Creating Critical Readers: Both Offline and Online

on Monday, September 29, 2008

As teachers, we've heard it time and time again: research has shown that the top performing students read 1 hour or more a day. In fact, the students in the top 10% read more in a year than the bottom 10% reads in their life.

But, in today's digital age, what qualifies as reading? Last week, I started to discuss Will Richardson's blog about online reading skills. Since then, I've explored a few more articles on the topic. In the September 19, 2008 issue of the Chronicle Review, an article titled Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind implores teachers to find a balance between fast-paced internet reading and slower, hard-copy reading.

By discussing a Neilson study on eye movement when reading online, they argue that digital texts receive less attention from the reader.
"…Teenagers skip through the Web even faster than adults do, but with a lower success rate for completing tasks online (55 percent compared to 66 percent). Nielsen writes: 'Teens have a short attention span and want to be stimulated. That's also why they leave sites that are difficult to figure out.' For them, the Web isn't a place for reading and study and knowledge. It spells the opposite."
Because of these learned behaviors, they argue that some classes need to remain unplugged from the digital world, focused on Victorian novels, and pencil-paper tasks.
"It is about the reading styles they employ [online]. They race across the surface, dicing language and ideas into bullets and graphics, seeking what they already want and shunning the rest. They convert history, philosophy, literature, civics, and fine art into information, material to retrieve and pass along."

While I agree with the underlining concept of maintaining a healthy balance, the facts the article uses to persuade me actually has my mind racing in a different direction. If, according to ETS results published in a NY Times article, only 39% of college freshmen reach proficiency in "core functional levels of Internet literacy" on the iSkills test, then what reading strategies do we need to be teaching our students so they can efficiently find, evaluate, synthesize, and respond to online content?

As I watch my students attempt to gather information online each year, I notice repeated behaviors. Google a few keywords, click on the first few links, check for interesting pictures, video, or sound files (not to mention colorful backgrounds and big text), and within ten minutes claim that there is nothing on the Internet about your topic. To me, this is just unacceptable--not because the kids aren't trying (I think they are!), but because I haven't given them the skills to be successful.

In the Chronicle article, they mention "racing across the surface," hunting for "bullets and images," and "shunning the rest of the text." I get frustrated with my students when they do this, but, honestly, that's what I do myself. When reading my blogroll, I skim and scan, quickly deleting posts that don't capture my interest. With so much quality content online, isn't that a reasonable strategy as a reader? I think my problem has been that I don't explicitly model my online strategies in think-alouds like I do with offline reading.

In addition to committing to use more teacher modeling, I hunted around the web for a good online highlighting tool. Awesome Highlighter is not bad, but on a few types of websites it does not work. Additionally, students have to keep their own list of URL addresses that are created when they highlight. With the organizational skills of my 5th graders, this is asking a lot. Diigo is a better choice, since it allows for highlighting and inline commenting, but it might be a little too complex for some of my students. Flowgrams seem to be my best option. All the websites for one research topic are stored in one convenient location. Students can record audio comments, highlight text, add typed notes, and embed their final compilation on our class website. They can share and discuss sources with their teams. I'd much rather have them create a Flowgram than become copy-and-paste kids, don't you?

Literacy Means More than It Used To

on Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The first time I can remember using the internet was back in high school for science fair research. I spent hours and hours and hours searching for information that would help me with my project. My searching tools and my online reading skills just weren’t up to par, and by the time I was done, I had a headache and was exhausted.

Today’s kids experience a completely different online world. They grow up reading digital content, and many of them already add their own ideas to the web through discussion boards, chat rooms, and blogs. They are excited to communicate with their peers world-wide and some have developed their own online reading strategies, for example, scanning a page and following hyperlinks.

In Will Richardson’s blog today, he wrote about the differences between online reading and hardcopy reading, and how a balance between the two is essential for developing strong thinking skills. When kids read online, they are typically seeking out, evaluating, and applying new information. When they read a novel, they are getting lost in a story, analyzing the plot, and discussing characters. Both skills are important, but both require unique teaching strategies. Richardson concludes his discussion by writing:
“What continues to concern me, though, is the paucity of conversation about any of this in our schools. This is hugely complex, and it requires a strategy and good pedagogy. I feel almost blessed that my kids enjoy reading books, longer novels, Meg Cabot and Mike Lupica type stuff that are even above their age levels a bit. And I love talking to them about what they read. But as I watch Tucker search for and read helps and hints about Spore, I can see the difference. It’s not bad, but it is different. And it’s a difference we need to name.”

I’ve been thinking about the need for digital literacy teaching strategies for several months now—not just how to teach kids to effectively (and safely!) find, evaluate, and respond to online text, but also how to teach kids to evaluate other types of media—pictures, video, animations, and so on. One of my favorite books as a language arts teacher is Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis’s Strategies that Work, and I find myself wishing there was a companion book for digital literacy!

