and to find their way—ideally toward originality, insight, and truth.

So Thor is back, hammering his way to another blockbusting run at the box office. But this time, it's almost as if the producers of Thor: Ragnarok read an analysis I posted to this blog on November 11, 2013, when Thor: The Dark World appeared, because some interesting things have happened to the franchise this time around that seem to be in reaction to what I argued back then. So let's have a look first at what I said in 2013, before turning to the present. Here's what I said then:


Well, the dude with the big hammer just pulled off the biggest box office debut for quite some time, and such a commercial success calls for some semiotic attention.


There is an obvious system within which to situate Thor: The Dark World and thus begin our analysis. This, of course, is the realm of the cinematic superhero, a genre that has absolutely dominated Hollywood film making for quite some time now. Whether featuring such traditional superheroes as Batman, Spider Man, and Superman, or such emergent heavies as Iron Man and even (gulp!) Kick-Ass, the superhero movie is a widely recognized signifier of Hollywood’s timid focus on tried-and-true formulae that offer a high probability of box office success due to their pre-existing audiences of avid adolescent males. Add to this the increasingly observed cultural phenomenon that adulthood is the new childhood (or thirty is the new fourteen), and you have a pretty clear notion of at least a prominent part of the cultural significance of Thor’s recent coup.


But I want to look at a somewhat different angle on this particular superhero’s current dominance that I haven’t seen explored elsewhere. This is the fact that, unlike all other superheroes, Thor comes from an actual religion (I recognize that this bothered Captain America’s Christian sensibilities in The Avengers, but a god is a god). And while the exploitation of their ancestors’ pagan beliefs is hardly likely to disturb any modern Scandinavians, this cartoonish revision of an extinct cultural mythology is still just a little peculiar. I mean, why Thor and not, say, Apollo, or even Dionysus?


I think the explanation is two-fold here, and culturally significant in both parts. The first is that the Nordic gods were, after all, part of a pantheon of warriors, complete with a kind of locker/war room (Valhalla) and a persistent enemy (the Jotuns, et al) whose goal was indeed to destroy the world. [ That the enemies of the Nordic gods were destined to win a climactic battle over Thor and company (the Ragnarok, or Wagnerian Gotterdammerung), is an interesting feature of the mythology that may or may not occur in a future installment of the movie franchise.] But the point is that Norse mythology offers a ready-made superhero saga to a market hungering for clear-cut conflicts between absolute bad guys whose goal is to destroy the world and well-muscled good guys who oppose them: a simple heroes vs. villains tale.

You don’t find this in Greek mythology, which is always quite complicated and rather more profound in its probing of the complexities and contradictions of human life and character.


But I suspect that there is something more at work here. I mean, Wagner, the Third Reich’s signature composer, didn’t choose Norse mythology as the framework for his most famous opera by accident. And the fact is that you just don’t get any more Aryan than blonde Thor is (isn’t it interesting that the troublesome Loki, though part of the Norse pantheon too, somehow doesn’t have blonde hair? Note also in this regard how the evil Wormtongue in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings also seems to be the only non-blonde among the blonde Rohirrim). The Greeks, for their part, weren’t blondes. So is the current popularity of this particular Norse god a reflection of a coded nostalgia for a whiter world? In this era of increasing racial insecurity as America’s demographic identity shifts, I can’t help but think so.


OK, so that was then, what about now? Let's just say that the "white nationalist" march at Charlottesville has clearly brought out into the open what was still lurking on the margins in 2013, and I would hazard to guess that a good number of the khaki-clad crew with their tiki torches and lightning bolt banners were (and are) Thor fans. So I'll stand by my 2013 interpretation. And as for the most recent installment in the Thor saga, well, I can almost see the producers of Thor: Ragnarok having the following pre-production conversation:


Producer 1: The semioticians are on to us.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: I've got it: let's give Thor a haircut this time, and, you know, brown out those blonde tones!


Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: Tessa Thompson is available to play Valkyrie.


Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: Idris Elba is available too.


