Reading Deeply in Digital Spaces

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

For too long, I have deleted all of the blog updates that come through my email. I “subscribe” to other educators and thought leaders who post frequently on their site. Yet it has become my habit to Select All when these updates show up in my inbox and promptly delete. This practice has become a habit, a ritual that in reflection seems silly.

Why do I do this? What is the reason why I am not learning from others through their blogs and newsletters like I used to?

I suspect some of it has to do with priorities. I have prioritized checking Twitter for any interesting bits of information such as news updates, journal articles, and videos. But I tend to stick a toe into these information streams and rarely dive into an in-depth article or post (exceptions include The New York Times and The Washington Post, which I subscribe to both). To reprioritize, I probably need to revisit Twitter lists with more intent to read/view what is shared in their entirety.

Maybe my reluctance is due in part to the assumption that blog posts and other more opinion-based writing may not be as reliable or accurate as the information I read from major news sources. But this assumption is false. What educators and other thought leaders share online is just as “true” as anything a professional journalist might publish. In fact, some of the best content online is often from teachers and principals who reveal the challenges and struggles they have in their professional lives. I need to get back to this frame of mind more often, that recognizes process as just as important as any product.

The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown. – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered

Coming back to this idea of reading more deeply when online, I believe the other challenge is a technical one. Most sites are cluttered with advertisements and pop-ups (a big reason why this blog remains ad-free). Even the cleanest sites are still online which gives access to a host of other social media platforms and websites that we could explore instead. There always seems to be something more interesting on the other side of the digital fence. We need to be aware of this mental pull when reading and consuming information online.

Researcher Dr. Maryanne Wolf emphasizes the concept of “bi-literacy”, in which we take different approaches to read online vs. reading in print. In her recent article for The Guardian (which ~ahem~ I read on my smartphone and discovered via Twitter), Wolf shares studies on how the reading environment itself influences how people learn to read:

We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit.

In other words, if a person’s daily diet of text is comprised primarily of digital, then their capacity to read and think deeply will more likely be shallow and cursory. Wolf notes that this phenomenon can occur at a pretty young age, “starting around 4th or 5th grade”.

Does this mean we eschew all things digital from our instruction? Of course not. There is so much excellent content out there that students and teachers should include as part of the curriculum. In addition, specific skills can and should be taught when reading online. Coming back to the concept of “bi-literacy”, Wolf recommends embracing a comprehensive approach to reading (and writing) for today’s learner.

We need to cultivate a new kind of brain: a “bi-literate” reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums. A great deal hangs on it: the ability of citizens in a vibrant democracy to try on other perspectives and discern truth; the capacity of our children and grandchildren to appreciate and create beauty; and the ability in ourselves to go beyond our present glut of information to reach the knowledge and wisdom necessary to sustain a good society.

I’ve started doing this for myself with more intentionality. For example, one educator’s blog I subscribe to, Tom Whitby, is clean and uncluttered. Still, for me, there is a need to trim down these posts to text only. I am using a Chrome extension called EasyReader. Select the button at the top right of your Chrome browser after downloading it, select the text you want to read, and you get a text-only interface.

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Before EasyReader
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After EasyReader

Free from distractions (except for that Twitter feed I need to close down), I now have the cognitive space to read this post critically and with my fullest attention. Mind you, no one taught me these types of skills, beyond the wise and generous educators and people online who were willing to share their ideas with everyone. Also, I chose to seek this information out because of my interest in literacies (vs. literacy).

So here it is to you. And what will we do with this information? How can we implement these necessary yet generally unknown reading practices into the curriculum? When will print text no longer be viewed as the only game in town during the literacy block? I believe by sharing and reflecting on our current work, to embrace being an “amateur” again as Austin Kleon recommends, especially when practices aren’t working like it was for me. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Reading and Writing in the Real World

I’ve been thinking more and more about teaching literacy for students today. Digital media has become a primary source of information for many people. Do they know how to read a Twitter thread or write an effective blog post? If someone does not, are they fully literate? I wrote the following piece for our school’s families to start the conversation. I’m sure I will be revisiting this topic again soon.

-Matt

One of my sources of information is Twitter. I follow educators, leaders, journalists, and friends. I also subscribe to a few newspapers, although much of the content I read there is online. As I scroll through articles from a web browser or app, I find I have to work hard to keep my attention focused on the writing. My mind is drawn to the advertisements and other distractions that appear at the edges of the screen.

