Stellar Stories by Jodie Childers, Tech Fellow 2017

For the past few years, I’ve been looking for an easy-to-use tool to create digital stories in the classroom. This past semester, I used Steller, an app that allows students to construct digital stories on their phones by easily importing photographs and video from their phones, Facebook, and Instagram accounts.

One goal of the project was to push students to maximize the capabilities of this tool. Steller is often used superficially to document vacations or to share streams of personal photos, and while I wanted students to consider how to write with images, I also wanted them to think about balancing images, videos, and text in a multimodal writing context.

As we prepared for the project, we viewed several Steller stories, and talked about their structure. One tendency we noticed was that most leaned too heavily on photographs with no explanatory text to contextualize the images. Other pieces, however, were filled with text and failed to compellingly hold the viewer’s attention. As multimodal writers, their goal was to find an effective balance among the various mediums and to consider how the mediums relate to one another.

Students chose a diverse range of topics. One student documented her trip to New York, but unlike most of the travelogues on Steller, she added historical context to the places, using her story not only to entertain but to inform the reader about the places she visited. Documenting her family’s tradition of cooking potstickers, another student took a more poetic approach, reflecting on the the tensions between simplicity and complexity, exploring the ways in which college students can navigate the stressors of finals by appreciating the simple things in life.

Here is the assignment sheet I gave my students:

Unit #4 Digital Essay

to engage and reflect upon the digital writing process
to gain awareness of rhetorical choices in multiple mediums & their effects on audience
to craft a voice/style tailored to a close audience (i.e., classmates)
to copy edit for audience

For this assignment, you will create a digital story on a topic of your choice using Steller, a platform that allows you to create visual stories.

Some possibilities for your narrative include:

a personal story
a persuasive essay on a topic that you are passionate about
an oral history or interview with a friend or family member
a how-to guide
an activist toolkit
a travel guide

As you decide on your topic for your digital story, consider not only exigence and audience but also the medium itself. In other words, choose a topic that allows you to play with both visual content and text.

The Writing Process

I also encouraged students to take original photographs for this project. We analyzed still shots, and I sent the students outside to compose their own photographs. I was impressed with how quickly they picked up on how to take photographs.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Phone by Tech Fellow Emily Hunerwadel

So. You’re a new TO, and if you’re anything like me, you are panicking right now as you read this sentence. There is so much to worry about in crafting a teaching persona and managing a class. Will you be the suit wearing, quiz stickler? The yoga-pant-wearing, cross-legged desk sitter? What about when your munchkins start coming in 10 minutes late? And, for god’s sake, what will you do about texting, twitter, insta, facebook, snapchat and the millions of other blinking platforms that serve as a carnival-esque distraction from your teaching curriculum? Don’t worry, baby girl, I got you.  

While I can’t tell you what to wear or how loud to talk in front of your class, I can say I’ve had some success with phones in my classroom. I know, I know, there actually is something to be said for the addiction narratives we assign to social media usage, and it is sometimes easier to be the “everyone-put-your-phones-in-this-basket” kind of teacher. But Shhhh. Let me convince you of the cell phone’s virtues in the following quippy listicle:

  • Stop iPhone-Forbidden-Fruit Syndrome

This is probably the most obvious and easily-debatable points, but forbidding phones in the classroom does not get rid of the distraction. In my own experience as a student, being told I could not look at my phone only made checking it more tantalizing. Even if I was a good little girl and kept my phone in my bag, I would often find that, as the class topic/discussion became more boring or unappealing, I would daydream of who was messaging me, liking my cat-child instagram pics, or sending me snapchats of their morning wake-up hair.

And that’s the crux of the problem: It’s not an issue of cell-phone usage; it’s an issue of engagement. An uninterested student will find a way to disengage with your class, iPhone or no. One needs no tools to daydream, and, as all teenagers (and biblical characters) know, telling someone “no” is a great way to create temptation. While it’s easy to blame technology for the waxy looks in your students’ eyes, banning phones eliminates so many possibilities of using this tech as a teaching tool while not solving the actual problem.

  • Exemplify Context: IRL Self v. Online Self

Yep. I said it. The Writing Program buzzword: context. Social media is a great tool for explaining and teaching the rhetorical concepts of Unit 1. While your youngins might not have much experience writing a personal essay, they tend to have a good amount of exposure to an online presence. In my experience, they come into class with at least some understanding that what they choose to share and how they choose to express themselves changes between social media platforms or between their virtual and physical “selves.” Pointing this out in the classroom setting is a great way to scaffold to related ideas of context and audience.

