Redefining literacy

Recently, our school’s Director of Curricular Technology, Tony Tepedino, directed my attention to Will Richardson’s post, “My Kids Are Illiterate.  Most Likely, Yours Are Too.”  In the post, Richardson points out that even good schools are not making the grade when it comes to student literacy.  How can students graduate from strong schools and still be illiterate?  Richardson notes that “learning and literacy are absolutely shifting, and that means that the roles of schools and teachers are going to have to shift as well.”  Thus, educators must have a good grasp of what literacy actually is in the 21st century.  Furthermore, educators themselves need to attain this kind of modern literacy.

Richardson cites “The Definitions of 21st Century Literacies” published by The National Council of Teachers of English, which states that to become literate, students must:

  1. Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  2. Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  3. Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  4. Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of information
  5. Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  6. Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

I am fortunate to work at a school that emphasizes professional development and that has supported technology integration.  Thus, while the list above strikes me as a tad intimidating, I am reasonably literate by modern standards (though I am by no means a technology guru!).  However, posts like Richardson’s make me realize how important the shifts in education truly have been.  My expertise in biology is valuable, but information about biology is just a click away for my students.  While my goals still include imparting literacy within the field of biology, it is also vital that my students attain the literacies listed above.  Just as reading and writing are integral components of any subject in school, the new literacies should be a focus of educators in science, history, art, foreign language, and English classrooms.

At a recent faculty meeting time to discuss technology (Tech Tuesday), I sat down with other faculty members to discuss how educators can work differently in classrooms to ensure that students are becoming literate in a modern sense.  A big hesitation among the group surrounded item #6 on the literacy list.  Teachers at this meeting seemed to worry that the vast nature of social networks and internet resources could leave students unbridled in an online world that isn’t always secure.  While these are legitimate concerns, we cannot teach item #6 if we do not at least try to model ethical usage in our classrooms. Do I think that students will make mistakes?  Yes!  But these mistakes should be treated as learning opportunities, not reasons to eschew the use of technology in our classrooms.

A recent experience in my own classroom has helped me to feel more comfortable with the way that technology forces me to relinquish some control as a teacher.  Following the end of the first semester, I didn’t want to simply barrel into new material without taking a breath.  Thus, I gave students a day to reflect on the first semester by watching Kathryn Shulz’s TED talk, “Being Wrong.”

Shulz is a journalist, not a biologist.  However, she came to the realization that our population is full of overachievers – those “CFO / astrophysicist / ultramarathoner” types that value being “perfect little straight-A students.”  Our culture of perfectionism doesn’t leave room for exploring the value of recognizing our own wrongness.  This topic seemed relevant for the population of students that I work with.  The TED talk served as a springboard to get students writing about misconceptions they held about biology and how their viewpoints have changed throughout the first semester.  It was an attempt to encourage students to rely less on their “internal sense of rightness,” which Shulz notes is not necessarily a “reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world.”

As students watched the clip, I had them discussing Shulz’s ideas on the site TodaysMeet.  TodaysMeet provides a backchannel, or “everything going on in the room that isn’t coming from the presenter.”  Backchannels are becoming more common at conferences and meetings and require individuals to work on item #4 on the literacy list.  Setting up this backchannel felt like a risky move, and like my fellow teachers at Tech Tuesday, I feared that the discussion could get out of control.

To be honest, things did get off to a rocky start.  Early in TED talk, Shulz shows this image:

Describing a road trip she took with a friend, Shulz recalls how she mistook the road sign as a Chinese character.  At the time, she wasn’t questioning her perception of the sign.  Thus, she sounded pretty silly when she asked her friend what was up with all Chinese characters.  It was meant to be a lighthearted example of how we can get stuck in our rightness even when other cues from our environment challenge our beliefs.

I had prepped the students for the exercise, stating how important it was to treat the online discussion board as a professional environment.  However, as my students began watching the video, one of the first things to appear on our backchannel was, “RACIST.”    I quietly reminded the student who posted the comment to handle the discussion board seriously, but several more silly comments ensued.  Then, I started modeling.  I began typing on the board, posing questions to my students.  We salvaged the conversation.  Was it amazing?  Not really.  But it took a more appropriate and thoughtful turn.

We got into an interesting discussion about medical errors, which Shulz touches on briefly in her talk.  One student recalled another TED talk, “Doctor’s make mistakes.  Can we talk about that?”  The discussion also prompted me to bring in a passage from Atul Gawande’s book, “Complications,” and we continued discussing medical errors the following day.  The passage was about a transition period, during which physicians began to repair a severe congenital heart defect with a new surgery.  The older procedure had only a 6 percent surgical death rate.  However, these patients didn’t usually survive into old age.  The newer procedure, popularized among surgeons in the 1980s, provides a much better repair to the heart defect.  Accordingly, patients surviving the procedure have a longer life expectancy than individuals who received the older procedure.  However, there was a 25 percent surgical death rate when the new surgery was first adopted. We forget that surgeons are fallible humans who must at times learn by trial and error.  Fortunately, the death rate has decreased dramatically as surgeons have become more skilled at the newer procedure (27-28).  It is worth noting that my class would never have discussed this interesting topic without the backchannel to take us in a different direction.

Perhaps more importantly, students gained experience with the backchannel itself.  Many of them had never tried anything like it, and students had mixed feelings about it.  One noted that he found it challenging to process all of the incoming information.  Initially, his comment made me think that I may need to rethink the assignment.  For a variety of reasons, I would not do the assignment the same way in the future.  However, it is struck me that my student was essentially noting that he was wrestling with literacy #4: “managing, analyzing, and synthesizing multiple streams of information.”  Multitasking with technology is a reality in our world.

We also had the opportunity to discuss what types of things were appropriate about our backchannel conversation and how important it is to represent yourself in a professional way online.  Have you used backchannels in your classroom?  What sites do you use, and how do you use them?


3 Responses to “Redefining literacy”

  1. 1 Tony March 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Great post Julie! I do think the issues surrounding your post and and the Tech Tuesday conversation should be continued. If we can’t model and start engaging students in social media we are missing opportunities to teach them how.

  2. 2 Tony Tepedino March 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Reblogged this on TepTech and commented:
    I love this post written by Allendale Columbia School colleague Dr. Julie Thompson and how she is “redefining” her classroom!

  1. 1 Redefining Literacy a post by Dr. Julie Thompson « TepTech Trackback on March 16, 2012 at 2:09 pm

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