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
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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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Small Victories

Before I started teaching summer school this year, I had a vision of my class coming together as this perfect community of writers sent by angels. We would be sharing and celebrating our writing, tears streaming down our faces as we connected at the deepest of spiritual levels. Okay…maybe my fantasies didn’t go quite so far, but I really had imagined a nearly-spiritual experience.

Unfortunately, my reality hasn’t yet shaped up to be quite what I imagined.

Today, my students finished writing their narratives, so I reserved the last 50 minutes of class for us to have a writing celebration. When I told the students at the beginning of this process that they would need to share some of their writing with the class (because we are a community of writers, I explained), you’d thought I’d asked them to drown kittens in the American River. They were aghast. Share their writing??? “Mrs. Kukral,” they said, “you’re crazy.”

I have to admit…I was a little deflated at their less-than-enthusiastic response, but it certainly wasn’t altogether unexpected. After all, sharing our writing with anyone but the teacher simply hasn’t been a norm in our schools, especially our high schools (though that is thankfully changing).

I continued to promise that it would be okay, but I also assured them that it was an expectation. One student said to me, “What if I refuse?” I explained that I wouldn’t cut his arm off or anything, but I did expect for him to choose something from his narrative to share. Refusing just wasn’t an option. I didn’t threaten to take away points. I didn’t threaten to fail him. I didn’t threaten to send him to the office. I just said, “I hope and expect that you will do it. That’s all.” He scowled at me in the endearing way that teenage boys do (I’m actually serious here), we moved on, and didn’t say another word about it.

Of course, this interaction made me think about the Common Core (these days, even a gusty wind will have that effect on me). One feature that I so appreciate about the writing standards is that there is an expectation that students publish their work. Granted, the specific standard (6) says that this should be done via technology in grades 9-10, but we need to start somewhere.

My students’ reactions made me realize just how uncomfortable it is for them to share their writing with anyone, much less the whole world through the Internet. It brought back my memories of last summer when, as a fellow in the Area 3 Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, I had to share my writing with my colleagues. I’m relatively certain I had a couple of anxiety attacks over that too.

And if students are terrified and uncomfortable with sharing even a small segment of their writing with a small group of classmates, then how will they adjust to sharing their writing with everyone who has Internet access? Perhaps it will be easier. Maybe there’s something to be said for not being able to actually see your audience while you’re sharing your work. However, I can imagine that, for some students, this type of publicity will send them over the edge.

This makes me realize that, as with anything, we must create communities where it is safe to be in such a vulnerable position and scaffold this experience for our students. Our students shouldn’t be appalled–or really even surprised–when we expect them to share their writing with others. That’s what writing is about.

The good news, though, is that, today, each one of my students shared at least a small part of their narrative. One of my students shared his entire story, and when he was done, his friend spontaneously shared his own version of the same tale.

And the kid who asked me what I would do if he refused to share?

He was the first one to volunteer.