Introducing Connected Reading

Connected Reading Cover (Courtesy of NCTE)
Connected Reading Cover (Courtesy of NCTE)

This month marks the publication of my fifth book, a co-authored work with Kristen Hawley Turner entitled Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World.

The research and writing process for this book took over two years, though it was well worth the effort. Combined, Kristen and I visited a dozen classrooms, interviewed nearly two dozen students, and surveyed 800 teens about their uses of digital reading devices. We discovered that reading was about much more than just the device; it remains, at the heart of it all, a conversation about words, stories, and ideas. Here is the official “blurb” from the back of the book:

As readers of all ages increasingly turn to the Internet and a variety of electronic devices for both informational and leisure reading, teachers need to reconsider not just who and what teens read but where and how they read as well. Having ready access to digital tools and texts doesn’t mean that middle and high school students are automatically thoughtful, adept readers. So how can we help adolescents become critical readers in a digital age?

Using NCTE’s policy research brief Reading Instruction for All Students as both guide and sounding board, experienced teacher-researchers Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks took their questions about adolescent reading practices to a dozen middle and high school classrooms. In this book, they report on their interviews and survey data from visits with hundreds of teens, which led to the development of their model of Connected Reading: “Digital tools, used mindfully, enable connections. Digital reading is connected reading.”

They argue that we must teach adolescents how to read digital texts effectively, not simply expect that teens can read them because they know how to use digital tools. Turner and Hicks offer practical tips by highlighting classroom practices that engage students in reading and thinking with both print and digital texts, thus encouraging reading instruction that reaches all students.

We summarize our model in this graphic, and hope that it sparks conversations about the nature of reading in a digital world.

Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World Graphic
Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World by Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks © 2015 by the National Council of Teachers of English. This figure may be printed, reproduced, and disseminated (with attribution) without permission from NCTE.

Check out the first chapter on NCTE’s website as well as our companion wiki. We look forward to continued conversations about connected reading among teachers, parents, and, of course, our students.

Digital Media in Content Area Learning

Earlier this week, Liz Piazza asked:

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At the time, I didn’t think I could answer in 140 characters, and I’m glad that I didn’t try.

There are quite a few things to consider when answering this question, and perhaps it was simply the word “all” that threw me for a loop. Well, yes, in all content areas. I think. Wait, maybe not all. Most? Some?

You can see how I pondered the question, turning it over in my mind.

In doing so, however, I also began to think about the goals for content area literacy or, as it is being described more and more — especially by Tim and Cindy Shanahan — disciplinary literacy. And, in fact, their definition is at the crux of how I would answer the question. They believe that “Most students need explicit teaching of sophisticated genres, specialized language conventions, disciplinary norms of precision and accuracy, and higher-level interpretive processes” (43) and “the nature of the disciplines is something that must be communicated to adolescents, along with the ways in which experts approach the reading of text. Students’ text comprehension, we believe, benefits when students learn to approach different texts with different lenses.” (51).

Image CC Licensed by Flickr User Dan Zen

So, my short answer to Liz’s question would have been, “Yes, various forms of new media such as social networking and gaming can be successfully used in various content areas, perhaps even all of them,” as evidenced by tools such as EASE History, the Science Game Center, the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, or any of the dozens of options available on this K-12 Tech Tools wiki. Students have created videos about science experiments and historical reenactments, and acted as characters from literature or actual historical figures on Twitter and Facebook.

So, yes, they can.

The deeper answer, and the one that I have been struggling with over the week, however, is a little more complicated.

If we think about the Shanahans’ ideas that content area literacy is quite a bit more specific than simply applying a general set of strategies for writing-across-the-curriculum — as good as those strategies may be — then there has to be something deeper, something more rhetorical, to the idea of composing a disciplinary text with multimedia. Returning to Liz’s question, and pivoting it just a bit, I wonder: Can various forms of new digital media be effective as a tool for composing in all disciplines? 

