The Thin Line Between Critical Literacy and New Literacies

This is another reaction I wrote to assigned reading for the graduate course I am taking through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Technology and School Leadership. Enjoy!

Critical literacy is an instructional approach that “advocates the adoption of ‘critical’ perspectives toward text. Critical literacy encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages” (Wikipedia). This approach asks readers to investigate why the author wrote what they did, what writing tools they used to convey their ideas and why, as well as to investigate underlying messages within the text.

Also important regarding critical literacy is exploring multiple perspectives by reading various texts to understand what concepts a writer left out of a piece and why they might do that. Critical literacy’s roots are founded in social justice. It “requires imagining others’ intentions, adopting multiple perspectives, and imagining social arrangements that don’t yet exist” (Johnston, 73). People from both affluent and non affluent backgrounds benefit from instruction that helps them take another person’s perspective, as well as to have the tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

The question then is, What does critical literacy have to do with new literacies, which “include the traditional literacy that evolved with print culture as well as the newer forms of literacy within mass and digital media” (Jenkins, 19)?


Quite a bit.

First, both new literacies and critical literacy demand a context within the broader society. Because of its foundations in social justice, critical literacy may ask students to closely read multiple pieces of work on a relevant topic in order to understand how some writers might exclude certain perspectives in order to better persuade an audience. Likewise, with the new literacies everyone can be an author who brings a specific perspective. People’s positions and experiences described on websites and blogs matter as much as the accuracy of the information presented. “We might well find that much of the meaning to be made from the content has to do with who we think the blog writer is: what they are like, how they want to think of themselves, and how they want us to think of them” (Lankshear & Knobel, 4).

Second, students in both instructional approaches are expected to be participants in the learning. Whether a dialogue about what is read and what is written happens online or off, learners should have opportunities to engage in dialogue about information. This includes actively listening to someone else’s point of view without immediately disagreeing, and reconsidering one’s beliefs in light of new information presented. Critical literacy applied in this fashion better prepares students to be college and career ready.

New literacies, with their dynamic capabilities, invites a response from an audience. For example, when someone posts on their blog, this published piece is sometimes the start of a conversation rather than finished work. Within the comments and the sharing via social media, followers and connected educators can engage in a dialogue around the ideas initially shared. The participatory nature of online learning helps ensure that those who post have at least some level of reliable rationale to support their positions.

These similarities beg a follow up question: are the new literacies merely critical literacy adapted for a more connected world? Adages such as “Today’s students require tomorrow’s literacy skills” (Forzani, 2) might still apply. Yet the common threads between critical literacy and new literacies are hard to ignore.


Critical literacy. (2016, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, October 25, 2016, from

Forzani, E. (2013). Teaching Digital Literacies for the Common Core: What Results From New Assessments Tell Us. Storrs, CT: University of Connecticut.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnston, P. (2012). Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). A New Literacies Sampler. New York: Peter Lang.

Three Ways to Increase Student Engagement in Reading

The research is clear: If a student is not motivated to read and is not engaged in the text, all of the strategy instruction a teacher might provide may be for naught (Guthrie and Klauda, 2014; Ivey, 2014; Wanzek et al, 2014). That is why it is critical that we make reading meaningful so that students make meaning out of what they are reading and become lifelong readers.

The following three activities are excellent beginnings for increasing reading engagement.

1. Reading Aloud

This is quite possibly the most underutilized practice K-12 that also has the greatest potential for developing engaged readers. It’s how I got engaged in reading – my 3rd grade teacher read aloud Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. I was hooked. I don’t know how many times I reread that book after hearing it read aloud (my parents could verify).

When I was a 5th and 6th grade teacher, one of my go-to resources was The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. The treasury of recommended read alouds in the back of the book was indensible to me as a busy classroom teacher. Whatever he recommended, I know I could count on as a quality text that would create an excellent shared reading experience with my students.


As a school principal, I continue to utilize reading aloud. For example, I read favorite poems, jokes and quotes during morning announcements. Also, teachers invite me to read a favorite picture book in their classroom. It’s a great way to share an excellent story while also getting to know the students better. In addition, I model for everyone – students and teachers – the importance of creating shared experiences around the written word.

