Sunday, January 29, 2012

Being 12 & Being Literate: Looking at Boys' Out-of-School Multimodal Texts and Game Play

From Redstone Tutorial, Part 3: TNT Canons
Before the printing press existed, those training for scholarly roles wrote down word for word what a master or teacher read from his text. This text, of course, was most importantly the Bible; and one might suggest from an anthropological perspective that this may explain the inherent belief among those of the SAE world view the validity of the printed page regardless of what one's senses may tell one. An individual's own experience becomes secondary to what the accepted point of view may be, which is of course, precisely what the "Book" says.    - Terry Tafoya. (1989). Coyote's Eyes: Native Cognition Styles. Journal of American Indian Education.
Copying isn't composing. Much of what I see my son doing at middle school resembles the pre-printing press times.  For example he recently had to access a teacher's notes from an online site and copy these into his physical (paper) notebook.  In this post I want to take a look at the important literacies that young boys are participating in that are done outside of school.

As many of you know, I have been taking an extended look at my 12-year-old son and several of his friend's Minecraft play this last year. In part, I have been trying to understand the boys' literate behaviors that emerge during their game playing and making multimodal texts, such as: screencasts, livestreams, and videos.  By observing the artifacts the boys compose, I have begun to note some similarities and important differences between adolescents' literacies developed during play, and those privileged via school-based essayist assignments*.

Additionally of interest to me are the literacies these young boys engage in, specifically I am wondering about how they:
  • connect with others across the globe through Skype and multiplayer game sites
  • collaborate to build/rebuild/remix, maintain, and refine fictional worlds; make and upload multimodal texts to the Internet; write code; develop and maintain a Minecraft server; attract, support, and ban server clients; and develop and enact a business plan
  • compose written code and multimodal texts (such as: screencasts, trailers, livestreams, videos)
  • contextualize environments in which play occurs 
  • participate in on-line play
This post represents some tentative thoughts and I welcome your insights. 

Screencasts, Essayist Prose and the Problem of Authorship and Audience

One important difference between the literacies these adolescents develop as a result of out-of-school play and essayist prose style privileged inside school relates to the authenticity of author and audience.  In thinking about essayist authorship and audience,  James Gee (1990) writes:
A further significant aspect of essayist prose style is the fictionalization of both the audience and the author. The 'reader' of an essayist text is not an ordinary human being but an idealization, a rational mind formed by the rational body of knowledge of which the essay is a part. By the same token the author is a fiction, since the process of writing and editing essayist texts leads to an effacement of individual and idiosyncratic identity (pp. 60-61).
In contrast to essayist prose, the mulitmodal texts developed by the boys are imbued with voice (often literally) and they are created with specific audiences in mind.  For example, when I ask my son who he imagines the audience to be when he makes a Minecraft screencast, he says that the viewers will likely be gamers interested in the specific topic, but who don't know how to do what he is explaining. The author, like the audience are ordinary and may well become participatory in some aspect of the play. Many of the texts the boys compose are how-to screencasts related to games.  To give a sense of audience, one of the boys, James (pseudonym) routinely has between 5,000 and 15,000 viewers for each of his 300+ video uploads on YouTube.  This represents a sizable audience.

In the comments section of one video, a viewer wrote:
dude this lets play is gold i watched this and bought mysims agents/thanks to you man/i like these lets plays very cool! 
James responded, "Never thought that I would influence someone/thats great and am glad you like it so much."

There are significant philosophical differences between essayist prose and the literacies the boys compose.  When "literacy" is understood as being a transferable commodity not influenced by any social context and considered an independent variable, an autonomous model of literacy (Street, 1984) is being embraced.  An autonomous model of literacy is based on the belief that any student learns skill x and who the learner is, is not, the context of where the learning is occurring and when is meaningless.  The skill is understood as being independent from actual human context. Stripped of gendered, social, racial, historical, technological, and economic overtones--literacy learning exists as a cognitive task to be mastered.

In contrast to an autonomous model, a group of theorist, the New London Group**, published an influential paper, A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures in the Harvard Educational Review (1996) that asked us to understand that "literacy" learning is multi-dimensional and socially situated.  Skills do no exist outside of a given context and how we learn and even come to name something as a "literacy skill" is culturally determined and bound.  Literacies are not isolated events.

