Tag Archives: teaching

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.

Connected Educator Month: A Post Series

Mark your Calendars!

October is Connected Educator Month! I know you just ran over to your calendar (or, perhaps more appropriately, pulled up your Google Calendar) and excitedly marked the first day of October with a giant orange circle. I mean… this is really exciting stuff, right?!

In honor of #CE14, I’m going to do a post series here on Gone Digital exploring digital professional engagement and the use of social media (both as a professional and in the classroom, with students). This is something that has been on my mind over the past few years, as I became twitterate (twitter literate) and developed different digital practices and identities on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn, and eventually (but only intermittently) Instagram. And these are only a few of the big ones — new social media spaces are popping up faster than you can download the apps. According to this list of the 15 most popular social media sites based on web traffic, I am only familiar with the first 10, and I only regularly use 7 of them (though I use many that aren’t on this list, as well).

I used to find this frustrating, wishing the digital world would slow the heck down, already. After all, as a Digital Learning Specialist, it’s sort of my job to stay abreast of new technologies and to think deeply about their role in teaching and learning (and that extends far beyond social media). But now, I embrace the high-speed, can’t-catch-up whirlwind of new digital tools, searching out new (preferably open-source) technologies that might do more than enhance teaching and learning, and actually transform it.

Transforming the Work of Teaching

And that’s what teaching is all about, right? Transforming the minds and experiences of young people? That’s also what connected educator month is about (at least for me) — exploring how teachers can transform their work by connecting with educators beyond the four walls of their classrooms. But don’t take my word for it:

My dissertation research illustrated to me just how transformative “connectivity” can be for today’s educators. Those teachers who maintain networks far beyond their classroom walls, who connect at conferences, online, or over coffee, find spaces to reflect, critique, and transform their practice. Certainly, teachers have always done this. But today’s teachers are “networked” in ways they haven’t been before. Their professional networks extend and persist in social media (as I explored in a recent article) and become more robust in online Professional Learning Networks (PLNs).

Yesterday, my coworkers and I started working on an online digital learning series for Boston teachers in celebration of connected educator month. This work got me thinking about what it means to be a connected educator, the role of social media in fostering connected education, and what exactly constitutes “connected” in a world where tweets come and go faster than you can read them, where tags archive and curate online content for future use, and where educators have a wealth of available spaces in which to present, share, store, create, and design content. In what ways are these connective possibilities transforming what it means to “be a teacher” in the 21st-century… if they are at all? And what role does social media, specifically, play in all of this?

The Series

Here on Gone Digital, I will focus specifically on social media, because I’ve had social media on the mind lately. Despite the fact that many teachers and students use social media constantly in their lives beyond school, many districts have locked down social media within schools. This is because, like it or not, unlocking social media is akin to popping the top of a giant can of worms. There are a multitude of issues surrounding opening up social media to students and teachers, and these include student safety, network infrastructure, and the availability of appropriate professional development. Mention opening up social media to 100 principals and teachers, and I would guess that half of them would shiver in horror while the other half would light up with excitement. It’s not as easy as hitting a button.

But that doesn’t mean social media isn’t transforming teaching and learning in meaningful ways. And that’s what this blog series is about — how teachers are using social media to both transform and make visible the work of teaching, and how they are using it with students to transform their digital learning and literacies. Starting next week, I’ll post once a week, focusing first on how teachers are building their professional networks both online and in f2f environments enhanced by digital engagement, then moving to ways teachers are using social media in the classroom to engage students.

If you have examples, ideas, comments, thoughts, musings, frustrations… whatever, tweet me (@lizhoman) or comment below. And stay tuned!

Social Media and Professional Engagement

I have loved Facebook since four years ago, when I arrived at The University of Michigan for my PhD program. I would post to FB before then, and joined in 2006, but I didn’t really love FB until I had PhD friends who could lament and otherwise narrate the PhD experience with me on the book of faces.

I have loved Twitter since sometime last week. I hated it before then. I couldn’t interact with my F2F friends on Twitter, bc none of them liked to tweet. And I didn’t have followers, and I didn’t know how to get them. The impetus for figuring out Twitter? A job in k12 #edtech that starts in two weeks. I know Twitter increasingly matters in the lives of teachers and teacher leaders, who create professional learning networks via social media and who share ideas and resources in organized Twitter chats and less organized RTs and MTs. Not learning to love Twitter was not an option (which is okay, because it wasn’t long before I was hooked).

This has raised new questions for me about how exactly we engage — learn, question, think, interact — professionally in social media. For me, social media has always been a site of professional connection. Connections with people I know f2f or who are interested in the same issues as me. Connection with individuals who share my professional passions — but also a few of my personal ones (I’m not ashamed to tweet about my dog, for example, or the fact that my morning run must immediately be followed by a giant vat of steaming hot coffee).

