The Tumblr Experiment, part 2: First Steps in the Digital World

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

Read The Tumblr Experiment, part 1: Introduction

Hashtag-620x350 2The blogging universe is huge and can feel overwhelming, so my students’ first challenge was to carve out a bit of it for our own community. Our first assignment was to create blogs and find each other. Enter the hashtag. Students know how to use hashtags to organize their posts or tweets around topics, so I use them with Tumblr as well. Our first one is aplang15hello. Hashtags are a great way to tame the vastness of the blogosphere, but I need something that’s easy to identify and stands out. The first part identifies the class and the second part, after the 15, is the subject. This is our way to “find” each other. We search for the unique hashtag which leads us to each others’ blogs. Then it’s a simple click on the “Follow” button and, hello audience.

This first project, High Art, grew out of my frustration with the kinds of essays I typically assigned. I asked students to evaluate and make a case for a novel that they liked to be placed in our curriculum. As a writing assignment it was ok (zzzz), but the products lacked passion and voice. Students didn’t really care about novels or my opinion of novels, so they didn’t really care about the writing. My problem was that I didn’t know what they were passionate about and didn’t have a good way to find out.

birds-art-wordI also came up against the audience problem. Having their teacher as audience/evaluator/giver of points meant they wrote safe and “schooly”–their word–rather than honestly. I didn’t want safe writing. I wanted them to take chances, fail sometimes, learn and then come back again.

When I started to flirt with the idea of using Tumblr blogs in class, I lurked around in the space watching for and thinking about the kinds of writing I wanted my students to try, and I kept coming back to the idea of voice–authentic, honest and passionate. That voice, it seemed to me, was often found around subjects that the the writers were passionate about–music, movies, television shows, pop culture–sure, but still culture. And tucked in there among the pop culture were a lot of other things too–art things like body art and anime and illustrations. Art? Could I ask them to write about art? Why not?

It’s subjective. No one I was reading seemed able to clearly define it, but most of the writers seemed passionate that what they liked was most definitely Art. We were writing about novels, and it’s not much of a pivot from writing an argument about books to writing an argument about art. So, art it was. We looked at some examples of “high” and “low” art and  culture, talked about criteria and evaluation and then jumped in.  For their first assignment, I ask for students’ definition of art. I know. That’s daunting and very subjective, but for those very reasons it seemed like a logical starting point. It’s a challenging topic, but you can’t really get it “wrong.” And it’s a good way for students to introduce their “honest yet academic” selves. (More on this self idea in an upcoming post on Speaker–Who are you? Who do do want to be?)

Screen shot 2015-01-19 at 11.30.09 AMThis image shows some of our initial forays on to the Tumblr microblogging platform. Tumblr microblogs typically offer shorter content than blogs, another aspect that drew me to it. It’s less daunting than the essay-like blog but more demanding that something like Twitter.

Students did pretty well once we got past the challenges. I always have to remind myself that just because my students are digital natives doesn’t mean that they are all good at technology. I had to work through issues of sign ups, access (my district, like many others, tends to be squeamish when it comes to anything that smells even remotely like social networking sites, so firewalls and filters are a constant challenge), how to “find” each other and the blogs we want to follow, commenting, and reblogging. There’s always something. My response is to remain calm and find a workaround. Eventually it all worked out, and we managed to create some content. It was mostly in the form of reblogging–repeating something interesting that you found on someone else’s blog–and then adding to the discussion with some original writing.

The students would mine the blogs they followed for content that they could write about and reblog under a our class hashtag–things they were genuinely interested in. Using the class hashtag meant it would show up in the feeds of their classmates. If they picked the right content and presented it well, they’d get a response for another classmate. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t.

tumblrwordcloudIt’s here where our discussion about audience starts to bear out. What kind of writing attracts and holds our attention? Tumblr is an image rich environment with most users simply scrolling through until something catches their attention. The question for writers becomes: how do we compete for that attention?