Producer 1: Good, but not good enough.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: You do know that Taika Waititi is a Jewish Maori, don't you, and that he's available too?


Producer 1: I see a concept here.


Producer 2: Oh goodie, campy superheroes!


Producer 3: And surely no one will object to Jeff Goldblum playing one of the evil Elders of the Universe, because surely no one remembers the anti-Semitic forgery "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" that Hitler made such use of.


Producer 1: We didn't hear that.


Producer 2: Oh woe, alas, and alack!


Producer 3: We’ll paint a blue stripe on Jeff's chin. No one will make the connection.


Producer 1: It’s a wrap!


I rest my case.

I’ve been thinking of this book ever since I heard Rankine speak at the 2017 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference at the University of Dayton this fall. She spoke candidly and passionately to our primarily white audience and held me spellbound: her descriptions of her (many, constant) encounters with racism and sexism not only rang bare-bones-honest-true, but they also challenged me to examine once again my own participation in our racist society. As much as I have thought about and written about white women’s failure to recognize and resist such racism, as much as I have tried to examine and reexamine my own actions over my lifetime and to interrogate my positionality, I find I still have much more work to do. Much more.


I expect the same could be said for many other white teachers of writing, as well as of many of our students. Coming to terms with my own racist background is thus an ongoing process, and it’s not an easy or pretty one. So I am especially grateful to writers like Rankine, who are able to let me see the world through their eyes, at least to the extent that I am capable. Which brings me to Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. The New York Times review of this volume, also published in 2014, begins like this:

In light of the national demonstrations over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, it’s tempting to describe “Citizen,” Claudia Rankine’s latest volume of poetry, as “timely.” Even the cover image of a floating hoodie, its sleeves and torso cut away, seems timely. Any American viewing it would immediately recall a certain black teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in February 2012. But this work, by the artist David Hammons, was created in 1993 — well before Trayvon Martin was even born.


And this seems to be part of Rankine’s conceit: What passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others.

Rankine’s book treats the murder of young black men in a series of vignettes—prose poems—that cascade across the pages of the book, their lives held momentarily in suspension. Other entries render personal experiences with the constant and debilitating pressures of racist acts and comments. A longer section on Serena Williams left me in tears of rage—but also of recognition. No wonder Rankine’s book received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and the 2015 PEN Open Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.


But it’s hard to limit this text to the genre of poetry: it is poetry, and it isn’t. It’s a meditation; it’s part memoir; as the title proclaims, it is a lyric; it’s a series of narratives, of stories, of painful encounters. And it is experimental, deeply so. To take just one example, Rankine’s use of personal pronouns catches readers up, leaving us unable to make easy assumptions about who is speaking:

            And still this life parts your lids, you see

            you seeing your extending hand

            as a falling wave—

            I they he she we you turn

            only to discover

            the encounter

            to be alien to this place.

            Wait.   (140)


So who is the “you” Rankine refers to over and over in this book? That’s one of the questions I’d begin with in reading this text with students. When do they feel that they occupy that “you” space and when not? And why? In my very diverse classes, answers to these questions are sure to vary and to generate thoughtful reflections that can open up conversation about the current divisions among us. So, I think I’d put Rankine’s work near the beginning of a writing course, ready to take it one page, one meditation, one insight at a time.


In times like these, teachers of writing need Claudia Rankine. And so do our students.

Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodriguean assistant professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.


Over the past couple of decades, Writing Studies scholars have become increasingly interested in exploring aurality and promoting the teaching of writing with sound. The aural mode affords instructors the opportunity to teach writing and rhetoric, and more generally, strong communication abilities.


I recently orchestrated an in-class mini-project that alternates between sound analysis and sound writing. The project calls for students to engage in critical listening to identify sonic rhetorical strategies and their effects, then work to concretize and expand that knowledge with their own sound writing. By the end of the mini-project, students will have collaboratively produced a chart that identifies the potentialities of sonic rhetorical strategies, which can later be used as a reference for a high-stakes audio project. Also, they will have individually composed a low-stakes aural representation of a photograph, which is intended to teach them more about rhetoric, sonic rhetorical strategies, sound interaction, and the value of play and experimentation in audio composing.