“The IRL Fetish” in Opening Conversations is obviously a great text to get them thinking and ready to discuss these concepts. This semester, I paired the Jurgenson essay with an activity stolen from Elizabeth M:

As students came into our second class, I told everyone we would be doing a social IRL experiment and to turn their phones and computers’ volume up as loud as possible.

As we started to discuss and debate the Jurgenson text, pings and bips abounded. Each time a phone rang, the responsible student’s face would blush red and often they felt the need to apologize. This is where the questioning and context exploration began. I turned the conversation to why each student felt so embarrassed when their iPhone-bell-tones perforated our discussion, and, after pondering, students replied saying they weren’t used to iPhones being ok in a class.

They were used to being reprimanded when their phones sounded in a classroom, so by being in the context of the classroom and hearing the sound, they expected some sort of trouble like a labrat trained that cheese=electric shock. I then asked if they would have the same reaction to the sound of their iPhone if alone in their dorm room or at a party or on the sidewalk, to which, they all agreed, would probably warrant different responses. The noise had a different meaning in a different space. In a different context!

By having a small physical example of context, they were then more ready to accept that they, in fact, have different ways of being in different situations, that context affects their sense of self and ways of acting. We were able to have a very worthwhile discussion about how our writing changes based upon context, branching to the differences between their online and embodied selves. I ended the class with generative writing comparing their virtual and IRL selves, which I noticed filtered into some of the Unit 1 essays.

  • Demonstrate Genre Conventions and Form

My first semester, I tried to teach these concepts through my Unit 4 assignment, in which we together made a class magazine. I brought in different online or physical magazine-type articles and tried to demonstrate how the addition of a picture or different typography affected the reading of the text. However, our final class magazine had only one essay that deviated from a typical essay format, which was slightly disappointing. Looking back, I think I did not incorporate enough exercises that modeled form or genre into my lesson plans, and so, in the final paper, they still did not feel comfortable taking those kinds of risks.

In reworking my lesson plans for this semester, I thought about ways to make the concept of genre and form more reachable and realized that perhaps, here again, they have more experience editing their writing for different social media platforms.

As a way to tap into that experience,I crafted a lesson plan tweak of a Writing Program Database favorite—“Short Long Short.” You can find a description of that activity here I’ve found that students LOVE this exercise and that it really gets them thinking about revision techniques while giving them the confidence to experiment with descriptive language.

In my class, I brought in my blue typewriter as our object (which they got a kick out of). I had them complete the activity in the normal way described, allowing them to distill their long descriptions into 50 words. After we discussed what exactly they’d done in the revision, I broke the class into smaller groups and asked them to choose one 50 word description and mold it into three separate social media posts, allowing them to choose which platforms to use (i.e. twitter, instagram, etc.)

We then analyzed how the templates of these social media platforms affected the content. We talked through questions like: How did the curation or picture-based quality of instagram change how you wrote the caption? How did your post need to change in particular to fit the more ephemeral medium of snapchat?

It was fairly obvious to most students how their Facebook post would need to change in order to be more appropriate for Twitter, and by teaching these differences as the “genre” of Facebook or the “form” of a tweet, I was able to help my students apply this vocabulary to their writing.


Writing is Always Multimodal by Sharanya Sridhar

Hello Everyone,

I am Sharanya Sridhar, a first year PhD student in literature. I also teach College Writing. During my masters program at Boise State, I taught first-year writing with a different curriculum that introduced me to critical conversations about multimodal composition.  The opportunity be a Tech Fellow this spring allowed me to talk about my evolving ideas about multimodality with my peers. It’s been incredibly helpful to have a community of first-year teachers with whom I could ruminate my excitements as well as anxieties about using technology and pedagogical practices. What follows is a snapshot of my project for Tech Fellows and a related activity. Hope you enjoy it!

Overarching context: My project for Tech-fellows this spring involved thinking about ways to incorporate multimodality and digital rhetoric in classroom conversations. I have also been thinking about ways to frame interesting theoretical concepts from composition studies as classroom activities so it becomes accessible and useful for first-year writers. The following activity speaks to both these goals.  

Immediate Goal(s): To introduce students to certain threshold concepts in writing, to get them to think about different shades of meaning the term ‘text’ could take, to understand that writing is always multimodal.

Preparatory Reading Assignment: As a preparation for this activity, students read 5 threshold concepts (I picked out the ones I wanted them to read) from “Writing is a Rhetorical and Social Activity”, Naming What We Know and pick 2 favourite concepts

In Class Activity: Based on the concepts they picked as their favourite, I put them in 4 different groups. Each group had to visually represent the concept they picked. Some made mind maps or roadmaps while some represented their concept with a series of sketches. Each group presented their visual representation and explained the concept but also talked about their own choices in representing their chosen concept.

