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.

Making the Connection: Reading & Writing Belong Together

One blog post is simply not enough to encompass all that the reading-writing connection entails.  I have merely segmented out a small snippet from this chapter to highlight my thinking and reflections, but there is so much more…

Reading and writing should go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly, each able to stand alone, yet so much better when layered together.  Unfortunately, for many of us in the education business, the two are treated as separate entities and often each has its own curriculum. This poses a problem, not just for teachers who want to marry the two, but for our students as well.  When taught in isolation, there is very little chance of making those strong connections that bond reading and writing as soulmates.

Regie makes me even more cognizant about being proactive and intentional with my instruction based on her writing under the heading; Read Like a Writer.  “Because I write for readers, I deliberately notice what other authors do in terms of tone, voice, word choice, language play, all aspects of craft, setting, character development, how I’m affected as a reader, and so much more. So it’s been a surprise for me how little of that we share with our students. We read aloud; we may write in front of our students; we talk about books; but in my experience it’s rare for us  teachers to make the reading-writing connection visible. Our students do not automatically think, ‘I’m going to try out in my own writing what that author just did.’ We have to explicitly demonstrate that transfer for them and encourage them to take risks and try out new styles, crafts, and language.” (183)

For years I had done all those things Regie talks about; read alouds, writing in front of my students, talking about books, etc…but it wasn’t until the last couple of years when I was immersed in graduate school that I began to truly understand the reading-writing connection. The minute I started being explicit and intentional about noticing and noting things authors did in their stories, I saw similar things popping up in my students writing, and they were excited about sharing their writing with everyone!  It made them feel like “real” authors. So even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Beyond just being deliberate, intentional, and making the reading-writing connection visible to students, Regie gives great suggestions and ideas in the “Take Action” sections of the chapter on Embracing the Reading-Writing Connection.  From simple things like including “Hip hop, song, rap, dance, film and other art forms that resonate with our children,”(172) to “Teaching students to read like writers” (185), we are supplied with a gamut of rich ideas to help our students make stronger connections between reading and writing.  It starts with truly knowing our students and their interests, offering choice in their reading and writing lives, and building from there.

Even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Regie closes out this chapter with some profound words of advice for educators; “Unique and effective craft, style, and technique have to be inhaled and digested by an engaged reader who is immersed in one unforgettable reading experience after another.” (191)  AND “Exercises in a book on craft might help us teachers know what to look for, but only deep, pleasurable reading and noticing what writers do will provide the sustenance and specifics that lead students to read like a writer and expertly craft their writing.” (191)  

I just keep reading and rereading those two quotes, (well… basically everything in this book, but I’m focusing on those two at the moment)  trying to digest them and think of ways to shift the mindset away from teaching them separately. Regie talks about a safe place to start being the content areas of science and social studies.  And it does work nicely there. So maybe that’s where we begin, but we must do more. Teachers need to be experts at understanding the reading-writing connection so that they can impart that knowledge to their students and stop relying on scripted curriculums that teach each as a separate entity. We can do better than that.  Our students deserve better than that.

How Can Reading Conferences Work in Math?

I don’t even know if one-on-one math conferences are a thing. I’m “new” to the math instruction field – having taught high school Algebra 2 and Geometry for this current year and only exposed to this world for the second semester of last year. I’m not new to the profession. I taught middle school language arts for several years.

But I have spent last year and this trying to blend the worlds of “literacy” and math instruction. I know a preponderance of information is out there about math instruction. I’ve got a lot of info to tackle moving forward. But last year when I took over an Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classroom mid-year, the immediate need, one of the most pressing and apparent needs of my students was how to access information about what they were learning.

I joined Matt’s book study group last year (studying the book Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen) with the idea that I would be examining what kind insights and connections I could find and make about literacy, in my case then, the math textbook, in light of what I saw in my new math classrooms: Kids could not access text to help them learn math.

