Guest Post by Laura Fleming
21st Century readers seek information that goes beyond traditional books. Every day, I see my own students looking for opportunities to interact with the stories they love in new ways. Sometimes these opportunities come even before reading the book itself and sometimes after. My second graders thoroughly enjoyed the Elliot’s Park series written by Patrick Carman, and they immediately became fully immersed in this world because of the glimpse into the series Mr. Carman himself provides on his fantastic Elliot’s Park web site. So, even before they read the story, my students knew their way around Elliot’s Park and knew the main characters, their attributes, and even what they sounded like! These supporting digital elements caused my students to fall into the world of Elliot’s Park without reading a single word from the text itself.
After reading the first book in the series, Saving Mr. Nibbles, my students wanted to interact with this story even more. They searched online for more, and soon expressed interest in participating in the story and creating something themselves. So together we looked for ‘cheese holes’, or spaces in the story that allow the audience to participate in, contribute further to, and augment the original story using their own intelligence and imagination. Much of the time, these spaces are left intentionally by authors who leave gaps in their stories so that readers can interpret and mash up; we found one of our own. My students became fascinated with ‘Wilma the Goose’ who is the only goose in Elliot’s Park, a place mostly populated by squirrels. Wilma is cranky and just doesn’t like the pesky squirrels. My students had questions about her and were anxious to develop her character more than it had been developed in the book–they therefore sought to expand the core narrative. I decided we could use a blog as a tool for discovering Wilma’s voice.
The Disney television show Dog With a Blog inspired us, and we decided to use the blog for Stan the dog as a springboard for us to create a blog for Wilma the goose. The buzz from Elliot’s Park was enough to motivate and engage my students, but the mention of Dog With a Blog created even more of a stir. More than I could have conveyed alone, bringing this little slice of pop culture into the mix not only motivated them further but also offered my students new insights, inspired their writing, and allowed them to think critically. Stan’s blog is well designed and well written and my 2nd graders were able to improve their media literacy by viewing it. Together we explored the structure of a blog, became familiar with the basic elements of blog creation, learned about writing from the voice of a character, as well as the craft of writing a blog post.
Before blogging, my students participated in further developing the character of Wilma so that they could write effective and accurate blog posts that stayed true to Wilma as a character. Together we created a list of the external and internal characteristics we already knew about Wilma. The challenges Wilma faced in the story created rich opportunities for us to investigate aspects of Wilma that we wanted to know more about. For example, Wilma’s favorite food, why the squirrels didn’t like her, her hobbies, etc… We then created a character sketch in which students collectively brainstormed additional qualities, traits, actions, and thoughts of Wilma. I provided students with questions to guide their thinking. My students wanted to find out who Wilma was really, why she was so cranky and what secrets were hiding in her pond–the children were, in a sense, creating a ‘back story’ for Wilma. After initially knowing very little about Wilma, we brainstormed a character map 3 feet long! Just a glance at our map shows us that we had a complete story in itself that went far beyond the original texts.
With our map and the ideas we had gleaned from Dog With a Blog, our blog posts easily unfolded. Students often referenced our map when writing their posts and tried to remain true to the canon – making sure they were as consistent as possible with the core story.
Our character blog criss-crosses the story Saving Mr. Nibbles, and shows us what Wilma does in between the events of the story and what her actions, thoughts, and feelings are as a result of those events. My students engaged with text, and identified with Wilma by creating a blog from her perspective–they empathized with her. They developed and improved their creative writing abilities by selecting appropriate style, tone, vocabulary, and a set of topics for their chosen character in the digital space, something they had never done before. Students inferred details from the text and used their imaginations to construct a creative character blog that draws heavily upon the original text. My students participated in the exchange of ideas through the use of digital resources and together created an entertaining and insightful glimpse into Wilma’s world.
This is just one experience amongst many that tells me that we need to teach the skills of blogging, an important 21st century skill. Students need to understand how and why the mechanics of blogging are different from, and an extension to, ‘traditional writing’; they also need to appreciate that the way we blog is not the same as the way we speak, nor is it as formal as a traditional educational essay. Early immersion into blogging will, I feel, give my students the grounding they will need to develop a deeper understanding later of the broad and exciting variations in writing that are possible in the digital realm. Dog With a Blog allowed my students to actively read the text while promoting a deeper understanding of writing in the digital space. Now my 2nd graders are always looking for ‘gaps’ in their stories into which they can dive more deeply and co-create, and I feel that they have begun to gain the skills to do so responsibly and effectively.
Most importantly, they also now are beginning to understand that stories can employ and interweave aspects of both traditional and digital media.
A library media specialist for New Jersey’s River Edge Schools, Laura Fleming develops and integrates digital and media literacy into classroom strategies and curriculum as well as uses digital tools to support and integrate the Common Core. An independent educational consultant specializing in interactive and transmedia (multi-platform) storytelling, Laura has written for numerous magazines and online publications, including Edutopia and the National Writing Project. She was a guest speaker at SLJ’s 2011 Leadership Summit, and Connect the Pop chatted with her earlier here.