The Unifying Power of Literacy

This post will take a bit to get around to the literacy part; hang in there. First I want to provide a little context.

For the past year or so, my husband and I have been involved through our church with a non-profit organization, the International Institute of New England, that works closely with the US government to resettle incoming refugees from over 60 different countries, including Burma, Bosnia, Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and many others. The Institute meets incoming refugee families and individuals as they arrive in the States after years of trauma, violence, and constant danger. As these newly arrived refugees struggle to find their places in a foreign nation, having left everything familiar behind them, the Institute works alongside them to find employment, skills training, housing, citizenship programs, and English language education. The Institute staff and volunteers ensure that these vulnerable people get what they need to become productive and integrated members of society. You can read more about the Institute’s history of work with the refugee community here, but, in my experience, this organization has floored me with their respect for human suffering, dignity, and resilience. Being able to participate in their work over the past year has been a true privilege that has both humbled and challenged me as an educator and as a human.

With this information in mind, I want to dedicate this post to our most recent event with the Institute. This event is the kind of thing I am very excited to blog about because it speaks to the incredible power that literacy and education have to unite, strengthen, and heal. A few weeks ago, several leaders in the Manchester school system worked with the Institute staff and our church to put on a Literacy Night for the k-12 students who had come to the States as refugees and had accomplished incredible scholarly work in the English language, which, for most of them, was an entirely new language! Families, teachers, community members, local government officials, and Institute staff were all invited. And when a group of people come together to celebrate kids’ reading and writing, it is my firm belief that deeply good things happen.

We had almost 200 members of the community in attendance, including around 45 different refugee families, a representative from Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s office, the Superintendent of Manchester schools, and the district head of Institute offices. These

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Reading essays!

families were able to enjoy a hot meal and see their kids perform songs, recite poems, and read speeches that they had recently completed as part of their academic work in the Manchester school systems. There were crafts to occupy the younger brothers and sisters who were struggling to sit still for the whole performance. We had an incredible bevy of donated books for all age groups for the kids to sort through and take home. Most of the refugee families in attendance had only been in the U.S. for less than a year, so this was a great chance for them to see and to celebrate their kids’ work along with the larger Manchester community.

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Donated books for the kids to take home.

Essentially 200 people came together from dramatically different walks of life to celebrate and support these young kids who are working so very hard to learn to read and write in a whole new language. Many of the poems were about homelands left behind, the experience of becoming an American, and hope in the face of trauma. Many of the adults in the audience who were clapping and cheering these kids on would have little else in common if it were not for these brave young people determinedly persisting in their academic careers and in telling their stories using the words available to them. So much of this multicultural community and joy stemmed from the simple fact that, no matter what had happened or was happening, these kids continued to learn and these adults continue to support them in that. It was an incredible testament to the role of literacy and education in the human experience.

The evening was, as many events including this number of people speaking this many different languages are, pandemonium. But what a beautiful, warm, and celebratory pandemonium it was! What a profound look at the empowerment and unity that is created when people come together to support students reading, writing, and sharing their work. What a privilege to be a part of.

 

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Lexington in September: I Hear It’s Lovely

As of last week, it is official! I’ll be teaching 9th and 10th grade English Language Arts at Lexington Christian Academy (LCA) in Lexington, MA. I am taking on one section of Freshman Language and Composition, where we’ll focus on building and developing the writing skills that will carry them through their high school careers, and three (one honors and two college preparatory) sections of World Literature, where we’ll tackle works by authors from around the globe. With LCA’s small class sizes, diverse student body, and administration and faculty commitment to innovative, project-based learning, I anticipate this being a genuine pleasure.

Among many other excellent things, my time at LCA thus far has demonstrated to me how seriously the faculty and student body take multimodal composition and digital literacies, which is hugely significant for me. In addition to the already stellar curriculum lineup that I’ll be using in my classroom, I will have the opportunity to work with one of my colleagues on developing a school-wide blogging initiative that will challenge LCA students to develop their digital literacies and allow me to vent some of my passion for educational blogging (discussed at some length in this recent post). I am looking forward to a year of hard, but rewarding work in the areas of classroom instruction and curriculum design with a group of people who seem to share my passions and proclivities.

