“Two tin cans & some string”: Preserving the power of a shared message in a digital world

Dr. Jennifer Williams and Billy Spicer

By Dr. Jennifer Williams and Billy Spicer

Dr. Jennifer Williams is a globally minded educator that works with classrooms of the world to connect learning and experience. She is a literacy specialist, professor, and serves on the Board of Directors for the International Literacy Association.
Billy Spicer currently teaches in suburban Chicago. He serves students and teachers as an instructional coach. Prior to teaching in Lake Zurich he worked at Walt Disney World as a member of the Animal Programs department in educating and inspiring conservation action.

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The following post follows in the structure of a Dialogue Journal. Dialogue Journals are wonderful ways for teachers and students to create rich written discourse. Within a Dialogue Journal, a teacher can write to a student and model mechanics and structure. Each entry is left asking a question or offering actionable direction. Students then are able to respond without concern for judgment or correction. In this dialogue, educators Jennifer Williams and Billy Spicer share their thoughts on literacy and education in the digital age.

Dialogue Journal Entry #1
Dear Billy,
Recently, I was considering the sharing of messages in the classroom. I was left reflecting on times from my childhood. Imagine this:

After gathering string and collecting and washing two perfect tin cans from the kitchen, the next steps was always the trickiest—finding the “just right tool” for drilling holes to complete our amazing set of Tin Can Phones. Finally, at the moment when the contraption was complete and the string was stretched as far as it would possibly allow, we were ready to deliver our messages. Did it work? Was it a success? If not, we were ready to try again. Armed with space and time and charged in a task without constraints or rubrics or how-to videos or even the need for printed instructions, we could always find a way to build and construct through a process of prototyping, testing, rebuilding, and retesting. And, we believed that even if it took hours to complete, in our minds as children, the sharing of a message was worth the work and the wait.

Afternoons like this of creating and building and dreaming were typical for us and the sharing of messages with friends and peers was an important part of life. As a teacher today, I think now those moments were early lessons in educational practices like dedication to literacy, design thinking, growth mindset, and maker movements that are changing and impacting learning as we now know it.  Do you think most would agree that, though the ways our students are transmitting messages in our classrooms today varies greatly from Tin Can Phones, the critical value of the message still remains?



Dialogue Journal Entry #2

Hi there Jennifer,

I’m also reminded of those who collect records with a voracious appetite and do so for a variety of reasons – some for no reason at all. In a digital world--are you a hoarder of digital experiences, simply looking to play up the novelty of each new tool? Or are you a collector, harnessing the tool to create purposeful and authentic learning activities for your students?  Here is a quick way to gauge yourself: are you looking to have students “make Prezis” or “raise awareness”? If your answers starts with the tool, you are a hoarder! Instead, think of leveraging the phenomenal digital tools available to you as a collector and that you are providing multiple opportunities for your students to become collectors as well. Hoarding is not the same as collecting.  As an avid record collector myself it’s a fiendishly difficult urge to explain – one that can turn sensible, prudent-thinking humans into volatile and fanatical hoarders; voracious music enthusiasts with Vitamin D deficiencies and a fondness for alphabetisation. Well, that’s how the stereotype goes.


Dialogue Journal Entry #3

Greetings Billy,

Your thoughts bring me to consider the importance of purposeful sharing and discussions of curation as teachers and in the classroom with students. As teachers of the digital age, we have incredible opportunities to preserve the power of the shared message through thoughtful, intentional, and often times purposeful instructional lessons. For me, dedicating space and time in the classroom for the shared messages through the creation of digital artifacts enables students to share their perspectives and their passions. This year, I have found that digital storytelling tools like Buncee offer virtual spaces for students to curate resources and creatively organize one synthesized message. By bringing in multimodal literacy artifacts, such as photos, videos, links, and written text, students can share their voices in ways that are meaningful for them. Like the tools I found for creating holes in my tin cans as a child, what are some of your favorite “just right tools” for helping students share and celebrate messages and communication in the classroom?

Back to you,


Dialogue Journal Entry #4

Hey Jennifer--

Speaking of students acting as curators of the “YouTube Generation,”  teachers must also be masters of curation. Curation belongs in the curriculum. It should be part of a school’s toolkit, connected to explicit learning targets, professional development plan, and part of an effective web presence! Librarians have always done this. But now we all must be in the curation game-our students deserve it! When I’m curating new tools they must do a few things for the students I work with: collect, organize, and share. The best tools and resources available to us will do these three things seamlessly and in a way that makes sense for students. One such tool is Touchcast. Touchcast is an app that instantly brings interactive video into the classroom. I’ve used TouchCast to build student empowerment, connect the classroom to the living room and share a school's brand. Check out a Touchcast I recently created that includes some implementation ideas. Your comment about multimodal approaches to creating artifacts is huge, Jen. Touchcast is a great place to start for teachers looking to provide student choice, while also allowing a blank slate for student creativity to flourish.


Dialogue Journal Entry #5

Howdy Billy!

This idea of curation of resources and shared messages is so powerful! Participate Learning has to be my top curation tool as an educator allowing me to curate resources and collaborate with other professionals. One of my favorite “low-tech, yet high-tech” classroom activities of shared and curated messages was our Classroom Twitter Wall. My students loved designing a “Twitter Board” using construction paper and markers. Each student was able to create his or her own handle and customized profile bio. Then, we took photos to “De-Egg” and personalize our messages. Each day, students would add written messages of 140 characters or less adding in hashtags and shared resources. Conversations would continue and often times extend into our classroom discussions, but they all found it to be a fun and innovative way to express their thoughts and share perspectives in a very visual and “tech-related” format. I know you have mentioned social media in your classrooms and schools. How have you seen it used to promote learning and the shared stories?


Dialogue Entry #6

Hey there Jen,

To follow up on your idea in harnessing a Twitter Board in class, I have also found great power when schools truly harness social media tools to share their brands or tell their stories.  The fact is that social media has changed the topography and expanded the idea of branding to education You can either board the train or get out of the way! We often emphasize the importance in establishing a positive “digital footprint” with our students, but this is actually a two-way exercise. Yes, our digital footprint is created by what we post and share with others, but is also constructed by what other groups and people share about you. So you see, this is quite important if we as educators want to control our own narratives--otherwise, someone else just may tell your story for you! But Jen-don’t mistake this brand creation in the same idea that is often used in corporations. Instead of focusing on selling a product or service, educators can create a brand that highlights all of the amazing work being done with kids on a daily basis. One tool I’ve started to use more and more of late to do just this is Snapchat. Using Snapchat, I love taking multiple “snaps” and creating a “story” which can then be viewed by fellow educators and anyone else that is tuning in. It has become a powerful way to share moments in and around the classroom or school including live events. So while we may not be looking at a bottom line in selling a product within our brand, we are tasked with a far greater challenge.  A fellow colleague of mine, Sabba Quidwai, summed it up best stating: “Our product – creating future problem solvers.” Are you sharing stories on Snapchat yet, Jen? If not, it’s time to start sharing your brandl! Want to check out my brand? Then, become friends with me by adding wpspicer.



As we see, the great need for shared stories and shared perspectives, we welcome you to join the collaborative conversation to share your thoughts. Please visit and add to our virtual Dialogue Journal on Padlet. We’d also love to connect and hear your story on Twitter and other social media.

Do you use platforms such as this for enhancing your teaching? Let us know below!

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