Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Looking for the Stories behind Wikipedia Entries

Last Thursday, my Blackberry's message light began blinking as I was waiting to pick up my sister. A news alert had arrived to tell me that Michael Jackson had died.

Ten or twenty years ago, I would have turned to the television and newspapers to find out what was happening in the world. Today, I first read breaking news on my Blackberry, in status updates on Facebook and Twitter, and during discussion in IMs and chat rooms.

Once I've heard first details, I usually hop over to Google News and search for details instead of waiting for special reports and news updates on television or the radio. The news articles usually lead to more questions, so I often jump over to Wikipedia next to find answers.

I'm not alone in this process. Last Thursday, so many people went to Wikipedia for more information about Jackson's death that Wikipedia set a new traffic record:

In the 7 p.m. hour alone Thursday, shortly after Mr. Jackson’s death was confirmed, there were nearly one million visitors to that article. (In fact, for that hour more than 250,000 visitors went to the misspelled entry “Micheal Jackson.” Even his brother Randy Jackson had 25,000 visits that hour.) [Source: The New York Times]

While millions of people were reading the Jackson page, hundreds were editing the Jackson entry to add details about the pop singer's death as they were released and to increase the overall information in the entry.

The constant editing and public control of sites like Wikipedia challenges teachers to find new ways to talk about historical documents and research. Wikipedia entries are like any other historical document students might read. They may seem like absolute truth, but there are many different versions of the stories that they tell. Our job is to teach students that they must always look for the stories behind documents.

Try these ideas to teach students the importance of looking for the stories behind Wikipedia entries:

  1. Explore sample entries with students, and make sure that they understand how Wikipedia entries are written. Share articles like the Telegraph's "Michael Jackson’s death sparks Wikipedia editing war" to spark discussion of how the collaborative authorship of the articles shapes the "truthfulness" of the information.
  2. Read the New York Times article"Keeping News of Kidnapping Off Wikipedia"and Fast Company article "Wikipedia and 'The New York Times' Suppress Facts to Save Kidnapped Journo" together, and ask students to discuss how truth and trust are affected when stories are omitted and details are changed.
  3. Review CNET's "Debate: Can the Internet handle big breaking news?" and ask students to take up the debate themselves.
  4. Check out the third bullet point in the Young Adult Library Services Association Blog entry "Critically Thinking About Teens and Technology" for some additional ways to discuss and explore online resources related to Jackson's death.
  5. Ask students to predict how Wikipedia entries can evolve after reading the CNET article "Why video can transform the Wikipedia experience."


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beyond Textbooks: (Re) Discovering Nonfiction

As I listened to Nonfiction Books for Teens, this month’s episode of the ReadWriteThink.org Text Messages podcast, I felt a definite connection to host Jennifer Buehler as she recounted her “discovery” of nonfiction. In her introduction to a compelling set of titles, she discusses her longstanding affinity for fiction, noting that there lingers with nonfiction a negative association with dry, fact-filled textbooks.

She acquired that negative view toward nonfiction—as so many readers have—from the academic reading required of her in school.

If textbooks are the primary source of nonfiction reading with which students engage, it’s little wonder that we find it difficult to build a culture of literacy in schools that involves sustained work with text other than fiction.

I’ve been inspired by a pair of mathematics teachers who, like Jennifer, see the value in exposing students to carefully selected, high quality nonfiction. I worked with them recently as they began shaping a plan to engage students in an investigation of the question “What is trigonometry?” through a variety of nonfiction texts.

I offered to do an assessment of available resources and made a trip to our local library to look for trade nonfiction about mathematics. I’m ashamed to admit my surprise at how many relevant, well-written books I was able to find right away. I’m not ashamed to admit that on the spot, I devoured a chapter on the mathematical archetype of “threeness” in nature, art, and science.

While it’s true that many of the texts I found didn’t match the goal these teachers had in mind, we were able to establish the foundation of a collection that those teachers can use to get students started in a meaningful mathematical investigation through text. And the added bonus, of course, is that students will get to see that people write real books about math!

As you reflect on the learning goals you have for students in the upcoming school year, consider the role authentic nonfiction text has in your instructional plan. And think about how you might support colleagues, especially those in content areas other than English, in an effort to share quality informational text with students. Jennifer's recommendations provide an excellent start, as she covers territory from American history to ecology to natural science to sociology.

As it turns out, the basis of the affinity many of us have for great fiction—compelling ideas and engaging writing—is right there for (re)discovery in nonfiction as well.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


My first computer took a walk to the cafeteria and a cup of coffee to boot up. The letters on the screen were orange.