Although teaching at a small, private school was very much not my plan or what I expected, I am deeply honored and excited to be joining LCA’s dedicated faculty this fall. It will be a new and unique challenge to pursue rigorous scholarship in a context that also asks me to integrate my faith life into that scholarship. In many ways, I am not entirely sure what to expect. Luckily, I have the entire summer to prepare myself mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, which I plan to do to the best of my abilities!

Using Digital Activities in the Classroom – Part 2 of 5: Blogs

In this somewhat delayed continuation of my opening post for this series, I would like to turn the spotlight on one of my personal favorite tools for bringing digital writing into the high school classroom: blogs! Blogs are an effective and relevant way to ask students to build their digital literacy skills and incorporate multimodal material into their learning.

Before we get too deep into the HOW part of this post, I’d like to take a quick moment to cover exactly what a blog is. The concept behind blogging is fairly straightforward. The word blog actually comes from the term “web log,” where an online site would function as a log or journal, chronicling a particular subject or movement. This idea of a web log eventually came to be known as a weblog which was further simplified into the word “blog,” which the Oxford English dictionary currently defines as “a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.” So a blog is any webpage that is monitored and composed over time by an author or group of authors in order to address or explore some topic of interest. This can include cooking blogs, like this one, where the author regularly posts new recipes and accompanying images. Other individuals run lifestyle blogs, like this one, where the author shares her family stories, adventures, and photos. This post that you are currently reading is part of my education blog. As the Oxford dictionary entry states, these blogs tend to employ an informal, casual tone while informing you on a subject from the perspective of the author or authors. Simple enough!

The beauty of blogs however is that, despite the seeming simplicity behind the idea of blogging, the ways in which blogs can be and are used are incredibly diverse. The unique affordances that blogging allows for can be adjusted and modified to suit a wide array of rhetorical purposes. It is this extreme flexibility that makes blogs so useful as well as prevalent.

With this understanding of blogging in mind, my goal for this post is to explore how blogs can be used in the high school classroom, basing much of my discussion on my own personal experience as well as current research. It is my belief that the ways blogs can be utilized in the classroom can be boiled down into two separate categories.

  1. Authored and maintained primarily by the teacher
  2. Authored and maintained primarily by the students

Which one of these categories a teacher chooses to employ in her classroom depends heavily on each class’ needs and exactly which 21st century literacy skills that teacher is working to develop in her students.

      1. Blogs Authored and Maintained Primarily by Teachers:
        This kind of blog is generally used to keep students organized, give them practice accessing, navigating, and evaluating digital documents and texts, and potentially afford them the opportunity to contribute to an ongoing digital conversation. Students, and sometimes parents, have total access to this blog and can use it to engage with the material in ways that are meaningful to them. Teachers construct and maintain these blogs, but can also choose to host student conversations or comments on these blogs in order to give students some buy-in.I have incorporated blogs in this manner when teaching Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to CP Seniors; I’ve included a few screenshots of these blogs below. As the teacher of this course, I had complete control over the authorship and maintenance of these blogs. I posted the links to content and orchestrated any group chats; however, students were very active on the blogs, engaging in serious digital reading and often posting in response to multimedia material or ongoing discussions.

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        This page of the blog houses an informal syllabus that I updated regularly, giving students the ability to plan for upcoming assignments or look up missed classwork.

         

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        Here is an example of using the blog to integrate related multimedia content into the coursework. This post was shared with all students and included a link to the song itself. Students were able to comment and discuss the song, and several students chose to reference this work in their later papers.

        Blogs that are authored and maintained by the teacher can give students valuable experience with conducting research online using a variety of digital resources, interacting and collaborating in digital spaces, and integrating multimedia content into their work.

