Tag Archives: digital literacy

The National Council for the Social Studies Conference

by Helen Beyne

Lincoln MemorialMore than 3,000 social studies colleagues gathered in our nation’s capital to share their ideas, research, and expertise at the world’s largest and most comprehensive social studies conference. The texts featured at the booths as well as the topics discussed at the sessions reflected the curriculum changes that have occurred over the past few years: the curriculum is now much more customized, standards have changed the way social studies is taught, and social studies instruction is more relevant now because it is more driven by current topics.

At the conference, it was evident that there is a growing consensus—social studies should take the lead in teaching the critical inquiry-related skill questioning. Education experts encouraged teachers to move away from traditional, lecture-based instruction towards instruction that emphasizes such skills as analyzing primary source documents and writing evaluatively. Many speakers urged educators to adjust their existing lessons by integrating social studies with literacy and by using document based questions.

Document based questions encourage students of history to act like detectives. Students must evaluate primary sources and secondary texts, draw on background knowledge, ask questions, and use evidence to draw conclusions. By analyzing historical sources and evidence, making historical connections, and crafting a historical analysis, students learn historical content and simultaneously develop the higher-level thinking skills emphasized by the CCSS.

One main takeaway from NCSS was the focus on the importance of inquiry-based learning. Another was the importance of civic learning. The message was clear—if we want students to become educated, responsible, and informed citizens, we must expose them to balanced knowledge, instill democratic values in them, and cultivate the qualities that will enable them to understand our society and become active participants in it. Educators stressed that high-quality civic learning should engage students by making the curriculum more relevant to real life and incorporate human rights education.

One way to ramp up civic learning is by teaching important documents, such as the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and demonstrating their relevance in current events. For age-appropriate resources on current and historical international issues, be sure to check out The Choices Program, which offers free videos, handouts, and lesson plans that connect students to headlines in the news. These resources can be used in conjunction with the United for Human Rights Online Education app, which allows educators to easily access human rights curriculum. Students can use these resources to explore, debate, and evaluate challenging topics, such as Immigration, ISIS, and Genocide.

We look forward to seeing how teachers use the ideas and practices they learned at NCSS to promote social understanding and civic efficacy in the classroom. See you next year in San Francisco!

Banned Books Week 2014

How are you using technology + literature to celebrate the Freedom to Read?

by Helen Beyne

banned books week

image courtesy of ddpavumba | freedigitalphotos.net

As you probably know, the last week of September is Banned Books Week, and this year the focus is on graphic novels. It’s possible that your classroom library already includes one or more titles that have been banned or challenged. (Challenging refers to an attempt to remove materials from libraries, or otherwise restrict access, based on objection to content. Banning refers to the actual removal of materials.)

Electronic books and digital or online annotation can be powerful tools. Anyone who has ever lugged an eight-hundred page anthology from home to school and back again can surely appreciate the portability of e-readers, tablets, and laptops. Likewise, no one who flipped through pages and pages of highlighting, marginalia, and sticky notes trying to recall that one particular a-ha moment can deny that searchability is a real time saver.

Project Gutenberg is a great source for free downloadable (or read-online) books. Their catalog includes titles that are in the public domain in the United States. Use Gutenberg texts on e-readers with highlight and note-taking capability, or invite students to mark them up using an annotation program such as Diigo.

Try searching Curriculet for a title you’re teaching; for instance, The Call of the Wild—a favorite among middle school teachers—has been challenged or banned many times since its 1903 publication. Curriculet lessons are correlated to CCSS, and more importantly, you can make or add your own questions and notes. In addition to answering questions, students can add their own notes!

Auditory learners fear not: If you are looking for yet another non-print way to access great books, Librivox to the rescue. Listen online, or download files of audio recordings of books in the public domain.

Is your class participating in the Virtual Read Out? How is your community celebrating the Freedom to Read? Leave us a comment, send us a tweet, or find us on Facebook!

Helen bioHelen Beyne is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development. She has years of experience in creating innovative curriculum materials in reading, ESL, science, and social studies. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.

Lost in Transition

by Tom Nieman

teaching handwriting cursive

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A friend who is a speech and language pathologist and who sits on a school board with me recently sent me a link to a New York Times article, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades.” It began with a provocative question, “Does handwriting matter?”

Handwriting, To Be or Not to Be

The answer turned out to be a bit complicated. After consultation of several studies by PhD psychologists (one of whom wrote a follow-up letter with five corrections to the article), the upshot of all of the back-and-forth appeared to be:

We should be teaching handwriting in grades K-2, along with teaching how to use keyboards, and that de-emphasizing handwriting because of the Common Core was unfortunate. The reason for teaching it is that the act of writing by hand and associating letters with ideas stimulates the brain and aids its development.

One does not have to do only one or the other; both handwriting and using a keyboard are important for a child’s brain development. Many directors of school curriculum have already given handwriting the heave-ho. Good riddance, they say, in the name of going digital.

Yet, in my life, I realize how important handwriting has been to me. My own is the illegible scrawl of a lefty, and an impatient one at that. Since my early student years I have kept notebooks of one kind or another, often to write down quotes from books I was reading. More often I wrote down words whose meanings I didn’t know and the phrases or sentences they were in so that I could look the words up later. I credit a lot of what seemed to be mindless copying to giving me a wide vocabulary and modeling for me how to write. The act of writing by hand made an impress on my memory.

Now, as a professional habit, I have taken to writing notes in small spiral notebooks during phone and in-person meetings to aid in remembering details. Listening carefully, participating in a discussion, and operating a keyboard all at once simply overwhelm my circuits. Only at conferences, where I am a passive participant, is my tablet with keyboard invaluable. So, it is with mixed feelings that I see the teaching of handwriting being jettisoned from so many elementary schools.

