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A participant’s journey

Our program changes every year, but here's how one participant experienced the intellectual, social and emotional journey that was the 9th Annual Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, July 11 - 16th, 2021


Sunday’s theme: connect

1. Human societies are resilient in their learning

2. This past year has been traumatic

This first statement I certainly would have agreed with if prompted before the Covid-19 pandemic. The elementary, middle, and high school education experience in the US is disparate across social and economic axes. Students and their teachers already succeeded in so many communities, despite the lack of resources or access before March 2020. 

For me personally, this past year was the first time that I embodied this knowledge in a first-hand, visceral way. Today’s orientation felt like a salve for a collective wound felt over the past year. People’s willingness to share their story and reveal that they struggled really resonated with me. I’m reminded of an excellent book I read recently, High Conflict by Amanda Ripley, in which Ripley’s exploration of many different conflict case studies leads her to believe that people who are willing to be vulnerable with one another are more likely to create together!

I felt this today when I connected and shared with another SIDL participant that, in addition to completing my graduate program virtually during the pandemic, my year was further complicated when I was struck by a vehicle while on my bicycle last October. There are so many stories like this—people losing loved ones, jobs, homes, their mental health—traumas compounded by the broader collective trauma of Covid-19. Seeing 150+ people gathered virtually today reminded me again of the resilience we reserve for learning, for expression, for connection. I can’t wait to see what we can create this week and after!

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Monday’s theme: create

3. Lean in to the messiness of the creative process 

4. The process is the outcome

Today’s theme of create brought about some intriguing questions: How can we get students to see themselves as authors and producers of knowledge? And how can we, as educators, lean into the sometimes-messy processes of media making? How can we scaffold digital authorship into student learning? 


In our keynote today, Renee had us evaluate an archived SIDL design project, collaborate in small groups, create an Adobe Spark video commentary of the groups’ reflections, and do so in 30 minutes!!! Although my compass point is West by nature, I tapped into my North to resist my perfectionist sensibilities and just do it! My groupmates were a little resistant (all Wests!) and, though the video wasn’t a clean and finished product at the end, it was something. Perhaps the “perfect”, color-inside-the-lines deliverable isn’t the apex of either our learning or our students’ learning. Perhaps in the case of digital authorship and creation, the journey is the destination. The practice of media consumption is a curious, discerning, evaluative, and collaborative process that you can practice and activate, as is the willingness to embrace the messiness of creation in order to take the plunge into authorship. My increased comfort with my North entrepreneurial skills will increase my student’s comfort with creating. Maybe digital authorship is about audacity and courage—to create the media artifact, to express oneself, to view oneself as a producer of knowledge.

To the third question, of how to scaffold audacity and digital authorship into learning, Mary Kate Lonergan, Mike Spikes, and Mike RobbGrieco offered some great input about to build a generative atmosphere in the classroom. In their workshop, What’s Holding You Back?: Overcoming Obstacles in Teaching Media and News Literacy, a common obstacle educators said they faced was teaching digital literacy to students who view the discipline as partisan or indoctrinating. They presented effective skills, strategies, and mindsets for moving away from combative, polarized classroom discourse towards an atmosphere of collective inquiry and genuine curiosity. This shift in mindset—learning happens outside the comfort zone but still within the limits of a safe, brave space, crystalized Renee’s keynote for me. How can we get students to create critically with abandon? Build a safe, brave space where messiness, mistakes, and learning can happen with and through media making!

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Tuesday’s theme: guide

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5. Teachers support learning in both real time and anytime contexts

6. Effective use of digital tools can promote collaboration and inquiry learning


What a day! Today I got to explore some big questions, the biggest being: what in the world does classroom learning look like the post-quarantine? Although last year was extremely difficult for both educators and students, research shows that both groups also found some unexpected benefits to virtual learning formats. How do we blend those benefits of collaborative digital learning technologies with the desperately-needed in-person peer engagement? How do technology education specialists, library media specialists, classroom teachers, and school administrators support one another in the journey to integrate new educational technologies into the in-person classroom again? What does that look like?

As someone who was both a teacher and a student last year, this is mind-bending! For example, as a teacher, I loved when students would direct message me during a real-time class with clarifying questions about the learning materials or instructions. The Zoom chat finally gave students a space to voice the questions they deemed ‘stupid’ or that they were too shy to interject with. This was so helpful for checking comprehension. How can we keep the anonymous ‘direct message’ alive in the post-quarantine classroom? Likewise, the pandemic saw incredible innovation in collaborative learning platforms and interactive media making tools. How can we continue to use these spaces to build shared digital resources in the in-person classroom? And conversely, how do we balance an increase in digital tech and tools with the ever-important in-person social collaboration?


I got the opportunity to explore these questions with Amanda Murphy and Jill Castek’s in their workshop called Collaborative Tools and Practices in Remote Learning Spaces this evening. We talked about new ways that collaboration may look, feel, and sound like in the classroom this coming year. Those new, blended, digitally-interactive, and in-person classroom innovations remain to be seen as educators and students prepare to resume in-person learning in August and September. This coming school year will be pivotal one in education and I’m excited to be a part of a community at the forefront of these innovations. 

Wednesday’s theme: inspire

7. Have the confidence to cliff-jump when life calls for you to be courageous and have faith.

8. Your identity is important for the data set of the universe


“Life is the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure game.” Wow. My Wednesday was transformed by Amber Coleman Mortley. Today’s keynote really cut through to this moment in the journey to my Emerald City right now, finding a job in the digital literacy education field. In my job search process, I’ve been thinking hard recently about the three teaching and learning principles that shaped me and my graduate research over the last two years: equity, agency, and collective knowledge building. Where and how can I achieve me dream of living up to those values out in the field? Amber reaffirmed early on the validity of many different types of knowledge; that “our work should build that collective sense that lived experiences surrounding race, culture, gender, and ability are critical data in the quest to understand community issues.”


