What Video Game I’m Currently Playing, and Why

The_Elder_Scrolls_V_Skyrim_coverSo after about four years and twenty-odd games with the Wii, I finally decided to purchase a more grown-up gaming system. No, I didn’t splurge on the PS4 or the Xbox One; I bought a second-hand Xbox 360 from a pawn shop. My main goal was to get a system that would output in high definition, which the old Wii did not. But I also wanted to play some critically acclaimed games that I have recently read about in the context of one of my favorite topics, gaming and education. I have long been interested in the idea of immersive literary worlds–this subject made up part of my dissertation, has been featured in a few of my publications (such as Literature and the Web), and has been kind of a hobby. Also, if I call it an academic interest, I can play video games all night with impunity.

So enter the Xbox, and my first game, Skryim: the Elder Scrolls (Bethesda, 2011). I’ve read rave reviews of this particular RPG, and the reviews are right: it is an amazingly immersive game. There are a few game elements that make it very notable in the swords-and-sorcery camp: first is the open world, which is a newish concept in videogaming, though some would claim game designers were at least shooting for this as early as the 1980s. What makes Skyrim and open world game is its huge terrain, its non-linear approach to objectives, and the sheer number of in-game goals to chose from. As narratives go, video games are generally pretty linear: the player advances his character/avatar through a series of increasingly challenging levels, gaining skills along the way that help him toward the final objective. This is news only to me, but Skyrim is much different: I can wander around, taking on small challenges presented by NPCs, gaining experience and choosing particular skills to hone. I’m a level 15 Khajilt, and so far, I have pretty much stuck to looting various crypts around Skyrim, something for which stealth and night vision come in pretty handy. I’ve been to quite a few locations in Skyrim and even purchased a horse to help get me around.

At the same time, I am aware of the larger story arc of the game: my character is something called Dragon-born, which means I have the ability to absorb Dragon souls, making me pretty rare indeed. There is some kind of civil war happening, too, and some doomsday dragon named Alduin is threatening to end the world. I’ve tried to kill him but so far have failed. What all of this geekery means is that game developers are getting awfully close to creating actual open-ended narratives, the kind that hypertext theorists were dreaming about in the 1990s, where there is no beginning or ending to the story and infinite possibilities within it.

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Reading and Writing Digital Comics: Process and Pedagogy

Over the past two years, I have taught both graduate and undergraduate courses on comics. Many of the comics read by my students were digital, available through Google Play, Amazon, Comixology, or digital comic archives. And while some comic authors such as Craig Thompson resist digitizing their work, I believe that the comics medium is uniquely suited for digital environments. In fact, my recent comics course syllabus has drawn heavily on digital comics, which in turn has shaped my teaching.

Getting Digital Comics: Apps, E-books, Archives, and DIY

comix_logoThe best way to read digital comics is through a media tablet with a high resolution screen such as the iPad Retina, loaded with apps from each book vendor. There are a number of comics apps that deliver a wide number of titles, but the most extensive is Comixology. Comixology offers thousands of titles from DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, and other mainstream publishers. Signing up for an account is free; the comics range in cost, depending on the issue or the collection. The latest issue of The Walking Dead, for example, runs $2.99. You can manage your purchases on the Comixology web site or through the Comixology app (IOS or Android) itself. One downfall of Comixology: all of the issues are stored in the cloud, so you never really own the files. On the plus side, you never have to worry about being unable to read the format.

viz_logoManga, the name of the immensely popular Japanese comic style, is widely available on the web, but most of the web sites and apps offer copyrighted material and are definitely illegal, as Chris Adamson notes in his critique of the Apple store’s ongoing support of pirated Manga. Sites/apps such as Manga Rock, Manga Stream, Manga Fox, and others rely on user scans to provide enormous archives of free Manga. But to stay legal, avoid these archives and download from legitimate Manga publishers such as Viz Manga and Yen Press, where most issues are relatively inexpensive. Viz Media offers multi-platform support, as do other mainstream Manga publisher. For a good list of these publishers, see this compilation by The Organization of Anti-Social Geniuses.

