New Site

Everyone I have moved my blog over to I am in the process of porting old posts and building the pages. Please stop in and say hello.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I always feel so revitalized when I get back from NCTE. It is great to be around a group of teachers who truly get the paradigm shifts involved in new literacies.

I was struck by a question from an audience member during our presentation on supporting striving writers through non-traditional narratives. He asked if our work in digital narratives supported traditional writing.

I went through the normal caveats (well most measures of writing our single item assessments, what exactly is good writing, etc). I then concluded by saying instruction in digital writing has to improve traditional tools for communication but simply providing writing instruction using paper-based tools ca not improve important new compositional skills.

You see I am a true believer that real meaning is found in the negative space and not copy. Unfortunately most writing instruction makes learning about meaning making a negative space instead of learning to make meaning with negative space.

I came to this conclusion rather serendipitously. It was actually at my first NCTE conference in NYC. I was sharing a room with Doug Hartman, whose command of literacy theory always blows me away. We were looking to kill a few hours and shield ourselves from a blustery October wind. I read that the local school of design (not sure which one) was hosting a museum exhibit to honor Steven Heller, a man who has touched everyone of our lives with his art.

I realized before new literacies were on the radar those in the field of graphic arts had come to many of the same conclusion literacy theorists are still lumbering towards. I picked up his book Design Literacy. Heller writes:

True design literacy requires a practical and theoretical understanding of how design is made and how it functions as a marketplace tool as well as a cultural signpost, which takes years of learning and experience to acquire.

I came to realize exactly what the New London Grup was going for in terms of design and (re)design. We had to recognize that digital writing in terms of making meaning on the world is a process. We also have to stress the importance of design in digital composition.

That's why I view Heller's book as a must own for all ELA educators. It is not a how-to. It doesn't go over different design no-no's. Instead it is a collection of essays on important works of graphic art that have had an impact on history. Its a great read in the classroom or the porcelain library.

It is time to teach students about negative space and instead of making writing a negative space for learning.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My Research Path and New Literacies: Following Digital Footprints

The Wikipedia article for New Literacies casts research into two separate, and often incompatible, camps of thought. I would tend to disagree. Different lines of inquiry while rooted in varying traditions, are not as dichotomous in nature such as the debates of Locke and Hobbs. Nor are they as different as humanistic traditions that grew from Kantian empiricism versus schools of Critical Theory that emerged from Heidegger and Hegel.

I tend to view “the different camps” as combined efforts in an “open-source approach to theory development” (Leu, O’Bryne, Zawilinski, McVerry, and Everett-Cacopardo, p. 265) as we try to “account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multi-media technologies” (The New London Group, 1996, p. 11).

Yes, the questions asked and thus, the research methods chosen are influenced by philosophical differences in views of learning, but general agreement exists that technology is reshaping the “stuff” and “space” of learning (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003). What questions we ask simply depend on the spaces and stuff we study.

At the lab we study the digital literacy practices that are favored in both schools and the workplace. Thus an emphasis is placed on the teaching and measuring of more discrete skills. While these are connected, for better or worse, to “specific social, cultural, institutional, and political practices” (Gee, 1999, p. 356) I feel being able to locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information is central to participation in a global economy.

Studying this “stuff” of learning leads us to methods that involve positivist methods of assessment models and verbal protocol analysis (Afflerbach, 1995). This does not mean other methods or questions are not as important. For example, in studying the contexts that support learning of new literacies of online reading comprehension a participant-observer ethnography maybe the only option.

Other work in the broader field of New Literacies research, which often takes a more participatory view of learning (Gee, 1999, Greeno,1989), study different “stuff” and “spaces” for learning. These theories look to assess not discrete skills but involvement in “affinity spaces” (Gee, 2004) by examining both participation and proficiency through ethnographies (Black , 2008) or through design based measures (Hickey,Honeyford, Clinton, & McWilliams, 2010).

I, however, do not agree that positivist methods cannot be used to investigate learning through participation. Socio-cultural views (Smagorisnky, 1999) and cultural-historical (Cole, 1989) views of literacyshare common roots in Vygotsky (1978) (similar to constructivist learning theories). If learning and language development are rooted in social practices through mediated tool use, can’t this tool use be counted? The idea that we can’t build our knowledge base by counting things just seems silly.

I also agree that positivist methods of measuring learning do not capture the entire picture of the mediating affects that culture has on learning and development. Instead I would argue, using Wittgenstien’s (1980) metaphor of learning as an “immense landscape,” that measures of observable skill and strategy use are like samples on flora and fauna. Its not the entire landscape but this information sure helps put the picture in focus.

This is why I am drawn to the concept of open-source theory development. This is why I ask questions that require me to draw on both cognitive and learning as doing models of learning.

Most importantly however, wherever you stand both constructivist and situated visions of learning seem to promote the same type of inquiry based collaborative pedagogy. The theories may have different methods for measuring and observing but as educators we all want to have kids leave their digital footprints as they transverse the “immense landscape” of learning.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Teaching Online Reading Comprehension using the World Cup

As I sat and watched the USA robbed of their victory I realized the World Cup can be a powerful teaching tool. Students, in many of the interviews I conducted, commented that they love using the Internet in the classroom becuase they can learn about "stuff happening now, while our textbooks are filled with old stuff."

During the match I wondered how the groups are determined. So I Googled it...then it hit me. The World Cup is a perfect venue for teaching online reading comprehension. There are international perspectives, thousands of websites, and plenty of motivation around soccer...I mean Football.


Give or have the students develop some questions. Determine which are more restricted or unrestricted.

In other words how open are the questions. For example: "How are the World Cup groups determined?" is a very restricted question. The answer is concrete.On the other hand, "Should there be video review of goals?" is more open ended and open to interpretation.


Locating is an easy skill to teach but hard to master. I would take a restricted and unrestricted question from the class and Google it. Then print out the search results and analyze the results with the students.

I also think the classic Internet scavenger hunt is unapproachable in its ability to build searching skills. As a teacher, though, why do all the work? Put students in groups, create a Google Doc, and have each group create a World Cup scavenger hunt.