I share this information, both in digital and in print, for a reason. Mainly, when education is tasked with teaching students to read and write, we can no longer limit our scope to printed text. The advent of the Internet has created brand new literacies. In a connected society, we need to be globally literate, in which we can understand people’s perspectives from other cultures and locations. We also need to be digitally literate. Multimedia messages read and heard online require new strategies to comprehend them.

At a recent strategic planning for the district, a variety of community members got together with Mineral Point School educators to talk about what we want our students to know, understand, and be able to do. After a lot of conversation and debate, we decided on two big goals: community engagement and academic innovation and independence. These are pretty broad. Basically, we want to improve our connections with our local community around the concept of education, and we want to prepare our students for a changing world.

How do we get there? We have already started follow-up conversations at the administrative level. One of the things that we can agree on is for students to be readers and writers in the real world. That means being able to decode and comprehend text both in print and online. That means writing for an audience that could be one person or the world. Speaking and listening also have taken on new purpose when we can communicate with anyone from anywhere. These ideas are both challenging and exciting. I look forward to working with you to help project a course for our students’ futures.

Most Memorable Blogs Posts of the Year – 2016

Every year around the Thanksgiving holiday, I provite a short list of memorable blog posts I read the last twelve months or so. This is not an award show. I cannot say that these are the “best blogs” of the year or anything, although these posts were very well written.

I curate other writers’ posts on my own blog for two reasons. Selfishly, I want to have an easy way to come back to what they wrote to read again and possibly inform my own writing. Unselfishly, this list (and past lists) are a great place to start exploring what blogging looks, sounds and feels like. Maybe their posts will inspire you to blog yourself.

Without further adieu…

A tragic story well told by Father Tom Lindner (Are We There Yet?)

Father Tom is the priest of the Catholic church our family used to attend. Here he writes about the importance of journalism in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and social media. Father Tom also reflects on the challenges of the priesthood. His honest reflections coupled with his prior experience as a journalist makes for an insightful article.

Why We Are Opting Out of Testing by Christopher Lehman (Christopher Lehman)

An educational consultant offers his reasons for opting his oldest child out of the state test in New York. He shares the steps a family could take to ensure that they understand all sides of the issue. This post does not resemble other calls to opt-out that merely demonize testing. Lehman provides an objective, factual and personal piece.

“Making” Does Not Equal “Constructionism” by Peter Skillen (Inquire Within)

Peter Skillen provides a brief history of making and makerspaces. His piece stand out due to his belief that this approach to learning is about more than just electronics. Makerspaces allow us to be “active creators of our own knowledge” in all disciplines.

Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’ in my mind.

If we are tinkering but never building understanding or developing new ideas, then we are not utilizing makerspaces on behalf of students to their full potential.

Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year by Kim Liao (Literary Hub)

I always appreciate hearing about other writers’ struggles, of course not to revel in them but to feel okay about my own many rejections. Liao shares how she received 43 rejections and didn’t meet her goal of 100. Why 100 rejections? According to a colleague of hers, “If you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

Where Ideas Go to Die by Brad Gustafson (Adjusting Course)

Dr. Brad Gustafson, an elementary school principal, shares his debate on whether to host an all schol picture using a drone for his building’s 50th anniversary. He understands the need to celebrate, yet has concerns about disrupting the school day and classroom instruction. Brad realizes the importance of holding his “no’s” at bay, at least at first.

Hate is a Strong Word by Ben Gilpen (The Colorful Principal)

Ben visibly shares his struggles with a teacher evaluation system that does  not align with his professional philosophy. He shares a personal experience as a golf caddy to illustrate the importance of being objective when observing teachers. Ben’s thoughts about the limitations of staff supervision are candid and appreciated.

I came to my first ISTE expecting to find educators sharing stories of inspiration and struggle… by Adam Rosenzweig (Medium)

I submitted a proposal for the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) convention. It was rejected. This post from an educator working with at-risk students provided some perspective. Rosenzweig found that the ISTE experience was “a sales environment” and a lost opportunity for educators to engage in deep conversation about how technology might improve teaching and learning.

My favorite quote from his post is: “What problems are we hiring edtech to solve?” Wise words. It reminds me of another turn of phrase, adapted by me: “If technology is the aspirin, what is the headache?”

