Saturday, March 18, 2017

On the 21st Century Open Road, Technology Supports Literacy-Driven Social Actions...

...OR - How Shane Koyczan’s Book To This Day Joins Whitman’s Poetry as a Platform for Citizenship

by Dr. Rose Reissman

The 19th century poet, Walt Whitman used his powerful voice and his overarching persona to set off on the Open Road - “ Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, . . . The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” Walt envisioned himself as a social activist; his poetry to alert citizens of various ethnicities, social and economic stations to their commonality and shared civic goals:  “I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go, I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them.”

Whitman managed to disseminate his broad poetry, his tool to foment social action through the available technology platforms of his time.  He published extensively in print and he networked as a speaker and as a community activist.  He cultivated a photographic persona for himself as “the good gray poet.”  But his capacity to reach extensive numbers of Americans and certainly world citizens was limited by their literacy, by available translation sources, and access to.  But,  as evidenced by the Open Road’s ongoing popularity in a 21st century car commercial and Whitman’s position in the canon of American literature today, he did a superlative job in speaking to his own and future audiences given the technology platforms available to him.

Shane Koyczan, a Canadian, born in 1976 shares Walt Whitman’s vision of using writing. As a child he was bullied and got through it the experience by writing down his thoughts.  When he matured into adolescence, he shaped those thoughts into poems that deal with, among other topics, the anguish of being bullied, the dilemma posed for bystanders, and the back stories behind those who are bullies.  Koyczan in the 21st century paralleled Whitman by initially writing down and performing on stage his poem about the experience of bullying.  As a result of his stage performance of this written text, audience members shared with him their own experience of the sadly universal trauma of bullying.

Since, unlike Whitman, Koyczan also had a band (Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long), he accessed 21st century recording technology to develop a piece for his album titled Remembrance Year: .   Already technology had expanded his ability to share and to through his website and other social networks get immediate reaction and interactive response about bullying. Thus his artistic reaches far beyond the personal audience comments or published reactions that 19th century Walt Whitman could was able to achieve. 

While Walt Whitman, in cultivation of his efforts as the “good gray poet”, did go to hospitals to nurse the Civil War wounded and focus the public’s attention on the poor and socially disadvantaged, Koyczan realized that since his audience’s responses were so moving, he could tap a 21stcentury tools unavailable to Whitman in order to expand his literary reach and alert and sensitize a broader audience to the issue of bullying. 

Using the web and social networking resources like Facebook and Twitter he was able to crowd source 86 artists’ short animations inspired by his poem, aggregating them to form a single,  fluid video. The resulting “to this day video” ( ) went viral and got 12 million hits internationally in 2013 alone!!  Whitman certainly knew he was recognized in his time period. Koyczan, however, as he started his fourth decade, had the kind numbers of persons worldwide who he and collaborators had reached through performances, recordings, and the video, that Whitman could never have imagined whose only media were print and personal appearance.

Importantly, though, he had reached millions on the Web before he actually decided on putting his poetry out as a print book. This, he accomplished again with a collaborative group of 30 artists who illustrated the poem, plus provided commentary for it.  The book came last not first in his ongoing TO THIS DAY anti bullying social consciousness project.  It was published after the video in 2014.

As Koyczan notes:  “writing became the way I could stand up for myself. . . Self expression . . . makes the world my friend . . .the world will never hear you if you choose to say nothing.”

Koyczan’s use of multiple 21st century  digital media platforms, audio recordings, personal website, twitter account, Ted talk video, and more,  model how today’s Walt Whitman poetry based social activists and literacy educators can tap into the varied digital and multimedia platforms to offer 21st century learners multiple formats to identify their expressive strengths. 
Whether their learning talents and styles lie in speaking and listening , writing, working collaboratively, singing, using visual art to graphically communicate knowledge or a message or in reading and reacting to a print or online presentation; Koyczan models how today’s literate and informed citizen can participate across a span of text options as a social activist global community member.  In doing so, students of course use the full spectrum of literacy skills, including reading , writing, speaking, listing, and knowledge and conventions of language.  Even more important, they can read, see, get online feedback, collaborate globally and quickly draw audiences for their purposeful messages in ways Whitman could not fathom from his 19th century technology base.

In his poem, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, 19th century Walt Whitman seems to look ahead to our century and beyond and tell us: “It avails not, neither time or place-distance avails not; /I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence/ I project myself – I also return- I am with you and know how it is.”

If Whitman was able to look forward to our century and beyond (and this poem is still widely taught and respected) then he is looking at the work of Koyczan and other literacy-driven social justice activists and smiling in delight at the way they tap digital platforms to reach infinite number of citizens worldwide.  The good gray poet of the 19th century open road is comforted by the vision of a future in which technology has enabled infinite numbers of global citizens to walk that road alongside him and engage others in this walk toward a caring collaborative and collegial  world community.

