Category Archives: literacy

Distracted by Books

IMG_0122I have written about my own love for reading and described my implementation of middle school reading workshops. Those workshops were designed to give my students the same experiences with books that fueled my own love of reading: choosing what I wanted to read and making reading a priority in my day.

Two recent blog entries show that my values continue in contemporary classrooms. Former high school teacher Julia Franks describes making a change in her AP English classroom when she moved away from communal reading and analysis of the classics to choosing their own reading. Her practice arose from her belief that readers make better citizens as they are able to construct more sophisticated narratives around events in the world around them:

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

Given the option of reading the books on the syllabus or reading twice as many books from a list of 300 titles, all students chose the latter and, by the end of the year, had read nearly twice as many pages as mandated on the original plan. And those AP exam scores that seem to dictate the analysis that eats up so much class time? They did not suffer at all.

Franks concludes:

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

Middle school teacher and founder of The Global Read Aloud, Pernille Ripp, describes her own “horror” when, at the beginning of the year, her students reported how little they enjoyed reading. She was determined to change that and she did it with books:

Books, and plenty of them.  Books that were accessible through audio and text.  Books that were not there to push them in a certain direction.  That were not forced on them.  Picture books for the days where chapter books seemed to be too much work.  Free verse for those who had lost their connection with the magic of reading.  Graphic novels meant to teach, entice, and enthrall.  Everywhere they looked there were books and the books called to them.  Without judgment.  Without restriction.  Without one path to being a reader.

And time:

We also took time.  Ten minutes every day to read.  To find books.  To have conversations about the texts we chose.  To find something worthy of our time, that we perhaps would want to read later as well.  Ten minutes that were the expectation coupled with the idea that one should only read good books, not waste our time on books that would make us dislike reading more.  To abandon when needed, to book shop when desired.

The two priorities: the ability to choose your own books and the time to read them.

This message has also been part of The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, the book I am reading right now. Sara Lindqvist is a reader who uses books to change a small, dying Iowa town. As she organizes the books in her shop, she put “every unreadable book she could find” on a shelf. These mostly included the award winners that everyone talked about but never read. Sara had tried to by systematic about reading these classics:

She had thrown herself into one ambitious reading project after another, but things had rarely gone according to plan. It was boring to think of books as something you should read just because others had, and besides, she was much too easily distracted. There were far too many books out there to stick to any kind of theme.

Lots of the teachers I follow on Twitter are busy planning their summer reading. I applaud their desire to dive into professional reading, and I have a few of those books on my own list. But, I also would encourage them to let themselves be distracted and see where it leads.






More On Moby Dick

Joyce Valenza posted a link to Jen Hunter’s insightful review of Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the English Classroom. Hunter is a student in Joyce’s social media course at Rutgers and the review is part of a larger website related to the reading of the book. Go read it now and be prepared to buy the book when you’re done. I did.

I am looking forward to reading the book even though I can’t imagine reading Moby Dick with any students, much less the challenging population described in the book. It almost makes me want to head back to the high school classroom, a place I haven’t been since the beginning of my career in the ice age before digital media:

Edited by new media literacy scholar, Henry Jenkins, and Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, the book describes how the two came to collaborate with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who had been teaching young men in a juvenile detention center not only to read Moby-Dick, but also to care about it and make sense of it in the context of their own lives through a stage production called Moby-Dick: Then and Now. This collaboration sparked a study in which NML strategies were applied in English classrooms to teach Moby-Dick, and more importantly, to empower students to claim ownership of their authority and participate in the wider conversations happening around them.

The section of the review that struck me was the notion that incorporating popular culture to help students grapple with traditional literature is somehow a lowering of expectations for those students:

Without ever saying it explicitly, the text seems to imply that while students can learn to read, find relevancy in, and enjoy Moby-Dick, educators need to reframe their expectations of their students, which might be interpreted as lower expectations as opposed to simply different expectations.

Hunter goes on to discuss how Jenkins’ addresses this concern:

Jenkins defends the use of popular culture in the classroom when he says, “It should not be seen as a means of entertaining students or holding their attention, but rather as a means of respecting their existing expertise and helping them to acquire core skills they will need to meaningfully participate in this new and emerging media landscape” (location 1071). While all of the authors advocate for the development of the kinds of skills that educators may associate with traditional literacy and scholarly inquiry, they suggest that there needs to be a gradual building to that level, particularly for at-risk youth.

