Power, Powerless, and Powerlessness

Our downed tree...
Our downed tree…

As 2013 comes to a close, I wasn’t quite sure that I would have time to get one more blog post out .

As it happens, the mid-Michigan area where I live was slammed with an ice storm a week ago and my family just recently (that is, six hours ago) moved from being in the “thousands without power” to having our lights (and wifi) back on. FWIW, here is a picture of the tree that we lost in our backyard.

So, I have found myself with lots of time to think about the technologies that I use in my life, even if I haven’t been using them nearly as much. Couple the power outage with the holidays (when work is, thankfully, slower for me) and it has been an interesting week of thinking. Let me elaborate a bit…

First, I have found that my thinking is informed by and integrated with the digital tools that I rely on (almost exclusively) as a way to get work done. I’ve been reading Clive Thompson’s Smarter Than You Think, and I definitely find myself aligned with the arguments that he makes in his book. While some might argue that being offline is a good thing (And, I can agree, to an extent; for instance, I have been pleased to finish off a few books during this break that may have otherwise been left on my nightstand), I also have found that I am much, much less productive.

In short, I feel that digital writing tools enhance the thinking that I am able to do. Rather than falling down the rabbit hole when I get online, I feel that I am generally very focused (about 90 to 95%) of the time. Sure, I use that 5% for random websurfing and catching up on the latest memes, but I use time online efficiently, mostly for work. When I don’t have that connection, my productivity basically falls to zero. For instance, I have been working on a grant proposal with two colleagues and while I could write (or, more likely dictate) lengthy responses with my iPhone to be sent via email, I have struggled to compose big ideas on small screens. The process of writing, for me, has become so embedded with the practice of keyboarding — and being connected to the internet — that I have had trouble getting any “real” writing done this past week.

Second, I am acutely reminded of the digital divide and the fact that I am very fortunate to have access to the types of technologies I am able to use on a day-to-day basis. As a part of my sabbatical, I wanted to focus on these issues, to help get more people connected through outreach programs and opportunities to get affordable technologies. Sadly, I haven’t spent quite as much time on these efforts as I wanted to this fall. So, with the new year upon us, it is a good time for me to renew those efforts, especially in light of my last point, which is this…

Finally — as one of the customers without power for eight days — I can understand why many of my neighbors are feeling frustrated and want their power back. Sadly, I also find the idea that people are protesting our local utility to be a moment where I simply want to scream about “first world problems.”

Seriously, people?

I can understand that some residents — most likely the elderly who would suffer terrible effects on their health and the impoverished who are systematically disadvantaged in ways that prevent them from attending such a protest — might have some legitimate complaints.

But, aren’t there a variety of other problems facing the world that we could spend our time and energy working to eliminate? Say, like the hunger, homelessness, and abject poverty that face citizens in mid-Michigan, let alone helping those people without the technology or funding available to access these technologies that the rest of you were protesting to have turned back on?

Really, people.

Get some priorities. You lost power. It was inconvenient. But, you still have a house and all your gadgets from Christmas. Most people in the world aren’t that lucky.

That’s enough for tonight, and for 2013. It’s been an interesting year, and I am looking forward to starting 2014 with a Spartan victory in the Rose Bowl, then refocusing for the second half of my sabbatical.


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Updates from Recent Collegial Conversations

Over the past few months, I’ve continue to have wonderful opportunities to speak at conferences and workshops, publish my work, and then share in conversations with fellow teachers. Two conversations in particular stand out as we had for the end of the calendar year.

First, Kristen Turner and I were contacted earlier this fall by Brian Newman, a high school teacher from Joliet, Illinois. He had read our English Journal piece, “No longer a luxury: Digital literacy can’t wait,” and wanted to ask us our opinions about blogging and how to engage students as writers. After recommending Youth Voices as a tremendous resource, I offered some specific advice about having students respond to one another:

Over time, as they post — and respond — I would encourage you to pursue some self-evaluation strategies. Ask them to go back and review their best blog post, and why they think it is so. Ask them, too, to review the best blog post from someone else that they have read. Then compare those posts. In that process of writing and responding, talk with them about the power of peer response and specific praise and constructive criticism.

Recently, Brian wrote us back and told us about the work that he and Sean Hackney has shared on their blog, Ancient Geeks. In this post, he discusses the end of semester writing conferences that he had with his student bloggers.  He outlines 13 steps to take in order to become a better blogger and teacher of blogging:

  1. Make the posts occur regularly.
  2. Give them choices.
  3. Use the blogs as formative writing practice for summative writing assignments.
  4. Check in with them regularly.
  5. Get testimonials from previous students about the positives and drawbacks of the various blog platforms.
  6. Make them read each others’ blogs.
  7. Use technorati.com, the blog search engine, to get them reading blogs.
  8. Conference with them.
  9. Grade them with care, because they care about being assessed on how they feel.
  10. Identify your tech wizards in class and empower them to help others.
  11. Create opportunities for kids to teach each other how to do make posts more interesting.
  12. Help them expand the audience: email the links to parents, other teachers, or other classes.
  13. Oh yeah, and write along with them. That’s what got Hackney and I writing this blog in the first place.

I appreciate the work that Brian and Sean are doing with their high school writers, and hope that they continue to find success in the new year.

