Monthly Archives: April 2009


Literacy Status: It’s Complicated


I’m writing this stuff down in an attempt to hash it out in my own head. Feel free to help me find the right path (if there is one) or even decide if this is worth thinking about.

Tool Exposure vs Literacy

What we have going on today in many cases is the illusion of teaching literacy. In reality we’re just exposing students to tools1. I see quotes similar to this one all the time-

The literacy tools of our day, today, include the web, netbooks, cell phones, cameras and recorders, etc. We are responsible for teaching students how to be literate. – source

So essentially, we have to teach kids how to use all these things because that’s what it takes to make it in the world. In the past it was just reading, writing and some math so the only general tools you had to be able to use were a pen/pencil, paper and a book. Now the idea is, we have to teach students (and learn ourselves) how to use all this stuff, to learn which buttons to push on lots of different objects.

Where these comments get messy for me is delineating what really requires different kinds of thought (bigger conceptual framework) and what is just today’s tool which needs only the mastery of the how (which button needs pressing). It seems picky, but I think that matters quite a bit.

There’s a huge difference between being able to read and being able to analyze literature. What’s our real standard for literacy today? I’d say it’s a good deal higher than just being able to translate letters into words, I’m hoping so anyway. If we take that approach, where are we with this concept of so-called modern literacies2?

Are we at the point when simply being able to make a video qualify you as being literate or does it take something more? Do students have to understand the vocabulary inherent in film, the rationale behind camera angles and lighting? I look at things like Animoto and see it as producing video but not contributing to any sort of literacy. I see it as the video equivalent of Madlibs (only without as many teaching opportunities).

What I see claimed as increasing literacy is often just exposure to tools and those two things are very different.

In general, I see communication in its varied forms becoming more important, more ubiquitous, more specialized and, as a result, more sophisticated. So you need to look at communication tools and resultant mediums more closely. For instance-

When does the character limit of Twitter and its semi-synchronous delivery benefit me? When might the speed and limited response hurt my message or the ones I receive? Do I treat information I receive from Twitter differently than I might from other sources? When is that information likely to most relevant and useful3?

I don’t see people addressing these concepts (maybe I’m not looking in the right places). For instance, Twitter is being treated like the newest shiny toy and people are pitching it as a panacea, a magical cure for all your PD, PLN, communication needs. The opposite view, that Twitter is the devil and useless, isn’t any better. Clearly Twitter is filling a niche communication role. It just seems like we need to analyze what needs it’s meeting and how it’s meeting those needs. We need to do this with conceptually different mediums of communication and we need to have the decision of which communication medium we use be an explicit choice based on the strengths of the medium and the needs of the message.

Getting into all this isn’t easy or neat. It’ll be difficult to decide when a particular medium is really different, when it deserves an in depth assessment. How can teachers guide students if they are unaware of the specific technology/medium and its nuances? Do we focus on just the most popular mediums and if so, what responsibility do teachers have to know the intricacies of the mediums?

That’s just looking at the need for more thought on communication and mainly electronic communication at that. I’ve seen all sorts of literacies mentioned- from environmental to architectural. Where do we draw the line? Is it worth worrying about?

To me it seems we need a greater focus on what might be termed communication literacy. That’s a mighty big umbrella, I know. But it seems to encompass a lot of needs that I don’t see being met. It’d require students and teachers to decide which method of communication would be best for their message and then design their message so that it takes advantage of the particular channel or channels. The idea that you’d present certain kinds of information using a slide deck and present other information in document form is one that’d be nice to get across early on.

I’d prefer the focus on communication as opposed to “digital literacy” or “21st century literacy” because those types of labels tend to lose credibility relatively quickly. Think about the term “eLearning.” It’s also easy with the tech centered terms to see them as discrediting or ignoring more traditional techniques and the very applicable history/learning etc. that goes with them.

If information is no longer scarce and it’s easier to find (and getting easier), then beyond our traditional need to figure out validity and bias we have to teach students how to best present this information. That’d have the double benefit of making them far more aware of how media is being used to manipulate them and make the more aware of bias when evaluating their own sources.

I’m not sure how this would all work but it seems like something that should be integrated at a base level and in a cross curricular manner. I do believe there’s a lot of good possible in reexamining how we look at communication in our k12 and higher ed institutions.

I’ll stop now. Knowing I’ve only muddied the water and probably been totally erratic in my use of media, medium and mediums. I’m going to resist my very strong urge to store this with my other 70+ drafts and just let it go. Right or wrong, I’m trying to treat this site as more of a place for thinking and less just a repository of things that I hope would be useful to others. So it’s about me being selfish and messier. I should re-title this “Unsubscribe Now!”