2. Speedbooking

The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to new titles they might want to read and add them to their to-read list. The power in this practice is that the students are the ones recommending the books, not the teacher. This idea comes from an article out of the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal. It is an activity designed for English language learners, but as with most better practices, it is excellent for all students.

To start, I explain the purpose for the activity (to discover new books to read; to build a stronger community of readers; to learn how to write and share a short book review). Then I model for the students how to prepare their reviews. Recently, I used a favorite chapter book/read aloud of mine, The Smartest Man in Ireland by Mollie Hunter. Here are my notes I wrote under the document camera for 5th graders.

The students write their own short summary notes as I write mine in front of them. I make the point that the focus is on being able to verbally share a book review. The notes are there as talking points. Also stressed is the importance of stating the author’s name and considering why the audience might want to read the book. Students are apt to describe why they like something without thinking about their listeners in their review.

With notes and book in hand, students get into two circles facing each other. For some humor, I share with the students that adults used to participate in speeddating to meet someone they might want to date (“Ewww!” is the common response). To draw the analogy, I explain that they should be particular about which book(s) they might want to read and to be a critical consumer if they don’t find a title appealing.

This leads into each student getting 1-2 minutes to verbally share a book revew of their favorite title with their partner and then switch. One side of the circle moves either to the left or to the right, and the process starts over again. When a book strikes their fancy, they should write it down to consider for later. They may not hear every book and that is okay. A final product is a to-read list on an index card they can use as a book mark.


3. Book Raffle

In 2013 I wrote about hosting a book raffle in a 5th grade classroom (click here for that post). The idea comes from Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller and Susan Kelley. Here is how it works:

  1. Select books from the school library and bring them into the classroom.
  2. Provide a list of the titles for each student + sticky notes for the raffle.
  3. Recommend each book to the students while they note which ones they want.
  4. Students put raffle tickets in for the texts they want to read.
I have read all of these books. I could not recommend them without having read them.
Students note which books they want on the list and prepare raffle tickets.
The cups in front of each book will hold their raffle tickets.
Students put in their raffle tickets for the books they want to read

All of the titles are from our school library. With the lists the students now have, they can check out any book they want but couldn’t get right away at a later date. I encourage students to “bug” their classmates to finish a book they want to read next.

All three of these activities are only the beginning for building reading engagement in a classroom. Teachers have to keep the momentum going, by reading aloud daily in the classroom, by frequently checking in and conferring with students during independent reading time, and by celebrating their literary accomplishments, such as number of books read and how widely they are reading. Donalyn Miller’s two resources (The Book Whisperer, Reading in the Wild) are filled with excellent ideas for any teacher looking to build reading engagement in their classrooms.


Personalized Learning: Exploring the What, Why and How

This post is another reaction paper I wrote for the course I am currently taking, Technology and School Leadership, through the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Enjoy!

In a typical teacher’s day, taking the time to learn about digital tools can be a low priority. So many things are thrown their way: assessments, evaluation tasks, submitting lesson plans, building duties, parent communications, and so on. Adding on technology, combined with the way it changes seemingly daily, can be a recipe for frustration.

Still, there is a pull to upgrade our instruction to meet the demands of the 21st century, summarized as the “Four Cs” – critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. The demand is real. “America’s system of education was built for an economy and a society that no longer exists” (National Education Association, n.d.). Memorization, basic skill development and surface-level understanding are no longer enough for our students’ futures.

Striving for deeper, student-centered learning experiences is the promise of personalized learning, which can include “students and teachers co-constructing learning goals and pathways around student interests and learning standards; students engaged in independent and self-organized group learning; and educators engaged in conferences with students on the process of learning as well as discussing goals and improvement data” (Halverson et al, 2015). Yet…students need to know stuff. We live in the information age. The challenge is teaching students how to take these disparate pieces of information and skills, analyze data to make complex decisions, and innovate when a solution is not apparent for a problem.