Image courtesy of Katharine Hale (http://teachitivity.wordpress.com/)
Image courtesy of Katharine Hale (http://teachitivity.wordpress.com/)

The second teacher with whom I’ve been communicating this semester is Katharine Hale, a fifth-grade teacher from Arlington, Virginia, who is working diligently to integrate digital writing into her traditional writing workshop. She blogs at Teachitivity and in her recent post, “A Fresh Approach to Fostering Digital Writers,” Katharine describes the multiple goals that she had for integrating technology and making her classroom workshop time more efficient.

The entire post is worth reading, as she has numerous lesson ideas and examples. She concludes that:

As I said in the beginning, this was my first attempt at truly integrating technology, specifically the iPad, into the writing experience. It was incredible to finish the unit ON TIME with not one, but two published texts. I especially loved the interactive flipped lesson. I felt I had gained a whole class period of instruction because I did not need to use class time to assess students and determine small groups. If you read their digital literary essays, you may even notice that many of my students’ conclusion paragraphs are the strongest part of their essay!

Katharine worked critically and creatively to both integrate the use of WordFoto and Thinglink, allowing her students the opportunity to go from brainstorming to publication on both a traditional essay and multiple pieces of digital writing. As with Brian and Sean, I wish Katharine luck in the new year as well.

Thanks to all of my colleagues who have shared their work — and their students’ work — with me over this past year. There are more books, blog posts, chapters, presentations, workshops, and other pieces of writing on their way in the new year. I will try to blog some more over the holidays, but if I don’t get to it then I thank you now for another year of reading my work and invite you to stay in touch.


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Notes from Michelle Hagerman’s “Disruptive Promise” Dissertation Defense

As the fall semester nears its end, I am planning one more round of classroom visits to work on our “Reading in a Digital World” book project. So far, Kristen Turner and I have collected nearly 1000 surveys and 20 interviews. We are still doing lots of thinking on all of this. Thus, I wanted to hear more about what research is showing us in terms of how students read online.

So, earlier today I was able to attend a colleague’s dissertation defense. Michelle Hagerman presented on “Disruptive Promise,” a study where she worked with 16 ninth grade students to discover how they used the open web, including multiple and multimodal texts, as they worked to find evidence and build an argument. She asked them to use multiple internet sources (of any type) to write an essay on radiation treatment (a type of integrative task is one that is indicative of the types of tasks students will be required to do for new science standards). Her method was interesting, as she used screencasting and a webcam recording to capture both what happened as the students were searching as well as their conversation (and facial expressions) while searching.

She introduced her “LINKS” strategies for working with students as they evaluate online materials, including purpose, source, trustworthiness, connections between and among texts, and other scaffolds to help them work while reading online. Hagerman coded “strategic episodes” in her data where she observed what students were doing during their reading and searching process. With her first research question, she was looking at frequency of strategies. In her control and experimental group, she saw no statistically significant difference in the amount or frequency of strategies that students used during their research process. She did, however, as a part of her treatment, see that those students would use pre-existing knowledge while searching. Using the strategy instruction did have an effect over time. Identifying important information was the primary strategy, and they would spend more time searching for information.

With her second research question, she developed an “integrativeness rubric,” where she looked at how students would combine resources in the effort to make an argument in their writing. Between the control and experimental group, there was no statistically significant differences in how students constructed their writing. She also looked at a case study of two students, and discussed the amount of time that they spent on different strategies. By the end of the study, the two engaged in a broader set of strategies overall; they used more strategies and had slightly more integrative writing. She noted some “disruptive promise” in the LINKS strategies, and demonstrates how difficult it is to teach these strategies; still even a nudge from teachers toward a more active stance in internet research would be helpful for students.

Hagerman’s work demonstrates the immense complexity of teaching students how to choose, comprehend, evaluate, and synthesize the many components of digital reading. It reminds me that — despite years of good work from the New Literacies Research Team at UConn — I am not sure that we are any closer, at least in K12 instruction, to really teaching the (digital) reading strategies that students need today. It also shows me how important it will be to teach students to use tools like Evernote or Citelighter as a key component of their own searching and reading because, as Hagerman notes, even if they use strategies it may not have an effect on their writing. In short, we have to teach students to use strategies and document their work along the way. Also interesting, in the Q/A, she also noted that students did not use multimodal resources, and that — in school at least — they are often discouraged from using anything other than text on a web page as evidence.

Finally, her suggestions for teachers are helpful, and remind me that we, as teacher educators, need to model this work for K12 teachers, too. First, Hagerman suggests that teachers think about complexity of the online reading process and do some think aloud modeling, just as we would do with other reading comprehension strategies. She also suggests that we use screencasting for brief clips demonstrating these strategies, possibly a good resource for flipped classrooms, too. Lastly, of course, equipping students with a set of online reading strategies can be helpful, and reminding them of those strategies before, during, and after the process of reading.

All of us interested in digital literacy should appreciate the work that she has done in her dissertation. I want to get my hands on the “LINKS” framework that Hagerman has presented and see if there are some connections to what Turner and I are trying to document in our book. Our students need a great deal of support as they learn how to read digital texts, and my hope is that the book can provide teachers with some specific ideas. Hagerman’s dissertation will surely be one resource that we cite.


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Create, Compose, Connect Blog

Create Compose Connect Book CoverMy friend and colleague, Jeremy Hyler, and I have created a new blog for our upcoming book. So, please take a minute to subscribe to Create, Compose, Connect! Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools and look for the book to come out in March 2014.

We also plan to have a wiki associated with the book, and it will house links to resources from the book as well as student examples for review.


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