My conviction after another year of math instruction has not changed. Kids are still having difficulty making sense of a difficult text. Enter this year’s book study on Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman. I was and am still convinced that I need to help kids broker that deal – that reading about complex math tasks is difficult, requires explicit instruction and practice, and is essential in moving kids to be independent consumers of math ideas and applications.

Somehow, I have been convinced that my training in writing and reading instruction is part of the equation. The two worlds should talk more! My participation here with Matt and his excellent team of knowledgeable practitioners is not a conclusive study. It’s not even a study. It’s an idea, really.

Just the other day, one of my students in Geometry had a breakthrough. “I am getting this! This makes sense!” I’d helped her individually many times during our work sessions. You know, those independent practice moments after direct instruction and lots of guided practice. But that day she got it. I realized that I needed more one-on-one time with some students to give them personal guidance. Asking her questions about where meaning broke down, where she didn’t “get it” helped to pinpoint exactly how to help her. Showing her that space was crucial. Trig ratios step into the world of fractions and students have a lot of walls up when you mention fractions. She did.

Ms. Routman says it this way about struggling readers in section 5 of Excellence: “Here is the crucial point: deliberate practice without effective teaching and coaching doesn’t guarantee growth” (222). I believe she is talking about one-on-one reading conferences. Ms. Routman shares the story of Maria who had a three-year discrepancy in her reading ability and her grade. She says that after just one reading conference, Maria started improving quickly. That is what has happened with my student. She finished the practice we did that day easily and successfully and left the room with a smile that told the whole story.

She’s been like a new person since then in math. Unafraid to tackle whatever faces her, she is now convinced that she can learn it. That is the kind experience I want to bring to all of my “math-ers.”

I’ve been trying to find a way to have math conferences with more of my struggling students. It is all informal with no model or structure at this point. But similar to my realization last year that I would have to help kids learn how to read math text, I am realizing at the end of this school year that next year is going to have to have math conferences. One-on-one time to assess needs and coach kids specifically.

Why Don’t Schools Focus on Literacy?

Our top hiring criteria — in addition to having the skills to do the job — is, are you a great writer? You have to be a great writer to work here, in every single position, because the majority of our communication is written, primarily because a lot of us work remotely but also because writing is quieter. And we like long-form writing where people really think through an idea and present it.

– Jason Fried of Basecamp, a web-based project management tool (NY Times)

As an elementary principal the last seven years, the schools I have had the honor to lead have hosted site visits. Other schools have come to observe the inner workings of our organization. These visits usually revolve around our literacy initiatives. We share how our continuous focus on reading, writing, speaking, and listening has resulted in increased achievement and engagement for our students. This isn’t something we brag about; it is how we have done business.

Out of the 15 or so schools that have come to visit, can you guess how many have walked away and started their building-wide focus on literacy? To my knowledge: zero. There is not one school that comes to mind when I think about who has walked through our doors and then started addressing a faculty’s capacity for teaching reading and writing. Why is this? What could be the reason for not focusing on literacy on a consistent basis for their professional learning efforts? Next are a couple of possibilities.

1. Schools are focused on something else.

I have been making a list of all the initiatives school leaders cite as the reason they cannot focus on literacy, at least at this time.

– Trauma-based learning
– Mindfulness
– PBL
– STEM/STEAM
– Personalized learning
– PBIS
– Responsive Classroom
– Poverty
– Equity
– Engagement
– Standards-based grading
– Blended learning or a 1:1 technology initiative

To be fair, many of these professional learning initiatives are promising. For example, our school has invested in Responsive Classroom training for staff and we have found it effective. But it’s not our focus. We employ Responsive Classroom strategies to better teach our students to read and write.

That’s the point we have made to a few school leaders. “You can still do __________ (fill in the initiative) while you are focused on literacy as a school.” They typically balk at this. Why? That might be the next reason…

2. Focusing on literacy doesn’t seem exciting.

Becoming better teachers of readers and writers may not sound as intriguing as a STEM/STEAM initiative or going 1:1 with technology. It might not make for good print or spark intrigue when proposing this focus to district leaders or a school board.

