Teens Can Change the World

I have to admit. I have been increasingly obsessed with watching the stats for my blog, mostly because they keep growing. If I look at a bar graph of my number of views each week since I started publishing again, the towers of blue are steadily increasing. And the more the little blue bars grow, the more motivated I feel to write. It’s weird, especially considering that sharing my writing with others used to be something that sent me into fits of anxiety.

And what’s even cooler is that people are talking with me about my blog and starting to share it with others. Bloggers that I don’t even know are liking my posts. And just yesterday, a principal tweeted that she was going to share my most recent post with her staff. And here I am sitting on my couch with a laptop (usually with a glass of wine) writing whatever comes to mind. It is one of the most empowering feelings I’ve ever had, and I also feel like I’m becoming part of this incredible community of readers, writers, and educators, especially since there are so many bloggers out there that I completely admire.

In thinking about my own excitement and empowerment, I began to reflect again about this idea of citizen journalism–something that my husband inspired me to write about because of the way he is harnessing its power to create his own charcuterie business. It’s this idea that anyone can be a published author–from YouTube creators to Yelp reviewers. Of course, because this blog is all about how we can start to inspire our high school students to be members of literacy communities by engaging them in authentic reading and writing work–the reading and writing work that is similar to what adults do in school, work, and life–an exploration of citizen journalism, and by extension, blogging, seems to be a natural fit here.

Then I started thinking about something. Blogging isn’t just something that teenagers could do. It’s something that they are already doing. In fact, there are some teen bloggers that are so successful that they are literally impacting popular culture. Take Tavi Gevinson, for example. This Style Rookie blogger started out blogging about fashion when she was 11. Eleven! Now she’s 16, and she’s appeared on shows like The Colbert Report and Jimmy Fallon and has even been profiled in The New York Times. Recently, she started her own magazine with Jane Pratt, the original founder of 90s-mag phenomenon, Sassy. Did I mention she’s 16?

I mean, this well-adjusted, wise-beyond-her-years adolescent even has her own TED talk. And it’s good. See?

Gevinson isn’t the only teen blogger out there. There’s also Spencer Tweedy. Yes, he’s the son of the front man for Wilco, but he’s still only a high school student. His blog, The Weblog of Spencer Tweedy, showcases everything from pictures of his pasta-making parties to videos he’s made for his biology class.

There’s also The First Lime, a blog by 14-year-old Monica, who writes about music, photography, and her own DIY projects. It’s actually pretty adorable.

But not quite as adorable as Know and Tell Crafts, a crafty blog written by a 13-year-old boy (yes, boy) who crochets. You go, kiddo.

These kids are writers. They are creating their own niches in literacy communities.

I wonder how they do in English.

Now imagine if we showed our high school students these blogs. Imagine that we used these as mentor texts and talked about the ways in which these teens thought about their task, purpose, and audience. If you look at the literacy skills of these young bloggers, they’re actually pretty impressive. They need to understand their audience (and how their language and topics can best engage their audience), they need to understand how to create visual images that echo the tone created by their verbal messages, and they need, in some cases, be willing to experiment with a variety of genres in their writing (all based on their task’s unique purpose) Take Ty’s most recent post that combines images of his latest project (a mock headboard created with electrical tape) with a list of tips to consider when using electrical tape. It goes beyond the simple and predictable “how to.”

In thinking about the Common Core, I turn to the expectations to grow digitally literate citizens. Look, for example, at Writing Standard 6 for grades 9-10: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” If that doesn’t describe blogging, then I don’t know what does.

And in eleventh grade, that expectation ramps up: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.”

Think about these teen bloggers. Not only have they learned how to harness the power of digital media to project their voices, but they are also always making new decisions about content–based on what their audience wants and needs. These kids are the poster children for digital literacy.

How can we, too, use these writers as models to inspire all of our students to see writing as a way to speak up, to teach, to contribute?

Postscript

Possible Units

  • Social Media/Blogging
  • Argument Writing
  • Informational/Explanatory Writing
  • Narrative Writing
  • Research Skills

Possible Essential Questions

  • Why write?
  • What does it mean to teach and learn?
  • Where is my voice? How can I make it heard? What happens when I do?
  • What is the role of media in my life? What is the role of media in our lives?

