Tag Archives: reading

On (Multi)literacies

The Scene

Sometime in the not-too-distant past, an email came across one of the group lists to which I subscribe. The author of the email was encouraging members of the community – in this case, the school library community of the Commonwealth – to provide feedback on a survey related to possible changes to licensure requirements in the state of Massachusetts.

I completed the survey, but that’s not what this post is about.

One of the proposed changes to current licenses in Massachusetts is in response to the new Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards that were recently developed and passed. The standards, IMHO, are excellent. They require us to consider how we are (or in most cases, are not) developing students’ computational thinking, digital ethics and citizenship, and digital literacy skills. They are also tough – demanding that kindergarteners be able to explain complex human-computer relationships and that 5th graders be able to articulate how technology can create or bridge socioeconomic divides – and I’ve never been one to stand down to a challenge.

The email author, at one point in her message, referenced a shift in possible instructional technology teacher licensure, which requires technology specialists to have some expertise in computer science (at least enough to teach the fundamentals to students). This has implications for teacher preparation programs, and also for other specialists – like library specialists such as herself, who for decades have taught digital literacies right alongside information literacies and “regular old” literacy… which I know one can define in a million different ways, but by which I basically mean reading, understanding, and hopefully enjoying written text.

She wrote something to the effect of “digital literacy is ours.” Ours, meaning librarians’.

This struck me. Enough that I immediately emailed our library lead teacher and #librarybrain extraordinaire to get her thoughts on it. It struck me because it made me think about my definition of digital literacy, which I haven’t questioned in a long while. It made me think about the definition the state of Massachusetts is giving digital literacy by sticking it in a set of standards that includes computer science. And it made me think about “information literacy,” and what that is, and how it is distinct (?) from digital literacy or other literacies.

The Point

This year, our district has been piloting a model that combines “information literacies,” “digital literacies,” and “content literacies” into a single “Research and Digital Learning Block,” which is way too long of a title so it ended up getting shortened to “Research Block” and next year it will be “Integrated Literacy Block” (it has an identity crisis, but I promise it’s awesome). We piloted the model in three schools, but by the end of the school year, all six of our elementary schools had heard about “research block,” and next year, it will expand to all six of our elementary schools.

Integrated Literacy Block is all about multiliteracies. It’s all about layering literacies. The whole point is that “information literacy” can’t be teased apart from “digital literacy” can’t be teased apart from “content literacy.”

Integrated literacy blocks look a little like this: content area teacher, library teacher, and digital learning teacher all find a time, once a week, and block their schedules. At this time, no matter what is happening in the regular literacy curriculum, either information literacies or digital literacies and standards are incorporated into that content. If you’re a visual thinker, here’s a cool diagram:


I like diagrams like this one. They are neat and clean and indicate conceptual boundaries between things that might not actually have sharp lines separating them. Diagrams like this make a vague world coherent. But what that post to that email list in the not-so-distant past did for me was throw into sharp relief the problematically distinct conceptual line I had drawn between “digital” and “information” literacies as we had conceptualized, and then implemented, our “Integrated Literacy Block.”

As we developed this framework for integrating technology and information literacies, I had to draw lines that would distinguish the roles and expertise of the individuals who were participating: classroom teacher, library teacher, tech teacher. Each of these individuals would essentially “own” a “literacy” in our new instructional model:

Content teacher: content literacies. 

  • Decoding texts
  • Bringing contextual knowledge to texts
  • Comprehending and navigating texts
  • Identifying and navigating many types of texts
  • Synthesizing and connecting content across multiple
  • Creating and writing texts

Library teacher: information literacies. 

  • Generating compelling questions that texts can answer
  • Finding digital and paper-based texts that will address those questions
  • Assessing texts for validity, reliability, and bias
  • Synthesizing information from multiple texts or text types

Digital Learning Teacher: digital literacies.

  • Comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts
  • Comprehending and navigating multimodal texts
  • Creating multimodal texts
  • Accessing appropriate devices and software to engage with digital texts

These distinctions made perfect sense to me as I created the diagram above, but even as I sit and write about these literacies, I struggle to tease them apart cleanly. Certainly, there are discreet skills associated with decoding versus accessing the Internet, navigating a database versus making meaning from a paragraph, creating a podcast versus conducting a keyword search. However, the lines blur in a classroom where students are conducting research about the exploration and conquest of the Americas; creating collaborative Google slideshows that feature maps, images, and information gathered from library databases and print texts; generating questions about explorers; and presenting what they learned to their classmates. Suddenly “assessing texts for validity and reliability” is wrapped into a series of lessons that includes “comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts” and “bringing contextual knowledge to texts.”

But also – that’s the whole point. None of us can “own” these literacies, because they rely on one another; one can’t develop an effective multimodal text without a firm grasp of how various modes (audio, visual) contribute to one another, how audience expectations shape the text, or how information is gathered and conveyed in multimodal texts. Which means, as educators with expertise in various pieces of the literacy puzzle, we (should) rely on one another.

In my dissertation, I defined digital literacies as “socially organized practices one enacts in digital, often online, spaces using digital or non-digital symbol systems to produce or otherwise interact with texts.” That’s a relatively fancy way of saying “literacy: but, now.”  Today’s literacies require us to be comfortable learning about and teaching with texts that are exceedingly complex. 

Today’s texts, in contrast with “yesterday’s texts” are:

  • Coming to us constantly and from all angles. Our phones. Our TVs. Our computers. Our bookshelves.
  • Filled with distractions. Clickbait. Videos. Ads. Links to other texts on the same topic.
  • Personalized, thanks to big data. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
  • Condensed. Think 140 characters (or less).
  • Global and local, all at once. As are our students.

I reject the notion that anyone, regardless of their role in education, can “own” or be solely responsible for any piece of the literacy puzzle, because I struggle to see how the pieces are easily teased apart. Certainly, I make the effort to distinguish the realms of expertise among teachers in our district, if for no other reason because no one person can be responsible for the entire literacy domain in today’s complicated web of text, hypertext, multimodal text, and multiauthored text.

I do not write this to undermine the aforementioned email author’s point of view; to the contrary, I appreciate that her perspective threw into such sharp relief my own beliefs on the matter, forcing me to question the lines and definitions I had drawn around “info/digital/literacy.” Her post has helped me to (re)consider and articulate my own perspective: that to clearly distinguish literacies, and especially to claim any sort of “ownership” over them, is to undermine today’s complex literacy landscape.

Today’s literacies are multi. So must we be.

Social Media Duh: English Teacher (me) Discovers Goodreads

I have started getting all of my students signed up for Goodreads, a website that allows you to track what you’ve read, what you want to read, and what you’re currently reading. The train of thought that led to this stroke of brilliance went as follows:

  1. I really want my students to read more on their own. Some do, some don’t.
  2. Last time I tried to get students to read on their own, I made them fill out reading logs.
  3. I really got sick of printing those.
  4. The kids really hated filling those out. So much so that many just… didn’t.
  5. There’s gotta be a better way.
  6. Hmmm….
  7. Well, while I ponder that, I’ll go catch up on reading for next week’s lessons.
  8. 20 minutes later, distracted from The Awakening by the need for a snack: I should enter this on Goodreads, I don’t think I’ve done that yet.
  9. OMG.

When I signed up for Goodreads last semester, I didn’t think I would use it. Goodreads cons: the interface isn’t entirely intuitive, some people log regularly while others don’t, and I still can’t figure out how to tell Goodreads to stop posting my activity to Facebook (anyone know how to do this?). But there are some serious Goodreads pros for a teacher who only sees her students for about 45 minutes a week, too. Pros: it’s digital, which means no more printing logs; it’s digital, so I can keep track of students’ activities even when I’m not seeing them every day; it’s digital, so they can all be “friends” with each other and keep each other accountable; and it’s digital, so they can have discussions even though they never actually have sessions together with me (since most of our lessons are one-on-one). A non-digital pro: it’s a great way to keep a log of all you’ve read. I can see students enjoying seeing their lists of “read” books grow!

