Tracing the Common Core in Michigan

Students writing
Image from Flickr, some rights reserved by calmenda

My colleague Robert Rozema has asked me to speak at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English annual conference later this week about where the “common core conversation” is at in Michigan.

So, I have gathered a few resources that trace CCSS implementation in our state, and across the nation, including the current debate.

This is not meant to be exhaustive, but instead to be a set of resources that can inform our critical, careful conversations about what we, as English teachers, can do moving forward in an era of CCSS. Interestingly enough, not much of this conversation involves actual students, a point I will return to at the end of this post.

CCSS Origin(s)

Like all origin stories, the CCSS’s is a bit murky, depending on who you ask. The “official” story, as reported on the CCSS website (emphasis is mine) is that:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a state-led effort that established a single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics that states voluntarily adopt.


The nation’s governors and education commissioners, through their representative organizations the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) led the development of the Common Core State Standards and continue to lead the initiative. Teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country together with state leaders provided input into the development of the standards.


States across the country collaborated with teachers, researchers, and leading experts to design and develop the Common Core State Standards. Each state independently made the decision to adopt the Common Core State Standards, beginning in 2010. The federal government was NOT involved in the development of the standards. Local teachers, principals, and superintendents lead the implementation of the Common Core.

A critique of this official narrative is that, because of the timing of the Race to the Top competition and the actual date the standards were finished, most states signed on to the standards without really knowing what they were or would be. I could say quite a bit, but will refer you to NCTE’s “An Open Letter to NCTE Members about the Common Core State Standards” and the edited collection by Patrick Shannon, Closer Readings of the Common Core. These pretty much debunk the myth of the CCSS as an educator- and parent-led initiative. In short, this was NOT a teacher-led initiative, and David Coleman (among others) have had a heavy hand in the highly-corporatized effort.

Race to the Top and the States’ “Choice” to Sign on to CCSS

Still, the CSSS was introduced to the states as a part of the US DOE’s Race to the Top program in 2009. The Wikipedia entry on all this is pretty good, so I will just get to the details. In order for states to be eligible for RTTT money, they had to have legislation in place that adopted more rigorous standards. Page 17 in this official document for RTTT application says:

Under criterion (B)(1)(ii), Phase 1 applicants will earn points based on the extent to which they demonstrate commitment to and progress toward adopting a common set of K-12 standards by August 2, 2010. Phase 2 applicants will earn points based on whether they have adopted a common set of K-12 standards by August 2, 2010.

In short, Michigan (like other states wanting to “compete” for federal money) had to adopt CCSS, even though it is labeled as a “state” initiative. The legislation went into effect on January 4, 2010. Again, it is interesting to note that the CCSS, in its final form, wasn’t introduced until June 2, 2010. And, of course, hindsight shows us that Michigan failed to win the race, because we did not earn federal dollars in either our phase one or subsequent applications. However, we did sign on to the CCSS, eliminated teacher tenure, raised the cap on charter schools, introduced more virtual schools, and created the Educational Achievement Authority. Stay tough, nerd! So, what a deal we got in the RTTT bargain, one that Granholm has now used to describe how we can reach energy independence, too. We’ll see how that goes.

Up to Now: The Current CCSS Controversy

Fast forward three years, with the new SBAC and PARCC assessments on the horizon for 2014-15. Besides the glaring infrastructure problems brought on by the digital divide that will still make all this testing impossible, there is a renewed (or, is it just new?) controversy about the CCSS. Why now, you ask? Well, this piece in Slate, “Common What?” by Alexander Russo, does a pretty good job of bringing us right up to the moment about the debate surrounding the CCSS.  In short, the reasons for hating the CCSS are quite different. For the right, according to Russo,

“… while it’s not a federal program, it certainly has strong federal support, enough to make it a controversial program that some Republican politicians have felt the need to back away from.”

For the left, he summarizes by stating that

“[l]iberal opponents describe Common Core as a crude mandate that’s going to push arts and science even further out of schools, limit the teaching of literature and creative writing in classrooms, and end up being used to rate schools and teachers unfairly.”

And, for those of us caught in the middle, it has led to some confusion, frustration, and anger. In Michigan, it appears (for the moment) that the state will allow education funding for CCSS initiatives. We have the Michigan Coalition for High Student Standards — including partners such as varied as Dow Chemical and Steelcase to the MEA and AFT — advocating for the CCSS and, in turn, the federal money and testing that comes with them. On the other side, we have local, grassroots groups like Save Michigan’s Public Schools and the broader coalition formed by Diane Ravitch, the Network for Public Education.

As of the time of this blog post (September 30, 2013), the latest news I can get from MLive reports that:

Despite an Oct. 1 deadline that would stop funding for the Common Core State Standards in Michigan, lawmakers in the Michigan Senate are not going to rush to approve a concurrent resolution approved Thursday by the state House of Representatives.