Most major book retailers have collections of comics and graphic novels available for purchase. Whether a distributor has a digital version of a given comic depends on the author, the publishing company, and the vendor, so it is hit and miss if you are looking for an individual title. The Google Play Book Store, for example, has Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, which was originally published by a small press, as well as a small collection of comics from DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Viz, and others. Amazon has a larger library of digitized comic books and graphic novels for its Kindle Reader, including titles such as Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner that Google does not carry. Barnes and Noble seems to have the largest digital comic library. All of these retailers offer apps for Android and IOS.

daredevil_logoIf you interested in older comics from the Golden Age, there are excellent archives on the web. Both the Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus contain thousands of user-scanned comics from the 1930, 1940s, and 1950s. Both sites also claim their content is legal. In some cases, this seems true, as in the Daredevil #1 pictured here, whose original publisher (Lev Gleason) has been defunct since 1956. In other cases, though, the publishing company is still in operation, making the claim a little suspect. It’s probably safest to pay attention to the Fair Use exceptions outlined below.

A final way to get digital content is to create your own version to distribute to your students. Remember that distributing copies of a copyrighted work is illegal under U.S. copyright law. Under the auspices of Academic Fair Use, however, you can distribute digital copies of a work for one-time, educational use, provided you keep the copy within a course management system and limit the total amount of copied material to 10 percent. If no digital version of the comic is available, you can use a high resolution scanner to scan pages and a PDF creator to assemble them. This can take a long time. A better solution is to purchase a digital copy of the comic and take screen shots (with your tablet) of the pages you want to share. Upload your images to Dropbox or another share/sync service and put them together with your PDF creator.

Pedagogy: Comic Resources and Practices

mccloud_logoOver the past decade, graphic novels have become popular in many academic settings, leading to a spate of professional books on how to teach them. Of the many offerings, I recommend Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels by James Bucky Carter, one of the earliest and most compelling advocates for comics within the broader field of literacy education. Still, most of my teaching approaches comes from two key books: Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Eisner is the pioneer of the graphic novel genre, of course, and the first to articulate a formalist understanding of the medium in Comics and Sequential Arts. McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a more detailed and nuanced formal analysis of comics. Taken together, these two works equip a teacher (and students) to read comics more critically, providing a vocabulary for discourse of comics criticism.

critical_logoAnd speaking of comics criticism, the emerging field of comics studies is a good place to start for culturally relevant analysis of comics. I like the online journal ImageText for accessible articles, and I also draw on two outstanding collections of criticism: A Comics Studies Reader edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester and Critical Approaches to Comics: Theory and Methods edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan. Both collections contain provocative and current articles from a wide range of sociocultural perspectives.

Central to teaching comics at any level is visual analysis, by which I mean careful examination of the structure and content of a given page or panel. Ideally, this analysis happens both individually and collectively. My students use a WordPress blog to post about meaningful or important images/pages/panels. To do so, they embed a screen capture of the page in their post, discussing it with the vocabulary provided by McCloud and Eisner (e.g. line, gutter, perspective).

In class, we view and discuss pages as a large group. With a digital copy of the comic on my iPad, I connect it directy to the projector and flip from page to page as students guide the discussion. An alternative is to upload screenshots from the iPad to Dropbox, which can then be accessed through the instructor station. Of course, schools with Apple TV can connect wirelessly to the screen. For a kind of poor man’s Apple TV, you can install Air Server on your laptop, hook up your laptop to the projector, and then stream images from your iPad, which already has Air Server, to the laptop and onto the projector. The key thing is getting the image on screen.

Composing Comics: Apps and Software

bitstrip_logoWhen I teach comics, I require that students compose their own short comic strips in response to course readings. I think this helps students 1) understand the process of translating ideas into verbal/visual representation; 2) apply the vocabulary and ideas they have learned about the comics medium through the comics medium 3) explore a creative realm that is typically off-limits and 4) learn more about composing software that they may use with their own students in the future.

There is no shortage of apps and software for creating comics. For a comprehensive review, check out this piece at Top Ten Reviews. For teaching purposes, I recommend free online services such as Bitstrips (app version available), Pixton (which offers a pricing plan for educators), and Toondoo. While all three of these services yield somewhat generic-looking end results, students can choose from a variety of characters, backgrounds, and more (see this excellent example by Amanda). The most important part, I think, is the ability to final embed the comic elsewhere–in a class blog, social network, or weebly, for instance. I have yet to find a really good comic creation app for the iPad, so my recommendation is to stick with web-based services for now.