An autonomous belief about literacy (note the singularity) informs the pedagogical decisions one might make.  For example, if you believe that 'literacy skills' are transferable commodities, then having students complete practice worksheets in order to develop correctness and to attend to surface structures of writing would make sense.  Similarly, one who held this belief would likely believe in the production of a single correct product.

In contrast, the boys' literate behaviors are steeped in multi-literacies as social practice.

The Essay as Multimodal Text

In education we make much of essayist prose style and certainly here in the States with the Common Core, the focus on essay is even more pronounced.  Methods to help students learn to compose essay often range from simply assigning the task to engaging learners in a process approach. It is not unusual for students to be provided with professional and student models of essays. What I believe is less usual is for teachers or learners to map essayist composing skills on to other types of texts that students want to compose, such as videos when possible.

Several years ago I was teaching a group of 8th grade students. One of the students helped me to learn that writing skills could be learned by composing other types of text. I chronicled this in Difficult Flows and Waves: Unfixing Beliefs in a Grade 8 Language Arts Literacy Class (English Education, 1998).

As the school year progressed—hyperlearning occurred. For example, I watched as Tony’s command of writing responses to EWT-like writing prompts improved, even though he was not spending much time actually doing this specific activity. Rather, Tony spent a lot of time creating Hyperstudio™ projects by working with story boards. To do this he had to begin to organize information and locate pieces of the information on different Hyperstudio™ cards. He also had to create transitions and did so by using musical cues that served to join his cards into a coherent whole.
“I need a button, here,” Tony tells me one morning, pointing to a written
essay he had been working on.
“A button?” I ask, unsure.
“Yeah, you know, like when you move to the next card.”
“Oh, like a transition,” I say, beginning to see that Tony understands that the essay is like a Hyperstudio™ composition.
I suspect Tony drew upon that deeper structure of thinking he frequently
used to create his Hyperstudio™ projects when writing responses to EWT
prompts. Tony had indirectly learned how to elaborate and better organize
his written responses by creating and using story boards when composing
through hypermedia (p. 39).
Thinking about Tony makes me wonder if we have we begun to map our students' multimodal work in order to ascertain what similarities there might be between these works and the essay they are often assigned at school? Are there associational bridges we might build between work students choose to compose and the types of composing, such as analytic essay that are frequently assigned at school?

For example, if we look at this trailer produced by a 12-year old--are there entry points we might leverage to make sense of the work and relate it to school-text types?  This represents this boy's first attempt at creating a trailer to advertise a Minecraft server. The text is meant to be persuasive.

Would it be possible to make use of this text as an entry point into a discussion about persuasion? Might this be a bit more compelling for the learner than the countless 'practice essays' he has been or will be assigned at school in preparation for state assessments? Might there be better transfer of learning if the studied text was one the child had composed?

What does this young boy know about point of view? About narrative? About linkages between story and persuasion? Community and persuasion?  Citing sources?  What does he still need to learn? What confusions are present in his text?

I can't help but think how different learning might be, if we began with the important products students are composing out of school and worked from there.

*Essayist examples from CCSS: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence; Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content

**Theorist included: Courtney Cazden, Harvard University, Graduate School of Education, USA; Bill Cope, National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia, Centre for Workplace Communication and Culture, University of Technology, Sydney, and James Cook University of North Queensland, Australia; Norman Fairclough, Centre for Language in Social Life, Lancaster University, UK; Jim Gee, Hiatt Center for Urban Education, Clark University, USA; Mary Kalantzis, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland, Australia; Gunther Kress, Institute of Education, University of London, UK; Allan Luke, Graduate School of Education, University of Queensland, Australia; Carmen Luke, Graduate School of Education, University of Queensland, Australia; Sarah Michaels, Hiatt Center for Urban Education, Clark University, USA; Martin Nakata, School of Education, James Cook University of North Queensland, Australia.

Work Cited
Street, B. V. (1984). Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. Thanks for sharing Mary! In addition to some great ideas, this would also help provide educators with thoughts related to differentiating instruction, specifically writing. We are always looking at strategies, and I can see how this work would foster some healthy conversations.

  2. John, a pleasure to tweet/chat with you today. Thanks for taking a look and offering your insights. Appreciative.