Monday, November 9, 2009

Putting it all together #fail

This fall, I've been teaching a class called 21 skills for 21st century teachers. I'm aware of how cheesy the title is, but there you have it. The teachers who have attended are an amazing bunch! There are teachers of kindergartners and teachers of seniors and everything in between. The age range is from early 20's to mid 60's and you certainly can't tell who is most willing to innovate by checking their birthdates.

This Thursday is our last class, and I've titled it putting it all together. The catch is, I'm not sure I can explain how to do that. I certainly don't have it all together myself! I Twitter, and I learn a ton from my twitter network but I haven't figured out the twitter lists yet. I haven't checked for new twitter followers to follow back in way too long. On some Nings I'm a pretty enthusiastic participant, on others I just lurk and there are more than a few I joined and haven't visited in ages.

There are so many exciting tools that I "sorta" get. I "sorta" Diigo, but I mostly use it for myself rather than collaboratively. Google docs? Yep, sorta. I just learned today that I can create a form and send it out to students without having to embed it in a blog or wiki. Who knew? Not me, but I bet a thousand other people did. Don't even get me started on what I don't know about Google Wave.

I love TED talks but have downloaded far more than I've actually seen. I'd really like to organize a supper club around TED talks. Or at least drinks/apps. My Goodreads page is woefully behind, but I'm up to date on reading my friends' reviews (I think). My RSS was overflowing, but in the upgrade to Windows 7 last month, I opted not to transfer my Flock info over and am slowly rebuilding my RSS in Google Reader. I'm much more selective now about adding a blog to my reader, and while I'm sure I'm missing some great conversations, I'm at peace with it.

Where do I seem to have it together at this particular point in time is podcasts. I've been running a bit more than usual, so I've listened to some podcasts that way, plus I've been listening live (and hanging out in the chat rooms) more as well and learning a ton. It's just what's working for me right now.

As I compiled this list, I've come to realize that this may be what the next 20 years is going to be like. There is no "inbox 0" in my virtual life. It's messy and it's going to stay that way, with ebb and flow between resources depending on what my intellectual needs are and what is going on in the non-virtual part of my life. There is no "all together" in the 21st century, but there is constant growth and learning and that's the best I can do. Learning to live with that ambiguity is possibly the most important of the skills we're all learning.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Collaboration = Good?

I am thinking about collaboration quite a bit lately. There can be such a disconnect between what we ask students to do and what actually happens in the adult world. When do adults work together? Some recent examples I've seen: my husband calls on a potential client with a colleague, writes a rough draft of his analysis alone (but says he needs to make several phone calls along the way). The draft then gets read by everyone else involved and changed (sometimes dramatically). Finally, he meets again with his colleagues to frame an approach.

The teacher of my favorite exercise class told us yesterday that our new routine was one she practiced and learned with two other teachers.

As we write our report cards and prepare for conferences, I meet with the other teachers on my team and we run down the list of students, sharing concerns, examples, etc so that we are all informed. However, we write the drafts of the reports alone, then pass them around for comments and editing.

Life is collaborative, isn't it? Many athletic teams certainly experience this (though not all).

BUT--should writing be collaborative? I'm going to play around with etherpad next week with my students. It looks a bit less cumbersome than creating a whole Google Doc for just a paragraph of shared text. I like the examples I've seen and the ability to have a sidebar conversation during the writing.

At this point though, I'm not sold on writing as a collaborative act. Maybe just every now and then? We'll see.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Does blogging make for better writing?

I'm struggling with this question right now. MS Stewart led me to this article by Stanley Fish in which he says "all courses listed as courses in composition {should} teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else." The discussion in the comments section would probably bore most people, but I was intrigued by the different points of view. I've also been thinking about (and re-watching) the Seth Godin video about blogging I posted on my last entry. The essential question is: is it enough to write, and to write in quantity, or do students need repeated formal instruction in writing?

The obvious answer is "it depends" but I don't really want to cop out like that. I do know that when I worked in publishing, I was astounded at how poorly constructed some of the (eventually published) manuscripts were.

I work with young adolescents, many of whom don't feel like they have anything to say in writing. It takes a long time and a lot of room to convince them to put a piece of themselves down on paper or on the screen in a blog. If they do have something to say, students often feel that their words will be poorly received. Blogging changes this dynamic. Powerfully changes this dynamic, my lament last year notwithstanding.

