This could be us!

I’m a little behind on English Journal, but I read this article about an online teachers’ writing group and thought, “Hey, that’s kind of what we’re trying to do!”

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Am I Becoming a Digital Writer?

After our last book study discussion, I decided to start my own blog. I know that Will Richardson recommends starting with baby steps and commenting on other people’s blogs first, but I needed to take the plunge and just start my own thing. Plus, now that I am not teaching full-time this year, I really felt like I would miss having a captive audience to listen to me talk about all of my favorite things. So I started a blog. I made my first post exactly one week ago. And I’ve spent every day since then thinking about what my next post would be.

A couple of days ago I went back to my former school to clean out my classroom. After ten years of teaching, nine of them at that school and seven of them in the same classroom, there was a lot of stuff. I threw most of it away. Here’s what I kept, by the way:

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As I was sorting through the file folders, the student work, the books, and all the minutiae of a decade of teaching text, I found myself consciously putting things into the “save” pile that would provide fodder for my blog. When I found a shared journal my colleagues and I kept for writing about the incredible experiences we were having as teachers, I knew that was a keeper. When I discovered a thick manila envelope I had labeled “Notes from Staff and Students,” I knew I needed to bring that home. And when I found photographs (actually printed out!) of my students performing scenes from Shakespeare on our school’s roof in 2005, I knew I’d want to write about our work on that project. And not just for reflective purposes either. I’m actually thinking about my audience (all four of you out there!), and what my readers might find illuminating, funny, inspiring, or provocative.

Does every new blogger feel this way? Do our students?

Cheap (free) Wifi via the Connect2Compete and EveryoneOn Program

On Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference to announce the Connect2Compete / EveryoneOn program.  The program offers 1GB of free monthly wifi access and 10GB priced at $9.99 a month to qualifying zip codes (the 14,000 lowest income zip codes in the nation).  They also offer discounted new and refurbished desktops, laptops and tablets to qualifying zip codes.

I did some exploring on the Connect2Compete website and found that my students qualify for the free 1GB or 10GB/$9.99 deal.  Their families would have to pay $49 + shipping for the wireless router.  BUT, the $49 is refundable if and when they return their router.  Kids in my school’s zip code also qualify for a desktop or tablet for $150 or a laptop for $199.  Unfortunately, it is my understanding that once you have used your free 1GB for the month then your service is discontinued until the following month (unless you buy more gigabytes).  So, you can only watch videos like this or this so many times before you’ve maxed out your usage.  And my students love watching videos like this one many, many times a day!

What does the DLC think about this program?  Do you think it will help that “digital divide” as far as access goes?  Do you see your students’ families buying into this program?  Other thoughts?

Click here for the insideschools.org article on Bloomberg’s announcement.

Making the Most of Digital Spaces in the Classroom

Our second book study discussion was on Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. We started by considering how Richardson’s work challenged or changed our thinking, and our discussion ranged from Wikipedia to teachers as users of digital media to the challenges of publishing print versions of books about digital media to the use of blogs in the classroom.

Several of us admitted that our thinking on student use of Wikipedia had changed, either because of Richardson’s book or because of other illuminating experiences with the site. We discussed the possibility of allowing students to use the sources cited on Wikipedia pages but not the page itself, but we also acknowledged that doing so deprives students of the opportunity to actually conduct their own searches for sources. Some of us are beginning to see Wikipedia through the lens of “shared knowledge” and are developing a belief that the teacher’s job is not to tell students which resources they can and can’t use but rather to teach them how to make informed decisions for themselves. Given our own use of Wikipedia to answer all sorts of questions for ourselves, barring Wikipedia in the classroom seems less tenable. Instead, we agreed that the ubiquity and undeniable usefulness of Wikipedia mean higher expectations for teachers in creating research tasks. We should not be assigning our students tasks where they are simply answering questions that others have already addressed on Wikipedia or elsewhere. Instead, we need to design student tasks that require the analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of what students find on Wikipedia.

One of our members has long advocated that writing teachers should also be writers, and we saw this theme in Richardson’s insistence that teachers seeking to incorporate digital media in the classroom should be using those tools in their own lives, too. Furthermore, teachers should be open to collaborating with and learning from their students, who frequently have more familiarity with digital media than we do. We were especially taken with Richardson’s statement that ”We can’t pretend to know everything anymore” (155). It’s humbling but also liberating to know that it’s okay to tell students that we don’t know something and to ask them to show us how it works!