But what does that tell us? To me, I see a schoolwide focus on literacy as a safe way to innovate as a faculty. There are many routes you can go if one doesn’t want to start with the foundations of literacy. For example, a leadership team can begin by integrating effective reading and writing strategies with a STEM/STEAM initiative. A faculty could also delve into the new literacies while going 1:1. Media literacy, global literacy, and digital literacy are all relevant and important skills for students to acquire.

3. Schools don’t know where to start.

Building teachers’ capacity to teach reading and writing is a challenge. It can create some anxiety with school leaders not knowing how to get started with this initiative, nor how to keep the focus for several years (I’ve learned and read that changing teacher practice typically takes around five years).

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The nice thing is there are a number of professional learning programs out there that can provide the direction and resources for a schoolwide literacy initiative. For example, the Regie Routman in Residence online professional development program offers videos, articles, and learning experiences for a multi-year approach to building teacher capacity to teach reading and writing. I have also heard good things about Linda Dorn’s Comprehensive Literacy Model. What both offer is a framework for teaching literacy, instead of a scripted or commercial program. Teachers have some autonomy and ownership in how promising literacy practices are implemented in the classroom. These types of programs also position teachers as leaders of the learning instead of merely recipients of knowledge and skills. I have seen with my own eyes how a faculty can come to embrace effective reading and writing instruction as a sustainable part of their school culture.

Considering these three reasons, I would add one more thought, a common thread for why literacy is not a focus: it’s not easy. School leaders might not have the desire or will to change teacher practice. Layering a less effective initiative over current instruction is an easier approach that looks good to the public. But if the initiative is not connected to literacy in some way, and a school cannot show that their students are successful readers and writers, then these efforts are a disservice to the families and community they serve.

(Image: Booksource)

Struggling Mathers

This past year was my 26th in this business. I spent 11 of those as a middle school language arts and social studies teacher. I spent 5 years as an instructional coach. I taught alternative ed and GED for 2.5 years. All of my working life I’d been concerned with the input side of literacy – reading.  This year, I am teaching high school math.

I am a complete newbie at teaching high school Algebra. And I feel like it. I spend long hours poring over content trying to understand the most sensible route to making this abstract subject comprehensible and engaging for my freshmen. They were placed with me at the beginning of the second semester this past year to repeat semester 1 because they had failed it. I am certainly no expert and lean on my new peers in the math department for help.

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This is one reason why I am thankful to be reading Jennifer Allen’s book, Becoming A Literacy Leader. Specifically, she opens with her call to creating a climate where “creating ongoing opportunities for shared experiences and conversations among staff” is the way forward in navigating the myriad demands we face as teachers.

One of the most striking parts of my experience has been a fresh set of unbiased eyes on a traditional subject. All my years of literacy instruction have given me a different perspective on this whole math thing. I watch students “get it” when I sit with them one-on-one and we read a word problem out loud together. They start to make sense when I ask them a few good questions to help them reflect and verbalize what they know from the problem. As much as I leaned on my team, I believe I brought perspective to our conversations. 

It’s like “good” readers vs. struggling readers. You know. All those things we know those good readers are doing in their heads, like, predicting, connecting the text to things they know, making a movie of the action in their mind, reading for a specific purpose, scanning, skimming, re-reading… the list could go on. I am finding that struggling mathers are not doing the things that “good” mathers are doing.

That the difference between them often lies not in some innate ability, but a collection of habits that they don’t have yet and are not employing to help themselves. I find myself often modeling my thinking out loud for them. They apply few of the Standards For Mathematical Practice (which I am only just getting to now, as you can imagine).

This is only one example of how I am “seeing” and wrestling with literacy in math.