Possible Common Core State Standards

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informational/explanatory pieces
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Produce writing taking into consideration task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to publish writing
  • Writing 7: Conduct short or sustained research projects, using an independently designed question

Teaching Readers, Not Books

Earlier this week, I met with a teacher and good friend to talk about her classroom and teaching practice. Through our conversations, some of the tension around teaching novels bubbled to the surface and created some meaningful dialogue for both of us. As I drove back to my office (the car is second only to the shower as a productive place to reflect), I thought about this quandary: What is the role of the whole class novel? How does the whole class novel allow us to initiate students into communities of literacy?

Whenever I think about what to teach and why, I think about how that genre or skill translates to what adults–grown-up readers and writers–do. In my own classroom, I wanted to recreate those authentic reading and writing situations so that students could get practice (and support) engaging in them before they actually became adults. Now, when I work with teachers in their classrooms, we also explore this together. As my friend and I were talking, we started unpacking the moments in adult life when people read novels. This is what we came up with:

1. When they want to

2. When they’re in a book club

3. When they’re literary critics

Then we started talking about what people do once they read a novel.

1. When people pick up novels to read them independently and then share that experience when they’re finished, they do a few things. First, they might talk to a friend who has similar (or even different) interests. They might talk about the book they just read and perhaps even recommend it. They might also write an Amazon or Goodreads review (or, at the very least, rate the book).

2. When people are in book clubs, they democratically choose a common text, and then talk about it a few weeks later over a glass of wine (or three). They decide on the topic of conversation, they decide on the questions to ask each other. They make a commitment to read the book and then hold each other accountable to that commitment.

3. When people are literary critics (these are few and far between), they read all kinds of books–new and old–and write for literary magazines, journals, or the New York Times. I’m guessing that this is a job for English majors who don’t want to go into teaching. Either way, it’s not necessarily a huge field.

This is what people do not do once they read a novel:

1. Take a quiz

2. Write a book report

3. Make a poster

Our big question was this: why is it that, traditionally, the way we use novels in school is in direct opposition to how students interact with novels in the outside world? And, more importantly, how can we help our students build reading identities in order to make them life-long readers? Because I assure you that I am not a life-long reader because my junior English teacher assigned Grapes of Wrath. I am a life-long reader because I have taught myself what I enjoy, which incidentally, is dystopian literature and novels that include strong female characters–neither of which were present in my required high school reading lists.

As a sidenote, though, I now do really love Steinbeck, but that’s because of East of Eden, a book I read when I was 24 and out of school.

“So, Nicole,” you might be saying, “what exactly do you believe? It kind of sounds like you’re saying that the whole class novel is sort of bullshit.”

That’s not exactly what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that before we choose any instructional practice or materials for our classrooms, we probably should be really clear about what our goals are. Among lit majors, I feel like my skeptical opinion of the whole class novel is taboo. In fact, I hear so many reasons from a variety of people about why we should continue to teach the whole class novel. Here are some of them:

1. As teachers, we have a passion for this book, so that passion will inspire our students.

2. Students need to be exposed to rich and challenging literature.

3. Students need to understand basic texts that provide a foundation for our culture. In other words, kids need to read the canon.

4. Sometimes we just need to teach kids that, in life, they’ll have to do things they don’t want to do.

5. I can’t read all the books. How will I know if students have read them? How do I hold students accountable?

And here are my responses:

1. A teacher’s passion is very important in the classroom. Instead of thinking about how important it is to be passionate about a particular book, what if we reframed that to, “I am a passionate reader.”

2. Agreed. We’ve all heard about Common Core and text complexity, and beyond that, it just makes sense to give students practice in reading challenging texts. However, we can still provide an element of choice in our classrooms. What if, for example, we teach a unit about the ways in which a historical and political context shapes the literature of its time. Students could read a wide range of challenging and rich texts in a unit like that: 1984, Brave New World, anything by Dickens…the list goes on. If students were able to choose the text they read based on their interests and reading identities, then that builds engagement and ownership.