Respect for our students’ experiences when they are different from our own is a powerful concept. I am, in no way, lowering expectations for contemporary students when I suggest that not every child needs to grapple with Shakespeare in the original. Or, as Jenkins and his colleagues demonstrate, plunge into Moby Dick without some kind of preparation. I may question if getting through Melville is a good use of time but if it really does provide the students with a confidence and sense of authority, then the time will be well spent.

The book is one my Kindle and may rise to the top of the TBR list. I’ll let you know how it goes.



A Learning Journey

Since mid-September, I’ve been working with a local non-profit to provide an after school tutorial/computer program for local kids. We have a group of about 16 ranging from pre-K to 7th grade that comes to us on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Volunteers help with homework and provide a meal before taking the kids home.

My original plan was to work with upper elementary and middle schoolers to teach them to program with Scratch. I’ve done a bit of that with a few middle school girls but haven’t been able to really dig in yet. With the little bit we did do, only one seemed particularly interested. I am wondering if I need to give them more choice including doing something with digital storytelling. My larger goal is to help them see that they can create rather than consume on the computer and maybe programming isn’t the only way to achieve that.

Part of the problem is space. We meet in one big space, and even with a few rolling walls, it’s noisy and a little chaotic. There’s an empty elementary school just behind our building, and we’re hoping to work with the county to get access.

The other issue that became glaringly clear last evening was the depth of the educational needs in the group. My girls had a pile of math homework so they started with that, and I spent some time with two first grade boys working through a language arts worksheet. This is the first time I’ve really sat with some of the youngest kids. These two boys were really struggling. They can sort of decode, but they aren’t really reading or comprehending. They couldn’t read the directions for one of the assignments so they merrily copied the out-of-order words that they were supposed to be putting in sentences. When I wrote the words on cards, they were able to manipulate them into sentences and then copy them onto the paper.

Other activities didn’t even make sense to me…a series of sentences with blanks and a word bank. We used  a process of elimination to finish it, but with no context for the random sentences, it was sometimes hard to figure out which word made a comprehensible sentence. If I hadn’t been there to supervise and advise, I’m sure they would have simply guessed just so that there was something on the line since that had been their strategy on the first few pages. I couldn’t help but wondering how much feedback they got on the packets.

I also wondered how much time they get to hang out with books. I’m already planning to take my pile of children’s books when I go next week and get them reading together. The middle school kids could sit with the younger ones and help them and probably improve their own skills. And then we could use digital storytelling tools to create our own books. It would tie the program pieces together.

I worry that by just focusing on helping them get their homework done, we are missing an opportunity to give them larger experiences that they don’t seem to be getting in school. There must be a balance. I have to remind myself that we have only been doing this for a few weeks. We had some sketchy plans but didn’t really know how many kids would come and what their needs would be.

We are definitely on a learning journey together….



Naming Things

I couldn’t find my phone this morning. Not plugged in. Not by my chair. So, I dialed the number and discovered it propped up against the kitchen window. I had used it yesterday for access to a recipe for Thanksgiving. There it was, spitting out the blues riffs that I had chosen for my home number, reminding me of the difficulty of names in this crossover, hybrid, multi-tasking age in which we live.

Earlier yesterday, that 3 X 4 inch piece of technology had been a camera, which I used to record the passing of the seasons as I walked the dog along the road to the winery.

This morning, I was looking for it because I needed it as a book to look up a quote to share with a friend.

Later, I will play sudoku and surf the web and listen to music.

Yet, we reduce it to one name: cell phone. And, we ban it, despite its potential to provide access to all the tools of education from textbooks to videos to pens. Because we can’t control it and schools have a responsibility to keep kids safe and we’ve seen plenty of examples where they’ve gotten in real trouble having unfettered access to the world. But there are also plenty of examples where grown ups haven’t done such a good job either. It’s THE media literacy issue that we need to discuss: consumer/producer/prosumer and the implications.