One approach that may offer that reasonable next step in embedding personalized learning into practice is blended learning. It combines online and face-to-face learning “that uses a variety of tools – digital, artistic, problem-solving, etc. – for the purpose of solving new problems, creating new conversation turns, composing new knowledge artifacts, and of seeing and beginning to inhabit, at least tentatively, new possible worlds beyond those that are current actualized” (Wilhelm, 2014). I prefer this definition over the typically more technical description frequently offered by #edtech evangelists.  The focus is on what might happen when students collaborate and communicate around topics of interest. Scaffolding through station work may be necessary in the beginning stages, as both students and teacher move toward a different and possibly more effective model for instruction. Age levels, discipline and digital access also matter when deciding how to incorporate blended learning in the classroom.


As a structure is established and the purpose is clear as to why personalized learning is necessary, educators should be evaluating the impact of the technology on the instructional goals and student learning. For example, teachers use software to provide students with opportunities to develop skills in areas for growth. There are adaptive learning systems that use assessment results from one activity and guide students to that next learning activity. Then there are intelligent tutoring systems, or ITSs, in which “students are asked to do exercises and problem sets online; the computer uses their answers during problem solving to model how they are thinking about the topic and provides continuous personalized feedback based on its model of the students’ understanding” (Enydey, 6). To the point, with the student receives feedback within an ITS, it is during the learning itself, not after an activity is complete.

For teachers to incorporate personalized learning in the classroom, there has to be a recognized need, time for professional learning, and clear criteria for evaluating its effectiveness. These elements can ensure students meet their potential.


Enyedy, N. (2014). Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning. National Education Policy Center. Available: (Links to an external site.)

Halverson, R., Barnicle, A., Hackett, S., Rawat, T., Rutledge, J., Kallio, J., Mould, C., & Mertes, J. (2015). Personalization in Practice: Observations from the Field. Working Paper. Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Available:

National Education Association (n.d.). An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs”: Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society. Available: (Links to an external site.)

Wilhelm, J. D. (2014). Teacher as Trickster: Navigating Boundaries into Blended Transformational Spaces. Voices from the Middle. 22(2), pgs. 42-44.

Innovating Inside the Box

This is a reaction paper I wrote for a course I am taking at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Technology and School Leadership”, facilitated by Dr. Richard Halverson. Enjoy!

Government, philanthropists and investors consistently come up with grand ideas and approaches to fixing education. Standards-based reform, new evaluation systems and 1:1 technology initiatives populate the school landscape. Yet there is very little to show for these efforts in terms of improving student outcomes.

One approach heralded by reformists is the charter school movement and offering school choice for families. The original intent of this movement was to free educators from the constraints of local bureaucracy and accountability measures “so schools and teachers can try things” (Kolderie, 10). Unfortunately, when results showed that charter schools were not seeing better results than traditional schools, the accountability pieces were brought back. Many charters now languish in corporate-run organizations with little personal investment from the higher ups. This is compounded with charters having to deal with poorer public perception. 

So what is the solution? Kolderie suggests bringing charters back with their original intent and positioning them as parallel programs. He refers to this as a “split-screen strategy”. “It is time to run both improvement and innovation simultaneously, side by side” (14). The idea is, while traditional public schools can work on continuous improvement, charter schools can serve as research and development arms of education. Eventually, Kolderie predicts, the traditional schools will adopt the strategies of the chartering organizations.

Innovation is critical for the success of American education, and chartering remains the states’ and the nation’s best strategy for innovation—for introducing, quickly, the new approaches to learning now possible. Innovation is chartering’s comparative advantage (30).

I would agree with Kolderie that innovation is critical for American education. Where I diverge philosophically from him is: why do we need charters to innovate?


As a school administrator going on ten years, I see few roadblocks in offering parallel programs within one school or district. Certainly, there are test scores to worry about, although if innovation is truly happening, we are building on what we are already doing and making it better. For this to work, school leaders need to support these efforts. Permission alone is not enough.

In addition, these efforts to innovate through the use of pedagogical approaches and technologies should not have to be an either/or proposition. For example, could one school offer two learning pathways in their building, with one option the traditional model and the other a more innovative concept? Families, educators and students (yes, students!) can determine which is best for each child. The innovative concept can start small and then grow as demand grows with it.