The following activity has multiple steps: instructors may choose not to do all of them or assign some of the in-class work for homework. In its entirety, the mini-project requires approximately 4-6 hours of in-class time, depending on the class level and students’ previous knowledge, and two homework assignments. The activity, as it stands, assumes students will have already learned about the affordances and constraints of the aural mode and sonic rhetorical strategies as well as how to use basic editing techniques in Audacity, a free audio software program.



Step #1: Ask students to compose an alphabetic description of a personal photograph for homework, then bring the description to class. Explain the mini-project and its purpose. Supply them with a blank version of the below chart; the chart I’ve included here is for instructor reference and includes some of the rhetorical potentialities of the five sonic rhetorical strategies explained in Rodrigue et al’s “Navigating the Soundscape, Composing with Audio.”




Sound Effects

Sound Interaction


1. Establishes tone, atmosphere, and setting

2. Creates mood

3. Evokes emotion

4. Functions as a transition (that juxtaposes and bridges sound)

5. Situates something in a particular culture or moment in history

6. Evokes personal associations

7. Triggers collective cultural and generational memories

8. Captures and preserves personal memories

1. Evokes emotion (on its own or via stark contrast with another sound)

2. Brings awareness or demands attention

3. Allows time for audience to construct meaning, make connections, reflect, think, and ask questions

4. Provides structure (like paragraphs do in an alphabetic text)

5. Indicates shifts in time, location, or perspective

6.Signals change

1. Provides information about a scene

2. Serves as a cue reference

3. Assists in mood creation

4. Evokes emotion

5. Triggers memories

6. Denotes an idea

7. Functions as a symbol

8. Works as a transition

9. Provides coherence


1. Juxtaposes sound

2. Creates harmony among sounds

3. Creates emphasis

4. Constructs tone

5. Builds meaning

6. Provides cohesion

7. Creates an environment or denotes place, space, or location

8. Provides transitions between/among rhetorical strategies


1. Conveys emotions

2. Produces different effects based on vocal qualities (for example: vocal tension creates sarcasm; soft and breathy voice conveys intimacy; tense and unwavering voice elicits emotional detachment)

3. Establishes a person’s identity  

4. Builds a connection with the audience

5. Denotes a setting


Step #2: Divide students into groups and assign each group a sonic rhetorical strategy. Ask them to return to the reading on their assigned strategy (music, silence, sound effects, sound interaction, or voice) and begin filling in the chart, identifying the rhetorical effects discussed in the article.


Step #3: Voice Analysis and Voice in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with voice in unique and interesting ways. I recommend using Erin Anderson’s “What Hadn’t Happened” and Love + Radio’s “A Girl of Ivory.” (These two examples prompt interesting discussion about voice mixing, voice merging, and giving voice to those who do not have one, and their rhetorical impacts). Facilitate a discussion about how voice functions rhetorically in each example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of voice in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask students to open up a new file in Audacity and begin composing the aural representation of their photograph with voice. Students can use their own or someone else’s voice. They can record using Audacity, a cell phone voice app (voice memo or TapeACall to record phone calls), or provided recorders. Alternately, they can rip audio from the Internet (click here for tutorials and resources). Remind them to be thoughtful about how they are rhetorically employing voice.
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about voice?


Step #4: Music Analysis and Music in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with music in unique and interesting ways. Alternately, you might show them this brief video on the rhetorical nature of music. (Thank you to Kate Artz for introducing me to this resource.) Facilitate a discussion about how music functions rhetorically in each example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of music in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask students to incorporate music into their aural representation, using a song downloaded from Bensound or Adobe Music Loops & Beds. Remind students to be rhetorically thoughtful. Ask them to take notes responding to this question: How might the strategies function individually and together to help you achieve your rhetorical goals?
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to this question: What did this step in the activity teach you about music and sound interaction?