The images blur by, but my students agree that it’s often the writing that “sticks.” So how do we get “sticky?” I assign (compel?) my students to, in addition to writing their own content, reblog and comment on a certain number of their classmates’ posts. Making this an assignment is cheating because we’re not really creating any original content–more like offering opinions and observations–but it’s a good way to join the Tumblr discussion. It does require student bloggers to look at each others’ writing, but the challenge to attract attention, create a buzz, get sticky, is still with the writer. How do writers attract attention? What kinds of writing stick to a reader’s attention? Usually I’d approach these questions by assigning an essay and we’d start to close read and analyze it. Now the students’ work is where we start. I look through their work for what I call “good exchanges.”

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A “Good Exchange” showing a couple of students engaged in exchanging views over an idea about art.

The image at the right shows what a good exchange on Tumblr might look like. The original writer reblogged and wrote about something in a way that provoked his audience–his classmates–to “like,” “reblog,” and then respond. I’ll project this on the board and then we’ll talk about how and why the writing works. We give feedback and talk about the choices the writers made and how they worked. For me, this is a goldmine of teachable moments. I can talk directly to the intended audience because they’re sitting in the same room next to the writer who I can ask to talk about the choices she made and what her purpose was. We still close read professional writers, still look to the masters for guidance and models, but now I have another set of models, another set of writers. These writers are us. We’re not simply studying writing; we are writing, and about things we’re passionate about, just like Swift and Orwell and Wolff–all of whomI think would be terrific bloggers.

The Tumblr experiment is underway and most of the tech issues are solved. So where do we go next? It’s engaging and fun. My students like the attention, and I like having all of this material to use in my teaching but, they still ask me what it’s worth.

“Hey, um, Mr. Kreinbring-kreinbring65- or whatever we’re supposed to call you, points, how many are we getting for all this writing? Sure, it’s more engaging and all that but, you know, what’s my grade?”

They still ask that. They still have a hard time seeing past grades and points as the reason to do all of this writing. It’s not a question I like, but it is valid. How am I, their teacher, (and they still see me a that way, not as a fellow blogger) using all of this work to evaluate them? How am I rewarding good work and encouraging others to work harder at this?

I honestly do not know…yet.

I do know that my goal is to get students thinking of themselves as writers, as part of a community that skillfully uses words and images to explore ideas that matter to them, but they’re worried about their grades. Frustrating as it is I understand this, but we are moving in the right direction because they’re primarily looking more at one another as the audience and second at me as  the “evaluator.” I see them engaging with each other but with an awareness of me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to completely move them from thinking of themselves as members of a class  with the goal of getting a good grade to members of a community of writers with the goal of becoming better writers but this experiment; this feels like a first step in right direction.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Students: I Am Not Your Audience

Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

178742843Several years ago, I went in search of an audience for my students, although at the time I didn’t know that was what I was up to. I’d seen enough student writing to know I wasn’t doing something right in my instruction. My students were smart, interesting and capable of all manner of argument, but their writing didn’t reflect that. However, they were willing to risk suspension by breaking through the district’s internet firewall to reach sites like Myspace and Facebook where they wrote (Wrote!) about things they cared about in ways that reflected their personalities. This was what I was looking for. So I started a website where my students and I could build on the conversations we were having in class, and they could write in the same way they wrote on social media sites. I envisioned a free flowing forum of ideas and enthusiasm, a place for authentic voices like I’d seen on Facebook and Myspace, like I’d heard in my classroom. Yeah, I was wrong.

Our website quickly became a place where my ideas went to die, or where students would respond to my prompts as if they were short answer questions, writing in a dull, mechanical, and predictable way.  I asked for modern examples of  Holden Caulfield thinking I’d inspire students to write about alienation but got lists of “bad boy” actors and links to a band called “Holden Caulfield.” In my students’ defense, that’s how I wrote the prompts. They were prescriptive and came from my ideas about what the students should find engaging. Every now and then we’d spark a little discussion–but not really. The site was more of a bulletin board than a forum. Still, I was determined to use this new internet realm for something.

181407018This all happened at the turn of the century, but the idea of 21st century literacy wasn’t on my radar. I wasn’t thinking about how drastically teaching reading and writing was going to be impacted by the World Wide Web. I just wanted to be in on what was happening.  Though my first failures did send me in a new direction. My students were using platforms like MySpace to say things about themselves, to give their opinions, and to challenge each others’ ideas. It was entirely social, but what they were doing was writing, sometimes with letters and words, sometimes with images. But it’s all text, and that’s what drew me in. So I tried again.

