Monday, March 1, 2010

Are these Two Forbidden? Think again

On more than one occasion, I have heard these phrases spoken by teachers:

“Do not use Google when searching.”
“Do not look at Wikipedia.”

Hmm. My first reaction is usually, “What are you afraid of?” But the bottom line is teachers are not afraid, they have their own concept of research and communication. Also, they see some of these tools and applications as distracting from learning. True, a quick, single word search in Google will return meager results at best, and Wikipedia is not always the best source, but instead of shunning these tools, teachers need to better leverage them to not just improve, but to transform learning. Here are five tools and ways that they can be utilized in the transformation.

Google: True, most kids type in a couple words or a phrase, hit search, and roll the dice. Instead, we need to educate students on how to get the most out of searching. First, as in any search tool, teach kids to use the advanced search feature to limit results. Also, teach them the purpose of quotation marks. A search for Chicago Bears may show results of a recent bear cub born at Lincoln Park Zoo, while “Chicago Bears” will result in information from my team that, yet again, did not make the playoffs. There’s also the “site:” search tool that can really help. Using this followed by a particular code can limit your search to a particular domain (“”) or results from a particular country (“site:uk” for results from Great Britain) Then there’s the Google options that enable the “Timeline,” “Wonder Wheel,” and other tools. (See my previous post on Google options). And then there’s the custom RSS feeds, Reader, Docs, and…well, you get the idea. The point is that we need to teach kids how to maximize their searching through this powerful search tool.

Wikipedia: Do kids rely too heavily on Wikipedia? Maybe. Do some teachers prohibit Wikipedia because of a perceived lack of credibility? Definitely. To some people, an online encyclopedia edited by the whole world is considered les reliable than a bound book. Here’s what I would suggest: challenge a teacher to find an error in Wikipedia. I have tried this several times, and I have yet to have a teacher find an error that Wikipedia had not already discovered. You will see the warning plastered on the top of a page. Conversely, students need to be aware that while Wikipedia can be a great place to get started, it is by no means the only source on the topic. I tell kids that they can cite Wikipedia once, the same way it would be for any other source. For those of you who really want to transform learning, I challenge you to have kids write a Wikipedia article on, perhaps a local notable. Now THAT”S writing for an audience.

It all goes back to LEARNING first. Neither of these resources is a panacea nor pariah. Teaching kids how to use these tools just gives them more ammunition.

Transform Student Writing

I have heard from some teachers lately that “technology gets in the way of writing.” When you think about it, technology and writing are inextricable. Without a chisel, or pen and paper, printing press, or typewriter, or word processor writing cannot take place. Fittingly, with every new advancement in technology, we are also privy to new opportunities for writing, and more importantly, the teaching of writing.

So why have many not embraced the new opportunities available vie Web 2.0?

The National Council of Teachers of English in its “21st Century Literacies point out that student writers need to “Design and share information for global communities,” and “Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally.” Clive Thompson stresses “that students today almost always write for an audience.” In The Stanford Study, Andrea Lunsford stated that "I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization."

Clearly, with such a paradigm shift in writing imminent, the teaching of writing also needs to change. We must create authentic audiences and purposes in virtually all student writing. Now this notion may sound old, but have we really done this across the board? More often then not, the REAL audience of a writing assignment is only the teacher. And although a “simulation” may take place (“Students, in this assignment, pretend you are a lawyer and I am a judge.”) the audience is not real, nor is the purpose, which, in reality, is nothing more than proving to the teacher that the student can write in a particular manner.

To create authentic writing experiences, students must write for a real audience, with a purpose in mind that is valuable to the writer. These experiences can be divided into, what I call, “School-Bound Authentic” and “World Authentic.”

“School-Bound Authentic” refers to writing experiences within the school community that have genuine audiences and purposes within the school. Here are some examples:
· Book reviews by students that can be published on the school library page
· A student-generated textbook wiki for the purpose of assisting others (and one’s self) to learn material.
· Creating a collaborative “jigsaw” project where students research and become “expert” in a particular area of a unit, and share findings with peers.
· Student-generated screencasts that teach peers processes.
· Designating a daily “scribe” to take class notes and post them (Thank you Allan November).

“World Authentic” consists of writing experiences with an audience outside of school that have a genuine purpose for the writer; in other words, the writer hopes to accomplish something with the writing…other than a grade. Here are some examples:

· Twenty-five Days to Make a Difference What started as a young girl’s tribute to her grandfather, turned into a viral phenomenon.
· Write a Wikipedia article. Some teachers bristle at the mention of the word “Wikipedia.” So why not pick a local historical figure and create an article to add to the largest encyclopedia in the world.
· “Hire Me” Have students beginning a work-study program create a “digital resume” where they explain their qualifications on a video.
· “Convince Your Parents” Senior writers can research why a particular college is the best choice, and present findings to those who will foot the bill.
· “Dear Michelle” Students in Texas write the First Lady to share their stories and express genuine concerns.

Most of us are faced with writing opportunities every day. I know that if there is some outcome, other than the writing itself, I tend to write more carefully, and with much more purpose; as a result, my writing is better. If we want our kids to excel, shouldn’t we afford them the same opportunities?