The Paradox of Promise and Practice

Sometimes, there is a bit of serendipity to my reading. The other day, I noticed that Troy Hicks  and Bud Hunt (my friends from the National Writing Project) were hosting the Twitter-based #Engchat with Sara Kjader (another friend). I had not really meant to have enough time to jump into the conversation, but in a short stretch before reading to my son before bed, I watched the stream of chats about digital literacy and added a few ideas, too. I then left the conversation.

The next day, I decided to check out the #Engchat hashtag and saw a note from Troy, thanking NCTE for allowing access to an article in English Journal that the three of them, plus Carl Young (another friend from the Massachusetts New Literacies Project), had published, entitled “Same as It Ever Was: Enacting the Promise of Teaching, Writing and New Media.” I was hooked first by the reference to the Talking Heads (see how important a title can be?) but then got intrigued by the article, in which the four of them scoured through the English Journal archives to determine whether mentions of Digital Literacy and Media had represented teachers moving ideas into practice in the classroom.

Well, they found a good number of references to digital work and influence of media and technology on the lives of young writers, but not nearly enough articles about teachers actually using technology with their students. In other words, educators were noticing the shifts, but not necessarily taking part in it. And I would argue that still continues to this day, although I do believe that is slowly changing.

Sara, Bud, Troy and Carl noticed some themes of writers as they were doing their indepth reading of English Journal articles:

  • There was an understanding that all students can write and should be encouraged to be published writers;
  • Technology, if used purposefully, could influence, support and extend writing practices;
  • But, not much has changed in the English classroom over the past 100 years.

“… yet EJ writers seem continually to look to the future for the answers to questions raised about bringing new tools and possibilities into the classroom. They assume change would emerge down the road, perhaps when technology becomes more ubiquitous, or at the dawn of the 21st Century.” (70)

In other words, they were not becoming the change they want to be, in the words of a famous bumper sticker. They were stuck in what the writers call “the paradox of promise and practice.”

I appreciated the writers’ deeper look at the literature in this very influential journal, and also appreciate that some teachers are contrained by a variety of factors: budgets, access, lack of professional development, and uncertainty about where technology might lead them. These are all valid concerns …. and yet … and yet, our students are moving into such a rapidly changing world where critical thinking skills, connectiveness, and fluid, adaptable technology abilities will be in high demand. We can’t keep writing about the possibilities, we need to make those possibilities happen for our students.

Carl, Bud, Troy and Sara leave us with a call for teachers to “not be afraid” of those possibilities, and urged us to “…fully embrace the playground of words and texts and ideas and the tools available to create and share them as our domain as language artists.” (73). This is your time, not tomorrow.

Peace (in the sharing),

PS — I believe the article is still available for free. Here is the link that Troy tweeted:


The STEM Video Game Challenge Results


… so we didn’t win. But that’s OK because the dozen or so students who submitted their science-based video games to the 2012 STEM Video Game Challenge worked hard, and learned a lot about game design, and even when I shared the news of this year’s winners of the competition yesterday, they were still pumped up about their own games.

As they should be. I reminded them yesterday as I relayed the results of the challenge to all of my classes (everyone designed and published video games with a science theme but only a few chose to submit theirs to the competition) how proud I was to be teaching them game design, and how much that experience of designing and publishing, and then submitting, an original video game will be one of those anchor memories of sixth grade. The winning would have been nice, but it was the journey that was most important. They may not realize that now, but I hope they will in a year or two.

They are all anxious to explore the games that did win the Video Challenge, and so I may give them time today after a quiz to do that. They did enjoy the short video that gave an overview of the winners, and they liked the short screenshot video I showed of the winner in their particular category (although they kept comparing that student’s game to their own, and it fell short in their eyes.)

There’s always next year …

Peace (in the game),


What They’re Writing About

How to Wordle

We’ve just completed our expository/informational writing assignment, which allows students to choose topic of explanation and then write through the steps in clear, organized, logical writing. I’m always interested in what they choose as topics, as it can be serious or fun, or even imaginative. The word cloud above captures some of the topics of the assignment.