Where then, does formal instruction fit it? Particularly rigorous formal instruction? I know that my writing is better for having been critiqued. How can we be rigorous and yet supportive? When does our rigor lead to squelching student voices?

I'm not the only one who disagrees with using formulaic writing, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center has a page devoted to helping students break away from the five paragraph essay, with a guiding question "How do I break out of writing five-paragraphs themes?" I do wonder why the authors wrote the section in which they say that high school teachers have good reasons for teaching these essays.

I have no answers to these questions right now. I'm just hoping that it is true that writing more will make my writing better (although Seth Godin would disagree that it is just those 10,000 hours that matter). We'll see.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Happy New Year!

An appropriate title this weekend, and for this time of year. This year, the start of school has brought more than the usual number of to-do lists for me. My children started kindergarten and I went back to work full time. These are both good things, but bring with them little suitcases of emotion responses I wasn't expecting as well as some out and out physical challenges. If you've never taught, you probably don't realize that the first couple of weeks of school is actually physically difficult--the body has to adjust to all that standing, smiling, explaining, and late nights (planning and parent meetings).

That all being said, I'm really excited about some of the changes this year is going to bring. I'm an advisor again; a part of teaching I have truly missed over the last few years. I've helped plan a unit on the nature of the heroic journey. For our intro session, we're going to watch Star Wars (the real first one, now called Episode 4) and then discuss Luke's progress from brat to hero. I'm so excited about this, I can hardly stand it! I hope the students will engage in the movie and then make the transition to thinking about themselves and the journey through adolescence they are experiencing.

We've re-designed our blogs with an install of multi-user Word Press. It looks gorgeous and I'm optimistic that we'll recapture our fervor for blogging that faded last year. The class wiki is up and running too--let's hope that the parents join in our conversation a bit more this year. I welcome any suggestions for the types of wiki pages that encourage parent conversation!

That's all for now--it's going to be a great year! I'm blogging with the students and will be starting to blog more at Ed Social Media, but my goal is still to write here every other week this year. This is still the only spot that feels "away" from my school life for my thoughts. So, I'll close with this quote from Seth Godin on why blogging is good for you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why your school or district needs guidelines for social networking--Before the start of school this fall.

Over coffee and the Sunday New York Times we were still finishing Thursday morning of our beach week my sister asked. “Have you heard that some teachers are friends with their students on Facebook?”

“Um, yes.” I was thinking "surely there’s a punchline coming," but it was a serious question.

My sister had come across an Ethicist column in which the writer was opining concerning the behavior of a teacher who had “friended” students on Facebook and was now seeking advice about what to do after having seen clear evidence of adolescent misbehavior, of the illegal as well as merely irresponsible type.

When she caught a glimpse of my expression before I ducked behind my mug, my sister rolled her eyes.

“Just because you are totally into all this weird tech stuff doesn’t mean the rest of us are. I’m sure there are tons of schools where all this is really new stuff to the teachers.” (I feel compelled to point out that my sister who claims not to be “into” weird tech stuff has an iPhone, a blog, and a Facebook account.)

I wonder if she’s right. It seems to me that anyone who has read a magazine or newspaper (let alone a website) in the last two years is aware of the impact of social networking on not just American but international culture. I hope this describes almost all the teachers in this country! Certainly anyone working with adolescents (the teacher in question teaches eighth graders) should have at least a rudimentary knowledge of sites such as Facebook or MySpace.

Or am I making assumptions?

One aspect of the article that interested me most was the inference that the teacher would be acting alone in determining what to do. The author never suggested that the teacher check with administration about complying with any district or school requirements. Given the recent spate of headlines about teachers being fired for their poor social networking choices (read this or this) or just google the terms “teacher disciplined facebook” and peruse the results.

Shouldn’t we have moved beyond the idea that this is completely new territory by now? I’ve been following a recent discussion on a listserv that leads me to think that we haven’t quite gotten there yet. If school leadership hasn’t at least released some suggested guidelines if not more stringent rules concerning appropriate online contact between students and teachers then there’s no time better than this summer to start.

