Teaching to the Tech

Online Reading Chart

We’re in our state testing season (weak, sarcastic shout of ‘yea’ to the world), and this year, for the first time, our students are doing the entire testing regime (ELA this week and Math, in a few weeks) online. Although I integrate technology all the time into my sixth grade ELA classroom as means to extend the notion of composition, this use of technology for testing is obviously very different.

And watching my students spend nearly three hours yesterday on the first of two sections of online testing for the state, as well as doing both review and practice with some of the technology tools within the testing structure, I have come away with a few observations.

First, years ago, I took part in a week-long technology seminar in Boston for the New Literacies Institute (I still have connections with some of the leaders of that institute in various online space) and one of the research focal points of this group (mostly connected to the University of Connecticut and Professor Don Leu) was the notion of online reading comprehension — of thinking of how our reading habits with screens is fundamentally different than our reading on paper.

I even wrote about the nature of online reading myself, for the now defunct Learn NC (accessed now via Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20170525150113/http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/6958 ) The chart embedded above was a crowdsourced activity I did, trying to hone in on the differences between reading experiences.

I bring this topic up because I have some students who clearly struggle with reading the online text for comprehension, never mind the issues of source credibility and other critical items that Ian talks about in the video.

While difficulties with online reading may have to do with the lay-out of the pages (texts are first displayed as full page and then reduced to a scrollable text box when paired with questions), I am realizing that I have not done enough to explicitly teach how to read for content and information on a screen.

I remember this chart, too, which tracked eye movement of a reader reading on a webpage. A typical person on a screen reads in what is known as an F Pattern, first quickly across, and then down and then across, and then zigzagging for links and information. It’s a treasure hunt style of reading, not an act of continuity.

Now imagine a student reader, who might have attention difficulties to begin with, trying to stay focused on reading a text on a screen, and how their eyes probably jump all over the place. Reading left to the right, and then down to next line, comes into contrast with how their brains are conditioned to read screens, for good or bad. This hampers the ability to fully understand the entire text as well as find important information.

So I need to do a better job of teaching this, and not just for the test, but all the reasons that the New Literacies folks shared with me years ago: most people now read most of the texts in their lives on the screen (albeit, on the smaller screens). Online reading comprehension skills have to be part of our reading curriculum.

Our state testing system — designed by, who else, Pearson — has some useful tools inside of it, which I taught my students to use during some practice sessions. There are highlighting features, a pop-out notepad, an answer eliminator, zoom features and a layered box that allows you to focus on just small bits of reading text at a time.

There are also some questions where answer options can get dragged around the page, and I had few questions related to that (it wasn’t on the practice test), which makes me wonder how I might do some work with this (and think: paper cut-outs, perhaps, and manually manipulating chunks of text). I could only point them to the directions for the activity.

One of the biggest challenges, I think, is the planning of the longer essays and narrative stories. I teach graphic organizers all year long and my students work with them for pre-writing all year long. And they have blank paper to use for the test, for graphic organizers or notes.

But here’s what I observed: Fewer students than usual were making any kind of writing plan. If I had to guess, I would say this is likely the result of taking the test on the computer, and a disconnect between the paper on the desk and the writing on the screen. (And I can’t say a thing about it to any student during testing, even though I want to shout: Make a graphic organizer!). Their focus during testing is on the screen, on the keyboard, not on the pencil and paper on the desk, and I think either some forget, or decide it’s not worth the trouble, or whatever.

I also know, from discussions before the text, that my confident writers were anxious about the character length limits for the longer writing (5,000 characters) and the little countdown box in the corner of the writing space made them even more anxious. They worried they would get to zero, and still have things to say. I had told them, if that happens, it’s time for some editing of what you had already written, and trim for clarity and importance. Which is what I would have said in any writing activity. But the character countdown box gave it a negative gamification element that I had not predicted.

As a teacher, finding this balance of teaching students about writing and reading on the computer and reading and writing on paper, and the places where those skills naturally overlap, is important, and I will be doing more research on this.

Probably, via my computer. There you go.

Peace (on the think),

PS — I was also thinking about a fascinating book I recently reviewed for Middleweb by Troy Hicks and Kristen Hawley Turner entitled Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. There, the thinking was about real-life reading, about the act of taking reading skills beyond oneself and using technology to make sense of the world. What I have written up above here seems so far removed from that. I guess that’s state testing for you.

Recalling the Massachusetts New Literacies Institute

Two summers ago, I was a teacher-leader in the first-ever Massachusetts New Literacies Institute. The institute has continued, and my wife is taking part in this year’s event (that begins today). I had been hoping to visit the institute (and the institute organizers were very generous in offering me a keynote slot) but childcare issues popped up and I had to reluctantly decline.

Thinking about the institute, which was rich with discussion around conceptions of literacy in the digital age, I remembered this Voicethread that I created as a reflective tool for the week. I had fun listening back on it, situating myself back in time.


