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Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Reasons Why

Recently my travels have brought me to Scranton, PA. Ian and I work with a group of committed educators on transforming their curriculum by including digital texts and tools.

The teachers a part of a much larger grant funded by the McGowan Foundation and hosted by Marywood University. The researchers we work with designed the grant to broaden the horizon of students in the Scranton area.

Scranton is like many post-industrial American cities. You know, places that have a storied past yet imbued an an ambiance of fallen Grace. Scranton sits in the middle of coal and steel country in Pennsylvania. The problem, of course, the industries that made this city great have vanished into the annals of progress.

The people, however, remain. This has created an educational challenge for teachers. The jobs simply no longer exist in vast numbers. Yet the people  remain.

As in do not leave. Not for college. Not for career. Their roots are strong.

This of course is not necessarily a bad thing. I am drawn to towns where the same families have sat in the same booths at their local diner for generations. Yet the local youth have not sought out new opportunities. That is the goal of the grant: to encourage a post secondary education.

Our job is to work with a dedicated group of middle school teachers to ensure that the literary experiences students get reflect the literary expericenes of their lives and the demands of the work place.

The Re-Occurring Question

Ian and I conduct workshops all over the country.We always get the same question. Scranton was no different. A teacher, who wanted to use many of the lessons we shared, asked, "Why should we do this if we know it isn't covered on the test?" She wanted tips to help quell the outcry of critics.

That is when I went to and did two searches on their website. The first was for the word digital:

The next phrase was social media:

Each search literally had 1,000 of results. This grant is about jobs. This grant is designed to ensure that opportunities for students to excel still exist because of their education. This grant is about the ability American economy to transform.

If we want an economic future  for our students (one of many goals for educators) we must continuously redefine by what we mean as literate. That is why I have developed three responses to the Re-Occurring Question.

The Reasons Why:
1. The current tests no long measure what it means to be literate
2. Digital texts and tools make it easier to take advantage of better teaching practices
3. Is what we are doing really working?

Lack of 21st Century Validity

Digital literacy, 21st century literacies, New Literacies. I do itch for the day when we no longer need this false dichotomy of page and pixel. I do wish for a time when the literate practices of today's youth are recognized and celebrated.

Yet as long as we get the question about raising test scores educators must draw a distinction between the literacy practices assessed by our state tests and those that are required to fill one of the 1,000 of jobs available to those steeped in the digital life.

Many of activities that we encourage participants to use with their students will never automatically raise test scores. The tests, simply no longer (if they ever did) ask the right question.

Take writing for example. If your state test looks at students' ability to state an argument  and defend their claims that in no way assesses students' ability to present claims and details in a variey of modes or to make design decision that can influence an audience.

Tracking the Digital Footprint

My second response to "The Question" is to highlight the ease digital texts and tools can bring to the process of assessing and tracking student progress.

I call it the end of "milk crate grading" In fact our dedicated cafeteria workers can rest easy and no longer have to guard their milk crates from marauding teachers who raid their wares in the middle of the night. 

Teachers no longer have to trek home with hundreds of binders and journals to monitor student reflections and writings. In fact they can quickly look across long periods of time to look for growth.

As another example think of comprehension strategy instruction. Teachers, and rightfully so, often use literature circles or reciprocal teaching to allow students to model and practice what good readers do. Yet because a teacher may only be able to observe one group at a time many literature circles devolve into five children doing five different worksheets ( I mean roles) alone.

If these pedagogical practices were augmented online a teacher would be able to monitor many more groups both synchronously and asynchronously.
What we are Doing isn't Working

A Nation at Risk was published in 1984. This aligns with birth and growth of the personal home computer. Since then schools across America have tried to raise scores, combat the opportunity gap, and increase literacy levels.

Yet not much has changed. Still more and more calendar days are given to reviewing material on the state assessments. More and more intellectaul endeavors (music and art) face the budgetary ax.

And district after district look to technology to simply improve test scores. Schools utilize technology to train not transform. Expecting score to go up as students are plopped in front of screens in the hope that they may raise their lexile scores a few points is ineffective.

So why do we keep doing that which is not working? I am not sure. What I do know is that if the focus remains on outdated assessments and inefficient pedagogy we may never discover what truly works. Consequentially our students may never be prepared to participate in a truly global and digital society.

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