Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Top Story of the Year

The most popular blog entry of 2007 was the “Conduct Unbecoming?” entry from a few weeks ago. Most of the teachers who commented indicate that they use social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to keep in touch with current and former students. As a result, many objected to limiting teachers’ communication and advocated that teachers should continue to use such spaces. Teri Lesesne (blog, school page) explains in her comment:

I do think telling teachers to forego blogs and social networks crosses over the line, though. Our presence within communities where our students are comfortable connects us in new and fresh ways. Our willingness to embrace new technologies is also essential.
Another teacher who posted anonymously shared an analogy: “The world has changed. Saying educators should not be involved in online communities today is the same as saying 5 years ago we should not talk on our cell phone in public. Who knows what random students could overhear?”

Naturally, teachers agreed that online postings should maintain a level of professionalism. Teacher-commentator Matt Skillen (blog) states, “I believe it is important for teachers to have an identity online, however professionalism should be maintained. If one posts pictures online that could lead the viewer to believe the teacher was acting inappropriately, he or she should be prepared to answer the questions from students, parents and administrators.”

The topic is certainly controversial—and the issue is not limited to students. One of the commentors shared the Dayton Daily News story “Online profiles a factor in college admissions” and BoingBoing posted the contradictory findings that “Adults warn kids off social network sites, use them themselves—Pew Internet report on search and identity.” On the positive side, the New York Times reported this week “On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data.”

The only thing I think we can all agree on is that as new 21st century literacies develop and composing possibilities evolve, the controversies will continue. When people first started publishing novels, women authors often had to pen their stories under male pseudonyms to be published.

My hope for 2008 is that teachers aren’t driven underground in the same way by the school systems where they teach. Communicating is the life’s blood of the English teacher. Our lives are devoted to such vital tasks as helping others tell stories. It would be a sad world if we were forbidden to share our own stories with the world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Dear Younger Me

Like many teachers, I’ve carried my share of student work off for grading during breaks. During both Spring Breaks and Thanksgiving Breaks, I spent hours slogging through student work and beginning to resent the fact that I was working while the rest of the world seemed to be off at play.

Since I’m not in the classroom right now, I hadn’t thought much about grading during breaks until I read Kate Kellen’s Secondary Section entry Dear Younger Teacher Self: Keep the Holidays Grading Free! In the entry, present-day Kate explains to her younger self “your students will wait another week for papers in exchange for your genuine delight at seeing them again after the break.”

From my perspective now, I’m thinking that perhaps I should write a similar message to my future self—the one who will be loading the car with a dozen computer books for projects to complete while on vacation. But more importantly, Kate’s entry got me to wondering what I would tell my own younger teacher self. Spend more time writing and less time talking about writing? Stand by your pedagogical beliefs? A deluge of handouts and tip sheets isn’t ever enough? Learn as much as you can about computers and use them in the classroom as soon as possible?

So many lessons I’ve learned, but the one that I think would make the most difference is to get involved in conversations with other teachers sooner rather than later. So here goes:

Dear Younger Me,
I’m writing to you from the future, and you may not believe how much your teaching has changed. You use computers all the time, having students compose projects and communicate with each other in and out of class. What’s really important about that isn’t the technology, but the way that everyone uses it to communicate. And it’s not just students. It’s teachers too.

Sitting down in the basement of Williams Hall, you’re not even in contact with the other teachers in the building—let alone teachers at other schools and universities. But you need to be. I know. I know. You’re shy, and you always feel awkward when you’re talking to people. But listen: It will pass. The more you communicate with other teachers, the more natural those conversations will become.

Email and online chatting are going to change your life once you begin reaching out to other teachers and entering professional conversations. You’ll begin explaining and defining your pedagogy. You’ll share teaching tips and stories with other teachers. You’ll find a supportive group of mentors and co-conspirators, all at your fingertips. And once you get used to talking with teachers online, you’ll find it easier and easier to do when you’re face-to-face.

So get moving. Right now. Climb up to the second floor and logon to the terminal in Room 211. I know you’ve only used it to work on your papers and thesis in SGML, but there are communications tools in there too. Find them. Use them. Look for MBU and Purtopoi. Watch the conversations for a few days and then jump in.

I know it will be hard at first, but trust me. Within a year, you won’t want to go a day without connecting with other teachers. It will make all the difference in who you are and what you can do as a teacher. Now get moving—and get talking.

Traci of 2007

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Identifying Teaching Metaphors

Today, I've been looking at the NCTE/LEA Research Series book Teacher Identity Discourses: Negotiating Personal and Professional Spaces by Janet Alsup, because I learned this morning that the book won MLA’s twenty-seventh annual Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize.

In the book, Alsup reports and theorizes a multi-layered study of teacher identity development and includes specific suggestions for methods courses that teacher educators can use as is or adapt to their own contexts. In truth, though, the questions and issues are ones that every teacher should consider.

I skimmed through the sample assignments included in the book and found deep, probing activities that asked teachers to contemplate what it means to be a teacher, how teachers teach, and how our experiences shape the ways we think of ourselves as teachers.

I decided to try my hand at a variation on the “Visual Metaphor Assignment—Photographic Philosophies” activity (202), which asks pre-service teachers to take three to five photos that visually represent themselves as teachers. For me, that's a question that I’d need to spend a few days (if not weeks) on, so I tried a variation and focused on the question: “Why Do I Teach?” Here’s my answer (Click the image for a larger version): Why I Teach Alsup’s questions made me do some thinking about what I really value as a teacher as I tried to identify what teaching means to me. It was a useful process—one that I could see teachers everywhere benefiting from. I hope to spend some time looking more closely at all the questions Teacher Identity Discourses. If I can truly learn more about my identity as a teacher, I think I might actually become a better teacher.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Conduct Unbecoming?

Not only did thousands of teachers meet in New York City earlier this month for the NCTE Annual Convention, but many of them blogged about their experiences. Some educators and administrators might question whether they should have. Just last week, the Ohio Education Association urged members not to post personal information on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. eSchool News shared an excerpt of the warning message:

“OEA advises members not to join [these sites], and for existing users to complete the steps involved in removing their profiles,” the memo said. “While this advice might seem extreme, the dangers of participating in these two sites outweigh the benefits.”
News stories across the nation have identified instances of blogs and social networking profiles that resulted in problems for the teachers who composed them. The Edutopia site has posted a poll, with links to related stories of teachers and social networking gone awry. The poll asks:
Can pictures and writing displayed on a personal Web page qualify as “conduct unbecoming”? Or do teachers have the right to express themselves as they please outside of school grounds? Tell us what you think.
The Wired column “Sex Drive” argues that the answer is no. The column’s title makes the point clear: “Teachers Should Blog, Tweet and Flirt Online Like the Rest of Us.” Teachers should participate in any online communities that they desire, columnist Regina Lynn asserts, and they should follow the same general rules of behavior that they would in any other social context. Lynn explains, “teachers who understand appropriate relationships with students are not going to ‘friend’ teens on MySpace, text message youth about sex lives or hook up with minors in role-playing games.”

