Reflecting on New Literacies 2: 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.

I admire the work of William Kist, whose books and articles around technology and social networking in the classroom have allowed me to think more deeply about the possibilities of learning experiences for my students. He is someone worth following, and I suppose he probably gives a dynamic presentation at conferences.

His piece in the journal is entitled Middle Schools and New Literacies: Looking Back and Moving Forward. This short piece is valuable for the way that Kist frames the middle school as an environment of possibilities, and he culls through his years of experience as a consultant and educator in middle schools to consider the characteristics of a “new literacies” classroom and school.

He notes that such environments:

  • have students engaging in daily work around forms of representation;
  • have teachers talking through symbolic relationships;
  • utilize teacher “think alouds” when considering these different forms of literacy;
  • mix individual and collaborative activities;
  • engage students on many levels
    (page 17)

I like how he also reflects on what this all means. The idea of symbolic and visual representations are key because they are like an umbrella look at multimedia technology, and give us a frame to consider without worrying about the particular tool or site that might be used. The fact is, those sites and tools may change at a moment’s notice, and the skills we want our students to have must have far-reaching possibilities, not in-the-moment possibilities.

“The common feature is that there is time and space created for reading, writing and thinking, as students work on differentiated projects that are assessed holistically and are exhibited and archived.” (19)

Another valuable connection that Kist makes is how mini-lessons in reading and writing and speaking and listening can be aligned to the new Common Core standards. While his chart is not nearly as useful to me as Joe Wood’s Digital Writing & Common Core chart, Kist’s piece is a nice companion to Wood’s because it shows how “time” spent in the four areas of ELA infused with technology are valuable for learning possibilities, as well as being connected to curriculum expectations.

Peace (in the school),


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),


Post-Conference Reflective Catch-Ups

I realized this morning that I have a lot of notes from two recent conference/events, so I am going to try to share some of the notes out here from both the National Writing Project’s Urban Sites Conference and the Massachusetts New Literacies Initiative. As it happens, both took place in Boston in the last two weeks. I’ve shared some bits from both events on the blog but these are more specific notes about specific sessions.

The Massachusetts New Literacies Initiative

At our last session of the year-long project, teachers shared much of what they had developed and implemented around New Literacies and learning. The projects and links will be shared later at our wiki site, but as I went around on our “gallery walk” and watched a few presentations, I took some notes.

  • One project teamed up a librarian with a fifth grade teacher on the topic of the Revolutionary War. The librarian helped with teaching research techniques and using the Web for search queries while the classroom teacher taught the history. Together, they helped the students create Glogster posters to represent what they had learned about the events leading to the Revolutionary War. I liked how the search and research lessons were part of the overall unit. It was a nice model for easy integration of technology into a traditional lesson.
  • A math unit that dealt with linear relationships had students using Google Earth to track the bus routes they took to get to school, graph out the data points (slope), and then share their findings on a Glogster page (Glogster was a big hit with a lot of the teachers in the institute). The use of a Sketchpad software program allowed students to create interesting and visually-appealing graphs. The use of the Google Earth — particularly the application that allows you to make real-time videos of a certain path — gave the project a very interesting angle (oooh, good word choice for a math project, right?). I am going to bring this project to my own sixth grade math teacher and see what he thinks about it.
  • A teacher shared a new program that is putting iPad devices into the hands of at-risk and special education students, as a way not only to motivate learning but to try to make the technology as invisible as possible. She noted that the district now has about 40 iPads in special education settings, and all new teachers to the districts are receiving iPads for their classroom. She noted that the apps for reinforcing learning have been invaluable, and that they are collecting data to determine any gains made by students who are using the iPads.
  • A teacher talked about using persuasive writing, a literature study around a book on modern-day slavery, and the use of collaborative writing on a Moodle site. He noted that his students, who are at-risk writers, have never been as engaged, and have never developed the kind of writing that he saw, in the past. He used videos to complement the reading, and then the persuasive writing pieces (written in small groups) were written for and mailed to politicians, pop culture icons and others as a way to talk about slavery in modern times. That use of authentic audience, and technology to enhance resources and writing, made a different, the teacher noted.
  • A teacher talked about the use of gaming in her high school classroom, particularly the use of Myst/Riven as immersive worlds that can spark writing of reluctant students. As a class, they played the games together, and then she would use scenes from the game to get her students writing. She noted such elements as narrative and expository writing, point of view, non-linear composition, complex and evolving plot lines and more.
  • Another teacher talked about using the Edmodo social platform for online literature circles, embedding other tools such as Voicethread and videos and other media to enhance the discussions. She noted that one thing she learned is that many of her best practices from the traditional classroom still have a lot of value in online spaces. That’s something for us to keep in mind, for sure.