This post was created for the 2014 GVSU Teaching and Learning with Technology Symposium.

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Early Career English Teachers in Action–We Have a Cover

ecet At the risk of more shameless self-promotion, I am happy to announce that my newest book (co-authored with Linsday Ellis) now has a cover. It’s due out in August 2014.

In others news, I’ve spent a few hours revamping this site once again. Don’t ask me what the fingerprint image in the masthead actually means–I just thought it looked cool. Ironically enough, I went back to the 2010 WordPress theme to get what I wanted: a clean, minimalistic blog (this theme is a favorite of mine–check out my class blog for my graphic novel course.). I’m going to add a WordPress Mobile plugin sometime soon to make this site a little more responsive to the range of platforms that can access it.

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Three Easy Ways of Texting your Students: Remind101, GroupMe, and Viber

downloadI’ve sent enough unanswered emails to know that people under 21 just don’t check their email accounts. Or maybe they look at them once per week. What do they check? Their phones. So some teachers have taken to texting students what otherwise might be emailed: reminders, assignments, and the like. I would recommend the following apps for this purpose: the first is Remind101, which was developed for education. You set up a class, following the same procedure as you would for an older course management system such as Nicenet. Remind101 generates a code, which students then add via their own smartphones. Soon, you can send reminder texts and more to your entire class. Nice.

Of course, smart phones already come with ability to text a group of users. In both Android and IOS, you just keep adding contacts (or new numbers) to the recipient box. That’s not a bad way to go, but if you want a little more, check out GroupMe, a service that makes setting up group texts a little easier. Set up a group via the web or the mobile app, and GroupMe syncs it all. It’s nice to send text messages via the web, too, especially for people over 42 who just don’t text all that well.

Of course, standard text rates apply for both, which is not the case for Viber. If I understand it correctly, Viber can send texts over the web, in the same way that Vonage uses the web to make voice calls. Your school has a wifi network, so theoretically, you could communicate to students via Viber, provided they installed the app. Worth thinking about, at least.

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Books, Graphic Novels, and the Like

Far too long since I have posted here, but I do have good news to share. First, I am pleased to report that our collection of teacher narratives, Early Career English Teachers in Action is nearly finished. Lindsay Ellis and I are finishing up the manuscript, which we’ll submit soon. Then, it will be published by Routledge sometime in 2014, depending on how long the process takes. What’s exciting about this book, for me, is that it features former students of mine who are teaching English. Our contributors include Adam Kennedy, Jeremy Battaglia, Blaine Sullivan, David Jagusch, Tami Teshima, Sierra Holmes, Amanda Brown, Lindsay Stoetzel, Tracy Meinzer, Bree Gannon, Sara VanIttersum, and Kristyn Konal. All have contributed meaningful stories from their first years in the field. I am very excited for the book to come up, and for these fine teachers (and writers) to get some of the recognition they deserve.

I’m also geeked about my upcoming graphic novels course, which begins next week. In addition to some of the usual works such as Blankets and American Born Chinese, we’ll be looking at early Will Eisner (Spirit), the infamous Frederick Wertham (who wrote about the way comics corrupt youth) and two new favorites of mine, Sarah Varon’s Robot Dreams and Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost. We’ll also be diving a little deeper into superhero comics–Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises are also on the reading list.

Lots of fun. Looking forward to a terrific semester.

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Pearson, Continued.

On Monday, I attended the Pearson MTTC Standards Setting Conference in Lansing today. I found the event both dispiriting and instructive, and while my confidentiality agreement forbids me from disclosing any specific information, I can tell you the following, much of which is already published on the MTTC web site.