This year, I shifted away from our narrative paragraph writing as I continue to make moves towards the new frameworks in our state, influenced by the Common Core. Next year, I’d really love to make this kind of assignment a more of a Maker’s Fair, with video tutorials on how to do what they are showing us to do, incorporating technology into the assignment in a meaningful way. I didn’t have my act in gear this year, but next year …. for sure.

Peace (in the explainin’),


Book Review: The Serpent’s Shadow

And so, Rick Riordan‘s The Kane Chronicles come to end. Well, maybe. He certainly left enough hooks in The Serpent’s Shadow to bring back his hero siblings — Carter and Sadie Kane — for more adventures down the road (more on that in a minute), but for now, Carter and Sadie have successfully saved the world from the Egyptian god of chaos – the shadow serpent Apophis — and restored Ma’at to the world.

Just as Riordan is exploring Greek and Roman mythology with his Lightning Thief and Lost Hero series of books, here he delves deep into the lore of Egyptian magic and gods. My complaint remains the same: it gets confusing when he starts using the various gods. I have been reading this series and other Riordan series aloud to my son and we are constantly stopping and figuring out which god is which.

Luckily for him (and for me), I had ordered through Scholastic books a Kane Chronicle Survival Guide. At first, I thought the guide was just cheesy, but it turns out it was invaluable for us as readers, as my son kept stopping me and grabbing the book, and finding information about the gods and magic and more. He’s only 7 years old, so I certainly encouraged these research moments.

The writing in this series is not quite as strong as the other series Riordan is writing, but still, there is plenty of action, suspense and magic to keep my son interested. The narrator flips from Sadie to Carter, so we see the adventure unfolding through different eyes, and yes, we do learn quite a bit about Egyptian mythology and history. Early on in the series, my son and I made the predication that Riordan has some grand scheme to bring all of his series together: Percy Jackson and friends from The Lightning Thief series, Jason and others from The Lost Hero series, and the Kane kids from this series.

And Riordan continues to plant those seeds with mention to the Kanes about “other magic” in the world soon to a concern. And my son (he’s seven, remember) made a connection between a character that seems to run through all three: the son of the god of the dead. Here, he is Anubis, but in the other two series, he is Nico. They seem to be the same character, with the same personality.

So, who knows? We’re game to keep reading what he writes (The Mark of Athena comes out this fall — this guy writes up a storm!) and figure it all out.

Peace (in the adventure), Kevin

I Was Fako Mustacho

Fako Mustacho updated
There were a lot of giggles and chuckling, and pointing, yesterday as I donned a fake mustache and fedora for our school’s Dress Up Like a Literary Character Day. I decided I would be Fako Mustacho, the somewhat-odd-villain in Tom Angleberger’s book, Fake Mustache, who rigs an election in an attempt to become president with the help of the mustache (you’ll have to read the book to figure that one out).

While not a single one of my students could figure out who I was (not one had read Fake Mustache), by the end of the day, all of them knew about the book (I had it on hand and showed it each of my classes) and I have a line of kids wanting to read it. (You’re welcome, Tom.) It was fun but itchy. I was happy to get it off my lip at the end of the day.

Peace (in the literary fun),

PS — I wish I could have ordered a mustache that was a little longer, and red. But you take what you can get …


Wrapping up Reflections on New Literacies Theme

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.

I wanted to get some final thoughts out, now that I have written and published a half dozen posts about the journal. First of all, I was delighted to see the them of New Literacies and hope that teachers who are reading it are also thinking about the possibilities of technology and media for their classroom. For many educators, exposure to ideas and an acknowledgement of the shifting world around us is the first step to realizing that literacy is in the midst of fundamental change, and schools need to be part of that (while still holding to the values of traditional learning — and I suppose this is where the tension comes in).

As I read through the articles and pondered the research, it occurred to me that some of the same ideas that came to the surface with our book collection — Teaching the New Writing — remains true today. Some teachers are trying to tap into the everyday literacies of their students, use technology in a meaningful way that connects to the curriculum, look for moments of engagement and motivation through media and technology, and struggle to address how best to assess the work being done in these New Literacies. I can’t help but think that while literacies are shifting in our real lives, they remain fairly static in many schools and in many teaching practices.

