Preparing for IRA 2013

IRA Convention Logo
The IRA Convention begins this Friday

This week, I travel to San Antonio for the International Reading Association’s Annual Convention. This is my first trip to IRA, and I was fortunate enough to be invited by Julie Coiro to help facilitate the pre-conference institute entitled, “Using New Technologies to Engage Readers and Encourage Student Voices.” My portion of the institute will be to lead the opening keynote “Raising Digital Writers” and then to talk about using a wiki as an online space for hosting a digital writing workshop.

Of course, this institute is about literacy in the broadest sense, but since it is specifically focused on reading and new technologies, I want to target my session to meet those needs. In that sense, what does it mean to “read like a writer and write for a reader,” especially in a digital context? How do we help students become more engaged in the process of creating digital texts that are meant to be read, heard, viewed, and experienced through computers, smart phones, and tablets? What is it that we want our students to know and be able to do in order to show depth of understanding and strive for meaning when creating digital writing?

These are questions I continue to ponder with colleagues, as well as with my own children. So, as I think through the possibilities for how to frame my keynote, here are a few “lessons learned” over the past couple of weeks:

First, I have been a part of the NCTE task force that has charged with the task of creating a summary document about the effects of computerized scoring and writing assessment. As we have been compiling our ideas, I have been sharply reminded of the fact that the “next generation assessments” promised by PARCC and SBAC could still be evaluating students on very traditional measures of writing such as sentence length, spelling, and grammar. Don’t be fooled. Even though the tests will be administered on a computer, students will not be creating robust pieces of digital writing — with links, images, or other media — meant for other human readers. Sadly, I think that this is a case of formulaic writing moving from pencil and paper onto a computer screen.

Second, I just finished up some consulting work with the Columbus Area Writing Project, and I was reminded of the power of intention in all kinds of writing, including digital writing. Just because a student is producing something with a computer or smart phone — whether it be a word processed document, a text message, or a video clip — doesn’t necessarily mean that they are using creative ideas in an intentional manner. They could just be filling in the blanks on an assignment or, worse yet, composing a message and sending it out to the network without thinking much about it at all, especially in regard to who will read the message and how it will be read.

Third, I was a guest teacher in two sections of my CMU colleague’s creative writing classes. During the first class, as I presented some ideas about and examples of creative digital writing, I inadvertently set up creative/digital as a dichotomy to overcome, not a duality to embrace. In the 15 minute break, I was able to rethink the way that I introduced my presentation for the second class, and this read to a much more robust conversation that was focused on possibilities, not limitations. Given recent attention in the news to such trends as state legislatures requiring cursive writing and explicit grammar instruction, I need to be careful to make sure that I am not setting up digital writing as a dichotomy.

Finally, my own ENG 315 students have been finishing up their multigenre research projects. More than ever before, I find that they are producing their products on websites rather than turning in binders (specifically, Weebly was the clear winner with this semester’s students). As we think about the options that students have available to them for producing digital writing, as well as how we will consume those texts as readers, I am becoming more optimistic that the new generation of teachers will be comfortable in a print and digital world; with thoughtful coaching and practice, they will understand how digital texts are composed and, therefore, better able to discuss text features and comprehension strategies with their own students. Because teachers are seeing themselves, more and more, as digital writers, I hope that they are becoming more comfortable with the process of digital reading as well.

All this said, I still need to get my slides in order for this week, so I welcome any comments or questions on these ideas as I think about how to condense them into a coherent 45 minute presentation that will begin a day of exploring reading and technology. What else is going on in the world of digital reading? How are your ideas changing as more and more students bring devices to school or have access to them in their own lives? What would a group of teachers who are attending this session need to know about raising digital writers (and readers)?

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Is There (Finally) a New Paradigm for “Teacher Accountability?”

Two compelling events happened yesterday, each raising the possibility of a new paradigm for teacher accountability and each important in its own way.

First, Bill Gates published an op-ed in the Washington Post, “A fairer way to evaluate teachers.” Here is the heart of the piece:

This is one reason there is a backlash against standardized tests — in particular, using student test scores as the primary basis for making decisions about firing, promoting and compensating teachers. I’m all for accountability, but I understand teachers’ concerns and frustrations.

Even in subjects where the assessments have been validated, such as literacy and math, test scores don’t show a teacher areas in which they need to improve.

If we aren’t careful to build a system that provides feedback and that teachers trust, this opportunity to dramatically improve the U.S. education system will be wasted.

This comes from the man, through his foundation and reputation, who has been one of the most influential educational “reformers” in the past decade. And even he is cautioning us about the ways in which the current push to tie test scores to teacher accountability is wrong-headed. Finally.

NCLE Report: Remodeling Literacy Learning
NCLE Report: Remodeling Literacy Learning

On another front, the National Center for Literacy Education shared a new report, “Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works” on Capitol Hill. The main findings include:

  1. Literacy is not just the English teacher’s job anymore.
  2. Working together is working smarter.
  3. But schools aren’t structured to facilitate educators working together.
  4. Many of the building blocks for remodeling literacy learning are in place.
  5. Effective collaboration needs systemic support.

This morning, I participated with colleagues on the NCTE Task Force about computerized scoring and the PARC and SBAC assessments. We have a plan for a white paper, and hope to have it done next week.

So, is there maybe, just maybe, a bit of hope for a new paradigm in teacher accountability dawning on this fine spring day? With the complete lunacy of our current accountability system now exposed for the racket that it is, my hope is that we are turning a new page for students, parents, teachers, and our nation.

Update: April 5, 2013

In addition to correcting a grammar error, a colleague has also suggested that I add a link to Peter Smagorinsky’s op-ed from April 3rd, “Seeing teachers as technicians ignores what else they give students: confidence, moral support and inspiration.” Here is a brief segment from his post that highlights his main ideas for rethinking teacher evaluation:

In order for a teacher evaluation system to be legitimate, it should have a related set of qualities that go well beyond the simplistic approach imposed by the U.S. Department of Education. A credible evaluation system is valid (it has buy-in from multiple stakeholders’ perspectives, including the teachers for whom it is developed); it is reliable (similar results would be available from different assessors); it has utility for all participants regardless of the outcome of the evaluation (including those who are found deficient); it fosters the development of better teachers; it provides data that contribute to this development by attending to multiple facets of faculty performance; and it is conducted respectfully in terms of the magnitude of the job and the resources provided to undertake it.

I look forward to hearing more about his proposal at the CEE conference later this summer and when it is published in English Education later this year.

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