By Lucas DuClos
A decade ago it would have been hard to imagine how common the practice of “tagging” would become—other than of course phone tag, or freeze tag, or (the best) TV tag. And yet it should be no surprise to anyone even vaguely involved in education today that, according to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of US teens are using tag-heavy social media sites like Instagram and Twitter every single day (often via smartphones “hidden” on their laps during class). Tagging—adding keywords to label, categorize, and organize posts, photos, Tweets, and Vines—has become as everyday to secondary students now as passing notes was a generation ago.
Much to the chagrin of parents, educators, and, apparently, the New York Times, who have come to accept as fact the idea that technology is making it harder to slow down, to focus, to think deeply and to concentrate.
But what if technology—and tagging specifically—can do the opposite: can actually help students slow down, become better, more focused learners by helping them to reflect more mindfully on the work they do?
Asking a student to tag a piece of work they did is like asking them to assess what they have done—and, as you’ll see below, it can shift students’ perspectives on what their work means, what it shows about their learning, or how it connects to the larger world.
Tags are simply labels that identify a range of qualities about something important to you—you’ve probably noticed that you can tag people in photos online, or add more qualitative tags like “happy” or “lunchtime” or “yums.” They are also a convenient way of adding richer metadata—data on data, or information about information. “Slow-tagging” is about bringing more attention to all that’s happening in the instant we tag something—to leverage the potential of tagging to make self-assessment something fun and insightful. Instead of just quickly slapping tags on things, we can slow the process down, discuss it, tease it out, and really find what is meaningful about both the work students have done and the community to which that work can belong.
For example, look at all of the mixed emotions that surround the basic act of completing a piece of work, be it photograph, poem, or science experiment: maybe something didn’t work, got lost or broken; or we stuck our neck out in a way that made us feel silly; or we weren’t sure why we were successful with something, or why it was good, or if it was good at all.
Tagging can be an engaging way to talk about these feelings because assigning these qualities to work—lucky, silly, weird—can help us process and de-stigmatize the learning journey. And tagging can help students, teachers, and creators of all kinds start asking questions around what something is about—or in the case of writing, what something might strive to be about.
Take 11th-grader Ella. The class used her photography portfolio to create a personal narrative through pictures and words. We had the pictures to choose from, but we needed the written part of the story. I asked her to speak freely about her photos, to describe them, interpret them, and talk about taking them—all while the class wrote down her reflections.
By the time we were done, we had an abundance of information, and we decided that it would be exciting to write the supplemental narrative through a “tag-poem”: collections of words pulled from the writing we did around her thoughts, which we could string together into a larger composition that would accompany a photo exhibition.
So we “slow-tagged” her work (see “#RightNow: A Tagging Activity”).
Getting there was filled with fits and starts. We noticed a lot more about the photos by trying to distil Ella’s thoughts about them down to a few words. This kind of close investigation made it seem like we had captured and slowed down her thinking. Trying to pick out keywords, we saw that she had considered a variety of qualities in her photos: objective features, themes, emotional connections.
And, because tagging is essentially about helping other people find and categorize your work, it got Ella to think very specifically about her audience. Ella had to think about how others might respond to her tags and what links or connections her tags would create; and that made her pause again to investigate the word choices she was making about her photos, about her vision. In essence, to self-assess, and to self-assess deeply.
I used this same technique in a writing group I was co-facilitating where students were trying to master the vignette. It can be hard for students to know how to engage each other’s creative work—we move them slowly from “I liked it” to “I liked it because,” but critique frequently stalls there. Slow-tagging was an ideal way to approach the vignettes with a more critical eye.
We started by adding three to five tags for each vignette—carefully chosen words or phrases that reflected the spirit of the vignettes.
We found ourselves looking more and more critically at our writing, going back to read something in light of a tag we had chosen. For a little while, that’s all that happened, and it enhanced proofreading and editing. But after one discussion about whether or not a tag should have been used, we decided that readers could retag others’ vignettes in light of their own interpretations.