We noticed several places where Richardson’s book seemed out-of-date (his beloved Google Reader no longer exists!), and this led us to a discussion of the challenges faced by authors writing about digital media in print forms. We learned about the Digital Humanities Movement and how it is challenging the field to reconsider what it means to publish, how we incorporate feedback and revision in digital spaces, and why we should trust the wisdom of the crowd.

As far as how we might incorporate these tools in our own classrooms, we talked mostly about our past and aspirational uses of student blogs. During our first meeting we talked about the reality that public writing is scary for a lot of students (and teachers!), and this theme reemerged during this discussion. We identified commenting as the first step to blogging and as a way to develop comfort with public writing. We also emphasized the need to really use blogging to its full capacity as a collaborative tool; rather than simply posting teacher questions and having students respond individually to those questions, students should be engaging in conversation with one another, while the teacher plays the role of facilitator, observer, and feedback provider.

As we move forward, we might consider:

  1. How can we develop authentic research tasks for students that require analysis, evaluation, and synthesis?
  2. What can teachers do to ensure that students are using blogs as collaborative spaces?
  3. How do we address the complex issue of audience in students’ digital writing?

One more note: At least one member of our group thought that this book did not really do Will Richardson justice. We were lucky enough to meet him at Fordham’s Summer Literacy Institute (#fordhamlit13) and to hear him speak about teachers’ ethical and pedagogical responsibility to incorporate digital media in the classroom. While Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms is an informative how-to manual for teachers, we missed his passionate voice here.

Next up: Crafting Digital Writing

Access and Audience: Two Things that Made Us Go Hmmmmm

The DLC kicked off our 2013-14 book study series with Because Digital Writing Matters (which is on sale so check it out!).  The NWP authors gave us much to talk about, and we enjoyed an hour on Google Hangout sharing thoughts about our classrooms, our students, and our own lives as digital users.

Our conversation started with a quote from the book:

“Besser (2001) argues that as we look at the content available on the Web, we see that there is a lack of local, contextual, relevant information, especially for underserved populations; that there are literacy barriers, in that  most online content is written by and for people with strong literacy skills” (p. 31).

As teachers in an urban setting, we talk a lot about access to the Internet and technological devices; this quote, however, gave us pause as we considered that those individuals without access – our students – may not even be the intended audience for digital content.  This thought troubled us on many levels, namely in issues of social justice.  Throughout the book we came time and again to two words of importance – collaboration, social.  These words imply that everyone can take part.  But can everyone take part?  Is it just access to the technology of it all that keeps individuals from participating?

Access is complex.  More complex than simply “having,” or “not having.”  The Digital Divide may be as much about prior knowledge as it is about hardware and software, and this focus on building prior knowledge is one we know well as urban educators.

Interestingly, we also responded to this question of “can everyone take part” from the perspective of introverts (which ironically, many of us may claim to be).  Is digital literacy designed for extroverts?  The fear of “going public” became a major theme in our conversation.  Digital tools allow us to make thinking public – and making thinking public is scary, especially when thoughts haven’t been fully realized.  Making writing (in “final” form) public is even scarier because ostensibly, thoughts have been carefully crafted into words.  The Internet invites critique, and it is this critique of self that inspires fear among introverts.

So what to do as teachers of writing and digital literacy?  Though we initially thought that starting small, inside the classroom, and moving to broader audiences may be the way to build confidence among our students and to scaffold them to public thinking, one member of the group turned our conversation on its head and suggested that we flip that line of thinking.  In other words, might not our students be more comfortable with nameless, faceless feedback rather than from feedback from peers that they see daily?

In thinking from the viewpoint of an adolescent (and perhaps an introvert too), we might agree.

Two questions from our conversation hang in the air:  What does access really mean?  and Small to big or flip the scaffold in writing publically?

And these questions will propel us onward with the work of the DLC.   Our next book study will focus on Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms.

Welcome to the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative

Welcome to the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative.  This year a group of talented, dedicated teachers in NYC will be studying together, writing together, and thinking hard together about what it means to be literate and what it means to be teachers of literacy.  Our series of book studies begins with Because Digital Writing Matters in July 2013 and will continue through the academic year.  We hope to document our journey and our thinking on this blog.