While the technology is new(ish), the awareness of the need for appropriate interactions and information flow between teachers and students has been around for a long time. I remember discussing what constitutes appropriate subject matter for student writing in graduate school in the last century. The professor was preparing us to set boundaries with students who might choose to write elaborate descriptions of their out-of-school adventures for assignments. Her recommendation was to make it clear to students that there are parts of their lives that, if they share them with a teacher, they need to know the information may need to go further than they intend.

The same applies to social networking sites. Teachers and students both need to protect their privacy for many reasons.

So, what constitutes reasonable guidelines? The good news is that this is not new territory, there are resources available to use as a starting point and then modify to suit your organization’s needs. Appropriately, there is a wiki that is “a collaborative project to generate Social Media Guidelines for school districts.” Steve Taffee the Director of Technology at Director of Technology at Castilleja School has written a thorough description of their policies.

The guidelines are just the beginning though. Faculty and students need a true understanding of security and how to manage the settings of the various social media they use. Who is teaching students about how to manage their online lives? Not all parents are capable of this. So often I hear “oh, my daughter is the one who taught me how to Facebook.” Students may have savvy, but they may not have discernment. Parents and teachers have the discretion, but they are intimidated by the technology. Of the two, I would say discernment is more critical than savvy.

Having guidelines doesn’t mean there won’t be problems. Teachers who confuse, blur or completely ignore the lines they should draw clearly for students have always existed and will continue to turn up from time to time. Those teachers should be subject to Guidelines should exist to prevent as many problems as possible and provide a framework for dealing with issues that do arise.

So, get started writing your school guidelines, today!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The power of imaginative rehearsal

How did he do it?

I asked a group at a conference this question about the landing (not crash) of flight 1549 recently. The answers that come back are usually "training" and "practice." That's not quite enough of an explanation though. No one "practices" water landings in passenger jets. What did Captain Sully's training look like, and what can K-12 teachers learn from his heroic success?

Time: Captain Sully got his initial license at age 14. He's been flying for years, he's experienced. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to develop a skill to the level of expert. Captain Sully has been at this for a long time. Time isn't enough though, that time has to be well-spent. Kids are in school for thousands of hours in their lifetimes. Are we spending that time well? There are two components that deserve more time than most schools give them.

Reflection: On more than one occasion, Captain Sully studied and reviewed the evidence of airline accidents. He wrote reports designed to help improve the safety of commercial flying. These sound almost like traditional school activities, don't they? It is critical that reports in school include a true synthesis of primary sources and a reflective, future-thinking, component.

Role playing: Pilots train for hours on flight simulators for scenarios that can't be practiced in real life. In his book Teaching for Tomorrow, Ted McCain discusses the importance of having students engage in projects via role play assignments.

Young children learn about the world and the roles of people in the world through imaginative play. They dress up like firefighters, princesses, and superheros. This type of play ends all too soon. This imaginative role play is important for developing practical skills such as making a presentation that closes a sale, designing a building that will survive an earthquake, or landing an airplane without any engines. Yet even more critical is the importance of developing students moral compass through role play, or imaginative rehearsal as Kelly Gallagher calls it. Teachers must design learning environments in which students can imagine themselves in situations where a choice must be made. Well-designed re-creation of historical scenarios can provide children and teens authentic opportunities to learn the consequences of cruelty vs. kindness, selfishness vs. generosity.

This kind of teaching isn't easy. There is a lot of work involved and teachers need to be supported in doing this work. What tools and resources can help? That's the subject for my next post!

PS I've watched this video dozens of times now, and my heart still races each time. It was created by the folks at Scene Systems. Their website says that they are specialists in digital recreation for litigation. I think, though I am not sure, that the re-creation in this case was to help them market their product.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Blogging is Boring??!!

Students in my classes have been blogging about their independent reading books for a few years now. I remember when we first started blogging. The students and I were agog with excitement! Most of the entries were delightfully reflective. The comments were flying back and forth.

I hesitate to say this in the open, but it’s getting, well, boring. Recently, a group of students and I were in a chat room discussing the novel The Door in the Wall. Towards the end, our conversation evolved into a general discussion of the technology we use in class. The students brought up that they were “bored” by their independent reading blogs. After the first tentative use of the B word didn’t get anyone in trouble, a number of the students agreed. They did try to put it nicely and not hurt my feelings.