Just as Ms. Allen notes in chapter 2, as “learning to read should be a joyful experience,” so should learning to math. My attempt this summer while reading Jennifer’s book is to find parallels to help foster and lead in literacy in the math world. I know I have tons of math resources available to me – I’ve spent a lot of time reading them these past few months – but I want to specifically think about my context, my assignment, my kids and how I can help them navigate math help and instructional resources. I think Ms. Allen’s book is the perfect platform for developing the questions I want to ask in order to explore this further.

 

Writers Must Read – Wisconsin Writes

This post is to highlight a video series from Marci Glaus for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The series is titled “Wisconsin Writes“. From the DPI website:

Wisconsin Writes provides a glimpse into example writing processes of Wisconsin writers from a variety of contexts. Each video story featured captures the recursive, complex, often messy process that we call writing from some of the best writers in the state.

In this video, titled “Writers Must Read”, local writers share why it is so important to be a reader if one wants to write well. I thought the video had a great message and unique insights for students and teachers.


I’m currently looking for writers myself: literacy leaders from a variety of positions willing to share their stories and expertise on this blog. If interested or would like more information about participating in this collaborative experience, fill out the form below.

Makerspaces and Opportunities for Learning Literacy

In 2011, a faculty member wanted to bring in a summer school program for some of our gifted and talented students. Called “Camp Invention”, students spent a week taking apart computers and creating new worlds with peers. I had never seen students more engaged in learning than during this experience.

Afterward, something nagged at me: the program was not intentional about incorporating reading and writing into the curriculum. I could understand the rationale. Educators are always trying to stuff literacy into anything students are doing. Yet are these two areas – innovation and literacy – mutually exclusive?

Halverson and Sheridan tease out the complex nature of the maker movement in education (2014). They define it through three lenses: “making as a set of activities, makerspaces as communities of practice, and makers as identities of participation” (501). In literacy, students are (or at least should be) constantly making. For example, consider the verbs we use to describe writing. We craft an essay, develop a narrative, and build an argument. These actions cross the line between the tinkering, creating and iterating that happens in makerspaces and the drafting, revising and publishing that is synonymous with language arts. Halverson and Sheridan also see the possibilities.

“Learning through making reaches across the divide between formal and informal learning, pushing us to think more expansively about where and how learning happens. In this way we can talk about the who, what, and how of learning without getting hung up on the rules and constraints that govern different settings” (498).

A question that frequently comes up in education circles is, “How do we get started with makerspaces?” Teachers usually follow this up with concerns about time, resources and administrative support. Now in my second district, and having visited several more, I can say that makerspaces are unique from school to school. Some buildings house makerspaces in their libraries, while others have a separate, dedicated space. When it is not a building initiative, makerspaces find space in teacher’s classrooms under the guise of “Genius Hour”.

What they all have in common is they are personalized to the needs of the students. The kids direct the learning. In response, the adults often adjust their roles to that of a coach and guide on the side. The observed result is higher levels of student engagement in school, which tends to spill over into the core academic areas. Gershenfeld has found increased engagement to be true, noting how personalization is “a market of one person”. In makerspaces, students might start creating something of their own interest, but a lack of purpose and audience might propel them to start thinking about how they can make an impact in the broader world.

For instance, 6th grade teacher Chris Craft has led his students in South Carolina to print more than 150 prosthetic human hands for people in need using a 3-D printer (Herold, 2016). This work includes video production and online sharing, all critical literacy skills for the 21st century. This example and others similar show how schools can “decentralize enthusiasm” (Gershenfeld, 57) in the goal of creating engagement in learning through doing real work while applying core competencies. Literacy appears to lend itself way to many of these opportunities.

References

Gershenfeld, N. (2012). How to make almost anything: The digital fabrication revolution. Foreign Aff., 91, 43.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-504.

Herold, B. (2016). What It Takes to Move From ‘Passive’ to ‘Active’ Tech Use in K-12 Schools. Education Week: Technology Counts, 82(2), 33.