Interestingly enough, the House stripped out an “amendment which would have required state lawmakers to also take the same exams as students” because “the cost for test materials and scoring for the entire Michigan Legislature alone would have exceeded $3,300.” Really? I bet that we could pass the hat and come up with that much money so our legislators could have the same pleasure as our students.

Another element that is particularly disheartening, especially given this essay by Benjamin Winterhalter in Salon, is that our legislature is considering “a contractor that  provides electronically-scored essays with the ability to score constructed response feedback in multiple languages and provide ongoing instruction and feedback” (Bottom of page 1503). Apparently, they missed the memo from NCTE about machine scoring.

What’s Next

As Alfie Kohn has recently stated,

One of the key features of the conventional wisdom, the dominant ideology, is that we no longer recognize it as such because we hear it so often.  There’s no food for thought here; everyone just knows that our students are lousy, or that raising test scores would improve our economy, or that grit is good; there’s no need to defend these propositions.

Groups like the Badass Teachers Association, FairTest, United OptOut, Ravitch’s Network for Public Education are trying to push against the dominant narrative. We have collected some other resources on our SchoolTM wiki that may be useful in addition to the ones provided by those groups. Moreover, this is about kids. While test scores may be rising, slightly, the fact is that EAA schools are not at the center of their communities. They are test prep factories. What kind of future are we creating for kids who fail to find interest in learning?

I doubt that we will solve any of these problems in our conversation later this week, but I hope that we might continue to move forward with our efforts to help teachers and students in the small ways that we still can despite the overwhelming forces that are against us.

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Please Join Us: K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century MOOC

Follow the MOOC via Twitter @k12techcourses

Though I am a little late to the MOOC movement, I’m excited to be participating in a venture this fall — K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century — that will be facilitated by Rick Ferdig, Kristine Pytash, and a host of other educators from around Michigan. Here is a quick summary, and you can register on the MOOC’s main website.

This free course runs from October 7 to November 8, 2013. It is aimed at high school students, pre-service teachers and in-service teachers who are interested in a conversation about using 21st century tools for teaching.

My hope is that we can use the MOOC to foster rich dialogue about the nature and uses of digital literacies, looking for themes within and across the experience of teachers at various stages of their career and in different professional contexts. More on this next week as we get closer to the October 7th kick-off date.

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The Reading Room Webcast: Digital Reading & Writing

Reading Room Banner

Last night, I was invited to be on the second episode of the new webcast hosted by Heidi Perry from Subtext, the Reading Room. It was a great conversation about tips and tools for digital reading and writing, and I was pleased to have the chance to talk with Heidi and Sydnye Cohen, a high school library media specialist. Heidi and the team at Ed Reach are really trying to give this new show some legs, so check it out here, or subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher.

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Resources from the show

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My Digital Reading Practices, Part 6

From Flickr: Some rights reserved by Mike Licht,

With the encouragement of colleagues who have read, responded to, questioned, tweeted, retweeted, and otherwise pushed my thinking on digital reading over the past week, I want to bring this series to a close (for now). There will be more to come as Kristen and I continue to work on our book for NCTE, and I am scheduled to talk with Heidi Perry and Sydnye Cohen tonight on the Reading Room webcast. I love the interwebs and my PLN.

At any rate, I am feeling the need to bring some closure to all that I have composed this week. And, as a writing teacher, I want to rethink that old adage that we should “read like writers” and turn it around to think about how we can “write for readers,” especially in digital contexts. This is not a comprehensive list, but just a few thoughts that I wanted to get down before my ideas about digital reading strategies escapes me.

  • First, we need to help students navigate different forms of digital writing.
    • In one sense this is obvious, but perhaps it really isn’t for our students. Reading a basic ebook is different than reading a webpage in a browser is different from reading an RSS feed is different from reading a mulitmedia ebook. In short, the device may be the same, but our comprehension strategies need to be very different.
  • Second, no matter what the format, we still have to guide kids to carefully consider their digital reading.
    • I helped my daughter set up her Feedly account last night and, along with cute pictures of puppies (which was easy to find), I also helped her subscribe to the CNN student news (which was not so easy to find). They need a good variety of text types and topics, and we can’t rely on them to use the tools to find this variety on their own.
  • Third, we really need to better understand the intersections between digital literacies and comprehension instruction, especially in this new era of “close reading” proffered by the CCSS. 
    • Because it is, quite literally, not to mention metaphorically impossible to keep students within the four corners of the page for close reading, we need to consider how digital reading tools can and should be used to help kids read, comprehend, and respond to texts in critical and creative ways. I am reading the Jenkins et al book about this right now. Also, I trust other teacher leaders who are on the cutting edge of thinking about close reading, like Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. We need to be vigilant in the ways that we describe smart digital reading practices, especially vis-a-vis the current conversations about “close reading.”

