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Before Winter Break, I began a series of activities on digital literacy, inspired by Virginia Tech Libraries’ digital literacy initiative. I first asked students to create definitions of digital native and digital literacy and to explore the relationship between digital literacy and online identity. With these basics taken care of, I challenged students to research a public figure’s online identity and then to map their own online identities. This week, I begin sharing writing assignments and activities that ask students to explore their personal connection to and perspectives on these ideas.
I particularly love writing activities that ask students to explore and share their backgrounds as writers because they allow me to learn so much about what students need to succeed in the class. Similar activities that ask students to tell us about their backgrounds with digital literacy can teach us volumes as well.
When we think about how students adopt and interact with technology, we can easily be tricked by stereotypes and general beliefs rather than exploring the diversity of strategies and practices that students employ. In this week’s activity, I ask students to share their beliefs and experiences with digital literacy creatively by choosing metaphors that represent their use of digital literacy tools and then explaining themselves in an extended digital literacy narrative that focuses on that metaphor.
Discussing Extended Metaphors
I know composition students are familiar with metaphors from their previous English courses, but they will do better with this assignment if we spend some time exploring how the symbolism works with these figures of speech. An easy introduction is the famous Forrest Gump bus stop scene, where Forrest explains that “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.” A short clip of the scene is included below:
The clip should quickly activate students’ prior knowledge of metaphors and how they work. The Purdue OWL’s Using Metaphors in Creative Writing provides a summary of how metaphors work with examples from literature. You can continue the conversation about metaphor, if you like, with a classic literary example, such as these poems:
- “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson
- “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur
- “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and by extension I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- “Poet as Immortal Bird” by Ron Padgett
Choosing Digital Literacy Metaphors
Once students are confident about how extended metaphors work, they can begin thinking about their own metaphors. Here are the steps I use:
- Begin in one of the following ways. If students are not comfortable writing about their own experiences, ask them to write about their general impressions or about the identity or experiences of someone they know or have heard about.
- If students mapped their own online identities, you can begin with their maps, asking students to identify information on their maps that could be represented by metaphors. They can think about the way that they work in or interact with others in one or more of the places they have mapped.
- Ask students to brainstorm about places they go online and the ways that they (or others) work or interact in these places. Once they have some ideas in mind, ask them to think about how they might represent the work, interaction, or places with a metaphor.
- Have students brainstorm about specific interactions or experiences they have had in digital spaces. Once they have some ideas in mind, ask them to think about metaphors they might use to represent these experiences.
- Consider the ways that metaphors are typically used to discuss our use of digital technology. The following articles provide useful observations for your discussion with students:
- “Digital Literacy and Metaphorical Models” by Carol Girón-García and Ignasi Navarro i Ferrando, from the Multidisciplinary Journal for Education, Social and Technological Sciences.
- “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones” by Cynthia L. Selfe and Richard J. Selfe, Jr., from College Composition and Communication.
- “Visitors and Residents: A new Typology for Online Engagement” by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu, from First Monday.
- To inspire students, share these categories of metaphorical comparisons, emphasizing that any metaphor will work as long as students support the comparison with specific details:
- an animal (such as a cheetah, a chameleon, a panda, or a shark)
- a pet (such as a bulldog, a kitten, or a betta)
- a vehicle (such as a tractor trailer, a backhoe, a hybrid car, or a bicycle)
- a sports-related object (such as a snowboard, a bowling ball, a softball bat, or a
- a sports event (such as a basketball game, an Olympic competition, a NASCAR race, or a triathlon)
- an everyday action (such as cooking a meal, cleaning out a closet, playing a game, or weeding a garden)
- After you share some of the basic comparisons above, invite students to brainstorm additional categories and comparisons of their own. Once they finish gathering ideas, students should have plenty of options to choose among for their project. Naturally, encourage students to feel free to make their own choices as well. Emphasize that they are not limited to class list.
Writing about Digital Literacy with Metaphors
Once students have explored how metaphors work and collected a list of possible metaphors, ask students to create a project that explains or presents their metaphor to readers. Students might pursue any of these options:
- an academic paper that explains the metaphor
- a poem that presents the metaphor
- a collection of quotations from news outlets, pop culture resources, and other media that invoke the metaphor
- a fable that tells of an event, interaction, or experience, using the metaphor
- a child’s picture book that explores the metaphor
- an infographic that presents the metaphor
- a mythic creation tale that describes how the writer learned about a digital literacy practice
- a series of Instagram posts that explores the metaphor
- an online museum display that demonstrates the metaphor
- a movie trailer that teases viewers about a feature presentation of the metaphor
The class can brainstorm additional options if desired. Alternately, you might narrow the options available to focus the assignment more tightly. Whatever option you choose, encourage students to explore their own understanding of digital literacy and their experiences in digital spaces.
Any Ideas to Add?
I would love to hear how you would try this activity with students. Please tell me! Just leave a comment below with the details, and come back next week for another writing activity that explores digital literacy.
Photo credit: a bit of godiva happiness by Janine, used under a CC-BY 2.0 license
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