I have online profiles, blog entries, and twitters out there in cyberspace, so my position is probably obvious. Are personal blogs “conduct unbecoming”? If teachers mention going out to a bar with colleagues after convention sessions, have they stepped over the line? Would a blog post with a photo of friends raising a toast or hugging be inappropriate?

I say no. Forbidding teachers to use social networking and blogs distances them from the 21st-century literacy tools that students use and suggests that teachers cannot use mature judgment when they communicate with others. I’m not suggesting that everything included in the Columbus Dispatch article that reports the OEA’s memo is acceptable. But the solution is not silencing teachers either.

Instead why not provide some professional development for teachers that focuses on safe and savvy online communication? Ignoring sites like MySpace and Facebook isn’t going to prepare teachers or students for the future. Talking about the communication that happens on blogging and social networking sites is a far wiser and more pedagogically-useful step toward toward 21st-century literacy skills. Hiding from the technologies of today and the future is not going to make them disappear, but dealing with the issues of effective online communication actually could lessen problems that the Columbus Dispatch identified in their investigation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

If Only the Text Were a Game . . .

The Tampa Tribune article “Students Use Technology For Critical Thinking” describes many of the classroom activities of Abigail Kennedy, winner of the 2007 Media Literacy Award, which is presented by NCTE’s Assembly on Media Arts. Kennedy, who teaches at Pasco High School in Dade City, Florida, explains the goals for her teaching:

“With media being so prevalent in the world,” Kennedy said, “if they’re not taught how to view it, they can be passive viewers, and can be taken advantage of.” So naturally, Kennedy was thrilled earlier this year when a student told her the young teacher had “ruined” the girl’s enjoyment of television commercials.
Kennedy’s story gets at one of the bittersweet aspects of teaching: students often resist and sometimes even resent teacher’s efforts to open their eyes to the ways that texts manipulate people.

It’s even more frustrating for me because I love to explore how texts work. It’s not just that I want to avoid being a passive audience. I want to know why texts have been put together the ways that they have and how people react when they interact with them. I’m sure I’m saying nothing new to an audience of English teachers. I suspect most of us feel this way. Our challenge is to try to help students engage with texts in this same way—to find fun and usefulness in discovering how texts work.

People do this kind of thinking naturally all the time. They even accept critical thinking and analysis in some circumstances. I’m thinking in particular of sports, and no, not just because my Virginia Tech Hokies are headed for their in-state rivalry game on Saturday.

People have no problem tuning in to a ball game on television and listening to announcers who share not only play-by-play descriptions of what’s happening on the field, but also provide analysis of the ways the players line up and the choices that they make. Pre-game shows are built on a foundation of critical thinking and analysis. The former coaches and football players look at the match-ups, analyze the possibilities, and offer predictions. At half-time breaks, they analyze what has happened so far in the game. After a game, they discuss how it all happened—analyzing how the plays were put together and why the different teams reacted to each other as they did.

I’ve seen hundreds of people watch football games on television. Yet not once have I ever heard anyone complain that the sportscasters “ruined” the game with their analysis. Never. People even share their own analytical comments, agreeing or challenging the ideas presented by the sportscasters. Why does this kind of analysis come so easily to people? Why are they willing to accept and engage in analysis of a football game but not the beer, soda, and automobile commercials that run during timeouts? If we can figure out the answer to that question—and apply what we learn to the classroom—perhaps students will begin to realize that critical thinking and analysis isn’t really ruining things.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

MySocial SpaceFace

Tengrrl as a South Park characterIn the last week, I've been attacked by several vampires and joined the Jedi in the fight against the Sith. I have a zombie and a pirate army, but I don't pay much attention to them. I go caroling as a Snooper Elf, and I'm a member of Gryffindor. I even have a South Park character who dresses far cooler than I actually do.

The Technology Toolkit column in the December 2007 issue of Voices from the Middle focuses on “The MySpace Culture.” Column editor Sandy Hayes explains that Grunwald Associates’ research found that “71% of tweens and teens between the ages of 9 and 17 visit social networking sites weekly” (59). What do they do when they visit these sites? They communicate and interact with the people they know.

It’s not just teens visiting these sites however. Hayes explains:

As MySpace itself has matured, it now features adult content in a different sense. More than half of MySpace visitors now are age 35 or older. Some libraries have even created MySpace pages (www.myspace.com/hennepincountylibrary) where teens can literally become friends of the library. And as the ultimate signal of cultural acceptance, most of the 2008 Presidential candidates currently have MySpace pages, including, in August 2007, friend lists of up to 164,500. (60)
Teachers number among these adult users of social networking sites as well. Much like the tweens and teens in the Grunwald study, the pre-service, early career, and experienced teachers I see on these sites use them to connect with colleagues near and far, in both serious and silly ways.

I know. The media would have you believe that teachers only go to social networking sites to keep an eye on students. But the truth is that my colleagues and I go to these sites to connect and have fun. Sure, we discuss teaching issues on discussion lists like TechRhet and WPA-L, but we also update each other on our grading, writing, and personal activities on Facebook.

Just like the teens on these sites, we build community as we support and mentor each other. And just as importantly, we learn more about how these sites work so that we can use and discuss social networking in the classroom. If you’re interested in learning more, consider joining the NCTE groups on Ning, MySpace, or Facebook. And friend me— I may even poke you in return. My username is tengrrl on Ning and MySpace, and I’m Traci Gardner on Facebook.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I Was a Mac. They Were PCs.

When I first began teaching in a computer-based classroom at Virginia Tech, I was essentially a Mac user. I had had some previous experience using an old DOS machine as a glorified word processor—anyone remember Volkswriter? But that was it. I had taken a summer workshop on using Macs in education and read extensively on the subject. Macs were my friend, and even if I didn’t know everything about how to use them, I knew where to find the answers.

The problem was that the majority of the students in my classes were PC users. The Engineering Department required all incoming first-year students to buy a PC, so these students knew far more than I did about their machines, which were nothing like the Macs that I knew and loved.

It was awkward going at the beginning of the term. Even though the Macs in the computer classroom were equipped with software that allowed them to read PC floppy disks, there were regular challenges to get students’ work off their PC diskettes and onto the Macs. And to make matters worse, the Engineering Department was using Word Perfect while the classroom was equipped with Clarisworks.

We were all frustrated. I knew that students needed to save their homework in Rich Text Format (RTF), but I didn’t know how they would do it on their PCs. All I could do was send them off to read their documentation and try again. They hated it. I hated it. I thought I’d made one of my worst decisions ever by teaching the computer-based class. Still we all kept trying.

At the beginning of class one day, one of the engineering students asked if she could share something. She handed me a sheet of complete instructions, starting with saving a document in RTF in Word Perfect on a PC and ending with opening the file in Clarisworks on a Mac. I gave her the class, and let her teach the process that day. Everyone left with a copy of her instructions, and the aggravations of our platform differences essentially disappeared. I no longer felt inadequate, and the students were no longer frustrated by the technology.