Paper or Tablet?

On the same day I read about the lasting benefits of handwriting, I met another friend for lunch, this one an author of some twenty or so books. He asked me if I read on a tablet. I do quite often, but I am also just as comfortable reading paper books. Then my friend asked the more telling question: “Is your reading the same on a tablet?” He wanted to know if I read in the same way, or did I, like he, find myself skimming paragraphs more often and flipping through pages, surfing through the dull parts. I had to admit I do.

His question led me to consider how my reading had changed since I acquired an iPad. My reading is not more superficial with digital texts, but the ease of flipping pages does increase my impatience at the slightest bit of droning on. The problem of locating exactly where one is in a digital text also increases my agitation, making lines and whole pages easier to skip.

To the good, my note-taking is much improved with an iPad, and access to the meaning of allusions—for example, I came across a reference to Buridan’s ass recently—is but a click away. Further, the ability to download my next book while traveling on vacation or business is one of the more freeing pleasures I know of. With a giant bookstore available in the cloud, why not leave home without it?

And the Beat Goes On

Warming to this subject, I realized that I might also cite my older brother who still uses a digital camera, as opposed to a phone camera like so many of us, and recall that he produces the best family pictures, which he shares on Dropbox.

Ditto, too, for my neighbor who works in his yard on evenings and weekend listening to the dulcet sounds of his phonograph, with its turntable playing vinyl records he collects, blaring tunes out of the upstairs windows of his home, serenading his neighbors with oldies like Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now”:

If you think you’re lonely now, huh
Wait until tonight, girl
(If you think you’re lonely now)
I’ll be long gone

I started out in an era with handwriting, paperbacks, film cameras, and phonographs with turntables. At some point, all of these will go the way of phone booths and, like that girl’s man, they’ll be “long gone,” which is all the more reason to appreciate the differences they hold while they are still around.

Tom bioTom Nieman is president of Green Light Professional Development and Nieman Inc., a privately held company that specializes in developing curriculum materials for educational publishers.

The Case for Teaching Students to Code

guest post by Trisha Beck DeOre

teach students to code

Image courtesy of tiramisustudio / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As technology permeates every facet of our lives, there seems to be growing consensus that twenty-first century literacy requires digital literacy. Digital technology now impacts nearly every industry. Yet according to Hadi Partovi, founder of the nonprofit Code.org, 90% of schools do not currently teach computer science. Why not?

1. Schools Assume—Incorrectly—That Students Are Already Digitally Literate.

Many school administrators will point to computer labs or carts of iPads and assume that their students are digitally literate. As Chris Stephenson, director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, notes, “Too many parents and administrators conflate gaming and basic point-and-click literacy with computer science . . . [but] having access to a computer isn’t the same as learning computer science any more than, you know, having a Bunsen burner in the cupboard is the same as learning chemistry.” True literacy involves reading and writing, yet most students only know how to “read” digitally. They never learn even the basics of how a website or app actually works or how to re-create and modify the media themselves.

 2. Coding Can Be Intimidating.

Jon Mattingly, cofounder of Kodable, a coding game geared toward five- to eight-year-olds, recognizes that many teachers and parents see value in teaching coding but that they aren’t sure when or how to introduce it to kids. He points out that coding is essentially a language, and children learn it best the younger they’re exposed to it. Mattingly created the Kodable app in part to help demystify teaching coding and to introduce coding to kids in a fun, structured, developmentally-appropriate environment. Kodable looks and feels like a game, yet by playing it, kids learn to manipulate basic functions to solve a problem—in this case, to complete a maze.

3. The Creative Benefits of Coding Are Often Overlooked.

Many programs that teach students coding emphasize workplace benefits, such as the increase in demand for computer programmers. Yet this angle might actually be hurting their argument. Most students won’t become programmers, and knowing that computer science may improve future job prospects isn’t a key motivator. In addition, teachers and parents repeatedly voice frustration at the idea of teaching limited technical skills at the expense of teaching broader fundamental skills, including creative thinking and problem solving.

Those concerns seem warranted: Research since the 1950s suggests that creativity is the single most accurate predictor of lifetime achievement—even above IQ. Recent longitudinal studies show a large decline in the creativity of school-age children beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Professor of Education Kyung Hee Kim, the largest decline is in “Creative Elaboration,” or the ability to expand on an existing idea in an original way. Yet, instead of presenting a trade-off, teaching coding may help reverse this sobering trend.

Mitchel Resnick, Professor of Learning Research at MIT and founder of Scratch, sees coding not as a discrete set of technical skills but as “an extension of writing.” In his article “Learn to Code, Code to Learn,” Resnick argues that although not every student will write professionally, we teach all students to write because “the act of writing also engages people in new ways of thinking. As people write, they learn to organize, refine, and reflect on their ideas.” Coding offers the same learning opportunities. Resnick points out examples from Scratch, a free online community he developed for kids where they use basic coding techniques to create and share animated projects. He notes that one Scratch member learned coding skills, but also “how to divide complex problems into simpler parts, how to iteratively refine her designs, how to identify and fix bugs, how to share and collaborate with others, how to persevere in the face of challenges.” Part of what makes Scratch and similar student coding platforms appealing is that they are inherently personal and therefore relevant to students’ lives. As with writing, students who code are actively expressing their own ideas. In addition, the collaborative aspect of the program allows students to view other projects, identify desirable effects, learn how those effects were created, and reproduce those effects, all the while expanding on and adapting others’ ideas in original ways for their own particular purposes.

For most adults, coding is esoteric and incomprehensible. Yet once we start to think of it as a language and not an end in itself, its broader educational and expressive applications for students seem worth a little tolerance of ambiguity on our part.

Trisha Beck DeOre is a senior editor and curriculum developer at Nieman Inc.