1 Keep all exposure puns to yourself.

2 I realize that analyzing film and images has been long established but the necessity of those literacies for the general populace has become greater because of the proliferation of multimedia both in terms of consumption and creation.

3 I found Twitter to be very valuable not too long ago.


A Separate Peace – Iron Teacher Submission

Here was the challenge

The Challenge (as defined by the teacher): Students are beginning a book discussion of the novel A Separate Peace. These particular students struggle to demonstrate understanding of content through writing, but have recently become more motivated to read and respond to literature as their teacher has incorporated audio books and modern literature into the curriculum.

The teacher shares that the class performs better when asked to discuss personal experiences and would like to incorporate the book themes of envy/conformity into the book discussions. These students in particular are not easily motivated to participate in class activities. Their teacher is looking for an original and fun way to have the students discuss and share while demonstrating understanding in a way that goes beyond writing an essay or taking a multiple choice test.

So here’s my attack, and it’s one I’ve done before but I wanted to work through this in a few different ways to show how you could use what students are doing now with Facebook (and other services) to get them both analyzing and empathizing with the characters.

Priming the Pump

First, I’d start off by having the students discuss the subtle (and not so subtle) ways people play mind games on sites like Facebook (like cutting people out of photos, top friends lists, snide comments, that type of thing). I’d probably do this as a think-pair-share. Might be worth saying come up with 5 good examples. This is just a quick thing to get them thinking1.

If you want to start with an example, my cousin (HS student) had some pictures posted and had cropped some of her friends(?) out. The comments under the picture went like this-

Jane Doe at 4:55pm February 18
YOU CUT OUT me and X and Y and Z.

My Cousin at 4:59pm February 18

I’d dramatize that a bit more but you get the idea. It leads to questions like-

  • What does it mean to cut someone out of a picture?
  • What does it mean if you get left in?
  • Does this apology matter?
  • Does the heart make it more sincere?
  • What do caps mean, if anything?
  • Does the speed of the reply matter?

I’m going to imagine they’ll have lots of examples. I’d probably have them list some on the board. You can do this before the book starts and have them start thinking early or do it after the first chapter and then have them work back through it.

Various Depths
Depending on what you’re looking for and your computer access here are a few varieties you could go with.

  1. Facebook Picture Comments (less involved)- An image that is representative of the chapter is posted. Initially you might choose the image and who posted it but I’d move that responsibility to the students rather quickly. I’d probably have consistent groups assigned to each character and in charge of “speaking” for him. I’d pass the image posting responsibility around. The image group would have to explain why they chose to post that particular image, how it represented what their character would do and explain why he would do it.

    You’ve got a variety of ways you can do this with computers- a simple blog, google docs, a wiki etc.

    Now, if you don’t have any computers in your classroom it’s fairly easy as well (and might, in some ways, be more engaging). I’d take a big piece of chart paper and draw out a page template2. That’d be my background layer. It’d stay the same and it’d probably be good if it was laminated. Then you’d just tape a new image in each time and students would have sentence strips with tape to stick underneath the image as comments3 I’d take a picture of each finished portion if I’m doing things this way so that I’d have a way to refer back to them later.

    This version is pretty light on commitment. You could do it once, when things were bogging down to help generate discussion or you could do it through the whole novel. I like it because it’s flexible. I might do the same image at a variety of different times in the novel and see how much the comments change as the students start to understand the characters more fully and as the characters themselves develop. I could do it at the end of the novel and have each group choose a single photograph to represent the key turning point for that character. They put them on the wall or post them and then comment on each others photographs in character, responding to each other as their character would.

    The key here is, of course, to get them explaining why they’re making these decisions. The teacher needs to really question them about their character and his motivations.

  2. Facebook Profile – students create the Facebook profile page of their assigned character. This could be a one time thing or revisited occasionally (not very frequently). Once again, the activity would engage the students but the key would be in questioning their choices. It might be worth having groups do multiple profiles and then have them work together to create a combined page. That could lead to some interesting discussions.

    Here is a blanked out Facebook page for Gene that might get things started if you had students with an image editing program. Here’s the PS file<>footnote>Just click on the text layers, change the name and do a save as to make one for each character..