Even though there seems to be a void in sound pedagogy for digital literacy, I don’t want to neglect this area because I feel unprepared. So, with the help of my students, we’re taking it one step at a time, helping one another, and using reciprocal teaching to grow as a community of learners. On the first day of school, when I explained to the kids that we’d be participating in the Read/Write Web, they said: “You mean we’ll actually get to talk to other kids? People will read what we write?” They were immediately thrilled about having a real, meaningful audience.

Before I could release them into the World Wide Web, I wanted to ensure that they had the necessary safety strategies. I used BBC’s Safe Surfing activity to introduce the class to basic online safety guidelines. Then, the students created their own online safety pledge, added images and student-created illustrations, and used the document as their desktop background. The next several times we went into the lab, the kids sat beside somebody new and shared their Online Safety Background with their neighbor. This allowed them to take pride in their work and refresh their memory.

I felt confident that the kids were ready to communicate with others online, and blogging about our independent reading books seemed like a great place to start. Picking the right blog site was a little tricky. I explored several popular blogs:
1. Blogger: This site is open to the public, and some kids were still fuzzy about what qualifies as “personal information.” I thought a private blog would be the best starting point, with the goal of moving to a larger community as the year progress. Plus, our school filter blocks Blogger.
2. Moodle: Our class Moodle site has a blogging tool, but commenting on others blogs isn’t an option. Students could express their ideas, but wouldn’t be able to hear from their readers. Without the two-way communication, what would be the point?
3. Edublogs: Many schools seem to be using Edublogs, but every time I tried to sign-up, the site was down or really slow. Trying new tools is stressful enough when it’s working, so I did not want to risk using an unreliable site.
4. ePals: They have a great system in place, but it was hard for me to see exactly how this would work in my class. In an email response from ePals, they stated that only the teacher can setup a blog. I was not sure if that meant I had to share my blog with the whole class, or if they would each get a section on the class blog.
5. 21classes: This is the blog site I chose. To view the kids’ work, users have to logon. (Outside visitors see a message that “No entries have been posted” for public view.) That protects the students against accidentally revealing their name, age, and address to the world. I have the option of opening up my blog to outside readers at a later date, when the kids are more proficient about online safety. Also, our blogs are connected through a community portal, but each student has their own individual blog. Navigating the site is a little confusing, but the students are working hard to help one another become familiar with the platform. Finally, the site looks nice, but there aren’t 50 different themes that will distract the students from the real task of writing and responding to others.

Now that I’d picked a blog site, I needed to communicate the plan and purpose to parents. In addition to modeling blogging for parents on my class weebly site, I shared a great blogging tutorial, since many had not heard the word before.

With the parents on board, it was time to for the students to start. Now, just one week into blogging, my students are excited. I’m always overhearing comments like: “Three people responded to my entry!” and “That really made me think!” We’re just beginning to develop our online reading/writing strategies, but I have begun to map out my plan for upcoming instruction.

Click here for full screen version

Additionally, I spent some time exploring tools to help kids develop their online reading strategies. Mark Bauerline blogged that “When [schools] add laptops to classes and equip kids with on-campus digital tools, they add something else, too: the reading habits kids have developed after thousands of hours with those same tools in leisure time.” Still, I’ve watched my fifth graders, and while some do have well-developed digital literacy skills, most do not know how to search, scan, evaluate, and respond in an online world. They need more strategic support. In my next blog, I plan to write about the reading tools I’ve found to help them develop their skills.

Mindtool Action Plan Revisited

on Monday, September 15, 2008

After spending more time thinking about my mindtool project, I've decided to focus solely on the research phrase of the science fair project. In this concept map, I've listed the learning goals, tasks, and possible ways to achieve the goals. As you can see, I have several ideas. My plan is to narrow the web as I progress through the project to use just a few tools well.

Re-envisioning My Own Learning

on Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tonight I worked on a concept map about an upcoming science unit of study: the scientific method.

It was easy to create the specific learning goals, but I really struggled at first when it came to selecting the best mindtools to facilitate my students' learning during this process. As I learn more about my students' learning styles this year, I think it will be easier to understand what they actually need to learn and be successful.

To complete the mindtool project, I think I'll need to focus on just one section of my map. Since researching is the hardest part (and the most dreaded by the students), I'm going to focus on that section. The students will be allowed to work in partners this year, so finding a collaborative online method will be key. As a teacher, I'll also need to see what work each team member is completing. I like the idea of a concept map, but I'm not sure how to easily give feedback and guidance & ensure that each student fairly contributes. I found another possible tool called NoteStar that I'm going to look at more closely.