As my readers know (all two of you) I define critical evaluation as a contextual process of examining, adopting, and changing perspectives in order to judge the relevancy and credibility of a website. There are many opportunities with the World Cup to encourage what Lankshear calls, "developing perspectives on perspectives."

For example it would be interesting to read what different bloggers from opposing countries say about a game. Another idea would be to investigate the question chosen by class and examine the author of each site to determine the level of expertise.
You could also look at these websites and identify markers of reliability that the authors use.

You could also give students a list of four websites and have them consider how perspectives influence the way authors shape information.Julie Coiro, who I differ to all matters of critical evaluation, developed a set of questions that works well with this activity:

Understanding Perspectives

1.Who (individual and/or organization) created this source?
2.What motivated the author to create this source?
3.What techniques does the author use to make you understand the topic in a particular way?

Reading Across Perspectives

4.How does this author’s perspective compare to other sources you have read?
5.Where do YOU sit on the issue of ___________, in relation to the set of perspectives you have read?


Synthesis is probably the hardest of all skills to assess and teach. It happens almost unnoticeably as students interact with other people, discourses, and learning artifacts. Yet it is probably the most critical of all skills as it is important for all learning.

Once the students have investigated the authors and their perspectives have them choose the four best websites on their World Cup question. Then use the following form to scaffold their synthesis:

I adapted from my former colleagues at the New Literacies Research Lab and created a gForm. If you make your own gForm your students information will be loaded to a spreadsheet to allow you to quickly track their growth.


I am one of those folks who thinks their is a clear line between composition and communication. Although Web 2.0 tools are blurring the differences. As a teacher decide if you you want to focus on digital composition or just have students communicate the answer to their original question. There are many numerous tools out there for communication and/or composition. As you choose one make sure to focus on the unique discourses associated with that tool.

In Conclusion, Fire that ref, Go USA.

Friday, April 16, 2010

First (and Maybe) Last Reoccuring Column: Challenges of Assessing Online Reading Comprehension

Many of my twitter followers have been very interested in the work we are doing the New Literacies Research Lab here in Connecticut. Currently we are working on an IES grant to develop valid and reliable measures of online reading comprehension. So I have been asked to document a few of the challenges and obstacles we face.


I am sure by now most of you are familiar with Leu's model of online reading comprehension: Question, Evaluate, Synthesize, and Communicate. Of these skills synthesis has always been the hardest for us to measure. This plays out in both anecdotal evidence and our data. First how do you make evident something that happens in the head (for you cognitive folks) or in the act of doing ( for those more situativley inclined)? Second in all of our factor analytic patterns we have not developed a model that separates synthesis from communication. As we begin our cognitive labs of our items we are determined to get a measure of synthesis.

A Little Background
I figure we can start with Bloom. When in doubt with assessments its a great place to start. Bloom and his crew (1956) placed synthesis among the higher order thinking skills.It had to do with the assembly of knowledge: putting parts into whole. When Krathwol revised the taxonomy his team renamed synthesis create and moved it to the top of the pile.

I like that it where it belongs. Nothing makes me cringe more when teachers equate synthesis to citations. It is an act of creation. You take multiple streams of information and combine them into something new (Thanks NCTE definition of 21st century literacies I really enjoy that phrase. For us this has been especially hard to capture in a comprehension assessment.

I recently sat in our Scientific Advisory Board meeting and got to listen in as Spiro, Pearson, Kirtsch, and Klienman had a lively debate on synthesis. They all agreed it wasn't simply finding detail A and detail B to make summary statement AB. That was way too old Bloom. The SAB wanted synthesis to look more like A says this B says this so therefore the answer is C.

Thus the act of creation. Of course what isn't accounted for in this model is prior knowledge and unique experiences people brind to knowledge assesmbly. Rand Spiro kept reminding us of this point. So many times new knoweldge comes from such non-linear paths. What we know is often out of happenstance. Once again how do you measure this in an assessment of online reading comprehension.

Preliminary Results
In our first round of cognitive labs we immediately noticed the difficulty of measuring synthesis. We started with one screen in surveymonkey that had students take notes on all the websites they found and then combine them into one summary sentence. Kids hated it. They wanted to take notes as they searched for info or judged websites.

So we encouraged notetaking throughout the task and just made synthesis a final statement. The problem this time was brevity. Their summary statements were short, but their final communication showed evidence of them integrating many details they read. Also if we scored synthesis in the final communication some students who could combine ideas, and make them their own ,might lost points for not being able to use a blog, wiki, email or discussion board (our communication tools). Also what about prior knowledge? Should students not get a scorepoint for using what they already knew? So we needed to change the model again.

Our Latest Iteration

The scientific advisory board also suggested we needed to push the social aspect of our assessment and make it an authentic web experience (I would argue taking notes and using that information is authentic, but that's for another time). So we tried to accomplish two things at once: increase authentic task and embed synthesis. In our next round of cognitive labs we are trying three new ideas: a testlet embedded in instant message, a testlet that uses both surveymonkey but uses instant message for synthesis, and then a third version with your standard Word Document for taking notes. It will br interesting to see how these three versions play out.

Future Iterations
I know many of you are suggesting that instant messages is so 2000 and late.I guess that is the nature of the beast we are trying to study. The instant message interface is just a way to simulate a two way communication embedded within our assessments. We have a talented group of programmers working on a response capture object. The latest idea is to make the assessment look like a social network. I am excited about this idea. I do worry that in chasing temporal and chique validity we may threaten actual validity. Have you ever used Facebook to solve a common problem or investigate an issue? I would still argue that discussion boards (for groups) or popular editorial blogs are where the debate around issues is centered. I guess there are specific fan pages out there that could serve as launching pads. It will be a wonderful line of investigation. If we go this route there will be wonderful opportunities to capture synthesis, even if it is still an incomplete model.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Online Content Creation: Digital Writing and Digital Storytelling

I am excited by all of the interest in digital storytelling. Many wonderful colleagues are pushing the field forward. I finished Troy Hicks's book The Digital Writing Workshop and just ordered Dana Wilber's book Iwrite. These recent efforts are meeting the needs of teachers who all want to use multimodal composition to meet the needs of digital learners. These are exciting times.

I am a little worried, however, that we also need a pedagogy for teaching digital expository and persuasive texts to join such a strong emphasis on narrative storytelling.

