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Turning the Page

Students live in a Digital World. Are schools ready to join them?


By Tim Walker

Tara Seale, a ninth-grade English teacher in Bryant, Arkansas, was confident that her students were enjoying the unit on Romeo and Juliet. But she didn’t realize the extent of their enthusiasm until the day she pulled out an audio CD of actors performing the Shakespearean classic.

“Don’t play the CD, Mrs. Seale,” one student spoke up. “We just want to read the play.”

We just want to read the play—these words are not typically heard by teachers once Shakespeare enters ninth-grade classrooms across the country. Getting students engaged in 400-year-old drama is usually a challenge, to put to mildly. But in Seale’s classroom, classic literature gets the Web 2.0 treatment.

During Romeo and Juliet, for example, Seale used Ning.com to create a class-only social media group called Verona Lifestyles, where her students, posing as characters in the play, created profiles and posted updates and discussion forums.

“Posting in character got them more engaged,” explains Seale, “and gave them confidence to tackle the language. They even took a stab at writing couplets and shared them on Ning.”

Seale and educators across the country are employing an array of digital tools—blogs, wikis, videos, and social media—to tap into their passion for collaborating, creating, and sharing.
“It’s about initiating higher levels of engagement,” says Seale, “and making the learning more self-directed and self-motivated.” “Let’s face it,” she adds, “being literate today means more than reading words on a printed page and writing an essay.”

It means a lot more—but what, exactly?

For starters, says Karl Fisch, director of technology at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, being literate also means using critical thinking skills to analyze, critique, and evaluate information—essential skills in an information-abundant society.

Central to this new literacy landscape is a highly participatory culture. “The ability to learn from and collaborate with others around the world,” Fisch says, “is an amazing development.”

Nonetheless, the new literacy is still a work-in-progress.

“I don’t think we yet have a handle on what it really means to be literate in the 21st century,” Fisch acknowledges.

So don’t throw away your copies of To Kill a Mockingbird; even the most fervent Web evangelists believe there is still space for the Great Books. But the bottom line remains: We can’t stop there. Our students are living in a different world.

Some argue that many U.S. schools, hobbled by obsolete assessment models, inadequate funding, and/or bureaucratic inertia, are adapting too slowly to the digital age.

In a recent article for the journal Democracy, James Paul Gee, Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, and Michael Levine of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center argue that U.S. schools are stuck in a “time warp.”

“Unless we change course fast to integrate literacy and digital culture,” warn Gee and Levine, “our current paradigm and policies will make achievement gains more difficult in the decade ahead.”

Bill Bass, a technology integration specialist in St. Louis, Missouri agrees: “Our schools need to step up more. If we don’t, we’ll either lull students into a false sense of success or they’ll continue to be bored and dropout. Either way, we’d be doing them a huge disservice.”

But even beyond the financial or bureaucratic obstacles within the education system, some of the resistance to incorporating 21st century literacy comes from teachers themselves, many of whom have a love-hate relationship with media and technology.

“There’s still a lack of comfort,” says Bass, ”and many teachers can’t get over the fact that, in some ways, their students know more about some of the tools than they do. And learning something new takes time; teachers are very, very busy.”

elping teachers adapt to a more interconnected world is one of the goals of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a national group of education, business, and not-for-profit leaders that promotes integrating content mastery with critical thinking and advancing classroom use of technology.

P21 is working with state and federal leaders to make changes in education to help meet the needs of today’s diverse students,” explains NEA Executive Director and P21 board member John I. Wilson. “We simply must support teachers so they can implement new practices that engage more students in learning.” (Find out more about P21.)

Digital technology, however, still suffers from an image problem. To their more boisterous critics, blogs, video games, wikis, and other social media have stunted the attention span and diluted the concentration of an entire generation. What’s more, Web sites provide not knowledge, but the lesser currency of “information,” broken down into bytes to be skimmed over and hyperlinked. Consequently, say the detractors, young people no longer have the time or inclination for books—not to mention proper grammar, smart writing, or reasoned thought.

In other words, Johnny can post, friend, update, and tweet, but he still can’t read.

“It’s very judgmental to say, ‘Well, that’s not really reading,’ or ‘that’s a bad form of writing,’” says Dawn Hogue, who teaches a class called Cyber-English in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin. “It’s also just wrong.”

Hogue insists 21st century literacy does not require the permanent shelving of the classics, nor does it reduce student writing assignments to tweets.

“I want my students to have both kinds of experiences,” Hogue explains. “It's not an either-or thing.” Meanwhile, she says, it might be time to retire less effective approaches to reading comprehension and student writing. And while it’s important to continue the conversation over what digital media affords and what it limits, its potential, she says, is too great to ignore.

“Ultimately, we have a responsibility to teach our students how to communicate well, to prepare them for the future.”

Although her students do read To Kill a Mockingbird, Tara Seale isn’t too concerned about their analyzing every plot point. Instead, she identifies a few parts of the novel for a “slow read,” during which her students carefully dissect and discuss specific key themes. The idea is to break apart the novel into pieces, that are, in some respects, like Web pages.

Make no mistake—Seale engages students in the book’s ideas and key themes. But she leaves pens and paper behind.

Instead, her students take To Kill a Mockingbird to the blogosphere and discuss the novel with a ninth-grade English class in Illinois, led by a teacher Seale met via Twitter. She also plans to have her students use Flip video cameras to record each other acting out different parts of the novel as they explore character motivation and perspective.

The engagement such activity engenders challenges another misperception about the impact digital media plays in the lives of young people. According to a 2008 survey by Common Sense Media, the vast majority of American parents, for example, do not believe that the Internet helps teach their children to communicate or work with others.

More and more educators, however, are discovering that it is precisely digital media’s limitless possibilities for collaboration, sharing, and communication that can captivate students. Thanks to user-friendly, Web-based publication technologies, young people may be writing more than ever, for friends, family, and peers across the United States and even around the world.

The key for students today, says Hogue, is the “authenticity” of the audience—in other words, creating for and sharing with someone other than the teacher.

“Students are reaching literally global audiences online,” she explains. “Why would they be motivated to write an essay for only one person, who is only reading it because it is his or her job?”

The role of teachers, however, is not merely to jump on the digital bandwagon and allow students to bring sentence fragments, typos, and sloppy structure into the classroom. Instead, it is critical that educators harness their students’ enthusiasm and help them develop their raw skills.

“Kids have the passion, the technical know-how, and the creativity,” says Hogue, “but they need educators to teach them how to use digital media constructively and responsibly. There’s a huge difference between blogging for a friend or posting an update on Facebook and writing for a prospective employer.”

It’s about raising the stakes for our students, adds Bill Bass. “Most kids live in the digital world, but beyond the actual tools involved, their knowledge of how to make it work for them in the long run is pretty superficial. I know I can make these technologies help them communicate better and prepare them for life after school. That’s the power of the teacher.”

Send comments to Tim Walker.


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October, 2009


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