  • The MTTC Basic Skills Test will soon be renamed the “Professional Readiness” test.
  • The test will consist of three subareas: reading, writing, and math.
  • Certification requires passing all three, but individual areas can be retaken without the rest of the test.
  • The test is criteria-based, not norm-referenced.
  • The test covers content, not pedagogy.
  • The MDE is pushing the test as a prerequisite for student teaching, though it seems like universities can determine their own policies.
  • Pearson will send disaggregated data to COES, and scores on subareas will be available.
  • Allegedly, the Professional Readiness (PR) test is “based on Michigan policy documents and curriculum,” though when I asked about this, the MDE representative said it would draw on both Michigan standards (pre-CCSS) and the CCSS.
  • Pearson currently has not plans to machine score the writing portion of the PR test, which according to the rep who led my session, is “much too high stakes a test” for machine scoring.
  • Beyond the PR test, Pearson is also developing a new Elementary Education test. Unfortunately, I was in the PR breakout group, so there is little to relate here.

My day was spent working in a group of 20 teachers, administrators, and English educators to develop cut scores (passing scores) for the three subareas of the Professional Readiness Exam. Again, I can’t reveal specific details, but I can give you some general impressions.

First, Pearson is not really concerned with higher-level discussions about meaningful writing or the purpose of public education. Not a surprise. On repeated occasions, I asked pointed questions, and the Pearson rep was unwilling or unable to engage in these kinds of conversations. Case in point: when I suggested that the MTTC writing portion might discriminate against ELL teacher candidates, the rep said that we needed to “draw a line in the sand” regarding our standards.

Second, Pearson has data. Lots of it. And they believe in it. My sense is that any contributions we made today were ultimately reduced to data points, insignificant in the vast amount of information that Pearson has accrued. Whatever happens with the new Professional Readiness test, you can be sure that Pearson has masses of data on every question ever asked. One critical data point worth thinking about: the writing subarea of the PR test (approximately 40 multiple choice questions; two constructed responses) has consistently been the weakest for test takers. Weaker than reading and weaker than math.

So, that was my day. In the meantime, this has been a busy news week for resistance to all kinds of standardized testing (hat tip: Nancy Patterson for gathering these resources:

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MTTC Standards Setting with Pearson

Tomorrow, I am off to the MTTC Standards Setting Conference, sponsored by Pearson, the London-based educational corporation that owns dozens of textbook publishing companies across the world. If you are teaching from a commercial textbook, chances are Pearson published it. Take a look at the list of imprints on the wikipedia page, or check out this mini-documentary by Todd Finley.

Pearson, of course, has a great deal of interest in implementing the Common Core State Standards. It already markets Common Core textbooks for students, but it is also developing CCSS-based assessments for students and CCSS-based certification tests for teachers. And that’s where I come in: as President of the MCEE (Michigan Council of Teachers of English), I have been invited to “set standards” for the new Michigan Test for Teacher Certification, which will likely be renamed and will be largely concerned with the CCSS.

What this means in a nutshell: if you are in a teacher certification program (like ours at GVSU), you will be expected to know the CCSS, not only for the basic skills test, but also for the subject area test. Start memorizing them, people.

Pearson invites academic types like me mostly for public relations, I’m quite sure. I suspect that I’ll mostly be meeting corporate types tomorrow–higher ups from Pearson whose job it is to sell the new assessment. Maybe my skepticism will be proven wrong, and I will be given a chance to state my opinion. I’ve been gearing up all week, reading Diane Ravitch’s most recent book Reign of Error. If given a chance, I’ll push for the following:

  • Authentic writing assessment that does not require would-be teachers to craft formulaic five-paragraph essays about random topics unrelated to our field. If the test must contain a written portion (and it must), I would like to see test-takers presented with a scenario or brief case study (about adopting a controversial text, for example, or reporting suspected child abuse). Then, the test would ask teachers to write in a real genre, such as a memo, letter home, or an email to a colleague. They would also write with a real purpose–explaining the decision they have made. This is a pipe dream, I know. Tomorrow, it will be five-paragraph all the way to the bank.
  • I’ll also take a stance against machine-scored writing, a method that most major tests are piloting or moving toward. Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (to which Michigan belongs), for instance, certainly talked about this option in the past. This is probably the future of the teacher certification test.
  • What else? Maybe general grumpiness about the buying and selling of public education in America. For more on the way Bill Gates provided millions of dollars to fund the Common Core initiative, for instance, check out the reporting by Melody Schneider.

I’d like to live blog (or Tweet) the event, but Pearson makes all participants sign a confidentiality agreement, so this is likely my last dispatch.