Here, the answer gets a bit murkier, mostly because I am not a disciplinary expert outside of the field of writing. On the one hand, I can imagine that expressing disciplinary knowledge in math, science, history, or the arts — demonstrating a way of thinking through expert interpretation, analysis, and communication — could happen in any form of media. Heck, a whole movement in education, the flipped classroom, has come about because teachers have taken up the idea that they can create and deliver lessons via online video at least as effectively, if not more so, than they can do in the classroom. So, multimedia exploration of disciplinary knowledge is, conceivably at least, possible.

On the other hand, I wonder what is lost when transitioning from writing (words into sentences into paragraphs types of writing) into multimedia composition? Are there components of disciplinary thinking that don’t translate well from words to images to video to links to… whatever other form of media we can imagine?

At the same time, what do disciplinary experts gain in the process of being able to use images, voice, video, links, and other forms of media? How can they use multimedia to more fully express their ideas? What is it that we want to know about learning math — or science or music or art or anything — that multimedia can offer above and beyond print?

Liz’s question has pushed my thinking this week, and for that I thank her. I’m hoping that this response pushes her thinking, too, as well as yours. What does it mean to compose, as a disciplinary expert, with digital writing tools?

Lastly, and on a related note, for more of my thoughts on disciplinary literacy from an English Language Arts perspective, this chapter could be useful:

Hicks, T., & Steffel, S. (2012). Learning with Text in English/Language Arts. In T. L. Jetton & C. Shanahan (Eds.), Adolescent Literacy in the Academic Disciplines General Principles and Practical Strategies. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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Keynote from Reinventing the Classroom 2014 Virtual Conference

My thanks to Steve Hargadon for an invitation to speak during the Reinventing the Classroom virtual conference last week. The archive of my webinar is available on YouTube.


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WRAB III: Writing As Multimodal Text Production

Here are slides from my talk, “Writing as Multimodal Text Production.”

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Fourth Post from SDRC “Hack and Yack” Series

This post was originally published on the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative blog on January 23, 2014.


Over the past two weeks, we explored the big ideas behind digital reading and ebooks, and have looked at basic ebooks and enhanced ebooks. Today, we wrap up the series by thinking about the possibilities afforded by interactive ebooks.

Features of Interactive eBooks

 

Interactive eBook Features and Examples

To return one more time to Avi Itzkovitch’s thoughts on ebooks, he defines interactive ebooks as “apps designed specifically to utilize the powers of tablets to enable users to interact with the storyline in sight, sound, and touch.” There are a variety of interactive ebooks available, and my colleague Rob Rozema has recommended Frankenstein (iPad App) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (iPad App) as two popular examples. I would also encourage you to check out his book, Bent Not Broken, which he has now made available for free.

Image from Robert Rozema's ebook Bent Not Broken
Image from Robert Rozema’s ebook Bent Not Broken

For Rob’s book in particular, he weaves the personal stories of refugees with a history of the war in Liberia end Sierra Leone. While many e-books are made for entertainment purposes, I appreciate the work that Rob put into his project, both as a researcher/writer and as someone interested in digital literacy. He was able to incorporate documents and video available in the public domain with his own multimedia including audio and video recordings as well as interactive maps of the region.

In addition to apps that are specifically designed for tablets, I would also like to introduce the idea of “transmedia storytelling,” described by Laura Fleming in this manner: “Transmedia storytelling exemplifies learning in the twenty-first century by merging the concept of storytelling with that of the listener-learner and the resulting emotional engagement with the pervasiveness of media” (p. 371). She builds on Henry Jenkins and his colleagues’ ideas of participatory culture and, I would add, connected learning. Finally, the Transmedia Storyteller defines this process as “telling a story across multiple media and preferably, although it doesn’t always happen, with a degree of audience participation, interaction or collaboration.”