And then, the week before, I was at the NWP Urban Sites Conference.

  • I attended a session entitled “Turning Distractions into Tools” that focused on ways to use technology that are in the lives of students in the classroom. They focused in on the use of video as a tool for reflection in the writing process — which I found interesting. One of the topics was developing consumer product reviews that were published, including for a local newspaper. We talked a lot about mobile devices and how they might make their way into classrooms.
  • Another session I attended was called “Bring It! Using Pop Culture to Develop Academic and Critical Literacy Among Urban Youth.” Here, the presenters talked about how to engage students in learning by tapping into the things they love — music, sports, culture and more. one of the presenters discussed how the launch of a sports magazine at his school had boys, in particular, writing with length and complexity that did not happen much prior to the project. But the magazine, which was online and on paper, gave these writers a voice, and access to sporting events.
  • I attended a session called “Empowering Student Writing through Filmmaking” that had us making movies in the workshop and reflecting on the compositional approaches that go into creating a video project, as well as all the writing that must happen in the pre-production and post-production stages.
  • Finally, a late-afternoon session entitled “Using Commercials in the Classroom” was a fascinating look at pop culture media and advertisements. We learned how to give students the stance to be critical viewers of media, and how to pick apart the rhetorical stance of advertisements. It was quite fascinating.

Phew. That is the fast lane of my notes from two conferences. I have a lot to think about, and a lot to consider when it comes to my own classroom, and both events were very thought-provoking in their own ways. What is clear is that technology, culture and learning are continuing to evolve as the world changes all around us. There’s  a lot for us to learn about.

Peace (in the sharing),

Voicethreaded Reflections on New Literacies Institute

Yesterday, we gathered together for the final session of the Massachusetts New Literacies Teacher Leadership Institute to wrap up a year-long program to explore and use technology to engage students in our visions of New Literacies. The initiative is sponsored by our state education department. Since last June, I have been using Voicethread to reflect on the week-long seminar and the various follow-ups during the year. The Thread is in chronological order, so if you want to hear yesterday’s reflection, you can go to the last thread.

Feel free to leave comments or questions on the thread. In particular, you can see my video of “three words” to define New Literacies. I wonder what your three words would be? I invite you to add them into my thread.

Peace (in the reflective practice),

Bringing the Mass New Literacies to a Close

I am up early (even for me), and out the door soon, to head out to the Microsoft Center in Cambridge for the last session of the year for the Massachusetts New Literacies Teacher Leader Initiative. Since last summer, we have been supporting groups of teachers around the state on how to think about this idea of “new literacies” and then implement action plans into reality in their school districts.

Today, they will be turning in their lesson plans and sharing out their learning with the larger group. I will add some thoughts to my ongoing Voicethread Reflections sometime this weekend. My hope is that the projects go beyond the tools — the “technology — and push into the question of what is literacy these days, and how can we help students tap into that multimedia, global world for composition.

My fear is that our discussions may get bogged down into the ways things didn’t happen and the various obstacles: harsh firewalls, lack of time, equipment issues. These are all very legitimate concerns, and certainly they impact instruction, but I am hoping our discussions go beyond that and into the learning that comes with the age of technology.

It helps that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is the sponsor of the New Literacies Initiative. That shows forward-thinking on the part of our state officials and a recognition that our classrooms need to better reflect the reality of the world in which our students are living, and composing.

Peace (in the literacies of the age),

New Literacies are …

In preparation for our last session for the Massachusetts New Literacies Initiative, we were asked to make a three-second/three-word video to describe what New Literacies mean for us.