At times, I had the sense that by the time these articles got to print, some further shifts had already happened, just as happened with our book. There were just one too many references to MySpace, which is a dead space when it comes to any teen or pre-teen. You even have kids who don’t even know what MySpace is, or was. (Maybe Facebook will follow?) So, to base research around MySpace (while practical no doubt during the times of the studies) feels a little out-of-touch already. That is the nature of classroom research with technology, and the pace of publication.

I also noted in some previous reflections how many times comics and graphic novels are used as new literacies in the journal, and I continue to wonder about that designation. On one hand, I am happy that graphic arts get their due as a “real reading” experience. On the other, it seems like an easy way for teachers to think they are being innovative by using graphic stories for reading. Now, if we teachers can bring concepts of remixing of media, collaborative storytelling, embedded videos and links, and more innovative compositional practices into student-created comics and writing, I could see the New Literacies connection.

Maybe we are not there yet.

I want to bring light to the fact that many of the writers and researchers in this journal were fellow teachers from the National Writing Project. Our organization has been dipping into what writing means in the 21st Century for some time (see the Digital Is website for a lot of examples), and I was proud to see NWP folks exploring this terrain here. It reminded me of how important it is to notice the shifts taking place and being part of an organization that supports the kind of reflective practice that is so necessary for understanding our young writers and the mediums and spaces in which they write.

One final thought: I found myself as a reader wanting to launch from the paper version of this journal to some online discussion forum. That’s why I have been blogging about my reading. But it feels as if the articles showcase promise of new literacies but then fails to allow the reader to partake in that movement. The ideas get stuck on the page here. Actually, I have been emailing the authors of the articles that I have been reviewing, thanking them as a reader and offering the links to my posts, in hopes they might join a conversation here. (That hasn’t happened, although almost every single one of them has responded to my emails, thanking me for thanking them.) It seems to me that NCTE and the journal’s editors should have curated an online home for the journal, and then opened up a forum for readers, and in doing so, begun modeling for teachers that the idea of New Literacies looks like in practice. I sort of feel let down now that I am done. What I want is to continue the discussions with others and continue my exploration. I feel kind of let down by the promise of the pieces.

All in all, though, I appreciate this collection from NCTE’s Voices From the Middle and I am grateful for the research, the stories, and the insights of the writers of these pieces, and the editors for bringing it all together. It’s worth your time to check it out, and reflect on how well you are tapping into “the moment” of shifting literacies. Are your students more literate than you? It’s something the editors ask at the start to frame the discussions here, and worth asking of yourself.

Peace (in the reflection),


Book Review: I Survived Hurricane Katrina

I Survived Hurricane Katrina, 2005

If you use Scholastic book clubs, you might (like me) collect a lot of points. I use them to order books for the classroom, and it is well worth the bookkeeping it takes. This year, I have been really trying to keep an eye on non-fiction or at least realistic fiction, knowing that I need to keep adding those kinds of texts with the shifts our state is going through with the Common Core. On our last order, this bundled collection of “I Survived …” books caught my eye (quick: cue up Gloria Gaynor … or Cake).

Although I thought they were non-fiction (maybe I need better reading skills), the series is actually realistic fiction of survival. The bundle includes stories about shark attacks, the Titanic and Hurricane Katrina. I decided to jump into I Survived Hurricane Katrina, just to get a taste of the story by Lauren Tarshsis. I liked it. While somewhat simple and perhaps lower reading level than my students are used to, the story of an 11 year old boy who gets separated from his family during the storm, clings to trees and debris to survive, helps rescue a stranded dog, and then himself is rescued by a good samaritan made for a fast-paced adventure story.

I also appreciated the end notes by Tarshis, where she talks about the inspiration for the book (including her anger at the government for not protecting New Orleans and then not doing enough, quick enough, to help survivors) and provides lots of facts about Katrina and its aftermath. I could see a lot of research exploration around hurricanes, government policy and planning, survival and hardship, and more with this book.