One of the transmedia stories that Laura has studied and used with her own students is Inanimate Alice. Here is a description from the homepage: “Set in a technology-augmented near-future, Inanimate Alice tells the story of a young girl who grows up to become a videogame designer at the biggest games company in the world.” In her article, Laura describes the educational possibilities of Inanimate Alice, and transmedia more broadly, as:

Inanimate Alice is a bridge to literacy that today’s young learners inherently connect with and understand. Readers go to the story for inspiration, creative writing, and multimedia text analysis. It offers engaging materials enmeshed with educational guidance to be delivered across structures in a variety of formats. (pp. 375-6)

In short, I see the possibilities of composing an interactive ebook in much the same way as I do composing a transmedia story. Thus, for teachers aiming to support their students as they develop texts that include interactive features, I would encourage us all to consider the ways in which we may use blogs, websites, or wikis as a tool for production. In other words, students can compose a lengthy, significant text (like a book) and have it spread across multiple pages on a website, embedded with multimedia.

Tools for Creating Interactive eBooks

As noted above, to officially produce an interactive ebook, as compared to a transmedia story shared across multiple platforms (primarily the web), specific software will be needed. There are two primary tools for creating interactive ebooks, and they come from the tech giants that you would expect: iBooks Author (which forces users into Apples proprietary format and to distribute their work via iTunes) and Adobe InDesign, a part of their professional suite of tools in the Creative Cloud. In keeping with the free and open source ethos of this series of blog posts, however, I will offer two alternatives.

First MegaZine 3 (First Version Available as Open Source), is described in this manner: “MegaZine3 recreates the look and feel of actual books or magazines on the screen. And much more… all kind of multimedia content like video and audio and interactive forms, games and quiz are supported.” While I have not used MegaZine, I did take a look at some of their samples, including brochures, books, magazines, and reports. I’m sure there are other publishing tools that allow for the types of embedded multimedia that MegaZine offers, too, but the fact that the first version is available under an open license makes this particularly appealing.

Sopie Design Interface
Sopie Design Interface

Second, I’ve done just a little exploration on Sophie (Open Source – Mac/PC/Linux), which is billed as “software for collaboratively authoring and viewing rich media documents in a networked environment.” Much like what I have experienced with iBooks author, the interface for Sophie appears to have multiple options for laying out the page and embedding multimedia. And, like MegaZine, there are examples of Sophie projects to explore.

Conclusion

As I conclude this series of posts on ebooks, I continue to think about the amazing opportunities now offered to our digital readers and writers. As someone deeply interested in digital writing (with all its affordances including the use of links, images, and video), I’m genuinely curious to think about the ways in which we can support our students as they both comprehend and create a lengthier texts.

Many teachers are now having their students compose on blogs and wikis, use discussion forums or social networks, and create digital stories or other types of video projects. I wonder what might happen if, much like a portfolio, students might collect many pieces of digital writing and compile them in an ebook? Could one interactive feature also be in “author’s commentary,” much like the director’s cut on a DVD where we get insights into why and how the film was shot?

Personally, I look forward to continuing my own exploration of ebook publishing as I begin writing a professional book that will incorporate many multimedia components. As you continue your thinking and teaching, I will be curious to know what you and your students are working on, too.

References

Fleming, Laura (2013) “Expanding Learning Opportunities with Transmedia Practices: Inanimate Alice as an Exemplar,” Journal of Media Literacy Education: Vol. 5: Iss. 2, Article 3. Available at: http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/jmle/vol5/iss2/3


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Third Post from SDRC “Hack and Yack” Series

This post was originally published on the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative blog on January 21, 2014.


Our post last week looked up an example of a basic ebook, one that is essentially a PDF document or ePub style and has features such as search and annotation, adjustments for readability, and the ability to access some other functions of a tablet such as a web browser. This week, we will look at ebooks with increasing levels of interactivity, beginning today with enhanced ebooks.

Features of Enhanced eBooks

Enhanced eBook Features

As Avi Itzkovitch describes them, enhanced ebooks “are a new digital publication standard that allows easy integration of video, audio, and interactivity.”  This can include options such as richer annotation features, quizzes, audio and video content, and links to supplemental content available on the web. While this type of interactivity enhances an ebook, I would argue that these features may still not contribute to the overall meaning making process for a reader in significant ways. In other words, simply because the digital writer may create a text using a tool such as iBooks Author, this does not necessarily mean that the content provided contribute to a reader’s comprehension or enjoyment of the book without careful attention to detail.

