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.