One of the challenges of teaching 21st-century literacy is the vulnerability that teachers like me feel as we teach with technologies when we are not the experts. The 21st-Century Literacies Policy Research Brief tell us to persevere in the face of this challenge:

Myth: Teachers need to be experts in technology in order to use it effectively in instruction.

Reality: Research shows that effective teachers collaborate with students to understand the information landscape and think about its use. Since success with technology depends largely upon critical thinking and reflection, even teachers with relatively little technological skill can provide useful instruction. (3)

With all due respect, research may show that teachers do not need to be the technology experts, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stand in front of a classroom, facing twenty-five technology-savvy students. But the truth is that it actually is more effective to let the students take control. When we talk about student-centered pedagogical strategies, we rarely think twice about asking students to be responsible for their learning. Somehow technology shifts things around though.

What can we do? Formally place students in the position of experts:

  • Ask students to write technology autobiographies, which share with the entire classroom community the experience and knowledge they have with technology.
  • Have students write instructions for the different technologies they know how to use.
  • Call for student volunteers to serve as peer tutors on specific pieces of software or processes.
  • Encourage students to share the ways that the technology they have access to effect their lives.
  • Invite students to share texts that they have found and to discuss why they think they are valuable.

In other words, ask students to take the lead. When they do, we no longer have to stand in front of a classroom, facing twenty-five technology-savvy students. Instead, we are standing in the classroom alongside students who are strengthening the 21st-century literacy skills that they need to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Teaching the Truth

To support the students campaigning against the censorship of The Prince of Tides and Beach Music in Nitro, West Virginia, the books’ author, Pat Conroy, wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper that “scolds censors [and] praises teachers and students.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Conroy has had to defend teachers who sought to teach his works. In 1988, Conroy penned a similar letter to the editor of the Charleston, South Carolina, News and Courier, praising another teacher who had added Prince of Tides to a list of optional readings for 11th-grade AP students.

The April 1992 English Journal article “Pat Conroy’s ‘Gutter Language’: Prince of Tides in a Lowcountry High School” (please forgive the low quality of the scan please) traces the story of the book’s challenge by a local preacher who “called the book ‘raw, filthy, raunchy pornography’ and ‘garbage that would gag a maggot’” (18).

As part of his response to the Charleston censorship case, the article explains, Conroy also visited the classroom of the teacher involved in the book challenge and talked with the class about writing. Conroy told the class: “[T]o write good fiction . . . one must be willing to write the truth and not to worry about what the public reaction will be” (19).

As I read that line, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the same were true of teaching?” I would love to exclaim to the teachers of the world, “To be a good teacher, one must be willing to teach the truth and not to worry about what the public reaction will be.” Teachers must always worry about what the public reaction will be—from students, families, colleagues, administrators, school board members, and the local community.

Teaching the truth is not enough. The teacher’s mantra must be “To be a good teacher, one must be willing to teach the truth and always be ready to explain why the truth must be taught, especially in the case of the ugly and inconvenient truths of the world.”

If certain students or their families are compelled to hide from such truths, that’s their prerogative, but, as The Students’ Right to Read explains, they should not have the right to impose their will upon the larger community. Teachers have the responsibility of making sure that students’ right to read is protected.

Our best option is to be prepared. “What Do I Do Now? Where to Turn When You Face a Censor,” from the NCTE book Preserving Intellectual Freedom: Fighting Censorship in Our Schools, provides scenarios and the related resources that fit the different kinds of challenges. To write your own rationales, follow the detailed instructions in the SLATE Rationales for Teaching Challenged Books.

Rationales for Challenged Books CDCheck out the NCTE/IRA Rationales for Challenged Books CD (Volume One and Volume Two) for ready-made rationales for dozens of books. And finally, for even more advice, rationales, and other resources to help with challenges to literary works, films and videos, drama productions, or teaching methods, visit the NCTE Anti-Censorship Center.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Exploring Halloween and Día de los Muertos

SkeletonWith Halloween and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) next week, these resources provide thematic activities that include support for English language learners. For additional thematic resources, visit the ReadWriteThink calendar entry on Halloween.

The ReadWriteThink lesson Collaborating on a Class Book: Exploring Before-During-After Sequences (E) explores collaborative writing with examples that focus on carving pumpkins. The activities include the kinds of guided instruction and collaborative learning outlined in “Teaching and Learning in English: What Works,” the sample chapter from NCTE's Language Learners in the English Classroom.

The Voices from the Middle article “I Am the Immigrant in My Classroom?” (M-S-C) outlines a Día de los Muertos observance that culminates in students sharing biographical sketches of deceased family members or friends. The activities draw on students’ personal experiences, family traditions, and cultural backgrounds, all aspects that benefit students by recognizing their specific heritage.

The English Journal article “Scaring Up Some Unity: Bilingual Group Halloween Stories in the ESL Classroom” (M-S-C) uses parallel stories as models for multilingual storybooks on the Halloween theme. The collaborative learning activity included guided instruction through mini-lessons, which are keyed to the specific needs of student writers. The multilingual product that students create foregrounds the value of students’ home languages and encourages students compare the features in one language closely to those in another as they increase their knowledge of how the language they know and are learning work.

The ReadWriteThink lesson Teaching the Epic through Ghost Stories (M-S-C) connects our oral tradition of telling ghost stories with the oral tradition of the ancient epic narrators by inviting students to share their own oral tales of ghosts and goblins and monsters. The lesson includes guided instruction and scaffolding to support English language learners. The lesson includes suggestions for using a bilingual picture book of a Mexican ghost story to provide a model and extend the discussion to cultural differences in the genre.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Defining Reading for the 21st Century

Last week, President Bush said he was open to changes as he urged Congress to reauthorize NCLB legislation, but he stood firm in his interpretation of the program’s goal. In his press conference, Bush said, “There can be no compromise on the basic principle: Every child must learn to read and do math at, or above, grade level.”

I heartily agree. The world would be a wonderful place if children could achieve at or above grade and ability levels in all their subjects. The problem is that current government programs to improve reading aren’t likely to make that happen. The NCLB FAQ page explains that Reading First, the NCLB-related reading program, is “an ambitious national initiative designed to help every young child in every state become a successful reader.” How does Reading First go about this?

Through Reading First, funds are made available for state and local early reading programs that are grounded in scientifically based research. In such programs, students are systematically and explicitly taught the following five skills identified by research as critical to early reading success. The definitions below are from the Report of the National Reading Panel (2000):
  • Phonemic awareness: the ability to hear and identify sounds in spoken words.
  • Phonics: the relationship between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language.
  • Fluency: the capacity to read text accurately and quickly.
  • Vocabulary: the words students must know to communicate effectively.
  • Comprehension: the ability to understand and gain meaning from what has been read.
Unfortunately, these represent a limited understanding of what it takes to be a reader. And it’s not just me who thinks so.

eSchool News Online reports this week that a Partnership for 21st Century Skills poll shows U.S. voters believe students are ill-equipped for the 21st century and need to strengthen critical thinking and problem solving, communication and self-direction, and computer and technology skills. Basic definitions of reading will not adequately fill students’ needs. Those polled indicated that schools need to focus on a much wider range of skills—they need to focus on what reading means in the 21st century.

