Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Broader Definition of Literacy

In my interactions with teachers from all over the district, I often come across people who wonder why technology seems to be taking over schools. When I talk with Language Arts teachers and tell them that we need to redefine language arts to include a broader definition of literacy that includes media and hyperlinked texts, I often get strange looks as if I am upsetting the very foundation on which we are standing. In some ways, I guess I am. Let me be clear. I am a firm believer in the importance of reading and writing. I love books in every sense of the word. I do not read ebooks just for the sake of saying that I can. But reading in today’s society is not the same as it was when we were in school, or even as it was 5 years ago. A huge shift has taken place. Reading takes place online as often as it does in books. Reading today include hyperlinks to other pages instead of linear books with tables of content. Reading today means access to everyone’s opinions, not just two or three expert authors. It means sifting through large amounts of information to find what is valid, up to date, and relevant. Reading today means multimedia embedded into the text. Interpreting media is a different skill than interpreting text. Our students need to be taught how to do this. They need practice and opportunity.

Now I can hear a few of you grumbling about how awful this is for our society. The amount of worthless information and the legitimate concerns of access to inappropriate information are valid issues. But ignoring them and pretending that our students will not access these sources of information is scarier to me. We need to include these skills and concepts as part of our language arts program, not some separate course that implies that technology does not impact all areas of learning.

What about writing? I often hear teachers talk about the fact that we need to focus on writing more in our curriculum. I agree. But what is writing? Has it changed too? When I was in school, I wrote on lined paper and spent countless hours rewriting in my best handwriting. Was that time well spent? Is it time well spent today? My audience was my teacher. My goal was a good grade. Today’s students have a global audience. They write on MySpace, Facebook, personal blogs, wikis, IM, chats, and many more online tools that allow their message to be seen by many others. I understand the inherent dangers in this. However, I think like all things new, we overemphasize the dangers and deemphasize the benefits. It is in our nature to be fearful and cautious. That’s not a bad thing, but we need to start recognizing the benefits of online collaborative tools that give students a global audience.

Unfortunately, this is where the discussion often ends. We tell teachers they should use these tools, but we often don’t continue the discussion to include examples of how these tools can transform their classroom. Let me give you a couple of scenarios that I think are excellent examples of language arts teaching.

1.    Students research a relevant topic to the curriculum. They learn how to search for, analyze, and organize information in both print and electronic formats. Discussions about the benefits of both help students learn when to choose each one. Note taking takes place online in a wiki. We use a wiki in Moodle so that only students who are in the class can view the wiki. However, students can view each others notes, sharing resources and adding to each others’ notes. A discussion tab in the wiki allows students and the teacher to offer feedback to the students. From the research, students can present information in a variety of ways, including written reports, multimedia presentations, podcasts, video, and others. In the case of the written report, students might use a tool like Google docs to write their report online. In this way, a group of students could collaborate on their report together from school or from home.
2.    Students respond to literature online. Through blogs, forums, and other formats, students can journal about what is happening in class. Not only can the teacher view students’ thoughts, so can the rest of the class and the greater community. As students respond to literature, other people can respond, adding their opinions and expertise on the subject. We often talk about the negative aspects of the greater community responding to what we write about, but what about the positive aspects? Imagine that an expert in the area being discussed comes across the blog and responds to the group. For example, let’s say your class is reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and as students blog about it, a Holocaust survivor responds with their thoughts. Or perhaps you are reading The Black Pearl by Scott O’Dell and you get a response from someone who is a pearl diver, or expert on manta rays or Mexico. How does this enrich your discussion? How does it validate your students’ thoughts and encourage them to reflect on their reading?

These types of projects are happening in our district already. We have the capability to do it. Let’s give students what they need.

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