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Multimedia Literature

Synching teaching and technology yields great results.

Using multimedia and other resources to bring books to life and get pupils in any grade excited about reading isn't a new concept. For years, English and language arts teachers have turned to outside sources to add another dimension to their instruction, from using historical footage to teach students about the Holocaust prior to their reading The Diary of Anne Frank to analyzing the lyrics of modern songs to find examples of metaphors and literary allusions.

What has changed over time is the method of sharing these resources with the students: Record albums and filmstrips gave way to cassette and VCR tapes, which have been replaced by CDs and DVDs.

Recently, many of those resources have taken on a virtual form. Teachers and students can use technology to access video clips of the Great Depression at the beginning of a unit on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, track down audio snippets of poets reading their works, or engage in an online chat or a virtual conference with an author. Even real time Web seminars, sometimes hosted by companies, are used in classrooms.

Resources in their virtual form are more accessible. Virtual author visits are less cost prohibitive than onsite appearances, since they lack the travel expenses and speaking fees. Even though such resources in their virtual form are more accessible to educators, they're essentially useless if schools lack the necessary technology to bring those materials into the classroom. But there are signs the digital divide is getting more narrow.

In 2005, 94 percent of public school rooms had Internet access, 97 percent of which used broadband connections, according to "Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994- 2005," a November 2006 National Center for Educational Statistics report. Plus, the ratio of public school students to an instructional computer with Internet access has improved from 12 in 1998 to nearly 4 in 2005.

"It will only be a happy marriage if those charged with education remain clear on what they want to achieve for our children and vigilant that the technology serves these ends."-Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education, Harvard Graduate School of Education

But while teachers have unprecedented access to technology in the schools, it often sits unused. Although 79 percent of teachers reported that they use technology as a teaching tool for students in CDW-G's Teachers Talk Tech 2006 survey, only 66 percent indicated they integrate it into their instruction at least two times each week, with a mere 37 percent using it daily.

Here is a peek at how to integrate technology into literature instruction that reveals why it's a best practice and provides examples of classroom applications, the necessary hardware and software, and the style of professional development that will lead to the maximum educator buy-in.

Reaching Every Learner

Since students learn differently, teachers have long known to vary their instruction to appeal to individual learning styles. For instance, left-brain thinkers tend to process information from part to whole, taking details and arranging them in a logical order to draw conclusions. Right-brain thinkers typically process information from whole to art, starting with the big picture before focusing on the details, and they tend to need a hands-on approach, such as seeing their vocabulary words in context, to understand the lesson.

In 1983, Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, took this concept to the next level when he introduced his multiple intelligences theory, which asserts that human beings have at least eight forms of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily- kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Although traditional classroom instruction caters to students with strong linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, Gardner believes that educators should tap into the other six intelligences to reach every learner. When Gardner introduced his theory, educators' access to multimedia tools was far more limited than it is today.

"It makes a connection to the story that the kids wouldn't have without it."-Chris Crutcher, young adult novelist

Over the past quarter of a century, however, countless newspaper clippings, historical photographs, video footage and radio interviews have been preserved in a digital form and made available to people on the Web. Some of the resources are available through fee-based searchable databases, such as author interviews on or streaming video clips on Discovery Education's Others are offered free through public-access sites, such as audio clips of poets reading their work found on or the multidisciplinary online educator resources available through "The new technologies make the materials vivid, easy to access, and fun to use, and they readily address the multiple ways of knowing that humans possess," Gardner stated in "Can Technology Exploit Our Many Ways of Knowing?" published in The Digital Classroom: How Technology Is Changing the Way We Teach and Learn (Harvard Education Letter, 2000). "Moreover, for the first time ever, it is possible for teachers and other experts to examine the work efficiently, at long distances, and to provide quick feedback in forms that are relevant to students. Clearly, a marriage of education and technology could be consummated. But it will only be a happy marriage if those charged with education remain clear on what they want to achieve for our children and vigilant that the technology serves these ends." In other words, technology must remain a tool in the classroom.

Getting Started

Before teachers can integrate the multimedia resources available online into their instruction, they must have several pieces of technology available for classroom use on a daily basis: a laptop or a desktop computer equipped with speakers and Internet access, and a projector. Not only will this enable them to be more effective in the administrative aspects of their job, from communicating with parents via e-mail to using an electronic grade book, but also it will allow them to create and deliver multimedia-infused lessons with ease. For instance, during a poetry unit, the educator can use the computer to access to play an audio clip of Langston Hughes reading his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," while the students follow along with the projected text, listening for inflection and pacing, says Nancy Pelser- Borowicz, district media specialist for Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla. Not only will they gain a deeper understanding of the roles that inflection and pacing play in poetry as they listen to him read his work, but the clip includes Hughes explaining the inspiration for the poem, providing insights that would be likely not included in a standard textbook.