Here’s the worst part, I’m with them. It feels like a drill to read and respond to the zillions of posts that have been generated and it shouldn’t. It didn’t used to. I think I know why, but I’m not sure what to do about it.

We’ve lost the spirit of discovery, the feeling that we were breaking new ground. We also lost our voices. Our reading blogs are not the conversations they used to be. Instead, they are just assigned mini-essays about the books each student is reading. They’re writing for their teacher without engaging each other in conversation. These kids love to talk to each other though, so the failure is mine, not theirs.

There are two reasons for their lack of engagement that I can identify. One is that the format for the blogs is dreadful with the software we use. Students have no opportunity to personalize their pages and project their personalities through their design. A couple of years ago, blogging was so new to this age group that it didn’t matter that the only design choices they have are font and text color. Not anymore, this lack of customization is completely inadequate for their 21st Century visual cortexes!

The other barrier to engagement is the lack of authenticity. I can see how unnatural our class model for blogging is when I consider my own modest, but successful efforts at blogging. I don’t write my personal blog at two week intervals. Nor do I “respond to a colleague’s blog entry in 2-3 sentences” for homework. Ugh. While I wish I were more disciplined, I write when the spirit moves me, although I am for two entries a month. My responses are even more fickle. I might write voluminous comments one evening, and then become a passive reader for a week or more.

How can we blog independently and authentically? We need to comply with school rules, legalities, etc, but it has to be real and meaningful!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Reunions in the Facebook Age

I just went to my 20th reunion. I will not bore anyone with my ruminations on age.

What was fascinating was the difference I felt in connection to those people I had virtually friended in the last couple of years. I've seen pictures of their kids and know a little ,about their day-to-day lives political views, and maybe favorite books.

My university (Duke) has a pretty far-flung alumni base, so many people fly in without kids/spouses. So, when I encountered people who are friends on FB, we didn't have to have the "so, what have you been doing for the past 20 years. . . " conversation.

Even better was the connection to people I have kept more close contact with over the years. Even when you do your best to talk periodically and email, life can make it hard to feel close to someone who lives three thousand miles and a few time zones away. Facebook can make it easier.

I know this isn't the way the young whippersnappers use Facebook, but it works for me. There are no wild parties portrayed on my college friends' pages (well, mostly not). Instead, there is a lot of political commentary and many pictures of children.

Social Networking helps strengthen bonds that were already there and reconnect those that have been stretched thin.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Too many books, blogs, and tweets!

I may not have written a blog entry in a month, but. . .

I've tweeted, Ning'ed, live-blogged, chat roomed, and even been interviewed for (geek alert here: EdTechTalk's 21st Century Learning) a podcast. I also wrote two papers and took an exam, btw.

What does all this mean?

It means I've been so reflective about my personal practice that I'm not sure I can stand it much longer. Right now I feel like a total sham as a teacher and an integrationist.

Why? Well, one of my papers was to fully transcribe a one-hour lesson. Now, I've known I talk too much all my sentient life. I can't remember the first time someone said to me "can you just NOT TALK for a little while?" Ironically, I was a shy kid, so I did all my talking around my family who just wanted a little peace and quiet. All this goes to say that I was trying so hard during my recorded lesson not to talk too much. After listening to the recording and writing the transcription, guess who had the most to say during the hour? Yep, yours truly. I've got to find and buy one of those posters that says "the one doing all the talking is doing all the learning" and hang it somewhere prominent in the classroom. Sigh.

Here's another reason I feel like a sham. I gave an assignment that didn't work out. Not an epic fail, where grand lessons were learned, just a whimpering, pathetic failure. Why did we (my students and I) fail? Because, after all these years of knowing what happens when I wing it, I still failed to plan thoroughly! (See the above re--papers and exams.) We tried something new, Comic Life, as a way for students to demonstrate their understanding of any aspect of medieval life by making a comic book. It seemed so appealing, so 21st Century, so cool. Surely they would get it. Did I have examples? Did I have a thorough instructions? No and no. Guess what I got back? Stick drawings with no discernible medieval connection, just some sketched in blood, gore, and fighting.

