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Follow-Up: Leveraging Tech in the Face of High Stakes

Joel Malley
"Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information."
Common Core Standards: Writing #6, Grades 11-12

The above standard could refer to any type of digital composition. Blogging. Podcasts. Documentaries. Glogster collages. Google Docs. Powerpoint. Similarly, so could the Common Core's calls for students to make "strategic use of digital media in presentations" (Speaking #5 Grades 11-12) and to "integrate ... sources of information presented in different media or formats" (Reading #7 Grades 11-12). Any use of technology to compose, regardless of complexity, would seem to satisfy these nebulous standards. As a teacher who teaches a digital-writing workshop as a senior English elective, the lack of clarity regarding technology integration is both heartening and worrisome.

On one hand, if approached thoughtfully, these standards could be an intellectual catalyst for my classes. I need to simply redesign my course to have my students create more research-based documentary films buttressed by thematically organized readings of appropriate complexity. For example, my students once had great latitude in creating their first film project, a profile documentary project about an interesting person in their immediate sphere. This documentary project was supplemented by close readings of articles from a variety of sources profiling interesting people. Now we will integrate a few seminal nonfiction texts and I will solidify the research component. This will help students grasp wider connections and think more deeply about their own subjects. By the end of the year, students will still produce a portfolio to exhibit their ability to read closely, think analytically, and tell compelling stories using digital media.

While this sounds rosy, the scenario can break down depending on how the standards are interpreted by assessment designers, state lawmakers, and local decision makers. The standards, as written, could easily be interpreted as a directive to limit the progressive use of technology to enhance learning and instead return to being overly focused on seminal texts and the literary canon. These standards, interpreted by the unimaginative and coupled with the increasingly high stakes of Race to the Top and the hitching of teacher evaluations to test scores, could end up creating classrooms that stress that which is easy and cheap to assess; knowledge that can be easily reduced to multiple-choice questions and to prompts that inspire formulaic essays easily scored by testing factories.

We are at a crossroads. I think that digital storytelling is important. Today, students can tell complex and compelling stories using audio and moving images and reach worldwide audiences, an affordance of technology that was previously unimaginable. However, due to the looming PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments, high stakes for principals, and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, it will become increasingly difficult to shut the classroom door and do what's right by the students. If we are to leverage these technology tools to enhance learning and help students develop the skills they will need in the 21st century, our profession is going to need strong leadership at the top to further support those goals through thoughtful assessment measures and well-defined goals. Leadership needs to add further definition to prove that the top is worth racing for.

Joel Malley teaches AP literature, along with mass media and film production, at Cheektowaga Central High School outside Buffalo, N.Y.

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