For sure, there will be more thinking on all of this coming from me in the next few weeks as I visit some classrooms in Michigan and as Kristen and I continue work on the book. For the moment, I thank everyone for your thoughts, questions, and contributions to my series on thinking about digital reading. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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My Digital Reading Practices, Part 5

In response to one of my earlier posts this week, Will Richardson asked:

So without going down the rabbit hole completely, how do you decide what feeds to read, which Flipboard magazines to sub, which Twitter users to trust enough to follow, etc.? It seems like there’s a whole ‘nother layer to “preparing to read” that used to be provided by editors, reporters, authors, et al who came with a built in reputation of trust. How do we assign trust in an easy-to-publish world where everyone can create and contribute?

As always, Will asks great questions and I have been mulling this over since yesterday. Let me start a reply by backing up one step, then jumping into that rabbit hole.

What is Digital Reading Comprehension?

First, much of the literature on reading comprehension and the Internet has relied on the fact the most people begin reading online by doing a search. That is, most studies look at how students go about searching to begin with, how they choose to click on those search results once they appear, and how they evaluate the credibility of the webpages that they find. This is good work, and Julie Coiro is the person I trust the most when it comes to looking at online reading comprehension. It’s important to know when, how, and why people look at search results and then continue in a hyperlinked reading experience.

That said, while looking at how students evaluate search engine results and the credibility of individual web pages is a perfectly reasonable and smart approach, it is not the only approach to reading digital texts. Will and his colleagues at PLP have documented time and again the many ways that we can connect and learn online through social networks. That is, we don’t necessarily go searching for things by starting at Google, Yahoo, or Bing.

Instead, we have others send us stuff (sometimes when we ask for it, often times through “passive” search on our own social networks, and, as is the case with emails from that one annoying friend or family member, when we don’t want it at all). This is not necessarily objective and neutral information from credible sources. Instead, we get caught in our “filter bubbles” and are likely to read and view many of the same texts that others with our same ideologies share via FB, Twitter, etc.

So, what does this mean for us — and our students — as digital readers?

Curating the Curators

First, I think we need to turn the tables on how we go about finding digital reading material. We need to curate the curators, both machine and man.

Yes, the Internet search has been and will remain a key way of finding new information on a topic. However, we can also teach kids to be strategic in finding curated material, via RSS, from smart and thoughtful people, but making that our own.

In some ways, is the difference between going to the library and simply looking for a book as compared to going to the library and talking with the librarian about a topic. If we teach kids (and ourselves) multiple ways to find good information, it is much more likely that they will find diverse perspectives as well as credible information. With the Internet, surely there are at least two sides to every story, and probably hundreds more.

Second, to fall down Will’s rabbit hole of a question, I would say that my own decision-making process is guided by two primary means, and then a number of secondary strategies.

Number one, I begin by looking for the topics I am interested in and will simply trust, for better or worse, the curated material that others have presented. Similarly, I will trust someone who has many followers on Twitter and also produces a variety of good tweets that include links, strategies, and helpful interactions. Perhaps this is a bit naive, as some people have millions of followers and produce nothing worth reading (the old, “what I ate for breakfast” blogging problem). In this sense, Twitter is not another form of entertainment for me; instead it is a source for personal and professional knowledge. If someone is just advertising a product or into shameless self-promotion, then I am not interested in following him/her.

The second way that I do this (and I admit that it takes time and doesn’t always work out) is that I follow some of the trails and see where they are going. For instance, if a colleague on Twitter for trust mentions another person and the context of the tweet suggests that I might want to follow him/her, that I will click on his/her twitter feed and take a peek at it. This whole process takes me anywhere from about 10 to 30 seconds, which doesn’t sound like much but really is an investment of time.

Similarly, when using a tool like Flipboard, if I see that story has risen to be “popular” or the app has automatically suggested another content feed for me, then I will peek out at it briefly. If it appears to be good, then I will subscribe. I have to trust the wisdom of the crowd, just as I would trust a good librarian. Yes, sometimes the crowd leads me astray (I could certainly benefit by decluttering my Twitter feed), but the fact is that I am a highly motivated reader with the ability to skim and determine importance. If I see something that is not useful, I breeze by, and the amount of good reading material that I get from my PLN far outweighs the bad.

Other Digital Reading Strategies

Another strategy is that I pace myself with the feeds. For instance, I may open up my Feedly to look at news from Central Michigan University, but I usually only do the about once a week. I simply don’t need to keep up on it every day.

On the other hand, the folder in my Feedly for edubloggers is something I check quite often, usually about every other day so I can scroll back through the last 48 hours of headlines. Over the course of an entire week, I may spend about an hour in Feedly and an hour in Flipboard, each of which may launch me into another hour or so of linked reading.

I also get those regular e-mails and my main twitter feed, which may also each result in another hour or so of reading. The rest, quite honestly, it’s just browsing to make sure that I am catching the major headlines both from more formal journalistic sources as well as my PLN.