We have a group called “Liz’s Tutoring Students.” I need to come up with a better name. From what I can tell, students can have book discussions and add books to the group list from our group page. They can also do this maintenance on their home pages, and I’m not sure how the two overlap. I’m also not sure if there’s a way for me to keep track of “minutes read” or “pages read”… still trying to figure that one out. Would love to hear stories about awesome ways you’ve used Goodreads, or any advice or warnings you have if this is something you’ve done with students before. Or, if you know of other wonderful sites to support students’ independent reading, send them along!

How Catch-22 Landed Me in a Catch-22…

…of sorts, anyway.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 56, ch. 5)

I’m reading Catch-22, among other things, with one of my tutoring students. Why? Because he wanted to read Catch-22. Some books have a mystique to them for my students. They’ve heard about the book, they’ve heard about characters in the book, or some other book we’re reading references the book. And then they want to read the book. Well this particular book is about to make me as insane as Orr.

I have a theory about classic, canonicized texts. Said opinion easily constitutes a separate blog post that perhaps I will write later. But suffice it to say that I think a number of canonical texts should lead perfectly fine existences as texts that others reference, but rarely ever read, and that society should stop pressuring us to read them. Or even more specifically, ETS should stop pressuring us to read them. Catch-22 is one of these books.

Don’t get me wrong. Catch-22 is funny. Clever. But it’s decidedly not a favorite of mine.

So when a student wanted to read it — a student who pretty regularly decides I suck at picking out books for us to read together or for him to read on his own — I threw up my hands and said “fine.” And thought, there’s no way this is going to stick anyway. That book is dreadful.

Well, it stuck. He seems to be enjoying it and I’m finding that reading it out loud and having someone to talk to about it actually makes it a lot more fun. The book that was driving me insane is strangely making me more sane, which means I need to keep reading it. If I were insane, I wouldn’t have to read it, but as soon as I admit that I’m insane I’m sane for not wanting to read it… oh, nevermind.

So I’m stuck reading the rest of this book with this kid whose taste in books I still can’t figure out. Oh well. We’ll have a grand old time talking about sanity and insanity and war and peace and logic and irony. Off to tutoring I go, caught in my Catch-22.

More Book Love

Still thinking about book love.

Came across this review-meets-thoughts-on-ebooks on Chronicle of Higher Ed today.

Scott McLemee tells of the arduous process of re”organizing” his bookshelves, a process I know well (but as I noted in this post, my organizational scheme has eschewed such organizational measures in favor of chaos). He also makes me want to read Piper’s Book was There: Reading in Electronic TimesWill perhaps order on Amazon. Kindle edition? Hmmm…

What McLemee says that really resonates:

Given the limits of space, my acquisition of hardbacks and paperbacks must slow down; at this point, the ones on hand are saturated enough with significance to last the rest of my days. But the e-texts filling my coffee cup can accumulate as rapidly as ever. No shelf bends under the weight, and their imprint on my memory is like footprints in the snow.

He describes how each book, with its material there-ness, makes him remember from whence it came as he reorganizes his shelves. Inscribed with the names and notes of long-gone friends and family members, the books mean more than the words on the page. Unlike the argument Coxon makes, that I noted in my earlier post, the books aren’t made magical by the words on the page, but by the memories they evoke when you hold them, when you “feel your way” to what you’re looking for — a quote, a citation, a favorite passage.

I have a tutoring student who, every time I give her a new book, she buries her face in it and breathes.

Some Words About (e?)Books

Here I sit on an extremely cold January day, reading through education blogs, surrounded by my post prized possessions… my books.

I may or may not have a slight hoarding problem when it comes to books. It is an addiction that I know many English teachers share with me. Years ago, I gave up my obsessive need to alphabetize them by author and just started semi-categorizing them by “genre.” But good luck finding a book in my library. The categorization scheme makes sense only to me. An example from one of my bookshelves (this is the books-that-are-great-literature-according-to-my-standards shelf):

bookshelfThat bookshelf was purchased last year around my birthday, because I had stacks of books all over my office and my mom and I concluded that something needed to be done about it. As you can see, I have already spilled onto the top of the bookcase, and those bookends are coming frighteningly close to toppling to the floor.