Note to Educators: Pay Not or Pay Later! by Dr. Gary Stager (Medium)

Ever since I read Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom (on sale now), I have been a big fan of Stager’s and co-author Sylvia Lebow Martinez’s work. Here, Stager admonishes education’s infatuation with “free” technology. He points out the problems in not paying for technology that supports student learning, including the challenge of smaller software companies to produce excellent resources.

The Uber of Education is a Horrible Idea by Dean Shareski (Ideas and Thoughts)

Shareski offers his perspective with regard to integrating technology with instruction in the name of being more efficient in this endeavor. He sees many flaws in the approach. “Education at its core is about relationships and experiences. At its best, it involves caring adults designing and guiding learners through rich learning tasks.”

A Level is a Teacher’s Tool, NOT a Child’s Label by Jill Backman (Fountas and Pinnell Blog)

I was so thankful when I discovered this post. It said everything I felt about the inappropriateness of telling a child they are a “level” when self-selecting books to read. To a deeper point, any teacher using an assessment should be able to tell you a) who it’s for and b) why it’s being used. Backman offers a concise rationale for why levels are not for kids.

School Offices Must Serve as Sanctuaries by Jimmy Casas (Passion…Purpose…Pride)

A topic not often brought up in educational leadership discourse is the importance of the front office of any school. Casas offers a helpful comparison between morale builders and morale killers. It is a post worthy of sharing with your own office staff.

A Thousand Rivers by Carol Black (Carol Black)

If I had to pick one post – one article – as a favorite read from the past year, this would be it. Black offers an expansive overview of the limitations of applying research to education, specifically in reading. This is essential reading for any parent questioning a school’s decision on behalf of their child.

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)?

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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.

References

Critical literacy. (2016, May 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, October 25, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Critical_literacy&oldid=720298766

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.

Blogging is Writing & So Much More

For many learners, young and old, there still seems to be a level of mental separation regarding the act of writing online. If we put it down on paper, that’s writing. If we write a post or tweet, that’s blogging. There’s really little difference anymore. What we used to know as writing vaguely resembles what it is today.

Students so often fail to connect their social media engagement and real literacy. Part of that is school’s fault. We educators rarely helps kids see these relationships. But it is also the responsibility of the learner to question what they associate with fun with some of the work asked of them in class. They cannot wait to get out of class so they can…read and write with their friends via smartphone and messenger apps. The irony…

For adults in my generation (X) and beyond, we have our own personal issues with writing vs. blogging. I have heard it all. “I don’t have time.” “I don’t have anything important to share.” “What if no one reads what I write? It will be a waste of time.” “People will think I am a show off.” “I don’t want to risk being misunderstood and offending anyone.”

This surprises me. All educators have something to share. I believe the various concerns listed previously really boil down to one main reason: “I am scared.” It is not unreasonable to feel nervous about putting oneself out there. Even after several years of blogging, I still feel an ounce of worry anytime I select the “publish” button.

But fear is not the primary emotion that should guide people’s lives. Fear can prevent us from making mistakes, and it can also prevent us from learning from experience. Fear can guide our decision making to play it safe, yet without risk how would we ever grow? Fear inhibits our emotions, but at the detriment of letting others know us better as people.

If you elect to avoid blogging, it does not mean that you are any less open to sharing your expertise and ideas with others. Maybe you have a group of educators that meets regularly and collaborates openly about your work. Yet it is unfortunate that others cannot reap the knowledge you have to share. Our world would be a smarter one. Just as important is that your students do not get to see digital citizenship in action. Students emulate what we model as adults, even if they won’t admit it.

So I ask – why not put yourself out there?

 

 

Why I Write

photo-1455390582262-044cdead277aRight now I am reading A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice by Jordan Rosenfeld. It was given to me by Brenda Power, editor of Choice Literacy and Lead Literacy, of which I am a contributor. On page 14, Rosenfeld encourages the reader to journal about their top five reasons to write. Here is what I came up with:

1. To get my ideas down and out of my head.

I am almost always thinking about education. Unless I put these thoughts down on paper or on my computer, they tend to fester in my mind, never leaving me alone. Writing is a release for me. I can better go about my day once I have placed these ideas elsewhere. I can come back to them another time, especially if I decide to take that writing to the publishing stage.

2. To find out what lies beneath the surface.

I cannot remember where I read it, in a book about writing I am sure, but often when we start a piece we are merely “clearing our throat”. In other words, our initial attempts at prose are often stumbles and steps toward what we are really trying to say. Writing allows me to mine my thoughts and experiences and discover what is under all of the layers of our consciousness. Tom Romano, in his book Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others, calls it writing “ourselves into insight” (34).