Some tags changed, others remained. Tags provided not just conversation pieces and a way to process one’s own work, but also a way to keep track of interpretations and readings. Along the way, we decided to tag in categories, the two biggest being form—how something is written—and content—what it’s about, with subcategories like implicit and explicit, or concrete and abstract.
When students take time and tag something like a photo they took or an essay they wrote, they’re describing, classifying, and categorizing. When the thing they’re tagging is something that reflects their thinking and learning, this can help them consider the experiences and processes behind it, not just the product itself. They think about style and content, medium and form, but they also consider the objectives they started with, the challenges they faced, and strategies they applied.
Ascribing such qualities to a piece of personal work is an act of self-assessment. It is slow, and it is deep. Or, it is exactly the opposite of the accepted notion that technology only speeds us up and dumbs us down.
Lucas DuClos has taught English and writing at the secondary and post-secondary levels in the US and abroad. His interest in the documentation of students’ learning as a mode of storytelling and in personal branding led to his work on Curation Interactive, a project at the cross section of the graphic and literary arts focusing on how students imagine and tell the story of their education. DuClos is a professor of English at Providence College, where he also teaches the Cornerstone and Capstone courses in the Liberal and Professional Studies programs.
#RightNow: A Tagging Activity
Download: #RightNow: A Tagging Activity
Objective: Students will analyze something they created in any course—a paper or short essay, a photograph or painting, a test or lab report, etc.—and engage in writing activities and class discussion around and about that piece. They will then consider the meaning of the content and how they produced it, and they will examine their own thinking about it, working their way from off-the-cuff reflections and stories to more polished narratives and verses, and finally, to carefully selected “tags.”
While this exercise would be ideal for writing and arts coursework, it can be done in any class. The times below reflect a project that can take a few class periods, but they can also be compacted into a single period—especially if students come in with an artifact they are already prepared to talk about—or extended throughout a week.
1: Search and Discover: Find an evocative learning artifact. (10–20 min)
- Pair up or form small groups.
- Search your learning archives (folders, computers—even lockers) for learning artifacts that grab your attention.
- Set aside 1–3 learning artifacts.
- In discussion, share the who, what, when, where, why, how of your artifacts, and set aside the one that really gets you going.
This should be a fun, low-stakes activity, where students feel free to talk about content, thinking, and learning.
2: Describe and Analyze: Free-write a list of qualities about the chosen artifact. (20–30 min)
- Free-write: set a timer and just go.
- Prompts: these prompts are meant to evoke the descriptive, concrete, and aesthetic; the analytical, abstract, and interpretive.
- What stands out about this visually and aesthetically?
- Where did you make/do it, and what kind of material was used to produce it?
- Who was involved in learning about it?
- How did you do it?
- What physical objects come to mind when you explore it?
- What is the subject matter of the artifact?
- In what discipline would you place the artifact? What are some related disciplines, and why would you consider placing it in them?
- What was the point/objective of the work? What was your purpose or intention?
- What kind of thinking was involved? Here are some suggestions.
- What skills are demonstrated or implied by the work?
- What are some places that come to mind when you think about the material?
- What physical object or image could the work be associated with?
- What are some contrasts inside the work? For example, if you see something linear, serious, or cool, do you see anything nonlinear, playful, or warm?
- What does the work “say” to you personally?
- Do you see any personal qualities or patterns in this work?
- How do others react to this work? How do they interpret it?
3: Interpret or Transpose: Write a vignette about your artifact. (20–30 min)
- Use the free-writing and prompts from above to support a more structured composition about the artifact. This could be a story about a moment in time related to the artifact, or it could be about a specific part of the artifact that really stands out or needs further explanation or description. It could be in the form of a memoir, in which students describe making/doing that part, or it could be solely descriptive of the aesthetics and content of the artifact.
4: Share and Document: Create a collection of quotes about your artifact (10–15 min)
- In a group, share things that stand out so far. Speak off the cuff or tell stories related to the artifact and the learning experiences around it.
- Listeners should write down what they hear and consider “important.”
- Share the notes so the speaker can pick out interesting words and phrases.
Some students get caught up in the storytelling. I have found it helpful to assign scribes or to have them set up a recorder of some kind to capture and document ideas.
