Britannica Outsources to you!

This from the Britannica Blog yesterday:

For some time now Encyclopaedia Britannica has been at work transforming, our main product for consumers, into a place that will feature more
participation and collaboration both from our expert contributors and
the public. The aims of the new site will be to expand and improve the
coverage we provide both in the Encyclopaedia Britannica
itself and in other features on the site; and to provide our
contributors and users with an online community that’s valuable
and beneficial to them in a variety of ways.

Holy smokes!

That was my original reaction, but in looking at this a little bit closer, why should I be surprised?  Even the bastions of and hangers-on of the canon are beginning to see the value in the wealth of knowledge, experience, and joie de vivre of the populace.  Contributory learning and active reading, especially in the model that Britannica is offering here

Users whose editorial suggestions are accepted and published entirely or in part will be credited
by name in the section of each article that lists contributors. For
that reason, people who want to edit articles will be asked to
register, providing their first and last names, which will be used to
credit them, and an e-mail address where we can contact them with
questions and acceptance notices.

is valuable and that fact is being acknowledged by the media.  Why not our schools next?


SparkNotes and the Desire to Read: Mutually Exclusive?

This post is the transcript of the notes I posted to our English Department Group page.  I thought I’d make them public here as some of our discussion might spark some conversation elsewhere.

This month’s meeting had a dual focus:

  • Resource Sharing
  • Summer Reading Discussion

We began the meeting by discussing the following passage:

“I am a second year teacher who teaches at a high school where the
SparkNotes epidemic is in full force. In fact, I had students in a
college prep class gloat over the fact that they hadn’t read a single book all year and were passing (barely, mind you).

We all know the list: SparkNotes, Cliff notes, BookRags, Pink Monkey,
etc. etc.; and for some, like myself, it’s difficult to imagine not
reading the book and simply relying on a website as a primary source.
(After all, you don’t get that lovely used book smell. Aahh.) Ugh, but
it’s happening…a lot.

I’ve talked to my collegues about this, and we’ve griped about it
together. I’m very creative with my lesson plans and want to teach
heavier concepts, but it’s extremely difficult when

no one
is reading. One teacher told me she purposely goes on these websites to
create her quizzes based on information not mentioned in the plot
summaries and character analysis. It sounds a bit malicious, but what
else is there to do?

Does anyone have a suggestion how to combat SparkNotes? Or do I throw
in the towel whenever I assign a bit of reading that contains more than
fifty pages?”

The purpose behind this was two-fold.  Obviously the piece generated discussion amongst the group regarding how we work with this, and how to find the holes in the SparkNotes summaries that students read.  Several of you discussed how you read the SparkNotes summaries and use them to create you assessments.  Doing so enables you to focus on details and elements not included in a pat summary.

Questions that came up (both during the meeting and in my head after):

  • Do we take the role of “gotcha” with our assessments?  If so, what affect does that have on students desire to read?
  • What other sites are out there for them to use? (Schmoop, BookRags)
  • If we don’t acknowledge the use of it and use it as a tool for ourselves as well, will it become abused?

The second purpose of reading this passage was to give an example of the type of discussion that is occurring at a social networking site created by English teacher Jim Burke called The English Companion.  The site has over a thousand members from around the world, most of them English teachers.  The amount of sharing of resources and ideas that is occurring there is truly phenomenal.  I find myself reading and commenting often.  Learning as we know it is changing rapidly, and our ability to find sources of dialogue about these changes is crucial to our understanding of it.

The second article we shared was an editorial from the Washington Post by Nancy Schnog titled “We are Teaching Books that Don’t Stack Up.” The article originally ran in August, but I wanted to tie it into our discussion on summer reading.  Schnog argues that as much as our desire as teachers of literature is to engage our students in the thrills we have all found in literature and the requisite critical analysis of it, we might be doing them a disservice.  Jamie pointed out that she remembers being a student and wanting to just read a passage without having to dissect every nuance and literary symbol.  Schnog also spoke about the timing of literature and the genres offered to students at their various age levels.  She spoke about students reading Catcher in the Rye as Juniors rather than as 8th graders because of how they could relate to it on a completely different level.  When we speak about summer reading, we often include similar ideas: is this book going to engage the boys?  is this title going to pull in reluctant readers.