3. This is where I have trouble. Here’s why. The “canon” really is representative of a world of dead white men. Yes there are a couple of token women and/or more diverse authors thrown into the canon, but by and large, it is a very Anglo- and male-centric body of literature, and the fact of the matter is that a significant portion of our students see themselves nowhere in those texts. For the implications of this, you should see this TED Talk. It’s pretty amazing:

4. Persistence is a skill we all need to learn. When we’re faced with an unpleasant task and work through it, that definitely gives us practice in persistence. I’m just not sure if we need to teach persistence at the expense of children’s love of reading. If I have to choose what’s more important, I’m going with a love of reading. There are many opportunities in school to provide children tasks they don’t want to do. Why does reading a work of fiction–something that adults do almost exclusively for fun–have to be one of those opportunities?

5. Let’s talk accountability for a second, because that’s really the elephant in the room. I have to say that, when I taught the whole class novel, there were students who wouldn’t have read it if I had paid them $1000. I am not kidding. They hated some of the books that much (I, of course, loved them). No amount of accountability coerced my students into reading the books I assigned  taught my students persistence.

So here’s what happened. They failed the quizzes, got less-than-stellar grades in my class, and still didn’t read. Of course, because they didn’t read, they also didn’t learn anything.

So there’s one of the problems with accountability. Even when you do a whole class novel, accountability systems don’t guarantee you anything.

Now let’s talk about the real world. A few years ago, I read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and it changed my life. She opened the book about her story about how novels played a central role in her marriage to her husband. She then discussed how, when she finished a book, she absolutely did not go running to her husband and say, “Honey! I finished this amazing book! Come look at the diorama I created to represent it!” Instead, she talked about those books with her husband. And that’s what we do as adults, isn’t it? We have authentic conversations about books we read. Why couldn’t students also do this work? That is the work of a community of literacy.

Finally, here’s something else to think about. When we make all of the choices for students, when do they learn to make choices for themselves? How are we using our experience as readers to have conversations about pushing students beyond the boundaries of what’s comfortable? How are we using their interests to encourage them to read something new?

Teaching is a monumentally complex job, and when we focus on what we really hope students learn in our class–what our end goals are–maybe it makes things a little bit easier.

Postscript

Possible Teaching Ideas:

  • Use a site like TeenReads to help students choose books based on their interests.
  • Students could write book reviews and share them with other students in the classroom or through technological avenues.
  • Create book clubs around themes so that students have choice but also have a built-in literacy community.
  • Focus on teaching skills of a reader rather than the content of a book. Students can then apply any of those skills to the books they are reading.

Other ideas? Share in the comments!

Social Media: Not Just for Sharing Pictures of Grumpy Cat

This week, my husband started his own Yelp page for his budding smoked and cured meats endeavor, Smoke & Salt. He pushed it out to some of his loyal customers, a couple of whom have already written reviews for his products. He also has a blog and a Facebook page that are both helping him build a following.

Through social media and blogging, he has networked with seasoned chefs, seduced new customers, and shared his charcuterie story. He is continually becoming a part of the bacon community (yes, I said bacon community), and he is accomplishing this through literacy.

My husband’s experience has really been making me think recently about this idea of citizen journalism. This phenomenon of reporting has its roots in the infancy of our country when regular people created and distributed political pamphlets to spread their beliefs. With the spread of the Internet and all of the tools that come with it, however, literally anyone can be a citizen journalist. Take Yelp, for example. Anyone can write a review of a business, and people really do read them. Speaking from personal experience, my husband and I recently chose our current pest control company based on Yelp reviews. And, of course, Jeff is also using the power of Yelp to grow his business.

Think also about the power of social media. Almost all of our teenage (or pre-teen) students are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or something else. They are using these tools to socialize with their friends and, in some cases, comment on life.

And then there’s Arab Spring.

The world held its breath when, in January 2011, Egypt erupted into revolution and forced its leader out of power. This revolution, which was sparked on Facebook by a 29-year-old Google exec in Dubai, and which continued on Twitter and in other social media outlets, made it plain to everyone in the world that social networks could be used for more than sharing pictures of vacations, children, and restaurant meals. Much more.