The literacy demands that students face today have changed greatly from those which students met even five or ten years ago. 21st-century students read texts that include alphabetic- and character-based print, still images, video, and sound. They listen to podcasts, play Second Life, and analyze YouTube videos. Whether we like it or not, they read Wikipedia, MySpace, and Facebook.

Reading for them is no longer just about words on a page. It’s a complex, multidimensional act that includes skills such as interpreting visual design, recognizing nonlinear organizational structures, and identifying video and oral storytelling techniques. It’s an evolving ability to understand the many ways that humans communicate and how the media affects the message. Last week, President Bush said he was open to changes. What he needs to realize is that in the 21st century, reading is “open to change.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Problem with the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

I know I shouldn’t, but I’m giggling over the plight of the poor Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. The poor endangered creature is nearing extinction, and here I am laughing at it. Okay, I’ll let you in on the secret. We’re supposed to laugh at this animal. There's no such thing as a Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.

This fictional octopus is the object of a satirical website. The problem with the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus isn’t that such hoax sites exist. It’s that students can be fooled by them if they don’t know how to evaluate sources. “The New Literacies” in this month’s District Administration explains that “25 seventh-grade, high-performing online readers, when directed to the [Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus] site in a recent study by the New Literacies Research Team at the University of Connecticut, all thought the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus was real.”

The idea of evaluating resources isn’t new. Before online resources seemed to become omnipresent, students made plenty of mistakes choosing materials for their inquiry projects. A student might use a fictional rendering of an historic event instead of a nonfiction account. Students might choose popular magazines for research papers rather than more authoritative journals and books. As a result, in the past, teachers talked about evaluating resources with students as part of their inquiry projects.

What's different in the Internet age is that anyone can publish a relatively polished and believable site. It’s very easy to be taken in by sites that look like they refer to authoritative sources and present objective information. The democratization of online publishing means that Internet-savvy readers have to be even more careful as they evaluate the resources that they encounter.

What can teachers do to help ensure students aren’t tricked by the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus? Read the ALA’s School Library Media Research journal article “Evaluating Information: An Information Literacy Challenge” for a librarian’s perspective on evaluating online resources, and tap your school librarian for help in emphasizing the importance of evaluating sources. Go over the typical features of reliable Internet sources and talk about how hoax sites work—just as you discuss the importance of evaluating any other resource that students use in their research. Here are some materials to get the discussion started:

Monday, October 1, 2007

Copyright or Copywrong?

copyright sign The American University Center for Social Media report “The Cost of Copyright Confusion for Media Literacy” pinpoints how misunderstandings about copyright guidelines affect teaching. Across the K–college educational levels, teachers “use less effective teaching techniques, teach and transmit erroneous copyright information, fail to share innovative instructional approaches, and do not take advantage of new digital platforms”—all because of confusion on how copyright applies to potential classroom materials.

In addition to limiting the materials that teachers use in the classroom, copyright confusion can have a direct effect on what students learn. The report explains that “teachers communicate their own copyright misinformation to the next generation.” What’s a teacher to do? These middle and secondary lesson plans from ReadWriteThink provide ways to introduce the copyright discussion in the classroom in ways that promote critical thinking:

  • Campaigning for Fair Use: Public Service Announcements on Copyright Awareness
    In this lesson, middle school students explore resources on fair use and copyright, and then design their own audio public service announcements.

  • Copyright Infringement or Not? The Debate over Downloading Music
    High school students investigate the controversial topic of downloading music from the Internet in this ReadWriteThink lesson.

  • Copyright Law: From Digital Reprints to Downloads
    In this lesson, students look briefly at the history of copyright law and generalize about how and why it has changed over time. Students then apply this information to recent copyright issues, look at these issues from the perspective of a particular group, and create persuasive arguments to convince others to see the issue from their perspective.

  • Exploring Plagiarism, Copyright, and Paraphrasing
    This lesson provides a background for students on copyright, fair use, plagiarism, and paraphrasing. Guidelines for copyright and fair use are discussed, as well as strategies for paraphrasing and the consequences of plagiarism.

  • Students as Creators: Exploring Copyright
    In this lesson, students learn and use strategies for incorporating multimedia resources in their own works without violating copyright law. The tables then are turned as students contemplate how original works they have created are in turn protected by copyright law.

  • Technology and Copyright Law: A “Futurespective”
    In this lesson, students review some copyright disputes involving new technologies. They write newspaper articles predicting the outcome of current disputes and anticipating disputes that they think may arise in the future with new technologies or new uses for existing technologies.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Reading and Power Relationships

Reading is about power relationships. The power to decide what we read, what counts as reading, and whose readings matter is ultimately at the bottom of text selection. Questions such as “Who chooses the texts?” and “Whose experiences are reflected in the texts?” foreground the underlying power struggles that teachers, students, family, and community members can face as they choose texts for classroom and independent reading.

The English Leadership Quarterly article “Outside Teachers: Children’s Literature and Cultural Tension” (E-M) explains that calls for censorship frequently communicate the tensions between differing cultural and philosophical perspective. Rather than avoiding such differences in perspective in text selection, the article explores how such conflicts can become opportunities for communities “to help students become literate, socially responsible, culturally aware, and contributing citizens” (p. 8) .

Near the end of the article, the author summarizes questions teachers can use as they consider whether a text is appropriate for a particular classroom or student:

Therefore, while reading these books, teachers should pay attention to power relationships as represented in the print and picture text. Some questions Lissa Paul (1998) has identified that could facilitate this process include the following:
  • Whose story is this?
  • Who is the reader?
  • Who is named? Who is not?
  • Who is on top?
  • Who gets punished? Who is praised?
  • Who speaks? Who is silenced?
  • Who acts? Who is acted upon?
  • Who owns property? Who is dependent?
  • Who looks? Who is observed?
  • Who fights for honor? Who suffers? (Paul, p. 16)
      If teachers find the sociopolitical implications that they uncover through this method to be too heavy or overwhelming to deal with at this point in their career, they may want to put the book aside and find an alternative (p. 10).
As I read the list, I realized that its questions served another purpose for me this week. Not only does the list lays out questions that reveal the power relationships within a classroom text, it also illuminates the power struggles implicitly communicated by the 2007 NAEP scores on reading that were released today.

The NAEP scores, after all, are also about power and reading. While the report claims “statistically significant” increases of scores by two points, they cannot deny the overall stagnation of student achievement in reading. Improvement has been creeping along at the same basic level for years, and “improvement” is in the eye of the beholder.

Each of the text selection questions above has a corollary that reveals the power relationships behind the NAEP scores:

  • Whose story does the report tell?
  • Who is the reader of those scores?
  • Who is named, and who is not?
  • Who gets punished, and who is praised?
  • Who speaks in the scores, and who is silenced by them?
  • Who acts, and who is acted upon?

Take, for instance, the three “Reading Top Stories” featured on the 2007 NAEP Reading Scores Page:

  • Average reading scores were higher in 2007 than in 1992 at both grades 4 and 8.