And Walt Whitman, Shane Koyczan has your back and is smiling back at you across the generations past knowing both of you can positively impact generations of citizens to come!!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

CONNECTING ESL Learners through Digital Storytelling

CONNECTING ESL Learners through Digital Storytelling
By Dr. Rose Reissman

ESL, ELA, and SS educators have always faced challenges in engaging students in activities to build first language content and skill expertise,  so that they may transfer that content learning to English Language mandated learning.
Currently, though, Chromebooks, or similar connected devices, are very commonly available for classroom instruction. With these, this difficult challenge may be tackled easily and successfully by offering second language learners, and their native speaker peers, activities that are rich and enjoyable. The key to this is Digital Storytelling and many free and highly effective resources to support it are available on the web.

Many educators rush to purchase special ESL learner specific software and texts, as well as online programs for reading comprehension.  These, of course, are often exclusively used with ESL learners even in a mixed classroom where they study alongside American born peers.  Ironically, even with all the differing levels of English language reading, speaking, listening, and product creating ability in a mixed learner class, one resource set is already available in the school that  can immediately connect ESL and American peers in literacy learning and sharing.  That tool is a Chromebook or laptop or tablet that can connect students to web-based resources guaranteed excite all learners in the guise of stories heard, stories told and stories produced.

Want a look at this dynamic digital story highway? Go to *’Digital Storytelling Site’ for a page of curated ESL Storytelling Resources. 

You'll find a curated list of ESL, ready-to-peruse and select, grade, age, topics, lessons and methods, plus step-by-step project instructions. Much of this can serve as a quick ESL tutorial or differentiation practicum for the educator who is new to ESL students. It can also serve the ESL educator who is eager to infuse peer ESL language learner materials into his or her teaching. 

Literacy learning involves listening skills which are required for all and that develop as they hear native English spoken. This is especially needed for ESL students, Unfortunately, this is something which for many students, including a sizable percent born in the USA, does not happen at home where their native languages are spoken.  The resource, Digital Storytelling Site provides both ESL teachers and teachers who have ESL students in their content classes with an array of free resources that provide good-to-go storytelling lessons on different ESL levels that will help their students get over this hurdle.

Teachers, even those who do not teach ESL students at all, will benefit from the extended body of ready ESL learner samples and the techniques mapped out from multiple respected sources such as those found at TESOL Journal  

Even better, the students – ESL, and those who can benefit from ESL emphasis on vocabulary, which will include many American natives, can immediately explore such resources as their teachers observe, and through the audio, manage learner responses and note individual listening strengths and deficits. 

The connected device, will help ESL, ELA and SS teachers to differentiate use of resources to best support individual learner vocabulary, conversation and comprehension of English, while allowing the teacher to maintain privacy of individual learner progress.  All learners -ESL and American born- become part of the classroom Storyteller circle on the connected device platform.

Instantly available, is audio of ESL stories to listen to, learn from, read along with, and react to. One good source for these is: Fluent U English Education Blog

For teachers, who want to engage students in listening to short timed stories from 1.5 minutes to 4 or 5 minutes there is an array of stories for this purpose complete with music and special effects, plus: detailed descriptions for the teacher to examine, topics relevant to curricula, exercises included to test comprehension, transcripts of printed texts for students to use as they listen (or to use as printed texts for teacher questions after listening), interactive reading (some of these stories can be read interactively by the students) which can be recorded for further fluency practice, and on some stories, there is a translation button which can translate a word into many native student languages.  

This plethora of ready to use items can inspire not only the target ESL learners but everyone in the class or grade to be part of the listening and reacting audience for storytelling. You’ll find some great ideas at sites like ESL Language Learner 

Of course, the end product of all literacy learning and evidence of second language acquisition plus writing skills is the creation, by the student learner, of a product, like a memoir or reflection or narrative story.  For American natives this is a challenging ladder of literacy. But ESL learners often have even more difficulty because they are navigating a second language

In addition, while their print textbooks offer artificially constructed, grammatically correct models, rarely are these contemporary, actual ESL learner digital stories.  However, using connected device resources, ESL learners can listen to peer Spanish or Turkish or other language ESL students sharing real ESL stories in their own voices. These models officiated through the digital platform of the Chromebook  truly inspire and concretize the literacy skills of second language within the context of first language experience and expertise for the ESL students.

With all these actual ESL learner generated and native language spoken content plus translation and music choices available, connected device use also makes literacy skills learning culturally consonant for ESL learners, plus adds cultural depth to the literacy studies of their classroom Chromebook connected American native peers.  Of course, those educators wanting to take additional coursework in ESL methods or buy print and software specifically designed for ESL learners to enrich the resources they offer students can and should do so.  But in the here and now of next period’s literacy class storytelling and story-authoring experiences for ESL learners and American natives to share together, the connected device can all of them onto the universal digital circle of storytellers and listeners. 

Making this competencies connection as one community is the ultimate goal of ESL second language acquisition!!  Why should connected device storytelling collections and activities be limited to ESL students only??  In this instance American born natives can join the circle as well! This use of technology converges cultures while concretizing unique cultural and community experiences through digital storytelling.
*Digital Storytelling Site is a page from Dr. Helen Barrett's Site on Digital Storytelling in ePortfolios

Dr. Rose Reissman is the founder of the Writing Institute, now replicated in 145 schools including the Manchester Charter Middle School in Pittsburgh. She is a featured author in New York State Union Teachers Educators Voice 2016 and was filmed discussing ESL student leadership literary strategies developed at Ditmas IS 62, a Brooklyn public intermediate school.