    Here’s a partially completed Word version. Essentially, I put the image in, then dropped a big text box over it so it’d be hard to select it accidentally and began dropping smaller text boxes with the right color, size and font in the key locations for students to fill in. I’d take the time to get this pretty well set up for the students so their focus is on the content and not on the formatting etc.

    You’ve got options with all these projects. I might put the main characters’ names in a hat, enough for each student and have them draw. They each complete the assignment on their own and then get grouped by character in small groups (4 or 5 students at most) to create a group profile. Then they explain why they made their decisions and compare their choices with those made by other groups representing the same characters.

  3. Full On Facebook – (very involved) Essentially, each group gets a character. Their job each day is to create the entire online activity for that character. That includes everything from posting pictures, commenting, wall posts, to status updates, links, joining causes etc. Your character groups should interact with each other and change the pages in response to changes in the novel. For example, the students who jumped from the tree might have a group celebrating that, they’d join various causes related to the war etc. etc.

    If possible, I’d do this in Facebook. It’d be the easiest thing to do. I realize that’s highly unlikely in most schools. So here are a few other routes.

    The next easiest would probably be using a Ning site. You’d miss out on being able to theme it like Facebook but you could make it private etc. if that was needed for your own protection. It’d work ok.

    Another option would be an installation of WPMU and using BuddyPress. That’d give the right kind of functionality but would probably be more for someone who was interested in the tech side a little more. The benefits would be being able to control the look and feel to a much greater extent. There’s a Facebook based WordPress theme here. It’s good but not great. It’d be where I’d start if I was going to go that route.

    If you wanted to go the WordPress route but didn’t have WPMU and couldn’t install it, then you could do it using a few plugins (gravatars for example) and customizing the themes some. I did this in preparation for doing a similar project with Richard III4 but it was something of a pain.

    I don’t think many would want to do this without computers. It’s possible without them but would require a lot of dedication and wall space.

I’m not sure I’m heading down the right path or not. I had to hold back on creating the actual profile pages myself and building out the template etc. My goal is to keep this game sustainable for me. I’ll lay the ground work but I’m trying not to over commit. There’s a lot of good stuff in the construction that helps me when I’m considering a lesson. I have a tendency to do too much which hurts the process, I’m working on curbing that.

I’m trying to give some structure and offer some resources but not go all out with a lesson plan. With this particular challenge I think that’s the right thing to do. With other, more focused, objectives the lesson plan may be the way to go. I’m interested to see what Michelle, Todd and others will produce.

Hopefully this concept will bear some fruit and do some good in general. I think it’ll help me and produce some interesting ideas (although we do need to tighten up the contest concept a good deal more).

Let me know what you think.

1 You could make this more structured and choose specific psychological ploys from the book and ask for examples to be brought in representing them but not explicitly tying them to the story yet. You’ll also want to make sure they’ve been sanitized of names/real life associations to prevent classroom drama. I leave that up to you.

2 One easy way to do this for the artistically impaired would be to use an overhead and project a FB image page on the wall and trace out the basics.

3 It’d be pretty easy to add the avatar pictures as well for a little more realism.

4 The project never got rolling because the teacher’s children got chicken pox. That’s probably why it’s still in my head waiting for an excuse to come out.

Breaking into houses with Dan Meyer

Dan’s got another What Can You Do With This1 challenge up. This time it’s dealing with a numeric keypad. Basically, it’s what can you do (in a more lesson plan focused format this time) with an image he’s posted of a numeric door key pad2.

I’m not helping much with Dan’s lesson plan but I’d actually have the challenge be to break the combination. I’d take bets on how long it’d take to break into this door if it had a one digit code, a two digit code, a three digit code and a four digit code (maybe go higher?). I’d write down the bet times- maybe graph them.

Then I’d give them a chance to try it and I’d record the times when they did break in.

If people had computers this would be an easy thing to do. Here’s the Excel spreadsheet I’d use (not very pretty – just a proof of concept). I’d lock the one I gave the kids with a password of course. It’s pretty simple stuff. It amused me though. Might be garbage for math class but maybe someone will get some other use out of it.

Here’s a video if you’d like more explanation on the construction. It’s nothing fancy but it might inspire some other better ideas3.

Excel as a lock

1 I love this concept and find it one of the best ideas for staffdev I’ve ever seen. I’m going to attempt to steal it and use it as part of a class I’m teaching this summer on instructional technology.

2 It’s far more engaging than it sounds. Go check it out.

3 I actually built a self-checking crossword puzzle in Excel one time. I have no idea why.


Picking Up Gauntlets is Heavy Work

So Dan threw down a challenge as he tends to do. I did the easy part but also felt I should do some critiquing to maintain some credibility in my own mind.