But even as I write the above, I wonder if we will miss this opportunity as well…the chance to make learning, working, and living all more humane enterprises. Anyone who knows even a little of the history of school reform understands that technology almost never drives real change. Instead, it gets incorporated into the existing structures of the system, maybe making small changes, but ultimately being changed itself.

But, at the risk of flying in the face of history, there seem to be larger forces at work here that are challenging our names for lots of things. Work: Changes in the way people access their jobs may lead them to question a school schedule that no longer matches their own. School: Easy access to educational resources makes it easier to imagine teaching your own children.

Even the word “teacher”…last Saturday I was part of a conference with pre-service teachers and I made an off hand comment about not being a real teacher. One of the 20-somethings looked at me and asked what I meant by that. I explained that while I was a teacher in many ways, since I didn’t teach the grueling schedule of a K-12 classroom teacher, I didn’t really consider myself a “real” teacher. I had it easy with my online courses, afternoon workshops and evening webinars. But, he insisted, I was a real teacher because I was doing the work of teaching. Just because I wasn’t adhering to a particular schedule or killing myself to try and meet impossible demands didn’t make a difference to him.

And, there it is: what will make the real difference in the future. Young people who are questioning everything about the world we have created and the way we have defined words like “work” and “school” and “fun.” His generation is the real force that, when joined with mobile multimedia technologies and other cultural shifts, will change definitions in ways we can’t even imagine.

Literacy in Context

There’s been an interesting back and forth in Twitter about 21st century literacy.  Tomorrow, it will spill over into an Elluminate session that I am sorry I will have to miss.  I’ve written about 21st century skills in the past, equating them with leadership skills and suggesting that Ben Franklin possessed most of the skills that we now label “21st century.” So, Ben Grey’s eloquent post about 21st century literacies resonated with me:

I believe this is where the whole notion is lost on me.  If we’re talking about literacy, let’s talk about literacy, as in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  If we’re talking about other skills that people need to be successful in the modern era, then we’re probably talking about skills rather than literacies.  If we’re being specific about these skills applying uniquely to the 21st century, we should probably call them such.  Although, are there really any skills that are being called 21st Century Skills that are new in the 21st century?  Think about it.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills believes demonstrating originality, communicating, being open and responsive, acting on creative ideas, utilizing time efficiently, accessing information, etc. are all 21st Century Skills.  I’d retort that in reality, these skills have always been in existence and of the utmost importance.  They don’t need to have the 21st Century moniker on them to make them significant.

In another post, he describes how his ideas about literacy relate to a tool like Voice Thread:

The real essence of using VoiceThread, however, is in engaging the true process of literacy.  First, I must either read or listen to the original idea being posted.  Once I’ve gathered meaning by doing so, I can formulate a response.  To respond, I will either speak or write my thoughts.  If I can’t do these core tenets of literacy effectively, VoiceThread will be useless to me.  It is the very act of engaging literacy that makes this process meaningful.

Certainly, Voice Thread relies on what some might consider “traditional” literacy skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening.  But there is another component that puts pressure on that definition: the use of images.  These might be the static images we choose to illustrate blog entries or they might be compiled into slide shows and videos, integrated with audio and text. Both choosing the images and then being able to read them seems to demand adding “viewing” to the definition.  I didn’t really understand visual literacy until I began making movies.  Learning how to let images help carry some of the story was an important lesson for me.

Literacy also has to do with knowing how to use available tools effectively and efficiently.  Learning to write across technologies is something I’ve considered before. Dean Shareski provides a perfect example when he writes about his frustrations with trying to use Twitter for deep conversations:

Certainly a great link can be posted but the minute a tweet engages people in a meaningful way that requires any degree of unwrapping, my immediate thought is “get a room”.  Frustrations mount as complex ideas are squeezed into a simple text messaging tool.

He recommends that people move into new spaces that allow more in-depth reflection:

Many newcomers to social media are trying to cram all forms of thinking and sharing into a single space such as Facebook or Twitter. I don’t think that’s a good idea.  While I always encourage people to start somewhere, I don’t mean for them to stay in one space.  So if you’re new to social media you might want to think about adding another space to your identity.  Take the idea tossed around in twitter and take it deep in your own space. Even if you only decontruct it yourself or have a couple of comments I think you’ll find that a more satisfying experience that trying to follow short snippets of insight. Twitter is great but a steady diet of twitter is like only ordering appetizers. At some point, you’ll want a main course.