During this reading time each week, I will likely find some new sources that — because they are being recommended by existing colleagues and edubloggers that I follow — I will, as Will states, “assign trust” to and begin to follow. Now, this doesn’t happen every week, as I have plenty of feeds to keep track of. In fact, it probably happens about once every month or two that I pick up a new blog feed that I really want to stay on top of. In that sense, my digital reading practices are, paradoxically, quite slow.

Lastly, it is often the case that I may see something in one of my feeds and not click on it at that moment, only to find that — two or three days later — I find myself googling for an article that I barely read member seen the headline. For instance, this week, I know through both my twitter feed and one of the e-mail updates that there was a major article about Murdoch, Klein, and the Amplify tablet in the New York Times. I didn’t have time to read it the other day, but I did catch the headline, I was able to quickly find it this morning.

As I think about how my digital reading strategies align with the tried and true comprehension strategies I listed the other day, I see some cross over as well as some areas that are distinctly different:

Activating background knowledge


  • Carefully building my RSS feeds and PLN to reflect my needs and interests, as well as opposing opinion
  • Setting up Google Alerts to be notified of certain names and terms that appear in the news or scholarly publications
  • Approaching my reading (Feedly, Flipboard, Twitter) intentionally each day
Questioning the text


  • Clicking on links to see original sources
  • Taking notes and pulling out quotes
  • Reading four ways: upon, within, beyond, against
Drawing inferences


  • Knowing the background and slant of the writer, his/her history as a reporter/blogger/scholar
  • Understanding the context in which the work is published (own blog, organizational blog, scholarly journal)
Determining importance


  • Skimming and scanning major headlines and stories to determine importance for me as a reader
  • Searching within the document for key words (Ctrl+F)
  • Checking other sources that the author cites
Making mental images


  • NOTE: this is not so much a comprehension strategy I use with non-fiction, both because it really is something that lends itself to narrative and because many non-fiction pieces are supplemented with audio, video, or images
Repairing understanding


  • Right-clicking to bring up the dictionary if I encounter and unfamiliar word
  • Searching within the document for the first instance of a term if I missed it in my original reading
  • Jumping to the end and seeing which citations are used for which rhetorical effect
  • Clicking back on a previous link
  • Clicking ahead on a link to see why an author included it, then returning to read that article after finishing my reading of the first one
Synthesizing information


  • Writing
  • Writing
  • Writing
  • Seriously, I write. A lot. Through my notes in Zotero, condensing ideas into Tweets, writing my own blog, comments on other blogs, and (of course) scholarly writing for articles and books. Writing is the best way for me to synthesize reading.


All of this is just to say that I do make a very conscious effort to curate even what has already been curated for me. There is no way to keep on top of everything, and I don’t even pretend to try.

Over the course of the past 10 years or so, as I have learned to use RSS (and, yes, Will’s original blog was the first one that I followed with my original Bloglines account!), I have pulled together feeds that are useful for me. Twitter has, to some extent, supplanted that. I try to keep a “balanced” reading list, inviting some RSS sources that will, I know, help me see beyond my own filter bubble.

Moreover, I actively use and adjust my online comprehension strategies so I can make meaning as I go. Often, as I wrote yesterday, that means finding key quotes and staying with one article (web-based or PDF) before clicking off to read something else. That takes a very conscious, active effort on my part, as the natural tendency is to keep clicking.

I don’t know that I am any closer to digging myself out of the rabbit hole. I don’t know that I, or any of us, ever will be. Still, IMHO, I have a good lantern and all the other caving tools that I need to keep exploring as a digital reader. I hope that Kristen and I can figure out how to summarize and share these strategies in a way that is most helpful for teachers and students.

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My Digital Reading Practices, Part 4

As an academic working for a university, part of my job (about 40%, at least as stated on paper) is devoted to research. And, a hefty part of producing new research is knowing what research already exists so I can build on and contribute to that existing body of literature. Also, as a teacher educator, I adopt a particular stance toward research — usually as a participatory action researcher — which means that I need to be familiar with both the “ivory tower,” “research says…” kinds of studies as well as “practitioner” types of research that appear both in publications, but also in workshops and conference sessions, as well as in the popular media.

Needless to say, it’s a lot of information to keep track of. Enter Zotero.

I’ve lauded Zotero before. However, I know — for my K-12 colleagues especially — that there are other bibliographic management tools, Citelighter being a significant one, that make more sense to teach our students. Zotero, like many of the other bibliographic management tools, takes “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master,” so to speak. So, when I have presented it to teachers in workshops, many are interested, but I don’t hear about many taking it up in their teaching practice afterward.

My Own Annotation Practices Using Zotero (and a few other tools)

At any rate, to pick up on the second part of Kristen’s comment from the other day: “Still curious about when you choose to annotate,” you need to know that I am, as Jony Ives might say, “unapologetically academic.” When I pick up a new book or look at a journal article, I begin at the end. I look at the list of references first; that is, I want to know if I am theoretically and methodologically aligned with the author(s) of the piece, or if he/she/they is/are coming from a different academic camp. Then, I read the conclusion. It’s not like this is a drama where reading the end will give something big away. Instead, I want to see where the text is heading so I know how to read it (as I described yesterday: upon, within, beyond, against or some combination of all four). I may then zero in on specific sections or chapters, and finally return to do a read straight through. It is at this point that I begin to annotate.

