Digital Texts and Digital Literacies

This chapter contains two sections:
Sharing Personal Narratives in a Digital World
Let Them Use Slang!

Sharing Personal Narratives in a Digital World

by Alexa Tanney

In a world where students are using technology more often than not, it’s imperative for educators to implement some facet of digital media into their classrooms in order to maintain a sense of modernization and connection. When educators make strides to utilize literacies in the digital sphere that students are fluent in, it showcases not only effort to connect to students, but a deeper understanding of the ways in which they communicate and engage with the world. While many ELA curriculums still harbor a deep infatuation with literature from the “canon,” there are ways in which educators can take these (often outdated) texts and give them a modern flare that can help all students connect and make sense of them.

When it comes to making connections in literature and student identity, finding a voice and a way in which to communicate stories are imperative. For many students, the mundane format of writing a five-paragraph essay does not necessarily communicate their personal narratives in a way that is authentic and raw. There are always going to be students that struggle to fit within conventional boxes in the academic world. Not all students are going to be equipped with the vocabulary and conventions to truthfully and organically tell their stories through an over-organized platform. And, while teaching to the standards is something that remains intact, it’s important for educators to look outside of the academic box to create moments and platforms for students to utilize that they are more comfortable and more fluent in.

The digital world is one in which students are immersed in. Through the use of applications like Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, students are able to share and interact with each other in multiple, dynamic ways. Understanding the literacy of social media is something that all educators should be trained in, in order to better understand the way in which their students communicate. Using social media is much like telling stories—personal narratives. Whether it’s Snapchat stories recapping a day, Twitter threads of disgruntled opinions, or Instagram photographs showcasing their true self, social media is the forefront in creating dynamic and interactive student narratives. With the addition of current events issues and social news, using social media as an interactive way to create and showcase students’ stories is one that will remain relevant and culturally inclusive to all students in a classroom.

Using Twitter to Create Relevant Stories

Twitter is a platform that can be utilized for narrative writing in several ways. The two main reasons that Twitter can be an excellent use of student engagement in a narrative unit are by implementing current trending issues into student writing and providing a way in which students can engage with others who share similar stories and narratives. There are multiple ways on the platform to do so. 

The first way in which students can engage in meaningful discussion about their narratives and identity is through trending topics and hashtags. Students can view trending topics and issues on Twitter via “Explore.” There, students can view trending news stories in various categories. Additionally, it allows students to obtain vital reading material on each of these topics from reputable news sources. Under “Explore,” students can also view trending “hashtags” relevant to them and the area in which they live. By clicking on these hashtags, students can further view other’s responses and points of views on current issues.

Using both of these features allows for students to become more engaged with a topic of their choice. They can, then, comprise tweets to better tell their stories in relation to topics that interest them and correlate with their cultural or personal identity. Twitter offers several features that allow students to respond to others (and each other), or create longer Twitter-threads that can include multi-series tweets. Twitter allows for students to include photos, GIFs, and other forms of media into their narratives to give a more personal feel. Additionally, students can interact with others who are passionate and those who resonate with their stories.

Here are several other ways to use Twitter in the classroom.

Using Instagram to Capture Core Identities

Instagram is one of the most widely used photo-sharing platforms amongst the younger generations. For many, it’s a way to showcase what students feel are their “truest selves” through photos. Additionally, Instagram is used for sharing personal moments and snapshots from students’ everyday lives, whether it be via regular photo posting or using “Instagram Stories.” However, there are many other ways in which educators can utilize Instagram for narrative writing units. 

Students who are not comfortable or interested in conventional writing assignments, yet are more inclined to use artistic means to express themselves, would benefit from the use of “photo essays” to speak to their own identity via narrative. Assigning students the option to create an Instagram profile to showcase personal narratives can work in a number of ways. Students can upload specific photographs that they feel best represent who they are trying to present themselves as in a series of posts: photos of themselves, their family, their friends, places that they feel speak to who they are and how they identify. 

Another useful way to use Instagram in narrative writing would be to use Instagram to represent characters in stories and literature. Using Instagram can be a way to convey who a character is in a piece of writing or short story by creating a “pseudo-profile” of that character by asking students to consider, “If [insert character’s name] had an Instagram profile, what would it look like?” This allows students to think about the specific character’s narrative within your mentor text and to create a profile in which they showcase a firm understanding of this character’s narrative in a story.

Students can also have the opportunity to repost Instagram stories and photos on their feeds, saving memes and quotes that resonate with them most. For students who struggle to organically create ideas and put their thoughts into words, the ability to see others’ work and repost or comment on those posts creates a sense of interaction and recreation. 