Even without a digital whiteboard, teachers can download free Smartboard software, which allows them to have a digital whiteboard on their screen they can use when they present the material. After the lesson, educators can e-mail the file or post it to the school's Web site so students can access the material on later occasions. If they add a Web camera to the mix, teachers can use the equipment for videoconferences, which allows authors to make virtual visits to the class. Other useful digital equipment includes digital video and still cameras, podcasting kits to help users create, produce and promote podcasts, personal digital assistants, document projectors and scanners.

"Those are the kinds of tools that every teacher needs to have in today's media-saturated world," says Gregg Festa, director of the ADP Center for Teacher Preparation and Learning Technologies in Montclair, N.J. "We have this pressure to use technology for teaching and learning. For the last 20 or so years, it was a top-down pressure from the administrators, the boards of education and the taxpayers who funded the programs. But now the pressure has shifted. It's more of a bottom-up pressure; the students want to know why the teachers aren't using this stuff and why they don't have access to it."

Multimedia Integration in Action

Current technology tools have countless applications in English and language arts classrooms, such as the broad array of free and fee-based online curriculum resources in the "Integrating Multimedia: A Cross-Curricular Concept" sidebar. For example, students can try their hand at writing their own poetry, posting drafts on a blog so that their classmates can offer constructive criticism online. After they have a final draft, students can use podcasts to record themselves reading their original work of poetry while focusing on emphasizing their own key words and then create a PowerPoint slide presentation with embedded multimedia and their poem's text to present results. Carrie Deahl, who teaches freshman and honors junior English at Alhambra High School in the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona, has her students submit their poems for publication online at sites such as

"It's not enough anymore just to watch media," says Scott C. Kinney, director of the Discovery Educator Network. "Kids want to interact with it; they want to produce their own media. The skeptics say, 'They learned how to use iMovie and made a digital story. So what?' But what people are missing is if you look at that process, it's the same demonstration of knowledge as it is in any other form. To get to that point, they had to go out and research topics, synthesize information, put it into a sequence that made sense, write and review a script and then communicate that script. It's not absent of all those wonderful things that we've always done; it just gives them ownership."

Other online applications can serve as instructional tools as well. For instance, to begin a unit on Arthur Miller's TheCrucible, teachers can bring their students to the computer lab to send them on a "WebQuest" online investigation to learn about the Salem, Mass., witch trials in 1692. After they have some background information, they can enter an online chat room for a virtual teacher-guided discussion about their findings. Although it may be tempting to engage in a traditional whole-class discussion in the lab, the chat room has its perks: not only do teachers have a record of the conversation, which can be used to assess student participation or provide absent students with information that they missed, but teachers often find that their reluctant and shy students are more willing to share their views during online discussions.

Teachers can return to those same chat rooms to lead their classes through a guided virtual visit with the author that they're studying, or they can opt to project a video conference. Such options cost schools around $200 instead of $1,000 or more for the on-site equivalent. Just as with an on-site author visit, teachers and students must prepare in advance to get the most out of their time with the author, such as by reading and discussing the book as a class, researching the available information about the author and the work, and working together to create a list of questions to guide the discussion.

"Kids want to interact with and produce their own media."-Scott C. Kinney, director, Discovery Educator Network

The visits provide "a context with the author," says young adult novelist Chris Crutcher. "It makes a connection to the story that the kids wouldn't have without it. Both kids and teachers say it's cool to have the person who wrote the book available there so you can ask questions about it and find out where did the author get this idea. It adds some viability to the story that they're reading, and it makes it more immediate."

One caveat: as with all technology based lessons, teachers should perform a few test runs to make themselves familiar with the program and ensure that the school's firewall or the computer's processor speed won't cause a technical glitch. They should also have a backup plan in case the equipment fails during the scheduled chat. For instance, a telephone with a speakerphone option would allow the class to still "meet" the author if the Web camera were to malfunction.

Stay Focused

Just as some students once spent much class time sharpening their pencils to avoid the hard work of writing an essay that analyzed the literature they had just read, students and teachers alike run the risk of becoming so caught up with finding the latest and greatest technology to use that they lose sight of their primary goal. "The challenge with technology is to keep it a means and not let it become the end," stated Robert E. Probst, department editor of NCTE's Voices from the Middle in his column, "Pencils and Other Technological Wonders," published in March 2004.

"That's not an argument against experimenting with new technologies they are marvelous tools," Probst adds. "But we have to make sure that we don't forget that our job is still fundamentally the same. We are trying to get kids to read good literature; to reflect on their responses to it; to discuss it with other readers; to sharpen their understanding of the texts, themselves and their classmates; to write, to reason, and to enjoy the emotional, social, aesthetic and intellectual pleasures of the literate life."

Jennifer Maciejewski is a freelance writer based in Georgia.