I’m taking a shot at how I might change Ms. Mercer’s Powerpoint presentation. The main thing that made this difficult is I don’t know what she says during this presentation and that stops me from really considering how I might change things more fundamentally. So the following is given in the hope of providing helpful and positive feedback for Ms. Mercer. Please excuse any mistakes I make while attempting to determine intent.


Here are the two title slides. Ms. Mercer’s slide will always be on top.

I found that slide to be a little heavy and dark for my tastes and wanted to go with something similarly humorous but a little cleaner. I found a warning slide about killer electricity and dropped the background in Keynote using the Alpha Channel tool1


Here I’m just simplifying. If I’m going to be out there talking, I don’t feel I need any more specifics than this. I might drop the slide altogether.

I’d probably use this slide to get the audience talking about why they use presentations. Get some top answers and then move on with what I’d bill as pedagogically and brain based rationales for using presentation software2


I’m sure Ms. Mercer has a story to go with the chair image but I couldn’t figure it out (which might be a good thing). I like the chairs- the colors are interesting. I’m not sure the rationale for having the flickr rating in the image.

I opted for these crazy looking poodles. I might opt to make this an animation slide starting with a small picture of an innocent looking poodle and mentioning that I’m terrified of poodles. I’d ask the room who else might be scared of poodles then switch to these crazy looking animals and say that visual support is often essential to proving one’s point.

I like the image because it’s dramatic and with or without the story it’s fairly humorous to see poodles as scary (at least to me).


The kids are cute but the image is blurry. I’m not sure it gets to the point I’m guessing is being made- which is that PPT is a good way record pair shares and story talks.

I went with something fairly simple. Mic = record. I didn’t really even want to limit it to pair shares and story talks but just emphasize that the software does a good job recording things in various ways. The image is mine and was used partially out of laziness and partially because it was in the image bank in my head as something that would fit. It’s not bad, but there are better ones out there.


Ms. Mercer now had a few slides in a row of ways to use this to capture and display student work.

I opted for the idea of presentation as refrigerator. You know, the place you put up the great work your kids bring home. You could also use it as a digital bulletin board. That type of thing. I might show some pieces of student work. I’m not solidly sold on this concept as I’m interpreting it but, once again, I don’t have the full story.


Here the idea is that to make good presentations you need a solid, recognizable goal. I didn’t like this shot because the goal was kind of hard to make out and I am in VA so a hockey goal would be somewhat confusing3. The blur and the brightness of the background didn’t help things but that may be my wannabe photographer self coming out.

I’m not sure I’d keep the text here or in the previous slide but I left it in to keep things a little more in line with what Ms. Mercer’s original line of thought appeared to be. Once again, this is one of my own shots chosen out of semi-laziness. I just wanted a clear, fairly plain picture of a goal. That’s all.


I was fine with this picture. I don’t love it but I’ve got no issues.

I ended up just putting up the word plan. I initially had blueprints. I then went with a picture of Hannibal from the A-Team4 and then finally I did a hand made drawing with the vector stuff in Keynote to do a bunch of loops ending in a red X. I didn’t like any of them that much so I just went with plain. It’s ok.

This was another decent picture and I liked the goal. I just found the scaffolding harder to make out because of the color and pixelation of the image.

I went with something I felt was a little more dramatic. I like how this image allowed you to clearly see what the scaffolding was supporting. The imagine did not initially fill the page, so I took a quick screen shot of the outter left edge and copy/pasted it until it filled in with the solid gray that it now has.


Here I felt the Bloom’s diagram was too complex for people to get anything out of it. I’d include it on a hand out if I felt it was key to the final understanding. I figure the main point is to talk about higher order thinking skills . . . so I used the mountain shot. I played around with some meditation shots and probably would have used one if it had been decent. I was going to make it look like the kid was hovering a good bit off the ground but the shots all would have taken a fair amount of work to crop out the background and I am doing this for free in spare time after all.


From here on I skipped around a bit and went to slides I felt a little more strongly about redesigning. Doing this, especially this way, takes some serious time and effort. Seriously.

So the first image didn’t really say feedback to me. It looked more like a teacher telling students stuff but that could be because of my own deeply buried educational baggage.

I thought about it for a while and decided a Post-it style note symbolized feedback to me. To get this I used the note feature in Keynote and then just took a screenshot of it and put it in as an image. Simple, easy, quick. Fairly acceptable visual result.