Capturing Text from Books, Articles, Webpages

Zotero Screenshot with Notes Window Open
Zotero Screenshot with Notes Window Open

It is during this read through that I begin to employ Zotero. While I can read academic pieces almost anywhere because I can access them via VPN on my laptop or iPad, when I really want to dive in and do some database searching I find it best to do at home. Zotero, and its great browser plugins, let me get authorial and publication metadata from all kinds of websites such as news, blogs, youTube videos, databases and more. I grab the citation, pull it into Zotero, and then begin to take notes.

Because I have a dual monitor setup at home, I can keep one screen open with Zotero and the other with the PDF or HTML version of the text. I do this so I can copy and paste key quotes from the text into Zotero as I find them, as shown in the image here. No highlighting for me in my own PDFs, just lots of copying, pasting, and citing page numbers. So, in this sense, I am simply gathering text from other sources that, eventually, I will use in my own writing as evidence via quotations.

In the case that I am reading a physical book, I will either use a voice recognition tool like MacSpeech Dictate to read the quote from the book and transcribe it into Zotero. There are many free voice-to-text tools, such as Dictanote, so you don’t have to buy a specific program. Occasionally, I will use an app on my iPhone, Image to Text, to snap a picture and then have it translated through optical character recognition (OCR), and I send it to myself via email, as shown in the series of pictures below of a selection from Hobbs and Moore’s new book, Discovering Media Literacy. I find the OCR to be generally good, but it does usually require me to do some clean up after I get the email and then copy/paste the quote into Zotero.

Other Zotero Features

My "Need to Read" Tag
My “Need to Read” Tag

Zotero also has some great tagging and sorting features, much like what we are used to with many read/write web tools that also store metadata. Like iTunes, I can create “smart” collections of items based on search criteria. For instance, as I am collecting everything from databases, I tag everything with “need to read.” Then, using the smart search, I have a folder created that lists all the items with the “need to read” tag. It appears, as shown here, with all the other tags that automatically came from the metadata on the article. This keeps my “need to read” list fresh. When I am done reading and adding notes, I simply delete the tag, and the article is eliminated from my list (but is still in my bigger Zotero library).

Zotero Shared Library
Zotero Shared Library

Lastly, I would note that Zotero allows us to use the power of cloud collaboration to create group libraries. For instance, here is a screenshot of the shared library that Kristen and I are using to write the NCTE book on digital reading. We can see when the item was added, as well as any notes or other attachments (such as the PDF version of an article). This comes in handy as we are working together so we can both see what each other is reading, as well as what we think about it. While it is not quite as immediate or visually appealing as simply putting in a sticky style note right on a webpage, it does help us as academics to keep our thoughts organized.

Conclusion (or, Why I Annotate Texts)

So, there you have it. I choose to annotate when I think that a text — web page, article, book, YouTube video, whatever — will be useful for me in my writing and thinking. This means that the item must have practical value for me both in the moment as well as in the future, which is why I think that most people annotate. Additionally, I choose to annotate something when it is worth my time to enter it into Zotero because, eventually, I will be writing and will want to use the features of this program that allow me to instantly and easily insert a reference into Word. If I am at my computer reading with Zotero open, I annotate in one manner. If I am reading a paper book, I do it another way.

I know this is where I differ from some other edubloggers who really value Evernote, Diigo, or related social bookmarking and notebook tools. I understand and respect the reasons why they choose their tools. For me, as an academic, citation is the currency of argument writing. And, there is no way I can keep up on all the changes in MLA, APA, Chicago and more. Zotero has saved me hours, days, of my professional life by keeping my citations organized and, then when I need them, available at the click of a mouse. No other free and open source tool, at least no tool to my knowledge, allows me the kinds of freedom as a reader and writer.

So, if it is worth annotating, it is worth taking the time to put in Zotero.

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My Digital Reading Practices, Part 3

With another set of helpful comments and questions from colleagues and readers, I am again thinking about my digital reading practices today, as I did both Monday and Tuesday this week. Kristen has again prompted my thinking for this morning’s post:

Excellent. I’m changing a few practices of my own now. Still curious about when you choose to annotate, and I’m also thinking about the line you’ve drawn between pleasure reading and research/professional/learning reading. Why do we make kids annotate fictional texts?

I’ll tackle the last question about why we ask kids to annotate fiction (or any text, really) today. Tomorrow, I move on to describe the choices that I make when annotating, describing a bibliographic management tool that I use: Zotero.

1. Annotating Texts: Why

As the field of English has shifted from a “New Critical” approach of reading and interpreting literature where all meaning resides in the text to broader forms of socio-cultural approaches (including feminism, Marxism, and so on) where meaning is generated between the author, the text, and the reader, the specific sub-field of comprehension strategies has invited students to interact with the text in a variety of ways, both for fiction and non-fiction reading.