His metaphor prompted me to think of one of my own: for me, Twitter is like a cocktail party.  We’re all sort of generally chatting and then a serious conversation takes off in the corner and we can eavesdrop and even got involved.  It dies down and may or may not be preserved but each person can take their bits and pieces and do something with them.  For bloggers like Dean, it might be a blog post.  For someone else, it might be a conversation in the teachers’ lounge. But the point is that different communication media have different languages and purposes and being able to navigate them effectively should be part of the definition of literacy.

And, once again, I reach into history to think about two people who were quite literate: Abigail and John Adams.  Like Ben Franklin, they used the communication media of their time more effectively than most people and their letters are a pleasure to read.  (And thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society, you can not only read them but also view the originals!)  They hashed over the most petty domestic problems in the midst of conversations about revolution.  Since they spent much time apart, those letters were an important place for them to build their relationship, with over 1100 letters exchanged.  The pace is glacial when compared to our instantaneous world.  Talk about slow blogging!

Adams thought about literacy in his own time.  In a letter written just days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams reflected on how different types of writing require different styles of language:

It is worth the while of a Person, obliged to write as much as I do, to consider the Varieties of Style …. The Epistolary, is essentially different from the oratorical, and the Historical Style …. Oratory abounds with Figures. History is simple, but grave, majestic and formal. Letters, like Conversation, should be free, easy, and familiar.

Abigail seems to take him at his word and her reply shows the easy familiarity of a long-married couple as she chides him for not providing the personal details she longs to hear:

I received a Letter from you by wedensday Post 7 of July and tho I think it a choise one in the Litterary Way, containing many usefull hints and judicious observations which will greatly assist me in the future instruction of our Little ones, yet it Lacked some essential engrediants to make it compleat. Not one word respecting yourself, your Health or your present Situation. My anxiety for your welfare will never leave me but with my parting Breath, tis of more importance to me than all this World contains besides.

Amidst all the lofty thoughts and big ideas, there is the need for simple human connection. How are you doing, she asks?  Whether we’re writing 140 character haikus or multi-paragraph blog entries, we are connecting with others as we do so.  Literacy facilitates that connection and children must be given experiences with all the various communication media so they can make smart choices about how best to make connections.

But, as Ben suggests, there is a difference between being literate and having the skills to manipulate the media.  As part of his contribution to the conversation, Gary Stager provided a link to an article by Seymour Papert from 1993 in which Papert discusses the changes that will take place in the way we communicate.  Papert writes:

But looking forward, we can formulate new arguments beyond the imagination of 19th century thinkers, who could hardly have conjured images of media that would provide modes of accessing and manipulating knowledge radically different than those offered by the Rs. Nor could they have formulated what I see as the deep difference between education past and future: In the past, education adapted the mind to a very restricted set of available media; in the future, it will adapt media to serve the needs and tastes of each individual mind.

He’s right: Abigail and John wrote letters because that was very restricted available media to them.  We face a plethora of media available to us and yet, I’m always struck by the fact that even though I’m staring at a computer screen, I’m doing a lot of traditional reading and writing.  There is some listening and viewing but it’s mostly text-based communication.

So, reading and writing still form the foundation of what it means to be literate.  But technical skills seem to loom larger now since we have to put those basics to work in a complex media world.  We can’t forget that part of literacy is related to navigating that media.  If we too narrowly define literacy, it’s easier to justify the fact that some 50% of Americans don’t have sufficient broadband access to watch Barack Obama’s weekly addresses on YouTube.   As this article from Business Week reminds us, defining literacy is less important than ensuring that everyone has access to practice those literacy skills.   In order to ensure access, we need to make it clear that knowing how to read and write with contemporary communications media does rise to the level of a literacy.  You can apply whatever adjective you wish–media literacy, digital literacy, 21st century literacy–what matters is the understanding that such literacy is the right of every citizen.