Sidenote: Some people divide these spaces — personal and professional — using Facebook as a primarily social-personal space and Twitter as primarily professional. While I understand the distinction and separation, it’s just not me. I have “more” and “less” “professional” or “personal” social medias — on FB, I’m more likely to post personal stuff, and on Twitter, I’m more likely to post stuff related to ed tech or teaching. But neither space is exclusively dedicated to one or the other; I gain and share professional resources and experiences on FB all the time, and cultivate that space as though anyone from my professional world might see it.

So how do we “learn” within spaces like this? What does this sort of quick-paced, rapid-fire sharing of links and infographics and images grant professionals as they seek to learn from one another and build professional networks (and here I’m thinking mostly about Twitter)? Because I’m new on the scene, I haven’t quite developed a system for archiving the many things I find on Twitter (suggestions welcome), but I know I have come across more potential resources and interesting articles that have challenged my thinking (and caused me to challenge the thinking of others) in the past week than I probably had in the month that preceded it. I’m not sure how much of this I have retained or thoroughly absorbed. I don’t think much. And I can’t decide if I think that’s a good thing, a bad thing, or just… a thing. Maybe it’s okay that I have only deeply engaged with a few tweets and a few conversations on Twitter. Something tells me that’s sort of what Twitter is all about — mining, archiving, storing those things that actually matter for later, and letting the noise of the rest of it pass you by.

But what does this mean for teachers who use spaces like this as sites for professional learning, engagement, and development? How do we develop “PLNs,” or professional learning networks, within spaces like this… and are those networks robust? By which I mean, are those networks lasting, or fleeting? Do we want them to be fleeting? If not, is there a way to make them more lasting, more robust? A way to take the power of a space like Twitter, which connects so many people so quickly in social networks so vast, and to combine it with the power of a space like a professional learning community of just a few teachers taking the time, in a quiet classroom, to ask difficult questions about pedagogy? Or are there online spaces that allow for some combination of these attributes, inspiring and providing space for both deep discussion and quickfire resources and soundbites?

I have no answers, obviously. The entire paragraph above consists of questions. And for that, I do apologize. But I wonder if any of you have thoughts… if you do, tweet me 😉 @lizhoman


Going Gradeless

It’s a sexy thing to do right now, going gradeless.

At least, it is something a number of my colleagues — secondary and post-secondary — are experimenting with. Can we go completely gradeless? No. Something tells me that if I refused to submit grades at the end of the semester, I’d get into some trouble. I don’t think the university would take kindly to me saying “grades ruin my teaching, so I’m not giving them anymore.” But to some extent, that’s what I have decided. When we give grades on every assignment, students learn to associate success with numbers and letters, not with the extensive feedback we spend so much time crafting. When students associate “A” with “amazing” and “D” with “deficient,” teachers lose the power of meaningful evaluation. Furthermore, students often take those letters and their meaning to heart, believing that if they get an “A” it means they are amazing, not their work. And by extension, if they get a “D,” they are deficient. In the composition classroom this seems especially true, as students associate their writing with themselves — who they are, what they believe, what they hold dear. Assigning letters and numbers to that undermines my teaching and my attempts to challenge their ideas and arguments. So I quit.

When I say I’m “going gradeless,” I’m referring to a growing (in my circles) interest in “contract grading,” or grading that makes an agreement with students that meeting a certain set of criteria will earn them a certain grade. Billie Hara breaks it down further in an article on ProfHacker/Chronicle of Higher Ed. Her article outlines some of the history of contract grading, which (I think) was first introduced by Peter Elbow, famous in the composition world for developing institutional work-arounds that, in theory, make writing courses more meaningful. Hara also describes some of the drawbacks of contract grading, namely that it uses vague terminology that makes it difficult for students to understand what will actually get them the A (or B, or C) they so desire:

How can a student define “exceptional” writing? How does the faculty member define it? How can a contract help a student know how to achieve the “exceptional”? Additionally, …how do faculty evaluate “thoughtful peer feedback” or “sustained effort” on draft writing? For me, many of these items are still subjective, and because they are subjective, are open to grade complaints.

But that issue of vague language — “engaging,” “effective,” “exceptional” — is an inescapable one for writing teachers, is it not? Because what we teach is messy. Is vague. Changes based on rhetorical situation, goals of the writer, medium of composition… but I digress.