Dipping  my educational toe into social media in a few places didn’t bring  much success. Individual blogs I had my students set up felt isolated and formal. I gave them assignments to be completed on the blog, which they treated like electronic paper. The writing didn’t change much, but they were more careful and deliberate with their work. Discussion boards or chat rooms were too fast and too informal. They were conversational in nature and didn’t leave my students time for a carefully considered response. They had to get ideas out quickly or be left behind. Still, I had little glimpses of what I was after: a sustained and thoughtful conversation in writing and images. But when this occurred, I didn’t know why. I didn’t know how to recreate it.

What was the difference between what I was doing and what I wanted? The answer is audience. I hadn’t been aware of just how much weight audience carries. When I was the audience, even the perceived audience, it changed 128930844the way my students wrote. Their voices faded. Those few times I did manage to spark something good–thoughtful, honest writing with authentic voices about a text we were looking at–then their writing became self supporting. Students abandoned me as audience and wrote for each other, fed off each other and it had very little–actually nothing–to do with me. In fact, I was very careful not to enter into the conversation because as soon as I said anything, their writing changed course and was directed at replicating the thing I’d praised. The writing even changed when students knew that I was lurking but not writing anything.  Many of them would lose the nerve to be the writers they really were. It didn’t matter that I told them that their audience was each other; my mere virtual presence changed how they wrote. When I became their audience, they tried to write like students. But when their audience was other students, they wrote like writers. They had more confidence, took risks, and tried to engage the each other. In short, they did what writers do.

Encouraged but still confused, I went looking for a platform that allows the immediacy of a conversation but encouraged more thoughtful and deliberate writing. A couple of years ago I came upon  At the time, it was a kind of hybrid hipster blog with lots of art and music. There was plenty of careless writing, but there were also blogs with very good, clearly professional writing. I started by following blogs on Tumblr that both interested me and fit with what I wanted the students to see like Blake Gopnik On Art,  The Paris Review , The Nearsighted Monkey. These blogs are all clearly written for a specific audience–Tumblr users–and decidedly too cool for most of my students and their teacher. That’s was part of what I was looking for. I wanted to connect my students to a fairly sophisticated audience in hopes that they might adopt the characteristics of that audience. (I was wrong about that but not for the reason I thought. That’s grist for another post.) Tumblr looked promising enough to try, so I set my first class loose.

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11th grade post on “what is art?” Click to read.

I traditionally assigned some kind of evaluative essay where the students had to make a case for including something in the curriculum or extolling the virtues of a new technology. It was an okay assignment. It let us look at different ways to advance an argument, what counts as evidence, warrants–all of the things I wanted my students to learn. The essays were fine but lacked passion and voice because they weren’t writing about anything they really cared about, and they weren’t writing to anyone they cared about. It was an exercise to them, nothing more. Why work hard when they didn’t care about the subject or the audience?

With this question in mind, I asked student to find examples of and talk about what they thought was art (hanna art, animation). And I turned them loose in the Tumblr world. They followed, promoted and wrote about things they liked. Things they were interested in. As I watched voices emerged, I learned what my students were interested in and why they liked what they liked. I saw arguments. I saw rhetoric in action. I saw some real writing and I heard authentic student voices.

Screen shot 2014-10-26 at 11.01.13 AM

11th grade post on “what is art?” Click to read.

Why did Tumblr work?  The audience had changed. Students were writing for themselves and trying to write in ways that would attract attention from other writers and readers in that world. This was three years ago, and I was just starting to think about how the ways that students will read and write is fundamentally different than how I read and write thanks to the new media world. That first year I took what my students did on their Tumblr blogs and kind of wedged it into an existing curricular format. It wasn’t a great fit and moving from the blogs to an essay cost them some voice, or the tone was too casual for the classroom. I didn’t do a good job of explaining how a change in audience or situation, let alone both, required some serious rethinking of rhetorical strategies. It’s an ongoing conversation I have with my students. We talk about…

  • What are the characteristics of the platform and how do we adapt our writing to fit its conventions?
  • Is the platform the same as the audience?
  • What counts as evidence in a setting that seems to demand visual arguments?
  • How do we warrant and cite a picture? A video? A gif?
  • How can I make my writing stand out?
  • How do I grab the audience’s attention and then hold it long enough to engage them in my writing?
  • What kinds of arguments hold sway with this audience?