Digital Texts

In almost every field students will need to create digital texts to inform and persuade. I recently read that IBM uses thousands of wikis for technical guides. Journalism is quickly shifting to online environments. Finally entreprenuers have to build a web presence using social media tools.

At the same time, however, I see very few schools preparing students for a world where they have to communicate information using digital tools. My hypothesis is simple. You can teach students traditional writing skills in online environments, but you can not teach digital writing skills in pen and paper environments.

During our Internet Reciprocal Teaching lesson many of our lessons were embedded in the persuasive writing curriculum (CT is one of the few states that actually cares about writing on state assessments, we came across many of the differences between offline and online reading. Our students were working on both their critical evaluation skills and persuasive techniques. We started with Mumia Abul-Jamal, a Philadelphia man whop has been convicted of murder. Some contest this claim. We started with the Wikipedia article and other expository texts. We looked at the text structure and design options. Next we looked at websites from both perspectives-guilty and not guilty. The students quickly noted the design issues such as image, font, and color the authors made.

We repeated the same lessons usings zoo's. The students had to decide if zoos were cool or cruel. You would be amazed at how fast a picture of a sad monkey can persuade a student. They had to learn to read the images and understand design choice. There is no way these skills can be taught with paper and pencil!

Classroom Ideas
Having students research an issue and look for articles from a variety of perspectives is an importatn start. I wish we continued and had students use different writing tools such as websites, wikis, and blogs to create persuasive texts. The focus of the study, however, was on comprehension and not composition.

There are classroom ideas teachers can use. One of the most exciting ideas has turned into Ian's dissertation study. He is having students create hoax websites (think the fake product lessons we have done for decades). First the students look at webites and develop a list of markers of reliability. Then using Iweb the students create their own websites with different levels of sincerity.

Another easy lesson, similar to our Mumia Abul-Jamal lesson, is to have students choose an issue and create a website to persuade. The final phase III lessons we did were similar to this approach. We had students choose an issue to make the world a better place. Sure many students focused on dress code and bad school lunches, but others addressed issues such as dating violence, drugs, and crime. The students had to create a website or online presentation on the topic. We began by storyboarding the websites and focusing on design issues. Only then did we actually begin to write copy.

Will it work?
Is my hypothesis correct? Does instruction in digital writing improve measures in offline writing? There is no evidence out there and it is a line of inquiry that interests me. Connecticut would be a unique testing ground. Persuasive writing eighth grade could be used as dependent variables in an ANCOVA model with 7th grade scores as a covariate. CAPT scores in tenth grade could be used for group differences. Of course I would have to make a measure of argumentative web design.

An important element to teaching critical stances necessary for deep comprehension is to have students develop “perspectives on perspectives” (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993 p. 33). One method to developing critical literacy online is to have students learn about the design of websites (Burbules, 1995). Having students select materials for a page, linking to websites, and using the affordances of web design to formulate arguments may teach both argumentative writing and online reading comprehension. The more someone knows how credible arguments are designed the more they are aware when it is done and when it could be done (Burbules, 1995).

As stated I would hypothesize that instruction in traditional argumentative writing (Fulkerson, 1996) would not lead to an increase on scores of a measure of argumentative web design or online reading comprehension, but instruction in argumentative web design may increase scores on measures of both online reading comprehension and measures of argumentative writing.


I do not want to downplay the importance of narrative writing as we discuss digital storytelling. I firmly believe that creative writing is key to improving technical, expository, and persuasive writing. In fact my favorite educational authors blend their genres. That said I am worried that a strong research agenda in digital writing is not developing as quickly as the research surronding digital storytelling.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Draft of Theoretical Perspective

Since so many of you helped me bounce around ideas as I was studying Vygotsky and the related literature I thought I would post a draft of my theoretical perspective for my dissertation proposal. Please feel free to comment or offer any feedback.

The study is framed using a cultural-historical lens towards and learning (Daniels, 2007; Vygotsky,1978) and meaning (Vygotsky, 1987; Wertsch, 2000) Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000) identified the following four principles in Vygotskian definitions of learning: 1:) learning is mediated between a learner, other people, and cultural artifacts and then appropriated by the learner; 2:)learning involves mentoring and scaffolding; 3) historically and culturally constructed tools such as language mediate learning; and 4:) the capacity for learning is connected to the context of learning.

These principles of learning are central to studies in online reading comprehension. First the advent of the Internet created access to unlimited people and cultural artifacts; while simultaneously it redefined opportunities for mentoring no longer limited by physical space (Leander & Knobel, 2003). Second the rise of the Internet has lead to an explosion in tools and contexts that mediate learning. Vygotsky noted that higher forms of thinking occur through a process of mediation as the participant actively modifies the stimulus response while responding to the stimulus (Cole & Scribner, 1978). As learners read online they can make almost limitless modifications to their text (Hartman, chapter) through a process of self directed text construction (Coiro & Dobler, 2007). These new tools that mediate learning have fundamentally shifted how we make meaning from texts.

Definitions of meaning from a Vygotsky perspective are less concrete (Mescheryakov, 2000). On one hand Wertsch, (2007) suggests that a strong rational legacy runs through Vygotsky ideas of meaning. Vygotsky, according to Wertsch (2000) defines meaning as occurring when socially and culturally developed signs identify objects. Concepts are then formed through meditational relationships with objects as signs can identify groups of objects. On the other hand Wertsch (2000) also notes that Vygotsky’s definitions of knowing, as consisting of two oppositional but related forces of meaning and sense, reflects a long standing tension in philosophy between enlightenment and rational ideas.

This tension between rational and expressive epistemologies is just as present in current literacy research. Socio-cultural (Smagorisnky, 2004) approaches draw on a more romantic view of meaning making while cognitive approaches (Kinstch & Kinstch, 2005) draw on a more rational lens. At the same time studies with digital literacies have seemed to accept the ontological differences in this long-standing philosophical debate. Tierney (2008) notes that meaning making with digital texts requires both agency and artistry. Leu et. al (2004) suggest that online reading comprehension requires not only skills and strategies but also specific dispositions. Finally Sprio and Deschyrver (in press) suggest “advanced Web explorations” and an “opening mindset.” are essential to learn online. In essence, with reading online being so complex researchers have drawn on multiple realities (Reinking & Labbo, 1997) to study literacy and technology.