Amber invited us to indulge in radical imagination around equity and empathy. As this point in her talk, about figuring out what your Emerald City is, a particular call for applicants popped into my head. The job both excites and scares me. But my perception has been that it is out of reach for me professionally right now. I’ve been having some negative self-talk about this lately. I keep thinking, “Why apply if I know I don’t have every single thing they are looking for? I’m not qualified enough.”  

Amber also emphasized the importance of locating a mentor in the field. She said, “A great mentor can see something in you that you can’t see in yourself… Who can hand you your red shoes without telling you what to do?” At this moment in her talk, I felt so grateful—I’ve met a handful of people this week who have been so generous with their time and their guidance. One new friend talked extensively with me about her work, incidentally the same work described in that call for applicants. After assessing the document herself, she encouraged me to apply. “I think you’d be great in this position… you have the knowledge and you have the resourcefulness to do this!” she said.

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“Innovation requires you to know the rules; to break the rules.” Amber made connections all over with this statement of hers: in navigating power dynamics, in teaming up and collaborating, and in leveraging power to be a change agent. She said, “I am literally standing on the hard work and labor of all of the folks that came before me. Some of them: enslaved Black people, some of them formerly sharecroppers, some of them teachers, some of them engineers and business owners. Some of them not related to me but believing in me, pushing me towards my own greatness.” This was so powerful and I express my deepest gratitude for Amber and letting us all standing on her shoulders today. In this choose-your-own-adventure game of life, Amber pushes us to move towards new personal possibilities and new social futures.


What can happen if I imagine a new possibility for myself? Inspired by today's program, I decided to reach for that call for applicants and apply. If I’m not selected for an interview: that’s OK! But if the organization loves my vision: let’s party!

Thursday’s theme: lead

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9. Imagine new possibilities 

10. You can make a difference


How can we be leaders as artists, teachers, librarians, technology specialists, administrators, journalists, etc. in our community? State representative and community leader Curtis Goodwin answered this today by saying, “The true testament of a leader is how they cultivate other leaders.” 


This was profound to hear as I’m levitating still from yesterday’s keynote by Amber Coleman Mortley. As I reach for new opportunities in my job search, I now ask myself, how will I lead? How, in this position, can lead through the cultivation of other leaders.

This powerful sentiment brought me back to an idea that informed my recent Master’s thesis. This idea is social dreaming, a way of teaching and learning that asks students to imagine new possibilities and new futures within their lives and communities. So many of the greatest leaders in history were social dreamers. I learned about social dreaming through the works of Octavia Butler, Janelle Monaé, and other Afrofuturists (most recently, Amber Coleman Mortley!). Guided by this revelation that leaders are catalysts for social dreaming, I reframe my job search to reflect where and how can I be an agent for social dreaming through digital literacy education.


These new perspectives crystalized during Charlie Coiro’s Digger Deeper today, where I visualized both this inquiry and my Emerald City through media. In my virtual dream board, my current state was represented by images of a labyrinth, foggy glasses, a forest with many paths, a juggler with too many balls in the air. Through these new perspectives I gained today, I feel confident I’ll get to the other side of my dream board, where images depicting a spyglass and its crisp, clear image and an archer hyper focused on her target welcome me.

Friday’s theme: take action

11. Do something (large or small) where you can be tenacious and play

12. Remember: Everyone learns from everyone


The final day of the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy! What a week it’s been! Today, I had the pleasure of participating in the Institute’s design project showcase protocol called Butterflies & Flowers, in which participants spend some of their time as butterflies—by virtually walking around and soaking up the ingenuity of many different design projects—and some of their time as flowers—offering a stationary presentation for the migrating butterflies. As I migrated from one virtual room to another, I’m struck by the variety of projects, in topic and scope. Some projects ideate around broad and abstract inquiries, while others lay out a specific classroom project and assessment plan. The theme today is take action and this institute has cultivated more than 75 action plans in communities worldwide!

I also reflect on my own action plan today. As I wade in the nebulous waters of a job search, I find a perspective change has occurred. Rather than asking, what job should I pursue in order to make a difference? I ask, what future reality do I want to help build? Instead of asking, how can I be an agent of change? I ask, how can I embody leadership by cultivating new leaders? And, instead of, how can I possibly incorporate all I’ve learned into my job? I ask, where are opportunities within my work to tenaciously pursue collaboration and play?


After acquiring new frameworks and methodologies for my intellectual toolbelt from the Institute’s real-time learning workshops, and with hours more of anytime learning in the Pathwright, I feel so confident for my upcoming interviews and the innovative ideas I have to share about digital literacy education that percolate in my imagination. In this way, becoming a part of this Summer Institute for Digital Literacy community will be a gift that keeps on giving, as I continue to use to the Institute Pathwright to learn more about digital literacy, education, technology, and its many intersections. I may get through all 40 anytime learning workshops just in time for the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy 2022!

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About the author

After recently earning a master's degree in Media and Public Engagement from University of Colorado, Tara Nathan is excited to lean into the dynamic world of media literacy education and educator development in the Greater Boston and Providence areas. Tara currently conducts research for Cross-Pollinate Consulting Solutions, an independent consultancy serving clientele in the non-profit and government sectors, in the areas of media literacy education, disinformation networks, media development, digital rights, and civil society engagement. 

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