Follow up Discussion: We talked about how we use different mediums to write, to make meaning, and to communicate our thoughts. We also talked about how writing gets interpreted differently based on how readers interpret it and the mediums readers use to interpret a piece of writing.

Follow up freewrite:  Based on the activity and our discussion, I asked them to write about their definition of text and it might be different from their previous conceptions of the term. I also asked them to give examples of certain texts that they hadn’t thought of as texts before.

Their responses to the activity and the freewrite was a positive one. It helped me set the the tone for the second unit (Interacting with a Text) and allowed them to explore multimodal texts like Ted Talks for their unit essay.


From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Who Gets Left Out of the ‘Paperless’ Classroom?”

In January of this year, the Writing Program held a symposium that explored how issues of diversity intersect with the first-year writing classroom. The symposium began with a talk from Professor Haivan Hoang entitled “Why Diversity Matters in FWY?” Our instructors then participated in a series of roundtables that focused on language, teacher identity, access/technology, discussion strategies, and issues of disabilities.  As a way to continue the discussions that we started at the symposium, we will bring to you an overview of each roundtable’s discussion.  This week we are featuring the discussion led by Shastri Akella and Rebecca Petitti for the roundtable “Who Gets Left Out of the ‘Paperless’ Classroom.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.

Roundtable: Who Gets Left Out of the “Paperless” Classroom

Leaders: Shastri Akella and Rebecca Petitti

Paperless classrooms can have their benefits. They can entail the sharing of assignments/lectures; collecting assignments; sharing feedback. However for a paperless classroom to work we, as teachers, need to have a shared understanding of the technology we are using with our students – in a sense we all need to be on the same page. It is important to keep in mind that this does not need to be an either/or situation – meaning as teachers we do not  have to have either a paperless or paper classroom. It is possible to explore having a hybrid classroom.

In order to explore the paperless and hybrid classroom, Shastri and Rebecca posed the following questions to the participants of this roundtable:

  • What is a paperless classroom to you—what are some ways in which you use technology?
  • What are some concerns you have about using technology in the classroom, particularly in terms of limitations for both students and teachers? What are some challenges?

Here are their responses or, in some cases, even more questions that were raised:

Challenges & Possible Strategies

Availability of technology on campus: lack of access; limited technology in classrooms; UMass does not have a laptop requirement for students

  •  Survey students at the beginning of class: natures of learning (digital vs. tactile)
  • Survey students at the beginning of class: can you bring in laptops?
  • Survey students about their technology usage

Distraction from laptops: students not paying attention; interacting with each other

  • Ask students to have all their technology/notifications on to see how they use that within a classroom space
  • Ask students to close laptops when you’re done writing
  • Have clear goals for writing; have students summarize the class; clarifying community membership—provide outline. Discussion might go well.
  • More and more students are learning (being forced to learn!) through technology

Classroom spaces: classrooms across campus are uneven in their technological capabilities; not  every classroom  has a projector

  • Possible to get a projector from AIMS

Reasons for not using technology

  • Preparation is harder?
  • Technology investment for teachers (dongles etc.)
  • Students might disengage with speaker (instructor/classmates) and look instead at the screen
  • Why do I need multimedia when I all want to teach is a sentence?
  • Different kinds of technology?
  • Different kinds of media?


  • Using a grammar blog to integrate student writing with technology
  • Converting “Adding to the Conversation” unit into new form (how form/content influences content)
  • Using new media but making sure all students are on the same page (ex: Vine video)
  • What form/media do students reach out for? Physical/digital media
  • Playing music as students write
  • Using music with speakers. TBA Unit: Bring in a musician into class. Creative process across disciplines. Q&A, writing exercises. Artists also talk about their revision process.
  • Usage of Power Points. Posting online might remove the incentive to come into class
  • Provide only outlines, helps with attention issues and multilingual writers
  • Focus and helping with goals vs. making sure students are respectful in class
  • Everything except final draft on Google Doc
  • Stop editing their papers if it’s online. Give targeted feedback
  • Students can interact with comments on Google Docs
  • Google Docs for peer reviews; students work at different pace. If students are done, they read another one—teacher can see comments and encourage then to write more if they are not detailed. Allow only comments, not in-line edits
  • In-class debate, students started doing research proactively
  • Peer-editing in Google Docs
  • Student can collaborate

Takeaways/Best Practices/Classroom Activities

  • Have conversations on how students use technology
  • Might be hard to incorporate technology in your first semester (when you might want to focus on content and not medium)
  • Having varied platforms for different writing styles: be adaptable
  • How do we have teachers step out of their comfort zone in terms of using technology?
  • Have workshops for teachers on different technology platforms
  • Continue to have books
  • Working on a common computer in peer groups—access ease
  • Focus issues—perhaps not use laptops?
  • Writing on paper and then putting up on Google Docs might give students the opportunity to sit longer with ideas
  • Writing Program Tech Coordinator can come to your classrooms for help with technology!