Under the premise that meditational tools and social practices have shifted exponentially and conflicting philosophical viewpoints enrich research this study accepts the concept of multiple realities as a central theoretical viewpoint. A multiple realities perspective “confronts… a common and unfortunate tendency to treat technology in relation to literacy as a monolithic, unidimensional topic and a corresponding tendency to oversimplify its use… in literacy instruction” (Labbo & Reinking, 1997, p. 479). Accordingly this study, from a cultural-historical perspective embraces both the theory of new literacies of online reading comprehension (Leu, Zawilinski, Castek, Banerjee, Housand, Liu et al., 2007) and cognitive flexibility theory (Spiro, 2004).

The theory of new literacies of online reading comprehension is a specific line of study in the much broader field of New Literacies research (Leu, O’Byrne, Zawilinski, McVerry, & Everett-Cocapardo, 2009). This perspective defines online reading comprehension as a process, which includes:
“…the skills, strategies, and dispositions necessary to successfully use and adapt to the rapidly changing information and communication technologies and contexts that continuously emerge in our world and influence all areas of our personal and professional lives. These new literacies allow us to use the Internet and other ICT to identify important questions, locate information, critically evaluate the usefulness of that information, synthesize information to answer those questions, and then communicate the answers to others.” (Leu, Kinzer, et al., 2004, p.1570)

Cognitive Flexibility Theory (Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson, & Coulson, 1991; Spiro, 2004) also informed this study. This theory suggests that the Internet, as an ill structured context, requires readers to flexibly apply prior knowledge to novel reading situations that constantly change. Spiro (2004) argues that traditional strategies taught to read offline texts may actually hamper the reading of online texts.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fiction and the Internet: Connecting Curriculum

Educators and researches have easily adapted fiction to teach online reading comprehension to students at all grade levels. Classroom literacy instruction often focuses around works of fiction and this may allow narrative texts to be an easy road for both the teacher and student to travel when delivering lessons in online reading comprehension. Educators can use interactive read-alouds and multimedia stories, plot analysis and video games, and collaborative writing and wikis to teach narrative fiction content.

Online Fiction and the Multimedia Learning Center

Maria De Jong and Adriana Bus (2004) used electronic books in kindergarten to introduce students to the features of hypertext. They found that students spent similar times listening to oral stories in electronic books as they did listening to adult read alouds. De Jong and Bus also found that the animations did not distract students from comprehending the meaning in the text. The students also followed e-books in a linear fashion while using hypertext features. In fact students did not fully explore features until second readings. This may mean students used animated features to develop comprehension beyond the oral text or used animations to support deficiencies in comprehension from the first reading.

Furthermore, Castek, Bevals-Mangleson, and Goldstone (2006) suggested using fiction to develop the dispositions students need for online reading comprehension. They suggested five activities using narrative content classroom teachers are familiar with: online read-alouds, interactive read-alongs, online story boards, and online book clubs. Students engaged in these activities will build offline reading comprehension but they will also be afforded the opportunity to explore the changing nature of literacy.

Learning centers play an important role in establishing active learning in early elementary education (Hohmann & Weikart, 1995) and teachers can create a multimedia book center to teach students the basic navigation of hypertext through interactive read-alouds. Fountas and Pinell (2006) identified six components to successful interactive read-alouds: selection and preperation, opening, reading aloud, discussion and self-evalutation, record of reading, and a written or artistic response. Each of these still applies to multimedia books, but they must evolve with hypertext.

First, there are many free and great resources online for teachers to select and prepare. For example, Storyplace, located at The site has interactive multimedia stories leveled by student grade. The stories for preschool include text, sounds , and animations. Interactive sing-alongs are built into the story. The elementary stories give the audience more control of the tale by naming the characters and choosing the “hero” of the story. Starfall, located at, has a wealth of activities for any level of early reader. The instructor should assist students in choosing multimedia books at the child’s independent reading level.

Second, while the software will take on many of the instructor’s role during the opening and reading aloud of the text the teacher still needs to define the goals of the center. The opening of an interactive read aloud sets teachers expectations and defines the students’ role, and if teachers are going to use multimedia book learning center these roles should be defined by the students. Furthermore the instructor should reinforce these roles before and during the reading.

Third, the discussion and evaluation of the text during a multimedia interactive read aloud should still focus on traditional text evaluation such as plot and character analysis. Students should make connections to other text they read. Learners , however, should also evaluate the hypertext features if they are going to build the navigation skills. Teachers should ask students about the animations an author included, how easy it was to navigate, and about any sounds or videos included in the story.

Finally, the record of reading and the artistic expression should also incorporate elements of online reading comprehension into the multimedia book center. The teacher should post links on her classroom website to any online narrative read by the class and include a summary of the story by the students. This summary could be written in higher grades or an audio recording in lower grades. This will not only share progress with parents, but it will build online classroom libraries outside of school. There is nothing more rewarding then encouraging students to read outside of classroom walls! Also the artistic expressions can be shared online. After reading a story students could use a simple paint program to draw their favorite picture or teachers could scan pictures drawn by hand. These images could then be uploaded to a classroom website and shared with the world.

Digital Fiction and Online Reading Comprehension

The combination of narrative elements such as character backstories, plots and symbols combined with play features such as fantasy and escapism make videogames an intriguing literary text (Squire, 2008). Video games are quickly becoming the new narrative and as the technology evolves these interactive stories become more autonomous with increasingly altering plots. For example millions of people interact in online communities such as World or Warcraft in a world defined by the actions of a player. Furthermore in games such as Jedi Knights of the Old Republic the plot of the storyline changes based on the decisions of the main character. Educators can expand on the multimedia book center and use the new narrative of videogames in the classroom for plot and character analysis.

Many simulations such as Oregon Trail, where students must successfully migrate West and SimCity, where students must manage a city provide opportunities to extend learning beyond the new narratives of video games. Video games provide opportunities to make connections using ICT’s and afford students the opportunity to think and reflect critically on the decisions they make during the narrative.