And for the final entry, we'll go to the "you really only learn something when you teach it" category. I've just written my steps to successfully completing a writing assignment in the technology rich classroom. Now, I really like these steps. They're good. So good, they are worth their own post (soon, maybe tomorrow since I can't imagine I'll want this post to be the front page for long). I'll be presenting this list in a couple of weeks at a workshop, and therein lies the rub. I've never written this down before! Seriously, it's just the looming, ahem, approaching workshop that has made me reflect enough to pull together documentation of what I believe to be most powerful about the writing teaching I've done. Sigh yet again.

Actually, I'm writing this post tonight just because I can't bear the thought of going a whole month without a post. Maybe it would have been better to just let the month go by, but I don't think so.

I'm looking for a great closing now, but none is coming to me, so I'll just put in a plug for one of my other blogs. If you have children under 6, I've been keeping a blog as a class assignment. My premise is that you don't need to feel guilty for not getting a Leapster, Tag, whatever electronic gadget that will teach your kid to read. There's a lot you can do with your child to promote reading and reading readiness besides the "just read to your child" that we hear. So, check it out if you have time, I welcome comments, suggestions, ideas, etc.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Swimming Without Drowning

I went to a session at a conference recently with the above title. The session was led by a second year teacher (only halfway through her second year!) and the title referred to ways early career teachers could use technology (specifically web 2.0 technology) successfully. The session was, in a word, brilliant.

The leader took us through a number of strategies and tools she'd used in the classroom successfully and they were interesting and well-designed. What was brilliant though, was the philosophy that this young teacher has already developed well enough to be able to articulate it. Some highlights for me from the session:

Don't be afraid of the epic fail.
If you type define: epic into Google (yes, you can do that, you get a page full of definitions from various web dictionaries/references) one of the first phrases to appear is "of heroic proportions." In other words, an epic fail is one for the books, in which the role of hero is played by a teacher. If you set out to write an epic with your students, even if you fail, there will be reflection, discussion, thinking going on. Your students will see you struggle, fail, and think about what to do next time. Isn't that what we want for our students? Lifelong learning? Persistence in the face of difficulty? That ephemeral "pick yourself up, dust off, and try again" ness? So why do we let fear keep us from trying something new? I'm not just talking about technology here either!

Create a window into your classroom. Blogging rocks. I already knew that. My students blog about what they read, their projects, and discuss their posts with each other. I personally blog in three different places for entirely different purposes, not counting the occasional Ning blog post. What I haven't done though, is start a lively, student-run blog with my students. Kinda, sorta knew I wanted to, but just haven't gotten it done. This phrase "a window into the classroom" hooked me. So, the infrastructure is in place, the students are invited and just wait until spring break is over!

Cultivate support. Duh, right? But so easy to forget. We're all about PLNs now, but that's only part of having a strong, collaborative support network. A supportive community doesn't just happen. More importantly, they don't stay strong without regular nurturing. Venting over lunch in the teachers lounge, while it has its place, is not a support network.

Ever since this session, I've been thinking about it in conjunction with a session I attended earlier this month at NAIS that was led by Peter Gow. Truly an illuminating session (I don't blog the boring ones). Peter focused on revitalizing veteran teachers. Peter's session was pretty crowded. Unfortunately, there were only four attendees at the session led by this brilliant early-career teacher. If more of the veteran teachers I saw walking around the conference were attending sessions like Swimming Without Drowning, there might be less of a need for sessions on how to revitalize them!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Imaginative rehearsal or the second half of books.

I've been thinking more and more about the literacy part of my "literacy, technology, learning" mantra. This may be because I'm nearing the end of my reading specialist coursework.

From page 44 of Kelly Gallagher's Readicide: = "struggling readers who do not read voraciously will never catch up." I've been thinking about the simplicity of this line since I first read it. There is abundant research available on the gaps among and between the various groups of children who enter kindergarten.

So how do we get children to read at all, let alone read "voraciously?" One thing that is clear, we must make time for this reading during the school day, we can't just say "go home and read." What must we give up during the school day to allow substantial reading? Gallagher has some suggestions that I want to start implementing tomorrow. He talks about the Article of the Week program he instituted when he realized that none of his students could identify the vice president of the US. Straightforward, doable, and ready for class tomorrow. I really can't recommend this book enough.