To read or hear an account of how Wael Ghonim helped to begin a revolution is to understand the true impact literacy–and citizen journalism–can have on the world. Take this segment from a New York Times review of Ghonim’s memoir, Revolution 2.0:

Ghonim drew on his considerable skill and knowledge as an online marketer while running the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page. Early on, he decided that creating the page, as opposed to a Facebook group, would be a better way to spread information. More important, he knew that maintaining an informal, authentic tone was crucial to amassing allies. People had to see themselves in the page. “Using the pronoun I was critical to establishing the fact that the page was not managed by an organization, political party or movement of any kind,” he writes. “On the contrary, the writer was an ordinary Egyptian devastated by the brutality inflicted on Khaled Said and motivated to seek justice.”

He polled the page’s users and sought ideas from others, like how best to publicize a rally — through printed fliers and mass text messaging, it turned out. (“Reaching working-class Egyptians was not going to happen through the Internet and Facebook,” he notes.) He tried to be as inclusive as possible, as when he changed the name of the page’s biggest scheduled rally from “Celebrating Egyptian Police Day — January 25” to “January 25: Revolution Against Torture, Poverty, Corruption and Unemployment.” “We needed to have everyone join forces: workers, human rights activists, government employees and others who had grown tired of the regime’s policies,” he writes. “If the invitation to take to the streets had been based solely on human rights, then only a certain segment of Egyptian society would have participated.”

This Times article attributes these skills to Ghonim’s prowess as an Internet marketer, and I’m sure that helped, but if you think about it, the skills demonstrated in his decision-making are also the skills of a highly-literate person. Take, for example, his decision to use a Facebook page, as opposed to a Facebook group. In the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, the writers call for students who can “use technology and digital media strategically and capably” and then go on to explain that students should be “familiar with the strengths and limitations of various technological tools and mediums and can select and use those best suited to their communication goals” (p. 7). This is exactly what Ghonim did when he chose the tool with which he’d communicate both ideas and events with the page’s followers.

In addition, his choice to use the pronoun I in his posts (instead of we) was also an intentional decision based on his purpose and audience. When we connect this to an image of literacy as described in the Common Core, there are natural connections: “Students appreciate nuances, such as how the composition of an audience should affect tone when speaking and how the connotations of words affect meaning” (p. 7).

Finally, when he chose to change the name of his Facebook event, this decision was also driven by what he knew about his audience and the unique demands of his task and purpose.

Is this a somewhat extreme and extenuating example? You could say that. But why couldn’t any one of our students be like Ghonim, using the power of technology and social media to create lasting change?

In order to accomplish this, it is important to think about how the power of technology can be harnessed to initiate students into communities of literacy. Because that’s the power of digital tools–not simply to create cool stuff, but also to share these creations and interact with the world outside the walls of our schools.

There are already avenues for citizen journalists to be heard. Certainly, there are tools such as blogging sites and tools to design webpages. However, there are also citizen media outlets: places like Allvoices, Demotix, CNN iReport, NowPublic, and others to help people dip their toes in the citizen journalism pool. There are also places for teens to publish for an all-teen audience–places like TeenInk.

We need to show our students that literacy matters, that our voices matter. We need to show them how to navigate and use digital tools not just to create new material to share with their classmates and teacher, but to share with the world. By doing this, we may discover other revolutions waiting to happen.

Postscript

Possible Unit Ideas:

  • Social media awareness and use
  • Digital literacy
  • Argument/persuasion
  • Revolution

Possible Essential Questions:

  • What is our individual responsibility? What is our collective responsibility?
  • How does one voice become many?
  • Why write?
  • Whose voice is being heard, and whose is being left out?

Possible Connecting Common Core State Standards:

  • Writing 1: Write arguments
  • Writing 2: Write informative/explanatory texts
  • Writing 3: Write narratives
  • Writing 4: Ensure that writing is appropriate for task, purpose, and audience
  • Writing 6: Use technology to produce and publish individual or shared writing products
  • Writing 8: Gather quality information; present the information thoughtfully and effectively

Other ideas? Share in the comments.

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Visual Literacy and Disney Magic

Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of spending time in Disneyland with my family, and before I left, one of my friends and colleagues, a high school English teacher that I have known for years, jibed me a little on Facebook and encouraged me to look for plenty of “real texts” to write about while I was there.

Challenge accepted.

You might wonder how anyone could find any substantive texts in The Happiest Place on Earth, but because of the genius of the Imagineers, they’re everywhere you look. Still don’t believe me?