To conclude, when we take the approach that schools need to be fixed, and we never question the questioners, it builds on a deficit model. I understand the need to upend some outdated practices, especially when modern resources are so readily available for schools. Instead of “How do we improve schools?”, what if we supported schools and allowed them to improve from within? This is a strengths-based approach that taps into the existing knowledge within an organization. “Research and development should focus on what works for whom, when, and in what contexts” (Dede, 22). We have had a high stakes environment for the entire 21st century. It hasn’t worked. A level of autonomy along with the time and resources might prove to be the better strategy for change.


Dede, C. (2014). The Role of Digital Technologies in Deeper Learning. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

Kolderie, T. (2014). The Split Screen Strategy: Improvement + Innovation. Edina, MN: Beaver’s Pond.

School Principal: Lead Learner? Lead Reader?

In a blog post for Nerdy Book Club, I quietly posed this question. I hear and see the title “Lead Learner” thrown out as a better way to describe the principalship. I appreciate the idea, as it seems to have good intentions, that we should all be about learning. A nice article in one of last year’s ASCD Education Update describes how two principals live out this title in their current roles.

Of course, there is critique in any level of change that has become an institution. For example, in that same article, Pernille Ripp questions why there needs to be a revision.

As adults, we get so caught up in titles, [but] kids are much more focused on what you’re doing rather than what they call you.

Baruti Kafele offers a similar sentiment regarding principals adopting this idea.

Why the title? I just want us to be a community of learners, but I don’t necessarily have to be the lead learner.

Like Pernille, Baruti emphasizes the importance of modeling what we want to see in our school. He offers examples in this video interview for ASCD.

For me, my title will remain “principal”. It is true that our position is defined in our actions rather than merely our words. I think about all the efforts made to promote authentic literacy in our school, from the morning announcements in which I share a book recommendation or a quote, to my staff newsletters in which I share my reading life, to the read alouds I do in classrooms. Yet despite all of these actions, I would not qualify myself as a “lead reader” anymore than a “lead learner”.

Reading aloud Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco to 5th graders this year. 

What I will say about reading and the principalship is that there are few habits more important than being a wide and avid reader. I read newspapers, magazines, fiction, nonfiction, educational resources, blogs, tweets and posts, research articles, children’s literature…the list is almost endless. Having a diverse and deep knowledge base has been essential in my success as a school leader. The level of respect I might have as an instructional leader is dependent on this quality. It’s so important that I now schedule time to read professionally during the school day.

Any title we give ourselves is only as credible as how live out these words in our actions.

Data-Driven or Data-Informed? Thoughts on trust and evaluation in education

Data-informed or data-driven? This is a question I have wrestled with as a school administrator for some time. What I have found is that the usefulness of student data to inform instruction and accountability rests on the level of trust that exists within the school walls.

First there is trust in the data itself. Are the results of these assessment tools reliable (consistency of results administered over time and students) and valid (accuracy in the results of the assessments to measure student learning)? These are good initial inquiries, but should only be a starting point.

Security of student information should also be a priority when electing to house student data with third parties. One question I have started asking vendors that develop modern assessment tools include “Where do you house our student data?”, “What do you do with this data beyond allowing us to organize and analyze it?”, and “Who owns the student data?”. In a commentary for The New York Times, Julia Angwin highlights situations in which the algorithms used to make “data-driven decisions” regarding probability of recidivism in the criminal justice system were too often biased in their results (2016). Could a similar situation happen in education? Relying merely on the output that a computer program produces leads one to question the validity and reliability of this type of data-driven decision making.

A second issue regarding trust in schools related to data is how student learning results are being used as a tool to evaluate teachers and principals. All educators are rightfully skeptical when accountability systems ask for student learning results to be counted toward their performance ratings and, in some cases, level of pay and future employment with an organization.

This is not to suggest that student assessment data should be off the table when conversations occur regarding the effectiveness of a teacher and his or her impact on their students’ learning. The challenge, though, is ensuring that there is a clear correlation between the teacher’s actions and student learning. One model for data-driven decision making “provides a social and technical system to helps schools link summative achievement test data with the kinds of formative data that helps teachers improve student learning across schools” (Halverson et al, 162). Using a systematic approach like this, in which educators are expected to work together using multiple assessments to make instructional decisions, can simultaneously hold educators collectively accountable while ensuring that students are receiving better teaching.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality in many schools. Administrators too often adhere to the “data-driven” mentality with a literal and absolute mindset. Specifically, if something cannot be quantified, such as teacher observations and noncognitive information, school leaders may dismiss these results as less valuable than what a more quantitative tool might offer. Professional trust can tank in these situations.