So, back to the title of this post, "Imaginative Rehearsal." In Influencer, Patterson et. al. discuss the fact that the most powerful method of behavior change is through experience. While direct experience is best, vicarious experience can be nearly as motivational. I know that film can have enormous impact on viewers, but I would argue that it is in books that good readers can best immerse themselves and truly become someone else for a while. Gallagher calls this an "imaginative rehearsal." I hadn't heard the term before, but it is perfect for capturing the ways in which reading a good book can help the reader become a better person. Repeatedly imagining oneself in the role of hero can lead to courage when life brings a challenge that calls for it.

How then, do we choose the books we ask students to read? If they are too slight, yet engaging, we may get the voraciousness we seek but at what cost? Clique books come to mind. What impact does light reading have on students' chances for imaginative rehearsal? When I read Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell, I was fully engaged in imaginative rehearsal. The book is an achingly beautiful story set in WWII Italy and centered around the fact that the Italians largely did their best to protect the Jews in their population from the Nazis. The book demands the reader think "could I, would I" over and over. Studies such as the Milgrim experiment from the 60's show how inhumanely humans can behave. Reading literature that asks us to be better than we are must be a part of education if we are to rise above our baser instincts.

There's an interesting debate going on in several threads on the English Companion ning on this very topic. Is it only the canonical classics that can best inspire deep thinking?

I'm not actually finished with either book yet, but I'm so engrossed I had to share. . .

Monday, February 2, 2009

Half Book Reviews

As in reviews of books I haven't finished yet, but have me thinking so much I need to write about them.

I'm reading a book that I didn't want to read. It landed on my desk (while I was away, sneaky) sporting a post-it with my name in big letters. An email arrived shortly thereafter, informing me that I needed to have read the book before an all-day meeting coming up in just a few days. All this combined to make me feel resistant to opening the cover and I usually am thrilled when I get a new book. The book is titled The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner.

Now that I'm halfway through (I'm such a reader I can't NOT read an assigned book) I am fascinated and thoroughly engrossed. I do feel the title is completely unfortunate. It implies that the book is going to bemoan the difference in test scores among American students and their counterparts in China and India, a la 2 Million Minutes.

Instead, Wagner efficiently describes some of the biggest flaws in education today and then goes on to actually detail a plan for fixing them. More interestingly, Wagner focuses on schools that most Americans would describe as working. Successful as in suburban public schools and expensive private schools with well-educated and well-paid parent populations. Schools that send almost all their graduates to college.

In one section, Wagner criticizes the formulas for writing that students are taught, then use to get 4's and 5's on AP tests, by pointing out that once students get beyond high school they will not be asked to write for 25 minutes on a topic they've never seen. I recently Diigo'd a page on the UNC writing center website that tells students to unlearn the 5 paragraph essay. I would take it a step further and contrast formula writing with, well, anything actually published that people read voluntarily. I'll never forget one of my professors telling me "don't assign anything you won't want to read in 72 versions."

At the moment, I'm deep into Wagner's thoughts on teacher education and improvement of instruction. Many teachers will be uncomfortable with what Wagner says, but he's right when he says that "many teachers and principals still think of themselves as independent subcontractors." He has some interesting ideas about improving instruction that involve videotapes of lessons and constructive, analytic discussion. Sounds intense, frightening, and productive.

The other book that I'm halfway through is Readercide by Kelly Gallagher. Gallagher argues that schools and teachers have destroyed students enjoyment of reading by simultaneously over and under teaching reading, then testing students within an inch of their lives.

I'm not the only one blogging about this important book right now. Bill Ferriter has the entire book available for download and hosted an interview and voicethread conversation with Gallagher. So, instead of going on, I'll just say that reading Readicide is making me really sad and angry for children who deserve better.

On a final note, I found a website that evaluates the reading level of a blog! Not sure what formula they are using, but I was glad to know that my blog was written at a high school level.

blog readability test

TV Reviews

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Time for some little ideas!

By little, I mean narrowly focused, not unimportant!

I've been frustrated lately by reading assignments that are way too difficult for students. I bet they have been even more frustrated than I have! This is particularly difficult when content area teachers are doing their best to bring in authentic reading material such as current news in the field. The problem is that such material is written at a level that precludes independent reading. Instead, students end up needing a great deal of support.