See more ideas on using Instagram to teach narrative writing here.

Instagram, along with other social media platforms, gives students an opportunity to share about themselves, learn about others, and find joy in relating to others.
Screenshot provided by Alexa Tanney.

Using Snapchat to Share Real Moments

Snapchat is one of the most popular social media applications amongst adolescents, de to its ability to capture quick, fun, easy videos in an interactive way. Individuals use Snapchat to showcase real moments as they are happening in their lives. Additionally, the platform offers an array of features that can include music, text-on-video, and filters for specific needs and wants.

There are numerous ways in which students can use Snapchat in the classroom, but for narrative writing it can be as a video diary to tell stories through real-time interaction. Giving students specific assignments and prompts can help guide them in their video diary, and many will have to format a storyboard and/or narration beforehand. This can be a multi-step project in which students document real-life narratives in a way that is familiar and comfortable to them.

During a time such as a global pandemic where many individuals are going through similar experiences, yet have extremely different circumstances, this kind of assignment would be useful and even fun for students. While they are quarantining at home, or even some still going to work as essential workers, giving them the opportunity to tell their stories will be beneficial. Furthermore, it can be a way in which they can look back on this time period in their lives and remember things by visually seeing what they had gone through later in life. 

Here are more ways to utilize Snapchat in the classroom.

Platforms like Snapchat give young people an opportunity to share and edit their real stories with others.
(c) Snapchat

Let Them Use Slang!

by Jacqueline Wang

There is no doubt that technology has shifted our views on communication and expression. Full sentences, proper punctuation, and grammar are no longer the only acceptable forms to communicate our thoughts in writing or speaking. This is especially relevant in the English Language Arts classroom. Advances in technology have given way to many online platforms where individuals can express their thoughts through text, video, memes, GIFs or even dancing and singing. The use of applications such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Snapchat have become the norm for our students. In using them, young people use a language that is vastly different from the “standard written English” that is preached in school. However, this difference does not need to be seen as inferior to the English used in schools. If anything, it would only make sense to allow students to use their “language” to express their thoughts in the classroom because that lets them express themselves in a way that is most comfortable and familiar to them. 

Connecting to Students

In an English Language Arts classroom, the aim is to have students relate to and connect with the curriculum in the best way they can. This can be difficult when teachers do not have control over the curriculum or a say in book choices. However, there is always a way to make the best of any situation and help students make a connection to a piece of literature that they thought they would never have anything in common with. This can be done by incorporating social media into lessons or writing, which not only links the modern world to texts in class but also meets the students at their level. 

In addition, there should be a variety of different writing assignments for students to complete that can assess if they are really learning the skill of writing. Students should be allowed to use “slang” or the language they use with friends and family in some aspect of their writing. With that said, curriculums need to move away from the writing formulas which lead to repetitive responses and inward thinking, instead focusing on sparking students’ creativity and allowing teachers to see more of who the students really are through their writing. 

More specifically, the idea of the RAFFT (Restate, Answer, For example, For example, Tie it Up) paragraph is a formula that the students are taught at a young age as early as third grade and has been ingrained in their minds as the way to write and get a point across. I think that learning to write a paragraph with evidence serves its purpose, but not when it brainwashes students into thinking that this is the only correct way to write. Teachers have the responsibility to teach students how to write for multiple situations and assessments but should not deter students from expressing original opinions and thoughts. 

What is Code-Switching?

Code-switching is when a person switches between two different languages or two dialects of the same language when speaking or writing. Code-switching can occur when someone has trouble expressing their thoughts in English or when a concept makes more sense in their native language or in slang or a different dialect. Code-switching can also be used to persuade an audience, to elicit certain emotions, or to show solidarity. But how does this affect teachers and students? Home languages or dialects that we use when we speak with friends and family are often different from what is deemed to be “academic language” and these ways of speaking are usually seen as incorrect. For example, text language, slang, Chinglish (a mix of Chinese and English), and African-American Vernacular English are dialects that people use on a daily basis but are not seen as suitable for the academic setting. An example of code-switching is “Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in English, y termino en español (and finish it in Spanish)” (OWL Purdue). This is fairly common and switching between dialects and languages should be seen as equal to the “Standard American English” because the person speaking or writing has value and their words, dialects, use of slang is just as important as academic English. 

