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!!

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