For example students can use blogs or other ICT’s to record their travels through the West or their stint as Mayor of SimCity. First students could be put into small groups and guide their family through the perils of western migration or work together to build their city. Then at the end of the lesson students could complete a blog detailing what decisions they made. For example, in SimCity students could blog about the tax rate they set, and to make the lesson more challenging teachers could have students write from the voice of a mayor responding to citizen complaints. In the Oregon Trail students could blog about the places they visit during their journey and the condition of the family, and once again this activity can become more challenging by assigning students specific family members. Students would then have to write from that point of view.

Each of these blogging activities can be expanded to include lessons to build online reading comprehension. Teachers could ask students playing the narrative of Oregon Trail to search for information on the Internet about families who traveled the trail. Students could then compare their families simulated adventure with that of an historical account writing a compare and contrast essay or a blog posting. Students could also read about the trials Native Americans faced during Western expansion and compare those historic accounts with the depiction of Native Americans in the video game for a critical literacy lesson. In SimCity students could research natural disasters cities faced and compare their outcome with the simulation. Students could also search the Internet for information about historical challenges actual cities faced such as pollution, traffic, and housing cost and compare those challenges with the game. These lessons not only require students to reflect and compare their experience in the simulation with historical accounts, but they will also require students to search, locate, evaluate, and communicate online information.

Collaborative Fiction and Online Reading Comprehension

Theresa Dobson (2006) explored the use of e-literature with older students. She took the opening paragraphs to Munro’s Love of a Good Women and then had students create their own hypertext stories using wikis, which are websites, which that allow multiple authors to edit. She found that none of the students’ stories progressed in a linear fashion. Using the traditional content of fiction, Dobson suggested that hypertext writing allowed students to adapt their imaginations to a more creative stance, and forced students to focus on more complicated narrative elements other than plot. She posited that this prepared students to comprehend the more complicated and complex narratives that are in print today. In other words, having students engage in an “activity” that highlighted the nonlinear language of hypertext, students developed the ability to further comprehend offline text.

In the classroom teachers can use a similar approach to teach hypertext fiction and as a pre-reading activity for a novel read in class. First teachers should sign up for one of the many free educational wikis such as Next place students into groups and set up a page for each group. Then read a passage at the beginning of a novel read in class, and post this passage to each page of the wiki. Ask students to expand on the passage by writing a short story predicting what the tale will be about. Students should be encouraged to use hyperlinks to words or background knowledge they feel the audience will need. For example if students are reading Armstrong’s Sounder they might want to have a link that brings the reader to websites about coonhunting. Other students may even want to expand on the nonlinear version of hypertext fiction and have hyperlinks that allow the audience to control the plot.

Teachers can also use collaborative writing to prepare students to write hypertext. For example students could be broken into groups and could use an online word processor such as Google Docs and Spreadsheets to write a story. Students could use these features to understand authorship of hypertext. First have students brainstorm the story elements such as characters, plot, and setting. Next have students create an online document using Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Then the students can begin to write the story. The authors could get feedback and critique from each other using instant messaging or email. Teachers could track progess of students by looking at the documents history to see who is doing what editing.

Using fictional content such as multimedia books and narrative games combined with instructional routines such as learning centers and collaborative writing may build both offline and online reading comprehension.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Literacy Crossroads

Metaphors take the mind on a journey. They map out understandings by comparing the known to the unknown through an exploration of the senses. In many ways, the process of meaning making follows this format of introspection. As educators and researchers we often embark on this journey of meaning making by examining literacy and learning metaphorically. As the Internet becomes more integral to daily life literacy educators find themselves at a crossroad, and teachers must address the meeting of technology and literacy (Selfe, 1999) by metaphorically shining a light on the many paths to come.

Today, we still look to the metaphors of roads and journeys to luminate our lack of knowledge about literacy and learning. Nowhere is this truer than at the intersection of technology and literacy. Long before the Internet became known metaphorically as the information superhighway, Kozma (1994) and Clark (1994) debated the role of technology and learning with the metaphor of a truck traveling as a simple delivery system of knowledge. This metaphor, today, is invalid because the Internet, as a text, empowers the learner. The Internet’s complexities and challenges put our students at the crossroads of learning everyday. They not only take knowledge from the truck, but students drive the truck, and choose their path, while simultaneously having the option to rewrite the maps for other to use. All of this is done at lightning speed. For successful cartographers and navigators the Internet enables, what Jewish traditions long ago labeled, “Kefitzat ha-Derach,” or a jumping of the roads (Encycolpedia Mythica, 2007). Unfortunately for other students who do not have the skills, strategies, and dispositions to read the Internet they can be lost (Henry, 2007) at the crossroads.

The Internet, and other Internet Communication Technologies, have placed literacy at a crossroad not seen since Gutenberg invented the printing press (Leu, Kinzer, Corio & Cammack, 2004) and almost every aspect of life, learning, and literacy has felt the pervasive affects as the amount of information and images explodes. Educators, much like Trivia, and her Greek cousin goddess of the crossroads, Hekate (Encyclopedia Mythica, 2007) must oversee three roads of change constantly being paved by the Internet. Our roads as educators like our mythological predecessors still link the past, the present, and the future, but we must also understand how the Internet affects curricular, instructional, and assessment practices in the literacy classroom.
Literacy at the Crossroads

Literacy, has always stood at the crossroad, with a fixed gaze set on the past, the present, and the future. In fact reading and writing has always been about change, and today this shift occurs as words leap from the page to screen. Yes, humanity has come to this crossroad before…when text shifted from the scroll to the page. However, it took over a century to adopt the book, and the shift to the Internet has occurred in only a decade (Hartman, 2007). Our students echo this quick metamorphosis as they live in a world where the Internet has become the dominant text, and as learners they must adapt by developing new skills for reading and writing.
Internet as a Text

Recent reports (National Endowment of the Arts, 2007) sound alarm bells about the state of reading, but these reports ignore the reality that the Internet has become the dominant text. First of all, the Internet, with over 1.2 billion users currently online (Internet World Stats, 2007) has quickly become the most read text of today’s youth. Second students today spend an average of 48 minutes a week reading online compared to 43 minutes a week reading offline (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005). Furthermore 70% of students turn to the Internet as their primary source of information (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2001). All of these signs point to a road where students will need new literacy skills to comprehend complex and always changing texts of the Internet .
Adaptations to Reading and Writing

Many researchers have begun to add street signs at the crossroads of literacy and the Internet. These efforts are often framed by a new literacies perspective (New London Group, 1996), which recognizes that multitudes of emerging and constantly evolving texts require multiliteracies. The complexity of these changes has brought together a confluence of researchers from literacy, anthropology, sociology, and linguistics (Tierney, 2009) and therefore the concept of new literacies acts as an umbrella that encompasses many of these diverse perspectives. These explorations in new literacies mostly unite under four principles: (a) technologies require new skills, strategies, dispositions, and social practices; (b) citizenship in a global community require new literacies; (c) new literacies evolve with their defining technologies; and (d) researchers and educators must examine new literacies from multiple points of view (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear & Leu, in press).