While this could be an entire literature review, I will keep it brief and mention one report and a handful of practitioner-oriented authors that thousands of teachers have found useful in teaching comprehension. So, the report is Carnegie’s “Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy,” released in 2006. The first recommendation in this report states:

Direct, explicit comprehension instruction, which is instruction in the strategies and processes that proficient readers use to understand what they read, including summarizing, keeping track of one’s own understanding, and a host of other practices

 These practices have been documented by numerous educators through books including, but not limited to, authors such as Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, Cris Tovani, Stephanie Harvey, Anne Goudvis, Kelly Gallagher, Jim Burke, Ellin Oliver Keene, Harvey Daniels, Jeff Wilhelm, Michael Smith, and many others (my apologies for omissions). In the broadest sense, comprehension strategies, as I define them, are the ways in which a reader takes a stance on a text. For instance, this article from Choice Literacy sums up seven main comprehension strategies:

  • Activating background knowledge
  • Questioning the text
  • Drawing inferences
  • Determining importance
  • Making mental images
  • Repairing understanding
  • Synthesizing information

While I was in grad school, my former advisor and current NCTE leader, Ernest Morrell would sum up his approach to comprehending academic texts as four ways of reading, ways that I think are useful for us to consider across all kinds of texts:

  • Reading upon text – Attempting to understand the context of the piece, who the author is, and with what authority he/she has to speak about the topic.
  • Reading within text – Following the logical of the argument and the evidence that the author uses to make claims. In other words, does the logic hold up given the evidence that has been presented and the claims being made?
  • Reading beyond text – Extending the text by asking questions and comparing to what others have said – do the claims made hold up in the broader ways that the topic is discussed? Does it make sense in the field of study?
  • Reading against text  – Pushing against the text by asking questions and contrasting it to what others have said – do you agree or disagree with the claims that the author is making? Why? Are there critiques you can (and should) make? This may likely require multiple readings!
Strategies that Work Cover Image from Amazon
Strategies that Work Cover Image from Amazon

So, why annotate texts? To accomplish all of the above. In our efforts to help our students become active readers, we may ask them to do any one of these activities and — in the process of doing so — document their thinking. It’s really that simple. And, as illustrated in this image of Harvey and Goudvis’s first edition of Strategies that Work, we can see that sticky notes have, for many educators, been the preferred method of having students engage in textual annotation. Besides increasing 3M’s market share over the past two decades, I have heard of teachers collecting annotated books to review students’ thinking. More recently, Kelly Gallagher has adapted this practice of annotation into his “Article of the Week” strategy, asking students to both annotate and respond to shorter, non-fiction texts on relevant topics.

2. Annotating Text: Another Way How

On Monday, I documented strategies for using Diigo and Crocodoc for annotating texts. One reader replied quickly to remind me of Evernote, and I am sure that you could find many more at Cool Tools for Schools. Many ebook readers have annotation features built in, and I am a big fan of using Good Reader on my iPad. These are all nice for writing “sticky note” style responses, and yet there are times where you want to have the ability to do more when annotating.

Annotated Screenshot from The Hunger Games
Annotated Screenshot from The Hunger Games

In this case, where you might be having students do a close reading of a particular page or passage, and you want them to annotate in more extensive ways, you might choose a screen capture and annotation tool such as Skitch, Jing, or simply taking a screenshot and using the tools available with Preview (not sure of the Windows equivalent except to Print Screen and use Paint). With each of these tools, you could have students either take a picture of a page out of a physical book, or you could have them take a screenshot from an ebook version. For sake of this example, I am using a screenshot from the Google Book’s version of The Hunger Games. I’ve used two colors to represent a personal reaction to the text (lime green) as well as a literary interpretation (red).

There are many ways that we can ask students to demonstrate comprehension; I imagine that we could extrapolate this idea into many of the comprehension strategies from these authors mentioned above, and use a number of digital tools to do so. In fact, I could see students documenting their comprehension by recording screencasts where they discuss key passages, too. They could also collect these passages and pull them into a presentation where they discuss key moments in the book, or major changes in the characters. The possibilities for using digital writing tools to document comprehension are more than I can consider in the space of this one blog post, but Kristen and I hope to find some great examples to put in the book!

More tomorrow on Zotero. Thanks all for your comments, questions, and suggestions. This has been a good week of blogging so far.

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My Digital Reading Practices, Part 2

Yesterday, I began this series of blog posts on digital reading practices with my thoughts about annotating texts, both PDFs and web-based. My colleague and co-author, Kristen Turner, asked me to step back and write about how I find reading material* to begin with:

How do you find texts worthy of annotating? How do you decide that you want to annotate (vs. read and file, read and discard, read and send to your colleague’s inbox – or perhaps send without reading…)

That said, there are two primary ways that I find new material** to read each day, a practice that I engage in for at least an hour over various points of the day, usually more than that, and across the multiple screens that dominate my work life: phone, tablet, and laptop. Thus, it is important to be synchronized, and that will show in the reading practices I describe below.