  • Average reading scores were higher in 2007 than in 2005 in 18 jurisdictions at grade 4 and 6 jurisdictions at grade 8.
  • Average scores for White, Black, and Hispanic students at grades 4 and 8 were higher in 2007 than in 1992.

Whose story do these three bullet points tell? Not the students whose strongest literacy skills tap areas other than recognizing facts and understanding vocabulary words. Not the students whose strongest literacy skills focus on reading multimodal texts that go beyond words on printed pages. Not the 4th- and 8th-grades students whose primary literacy skills are more evident in languages other than English.

Who is named? Not the students in the 25 jurisdictions at grade 4 and the students in the 47 jurisdictions at grade 8 whose average reading scores were not higher in 2007 than in 2005. Not the students in grades 1–3, 5–7, or 9–12.

Who speaks? Not the Native American 4th graders, whose performance has dropped 11 points over the last 7 years. Not even the Asian students whose 2007 average reading score, like the Hispanic students, showed a 2 point increase over the 1992 score.

Today's Reading Report Card demonstrates the same kind of cultural tension that the English Leadership Quarterly article refers to. It’s clear that all students are not represented and alarmingly evident that the word reading is defined in narrow ways that do not reflect the expanded, highly complex definitions of literacy that teachers explore in best practices.

Given these shortages, let me end with a challenge, paraphrased loosely from the final quoted passage above:

As we examine the NAEP scores and their coverage in the media this week,  if  when we find the sociopolitical implications these questions uncover too heavy or overwhelming, perhaps we should simply put the scores aside and find an alternative—Instead of focusing on the scores, let's focus on pedagogically-sound, student-centered literacy instruction—whether those students are reading banned books or not.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Seeing Ourselves in the Texts We Read

I was touched by a former student’s reflective note shared in the English Education article included in this week’s Ideas section:

I am teaching in West Somewhere High School. The school is 75 % Euro-American and 25 % Latino/a. Kids are the same in this small community as they are in a bigger one . . . . One girl actually told me that I was the first teacher who had introduced any Hispanic authors to her and said that I was the first teacher she has ever had who made her proud to be Hispanic, instead of ashamed of it. (275)
The quoted teacher reveals a situation that occurs all too frequently—a student of color who has completed at least 9 years of schooling and has never had the opportunity to see her own culture in the texts she reads in the classroom.

Why does it matter? Reading texts that are culturally relevant is vitally important to all students, but especially so for language learners. When students see themselves in the texts that they read, they are more interested in reading and often increase their reading for pleasure. Further, they connect with the text in significant ways that lead to deeper comprehension.

In the Talking Points article “Connecting Students to Culturally Relevant Texts,” Yvonne Freeman and David Freeman explain that such language learners “easily construct meaning from a text that contains familiar elements because their background knowledge helps them make predictions and inferences about the story” (7). In her research on the influence of culturally relevant texts, Yvonne Freeman “found that students made higher quality miscues and produced better retellings with the culturally relevant story” (7).

To explore the importance of culturally relevant texts in your own classroom, try the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Assessing Cultural Relevance: Exploring Personal Connections to a Text. This lesson plan draws on the explanation of cultural relevance outlined by Freeman and Freeman to encourage students to look for texts they connect to.

In the activity, the class evaluates a nonfiction or realistic fiction text for its cultural relevance to students personally and as a group (the lesson uses the picture book ¡Sí Se Puede! Yes, We Can! Janitor Strike in L.A.). After completing this full-class activity, students search for additional, relevant texts; each choose one; and write reviews of the texts that they choose. Students are highly encouraged to identify books, documentaries, television programs, or films that are personally relevant to themselves and their peers.

The activity is presented as a secondary lesson plan, but can easily be adapted to other academic levels. A picture book can be used as the basis of any class review to kick-off the lesson. Teachers can also share multicultural short chapter books, novels, poetry, or drama. Additionally, multiculutural films or other multimodal texts. The particular text used is not as important as the clear cultural relevance of the characters and events it includes. Once we invite these culturally relevant texts into the center of the classroom, we can ensure that we meet the needs of all students in the classroom. All we have to do is look for our students in the texts.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Busting Literacy Myths

The Adolescent Literacy Policy Research Brief, published this month by NCTE, addresses six common myths about adolescent literacy and explains ways that teachers, school programs, and policymakers should adopt to help improve adolescent literacy.

  • Myth: Literacy refers only to reading.
  • Myth: Students learn everything about reading and writing in elementary school.
  • Myth: Literacy instruction is the responsibility of English teachers alone.
  • Myth: Academics are all that matter in literacy learning.
  • Myth: Students who struggle with one literacy will have difficulty with all literacies.
  • Myth: School writing is essentially an assessment tool that enables students to show what they have learned. (2)

For each of these myths, the Policy Brief explains the reality of the situation. For the first myth, for instance, the Policy Brief explains, “Literacy encompasses reading, writing, and a variety of social and intellectual practices that call upon the voice as well as the eye and hand.” After identifying the reality behind these myths, the Policy Brief goes on to explain four specific areas that affect adolescent literacy (2–5) and then to provide a list of research-based recommendations for effective adolescent literacy instruction (6).

All this information provides the majority of stakeholders in adolescent literacy education with information that can shape everything from classroom instruction to national education policy. Why do I say “the majority of stakeholders”? Perhaps the most important stakeholders in the students themselves. In other words, in addition to working with families, colleagues, and legislators, we need to help students recognize their own myths about literacy by exploring issues of language and literacy in the classroom. Teachers can try any of the following activities to begin busting the myths that can limit students’ performance and understanding of themselves as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

  • Send students on a literacy dig. Ask them to find all the texts that they read and write. You can focus their search on a particular time period or space to make the search more manageable. For instance, students might log all the literacy activities they participate in during a 24 hour period, or they might log all the literacy activities that take place in their homes or workplaces. A literacy dig can expand students’ perceptions that “Literacy refers only to reading” and that “Academics are all that matter in literacy learning.”

  • Ask students to reflect on how they learn to compose in a new space or social situation. Students might think about how they learned to write text for MySpace or Facebook that received a lot of comments, or about how they learned to write text messages, IMs, or Twitters that achieved their goals. Ask students to concentrate on a new place that they have learned to express themselves and knock out that myth that “Students learn everything about reading and writing in elementary school.”

  • Have students compare the different kinds of literacy that they engage in. Have students create personal Rosetta Stones that demonstrates literacy skills that may not be obvious in the course of more traditional classroom activities. In the process, you’ll help students recognize the fallacy of the myth that “Students who struggle with one literacy will have difficulty with all literacies.” [NOTE: The linked article is available through September 30, 2007.]