A Semester of Conversations on Technology

Along with being the Technology Coordinator for the UMass Amherst Writing Program, guest blogger Shastri Akella teaches first-year writing. He has most recently received his MFA degree and is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature.

As technology coordinator, I worked with teachers to expand the meaning of what a text means—it is an essay in Other Words or Student Anthology, and it is also a song, a movie clip, a blog post, a videogame, or a list of curated tweets, as long they’re each read in the context of an audience and unit goal. Together we expanded the possibilities for portfolio collection: all student writing for a given unit can live in a single Google Doc, making it easy for the instructor to check off activities as they’re grading, and more importantly, to see, with a single doc, how a student’s writing has grown over the course of the unit. We spoke about Moodle and conference scheduling, Unit IV activities and final portfolios.

This process of knowledge-expansion took place in one-on-one conversations and also in classrooms; teachers invited me to their classes and together we had conversations with students on the forms of technology they would be using in the class and why it was helpful—why it made sense, for instance, to do peer review on a shared Google Doc. We spoke about hurdles students might face in facilitating a technology-driven, paperless classroom, and some possible solutions. I will be collating and sharing these solutions with teachers during the Spring symposium.

As a teacher I found that technology, by channeling the external into the classroom, facilitated the opposite: it placed the skills learned in 112 classrooms in the context of the social reality students interact with. In reframing a Facebook post for a non-native speaker of English, or for a high school teacher, students understood the meaning of audience. In watching a foreign language film without subtitles and “guessing” what was happening in the scene, and then seeing what was actually happening, they appreciated the meaning of context. And in setting a section of a videogame in dialogue with a film, they understood what it meant to get resources to interact. It was a pleasure sharing these ideas with fellow-teachers and hearing their perspectives.

I enjoy talking about technology in the context of teaching writing, and I hope, in the upcoming semester, to have conversations with more teachers on how they can bring in technology that works well with their teaching personality, and in the process help more students learn that the skills they learn in our classes have contextual applications in spaces beyond our classrooms.

Multimedia Resources for a Digital Age

Along with being the Technology Coordinator for the UMass Amherst Writing Program, guest blogger  Shastri Akella teaches first-year writing. He has most recently received his MFA degree  and is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature.

“Use a multimedia source as one of your resources,” I told my students as I was describing to them my expectations for the “Adding to the Conversation” paper.

“So we can use a YouTube video?” asked a student, her interest clearly piqued.

“And a tweet too?” went another student.

To engage their curiosity, I had them discuss, in groups of three, possible multimedia sources that can be used to support their assertions. Together we had a laundry list of, astonishingly, sixteen different kind of multimedia resources. My students never fail to astonish me with their resourcefulness. Getting them engaged is what it begins with.

“Let’s switch roles,” I said. “You are the audience. Assume you see an article in the Daily Collegian that says your favorite band plagiarized all their tracks. And as evidence they cite a YouTube video which has some anonymous UMass students stating this opinion. Will you believe them?”

“Of course we would not,” they said.

“But what if you listened to a YouTube video which showed you album covers from which the tracks were plagiarized and gives you links where you can verify that their release date preceded the release date of your favorite band’s song?”

“Then we would have to believe the video,” they said, albeit reluctantly.

Sources may change form, I went on to explain, but the essential need, what we look for in a resource, does not change. We still need a resource to be credible in its support – or dispute – of a claim. We need our resources to be unbiased, to have no motivation other than to interact with the nature of an idea’s truth and arrive at a conclusion in a clear, logical fashion.

“So what is the point of using a web resource?” I asked my students. “Why look for a new form of a resource if the requirements are just the same? Remember how excited you all got when I asked you to use a multimedia resource? It is because the digital form is vital to our social interactions. It has become a critical part of public discourse, how information is circulated to a target audience. And you want to set your essay in dialogue with this digital space, not only because it interests you, but also because it is the space your audience draws their information from.”

If we do have our students use multimedia resources, given their interest in the medium then, along with asking them to verify the resource for credibility and bias, we may want to consider talking to them about how the resource we use is ultimately a function of audience: moving beyond the essential goal of wanting to convince our audience, we want them to believe that the topic which the resource supports is of interest to them because of the digital space they’re engaged with.