That is why it is critical that professional development plans provide educators with training to build assessment literacy with every teacher. A faculty should be well versed in the differences between formative and summative assessments, informal and formal measurements, deciding which data points are more reliable than others, and how to triangulate data in order to analyze results and make a more informed decision regarding student learning.

Since analytics requires data analysis, institutions will need to invest in effective training to produce skilled analytics staff. Obtaining or developing skilled staff may present the largest barrier and the greatest cost to any academic analytics initiative (Baer & Campbell, 2012).

Building this assessment literacy can result in a level of trust in oneself as a professional to make informed instructional decisions on behalf of kids. If a faculty can ensure that the data they are using is a) valid and reliable, b) used to improve student learning and instructional practice, and c) considers multiple forms of data used wisely, then I am all for data-driven decision making as a model for school improvement. Trust will rise and student achievement may follow. If not, an unfortunate outcome might be the data cart coming before the pedagogical horse.


Angwin, J. (2016). Make Algorithms Accountable. The New York Times. Available:

Baer, L.L. & Campbell, J. (2012). From Metrics to Analytics, Reporting to Action: Analytics’ Role in Changing the Learning Environment. Educause. Available:

Halverson, R., Gregg, J., Prichett, R., & Thomas, C. (2007). The New Instructional Leadership: Creating Data-Driven Instructional Systems in Schools. Journal of School Leadership. Volume 17, pgs 159-194.

This is a reation paper I wrote for a graduate course I am currently taking (Technology and School Leadership). Feel free to respond in the comments to extend this thinking.

My Current Thinking on Library Media Specialists and 21st Century Learning

This is a summary of a conversation I had with our school’s library media specialist (LMS) Kari Kabat. She conducted an interview with me for a graduate class she is taking.


How are schools helping students develop 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, inquiry and technology skills)?

Investing in an LMS is essential. We have a full time LMS in both of our buildings which is an important first step. Having this support for teachers and students to develop these skills and learning experiences will help with school culture and make it a part of how they do business. Developing goals and a framework for integration along with timelines to accomplishing these goals is a great start. Technology integration and having students use the 4C’s is not the responsibility of one person, but rather having the LMS there to support and model these skills for the students and teachers to begin to take a more active role in integrating them with the curriculum. This is what I see as a part of an LMS’ role in a school.

How would you like to see change or improvement in schools?

Using the gradual release of responsibility model to support a school’s efforts to help staff have more buy-in for using these methods with students.  We need to move from a consumption-based culture to more of a creation-based, collaborative one. Most schools need to make this shift. Students can have opportunities to produce authentic writing pieces and projects and not simply use technology only to consume more information.

What do you think are the three most important things a school librarian could do to help a school reach its goals and to help students develop 21st century skills?

First, have a well stocked school library that is appealing and always open for students to come find a book whenever they need one. Knowledge does not come out of thin air. A measure of this will be high circulation rates.

Second, introduce students and teachers to the tools that will help them accomplish one of the 4C’s.  With the LMS in a supporting role, they may model a lesson that highlights a specific “C” with students during their technology block and then help the teachers see how this can be used in other ways to support their work with students on the core curriculum. Introduce a tool to support the C and then expand from there.

Finally, develop a makerspace that will allow students to have a place to come explore, innovate, and create. A makerspace can be an excellent way to incorporate 21st century skills in an indirect way. Expanding offerings beyond the library centers and making them available as a place where teachers and students can come to think critically and problem solve together can help teachers rethink their instruction.

What issues do you see getting in the way of this approach happening?

Mindsets.  Educators should be rethinking who the library really belongs to.  It it not just a department in the school. Rather, it belongs to everyone in the school.  It should be a place of service, where you can come to have your needs met and explore your interests. That might be a place to find a good book or a place to inspire your creativity and imagination and allow you to investigate new ideas.