      2. Blogs Authored and Maintained Primarily by Students
        This kind of blog affords students a much greater degree of authority and ownership over their work, which can be both intimidating and extremely generative. A blog that has been created and maintained by a student can be a powerful forum for student interaction and publication, widening the audience for a student’s writing. Giving a student ownership over their blog allows them to assert their opinions and interpretations on a subject or issue into a real life scenario that takes place outside of the classroom. This level of control also allows students to experiment with the design of their blogs, which affords them priceless experience in strategically choosing a layout, considering their audiences, and composing with color, font, and graphics.I had the opportunity to see student-authored blogs in action while co-teaching a unit on Shakespeare’s Macbeth with Megan Grandmont of A Classroom With a View. Throughout this unit, which developed students’ ability to write from the point of view of a literary character, students selected a character from the play, designed a blog as that character, and then blogged from that character’s perspective for the duration of the unit. Each student created, designed, and maintained their own blog, exploring blog genre norms, digital composition, and the complexities of publishing original work on the internet. I have included screenshots from sample student blogs below; all work is used with student and parent permission.

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        This student blog, written from the perspective of Lady Macbeth, capitalized on aesthetics and design, creating meaning and point of view through the use of color, image, font, layout, and text.

         

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        This student used his blog’s About page to make inferences about Macbeth, taking advantage of blog norms to explore his understanding of the character’s point of view.

        These blogs, which were incredible across the board, were created independently by the students; I did not have control over the content posted on each blog. As previously mentioned, this created the potential for immense student ownership and creativity. It also, however, resulted in opportunities for larger complications and ethical issues. When employing blogs authored and maintained by students in the classroom, it becomes necessary to address some of the very real concerns that accompany internet publication, some of which include:

    • cyberbullying
    • appropriate language and content
    • an understanding of the permanency of your internet footprint
    • ethical source use (which is something I have addressed at length in a prior series)
    • privacy and protection of personal information
       
      We addressed these issues in our classes by drawing up a Blog Use Contract, which committed students to a certain code of behavior when blogging as part of this classwork. Something like the one we used can be seen here. By drawing up a contract and taking the time to have some serious, honest discussion about the importance of online conduct, many of these ethical concerns can be avoided. In fact, the process of considering these concerns, discussing them, and signing the contract together as a class can be an important piece of a student’s digital literacy skills, as it helps them to understand the impact of their online writing and how their behavior on the internet can impact the world around them.

Depending on your unique goals and needs as a teacher, blogs in the classroom can be modified and employed to suit a multitude of different strategies geared to accomplish diverse rhetorical goals. Blogs as a digital writing genre are also extremely prevalent, which means that, whichever type of blog you decide to use in your classroom, there will be plenty of relevant samples out there for your students to perform a genre analysis on, which will only serve to further their sophistication and skill when working in digital realms.

As is the case with most attempts to integrate technology into the classroom, teachers can start small with blogs. If the idea of student-authored blogs seems overwhelming, teachers can create and maintain their own, self-authored blog for a particular unit within a particular class and use this as a way to gather information about what does or does not work for them and their classes. The important thing is for students to begin gaining a level of comfort and confidence when experimenting, playing, and working with digital tools. Blogs can be an effective and achievable place to start!

To that end, a few of the better-known and commonly used blogging platforms out there are as follows:

  • WordPress: it’s free, the templates are visually engaging and varied, and it has a pretty big array of privacy settings that you can decide on for use with your class. All of the blogs shown in this post were completed on WordPress.
  • Edublogs: this platform is designed specifically with classroom use in mind. The basic access account is free; however, based on what I have read, it sounds as though that account is not worth having. The annual, paid account is reviewed as much more useful.
  • Blogger: this platform is free, but has some limitations in terms of templates. It doesn’t have the array of options that WordPress offers, but it’s been around for a long time and some users find that the limited options make it more approachable and easy to navigate.

Happy blogging!