Reading researches, under this umbrella, have examined the crossroad of the Internet and literacy by developing a new literacies of online reading comprehension perspective (Leu et al., 2004). This lens defines online reading comprehension as an inquiry process that requires: “skills, strategies, and dispositions necessary to … use the Internet and other ICT’s to identify important questions, locate information, analyze the usefulness of that information, synthesize information to answer those questions, and then communicate the answers to others” (Leu, 2006p. 1).
The model of online reading comprehension differs from traditional reading comprehension because students must approach reading differently as they and not the author construct the text (Eagleton & Dobler, 2007). First searching for information based on reading that begins with a questions is a fundamentally different reading task (Dreher & Guthrie, 1990; Taboado & Guthrie, 2006 ) and students must continuously ask questions as they construct the texts they read online. This, of course, is further compounded when students who can not effectively search for information become bottlenecked (Henry, 2006), and unable to comprehend online texts. Second the locating of information within a text requires new navigational skills (Lawless and Schraeder, in press;). Third reading online requires greater evaluation, and very few students (Coiro, 2003) engage in this activity. Fourth synthesizing information from a variety of online genres with varying validity becomes increasingly complicated with online texts (Hartman, 2007). Finally communicating online requires young authors to constantly shift on a continuum of consumer and producer (author, 2007) while writing increasingly collaborative texts (Zaliwinski, 2007).

New Paths for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

An examination of research and a close look at the narratives of our middle school students has revealed that literacy and the Internet have brought us to a crossroad. We are shifting from page to screen at such a rapid pace educators now stand at an intersection and must take different paths when they make curricular, instructional, and assessment decisions.


In order for our students to choose the right paths at the crossroad of the Internet and literacy, school systems need adapt their curriculum. Historically, the educational community viewed the Internet as technology issue from an information science perspective. Students interacted with the Internet in library classes where access, ethics, and evaluation were stressed and not the comprehension and communication of a new literacies perspective (Coiro & Castek, 2005). Furthermore students used technology as tool in computer classes. This model, currently found in most schools is not adequate for teaching online reading comprehension.

The Internet is not an issue of technology, but an issue for literacy classrooms. In order to teach online reading comprehension and communication students will need more than the crucial, but meager minutes allocated to screen time in library classrooms. In fact online reading comprehension needs to become a dominant factor in the language arts curriculum. The Internet, is afterall, the text our students read the most, and the first they turn to for information. Therefore it should be the primary text we teach.

Middle schools should take steps to integrate the Internet under the domain of the language arts frameworks and instruction of online reading comprehension should take place in all content classrooms. First this will require a shift in the type of texts schools purchase and provide to students. Student constructed Internet inquires must become the dominant informational text. Thus it will require a greater investment in one-on-one mobile laptops labs versus traditional textbooks. Second allocation of classroom minutes may have to be reallocated to include a minimum of ninety minutes of language arts instruction to ensure students are afforded the opportunity to build both offline and online reading comprehension and communication skills. Third curriculum writing and unit planning must encourage and hold teachers accountable for the inclusion of online reading comprehension. Finally middle schools may want to move to a model that moves the technology teacher from the lab and into a model of collaborative teaching with literacy teachers. All of these paths will require an examination of teacher development and support for teachers in the field. Educators must understand their own level of online reading comprehension and undertake the same journey students face at the crossroads of the Internet and literacy.


Teachers must also take new paths of instruction to navigate the crossroads of the Internet and technology. Boling, (2005) after completing a study of literacy and technology integration, found that teachers were apprehensive when they view technology as another component to an already crowded curriculum. Teachers can draw on the efforts of other educators and researchers to teach middle school students traditional curriculum and content by integrating technology. Such efforts do not add new components to the curriculum, but access traditional texts while also teaching students to develop multiliteracies through important inquiry learning (Harste, 2004). Two examples of instruction to teach new literacies include poetry and biography.
Poetry makes a perfect partner for instruction in multiliteracies and online reading comprehension. Kuroly (2004) discussed how using poetry and powerpoint can open new paths to learning for technophobe teachers. Tierney and Rogers (2004) detail how students can create videos of their own poetry recitings to understand literacy as a social practice.

I created a lesson to teach students about the transactional nature of literacy and technology by having students create multimedia poetry posters. Students will enjoy these and the many more ideas of educators while creating an online community of poets and also develop critical new literacies skills.
Biographies also lend themselves well for instruction in online reading comprehension.

The Hero Inquiry Project (Eagleton, Guinne & Langlais, 2003) is designed to empower students by having them choose a personal hero and then use the Internet to research the person, and then transform an Internet document to communicate to others about that hero. . According to the authors the, “hero inquiry project enables teachers to meet multiple instructional objectives and literacy standards while also integrating technology” (pg. 34). The Hero inquiry project affords students the opportunity to build online reading comprehension in a collaborative environment.

An instructional shift must also occur that moves responsibility of strategy and skill development to the learner. The New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut and the Internet Reading Reseach Group at Clemson University (TICA team) are developing a model of online reading comprehension instruction based on Palinscar and Brown’s (1984) reciprocal teaching (visit the project homepage at

The study tested a model developed through classroom integration over the last two years. Researches have noted that instruction in online reading comprehension takes a gradual release of responsibility through three phases of instruction: a) teacher led instruction; b) collaborative modeling of strategies; and c) inquiry learning. Instruction in online comprehension also differs from offline comprehension in the fact that students must take a greater responsibility of modeling strategies for more heterogeneous classrooms (Leu et al., in press). This fact, that students may become the most effective teacher in the class is the biggest crossroad educators face with instruction.


