Monday, February 26, 2007

The Truth about Wikipedia

I never have understood the turmoil over Wikipedia. Sure, anyone can edit the resource. That’s how we ended up with Stephen Colbert’s influence on the elephant population last fall. Colbert’s discussion of wikiality in the video below gets at the real issues we need to discuss with students about reference texts like Wikipedia.

Colbert explains the concept of wikiality:
You see, any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true . . . . If only the entire body of human knowledge worked this way. And it can, thanks to tonight's word: Wikiality. Now, folks, I'm no fan of reality, and I'm no fan of encyclopedias. I've said it before. Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves? If I want to say he didn't, that's my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia, it's also a fact.

We should apply these principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true. ... What we're doing is bringing democracy to knowledge. (The Colbert Report, episode 128, 07-31-2006)
Now, I hope that none of us are spreading blatant mistruths about George Washington or the world’s elephant population. The real truth, however, is that people have always determined what is true and what is not. Reality has always been socially constructed, and there are millions of historical examples of someone managing to “convince a majority of people that some factoid is true.”

Take an example close to home for many of us—the changes to the literature canon over the past fifty years. When I was a high school student, class readings focused on writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and Hemingway. Today’s high school student still reads those authors, but they are not the only focus. The voices of authors like Hurston, Cisneros, Wright, Soto, and Giovanni are now just as important. Teachers, readers, and critics have changed the reality of literature from a body of work all written by dead, white, educated men to one of a multicultural collection that includes people of different genders, sexualities, and classes.

Truth, it seems, is constantly edited by the user, and that’s the real issue to discuss with students. We cannot possibly accompany students though life, choosing the acceptable sources for them and denying them access to those we find less reliable. What we can do is teach them to evaluate the different truths in any resource they encounter, even Wikipedia, for the social and cultural biases that shape them.

Forbidding the use of Wikipedia teaches students that there is an outside gatekeeper responsible for truth. Showing them how to analyze Wikipedia articles for accuracy and reliability teaches them to make their own decisions about what is true and what is not—and that is skill that they can use once Wikipedia is as quaint and established as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Relationship with Literature

I remember gleefully giggling when my mother read my sister and I Hop on Pop, as we considered the possibility of jumping on our father who sat innocently in the living room. I recall devouring The Cat in the Hat, One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and Green Eggs and Ham when I began to read on my own. Reared a Christian, I didn’t think it was Christmas until I saw The Grinch Who Stole Christmas on TV.

When I began teaching college students, I brought The Sneetches and The Butter Battle Book into the classroom to talk about symbolism and satire. When Dr. Seuss passed away in September 1991, I was devastated, but my despair broke that weekend when Jesse Jackson read Green Eggs and Ham on Saturday Night Live (the video is low quality and out of sync, but still a great memory. It may be best to listen rather than watching).

Of the many books that I’ve read, the books by Dr. Seuss have given me some of my most memorable experiences as a reader, a writer, and a teacher. Tom Romano describes an assignment in his English Education article “Relationships with Literature” that asks students to recall their own unforgettable experiences with texts. The end of the activity is to encourage students to “remind themselves what has really mattered to them about reading literature” (9). As teachers everywhere begin planning for Read Across America, perhaps that kind of reminder is the most important thing we can give students. If we can remind them of the joys of reading, every day can be Read Across America day.

What would I do in the classroom to encourage students to connect with literature? Here are some possibilities. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.

  • Discuss the wide range of ways that text can be defined, and then ask students to share their earliest memories of texts.
  • Have students respond to the questions about best and worst experiences with literature included in Romano’s article.
  • Ask students to listen to Jesse Jackson’s reading of Green Eggs and Ham for students, and then ask them how they might take a favorite book and read it in their own favorite style.
  • Encourage students to create inventories of favorite texts that they own and wish lists for texts that they’d like to own or reading plans for books that they want to read soon.
  • Have students share a favorite text with someone else, reading it aloud together. Students can share with younger readers, family members, or others in their classes. Encourage students to discuss why the text is a favorite.
  • Ask students to review the texts they read, and then rate them just as they might rank favorite tunes on their iPods. After choosing a number of stars for the texts, ask students to talk about why they choose the ratings they did.
  • Allow class time for students to read and talk about reading with one another. You might try a DEAR program or Daily Book Boost to get everyone into reading and sharing favorite texts.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Technology Standards, or Literacy Standards?

As I read through the new draft of ISTE NETS for Students, I can’t help but focus on how the ideas are about literacy rather than technology. The technologies that students use never were the important aspect of educational efforts. Pencils and pens are technologies after all, and we never created special standards for them. No, the 21st century literacies that these newly proposed standards explore are what matter, not the technologies used to explore them.

Even ISTE’s CEO Don Knezek recognizes the vital role of literacy in the proposed standards. As eSchool News reports, Knezek characterizes “the changes as a shift away from a focus on ‘competency with [technology] tools⁏ and toward a focus on the ‘skills required in a digital world to produce and innovate’ using technology.”

Literacy should always focus on such skills—going beyond simply learning to use technologies to learning through and with those technologies. In K12 and college English classrooms, we ask students to collaborate by composing e-mail, blog entries, and web pages. We have students analyze and extend the ways that ideas are expressed in podcasts and YouTube videos. We encourage students to interrogate the information that they find in collaboratively authored spaces like Wikipedia as part of their inquiry process. In other words, we go beyond such activities as how to create a web page or podcast to ask students to think about how and why they are interact with a wide variety of texts.

The best classroom assignments have always focused on this kind of education. It’s nice to see the ISTE standards catching up to what we already know about 21st century literacy.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Evidence of Literacy in Every Classroom

Dickie Selfe comments that participants at last week’s 21st Century Literacies Impact Conference discussed “the need for . . . groups to literally ‘see’ what it looks like to integrate these [literacy] skills into our curricula.” Demonstrating what literacy and literacy learning looks like is perhaps the most important challenge teachers face. The 21st century classroom is a changing space. Our job is to find ways to show the rich, dynamic learning that takes place there.

Projects like the cross-curriculum activity described in “The Mouse That Roared: Teaching Vocabulary with Source-Based Lessons” from English Journal document what a classroom engaged in literacy instruction looks like. Student Displaying Triangular Vocabulary Poster for the Word Deltoid When you look at the deltoid poster students composed, you can see the student thinking and the connections among content areas—art, science, and language arts. Perhaps we cannot photograph, videotape, or record all the literacy learning that takes place in the classroom, but there are still ways to document good teaching and 21st century literacy. We just need to spend time thinking about how students work and identifying the artifacts that will show every stakeholder what literacy looks like.