Reflecting on New Literacies 1: from NCTE Voices from the Middle

The most recent edition of Voices from the Middle, a journal by the National Council of Teachers of English, is centered around the idea of New Literacies, and so I have been very excited to dive into the articles. There’s a lot of great and interesting research in here, and so I decided I would break up my reflections on the reading into a series of blog posts.

The journal opens with a provocative question: Are you as “literate” as your students? In the forward with that title, the editors of the journal (Diane Lapp, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey) tap into the idea that media and technology are changing the ways that we view literacy and shifting the ways that we communicate and interact with other people around the world. I was a little worried it was going to drag us back into the Digital Immigrant/Digital Native dichotomy that I dislike so much, but they didn’t.  What they did was frame the way we should be looking at the literacies of young people today, with their cell phones, social networking and more. And they ask us, if not in these very words (these are my words), Are you paying attention to your students?

After asking the reader to create a mental timeline of their own history with technology, they write,

“‘Education as usual’ no longer applies, since new literacies demanded by ever-changing technologies continue to expand … Our reason for asking you to create a mental timeline of your engagement with new technologies is to remind you that the more technologies one encounters, the more new literacies will evolve to shape our manner and methods of communication.” (7)

This piece reminded me of an activity I did a few years ago with teachers in a workshop with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, in which I asked them to create a technology autobiography, and podcast it on a blog they were creating in the workshop. Of course, I did one myself as a sample to share out. I dug it up to share it here.

My Technology Autobiography

The first main article (which you can access for free from the journal website) is called Risks, Rewards, and Responsibilities of Using New Literacies in Middle Grades and is by Margaret C. Hagood. The piece reflects on a year-long study of a cadre of teachers who came together to learn about technology and new literacies, and began to work those ideas into their classrooms. The group of teachers (which included a range of experience with technology from newbie to experienced) formed as a study-group-turned-action-research group, and the technologies used run the gamut from digital storytelling to video production to using e-readers, and more.

I like how Hagood also outlines what they learned through the year, and how other Professional Learning Communities might emulate the experience. She notes that the group began as a study group, reading through shared books and articles about technology and learning, and then started small by choosing a technology, and working on a project themselves. The third part of the experience was designing and implementing a curriculum unit that used the technologies.

What’s important in the telling of the experience is that the teachers were grounded in the research around learning with technology, given time and support to experience the technology themselves, formed a collaborative partnership with other teachers, and then worked (and most likely, reworked after reflection) the ways that technology could be used in a meaningful way in the classroom. The result was engagement by teachers, and engagement and motivation by students, and a noticeable shift in the ways these teachers were viewing literacy. (The remaining question which looms over all of the articles here, and in the field in general, is how are we documenting the academic gains of students who are using technology and being immersed in New Literacies? Administrators want data and not just anecdotes, and if we can gather more meaningful data from our classrooms that shows gains and expanded learning outcomes, we are more likely to make change in schools with reluctant leaders and teachers. That is my soapbox moment, and I appreciate this journal as being part of those steps forward.)

Hagood ends her piece with some observations about how the technology “reframes” the relationship between student and teacher, engages students in new ways, and creates a collaborative classroom environment. She also makes an important observation about how the entire experience (from exploration to implementation) is a key component of a reflective teacher.

“The work of new literacies is always about making connections within and across contexts and people. It is the work of sharing and communicating. Teachers have a responsibility to share their knowledge and learning with others, beyond what they implement in their classrooms.” (15)

I’ll be writing more about the articles in the coming days. Please feel free to add your thoughts and offer feedback, too. Or, if you are game, perhaps you will develop your own technology autobiography.

Peace (in the literacies old and new),


The Collaborative Dictionary Project: 600 Words and Counting

crazy dictionary 2012

Eight years in the making, and our Crazy Collaborative Online Dictionary of invented words continues to grow. When I think of it, and how the activity represents both a learning experience (about language, about technology) and a vertical collaboration (across time), I come away knowing that the dictionary is something pretty neat and special. We use a wiki, and podcasting to get their voice into the mix, to add to the dictionary every year, and some students are collaborating with their siblings (when they were in sixth grade) and already collaborating with future students. It’s like some strange time-warp thinking project, you know?

You can head to the 2012 Dictionary (with just this year’s words) or you can head to the HUGE dictionary with eight years worth of words. Either way, you can get a sense of how my sixth graders have a fun time with language.

Peace (in the words),

Student Book Glog: Scat by Carl Hiaasen

After reading Flush as a class book, many students go on to read more of Carl Hiaasen’s collection of young adult books. More than a few have already read Hoot, so Scat (and now Chomp) are usually next on their list. This student not only devoured Scat (and did her poster on the book) but waited patiently for me to finish Chomp so she could read it as her friend was reading it, so they could have discussions together. I love that!