Mandated assessments guide much of the research and realities of classroom literacy instruction (Pearson, 2007) and right or wrong, online reading comprehension will never become a focus in the classroom until it is included on national and state assessments. Currently not one state test, mandated under No Child Left Behind, assesses online reading comprehension, and if the United States hopes to remain competitive this must change. After all for the first time the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will include tasks to assess Information and Communication Technologies skills (OECD, 2007) in 2009. Sixty-two countries have recognized the importance of developing ICT skills and if America wants to transition to a global information economy we must also recognize the importance of online reading comprehension.

Efforts must also continue to develop classroom assessment of online reading comprehension. A common method to develop and assess Internet inquiry skills is the development of checklists (Fitzgerald, 1999). Researchers investigating Internet Reciprocal Teaching created checklists to act as exit measurement tools for the aforementioned three phases of IRT (download checklists at Other tools are also being constructed that assess individual performance on outcome measures. Middle school teachers must help formulate and use formative and summative assessments to measure online reading comprehension if they are to understand the challenges students face as they approach the crossroads of the Internet and literacy.


The Internet has caused such a fork in the road that as we approach the crossroad almost every aspect of human life changes. This change is not new to humanity, and educators can look at the intersection of the Internet and literacy as a crossroad: a journey taken by many before into the unknown. This road can be seen historically as a path to knowledge. At the intersection of the Internet and literacy the students and teachers are on a super highway together, and the students are often on the lead car. Travel has accelerated to such a pace that we have to prepare middle school students for online reading comprehension. Middle school teachers need to choose new paths for our curriculum, instruction, and assessment. If the literacy community does not soon address these changes students will not be “jumping the road” on the information superhighway. Instead, youth will be left stranded and singing the words of Robert Johnson, “Yeoo, standin' at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride….Ooo eeee, I tried to flag a ride….Didn't nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Defense of Interactive Whiteboards

In many of the blogs that sprung from the aftermath of following an #edchat discussion on Interactive White Boards these nifty tools have taken quite the beating. Bill Ferriter, the latest blogging brawler, recently took on IWB. In his article in Teacher Magazine Ferriter claimed that IWBs are an "under-informed and irresponsible purchase."I could not disagree more.

Reaching All Learners

I admit this isn't coming from a ludite (pardon the cliche) perspective. I was the first in my school to score an IWB. In fact I wrote a grant and helped our school secure three Smartboards (the Kleenex of IWBs). Yet I still believe, as I do now that IWBs help reach the needs of all learners.

First of all an IWB extended learning beyond my classroom. Each day I would print all of my notes to PDF documents. Then I dolled out a coveted job of weekly webpage editor to a student. He or she would scan handouts and other materials I created and uploaded all of my documents to my classroom webpage. Parents were more than grateful to have these resources. This few steps, made possible because of my IWB, also provided me some protection. When students would complain they lost some activities, or a parent would ask how I was meeting a students 504 plan I could point to my repository of learning.

Discovery and Collaborative Learning

Ferriter also claims that IWB are not an effective tool to reach all learners beacause the reinforce a teacher centric model. I believe that is not an issue with the tool, but with the teacher. Contrary to Ferrier's claims, IWB's can be a powerful tool that promote individual discovery and collaborative learning.

I have seen hundreds of presentations on powerful uses of IWB at local, national, and international conferences. To assume they are nothing more than an expensive projectors ignores this evidence. To illustrate I will share a few examples from my classoom.
Writing Instruction
Early on I found my IWB to be an indispensable tool for collaborative writing instruction. No matter the genre we were modeling the IWB became a significant tool in the class. I would start by working with the class to model specific paragraphs. We would write a good, better, and best example. The students would call out sentences or edits and I would add them in. Then in small groups we would repeat the same process. If we were in the computer lab students would email me their parapgraph, if not they would use pen and paper. Either way I would display the results on the smartboard and my students would have to identify common elements in the , good, better, and best versions.

Creative Drama
I also used my Smartboard for creative drama. The preloaded screenshots included with the Smartboard made wonderful backdrops. This saved invaluable instruction time that was often eaten up as students spent more time on props than content. Some of my most creative students even used the images and backdrops in combination to use electronic puppet shows.

The screenshots provided with the software are invaluable. Science or Social Studies teachers have a field day with the maps. Staying with creative drama, why not have students film forecasts using maps. You could meet your standards, as students demonstrate knowledge of isobars and pressure systems, while recreating a more authentic learning experience than a simple chapter.

Online Reading Comprehension

An Interactive Whiteboard also became central to our Internet Reciprocal Teaching model for teaching online reading comprehension. As we move from Gunther Kress calls the shift from page to screen I believe how we use literacy tools is shifting. An IWB helps to model these new skills, strategies, and dispositions to learners. In our classrooms we would often project student computers on the screen using a management software. We didn't use the programs to spy on students but to higlight experts. When we witnessed a student using a good strategy or they wanted to demonstrate they could go up to the IWB click on their computer and model the strategy to the class.

Granted this was in a 1:1 setting but Interactive Whiteboards can be just as useful in the one computer classroom. Ferriter claims that the lessons he created could have been easily replicated in one of his computer centers, but not every teacher has this option. Many classrooms come equipped with just one machine. An IWB allows teachers to model online reading comprehension strategies with just one machine. You can click on links, and have access to unlimited free content.

Bill Ferriter, has a legitimate concern about the expense of IWB. Yet they are coming down in costs as more competitors develop and market cheaper products. Ferriter claims them to be under evaluated in their use. This may not be the real issue. A quick scan of Google Scholar reveals that some research based evidence is starting to emerge.

Second why are we once again evaluating the tool and not the teacher? Much of the #edchat talk revolved around the need for time and training. Maybe that is not the issue. Maybe teachers do not adapt to new media because they do not have to. It might be a time to include technology integration into teacher evaluations. I understand for many such a Byzantinium approach is too harsh. Understandable...use teacher evaluation as a reward. In my former district we budgeted for three whiteboards a year. Teachers had to submit an application for a competitive grant to be awarded the board.