Tools to Challenge the Mind

on Monday, September 8, 2008

This past week, I've been think a lot about Mindtools and Digital Natives. As I read David H. Jonassen's introductory chapters in Modeling with Technology: Mindtools for Conceptual Change (2006), I felt a little conflicted about some of his points. At first, when he discussed how mindtools require students to "think deeply about the content they are learning" and require "the development of learner skills in a limited number of programs that can be applied to a broad range of subject content," I was impressed (p. 18 & 21). Doesn't every teacher want to foster higher level thinking skills in the most efficient way possible?

However, as I read on, I couldn't help being distracted by several nagging questions in the back of my mind. First, the examples most frequently discussed in the book seemed to cater to the analytic or linguistic learners (most specifically the many database and flowchart examples). I was honestly left wondering if these ideas would engage digital natives--especially elementary school kids. As Marc Prensky pointed out, our students are accustomed to programs like Seasame Street, so they know learning can be fun, engaging, and challenging -- all while bringing about the conceptual change Jonassen discusses.

Second, while I like the idea of using a few programs to accomplish a multitude of tasks (and for really great ideas on how to use PowerPoint in many different ways see, I could not help wondering if that is often not the most efficient method. For example, while we can create concept maps in PowerPoint, it can be done much more quickly in Inspiration or at Instead of spending brain power trying to figure out how to create and connect the bubbles and resize font and shapes, students can spend their cognitive energy thinking about the concepts being studied.

Aside from these two questions, I found a lot of value in Jonassen's mindtools philosophy. For example, I whole-heartedly agree that concept mapping should be modeled by teachers and created by students before, during, and after units of study. Comparing these multiple concept maps can allow the teacher to see how student understanding has changed and grown. This past year, the teachers in my building received in-service on a more powerful method of concept mapping, called Power Mapping. Not only do my students really enjoy Power Mapping, but it forces them to think deeply about the connections between new and prior knowledge. It allows students to see the importance of various topics in the concept map, and also facilitates reading and writing skills. In fact, the elementary teachers loved the idea so much that we introduced the method to the secondary teachers this summer. You can see our brief PowerPoint overview below and the accompanying handout here.

Power Mapping
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: concept mapping)

Inspiration has a similar form of Power Mapping, but we usually create our maps in Smart Notebook. (Perhaps this contradicts my argument earlier that we should use the most efficient software to complete a task, thereby saving brain power! However, Inspiration's model is different than my district's, and I sacrifice efficiency for consistency in this case.)

Another mindtool that I strongly value in my class is storytelling. Jonassen stated that "humans seem to have an innate ability and predisposition to organize and represent their experiences in the form of stories, because stories require less cognitive effort to understand than exposition" (Modeling with Technology, page 18). Wes Fryer supports this idea, claiming that "as human beings, we are hardwired for storytelling." He gives standards-based lesson ideas for using a web 2.0 tool to facilitate storytelling with digital natives. Voice Thread is a great tool to share stories, analyze graphics, and investigate cultures and languages worldwide. Last year, second graders in our school participated in the Voices of the World challenge to improve their literacy skills. I'd like to use some of Wes Fryer's ideas in my classroom this year.

I actually came across Wes Fryer's storytelling page through another blog called "Raised Digital." In this blog, J. Brueck points out that teachers need to focus on the learning potential behind a computer-based tool, and not the bells and whistles. What makes Wes Fryer's storytelling page such a valuable resource is that it's focused on learning and not on cool, new gadgets. (I have to admit to being tempted by new gadgets now and then!) I think that Jonassen is essentially saying the same thing: teachers should create lessons that will cause students to construct, challenge, and change their understandings of the world. However, I think we could also do this in ways that will engage students who aren't linear, analytical, linguistic learners. Maybe that's in the chapters to come?

Guiding My Digital Students Through Their Digital World

on Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Sometimes it seems like an impossible task--keeping up with the constant flow of new digital tools our students are already using, and also teaching those digital natives ways to use their favorite tools to improve their thinking. I just finished reading a blog entry by Wesley Fryer that discusses how teachers seem to be stuck in the last century ( While there were moments of his entry that made me chuckle, I was struck by the seriousness of making sure our students are equipped with the tools they need to survive in a flat, 21st century world.

That leads to my goal for the fall semester of 2008: to improve my ability to model digital-age learning and to promote/model digital citizenship and responsibility. In our schools today, it seems like these important skills (which are also National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers) are being pushed aside for standardized testing scores. My hope is to resist the pressure to focus solely on one way of measuring student understand (the PSSAs) and help them learn how to demonstrate their learning through online discussions, blogs, podcasts, and more. Even though the pressure is there to "send home writing prompts specifically relating" to the standardized writing assessment (see the blog mentioned above), I know that teaching my students to participate in the read-write web in meaningful ways will more than prepare them for both the PSSAs and the world they will face after graduation.