5: Distill and Tag: Find well-chosen words, phrases, and quotes from the above. (10–20 min)
- Select words and phrases to use as tags for this artifact.
- Use the entire spectrum of writing you have done so far to express the universe of the artifact’s qualities.
- Select a few quotes said by both you and your peers.
6: Final Products
- Create a display to surround the original artifact.
- Consider encouraging students to polish some of the writing in steps 1–5 above, and then to create an object with that: to use one font for quotes, another for reflections, another for vignettes; consider making key words and phrases (the tags) stand out from the rest of the language.
- Integrate materials and crafts which bring the display and presentation of this richly tagged artifact to life.
The Card: A Tagging Example
Download: The Card: A Tagging Example
In this interpretation of the exercise, students make a card with two sides. On the front, you have some visuals capturing aspects of the original artifact (in this case, Marine Life Sketches that were part of a larger Marine Ecology Science Project). Formatted neatly on the back, you have polished versions of the kinds of text created throughout the writing exercise (Reflection, Vignette, Quotes, and finally, Tags).
Cards are one of many interpretations of the final product. You could have posters, diagrams, collages, etc. The fun thing about cards is that you can produce them throughout the year about a variety of artifacts, collect them, and then use them in playful ways (memory games, storytelling, dramatic tableaux, etc.).
Lenses for Seeing and Making Tags
Download: Lenses for Seeing and Making Tags
What you say about something depends on how you see it, of course—where the owner of a big dog might think of it as an adorable puppy, the mailman sees an entirely different animal.
Students can wear multiple “lenses” to slow-tag learning artifacts, and the simple act of drawing attention to specific lenses while tagging is one method of focusing student thought—and then talking about how that focus changes things.
Here are four simple tagging prompts that help students use a particular lens. These lenses are not exclusive of one another, and I like to mix them all up.
1: Object-Oriented Lenses: Look at a learning artifact like a found object.
Objects evoke memory and emotion. Object-based writing exercises provide a good way to concretize the abstract. Getting ideas out of the ether and into the form of real, tangible things offers students an alternative way to play with and grasp concepts.
Prompts for Tagging
- What are the concrete nouns you would use to describe what the artifact is?
- What are the concrete nouns represented by the content? What is it about?
- Can you translate each noun into a concrete thing you could hold in your hand?
- What objects, either specific or generic, come to mind in association with it?
2: Arts Lenses: Look at a learning artifact like a work of art.
Describing an evocative object is not unlike describing a work of art: you start by writing about what you notice, consider what others notice, and then work your way to associations, making connections and informed interpretations. Visual thinking strategies are a good place to start. When what you’re writing about is something you created, the experience becomes powerfully reflective. Art students explain their workflow and design process, how they developed new understandings, or how they worked through questions and challenges.
Prompts for Tagging
- What was the process of making it?
- What decisions were made in making it the way it is?
- What influences in your life inspired you?
- What do you notice about it visually?
- What is the overall message of the work?
- What do others say?
3: Narrative Lenses: Write the true or fictional story of the artifact.
We write things down (taking notes, for example) in real time to remember better, as a way of recording experience. But when we write in retrospect, we may encounter things we might not have noticed at the time. Simply put, writing the story of our experience can help us gain clarity. This is more than review: it’s reflection.
Prompts for Tagging
- What is the story of this artifact?
- Where were you when you made it?
- How did you feel?
- Who else was involved?
- What were you trying to do?
- What is the history of the learning or skills in it?
- What influences or inspirations were involved?
4: Teacher Lenses: Look at learning artifacts like a teacher.
Teachers spend a lot of time looking at student work, whether fully developed learning products/summative assessments (presentations, essays, tests, lab reports), or traces of learning/formative assessments (journals, notes, lab work, sketches). To a teacher so often engrossed in assessment, almost all student work is evocative, usually implying a much richer story than meets the eye.
Prompts for Tagging
- What was the objective of the work?
- What skills were involved?
- What are you learning about or expressing understanding of?
- Is there evidence of knowledge or understanding?
- How could this serve as a model through which to teach someone else?
- Can you identify any elements of it that need further work or improvement?