When I got a mouse, the IT guy told me to play solitaire to practice dexterous mouse-moving. So I went home and took out the cards...

Now many work and play on computers night and day. Some carry their computers everywhere in a phone.

Social networking is the new way to hang out—Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and more.

Students use these networks and text message their friends just to stay in touch--I think back to that multifolded note passed in class.

Which brings me to The NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies and Twitter as a classroom tool.

Twitter is an easy online tool to master--only 140 characters allowed in a tweet and the site counts for you, prohibits longer posts.

Jim Burke describes it in Tweeting Your Way to Better Grades as “the concept of communicating in a short note.”

Twitter allows users to quickly share tidbits of thoughts, ideas, information simultaneously with many who are their followers.

Kind of like broadcast text messages....which you can also read on your cell phone or Blackberry.

Twitter is one vehicle--the latest, trendiest vehicle--that's all about communicating in writing--a place to start with simple parameters.

It's one of those online tools that the teens mentioned in Writing between the Lines—and Everywhere Else are using outside of school.

It’s a tool with much potential to enable learning both in and out of school as noted in Tweeting.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Deep Curriculum for All

As a young teacher, I taught in a high school that separated students into five different tracks at each grade level. Students in each of those tracks were supposed to receive a certain sort of education. As you might imagine, the lower track expectation was for lower level curricula of the sort described in the example in Kylene Beers’ The Genteel Unteaching of America's Poor. I, though, was na├»ve and new as a teacher, and it never occurred to me to dumb down learning in my classroom or to shield certain of my students from particular kinds of learning opportunities. Thank goodness for newness and naivety!

I thought back to my high school teaching days yesterday when Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews and Newsweek released “The Top of the Class” (Newsweek, June 8, 2009). The report names the most successful high schools in the nation measured by adding the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests taken by all students at the school in May and dividing the result by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. 1500 American public high schools have made the grade of 1.000 or higher.

In his column "Is AP for All A Formula For Failure?" (The Washington Post, June 8, 2009), Matthews argues that all students should take AP classes and he points to one or two schools that have had success with this. The Newsweek list points to more successful schools. It seems, according to #5 on the FAQ for the Newsweek list, that the higher ranked schools do offer more students challenging curriculum along with those tests.

Today, as I thought about the high school rankings, Education Week released its annual Diploma Counts report. Today, in America, only 7 of 10 students graduate from high school in four years (a statistic which some consider to underestimate the numbers of dropouts). In fact, in 2006 (the latest available data from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center) only 69.2% o American students graduated from high school. That was an increase of 2.8% over the 1996 graduation rate—not so good in my estimation. I can’t help but think that some of those who don’t graduate drop out because they are not drawn into a challenging curriculum. And we can change that.

What if we take Matthews’ argument and translate AP and IB into “challenging 21st century curriculum” as NCTE defines it in the NCTE Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment? Can we increase the numbers of high school graduates and the numbers of schools that rank at the top because their students are successful with challenging curriculum? I think so.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

School's Out ... Explore, Learn, Grow!

My own children have their last days of school this week. In their end-of-year newsletters, their teachers shared suggestions of what the kids should read over the summer.

The early elementary teacher recommended that my daughter read fifteen minutes per day, with a break on Saturday. The intermediate grade teacher shared her read-aloud list from the year. All the books she read this year were series books, and she read only one book from each of the series. The teacher invited the kids to read the other books from the series.

The girls are already great, motivated readers, so I am not worried about getting them to read this summer. They have our trips to the library and bookstores mapped out! As their parent, I will be suggesting they do something after they have read some of their books – so they can make connections to what they are reading. I want to see them writing, creating, organizing, and brainstorming.

There are so many activities to try on the ReadWriteThink Learning Beyond the Classroom site that can help with this.

  • We can record the books we read this summer using a Reading Record Chart.
  • I can work with my younger daughter on setting a budget and writing a shopping list using advertisements from the newspaper. She can work on her writing as well as her math skills. My older daughter can join in on this project by exploring the labels on the foods on our list. She can help us determine which foods are best for our family. We can all work together to create a new commercial for one of the products we purchased.
  • We can create a new board game to play on days when we need to stay inside. She can think through the rules and the layout and then we can make it together!
  • My older daughter can write to her favorite authors after reading some of their books. She can also read their blogs to see what the authors themselves have to say!
  • As a family, we enjoy watching the film versions of books. Our current favorite is Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Together, we can learn about filmmaking and create our own scenes based on our favorite moments from a selected book.
Regardless of what we specifically do this summer, I know we will work together on reading and writing. I want to make sure we prevent summer loss and start the school year as prepared as we can!