I’ve been a book hoarder for a long time, so this is nothing new. As a child, I always asked for a book I was dying to read for Christmas, and when that’s what was under the tree, I would squeal as though I’d just been given a new car. My favorite store in town was Pages for All Ages, which has since folded, but which had the best children’s section I’ve seen to this day.

I know my books are my favorite things because I surround them with my other favorite things. For example:

bookshelf2Above this bookshelf is a picture of me, my mother, and my grandfather — three generations of Illinois graduates — in front of the Alma Mater statue on my graduation day. The bookends about to fall off of the other bookshelf were gifts from my aunt. Let’s just say that, with the possible exception of that Nicholas Sparks book in the floor stack (sorry, it’s from an earlier time), my books rank among my most valued of valuables.

And you know what? They’re not going anywhere.

I am a fan of the digital — anyone who knows me can tell you that. But when it comes to books, my husband will be the first to tell you that much of the money I make goes into buying good old ink-and-paper books (or good old wood-and-nail bookshelves). The eBook movement, therefore, is one I have been slow to criticize but also slow to join. When my friends were all getting Nooks and Kindles, I watched. Considered it. Got a Kindle. Said Kindle is now in my desk drawer. It comes out occasionally, at best.

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about eBooks when I was tasked, along with a team of fellow graduate students, with creating one for teachers this past summer. It is still in review and addresses issues surrounding text complexity and the common core. We incorporated videos, interactive quizzes, audio, etc. The authorship process was awful — anyone who has done digital composition understands its tendency to become a mind-numbingly recursive and dialogic process. See further thoughts on digital composition in this blog post from October.

This post from Dan Coxon on The Nervous Breakdown defends eBooks, and the argument Coxon makes resonates with me. He argues that the my-books-must-be-tactile approach is both outdated and unhelpful as the way we read shifts alongside the technological landscape. He reminds us that what is magical about reading lies in the words, not the pages you can touch, while at the same time acknowledging his own love of paper-and-ink texts. He writes:

The arrival of the Tablet in many ways echoes the invention of the paperback. Most ebooks are cheaper than their physical counterparts, and their ephemeral nature lends itself readily to pulp genres and mass market fiction. As a moderately unsuccessful writer I’ve found that ebook sales now make up around 80% of my book sales. While many readers are unwilling to pay $15 or more for a book by an unknown author, they’re prepared to hand over $2.99 for the ebook. I’d love it if everyone bought my physical book and cherished it, sharing it with friends and discussing it at parties, curling up with it at night in the intimacy of their bedroom. But I’ll settle for an ebook sale and a new reader.

As the meaning of authorship changes, we’ve witnessed major shifts in the ways we “consume” and encounter texts. For many authors, this is frightening, but for others, it is liberating. It is also both of these things for readers. I think of a friend of mine, who loves her Kindle Fire (I rarely see her without it). This friend is not a huge fan of digital technologies in general, and probably thinks I’m a pretty big tech nerd. She doesn’t teach with digital technologies, nor does she have much interest in doing so, but when it comes to reading, she has no problem buying a book with her Kindle and reading it on the plane or between meetings. When it comes to writing, I find digital technologies liberating. When it comes to reading, she does too.

Recently, however, I have started noting a shift in my purchasing tendencies. Though I reserve curling up in front of the fire for those books that speak either directly to my heart or to my head, in search of books to help me prepare for a puppy that will be coming home with me in March, I bought an ebook and sent it to my phone for quick retrieval and reference when my future pup refuses to “sit,” “come,” or “stay.” So despite my shelves of books that will continue to grow and multiply, I can understand the value of books that I cannot fill with sticky notes, mark with pen and pencil, accidentally spill coffee on, or otherwise make look like this:


To books, in all their media.