Poetry, Digital Media, and Mobile Phones

Poetry, Digital Media, and Mobile Phones

In a series of blog posts, brothers Ian O’Byrne, a researcher at the New Literacies Research Lab, and Scott Myers, English teacher and Department Head at a high school in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, share their thoughts on issues of the thoughtful integration of the Internet and other communication technologies into classrooms.

I have been privileged to present with Sue Ringler Pet, and Greg McVerry for the past couple of years in a series of repeating sessions we do on poetry at the NCTE Conferences. The basic format is the same, we take the current Poet Laureate and build a session on inspiring students to read poetry, study the work of the current poet laureate, and try to extend this thinking using technology..among other things. To me, the real key to this session is the ability to draw in an audience that would never attend a “technology” session, but would most certainly attend a session on poetry. And then once we have them in the room, we make the use of technology seem authentic, carefully thought out, and an achievable goal.

All of this brings us to the most recent NCTE Conference in Orlando, FL. Our session was to explore the work of Kay Ryan, and her style that the New York Times said was so compact…that you could almost tweet them. The session then went into twitter, and twitpoems, and using these different “texts” with your students while studying poetry. Finally, to extend the thinking a little more, and bring in technology and multimodal content construction, I worked with Scott to bring in some ideas I had after discussions with Sara Kjader and Chip Bruce. We thought about using the cell phones that our students bring to school daily, and then having them use these as “digital ethnographers”. We wanted students to take a couple of pictures using their phones of their world expressing ideas or themes they saw in the poems by Kay Ryan. These pictures were then edited into a movie with the Kay Ryan poems running throughout them. You can take a look at two of the videos compiled by the students at the links below.

Of course this series of lessons worked magically in Scott’s classroom, and with his students. But, how can you make all of this happen in your classroom? Scott will share his thoughts below on how he made it happen.


As a teacher, it didn’t take long for me to learn of the immense distraction cell phones were in the classroom.  When I tell a student to take out his cell phone, he often presents a face of fear and incredulity, denying that he owns a cell phone, has ever handled one, and possesses only a vague notion of what one actually is – because, usually, when I tell a student to take out his cell phone, I’m going to take it from him.  I know the undercover-texter’s methods, his furtive, cagey glances from what he assumes is an unsuspecting me to his oddly illuminating lap. In fact, above the door of my classroom I’ve only half jokingly stapled a picture of a cell phone on fire and each September threaten that this will be the fate of any unlucky device that happens to find itself in my apathetic hands.  So, after having students read a few poems by Kay Ryan, when I first instructed everyone to take out his or her cell phone and lay it on the desk, I got little cooperation.

After a bit of cajoling, however, the students enjoyed freely wielding their phones within my purview – like children encouraged by their parents to draw on the walls with crayons, they relished “breaking the rules” in my presence.  Still, I warned that they were not to make calls or text anything – only to use the camera feature.  I requested that they use these phones (outside of school, of course) to take pictures that might reflect words, emotions, or themes in a specific poem that we had just read, and to then email these photos to me.  We then used the phones’ voice recorders to record the students reading their assigned poems aloud. Afterwards, we used editing software (Adobe Premiere Pro) to create montages of the students’ pictures, voices, and some choice music into a short presentation.

I’ll admit that the assignment wasn’t without its impediments.  Firstly, a few students didn’t own cell phones, so I instructed them to use a friend or parent’s device.  Other students had phones that were not activated to take advantage of the Internet; in these cases we directly connected their phones to our classroom computer’s hard drive to upload their images.  In the end, however, everyone completed the assignment, though it became difficult to allocate sufficient time for editing all the work into cohesive finished products.

Despite these troubles, I consider the assignment a great success, for (aside from the literary value and the lessons in editing multimedia) it showed the students that the devices they carry around in their pockets everyday are useful for more than mere social interaction, or are at least useful for social interaction on a higher scale.  It also showed me something – that students like to use their phones, no matter what the task.  I received emailed phone photos the same afternoon that I gave the assignment, yet the students had a week to submit them.  In fact, students who usually procrastinate or underachieve went beyond my expectations, taking more photos than necessary.

Since then, I’ve encouraged some of the same students to use flashcard apps and even to write on their phones rather than on paper.  Taking advantage of these “modifications”, one young man who rarely completed his work and failed the first two quarters of English now has a “B”, thanks to his cell phone.  Of course, one could argue that his cell phone was responsible for the first two “F’s”.

And this is the cell phone conundrum.  When we see a young man staring into a cell phone, our first reaction is that he’s text messaging or at least doing something trivial.  And frankly, 9 times out of 10 he is, but he could actually be doing anything: shopping for shoes online, checking email, looking at a picture of his grandmother, researching the correlations between whey protein and muscle mass, reading Tolstoy, studying for a test, playing a video game, reading the New York Times, reading Mad Magazine, watching “The Daily Show”, taking a photograph, updating his Facebook status, tweeting about the revolution in Libya – the possibilities are almost limitless.  This hasn’t led me to enact cell phone freedom (or anarchy) in my classroom.  However, school systems generally have demonized a device that could be used for something more focused.  This is what the lesson has taught me: that there is no good or evil in the phone itself; the good and evil is in us.  I admit that I haven’t taken down my burning cell phone picture, but I am searching for one in a halo to hang next to it.
– Sent from my iPhone


To view the powerpoint from the NCTE 2010 session, please visit:
http://www.scribd.com/doc/43380031/NCTE-2010-Orlando-Twitpoem-Power…

To view the YouTube videos, please visit:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cg1dksjT4Wg
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHkVqjKTgoU

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