Step #5: Sound Effects/Silence Analysis and Sound Effects/Silence in Sound Writing

  • Play excerpts of audio that work with sound effects or silence in interesting ways. I recommend using Danah Hashem’s A Week in March for sound effects and Kate Artz’s “The Conversation” for silence. Again, facilitate a discussion about how sound effects or silence functions rhetorically in the example, adding or clarifying the student-identified rhetorical potentialities of sound effects or silence in the sonic rhetorical strategy chart.
  • Ask your students to incorporate sound effects or silence into their aural representation, again reminding them to be thoughtful about the rhetorical effects they’d like to achieve with this strategy. Ask them to take notes responding to this question: How might the strategies function individually and collaboratively to help you achieve your rhetorical goals?
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about sound effects or silence and sound interaction?


Step #6:

  • At this point, students should have a complete aural representation of their photograph. Instruct them to save the Audacity file and export it as an mp3 file. Now, ask students to take up their aural representation and do something to alter its original form for a different or the same rhetorical purpose. Students may choose to add, edit, delete, or modify an asset, or remix the project or parts of it. In preparation for this step, I encourage instructors to facilitate Using Play to Teach Writing in efforts to teach students about the value of play in audio composing.
  • In a free-write or brief discussion, ask students to respond to the question: What did this step in the activity teach you about revision, play, and experimentation with sonic rhetorical strategies and audio in general?


Step #7: The final step in this mini-project is an alphabetic homework assignment that asks students to reflect on these questions: What did this activity teach you about the affordances and constraints of the aural mode, sonic rhetorical strategies, and rhetoric and writing in general terms? What kinds of insights, questions, or challenges emerged during our collaborative analysis of examples, mini-discussions, and/or the creation of your aural representation? After students submit the homework, I encourage teachers to facilitate a discussion about what students wrote in their reflections.

Social Media Remote by Animated Heaven on Flickr, used under Public DomainLast week, I shared a critical thinking activity that asked students to explore the definitions of digital native and digital literacy. With my activity this week, I ask students to consider the idea of online identity. I cover several aspects of online identity, so I will share several posts on the topic. Today’s post focuses on an activity that shifts from digital literacy to the online identity that someone builds with those literacy skills. This activity should take only one class session.

The Activity

  1. Have students review the characteristics of the terms digital native and digital literacy, which the class established during previous sessions. Make any updates or changes that students want to the characteristics.
  2. With the characteristics fresh in students’ minds, explain that the class will apply the ideas by discussing the digital literacy skills that a public figure needs today.
    NOTE: Focus the discussion on particular public figures to ensure that you can complete the discussion during one class session. Consider the public figures in the instructions below as examples. Choose other public figures if they will work better for your class.
  3. Ask students about the digital literacy skills that a state politician or the school’s president needs and why those skills are needed. Ask them to consider the role rhetorical factors play—how do the audience, purpose, and context matter in terms of the necessary digital literacy skills? Record their responses on one side of the board or similar display.
  4. Once students have the basic characteristics determined, explain that you want them to think about how the digital literacy skills they expect would change (or not) if the public figure were a digital native, recording their answers on the other side of the display. Provide a concrete example such as the student government president or a class president. Encourage students to address the same ideas that they considered for the first public figure they analyzed. If new ideas come up for the digital native public figure, have students consider whether it applies to the older public figure (and if not, why not).
  5. With details recorded for both public figures, connect the conversation to online identity. Explain generally that online identity is the personality someone builds as they use their digital literacy skills. Provide only a brief definition. Students will have a working idea of what the term online identity means. The goal here is to ask students to record their preliminary ideas about the concept in preparation of deeper analysis.
  6. Arrange students into four small groups, asking two groups to consider the state politician or school president and the other two to consider the student government president or a class president. In their small groups, ask students to brainstorm a list of artifacts that they would expect to find if they investigated their public figure’s online identity.
  7. To get them started, you can offer the guiding questions below, but indicate these are just some opening questions. Groups can add many more questions of their own to these starting points:
    • What kind of social media accounts would you expect the figure to have?
    • What sites would you expect the figure to have logins on?
    • Where would you expect the figure to post comments?
    • Where would you find photos that figure posted online?
  8. Depending upon the amount of time left in the class, students can either present their brainstormed lists, combining the ideas to create one list for the state politician or school president and the other two to consider the student government president or a class president. If you have run out of time, ask groups to turn in their lists and combine the lists before the next session.
  9. End the session by explaining that you will use these lists as a starting point for a research project on online identity that you will begin during the next class session. Ask students to continue thinking about online identity, and to jot down any additional ideas they think of to add to their lists at the beginning of the next session.