1. Curating my Own Reading: Narrowing the Flood of Information vis RSS

My Feedly Home Page This Morning
My Feedly Home Page This Morning

We all know that information is coming at us faster than ever, the amount is doubling every two years (or is it every one year now? or every day?), and that we can’t possibly keep up with it all. So, my first strategy is to curate my digital reading life appropriately so that I know what not to read. My main tool for doing so is through RSS. And, although this Common Craft video about RSS is a bit dated (we miss you Google Reader!), the principles are still accurate. So, if you want to learn a bit more about RSS before reading on, take a few moments to watch this.

[iframe]<iframe width=”480″ height=”360″ src=”//″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>[/iframe]

In short, RSS is how we get information from the web; it’s what powers updates of news sites and apps. I receive RSS feeds in a few ways, mainly through Feedly and Flipboard, both of which are installed on my phone and tablet. And, Feedly comes up as my first saved tab when my browser starts each morning.

With Feedly, I subscribe to a variety of blogs and new sites, as well as Google News Alerts about writing and educational technology (To do this, visit Google News, then search for a term or phrase. At the bottom of that search page, you will see the familiar RSS button and you can capture the feed from there, like this one I just made for technology and writing). All of these come through in the condensed format, shown above. If I want to read one in more detail, I simply click on it. Feedly helps me scan the headlines quick and get to the actual web source for reading, which is most handy when I am sitting at my computer, so I usually check here first thing in the morning.

A Screenshot from the #engchat Section of My FlipBoard
A Screenshot from the #engchat Section of My FlipBoard

With Flipboard, you can rely on a variety of pre-populated feeds that show up in a magazine style format, and you can also create your own feeds from your Twitter, Facebook, or other searches. You can add RSS feeds right into Flipboard if you have the feed’s URL. Plus, as you click on other links that take you to new content, Flipboard will recognize new RSS feeds and give you the option to click on a subscription button right there. Overall, Flipboard makes for a very tactile, pleasurable reading experience which I find most enjoyable as my evening reading. Then — as Kristen notes above — if I find something useful or interesting, I can read it (yes, read it!) and then send out a link via Twitter or email.

Basically, RSS forms the backbone of my professional reading life. I have even subscribed to feeds for journals so I can see what articles have come out and then, later, access them when I am on my computer so I can download them from a subscription database. Yes, I could do that on my tablet, but I use Zotero for annotated and managing professional texts, a topic for another post this week.

Lastly, a few other resources for using RSS:

2. Trusting Others to Curate for Me: Twitter Chats and Email Updates/Listservs

Of course, there are many, many other smart and dedicated educators out there and, like me, they are constantly trying to find new ideas and resources. Fortunately, most of them share these resources through blogging and Twitter or, in the case of more formalized organizations, via regular email newsletters. Along with setting up Google Alerts that come right to my email (which are different than the news alerts noted above), I use HootSuite to stay on top of multiple, on-going Twitter chats. Hootsuite is the window that I turn to throughout the day when I need a quick mental break as I change from task to task. Rather than getting caught up in my main Twitter feed, I can selectively choose the chats I want to read and, if applicable, links to follow. Additionally, I put the feed for some of these chats into Flipboard, as shown with the #engchat example in the image above. Many people have written about the power of their social network/personal learning network and the ways in which other professionals can inform, entertain, and support them. I am a strong believer in that approach, too.

The other way that educators share their knowledge is through the more formal use of email newsletters and listservs. I subscribe to a few, but the most important ones for me are:

I am sure that other professional organizations have similar types of email newsletters or listservs available, and I would encourage you to search for the links to sign up. And, yes, there are FB and G+ groups with people constantly sending links. But the regular emails from trusted professional sources as well as listservs with members that share useful resources are invaluable.

Of the items I do save and share, whether by email or Twitter, I try to be conscientious. We all have too much to read, and I don’t want to add to the digital detritus. If it is something that I truly think others in my entire PLN will benefit from, then I post it to Twitter and tag it with the appropriate hashtags, such as I did with this new article from The Atlantic.

Sample Tweet
Sample Tweet

Other times, I just send an individual email to the one person who I think might most benefit from reading the article. Either way, I work to be strategic in my own reading and, in turn, in helping friends and colleagues support their reading interests, too.


Yes, this takes awhile to set up and, periodically, to update and maintain. RSS feeds go dead. Alert preferences need to be adjusted. Email lists need to have filters set up in Gmail. And so on.

But, on the whole, I find that this system delivers the news I want, when and where I want it. Most of it I skim, some of it I simply ignore. Coupled with strategic podcast listening via Stitcher, I feel that I am very much “in the know” about what’s happening. I can’t really articulate that process much more metacognitively right now, because I have been writing this post for far too long and need to get on to other work. But, I can ruminate on that more in my next post.