Finally as the recent Kaiser study pointed out students' life is media driven.If the literacy events in their lives are not static why should their classrooms be? Maybe the question about interactive whiteboards should be not "Can we afford them?" but "Can we afford not to?".

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Current Events and Internet Inquiry

I was amazed at the students response. We were doing interviews after our twenty week Internet Reciprocal Teaching unit and we asked, "Do you prefer laptops over using books?". One of our students simply replied, "Yes, we have to spend all this time learning about old stuff. With the laptops we get to learn new stuff. We get to use what is going on now."

I never thought immediacy of information would have been a motivating factor, but then I thought back to some of our best lessons and they usually involved current events.How a discipline approaches internet inquiry changes based on both content and pedagogical needs. We found the teaching of current events to be a great tool for modeling, practicing, and using online reading comprehension skills. In our class we focused specifically on using specialized search engines and synthesis.

Specialized Search Engines
Google News can be a great tool. Too often when teaching with the internet students get bogged down in the search process. If your lesson is not teaching locating skills you could simply add additional scaffolds through Webquests or you could teach students specific locating skills. One of these skills is the use of specialized search engines. We introduced students to Google News as a means to find information probably written by a somewhat reliable source.

In our lesson we poached from Dick Wolf, and ripped an activity right from the headlines. A few years ago, over the the Winter break, two people were attacked by a tiger at the San Fransisco Zoo. TIGER ATTACKS! A perfect lesson for middle school. We demonstrated to student show to use Google News and then had them read articles about the attack. They had to formulate an argument and decide if the tigers were to blame, the zoos, or the victims.

We all know how current events are usually taught: 5 W's, an H, a summary, and then your own opinion. In the age of the internet how we interact, summarize, and respond to media is different. We do not simply summarize an article and add a thought. Now in blogs, and discussion forums readers use block quotes, find viral videos, and post hyperlinks to summarize an article.

This idea of taking multiple streams of information and making them your own is a difficult skill to teach. Students need multiple strategies to mesh video, websites, and blog discussions. Once again we turned to current events to model these skills and strategies. When we were teaching IRT it was in the midst of the Democratic primary for President. During a televised debate Hillary Clinton accused Barak Obama of plagiarizing a speech by Deval Patrick, an Obama advisor, To teach synthesis across multiple modes we took a screen capture of Youtube (blocked in our school) of the debate, and Patrick's original speech. Then we had students find multiple websites on the issue. Next using graphic organizers, we had students use elements of each source in their response.

Teaching Perspectives
Deborah Tannen, in The Argument Culture railed against the everything is war metaphor. This perspective has gone viral with the Internet. I have been following the posts in response to the Brown-Coakley election on the Boston Globe. They are down right nasty and often cut and pasted from other sources. Viscous at every level..on every side. Part of digital citizenship is formulating a well-written and respectful argument in small bits of language. Central to this ability is understanding diverse perspectives. Current events and internet inquiry provide teacher an opportunity to create opportunities for students to express these types of values.

First using a specialized search engine such as Google News allows students to see a news event from international perspectives. It would be great for students to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not just from history books but from the pages of newspapers from all over the region.

Second current events can provide wonderful models for persuasive writings. With news aggregators you can find multiple perspectives on any given topic. How does the editorial board of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal differ on an issue?

Finally current events and internet inquiry provide students a chance to respond with succinct grace online. We can not simply block any website with interactive features from schools. If we want students studying the 5 w's they better be able to summarize their thoughts and add additional thinking to the WWW.

Monday, January 11, 2010

NetGeneration or iGeneration and the death of email

Is Email Dead
In a recent article, quickly making its rounds across the internet, Brad Stone discusses the emergence of mini-generational gaps when it comes to technology.

I agree in many ways. AOL Instant Messenger launched when I was in college. My peers quickly adapted to the new tool. I, however, was a latecomer to Facebook. It just wasn't around, and once I graduated it was was still a tool for college kids. Nowadays younger and younger kids get involved in social networking.

Stone, summarizing recent reports from the Pew and the Kaiser Family Foundation, highlights the fall of email among the younger iGeneration. I think the major difference between email use of people in their 20's and those younger boils down to one major factor: employment.

It is too early to tweet email's eulogy to the world. Yes, younger students may prefer social networking tools, but email skills will still remain crucial for a 21st century workplace.

In fact, I believe that a dichotomy of formality is emerging between email and other social networking tools. When I was in junior high we were taught two forms of letter writing: the formal and informal letter. One used commas in the greeting and the other a colon. One was personal, and the other succinct. This is becoming true for email and social networks. Email has evolved as a place for formal communication and social networks have become the playground where email once swung.

The workplace will not eliminate email. It provides a secure and storable record of communication, allows for documents to be quickly distributed, and is easily supported by inhouse tech support.

I do worry, however, that as kids turn to social networks rather than email they will not be prepared for the workplace. Therefore educators must teach email skills and include these composition lessons in any writing curriculum

Email Skills

We have all been there, trying to decipher an email from a colleague and wishing for our little Orphan Annie decoding ring.
In fact, like me, many of us are guilty of mixing up discourses and ambigous messages in our email responses. We need to teach students how to email. More importantly, students must be provided authentic opportunities to use email.

Email skills:
-Sending, receiving, and adding attachments-Not much more to be said about that.
-Formatting subject lines-What is major purpose or the email?
-Providing one or two sentence(s) summaries in beginning of email-State your organizational strategy upfront.
-Recognizing discourses for appropriate audiences.
-RBU-Reading Bottom Up. A challenging reading comprehension task that involves students looking for an idea across a conversation.
-Formatting-The easiest to read emails use formatting tools. Long messgaes may provide headings or bullets. Responses to questions may use different fonts or colors.


We live in an era where new literacy tools emerge everyday. Unlike the past, however, these tools coexist, they do not simply supplant each other like the book replacing the scroll. This provides a unique challenge educators. We must prepare a knowledgeable populous that has the flexibility to apply thinking to novel situations. One situation I am sure this iGeneration will face in the future is use of email in the workplace. Before we line up for the funeral procession lets make sure our students can attach the death announcement in an email.