Follow-Up Activities

Depending upon your course textbook, you might ask students to read an essay about establishing identity, whether online or not. The Bedford/St. Martin's title Acting Out Culture (4th ed, 2018) includes a chapter on “How We Identify” that offers a variety of relevant essays. If you want students to read specifically about online identity, Daniel Ruefman’s “Taking Control: Managing Your Online Identity for the Job Search” from Writing Commons frames the topic in terms that students can relate to personally.

Any Ideas to Add?

Let me hear your suggestions for talking about online identity and digital literacy in the composition classroom. Whether you have an assignment, a great reading, or another resource to share, I would love to see what you have to say. I might even feature your idea in an upcoming post!


[Photo: Social Media Remote by Animated Heaven on Flickr, used under Public Domain]

Today's guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korna Professor in the English Department at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website Acts of Composition.


This is my semester to play with Google. I am loving my Google Drive and finding many new ways to use it in my classes. I have challenged myself to search out creative ways to use these tools and come to understand its many features. My classes have always encouraged collaboration and student voices, and these affordances help me achieve that in ways I could not have imagined. I was motivated early on this semester and talked about a peer responding activity in my last post, Grab-and-Go Galleries. Below I describe the results of this challenge and present Five for the Drive – a list of writing and collaborative activities for easy implementation in your courses.


Background Reading

  • The St. Martin’s Handbook:  Ch. 3 a-d, “Exploring, Planning and Drafting”; Ch. 7 a-e, Reading Critically”; Ch. 12, “Evaluating Sources and Taking Notes”
  • The Everyday Writer (also available with exercises): Ch. 9 a-e, “Critical Reading”; Ch.14 a-e, “Evaluating Sources and Taking Notes”
  • EasyWriter (also available with exercises): Ch. 2 a-e, “Exploring, Planning and Drafting”; Ch. 7 a-c, “Analyzing and Reading Critically”; Ch. 14 a-d, “Evaluating Sources and Taking Notes”


Five for the Drive

  1. Generating Text-Specific Passages. In order to teach strong interpretive reading and writing, we encourage our students to focus on specific passages and references in a text. For this activity, students pull a significant passage from a reading selection and post it to a document in our drive at the beginning of class. All students had to participate and created a real-time collaborative document that we could immediately refer to during our class discussion.
  2. Generating Thought-Provoking Questions. A modification of the activity above, this activity asks students to come up with 3 thought-provoking questions in response to a reading selection and post them to a Drive document. I used to assign students to submit an index card with these questions and then type them up myself at home. Now, students create them in real time so my homework is no longer necessary. I then break them into small groups to discuss these student-generated questions.
  3. Collaborative Slide Show. For this activity, I want to give students practice explicating a poem and working with visual representation. I created a template in Google Slides in which each student in a group is responsible for a single slide. They focus on part of the poem, write their interpretation and include an associated digital image (from Creative Commons and available for re-use). The template also includes a slide for collaborative takeaways and one for linking critical sources that works as a collaborative annotated bibliography. Students create this during a single class period and present to the class the following day.
  4. Catalog of Working Titles and Abstracts. For all the writing projects in my classes, I encourage the processes of invention – exploring and planning--that students share with each other for peer feedback. This activity teaches students to write engaging titles and summarize and focus their projects. Each student posts a working title and short description to the drive for immediate sharing and feedback. This becomes a reference document for students to keep each other’s projects in mind for ongoing suggestions and feedback. The Google Doc gives students the flexibility to change and shape their working titles and direction as they research and draft.
  5. Revision Log: When assigning digital writing (such as blogs) it is often difficult to track drafts and revision for student reflection and evaluation. I have students keep an ongoing revision log on their Google Drive in which they record and categorize changes they make as they make them. They complete a short reflection at the end in which they look at global changes and patterns of revision along with a self-evaluation of their progress.