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Finding the English Language Learners

At the beginning of each term, one of my biggest challenges is always determining which students are still learning English or are speaking English as a second language. Students bring a diverse range of backgrounds and needs to the classroom, yet because of their diversity, the support each individual student needs can be dramatically different. The NCTE Position Paper on the Role of English Teachers in Educating English Language Learners (ELLs) explains:

Bilingual students differ in various ways, including level of oral English proficiency, literacy ability in both the heritage language and English, and cultural backgrounds. English language learners born in the United States often develop conversational language abilities in English but lack academic language proficiency. Newcomers, on the other hand, need to develop both conversational and academic English. Education previous to entering U.S. schools helps determine students’ literacy levels in their native language. Some learners may have age-/grade-level skills, while others have limited or no literacy because of the quality of previous schooling, interrupted schooling due to wars or migration, and other circumstances (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). Given the wide range of English language learners and their backgrounds, it is important that all teachers take the time to learn about their students, particularly in terms of their literacy histories.
As a teacher, I have to use whatever resources I can to determine students’ previous experience with the English language and the support that each student needs. Short of interviewing students and their families, however, it can be difficult to obtain detailed information on students’ backgrounds. Perhaps the best place to start is with what students themselves can tell us about their language and educational background—and even more specifically, with students’ names.

Names are crucial to our identity, which makes them a great starting point for investigations of who we are. Students from middle to college levels can investigate the meanings and origins of their own names in order to establish their own personal histories and to explore cultural significance of naming traditions with the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Investigating Names to Explore Personal History and Cultural Traditions. Using an excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street as a model, students can write their own short papers that reveal who they are and how their names connect to their linguistic heritage.

Younger students can complete similar explorations of their names, based on picture books such as The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (Dragonfly, 2003) or My Name Is Yoon by Helen Recorvits (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).

Once I explore students’ names, I move on to deeper literacy narratives and language exploration that gives me more details on the best ways to support students (such as shown in the ReadWriteThink lesson Exploring Language and Identity: Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” and Beyond), but what better way to get started learning about students than asking “Who are you?”

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It’s Not Language Error

I’m as guilty as any computer-savvy teen of sprinkling my writing with the abbreviations and shortcuts that are popular in email, online chat, IMs, and text messages. To be honest, these shortcuts don’t bother me because I like to think that I know enough about language use to avoid any embarrassing slips into emoticons, acronyms, and abbreviations in rhetorical situations where they don’t belong.

The NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing explain that “Just as the nature of and expectation for literacy has changed in the past century and a half, so has the nature of writing. Much of that change has been due to technological developments, from pen and paper, to typewriter, to word processor, to networked computer, to design software capable of composing words, images, and sounds.” Part of this change has been the development of abbreviations for the words and phrases used in digital messages. As children and teens learn to use digital tools to communicate with others, they adopt the language of the Internet—its abbreviations, diction, and grammar.

Yes, I said grammar. There is a clear system behind Internet language usage. Microsoft’s A Parent’s Primer to Computer Slang discusses some of the most basic rules behind the evolving word choice people make online. Describing Leetspeak, the article explains, for instance, how word spelling has evolved:

Numbers and symbols replace the letters that they resemble. You could write the term “leetspeak” as “!337$p34k”. The character “!” replaces the letter L, “3” replaces E, and so on. Other examples of character/letter replacement might include “8” for B, “9” for G, and the number 0 for the letter O.
Whatever the Internet language you explore, you will find very specific rules in place that govern diction. Sometimes, as is the case with leetspeak, the rules are playful substitution that creates a special code. Other times, the rules have to do with technological limitations. Many shortened word forms and abbreviations result from the limited length of text messages. If you can use “b4” for the word before, you’ve saved four characters.

Nonstandard capitalization springs from similar roots. Typing a capital letter in a text message requires two keystrokes (one to turn on caps, one for the letter), so writers opt for the faster lowercase version of the words if the meaning will not suffer. Consider the Internet abbreviation “LOL,” which stands for “laugh out loud.” In a cell phone text message, the all caps version could take up to six keystrokes, while the lowercase takes only three. In the frequently high-speed communication of text messages, writers are more likely to opt for the lower number of keystrokes.

Beyond diction and conventions, there are clear grammatical rules at play in the use of Internet slang and communication. A fun example is lolcats, images of cats (like the illustration above) that include playful captions that invoke a grammar all their own. Anil Dash has outlined some of the underlying grammar rules of the lolcats in his blog entry “Cats Can Has Grammar.” The grammar of lolcats includes attention to verb tense, pronoun use, and sentence construction. In fact, lolcats require multimedia literacy skills, as writers combine image with caption and follow conventions for font appearance, caption placement, and overall layout.

The systems that I see Internet writers use don’t indicate laziness or a lack of education. Far from it. They require complex understandings of how language works. When students use Internet language in the wrong place, we shouldn’t mark their work incorrect any more than we would mark students’ use of dialect and home language wrong. What we should do is talk about code-switching and how the uses of Internet language and Standard English contrast. In Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms, authors Rebecca S. Wheeler and Rachel Swords state:
When we talk about “proper grammar”; and “good English,” we make a lot of assumptions about the nature of language. We assume that English is Standard English. We assume that Standard English is Right with a capital R, and that anything else is improper, bad, incorrect, and fractured. Indeed, we seem to believe that anything other than Standard English is pretty much not English. (5)
Their observation fits Internet language well. Articles like the Hartford Courant’s “R T33ns KO'ing Eng?” begin with the notion that there is or may be something wrong with writers’ use of emoticons, acronyms, and abbreviations in digital messages and texts. In truth, it’s not error. It's just language in use in new and creative ways. The best thing teachers can do is take advantage of this language play and explore the ways that words and phrases and clauses work in the different kinds of language that we all use.

READERS: Please take a second after reading to share some immediate feedback by clicking the comment buttons below that reflect your reaction to this entry! I’m always trying to improve the blog, and your feedback will help me make sure I’m meeting your needs.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Joys and Challenges of Literacy Instruction

Whether new or experienced teachers, we all face challenges as we enter the classroom to teach students the literacy skills they need in the 21st century. NCTE’s Guideline More than a Number: Why Class Size Matters, which focuses on the challenge of overcrowded classrooms, describes the situation well:

The Standards for the English Language Arts describe and clarify what students should learn in English Studies and Language Arts—reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing—to be literate in today’s world. This expanded definition of literacy occurs at a time when classrooms are more culturally diverse than ever, when technology and cyberspace bid for schools’ attention and dollars, and when employers are calling for more and more highly skilled workers.
These challenges make our jobs tougher than ever, yet we return to the classroom every year, knowing that the joys outweigh the challenges.

Annual Convention Speaker Jonathan Kozol, featured in this week’s Boston Globe story “Schooled in Persistence: Kozol Still National Conscience on Education,” speaks to some of these challenges in his new book Letters to a Young Teacher, in which he “gently guides a first-year teacher into ‘the joys and challenges and passionate rewards of a beautiful profession.’” As I thought about Kozol’s mentorship of the young teacher and the challenges we face as we enter the classroom, I was inspired to share a story of my own.

One of my biggest joys in the classroom is what I call “the light bulb moments”—those moments when you’re working with students and you see their sudden understanding of a new idea or concept. In cartoons, it’s that moment when light bulbs appear above characters’ heads. Those are the moments I live for in the classroom—those moments when a student “gets it.”

