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Reading NCTE's Voices from the Middle: New Literacies Collection

Written by Kevin Hodgson
May 23, 2012

(This is culled from a series of blog posts I did while reading Voices from the Middle from NCTE, which had a theme of New Literacies.)

Day One

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 Gradesand 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.

Day Two

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.

Day Three

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.

Day Four

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.

Day Five

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.

Day Six

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.

Day Seven: Final Thoughts

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.

— Kevin

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