That said, making an enhanced ebook could, of course, contribute to a richer comprehension and enjoyment process. For instance, a text could be created as an interactive adventure, or having the reader to engage in one of the interactive features could reveal a crucial plot development or piece of information about a topic. Still, for the most part, these multimedia components or hyperlinks merely reinforce or complement the existing textual material. Ideally, this is not just interactivity for its own sake. An e-book that has some interactivity and multimedia features should bring something more to the reading experience than only reading text alone.

Enhanced eBook Examples

Given that my particular interest is in K-12 education and how teachers can help their students become digital readers and writers, I wanted to look for examples that they could use as “digital mentor texts.” This is a term that some colleagues and I coined for a series of blog posts in the beginning of 2012. By this, we were hoping to move the conversation about “mentor texts” — those exemplary stories, poems, articles, or even single sentences or paragraphs we can use as models for our students — and think about what types of digital writing could be used as mentors. Thus, I want to carry on in that fashion and look for some examples that could become the types of enhanced e-books that K-12 students could compose.

First, I might suggest building a “choose your own adventure” style book. Of course, there are our old favorites at the library, supplanted now with online versions (many community powered) such as Choose Your Story, Choice of Games, or this list from DMOZ. Please note that I am not attesting to the quality of any of these sites, or the appropriateness of the content, as some come with explicit disclaimers about not being for children. Still, the idea of creating hypertext with branching storylines in the “choose your own adventure” style is one that makes a good deal of sense, especially for students in elementary and middle school. This is certainly one model of interactivity.

Another potential example would be to create hypertext fiction. Described on Wikipedia as “a genre of electronic literature, characterized by the use of hypertext links which provide a new context for non-linearity in literature and reader interaction,” hypertext fiction can include words or images that are linked to internal pages of a website or out to different sources. Again, as a genre that would be relatively easy to produce in the form of an e-book, students could use principles of hypertext fiction to link to additional content that they create and present inside of the e-book, as well as to external sources. This set of 100 Flash Fiction Hypertexts  appears to be a good place to find some examples.

Finally, I would look to the example of Scratch, a tool that students can use to “program your own interactive stories, games, and animations.” I was fortunate enough to visit the MIT Media Lab last fall while in Boston for NCTE, and as someone who had only tangentially known about this tool, I’m simply amazed at what Scratch can do. In particular, as a storytelling tool, Scratch provides options for interactivity as well as numerous examples created by users in their community. Many of the same types of functions that would appear in an interactive ebook are available in Scratch, so it provides a good space for students to learn, play, and explore.

Tools for Creating Enhanced eBooks

Beyond the examples listed above, there are a number of tools that we can use to construct interactive e-books, or at least websites that would function in a similar manner. I suppose that I don’t get too picky here because, given that I am trying to present a wide variety of tools and options, whether or not something is presented in a downloadable e-book format or available on the web seems to matter less than the actual quality of the writing. For teachers, my strong inclination is to use web-based tools to create these kinds of enhanced texts, yet encourage students to move beyond short and simple pieces into lengthier, more nuanced, and complex ones.

So, one possibility that I think many of us might overlook is the idea that we could create a simple slide presentation, using words, images, or invisible shapes on the screen to act as hyperlinks. There are of course the free Open Office Impress and Google Presentations which are popular tools, and Cool Tools for Schools lists even more. There are a number of other tools that would allow students to create some level of interactivity such as Booktracks (adding a sound track to a written text), Voicethread (for commenting on text, images, or video), or Meograph (which invites users to create stories with various media elements). Recently, I was introduced to a new tool, Play, which allows users to “ curate emotive multimedia content, stimulating peers to create, circulate, and interact through new media.” And, finally, I have heard about, but haven’t really tried Inklewriter for Teachers, a tool that allows students to create stories that require the reader to make choices, much like the Choose Your Own Adventure idea noted above.

Conclusion

With this post, I end with a few questions for us to consider:

  • As we think about the affordances of enhanced ebooks, how can we help students think creatively about telling stories, presenting information, and making arguments?
  • What do we feel could be a useful way to encourage the remix/reuse of existing media as we create ebooks?
  • How might we invite them to make their own media that could enhance their ebooks?