These activities give teachers easy ways to emphasize and regularize collaboration in their classes. They are especially helpful in larger enrollment classes that might not have as many opportunities for collaboration. They show that team-work does not have to always be associated with long form projects and can be part of engaged, daily work in the classroom. These activities work well because they . . .

  • Give all students a voice and a chance to express their ideas.
  • Allow for immediate presentation of ideas in class.
  • Put the work on the students, rather than the teacher.
  • Provide quick, in-class access through phones and devices.
  • Create open-ended documents for ongoing work across a semester.


Want to be a guest blogger on Multimodal Mondays? Message Leah Rang for more information.

Donna Winchell

Symbolism and Protest

Posted by Donna Winchell Expert Nov 24, 2017


Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance used to be a matter of course, something most of us took for granted.  The rare exception when I was a child was the family who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and who since 1943 had had a Constitutional right to sit during the Pledge. We were curious why our friend Becky sat out the Pledge and had a vague notion that it had something to do with what church she went to, but we didn’t worry about it or think that she loved our country any less than the rest of us. We were more concerned that members of her church thought all the rest of us were going to hell. It would be nice to think that even as children we understood that our flag symbolized Becky’s freedom not to do something that was against her religion. 


What the flag symbolizes is at the heart of the current controversy about taking a knee during the National Anthem. Clearly there is a huge difference in opinions. Not standing for the National Anthem is viewed by some as a sign of disrespect. What exactly is being disrespected when an NFL player takes a knee instead of standing when the anthem is played? Is it the flag or something that the flag symbolizes?  The flag being honored by the anthem symbolizes our country and, by extension, the freedoms guaranteed us as citizens of that country. Ironically, one of those freedoms is the freedom to protest peacefully. 


There has been a law regarding the appropriate behavior during the National Anthem since 1932, but the law has been revised six times since then, and there are no penalties specified for not behaving appropriately. The laws have generally differentiated between behavior when the flag is displayed during the anthem and when it is not. The focus from the beginning was more on behavior during the playing of the song than on behavior regarding the flag. When the flag is not displayed, audience members are supposed to stand and face the band. 


Is the refusal to stand for the National Anthem a show of disrespect for America’s servicemen and servicewomen? Is the flag a symbol of the military? “The Star Spangled Banner” was the anthem for the U. S. Navy before it was our national anthem. Perhaps the anthem is associated with those in the armed services because different behavior has always been expected from those in or having served in the military than from others—whether it was saluting or holding military headgear near the left shoulder so that the hand was over the heart. 


Colin Kaepernick has made it clear from the beginning what he is protesting. He is protesting mistreatment of American citizens by other American citizens in positions of power. He sat on the bench for two games, and his silent protest was only noticed the third game. At that point, his teammate Eric Reid talked to him and retired Green Beret and former NFL player Nate Boyer about how to continue the protest. Reid writes, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” He continues, “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.


Credit to skeeze posted on Pixaby June 21, 2014 via Creative Commons


This Thanksgiving, I’m having some trouble giving thanks. The increasing horror of mass shootings and senseless loss of life; the revelation of unthinkable acts of sexual harassment; the moral and spiritual decay in Congress; the combination of incompetence, corruption, and mean-spiritedness of the Trump administration; the ugliness, racism, and hatred unleashed through fake news, misinformation, and outright lies online; the cataclysmic natural disasters—all leave me feeling on the verge of hopelessness and despair.