Peace (in the threads),


A Digital Literacies Mind Map

digital literacies mind map
One of the two online inquiry groups I am participating in at the P2PU is all about writing and literacies in a digital age, and one of the participants has been sharing a conceptual mind map that she is working on around her own conceptions of digital literacies. The map is changing as our conversations grow, but I like the logical approach and I also like how the map is still underway and in the midst of change.

It’s worth your time to see what Sheri Edwards is up to with her map, and for us to think about: what may be missing, and what do we see on her map that overlaps with our own understandings.

Peace (across the map),


Combining Video Games and Digital Poetry

digital poetry video game
I joined a new writing community at the National Writing Project Connect site around gaming, and this interesting project was already being shared by Elyse Eidman-Aadahl. Here, Jason Nelson merges digital poetry with game design (or maybe anti-game design), creating an odd mix for the reader/player around words, movement, gaming and poetry that feels a bit surreal as you play it.

It’s difficult to explain, but it is one of those sites where I felt my brain sliding in a few different directions as I tried to make sense of the game while trying to make sense of the poem, and also trying to make sense of the combined experiences. To be honest, I am not sure what the game really about, nor what the poem is really about, but that didn’t stop from diving in. I could sense a different kind of experience as the reader/player.

This is how Nelson somewhat explains what he is up to:

Video games are a language, a grammar or linguistics of various texts. The sounds, the movement, the graphics, the rules or lack of rules, everything about a video game is a component of language. …..

A digital poetry game must combine all these elements, strange and interactive stanzas, crossed out and obstructed lines, sounds and texts triggered and lost during the play. Indeed the game interface becomes a road to inhabiting the digital poem, to coaxing the reader/player into living and creating within the game/poetry space.

You really have to experience it to get a sense of it.

Check out game, game, game again and enemy6 (or i made this. you play this. we are enemies.)

And I wondered: how in the world do you design something like that? I suppose the tools for doing so are beyond me at this point in time, but I wonder if there is a way to do a smaller version, something poetic but in game form?

Peace (in the merging of worlds),



The Path of an Idea

idea path map

Over the weekend, I participated in and watched an idea shift through various iterations and websites/platforms. It began with a viewing of a video, and ended with a podcast. This morning,  I decided to try to chart out the way the idea moved around for me, as I participated in the movement of the idea.
By the way, here is the podcast poem that I wrote:

Peace (in the path),


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),


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),



Reflecting on New Literacies 4: 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.

Teaching our students how to be critical “readers” of media is such an important lesson as is flipping the role of consumer to producer of media, and in the article Multimodality in an Urban, Eighth-Grade Classroom, writer Adrienne Costello shares her own exploration around the intersection of digital video projects and traditional literature in an urban school. Costello notes that this work when she began to “…recognize the transformative power of New Literacies in the English Language arts teaching.”

What I found intriguing was how Costello (a teaching assistant at a University working in a public school) and the classroom teacher began to notice how much pop culture spill-over there was as they were exploring the world of drama and literature. And so, they began to bring that awareness of media culture into the classroom by introducing and nurturing the use of video. Students were creating mock news television shows that connected to curriculum, writing scripts for video projects, and learning the rhetoric of video production. They then took these ideas, and began to work them into a larger unit with the novel, The Outsiders, as the main text. Teams of students developed mini-movies based on themes and character development from different sections of the book, exploring the text from a reading and production stand-point.

The result?

“Beyond cultivating surface-level engagement, the dramatic video project empowered students … to create personal, affective connections to the text, to live through those connections in ways that deepened literary understanding, and to experience an added layer of reflection by viewing and critiquing the performance.” (page 54)

Another interesting point to note: Costello reports that many of the ideas used in the video project around theme and characters were later used by students as the source of their high-stakes writing exam later in the year, and they used examples from the text (that were used in their video projects). Those kind of connections are ones we need to highlight as teachers ask, “what does technology bring to the table?” As Costello notes, it is more than just motivation and engagement; it is also deeper involvement in the task before them.

Not so long ago, the art of making a video in the classroom seemed daunting. But these days, when just about every cell phone has a video camera (and possibly, a simple video editor), shooting video has never been easier. And the relative ease of using free programs like iMovie or even MovieMaker puts the tools of creating in the hands of our students. Once you make a video project, and are given a reason to reflect on that experience, you never watch a movie or television show or flash video the same way again.

The experience of creating forces a critical lens on you as the viewer, and that is just the kind of learning we want for our students.

Peace (in the video),


Reflecting on New Literacies 3: 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.

For today, since the article dealt with graphic novels and webcomics, I am creating my reflection on BitStrips. That seemed appropriate.

Reflections on New Literacies

I want to point out that the comic element was just part of the overall use of media, and the writing did not stop on the page. It extended into a networking space, stretching out the sense of audience and collaboration, and connections. I think this is important to point out. When the audience for work is pushed beyond just the teacher, and even the other students in a classroom, young writers and creators are motivated in a different way, and that can make a different in the quality of learning being done and shown. None of the sites and tools used here were done in isolation; they were part of a technology quilt. This is tricky to do — to bring various elements together and make them work seamlessly together — but when done right, it makes all the difference in the world.

Peace (along the panes),