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Huge News from the Michigan Department of Education: No Funding for CCSS, at Least for Now

From MLive:

Michigan Department of Education website to be shut down today
Lori Higgins,
October 1, 2013

The Michigan Department of Education’s website is expected to go dark today because the Legislature has failed to act on allowing the department to spend money to implement the Common Core State Standards, which are integrated throughout the site.

In a memo that went out to school administrators statewide Monday, MDE officials said the site — www.michigan.gov/mde — has to be taken down.

The budget bill the Legislature approved earlier this year — which went into effect today — bars the MDE from spending any money on implementing the standards or an exam that would be based on the standards until the Legislature weighs in on whether the state should move forward.

The House on Thursday approved a resolution allowing the MDE to move forward with implementation, but the Senate hasn’t taken it up. A joint meeting of the Senate Education Committee and the Senate subcommittee on K-12 committee funding is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the Common Core. It’s unclear when the full Senate might take up the resolution.

“If we cannot expend funds on any information, or support and assistance to local schools, then we have to scrub our entire website and restore pages as they are deemed fit,” State Superintendent Mike Flanagan said in the Monday memo.

The MDE website isn’t the only thing impacted by the lack of legislative action. MDE is now in violation of a waiver it received from the U.S. Department of Education last year — a waiver that allows the state to bypass some of the strict rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law. One of the conditions of the waiver was that states adopt college and career readiness standards, which the Common Core standards are considered to be.

For more detail, see this email from the Michigan Department of Education’s Leah Breen:

Dear Colleagues,
Due to the Michigan Senate not providing an “affirmative action” to allow the Michigan Department of Education to continue implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by the beginning of the October 1, 2013-14 state fiscal year, the Department is prohibited by state law from providing information, support and assistance on either the CCSS or the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAs).

Because so much of that information is integrated throughout the MDE website, the website will be taken down while any and all CCSS and SBA information is identified and removed. We will be restoring unaffected information as it is cleared.

Additionally, the following work within the Office of Professional
Preparation Institution will be temporarily suspended at 11:59 p.m. tonight, September 30, 2013.

1. Recommendation of candidates within MOECS
2. Approval of applications within MOECS
3. Educator Preparation Institution Performance Score
4. Program approval
5. Standards revision
6. Title II, Part B grant support
7. Accreditation visits
8. Technical assistance related to State Standards or activities affiliated
with those standards
9. Other, not yet identified activities

Each component of our work will be reviewed carefully. As we determine that those activities are not in violation of the current restrictions, we will communicate this information to our constituents and restore the services.

We appreciate your understanding while we work through this situation, especially as it pertains to the prohibition for staff to communicate and provide technical assistance to you on affected issues. We look forward to resolution so that we can go back to providing the support you expect and deserve.

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Big News Event

lajm1 Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

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Brainstorm: Educational Uses of Flipboard

Flipboard_Logotype_Square_flat_300dpi Flipboard is one of the coolest new readers for media tablets. It is, in essence, a replacement for web-based RSS aggregators such as Google Reader, now defunct. Flipboard lets you subscribe to a range of digital content, including Twitter and blog feeds, Facebook news feeds, media outlets that export to Flipboard format (such as the Atlantic), and most interestingly, “magazines” created by other Flipboard users. Web users can also install a browser tool to add content via the web.

Start by getting the the app for your iPad, iPhone, Droid, or Galaxy. You’ll see that you can 1) create a magazine with your favorite individual articles or 2) subscribe to content for your “cover stories.” This distinction is a little confusing at first, but basically the difference is that individual magazines allow you to scrapbook your good finds (static content), and cover stories offer dynamic content based on your subscriptions. You can share your individual magazines via a range of social media outlets and, of course, email.

Theoretically, then an educator could set up a magazine for his/her class, using content from around the web, including YouTube videos, images, and all matters of texts. I just added the ebook version of the Great Gatsby and a Groovshark playlist to my Flipboard magazine currently (and creatively) titled Rob.

I can’t quite wrap my head around this yet, though: can the magazine I create also have dynamic content that updates automatically? Do I create a new magazine for a different class (or different content)? Can I convert a boring old PDF text into a Flipboard text? And what, besides beauty, does Flipboard offer that a WordPress blog does not offer?

Stay tuned.

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