You only have to go as far as Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, The Pirates of the Caribbean, or any other similar Disney adventure to see what I’m talking about. These rides are texts. Sure, they may not have many (or any) words, but they certainly tell stories, and as riders (or readers), we have to make meaning from the visual images. Of course, I really can’t go anywhere without making some connection to my work, so this idea of visual literacy was continually percolating in my mind all week, and it got me thinking about one of my favorite genres: Infographics.

Infographics have been around since prehistoric times. I mean, hey, what do you think cave drawings were? But now, with the use of these images in popular online news sources and with the easy sharing features of social media sites, modern infographics are everywhere.

I have a few good sources for Infographics, but my absolute favorite is Good Magazine. It was in this magazine that I first noticed these visuals, and I’ve been fascinated by them ever since.

Check out this one about reading:

Reading for the Future, Good Magazine

At first glance, it’s definitely appealing to look at, but it becomes even more sophisticated when you notice what this infographic includes. In it are compelling statistics, researched facts, possible solutions, powerful graphics, and complementary verbal and visual elements. The design takes the reader from one segment to the next: from the importance of looking at third grade reading levels, to the link to high school graduation, to the effect of poverty, and finally to some potential solutions. This logical organization is accomplished through visual elements, rather than paragraph structure. But it’s still an organizational scheme–and quite a powerful and sophisticated one at that.

If you want to look at sophisticated organization in these visual elements, take a look at this infographic about world hunger:

Can We Feed 7 Billion People? Good Magazine

Look at how it begins. Underneath the title, the infographic is set up in a very clear two-column compare/contrast organizational scheme with the U.S. on one side and developing countries on the other. Within the individual columns, the information is parallel for added impact: “the U.S. wastes 40% of their food” vs. “developing countries lose 40% of their food.” The organizational scheme continues, as information about waste in the United State is on the left, and information about loss in developing countries is on the right. Like the reading infographic, this one also includes powerful statistics and researched facts. Additionally, the graphic ends with some ideas about what people can do in order to remedy this concerning problem.

These examples make me think about writing standard 6 in the Common Core State Standards for ninth and tenth grade ELA: “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically.” The infographic is certainly a shared writing product, and technological tools could definitely make it feasible to create these types of visuals in which information is presented “flexibly and dynamically.”

Think also about writing standard 9 for grades nine and ten: “Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.” Then imagine the skills that it would take to create infographics like the ones above. The amount of research and synthesis to make such complex topics so deceptively simple and easy to swallow is mind-blowing. Why couldn’t high school students demonstrate their understanding of researched topics through an infographic either in addition to–or instead of–a research paper (I’m not suggesting at all, however, that students shouldn’t write about their research. They should. There just might be other ways to demonstrate these skills as well).

If we want students to research questions that are self-generated (and we know that providing choice is a powerful motivator for people), consider this infographic:

Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Daily Infographic

Is this an Earth-shattering (no pun intended) topic? Probably not. But is it interesting and well-researched? Yes. Think about the level of thought and research the author of this image had to consider. I mean, to take into consideration the amount of Facebook likes and Twitter followers in determining a franchise’s success is kind of genius. Could a kid do this if provided examples like these? Of course.

If we’re going to think about a) growing writers and b) providing relevant examples of “real-world” texts, using these types of tools (and asking students to produce this type of work) could be one way to get us there. Our kids are Twenty-first Century citizens, and when they are bombarded by an absolute firestorm of data (much of it in visual form) on an almost daily basis, we are doing them a disservice if we don’t teach them to critically read and produce these kinds of texts. If this element is absent from our curriculum, they are missing out on one avenue for their voices to be heard.

I know these infographics are a far cry from the Haunted Mansion, but they do remind us that not all information comes to us in neatly typed black and white packages of text. Sometimes, the way that our minds fill in the blanks is the most powerful part of the story.

Postscript

Possible Units: Infographics could be worked into units on research, or they could be woven into thematic units, based on the topic. Want to teach a unit using the definition of education as a driving force? Maybe use some infographics about that topic to supplement other readings.

Ways to Use Infographics: They could be used for close reading, as sources for research projects, or even as mentor texts to do some infographic-composing.

What ideas do you have? Share in the comments.