Here’s what I came up with:

Peace (in the words),

Design, Usability, Size of Online Writing Spaces

The other day, I saw a notice that mentioned that the English Companion Ning space, started by Jim Burke, now had more than 20,000 members. My first thought is: that’s a whole lot of English teachers in one place. It reminds me of the first Ning I ever was part of — Classroom 2.0, created by Steve Hargadon — and the growth that took place there over fairly a short period of time. That site now has more than 53,000 members. Those are like small cities of teachers.

In both cases, the size of the community has come to dwarf my interest in the sites, and I mostly have dropped out of both of them. The very elements that I initially liked about the two communities — the ability to connect with other teachers, to follow threads and learn from examples, to share and gather resources — has become less and less like discovery there, and more like a navigational chore. I become overwhelmed by sheer numbers and feel like a little pebble dropping into the ocean when I go there, so I don’t anymore. Which is not to say that neither site has value — I still tell folks to head to both for their first forays into networking. They just don’t have value for me.

Here’s what I like: a smaller-scale community that experiences slow, but steady, growth. A Ning site that I facilitate with my friend Bonnie Kaplan for teachers in the National Writing Project still feels like a home for me as a writer and teacher. We have a little over 400 teachers, but we all have connections to the National Writing Project. We get a few new members each month, with more at the end of each summer, and many folks join us in weekly writing activities. I still know and write with many of the original members of the network.

It reminds me of a side conversation that I took part in at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting, where we were talking about the “ideal size” of a networking space, where it is small enough to have connections with others and large enough to have enough diverse thoughts to make it interesting. We settled on something around 500 people for a network. I still stand by that number.

Ning has gotten a lot of grief in the past year as it moved from a free model to a paid one, but they do keep adding more and more features that allow a manager of site to make it their own. You can do as much or as little as you want to make the Ning site welcoming and reflective of your community, which in turn supports the work of the members of the community. That’s how design works hand-in-hand with nurturing a networking site.

Which brings me to another online forum that I am now taking part in with the Massachusetts New Literacies Teacher Leadership Initiative. We’re moving some discussions into the online portal (MassOne) of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. I know all the reasons for using the MassOne site: it keeps discussions under the banner of the state, which has graciously funded the year-long initiative; it archives our discussion; it is  a place where every teachers in our state has an account.

But I personally find the site unfriendly, from a design and usability standpoint, and I truly wish we could have launched our own stand-alone space that is easier to use and more design-friendly.Here are some of the things that bother me:

  • First, if I make a thread or a discussion, I can’t edit or delete it once it is posted.  I made this mistake the other day, as one of the leaders of a forum, and had to email another teacher leader, who had to email a forum manager at the state education offices. That seems awfully inefficient to me. And I was so frustrated that I could not make any changes to my post. It was as if I had tossed a badly written letter into a bottle and tossed it into the ocean, only to remember I forgot to put my name on it. Too late. Your words are lost.
  • Second, the interface feels like it was designed in the mid-1990s and was never revamped to keep up with the times. There’s something to be said for a clean look with little flash but this is extreme. It’s like writing in a virtual version of the dentist’s office. At our Ning space, we try to keep things simple. A good, thoughtful design invites people to write. A friendly look extends a friendly invitation to folks to be part of the community, and giving them some tools to make the space their own provides a path towards ownership, which leads to more interaction within the community. This MassOne has none of that. Zip.
  • Third, there does not seem to be any way to change your email for notification updates. As one of the forum leaders, I want to know when folks in my teacher group are posting, so I can respond and nurture the discussion in a timely manner (another element of a good site — quick, thoughtful responses). For me, this means that I have to keep checking my school email as opposed to my personal email. (I suppose this is done to verify that we are all teachers in the Massachusetts system but still, I find it annoying). There is an RSS button in the forum space, and I thought: Perfect! But it didn’t work. Darn it. (And if it did work, the RSS seems to cover the entire MassOne system, not just my forums. How is that helpful? It’s just a stream of information that I would still have to wade through).
  • Fourth, there is no real way to personalize myself in the space. I can choose an avavatar icon, but only from the preset ones.  I can’t upload anything — no images or screenshots or anything — and the threads only show my author-name as a shortened version of my email. Talk about impersonal. A good, nurturing space gives users the options for staking out some ground. I don’t want to be one of the masses.
  • Finally, the fact that we are writing under the Department of Educational umbrella means that folks may be guarded, and might fear honesty. When you know high-level state folks might be wondering what we are up to and can quickly check in over your shoulder, you pull some punches (if you have them).

