One of the big issues facing all teachers, but teachers of literacy in particular, is the delicate balance one needs to tread between the voices of power, and the power of voice. As teachers we need to be concerned about giving our students access to the dominant culture: to standard dialects and world views, which will help our students be successful in the big bad world out there. We need to give them access, in other words, to the voices of power. Failure to do so would be a dereliction of duty.
But we also need to be concerned about helping our students find their own voice, whether it be in regional or working class dialects, or in youthful voices not yet matured. Failure to help students express themselves in powerful ways which help them make meaning, and make sense of the world, would also be tantamount to stunting their development.
As a teacher of English Second Language, I have struggled with getting this balance right. It has always seemed to me that I used to spend half of my time teaching Standard English, and then the other half of the time enthusiastically letting my students use Black Standard South African English, focusing on what they were saying rather than on how they were saying it. To my mind this meant that the balance was about right, but there were a number of colleagues who felt that any pandering to dialect was anathema. Let alone exploring Rap or comic books in the classroom!
What is true of language is equally true of digital literacies. As a computer teacher, teaching Computer Applications Technology and ICTs, I am also aware of the balance between the packages that enable access to power: the mighty database, spreadsheet and power-point which are the engine room of the information economy, and those applications which empower self-expression such as Paint or Audacity. And again, I feel that one needs a balance between the two.
I recently staged a play using twitter. My grade 8 English class is studying the Merchant Of Venice by Shakespeare, and, once we had done all the serious analysis of character, imagery, plot and theme, I decided to let them explore the play in a different way. I created twitter accounts for all the characters, major and minor (eg. @Bassanio_Venice) and gave each student their assigned username and password. They did not need to have their own twitter account; they simply needed to log on as their character and tweet. The brief was to tweet in modern English: Shakespearean language was banned. They needed to be true to the character’s personality, but should feel free to take liberties with the play. It was styled an inter-textual play, the two texts being Shakespeare’s original, and the twitter-sphere. They were expected to tweet once a day over a five day period, corresponding very loosely with the five acts of the play.
I was somewhat apprehensive as to what to expect. Would the students be engaged by the activity, would they tweet at all, or would the whole thing fall flat on its face? How also would it be received by my fellow English teachers and other students? In fact, I think the play went off quite well. Even though the players by and large ignored the given hashtag #merchantoftwitter, which made it difficult to follow all the tweets. Luckily I had added all the members of the cast to a Twitter List, which enabled me to follow, and provide a link for others to follow the List tweets, and ultimately to archive the tweets. I have posted the transcription at https://www.box.com/s/0e7c6a95058c1a009560 and you can decide for yourself how successful or otherwise the task was. You will note a fair degree of humour, and irreverent fun. Indeed, during the week of the run of the play, every time I entered my classroom I was greeted by students eager to know what I felt about what they had tweeted the day before. There is seldom the same level of excitement about how an essay has been received!
I felt that the students had genuinely explored aspects of their characters, the plot and themes of the play in interesting ways. Not with the insight I might have hoped for perhaps, but nevertheless with gusto. The student who played Gratiano, for example, got to grips with his garrulous and joking nature, and spent the play cracking outrageous jokes. Another character explored the multi-modal nature of the medium, by uploading a supposed photograph of the monkey that Jessica buys with the ring she steals from Shylock. Others, such as the messenger bemoaned his fate, and the fact that the nobles did not tip. I feel that most, if not all of the students did engage with the task, and at the very least, if they did not learn much, had fun with the text in ways which made them more familiar with it.
Several events happened in the twitter play, which bore no relation whatsoever to Shakespeare’s original. For example, at one point the Prince of Arragon declared his love for the Prince of Morocco, and the cast ended the play with a “coming out” party for the two of them! What I have always loved about teaching grade 8s is the sheer exuberance that they bring to any text, and this was no exception!
The response from at least one other student, not a cast member, was equally enthusiastic, and acting as the audience also used the hashtag to tweet her approval of the cast’s efforts. The only negative response I had was from a fellow teacher, who said she was appalled, and just didn’t get twitter. She did not like the fact that the language used by the students was un-Shakespearean, and that the tweets did not stick to the plot. She said the whole thing was just “so not-Shakespeare”.
I could just dismiss her response as being from someone who did not understand the power of voice that I felt was empowering, but I respect her opinion, and I have to say that it would be foolish not to entertain doubts about the pedagogical power of this exercise. I had been careful to make sure that the students were tweeting outside the classroom, extramurally. Indeed most tweeted in the evenings from home. I was also careful to ensure that my twitter treatment of the play did not replace traditional teaching of character, theme and imagery. It was presented as a fun extramural activity. I also made sure that students did not need to access or create their own twitter accounts. The usernames and passwords had already been set up. The fun part of the exercise certainly overran any serious pedagogical intent, with many of the characters tweeting about their partying prowess – but then again, the play takes place over Carnival in Venice! An absence of partying would have seemed strange!
Digital literacies can be a powerful enabler of student voices, and I feel that twitter is a particularly promising tool, partly because it creates short feeds which can be displayed on a Moodle page or class blog, for example. These tweets can then become a topic for discussion – Would Shylock really have felt that way in the play? How do you think Portia would have felt about that tweet? The pedagogical point is not just to empower student voices, but to help students reflect on what they have produced so that they can develop and extend their voice, and make it more powerful.