Peace (in the funny),

What the Duke Rushmore Band is Up To: The Cover Song Playlist

My band —Duke Rushmore — has been learning a bunch of new songs, working some into our set list (we have a gig next Friday), and it’s fun but difficult to learn new material. Just ask any student, right? Not all of these songs will make it to the final round of being part of our material, but we cast a wide net.

You can check out some of the songs that we are learning with this playlist.

Peace (in the music),

Book Review: Fake Mustache

How’s this for a concept?

A small-city novelty-store fake mustache (the Heidelberg Handlebar #7) that apparently grants it own hypnotic powers becomes part of a master plan (cue evil laughter soundtrack) for a teen to become president of the United States. Only his best friend (or is now it former best friend?) can stop the now-named Fake Mustacho. Be forewarned: hijinks abound. Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger (he, of Origami Yoda fame) is a silly book that breezes along at a rapid pace as Larry Flem Jr. tries to stop his friend, Casper, from his diabolical scheme for power. Oh, yeah, and add in the sassy character of a former child television cowgirl named Jodie O’Rodeo and her horse, Soy Milk, and you have a rip-roaring adventure.

The book’s power is in its pace. The story really moves, and it would no doubt make for a good read-aloud. What is lacks is depth of character and plot, but maybe when you pick up a book with a title and cover like Fake Mustache, you’re not looking for some story about the human condition, or about learning some greater meaning about life, or whatever. Maybe when you pick up Fake Mustache, you’re looking for a bit of silliness for your day.

On that count, Fake Mustache delivers.

Peace (with a clean face … for now),

PS — an unofficial trailer that someone made:



Nurturing the Unexpected Student Writer

I have a student, a boy, who began the year refusing to write anything. He wasn’t rude. He was just resistant. At most, he would quickly jot down a few sentences and that was it. He was done. He didn’t care about writing nor did he see any value in his words. I learned from his mother that this had been the case for some time. While he is an avid reader, his writing was always a struggle.

Over the course of the year, though, I have been watching him slowly emerge from that shell. It began around December, with our video gaming unit. Here was something he is interested in, and his game as well as the writing components that were part of it were exemplary in many ways. He was pushing himself to write, and to write well, and to connect his writing to something meaningful: the video game he was designing for publication.

I admit. I was worried that once we moved past our video game design unit, he’s revert back into the one-sentence writer. Happily, that has not been the case. And now, he is writing outside of school (unheard of, according to his mother), and he is in the midst of a novel that is clearly inspired by his devouring of The Hunger Games series, The Lightning Thief series, and a host of other book he is now cruising through. It’s as if some light suddenly went off in his head and he is full-in.

Look at this section from his novel, which he has been sharing with me in periodic bursts. The story involves two siblings, who are to become apprentices in a cultural system that is defined by the elements.

James instantly felt pity for his sister. Amber, a dark brown haired girl at 5’11 and her brother, Brutus, were the two that found James and Abby in the woods and nursed them back to health. Even after they were old enough to care for themselves, Amber and Brutus still watched the twins every move, always fusing about how they could be hurt and keeping everything a secret from them. James couldn’t stand them; the only good part is that they’re friends with each other and Jack, meaning that Abby and Tim will train together a lot.

Amber materializes from the crowd and extends her hand, which Abby reluctantly shakes. After Amber gets in the same position as Jack, Boulder wraps things up. “James, please step

James immediately does on queue.

“In honor of his extraordinary find…”

“Oh no!” James thought.

“…And his continuing part in your life, your mentor will be Brutus!” Boulder shouts.

My role here has become a little less teacher, and a little more editor with him. I’ve been writing him letters about his story, hoping to encourage him to keep going. Here is a bit of what I wrote to him last week.

Dear xxx,
Thank you for sharing your story with me. I was excited to read it and I want to encourage you to keep working on your ideas.

Here are some things I noticed:

  • I liked the main characters, and the ways you are hinting at their history and backgrounds. Good novelists do that: they introduce a character, but hint at further character developments to come. I wondered about James and Abby’s history (you give some info – but I wanted to know more about the fate of their parents)
  • I can see you have a larger vision for this story, and for other possible offshoot stories already developing. The use of the elements as your story metaphor makes a lot of sense, since it opens up the doors to other stories from the other areas. You may want to keep weaving in hints of other stories unfolding outside of this particular book as a way to set the stage for future stories.
  • I could see all of the influences of what you have been reading: Hunger Games, etc.  That’s good. As you continue, use what you have read as a template, but then keep an eye on moving beyond the structure of those stories. That’s how you can make your own book an original.
  • I like how you are already developing some tension among the characters, and the situation of the tribes.
  • I was struck by the introduction of the bamboo stick, and wondered about the power of that magic, and how it might become part of the plot.