I remember in particular William’s light bulb moment. My first-year college comp class in Spring 1993 focused on the ways that the writer’s perspective affects the meaning and language of a message. Students read pieces by Jane Tompkins, Harriet Jacobs, and Alice Walker, and we talked about how writing takes place in a social context. I asked the class to do some fairly complex and sophisticated thinking, and their writing showed that they were struggling a bit with the task.

One day in the middle of this course, William was slow to gather his belongings and leave, so I asked him if he had a question. He stepped up to the desk and said, “I’ve been watching some of the TV about that thing in Waco. You seen it?” He was referring to the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian ranch near Waco, Texas, and the subsequent siege that was still underway there. “I was writing about it in my journal,” he continued. “You see different reports and stuff on different channels.” I nodded, and he went on, “When they talk to the witnesses, they say different things about it and it has to do with what they care about. That’s just like those things we’ve been reading. That’s what you’re talking about, right?” A light bulb moment! He didn’t know it, but William had had a light bulb moment as he wrote that journal entry and made the connections between what he had been reading and current events.

William’s light bulb moment remains one of my fondest memories of teaching. As we re-enter the classroom this fall, I hope we all have more joyful moments than challenging ones. If you have stories of joys from your teaching experiences, please share them in the comments. Every teacher loves to read of classroom successes!

READERS: Please take a second after reading to share some immediate feedback by clicking the comment buttons below that reflect your reaction to this entry! I’m always trying to improve the blog, and your feedback will help me make sure I’m meeting your needs.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Building Community After the First Day

Writing Our CommunityAs we head back to school, we face the challenge of building eclectic groups of students into engaged literacy communities. Once the icebreakers are over, what do you do?

One great solution is to launch a collaborative inquiry-based writing activity that gets students involved with one another. Working in small groups, students can get to know a few others well and can build strong classroom communities as they explore, create, and reflect on their inquiry task.

Local community inquiry projects offer a strong option for the first weeks of class. Contributors to the NCTE book Writing Our Communities: Local Learning and Public Culture explain in their preface:

We believe that students need to engage the multiple communities that surround them and also that those communities benefit from the energy and enthusiasm that students can bring to active citizenship, where citizenship means recovering critiquing, and actively engaging the world around them. Once teachers encourage their students to research and to write about community, the classroom comes alive in wonderful and unexpected ways. As students learn more about the communities around them, they discover how important keeping community ties and creating new ones can be. (p. xi)
What better activity could you hope for in the first days of school than one that encourages creating new ties and strengthening existing ones?

For some classroom activities focusing on local community inquiry, try these resources:

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Best Kind of Student Writing

no frozen green beansThe CNN article “Kids Take on Lunch Lady—and Win” describes how second graders undertook a letter-writing campaign at William V. Wright Elementary School to convince the cafeteria workers to stop serving frozen green beans. After reading Andrew Clement’s book Frindle, in which the main character considers organizing a cafeteria boycott, students at the Las Vegas school discussed ways to protest the food in their own cafeteria. They wrote letters to the cafeteria workers, including comments like these:

"Dear Mrs. Duits, The food is so yummy and yummy. But there are one proplem. It is the green beans," wrote Zhong Lei.

"We love the rest but we hate the green beans," wrote Viviann Palacios.
As a result of their letters, the food service department of the Clark County School District talked to the students, had taste tests, and agreed to tweak the cafeteria menu.

In the world of test-driven curriculum, such a writing activity may seem silly. In truth, it’s the best kind of student writing we can ask for. The NCTE Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing explain:
Writing . . . should not be viewed as an activity that happens only within a classroom’s walls. Teachers need to support students in the development of writing lives, habits, and preferences for life outside school . . . . As much as possible, instruction should be geared toward making sense in a life outside of school, so that writing has ample room to grow in individuals’ lives.
The students who took on the “lunch lady” at William V. Wright Elementary learned more about persuasive writing than any amount of test preparation could have taught them. Preparing students to write persuasive letters for standardized tests is meaningless compared to teaching them to compose letters for an authentic audience and purpose with concrete outcomes they can understand. When writing matters beyond the classroom walls, students become better writers. That’s the best kind of student writing!

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Why I’m for Junie B.

The New York Times’ article “Is Junie B. Jones Talking Trash?” discusses reactions to the misspellings and errors in Barbara Park’s easy-to-read chapter book series on the famous elementary school student. Books in the series follow Junie B., who narrates the stories in an authentic first-person voice. The article explains:

[S]he struggles with grammar. Her adverbs lack the suffix “ly”; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isn’t able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and word like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary.
Adult readers expecting “correct” language use sometimes balk at Junie B.’s language practices, banning the books from their children’s bookshelves.

This morning, I visited the local bookstore on my way to the office to try to figure out what the fuss was all about. Simply flipping through a few Junie B. books, I could see how parents and caregivers might be concerned. Out of context a sentence from Junie B., First Grader (at last!) like “Me and Herb walked to Room One from the bus” (22) stands out, especially when adult readers are accustomed to standard written English in children’s books. When I read a few pages of the books however, I quickly learned that Junie B. sounded like a perfectly normal kindergartener and first grader.

My mind wandered to NCTE’s Position Statement On the Students’ Right to Their Own Language (1974). The position statement could just as easily be describing poor Junie B.’s treatment by disapproving adult readers:
Members of NCTE and its constituent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), became concerned in the early 1970s about a tendency in American society to categorize nonstandard dialects as corrupt, inferior, or distorted forms of standard English, rather than as distinct linguistic systems, and the prejudicial labeling of students that resulted from this view.
Junie B.’s nonstandard language use is labeled as “corrupt” and “inferior”’ by these adult readers and the entire series of books is dismissed. If you’ll forgive the rephrasing of the position statement, I, for one, prefer to affirm Junie B. Jones’ right to her own language—to the dialect that expresses her family and community identity, the idiolect that expresses her unique personal identity. I’m for Junie B!

I’m not saying that I would read the books unexamined. I’d ask young readers to think about how language works in the books. I want readers to talk about how Junie B. speaks and writes and why she sounds like a real kindergartner and first grader. In my practice with older students, when students are given the chance to embrace language diversity and authentic language use, amazing things can happen.

The Junie B. Jones series presents a teachable moment. What’s important is that we teach students to revel in language diversity and their own language use—rather than teaching them censorship and a static vision of a language with only one correct form.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Every Child is Average

The current No Child Left Behind legislation is based on the idea that every student is capable of being proficient, with performance that falls “in the middle,” between basic and advanced achievement. Regardless of educational background, available family and community support networks, and the in- and out-of-school environment, every child can reach this average level of performance.

The problem is that striving for an average level of proficiency actually dilutes student achievement. As the Education Week article “NCLB Seen as Curbing Low, High Achievers’ Gains” reports, the focus on teaching to the average level of student proficiency leaves students who achieve at higher and lower levels behind. Teachers work to to ensure students reach the mandated adequate yearly progress scores, but in the end, students who are above or below average lose. High achievers aren’t challenged to move beyond average performance, and struggling students are not given the support they need to reach proficiency.