* Caveat 1: A brief clarification here. When I am talking about digital reading practices in this context, I am talking about items that are primarily designed for reading on the web, not e-books. That is, I am constantly on the look out for fresh web-based documents that come to me through a variety of sources. These are ways that I find digital reading materials in addition to what I would call the “normal” ways of finding out about good books to read through NPR stories, friend’s recommendations, and getting updated professional book catalogues.

** Caveat 2: Also of note is the fact that my “pleasure reading” is, indeed, non-fiction and mostly professional. The last novel I read, well, I didn’t even read, I listened to it in the car. So, I have to admit that I am not much of a fan of fiction, although I still do read a few books each year that don’t fall into the broad category of non-fiction/professional. So, yes, I am kind of nerdy that way.

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My Digital Reading Practices, Part 1

Last week, I began blogging about my thoughts on digital reading. At the encouragement of my co-author, Kristen Turner, I’m going to work over the next few weeks to document some of my own digital reading practices as we begin to draft the book. I will be visiting classrooms, surveying students, and interviewing teachers as well as some randomly selected students during those visits. Still, along with getting data about what students and teachers are doing, Kristen and I both agree that it’s important to reflect on our own practices with digital reading.

So, this first entry about my digital reading practices essentially takes the tried and true method of highlighting and annotating the text and updates it with some digital tools. I don’t think that there is anything truly revolutionary about this except for the fact that I can annotate text easily and share it socially, which may be where the important elements of this could really come into play. For this kind of digital annotation, I can recommend two tools, although there are a variety of them out there.

Crocodoc Screen Shot
Crocodoc Screen Shot

To annotate existing documents, especially PDFs, and share them with others, I have used Crocodoc. With the same basic highlighting tools as the Preview program built into my Mac’s OS, I can highlight using different colors and insert comments as either point comments (like dropping a pin), area comments (as shown with the red square) or text comments (by highlighting a certain section of text that I want to comment on). I can then share or download the PDF with annotations. I could see a teacher using this as an option for students to mark up the text as a means of showing close reading. Certainly, students could also take a screen capture of pages from an e-book or even take a photograph of an actual book and then annotate it in a similar manner.

The other tool, Diigo, allows for the same type of highlighting, commenting, and sharing that is more suited for webpages. As a social bookmark service, teachers can create an RSS list of readings for their students, as well as groups where students can comments and highlight as well as see the annotations of others. One other benefit of using Diigo it is that it will archive a snapshot of the webpage the moment that you visited, so even if it changes later you will still have a record of the original text.

Given the number of edubloggers who have already used and documented their experiences with both of these tools — as well as many other tools such as Evernote —  a recognize that I’m not shaking the world by sharing these particular digital reading practices. What I would say though is that we, as teachers, need to be quite intentional in the way we introduce these tools outlined in the pedagogical goals. There are a number of smart books on comprehension strategies that have emerged over the past 20 years, and I can see that in digital tools like Crocodoc and Diigo, coupled with strategic instruction, could help make a difference for our students.

There will be more parts in this series of posts about my own digital reading practices, and I’m just not quite sure how many yet. As always, your thoughts about this topic are most welcome and I look forward to learning more about how others are using digital reading tools to support student learning.

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Thinking about Reading in a Digital Age
Image from San Diego State University Library

As the title of my blog says, I am certainly interested in the intersections of digital teaching and digital writing. Thinking about the ways that writers can use certain technologies to reach rhetorical goals has long been an interest of mine, and this fall I am turning my attention to the other side of the new literacies equation: digital reading.

My next project, in collaboration with my colleague Kristen Turner and many teachers that we know, will focus on how we are/are beginning to teach reading in a digital age. Here is the short summary of what’s driving our inquiry:

We wonder how this notion of rereading plays out in the digital reading of adolescents.  If the CCSS demonstrates an increased need for this kind of instruction related to print reading, we must attend also to reading in non-print forms.  We know from previous research that digital readers do not always read with focused attention on the Internet, and we can assume the same is true for their mobile devices.  How are adolescent readers navigating these spaces?  How might we teach them to read these complex texts critically?

Our work will be compiled into a new book for NCTE’s “Principles in Practice” series, and builds on the NCTE Policy Research Brief Reading Instruction for All Students. Our goal is to visit about 10 middle school and high school classrooms where we can see innovative digital reading practices going on.

As a part of this work, I am currently reading Jenkins et al’s new book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom, described in more detail in this blog post. So far, I have appreciated the stance that Jenkins and his colleagues have taken in the text, one that honors the deep, thoughtful types of reading practices that most teachers would find familiar and useful while also positioning students — as members of a participatory culture — in ways that demonstrate their unique abilities to remix and interpret texts.

It’s all very meta right now — studying digital reading while doing lots of digital reading and annotating myself. I look forward to getting into some classrooms soon to see how my colleagues are continuing to bring reading to life with a variety of new digital tools and literacy practices.

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