Again, I loved the story and hope to read more. I am also honored that you would share your story in progress. I hope some of the writing we have done this year has helped you see yourself as a writer, and that as a reader, you are gathering ideas, strategies, suggestions for your own writing.

I’d like to offer up a piece of advice. You may run into a point with your story when you don’t know where to go with it. Don’t give up! Step back from the story, read it with fresh eyes and don’t be afraid to take a chance with a plot direction. Keep on writing, and write because you have a story to tell (if it is a good story, as yours is, then people will want to read it.)


Mr. Hodgson

I can see the excitement in his eyes and voice as he talks about his story and where he sees it going. I’m a bit sad that our time together is nearing an end, and I’ll be encouraging him to email me updates, and I will find time to respond. I can’t say that I did much to help this shift happen, other than provide the scaffolding and opportunities for him to write this year in a variety of ways. The gaming unit caught his attention. Who knew that would happen? Not I. But I am thankful it did.

He is a writer.

Peace (in the sharing),


Student Book Glog: Flipped by Wendelin van Draanen

The cover of Flipped is pretty cute, don’t you think? This is another one of those books that was never on my reading radar so I was curious about the project that my student did for her independent reading. This student is interested in social, relationship stories, and I suspect this falls into that category. You can see her project about Flipped here.

Peace (in the ecaeP),

Another TED-ed Flip: Doing Research

TED-ed Doing Research Flip

I continue to experiment with the new TED-ed tool that allows you to use their site to remix or flip content. For this one, I definitely had my sixth graders in mind, as we work around good research skills (a key component to the Common Core).

See what you think — I added a video, a few questions, and then a final thought. If I could get them to watch this at home, it might make our in-class work around research a little easier (such is the nature of the Flipped Classroom, right?)

Go to Doing Research: Strategies for Success

Peace (all flipped out),

Book Review: What Teachers Make

I suspect if you are reading this blog that you have come across one version or another of poet Taylor Mali’s now-famous poem, “What Teachers Make.” If not, here is the video of him performing it.

I share that performance because Mali, a former teacher himself, has put out a wonderfully inspiring collection of short essays that are built around the themes of the poem, and this book-sized love letter to the profession of teaching (the book is subtitled In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World) struck so many nerves with me (at turns, I was laughing; at others, I was tearing up) that you just have to add this to your collection, and then you just have to pass it along to a colleague.

I won’t go through all of my reactions to the book, mainly because I was doing that on Goodreads as I was reading, so it makes more sense just to share what I wrote there, here. I will say that Mali’s sense of humanity and passion for seeing the whole student — the critical thinker, the writer, the member of a community of the world and the classroom — underlies all of his pieces here. And he also mentions how he is still on his mission to inspire 1,000 people to become teachers (he may have hit his goal. He was close when the book was going to the publisher.) Even he acknowledges that the number itself is not all that meaningful. But raising the profile of teaching, and of teachers, in this day and age of political teacher-bashing is something he takes on with pride.

What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the WorldWhat Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World by Taylor Mali
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, I read the poem, watched the video (you should, too), and thought: you go, man! And that one poem turned me on to other Mali poems, which were also powerful and beautiful. So, I was excited to see that he was using that famous poem as the narrative structure of a series of essays about teachers. This book is a keeper. And when you are done … pass it on.

View all my reviews
what teachers make 2

I, for one, appreciate having this poet on my side. Thank you, Taylor.

Peace (in the profession),


Book Review: The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

“Telling the truth don’t come easy to me, but I will try, even if old Truth ain’t nearly as useful as a fib sometimes.” — Homer P. Figg

I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick up The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick. I don’t mean, buy the book. I’ve had it for about a year. First it was at my house, where I hoped my son would pick it up (he liked Freak the Mighty, which Philbrick also wrote), and then it was on the shelf at school. And it seems like one of those books I would like: the cover was pretty interesting (done by David Shannon), the title is intriguing, and the plot teaser had me hooked.

Oh well. It took a while but it was worth the wait.

While I could not help shaking the echoes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from my head as I read the book (which is not a negative thing, by the way), the story of Homer Figg going off to save his older brother from his conscription in the Union Army of the Civil War, and all that happens to him on his way (with Quakers, runaway slaves, con men, medicine show men, spies and more), propels the book along at a solid pace. There’s rarely a boring passage to be found here, and even with all of the adventure (with a little hyperbole thrown in for good measure), we still come to care deeply for Homer Figg, who may lie a little here and there if the situation warrants it, but whose heart is always in the right place.

And it turns out, you learn quite a bit about the Civil War, too, as Homer’s story pushes up against the Battle of Gettysburg and more. It’s a lot to ask of a book to entertain and educate, and yet, Philbrick does that here, without any of the overt preaching that can often afflict too many historical novels for young readers. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is definitely worth a read.

Peace (in the adventure),