When teachers assign reading material, sometimes it is difficult to know until after students have done the reading whether the material is too easy or too advanced. Here are two tools that can make evaluating the reading level of text a little easier.

For a rough estimate, Microsoft Word has the option to evaluate readability statistics as part of the grammar and spelling check. You turn this feature on by clicking on the MS Office button in the upper left hand corner, clicking on Word Options, choosing "proofing", and checking the box that says "show readability statistics."

Copy and paste or type about 100 words of the text into MS Word and save. Then, when you are in a document, go to the reviewing toolbar and run the spelling and grammar check. At the very end of the check, you get a window with a Flesch-Kinkaid reading level. It's not perfect, and I personally think it skews a little low, particularly if the text has a lot of dialogue. However, it is a great quick and easy check that a reading selection isn't way off base.

The second tool is a program that you can download called Reading Rater that is free. It's nice to sometimes do a cross check between the two, but I have found them to be consistent.

Hope these are useful for you!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Are they or aren't they?

New literacies? Is 21st Century Literacy about something new? Or are they the same literacies that educators have always valued. I'm going to work some of the skills I hear about most throughout this entry, the terms will be in italics.

I like some of the work presented on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, particularly the social studies curriculum they've presented. But I also agree with Jay Matthews at the Washington Post (I'm sure he'll be thrilled to know of my support) when he says that "young Plato and his classmates did the same thing in ancient Greece." Communicating effectively is hardly a new skill.

So what's changed? Maybe it's the urgency? Some might think so, but the developing the ability to innovate has always been urgent for a child seeking to rise out of poverty. Same for problem solving.

So what is new? Developing media (or information) literacy means that students need to learn to analyze media for bias, artifice, motive. . . that's not so new, is it? However, given the ability of technology to simulate reality like never before, I think there's something to calling this a new literacy.

Creating knowledge used to be for the elite. For those who struggled through the "system" and made it to the pinnacle of higher learned and moved into the ivory towers or the glass towers of business. Now it's for everybody, a la Clay Shirky. I think this is where we start to see the promise of the conjunction of technology and knowledge in the 21st century. The fall of the gatekeepers. This era started when college dropouts built multi-billion dollar empires based on intellectual capital. I have a teacher friend who argues that saving money for a four-year old to go to college is pointless (I'm pretty sure she's doing it anyway). She says "no one is going to need to go to college to succeed in 14 years." Is she right? Is the time frame right?

Literacy in the old fashioned sense, the ability to read, still reigns as the most powerful 21st century skill in my mind. Reading is part of so many learning paths. Technology does not make reading unnecessary, technology makes reading even more essential. Knowledge is still stored and retrieved primarily in text form.

A few thoughts about why text still rules: Reading is faster than listening. Faster than watching video. A movie starts with a script (or it should). A good reader can skim or extract partial information. The reader has control and determines the pace with text--fast forwarding doesn't have the same effect. None of this means non-text media aren't also valuable, important, and fascinating.

So, back to the beginning--are these new literacies or not? Does it matter?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Here Comes Everybody, my version

Happy New Year! You'll have to visit someone else's blog to get a top 10 list, resolutions, or anything particularly introspective. While on break, I like to have little ideas!

Over the holiday, we visited with my family in Florida. I'm not from there, but my parents moved there after they retired. While I was there, I was reading Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. I'm a big fan of his book and his talks, which are available on blip and YouTube. It's a great book and you should read it, but it's not what this post is about.

My mom commented on the cover, and I told her the story from the first chapter, about a woman who lost her cell phone in a taxi, the teen who found it, and the friend who made it his mission to use social networking to get the phone back. It's a good story, and you can read a brief version here.

Part of the story involves texting, which I knew my mom had heard of, but assumed she wasn't a user. I soon learned that my assumption was completely wrong. My mom and her friends have indeed been texting. They started as a way to quickly let each other know that surgeries had gone well/poorly from hospital waiting rooms. Texting got the word out quickly and allowed for more privacy than a call did. From there, texting has become part of this group's communication strategy just as it has for so many others.

I think of all the grousing teachers can do about technology and learning new tools. This group of retirees would put them to shame!

Who knew? I certainly didn't. Goes to show the truth of what they say about assumptions. . .