Here’s one where I think what I did actually makes something of a difference. Ms. Mercer is talking about quality vs quantity. She uses the rose as her analogy which I think works for some but not all. My bet is that everyone can relate to cupcakes. So here is one small, beautiful cupcake sitting in lonely isolation. It is clearly a work of art. That’s also probably what I’d say when showing the slide.

It was set small and isolated on purpose. It’s meant to be. If you made it larger you’d be ruining the point. This is one small, exquisitely crafted thing.


The problem Ms. Mercer was having was that some people were saying they liked this yard better than the rose. So I’m working the inner guilt path. Even if someone would rather eat the 15 or so odd horrific looking snack cakes here, they know that the quality of the single cupcake is superior and a better choice. The few who will definitely say they prefer the mass of junk will really only reinforce the point- it’s better to have students work on making superior products than to have them churn out masses of garbage.


I think the marine guy would be usable if you had him on video saying something nice but in a drill sergeant’s voice. The text gets too confusing as it is with the other competing visual elements.

I changed the statement to some extent to reflect the way I see visual design. It is what you’re saying and how you say it. This would give me a brief chance to talk about color and font. I don’t know if I’d have to be this heavy handed. It actually hurt me to make this slide but anything in the name of ending the scourge of bad fonts.


I changed Ms. Mercer’s original photo so the top one is one I put back roughly the way it was. I’d use the fact that it doesn’t initially follow the rule of thirds and just show how you can enlarge and shift it some so that it becomes a stronger photo. Looking at it now, I might even move it farther to the left.

If the people know you I’d keep this for sure. If not, I’d probably go with another photo or mention that it’s your son explicitly and that you took the photo to get that emotional linkage going. Photo wise, it looks like the background is actually in focus and your son is slightly out of focus.

So there’s my $1.50 worth of comments and at least a few alternate ways of looking at the presentation visually. My guesses could be way off but they were done with a pure heart and for the good of the cause. Hope they do something good for you and maybe for someone else out there.

1 This aspect of Keynote alone makes me so happy it’s hard to verbalize. Sad but true.

2 I do some stuff on neuroscience and presentation so that’s probably why I want to go into that channel so readily.

3 That is opposed to my hometown of Hunstville, AL- the hockey capital of the south (really).

4 The “I love it when a plan comes together” guy. I have to keep a close watch on my own odd sense of humor in most of my presentation.

Iron Teacher

So there’s been good conversation lately recently about the lack of good lesson plans on the Internet. I think that’s true. I’m not sure this game will bring us much closer to the end game but it has the potential to produce some good content1. Hopefully it’ll be fun and catch on2.

Here’s the idea Milobo and I came up with a few days ago. It’s Michelle’s better twist on the Pimp My Lesson Plan idea that’s been nagging at me for a while3. Instead of Pimp My Ride, the inspiration is a lesson plan contest based on Iron Chef.

Basic Rules

  • Two teams of educators (more if others are game) will battle4 to develop a unit or lesson plan to meet the requirements of a selected teacher.
  • Each team will share their lesson along with the process they used to brainstorm and develop the idea.
  • A panel of judges, including the teacher who issued the challenge, will rate the lesson on Originality, Student Appeal, and Ability to Meet Outcome.

Here’s the current lesson request. It’s due by midnight- Sunday, April 26th. Post the content to your blog and link back in the comments5.

The Audience: 2 classes of 10th grade General Level Literature students.

The Secret Ingredient:
The novel “A Separate Peace”

The Challenge (as defined by the teacher):
Students are beginning a book discussion of the novel “A Separate Peace.” These particular students struggle to demonstrate understanding of content through writing, but have recently become more motivated to read and respond to literature as their teacher has incorporated audio books and modern literature into the curriculum.

The teacher shares that the class performs better when asked to discuss personal experiences and would like to incorporate the book themes of envy/conformity into the book discussions. These students in particular are not easily motivated to participate in class activities. Their teacher is looking for an original and fun way to have the students discuss and share while demonstrating understanding in a way that goes beyond writing an essay or taking a multiple choice test.

Two weeks have been dedicated to class reading and discussion of the book.

1 If nothing else it’ll give me a chance to get back into what I really like to do and do it in a way that might actually help some people.

2 Probably not, given what teachers have to do but you never know.

3 Apparently someone’s already used the title although, this looks so hideous I can still claim the idea in good conscience.

4 Good, fun competition, not bloodsport.

5 I’ll be getting a decent website built to tie things together as soon as I get finished with this lesson.