All that being said, I’m interested to see how this experiment goes. We held an online conference the other day and our teachers are now being reminded of their responsibilities of moving discussions online into the forum space. As of this morning, though, not one of the 20 or so teachers in the group I am facilitating had posted a single thing (of course, it is the start of vacation week).

Peace (in the networks),

Moving Online with Massachusetts New Literacies


We held a follow-up session for our Massachusetts New Literacies Teacher Leader Initiative yesterday, bringing together most of the teams of teachers together in an online session (via Elluminate platform) with Julie Coiro as the keynote speaker. Over the next few weeks, we will be shifting our discussions to an online forum site within the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s online portal (known as MassOne).

This journey began last summer with a week-long institute, and this online meeting was our second post-summer gathering. Julie centered her talk around a model of curriculum development called TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge), which involves deliberate conceptualization of the pedagogy behind lesson planning, understanding of area content, consideration of the impact of the technological tools on learning outcomes, and reflection on the ways that these areas may or may not overlap.

My impression is that TPACK has a foothold in some university programs, with pre-service teachers required to use it for curriculum design, but it has not yet found its place out in schools as a model for curriculum design (at least here in Massachusetts, other than in our institute), and this was something that Julie confirmed when we began asking for models. (There are some resources around TPACK at the College of William and Mary School of Education website.)

TPACK’s focus on pedagogy and content, and the way that technology can shift teaching practices into learning outcomes that utilize technology, is a good one, I think, although I honestly have to immerse myself more into the model to fully understand how to make the theoretical model work in the real world.

On another note, I have used Elluminate before for conferences and talks, and find it to be pretty useful (although it costs money). I do wish that more of the teams of teachers would have asked more questions of Julie. I felt as if it were mostly us teacher-leaders engaged in the discussions. That might be a result of unfamiliarity with the Elluminate platform or complexity of the TPACK talk or something else. I am hopeful that the online forums, where we will be in smaller groups, will open the door to more engagement by the folks in the institute. (And they will have to be, since we will have some requirements for posting and commenting).

Since last summer, I have been reflecting on our gatherings in a Voicethread, and last night, after our Elluminate session, I added a few thoughts. You’ll have to scroll through the thread to get to the last slide, since it is a chronological sequence of reflections here. Or feel free to listen and follow my journey with the institute. The thread is open for your comments or questions, too.

(Go to Voicethread directly)

Peace (in the reflection),

Our New Literacies Presentations

Yesterday, I was part of a small team which gave a presentation about technology and New Literacies at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Curriculum Summit, which drew about 350 school administrators yesterday (and another day is taking place today). I ran a little voice recorder during our presentations, at the request of a reader here, and I wanted to share those podcasts with you.

First up is Don Leu, who is  a professor at UConn with a long and well-deserved reputation for his work around New Literacies. Don and his team helped lead the Massachusetts New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute this past summer and are now planning to work in another state next summer, handing off the reins here to us teacher-leaders to plan for 2011.

Listen to the presentation (16 minutes)

I shared this presentation the other day, but I’ll add it in again with the podcast.

Listen to the presentation (13 minutes)

A third presentation by a teacher-leader, Polly, who works with other classroom teachers in an educational collaborative is not yet online, but she focused on special education teachers using technology to engage reluctant learners.

Peace (in the podcasts),

Resource Handout for New Literacies Presentation

I figured it might be worthwhile to gather up a one-page resource sheet for the administrators who will be in our presentation session this week around New Literacies. Here is a list of what I am including:

Selected Books

Assorted Online Resources

Some Important Videos

Peace (in the sharing),