In the NCLB classroom, curriculum is structured to focus on helping the average student do well on a single win-or-lose test. The result is that the literacy skills that all students bring to the classroom can go unacknowledged and unsupported. The only literacy skills that matter are those that apply to the test. Teachers of the youngest students actually take class time to instruct students on how to fill in bubbles on test forms. Learning to color in the lines becomes curriculum instead of true literacy instruction.

We must demand change. No Child Left Behind needs to live up to its name. We need a program that supports the wide range of literacy skills students need in the 21st century and the vast differences among students in the classroom.

To move beyond a system that encourages teaching aimed at the average student and average proficiency, we need to demand the following characteristics become the goal in ensuring every child succeeds:

  • Student achievement should be measured by locally created performance assessments, not one-size-fits-all tests that ignore students who don’t fit in.

  • Curriculum and performance should focus on teaching the full range of literacy skills, not just the literacy of test-taking.

  • School experiences should prepare students with the deep knowledge necessary for success in a global society, not success in filling in the right bubbles on test forms.

  • Assessment should provide timely, concrete feedback to teachers, parents, and students, not numbers with no context and no process for learning from past work.

  • The growth and achievement among English Language Learners should be measured with multiple sources of evidence that document the full range of students’ literacy abilities. English Language Learners should not be assessed with premature tests of English skills that result in misjudged or underrated results.

  • Curriculum and testing should be based on scientifically-valid research that fits the best methods to specific questions. Research is not one-size-fits-all either.

  • Instructional decisions should be based on an archive of powerful research gathered from direct observation of student learning in a range of authentic school settings, not on research that inadequately represents how students learn to read and write.
In the current test-driven environment, students are simply statistics moving through the system. Every child is treated as capable of average proficiency. Individual abilities and knowledge are lost in this constructed vision of students. Children who need more challenging curriculum and children who need more scaffolding and support are left behind. Every child is average in the NCLB system—an average of all the students in the classroom and an average achiever in the world of standardized testing.

In truth, no child is average. Every child is different, and we must demand legislation that recognizes that fact. You can help by taking a few minutes to write your members of Congress and letting them know how they can make the NCLB law work for students, teachers, and schools. Take action now and help ensure that no child is treated like an average student.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Integrated Curriculum

Whether we call it integrated curriculum, interdisciplinary studies, or reading and writing across the curriculum, such projects ask students to look beyond the books they read and make personal and far-reaching connections to other aspects of their lives. The English Journal article “Taking Time: Harry Potter as a Context for Interdisciplinary Studies” describes a project that bridged language arts, math, and science as students explore a series of activities related to their reading of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In addition to these activities, there are many other curricular connections that can be explored:

  • Ask students to sketch out a hierarchical chart of the wizarding world’s government and compare it to the national U.S. and British governments.

  • Extend the discussion of one of the magical creatures in the series by writing scientific descriptions of their habits, habitats, and physical features. Model the descriptions on an encyclopedia entry of a well-known animal or use a Web-based description of a zoo animal like the Giant Panda.

  • Use Thinkfinity partner EconEdLink’s Lost Memo to have students to connect the details from the Harry Potter novels to the currency exchange rate that affects businesses everywhere.

  • Tap the exploration of race, class, sexuality, and gender in the English Journal article “Teaching English in the World: Playing with Critical Theory in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series to shape parallel discussions contrasting issues in social studies and history. For instance, invite comparisons of Hermione’s S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare) with the labor and anti-slavery movements in the U.S.

  • Consider what Mona Lisa, James Weldon Johnson, or Sequoyah would say if they could talk and move around their portraits like the subjects of the paintings in the Harry Potter novels to explore art and history connections.

  • Explore the language of advertising by asking students to create print, audio, or video advertisements for items that wizards would buy, a store a wizard might shop at, or a service that a wizard might hire someone to perform.

  • Focus on technical and business writing by asking students to create resumes for characters in the book. Consult the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Book Report Alternative: Creating Careers for Characters for resources.

  • Write a letter to the editor for a character, using the ReadWriteThink lesson plan Book Report Alternative: A Character’s Letter to the Editor for materials. Students might write on the same topics that Harry takes up in the novels or choose another topic—arguing for a pardon for Buckbeak, supporting Hermione’s S.P.E.W. efforts, or responding to a news article included in one of the texts.
Have other suggestions? Please share them in the comments!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Visualizing Literacy

The recent Washington Post article "The Eye Generation Prefers Not to Read All About It" explores the importance of supporting visual literacy in the classroom. The article suggests that “students are taught how to read and how to react critically to literature, but not about visual images” and concludes that “students today need to be taught, through images, how to think critically.”

Focusing on visual literacy is nothing new for NCTE. In 1970, NCTE members approved the Resolution on Media Literacy, urging the profession to “explore more vigorously the relationship of the learning and teaching of media literacy to other concerns of English instruction” and asking that “this exploration be made in the total context of the development of students to control and direct their own lives.”

NCTE discusses even wider understandings of literacy than the Washington Post article. The NCTE Summary Statement on Multimodal Literacies suggests the range of media that comprise 21st Century literacy. Students should be asked to think critically about still images, photos, movies, animations, drama, art, alphabetic and nonalphabetic text, music, speech, sound, physical movement, gaming, and so on.

English teachers recognized long ago that literacy means far more than simply reading and writing words on a sheet of paper. Our job is to encourage students to form wider and deeper definitions of literacy. ReadWriteThink offers three lessons that can be used to reach students at each grade level:

Using any of these lessons as a starting point, open up the classroom to discussions of critical reading with every sense and invite students to compose in words, sounds, images. In the process, students visualize a much stronger view of literacy, one that validates out-of-school literacy skills and prepares them with the 21st Century literacy skills they will need for success beyond their classroom days.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Examining the History behind Well-Known Patriotic Texts

U.S. Flag
Image ® clipart.com
The Fourth of July is probably the most patriotic day in the United States. There are flags everywhere. Patriotic songs fill the air. You’ll find reruns of Yankee Doodle Dandy and the musical 1776 run on the television. It’s a day when we celebrate everyday patriotic texts such as the Pledge of Allegiance, “The Star Spangled Banner,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and “America the Beautiful.” But how often do we ask students to think carefully about the words that they are repeating?

The ReadWriteThink lesson plan Freedom of Speech and Automatic Language: Examining the Pledge of Allegiance outlines a secondary project that can be adapted for middle school or college students. For a more focused activity, you can use the Examining the U.S. Pledge handout to ask students to look closely at the words and ideas expressed in the pledge, using the resources in this FOX news article, the Wikipedia entry, the American Legion History of the Flag, or a text from your library.

Similar projects can be designed using any patriotic text.

As you explore these texts together, ask students not only about the words of the various texts, but about how they have been read and performed over the years. No matter what text you explore, focus on asking students to think about the well-known texts—Why have they become so important? What do they mean literally and figuratively? Who is mostly likely to read or sing the texts? When is they usually referred to? Do they truly include all the people in America? If the text were written today, what might be different?

As students explore all these questions, they may focus on the history behind the texts, but with some deep critical thinking they can begin exploring their own personal relationships to the texts. Most students know the words. Take some time to ask them to think about what they’re really saying.