These are all very good, important questions that deserve serious consideration. I can’t answer them now. I usually turn the questions back at my students. They are the experts, the digital natives whose interest drew me into this world in first place. I have 20th century knowledge. They have 21st century experience.

I have only just begun to really consider what students writing in the 21st century might require  of me as a teacher. It is exciting and a hot mess. How do I manage all of this? Evaluate it? Channel it?  The Tumblr experiment continues into it’s third year. I’m a little more sure of what I’m doing–a little. In my next posts, I’ll share more about what’s going on–successes, failures and everything I learn.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

Audience is Everything

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

In my first post, I said I was in an alumni production of Our Town. Now, the play is over, and the reviews are in. Wilder’s play survived my assault on Doc Gibbs, but the experience has me thinking about teaching writing.

Audience is everything.

Audience_3_previewDifferent disciplines define “audience” using other words, but it all comes down to the perception and experience of the end user. All products, all successful products, are designed with the user in mind, as determined by product testing or a focus group. Art and music, while often very personal,  succeed when they “find and audience.”  Sketching, journaling, and playing random chords because they please you is fine because you are the only audience. But if you want to find out if you’re good, however that’s defined, you need an audience.

What’s the measure of success in writing? Did it achieve the writer’s goal with her intended audience? As a teacher, I know that my goal is for my students to be successful actors in the play that we call writing. I am both the director as I guide them through the process, and a participant as I write alongside them.  But where’s our audience? Who are we working so hard for? How do we know if our choices are the right ones if we never get to see the audience, hear them laugh in the first two acts, and then go silent in the third because we set them up for that on purpose?

When we rehearsed Our Town, our only audience was each other and the director. We ran our lines and worked through how to deliver them, but we had no idea how they’d be received by an actual audience. There were places that we suspected would be funny or poignant if we delivered the lines well, but we didn’t really know if they would work as we expected them to. There were words and phrases that we had to say, either because another character depended on hearing them as a cue to deliver another line or because they were vital to delivering some thematic idea. We had to be fast and bright in the first two acts because we planned to shock the audience with our somber tone in the third.

The director helped us imagine our audience and what they would see and hear, but that’s not the same thing as having an audience. The whole endeavor, the play, was aimed at the audience, not me. I was having fun, but the audience was who I was working for. When we did perform the play, we knew where it worked because we could see and hear the audience react. It was a rush when we got it right, and it stung when it fell flat, but at least we knew for sure what the audience thought.

That idea lingers.

181748002In the past couple of years, I have been putting more and more emphasis on the importance of audience in writing. I talk with my students about who their audience is, its characteristics, what moves it, and recently, we talked about what might delight the audience. The mantra “when you write for everyone, you write for no one” echoes through my room as we try to imagine that one person we’re trying to reach. (I know who it is for this piece.)

The problem is–it’s fake. There is no audience, not really. We give excellent feedback to each other, but it isn’t the same thing as having an audience. I had been aware of that, but until I walked across a stage and delivered my lines for a real audience, I didn’t feel it. I do now, keenly. The question becomes: where do I get an audience for my students?

My students have been blogging for years, and my use of new media platforms has evolved from a place for me to make announcements to a static discussion board to a place where my students can engage each other. But the audience is still “us,” the theater company. We are currently setting up blogs on Tumblr. This will be our third year on that site, and I have a decent sense of how to use it to talk about 21st century writing, but my goal this year is to try and get my students’ best work in front of a real audience. I’m not entirely sure what that will look like or if I can accomplish it. Is this something I can do using Tumblr blogs, or is that still too insulated?

Peer feedback is another option I’m working hard on, but again, it doesn’t feel-big enough. When I was at an NCTE Conference, I saw a presentation on having a Writers Week, but that’s a ton of prep for really only one week. I’m looking for help here, gentle reader. If you have a suggestion, please share it.  I want my students to feel the sting of missing a line, or having something they think will work fall flat, and then come back with a better idea. I want them to know their writing has succeeded, not because I gave them an “A,” but because they can hear the laugh and see the audience cry a little in the third act.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.