When I first decided to try contract grading with my 229 class this semester, I had a number of conversations with colleagues of mine who had tried the approach. One said “I simply can’t make this work.” She’s not sure if it’s the institution (Michigan students are particularly grade-motivated) or the way in which she’s implementing contract grading, but she has yet to be convinced that it’s the “way to go” for her students. Another colleague said it has its drawbacks, but can work well in Professional Writing (what I’m teaching now), because how does one “grade a resume?” I decided to give it a go.

We’re now working on our final assignment of the semester in my Professional Writing course. Students have analyzed genres from various professions and developed professional web portfolios and social media profiles on LinkedIn. They have explored the role of Twitter and Facebook in the professional world, and we are currently working on writing effective proposals and designing pitches. They have had crash courses on visual and textual composition in Photoshop, Illustrator, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, and a few other digital spaces. And I have yet to give anyone a grade — on anything.

And here’s what I’m learning:

  1. Students like it, in theory. On the first day, everyone was like “yeah ok. sounds good.” Signed the contract, walked out of the room. Peachy.
  2. I’m sort of “grading anyway.” I set up the contract such that students, instead of being given a grade, would either be “meeting, exceeding, or not meeting” (B, A, and C respectively) the standards for an assignment. For each assignment, I give them a set of criteria (usually three or four key things I’ll be looking for). For the first assignment, I told them whether they met/exceeded/didn’t meet each criteria. If they didn’t meet any of the criteria (i.e. “got a C”), I invited them to revise. So basically, I graded them anyway.
  3. If I don’t “grade anyway,” I get asked questions.  When I realized I was sort of grading anyway on the first assignment, I changed my approach for the second assignment and just gave narrative feedback in response to their reflections. This prompted some questions about whether or not they were supposed to get a grade, and whether or not they had succeeded at the assignment (regardless of whether or not I indicated in words that they had done well and/or had other things to think about). These questions are understandable. None of my students had encountered contract grading before my class, so I get it. But the contract grader should be ready to explain — multiple times — the reason and logic behind his or her approach to grading.
  4. Students forget to look back at the contract. I got the sneaking suspicion a few days ago that no one has really looked back at the contract since the start of the semester. Which means I think few of them still realize that the “bare minimum” only gets them a B. I got this feeling when a few students verified the number of blog entries they needed to complete. I will need to remind them in the next week or so to revisit the contract, reminding themselves what’s required of them for the grade they seek to earn.
  5. I’m no longer the primary audience (sort of). This is why I actually went gradeless, so I’m glad this aspect of my experiment is going well. Students are paying attention to my feedback, but they are also adjusting their compositional decisions to reflect their classmates’ input (not just mine), and generally asking more questions about how to make their writing more effective for their target audiences (not just me). Certainly, they are still submitting assignments to me, but I see them paying a lot more attention to those external audiences they hope to target in their future professional writing, which (I believe) is making the writing process more meaningful and motivating for them.

I’ll come back to recap at the end of the semester, but for now, I think I like my approach to contract grading. However, I can also see how in other settings and for different courses, my approach could backfire. In many ways, though we might like to shed the expectations of the institutions of which we are part and parcel, doing so is futile. Would I love to teach a class for which I never had to give a single grade? Definitely, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

And one last thing that’s been gnawing at me lately — I have begun to wonder whether or not it’s entirely fair for us to expect our students to be okay with not receiving grades. They are, after all, seeking their educations at institutions with high expectations, and the expectations of their future employers and graduate schools are that they do well in their classes. The way they’ve come to understand what it means to “do well” is through the evaluations — which include grades — that they receive on their work. As the semester has worn on, I have therefore undergone something of a crisis of conscience. I want my students to be compositionists who care about their work because it’s theirs, because they are writers who write for audiences and purposes of their choosing, who seek to make a difference in their world through the things they make and the causes to which they contribute. But my students are also students, and they crave concrete feedback and evaluation from me, their teacher. Academia has “concretized” feedback, and teacher/student roles, by creating grades. Unfortunate, perhaps. Biased, incredibly. But the rule of academia, nonetheless. Who am I to challenge it, even in my smallest of ways? And how fair is it for me to do so with these students?

New Link: The Revision Project!

Check out the new link in the right-hand navigation bar to my latest project!

I have been working, last semester and this summer, on a project with a few of my colleagues here at the University. We created a website that we have entitled The Revision Project. We interviewed undergraduates here at UM and asked them to talk about their revision processes — the site features their thoughts, along with some teacher resources (these are still under construction, but a few are there!). We’re still working on the site, but since we’re showing it to the EDWP instructors today in colloquium, I figured what better day to tell others, too?!

We hope people will find it a useful resource in their composition classrooms! 🙂 Check it out and tell us your thoughts!