Peace (in the rising tide),


Reflecting on New Literacies 6: 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.

As I was reading through this journal, I could not help but notice how many references there are to comics and graphic novels (I wrote about another article the other day that used comics in the classroom, too). I made a comic about it (’cause, well, that’s what I often do).

comics in NCTE Journal

In reading the article entitled Nontraditional Texts and the Struggling/Reluctant Reader, researcher Joan Fingon explores something I see a lot in my classroom: struggling readers (and mostly boys but also some girls) are more apt to dive into a graphic novel than they are with a traditional novel. I’m sort of lucky, as I review graphic novels for The Graphic Classroom and so, I often will get boxes of graphic novels and comics that I reads, let my sons read, and then I bring them to my classroom for my students to read.

Fingon says her intent is to show how graphic stories might help level the reading playing field in a classroom for all students. Here, she focuses her research project on some English Language Learners who were reading, in particular, The Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. She documented not only engagement and motivation, but also vocabulary growth, processing of text and more. The hope is that graphic novels then become the launching point for readers into more complex text, although one could also argue that there are plenty of graphic novels that offer the “text complexity” demanded by the Common Core curriculum, too.

“Clearly, young adolescents are engaging with multiple forms of texts outside the classroom, especially if they find them interesting and relevant to their lives … there is great potential in what we can learn from listening to what all young adolescents have to say about their reading habits. Teachers can expand upon students’ interests by integrating these new forms of literature as additions to, rather than replacements for, the reading and language arts curriculum, thus opening a new gateway for those who struggle with reading. (page 74)

That’s an important message here, and even if the connections made in the piece to my own concept of New Literacies is a little bit weak, the focus on struggling readers with non-traditional text is something we need to do more of, and just like the goal of technology that requires us as educators to explore ourselves in order to understand the possibilities of technology, teachers need to become more immersed in the medium of sequential art by reading graphic novels, comics and other non-traditional texts.

The next step, which Fingon sort of hints at, is to bring the concepts of graphic novels to the students’ own storytelling and analysis, and help young writers see (and validate) the use of comic art as a storytelling device. Even with the shifts in the Common Core to more informational texts, there are plenty of webcomic sites and downloadable comic frames, that would allow more of our reluctant writers to showcase their talents and understanding in other ways than an essay, or a short story. Be open to the possibilities.

Peace (in the frames),


Reflecting on New Literacies 5: 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.

Writer Phil Nichols begins his interesting article (From Knowledge to Wisdom: Critical Evaluation in New LIteracies Instruction) with a comment that at first seems like an adult complaining that technology instruction is too isolated from meaning. Then, you realize that it comes from one of Nichols’ students, and that realization that his student is right, that technology “…should have a purpose.

What this comment by his student does is help Nichols re-evaluate a traditional web-building project for Animal Farm, and recast the entire learning experience into one of “agency” of the student, who is no longer building a static website to share some knowledge, but creating personas within a social networking environment that draws students into the content in an engaging way. Students used Facebook to creating pages for an “ideal society” that would then be voted on by ninth graders.

While much of the content expectation remained the same, even with the shift, Nichols concludes that the use of a social networking space that students already inhabit allowed them to see the power and drawbacks of the space in a new light, and allowed them to showcase and publish the wider, real world. It provided his students with a critical media lens.

“If we teach students to make websites, they only gain the transferable skill of being able to make more websites. But if we teach students to inquire into the purposes and limitations of a medium, then they will be able to transfer that inquiry to any new medium — including those that have yet to be invented. (page 69)

This is the most important sentence in the whole piece. Our instruction must be focused less on the “this moment” in technology and more on the “any moment” idea because we all know that changes will take place, and the tools today will not likely be the tools of tomorrow (sorry, Facebook). But inquiry skills and critical reading/writing with media skills, and more, are going to be so important to our students, and they need exposure, scaffolding and time to play and explore and reflect in the New Literacy world.

Peace (in the sharing),