Code-Switching in the Classroom and Academic Writing

Each student comes from a different background and has their own story. As a result, they should be allowed to speak in a way that helps to best express their thoughts. I do think that there should be rules that are decided upon in the very beginning – including schoolwide rules. This is not an excuse to use profanity or be disrespectful to others to state a point; this is a chance to show students that their voices matter and we trust them enough to voice their opinions in an appropriate manner that feels comfortable to them. More specifically, in narrative writing, we often ask students to write about a time that impacted them or a memorable event. This usually involves family or friends and the language is sure to shift from English to the use of slang or even an entirely different language. Teachers can assign more freewriting and narrative assignments that give students more freedom in how they choose to write. In a narrative, they can make use of different dialects/language or even use slang to tell their story. I think using a mix of both Standard Academic English (SAE) and another language or dialect brings more life to the story and helps the reader to really envision the event or experience the writer is talking about. Freewriting and share-outs are also great to use to show a student’s thoughts. Freewrites are like journals or diaries and the students generally write about their days, what’s on their mind, or answer a prompt. Regardless, freewrites are usually pretty raw material. There’s no punctuation necessary; you just keep writing. This is a great activity for teachers to learn more about the students’ day or just about the students in general. 

Code-switching, when used effectively and positively, can encourage students to embrace their multiple literacies.
Image taken from (c) Owlcation, HubPages Inc.

Should We Allow the Use of Slang in Academic Writing?

In what circumstances is using modern slang appropriate, or even the best choice? Students should be able to code-switch between dialects and languages within the classroom. I feel that students should be able to use modern slang more if that is how they usually speak because that allows them to express themselves in the most authentic way. As educators, our goal is to teach our students skills and hope that they can transfer these skills and knowledge to other areas of life. Thus, it only makes sense that we ask students to write in the way they would speak to a friend, a family member, a peer. This is particularly relevant when it comes to freewriting, narrative writing, or short story writing. English Language Arts should not only be about teaching to the test, drilling grammar, and lecturing on the importance of a “classic” piece of literature. English class can afford students so many opportunities if teachers provide them with more freedom to be themselves and explore their connection to the English language – through books, writing, speaking, acting, etc. 

Narrative writing is a prime example of where students can and should use slang or code-switch to tell their story. One of my favorite YA novels, Call Me Maria, is a collection of poems, essays, and journal entries written in English and Spanish. The author demonstrates code-switching throughout the book which allows the reader to see the writer’s two different identities and how she feels most comfortable voicing her thoughts. For example, in one of Maria’s entries she writes, “It is a warm day, and even in this barrio/the autumn sun feels like a kiss, un besito” (Cofer). Code-switching can give the reader more insight into the writer or character. The use of two languages or dialects also allows for more freedom for the writer. 

Another example of when students can use slang is translating scenes from plays or books in their own words. For example, my freshmen in student teaching read Romeo and Juliet, which was difficult for them because of the use of early modern English. I think if they were to work together and craft a modern version of a scene or multiple scenes it would help with understanding. It would also be fun and interesting to see what they come up with. It would be amusing to see how students interpret certain events that happen and how they use their slang, dialects, and different languages to translate the scene. It also gives insight into what they understand from what they have read. Also, having students write their own short stories would be a good place to utilize slang depending on the topic of the story. Short stories leave plenty of space for imagination and development of characters. They are purely creative and that gives students freedom to create different kinds of characters who speak different languages, dialects, etc.  

Overall, there is a time and place to use slang and to code-switch. It is very difficult to change the idea that “SAE” is superior to other forms of English or other languages especially in schools. However, teachers can do their best in implementing more opportunities, lessons, and activities that give students more freedom in how they write and speak. 

Resources

  • Call Me Maria by Judith Ortiz Cofer
    • This shows very direct examples of how Maria navigates her life in New York after moving from Puerto Rico. We see that she intertwines Spanish and English in her thoughts, poems, and journal entries, which allows the reader to see her journey between two identities. I think that students would enjoy modeling journal entries or writing poems using different dialects or languages. Teachers could give them a topic based on themes related to the book. 
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    • This is a quintessential example of code-switching when you read about how Starr speaks and acts in her neighborhood versus when she is at school. I think this would be great to read to show code-switching, but also to have students think about how they are different in school versus at home. This could also lead into a writing assignment where students write journal entries or a story comparing the two experiences. 
  • “3 Ways to Speak English,” a TED Talk by Jamila Lyiscott
  • We watched this in class and I felt immediately connected to it. The way that Jamila Lyiscott flawlessly goes from “SAE” to what others may consider slang and switches so effortlessly really struck me. I think students would enjoy this video and it can be used to show that code-switching is something that everyone does. 
By helping students realize that their multiple languages used inside and outside of the classroom are all legitimate and valuable, teachers can encourage reading, writing, and communication among students.
Image taken from (c) Cult of Pedagogy
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