The Power of Creation: Young People as Digital Authors

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Photo by Lisa Fotios on

By Luke Jacob, director of writing, communication and media literacy

“…ONE of more than 800…”
“…one of MORE than 800…”
“…one of more than EIGHT HUNDRED…”

Early this spring, I was rehearsing the script for a screencast in which I was telling two parallel stories. My voice was to be the only instrument used to present corresponding information about two characters. In this line, I needed to emphasize the right word to draw a strong contrast without sounding judgmental–without clearly privileging one of the characters’ stories over the other. That single decision was just one small part of how I tried to manage the pacing, tone, and pitch of my voice, all of which needed to fit the script and the images on the screen and to meet the likely expectations of my listeners.

If ever I have received an object lesson in audience, word choice, syntax, and sentence structure, it was in the process of recording that audio file–and I say that as a professional writer with 20 years of experience in considering such factors.

It is a well-worn cliché that we learn by doing: the budding musician who wants to understand the piano part of a composition will sit down to play it; the young scientist intent on mastering chemical analysis undertakes processes of titration; the emergent poet who seeks the secret of metrical verse labors to compose a sonnet or villanelle that scans cleanly; the athlete whose goal is a strategic insight into the “beautiful game” takes to the pitch with 10 teammates and 11 opponents.

As is often the case, there is an element of truth in the cliché: it really does help to get inside a process if the goal is to figure out how that process works. This is no less true in the arena of digital and media literacy than it is in any other. In fact, it may be even more so because digital creators have often begun learning-by-doing long before it occurs to them that they are learning.

Canadian scholar Katie Warfield spent years studying adolescent selfies and selfie culture. Not surprisingly, she found that there is truth in our instinctive feeling that a selfie is, in some ways, a performance—a creation not of “reality” but of a carefully crafted, filtered version of the real (pun intended). However, through her interviews with selfie experts—teenagers—she learned that selfies are far more than just that. They are, for example, sophisticated expressions of concepts like setting, point of view and community.

Warfield’s body of work challenges those of us who teach students to decode an item like a selfie to examine the process of creation that leads to the performative artifact—to start with the active experience of composing the photo and to approach it as the experience of an author making a text via a complex set of intentional decisions.

It can be tempting not to take an authors’-workshop approach to texts that feel like part of the background noise of 21st-century life: goofy TikToks, inside-joke YouTube videos, short bursts of audio shared only with a small group of friends, and the like.

At LJCDS, we want to leverage the expertise that our students have developed through creating content for ever-new platforms using ever-expanding toolkits of digital tools and resources. First, we can all learn from one another about the tools and their affordances. More importantly, we can help young people begin at an early age to understand themselves as creators who can author powerful stories for diverse audiences, helping them use digital tools to connect themselves and the wider world.

For further reading, consider Hobbs, R. (2017). Create to Learn. Wiley Blackwell.


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