We want our digital writers to think about enhancement in ways that move well beyond the bells and whistle, inviting their readers to use these features as a critical component of meaning making. My final post later this week will look at the last category of ebooks: enhanced ebooks, in which interactivity and multimedia are, indeed, central to the comprehension process.


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Second Post from SDRC “Hack and Yack” Series

This post was originally published on the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative blog on January 17, 2014.


As mentioned in our introduction to this series of blog posts, we are heading into the world of e-reading for the next few days, considering what it might mean for us as digital writers and rhetors. Today, I want to explore the first type functionality made available to typical ebooks.

Features of eBooks

eBook Features

These books can be as simple as a PDF document, or they can be comprised of “flowable” text that allows for font size adjustment. Probably the most common formats for  ebooks are the Kindle and iBooks formats as well as the more ubiquitous ePub. Some of the essential features for ebooks in these formats include:

  • Basic search and annotation: users can search for particular words or phrases using an integrated search function. Additionally, users can “highlight” selected passages that can be collected by the ebook software as a set of notes.
  • Readability features: because of the digital nature of the text itself as an XML or HTML5 format, Michael Wesch reminds us that the content and form are separate. Thus, flowable and adjustable texts have become the norm. No longer do we need to tell students to turn to page X. Instead, we can have them search for words and passages.
  • Use of external computing functions: another useful feature of eBooks is the connection to the dictionary and web browsing functions. Finding a definition or more information about a word or phrase is, quite literally, at one’s fingertips by simply pressing and holding a word and launching these additional features.

These features — while not nearly as snazzy as some of the ones we will explore in our next two posts on enhanced and interactive ebooks — are nonetheless quite useful for readers. Moreover, they are important for us to remember as writers, too. Are there ways that we can use images within our digital writing, for instance, to maintain the exact size, shape, and color of a particular font? Might we use certain words, alone or in combination, together to signal certain sections or transitions in the texts (without necessarily using sub headings, bold or italics)? Are there ways to hide other “Easter eggs” in our very basic ebooks that would reward a savvy user?

Basic eBook Examples

Project Gutenberg is probably the widest known site, providing tons of texts that exist in the public domain and available in a variety of ebook formats. Additional sources for public domain ebooks include Amazon, Feedbooks, and your local library’s ebook service. As noted above, there aren’t too many features that these texts have, but the one specific advantage to getting the book in an ebook format — as compared to a straight up PDF — is that the book will have flowable text. For instance, here are two screenshots of from the Kindle App showing some of the features noted above.

Kindle Viewing Options
The Kindle app allows users to change default font sizes, as well as text and background color.
Kindle Highlighting Options
Also, the app allows users to highlight text and provides quick access to the dictionary and web resources.

Tools for Creating Basic eBooks

Finally, what tools can we use to create ebooks — in the flexible, flowable ebook format? As I explore software packages and web-based solutions over the next few blog posts, I am sticking to free, open source options. So, please know that there are other programs out there for creating ebooks, and I suggest using Alternativeto.net as a resource for finding them.

So, given the free and open source requirement, for standalone software there are a few options. A standalone program such as Sigil or eCub, both ePub editors, as well as the Mobipocket Creator, could do the trick. For the iPad, there is Storykit, which is simple yet quite useful for younger students. A search of the iTunes store also yielded Quark DesignPad, though it looks from the reviews that an upgrade to the pro version might be necessary to get the types of features that would make it truly useful. Finally, you could use the open source Scribus and then share it as a PDF.

Conclusion: Pushing eBooks into New Territories

Again, I wonder how we can remediate and use text in innovative ways, perhaps speaking directly to the reader in a basic ebook format? Of the tools listed above, are there ones that you have experience using and would you recommend it to others?

Before my next post, we will have a guest post from someone who has done a great deal of thinking about e-reading: Heidi Perry of Subtext. This is a very useful e-reading app for the iPad, allowing teachers and students the ability to communicate during the reading process. As always, I appreciate your comments and questions so we can keep the conversation going!


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