But I don’t think I can give in to that hopelessness and despair. And so I turn, as I so often do, to one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, who reminds me that

          “Hope” is the thing with feathers -

          That perches in the soul -

          And sings the tune without the words -

          And never stops - at all –

That “never stops - at all ” becomes a mantra for me, and it takes me to another thinker I admire and often turn to on dark days. Cornel West, Professor of Public Philosophy at Harvard and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, has written and spoken extensively and eloquently on the need for hope, as in this excerpt from a commencement address he gave at Wesleyan University:

Last, but not least, there is a need for audacious hope. And it's not optimism. I'm in no way an optimist. I've been black in America for 39 years. No ground for optimism here, given the progress and regress and three steps forward and four steps backward. Optimism is a notion that there's sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we're doing, things will get better. I don't believe that. I'm a prisoner of hope, that's something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence. William James said it so well in that grand and masterful essay of his of 1879 called "The Sentiment of Rationality," where he talked about faith being the courage to act when doubt is warranted. And that's what I'm talking about.

What particularly lifts me up in this passage is not just the emphasis on hope but the linking of hope and courage. In a tweet on November 21, 2013 (right around Thanksgiving time), West wrote, “Faith, hope and love are the three pillars of deep spirituality -- yet it is courage that enables all three.”


Those words have what my grandmother called “stick-to-it-iveness”: they stick to me like they are a part of me, tattooed on my heart. It’s not enough to hope, or to be a “prisoner of hope.” Rather, we need to activate that hope through courage. And in this regard, I begin to feel more hopeful and more full of thanks: for the good, decent, strong women (and men) who have the courage to run for local and national offices for the first time ever; for the very few in Congress who have the courage to speak truth to power; for the teachers all over the United States who have the courage to enter their classrooms day after day full of hope and love; and to the women (and men) who have the courage to come forward and name those who have sexually harassed and abused them. In all these cases, it is the courage that enables hope that allows for hope.


And that’s a lot to be thankful for this season. I wish peace and hope and love—and courage—for you and your students this Thanksgiving, and always.


Credit: Pixaby Image 2261476 by andreahamilton264, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

One of the monumental tasks facing developmental English instructors in post-redesign institutions is how to provide just-in-time professional development for teachers who do not have experience teaching in an integrated classroom.  Pairing reading and writing specialists to collaborate on assignments and syllabus development provides one effective strategy. Brief workshops throughout the term can also be helpful. Here is one relatively simple reflection activity for a short workshop designed to support new IRW instructors.


To conduct the activity, ask instructors to complete a short reading assignment and a brief writing assignment, each no more than 3-7 minutes in length. After each task, have instructors reflect on what they did: how did they start? How often did they stop and return to the instructions? Where did they look during the process? What were some of the steps they followed?  Ideally, instructors would complete these assignments using screencasting or recording equipment, so that they could review their process afterwards and make more detailed comments.


After instructors have made notes on what they did, ask them to consider which process they were able to document more fully: reading or writing? Very often, our familiarity with one or the other in the classroom makes us much more attentive to our idiosyncratic patterns or practices in that area—reading teachers may analyze their reading techniques in much more detail than their writing habits, while writing teachers may do the opposite.


As teachers reflect on differences in their own awareness, encourage reading and writing instructors to work together to probe and expand their reflections. Reading teachers, for example, may encourage writing counterparts to consider movement backward or forwards in the text, or (if it was a particularly challenging text) the speed or timing of adjustments to initial hypotheses about the text. Writing instructors might ask colleagues to consider the role of planning prior to the first written words, or the amount of revision that occurred during the writing process.  Participants may also consider how rhetorical contexts informed both the reading and writing they did: how did a potential audience influence the writing task? How did awareness of an intended audience impact the reading assignment? Finally, the instructors might investigate how they would assess the effectiveness of their performance: how do they know if they read well or wrote well? Did some instructors have very different—but equally successful—processes?


If there is time, have participants complete a second set of activities and reflections, noting what additional insights they gained about their own reading and writing processes.


This simple workshop activity—reading/writing, reflection, discussion—will of course not make anyone into a stellar IRW instructor right away. But as instructors build awareness of their own reading and writing processes, they raise critical questions which can enhance both their future professional development and their interactions with students.


What is the best professional development for integrated reading and writing in your experience?


Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

Digital Natives: An Infographic Series about Emerging Adults, from Oxford University PressVirginia Tech Libraries are embarking on a digital literacy initiative, which focuses on “support[ing] all learners in exploring, evaluating, creating, and sharing a variety of digital content, including data, information, and media.” This work matches much of the work I have been doing all along in the writing classroom when I talk about digital resources and digital composing.


For the next few weeks, I will share some relevant classroom activities and assignments that align with the digital literacy work on my campus. I’m starting my series with an activity that focuses on defining what it means to be a digital native and, by extension, what we mean when we talk about digital literacy. Establishing an understanding of these two terms provides the support for all the future activities in this series. Depending upon the length of your class sessions, you may break up the activity into more than one session.


The Activity

  1. Establish what students already know and think about the terms digital native and digital literacy. Ask students to write what they know about the terms, using whatever strategy they find most comfortable (e.g., freewriting, listing, clustering/mindmaps).
  2. Have students share their notes on the two terms in small groups, working together to identify similarities among the responses and the strongest ideas they have recorded.
  3. Ask each group to present the similarities and strongest ideas they have identified, writing notes on the board or presenting from a shared slideshow.
  4. With class input, group related ideas that have been shared, rephrasing and reducing as necessary to narrow down the list of characteristics. Identify this synthesized list as the first draft of characteristics of the terms for the class.
  5. Explain that the class will next compare the first draft to ideas that are presented in infographics about digital natives and digital literacy.
  6. Share my Digital Literacy board on Pinterest, or share your own collection of infographics. Preview each of the infographics briefly with the class. If desired, you may limit this activity to a single infographic or a small number of infographics.
  7. Assign each group a specific infographic to analyze. Alternately, allow groups to choose an infographic, first-come, first-served style.
  8. Ask students to return to their small groups and examine the infographic closely, using the following questions to guide their conversation:
    • What facts about digital literacy and/or digital natives are included in the infographic?
    • What support is given for the facts?
    • What is the source of the facts? Are the sources reputable?
    • Do you agree with the facts in the infographic? How well do they match your experience?
    • How do the facts in the infographic compare to those in the first draft that the class created?
  9. After students have discussed their infographics thoroughly, ask them to consider whether to change or add to the first draft of characteristics. Have groups identify their points generally, explaining that the whole class will decide on the specific details of changes or additions.
  10. Once small groups have finished their work, ask each group to share their infographic along with the basic points of their analysis of the infographic, relying on their answers to the questions in Step 8 to structure their presentation. Ask each group to end their presentation by explaining any changes or additions they recommend as a result of their analysis.
  11. Once the group presentations are complete, sort the changes and additions that have been suggested. Ask each small group to reconcile the relevant changes with an existing characteristic and/or to draft additional characteristics.
  12. Have groups submit their revisions and additions to you. Before the next class session, combine all the characteristics into a new draft. Make copies to distribute or create a slideshow of the revised characteristics.
  13. During the next session, pass out copies or share the slideshow with the class. Ask students to review the new draft, and as a class make any additional changes to the characteristics. Explain that this revised, new draft will be used in future activities.

Follow-Up Activities

Next week, I will share a follow-up activity that asks students to think about how their characteristics relate to the idea of online identity. If desired, however, you can use these alternative activities:


  • Ask students, working individually or in small groups, to create their own infographics that present one or more of the characteristics that the class has established.
  • Treat the class list of characteristics as a collection of hypotheses about digital natives and digital literacy. Have students, again individually or in small groups, research a characteristic, looking for supporting data. Ask students to prepare a formal oral presentation of their findings as well as any recommendations to change the characteristic they have investigated.
  • Have students write narrative essays that describe a specific incident from their own lives or that they have observed that relates to one of the characteristics. Students’ stories should support or refute the characteristic they focus on.

Any Ideas to Add?

I would love to hear some new ideas on discussing digital natives and digital literacy with students. Do you have ideas to share or infographics that I can add to my collection? Please leave me a comment below with the details, and come back next week for my follow-up activity that focuses on online identity.



Infographic Credit: Digital Natives: An Infographic Series about Emerging Adults, from Oxford University Press