3. To share my questions and findings with others.

I think all educators have an obligation to share what we know and what are wondering. This can be done in a variety of ways. I prefer writing about it. What I share has a permanent place in the world, where others can come back to it, ask questions of their own, and share their experiences that might confirm or contradict what I believe. Everyone becomes smarter in the process.

4. To add value to my profession and my life

When I say “value”, I don’t necessarily mean money (although getting paid to write is a pretty sweet deal). By value, I mean the worth it provides to what I do as an educator. By writing, especially online, I become more of an expert in others’ eyes. I make connections with others pursing similar inquiries, which also adds value for both them and me. In addition, taking a piece of writing from start to finish is a pleasure that has few equals.

5. To bring different parts together to make a meaningful whole

It is impossible to make sense of every piece of information out there, especially in today’s connected world. The best we can do is to take a few different bits of knowledge, connect them together through the craft of writing, and then share our work with others. Writing is the best way I know to synthesize what I read, watch, and hear.

Why do you write? What are the reasons behind your work? Please share in the comments.

Do We Really Need a Garage? (and other things I am starting to rethink)

Today marks my fourth visit to Mineral Point, WI, the location of my new position as elementary principal. This mission focused on viewing three homes for sale in the area. Our current favorite has almost everything we are looking for: Four bedrooms, a finished basement, modern updates, beautiful landscaping. Everything…except a garage.

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Mineral Point is the third oldest city in the state. Several of the homes were built before cars were even available to everyone. The homes that do have garages are usually one stall at most. When we initially saw this house online, I thought, “No, this is not going to work. Where would we store our outdoor equipment or park our car?”

Then reality took over. The situation is that homes in Mineral Point are selling as fast as they are being listed, at least in the price range my wife and I are considering. Inventory and interest rates are low, so people are snatching up houses at asking price or better…


This experience has caused me to rethink a little bit about what educators need to facilitate high levels of student learning. There are some essentials: A safe and clean environment, caring staff members, teachers who are experts in their craft, lots of access to books and resources, and a principal who leads by example.

Beyond that, are there parts about our jobs that we have become accustomed to, but we have not realized that what we have (or don’t have) is not necessarily the norm?

For instance, I think about the school I am leaving. We are used to not having a librarian in the building most of the time. She is currently spread out among eight elementary schools and does what she can with a difficult assignment. The school is fortunate in that the library aide we hired is very knowledgeable about children’s literature. Also, teachers have been forced to read more of the current books available to kids in the absence of a school librarian.

However, the new school I am leading has a full time librarian. Besides her literary expertise, she regularly brings in technology into the classrooms to teach the students (and indirectly, the staff) about unique ways to showcase their learning using digital tools. This is something we did not have at my prior school. It’s hard to miss something you cannot remember having.

Gaining a different perspective on my professional and personal life as I move into a new position has reminded me that our currently realities are not necessarily what everyone would consider as normal. We get used to our circumstances, and pretty soon these circumstances become “the way we have always done things around here”.


I am a fan of garages. You can store your cars in there. Lawn and gardening equipment have a home. The ubiquitous fishing boat often seen in Wisconsin requires a shelter. All the toys and equipment that come with having kids needs a place of storage when they are not in use. Garages are pretty nice.

But are garages necessary for everyone? I am not a big fisherman or outdoorsy-type person. I prefer to hunker down after a day of work and write my thoughts out for reflection or possible publication (such as I am doing now). Maybe I am just talking myself out of a garage in an effort to move forward on a property that has everything but.

If I had to make do without what I assumed was commonplace everywhere, how might I adapt? Could we install remote starters for our vehicles for the winter time? Would purchasing a small shed in the backyard be a reasonable compromise for what is needed to take care of the lawn? Also to consider is the time saved in having to organize a garage in the first place and keep it clean on a regular basis, something I have failed to do up to now.

One of the best things about summer break is the opportunity to take stock in our professional journeys, as well as where we would like to go from here. Unless you work in a year round schooling situation, teachers and most principals fortunately get these mini-sabbaticals. We can take advantage of these times by using them as opportunities to rethink our roles as educators and professionals.

That is where I leave this post. What circumstances are we used to that might benefit from some rethinking? If we want to improve in a specific area of our practice, are we fully aware of how we currently view the situation? How might we do things differently?

Garage or no garage, we will be relocating to Mineral Point with an open mind.