If our goal is to push students to read for enjoyment, are we accomplishing that?  If that isn’t the goal of summer reading, what is?  Andrew brought up a point at the end of the meeting regarding what we can ask students to read and what we can ask them to respond like.  His reading, he stated, has become focused on editorial and opinion pieces over the last year, and looking at the summer reading list, Angela asks her students to keep dialectic journals while reading a self-selected group of editorials from either the New York Times or the Washington Post.  What if we asked our students to do this at every level?  Due to the participatory nature of politics and news at the moment, this might work to engage them in reading for pleasure.

Open Invitations

We’ve been fortunate over the last few years in that most of the time we invite someone to speak to our staff virtually, it happens.  Yesterday, we had the pleasure of having Dina Strasser from Rochester, NY skype into our Language Arts meetings for both 8th and 6th grades. On many levels, yesterday was a special event.

First, our teachers are being asked to switch their mode of thinking about their classrooms and the way they function.  We are moving towards a workshop-based approach to integrated Language Arts.  With that comes considerable pushback and anxiety.  I understand that and most of my job is to help them manage that stress.  Thinking about helping them make this transition, several ideas came about: layout a physical model of what the classroom will look like, take what they already do and transform it into this new modely by breaking it into pieces, and have them work step-by-step in the new model.  But what has always served me well, both as a teacher and as an administrator, is to bring someone in who is, for lack of a better term, smarter than me.  Why should I try to convince these teachers of something they could easily say I know little about in practice.

Enter Dina.  The descriptions, the answers, the ideas, the issues and concerns, and help she was able to give our teachers was monumental.  Dina is immersed in this same change that we are asking our teachers to undertake.  The reason I found Dina was through her post: “Junking it…Literature Circles,” in which she clearly outlined what the perfect model for literature circles is, what she was trying to do (and failing), and what she would then move to in the hopes of making the change sustainable.  What she is modeling is exactly the process we need to spread among our staff.  Not just the fact that she is reflecting on her craft in the view of others, but just the fact that there is internal dialogue that assesses her own performance in an objective manner.  We need more Dina’s.

Secondly, as Dina stated in her post earlier today, this was another display of PLN in action.  We have never met each other, and we may never in the future, but you can be sure that if I have questions, or if someone asks me for a resource on literature circles or anything middle school Language Arts related, I am going to send them Dina’s way.  She’s now much more than a node in my network; she’s a person to me, and a generous one at that for giving up two hours on her day off.  We need more PLN interaction in front of staff members that have limited exposure to their own networks.  More teachers and administrators need to construct these type networks to model how we can leverage “wicked-smart” people that we have access to.

My goals for yesterday’s meetings going in were to help our teachers feel more comfortable in their own skin with this new change.  What I left with was just that, and with new goals for what I can do to help them.  I need to be present when they are struggling, not for punitive purposes, but to offer instructional support.  I need to get them access to materials, because I realize how fortunate we are to have the means to gain that access.  I need to let them know that failing is just fine, but refusing to attempt is a poor model.

Thanks again, Dina.  You were brilliant.

Literacy Response

Before I left for vacation, I posted a link to Motoko Rich’s article from the New York Times titled Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? to the high school’s English Department Google Group. I’ll do this occasionally with interesting articles that I’d like to share with my colleagues in the various departments I work with. This one really struck a chord with the teachers, and several of them responded passionately. Here is my response to some of their comments.

What a great dialogue. I was away for a while and came back to read
all of your responses. Many of the thoughts you all expressed echoed
my own, and I pulled some of the quotes that resonated with me from
your responses to comment on.

Brooke wrote:

“It takes time to immerse oneself in a novel and once done
effectively, the reader isn’t even reading anymore. They are seeing
and interacting with the novel on a completely different level of
consciousness. That, one of the most compelling reasons readers read,
is lost on the Internet reader who doesn’t have the opportunity to go
through whatever cognitive process allows it to happen. The novel has
the opportunity to move students through vicarious experience and
changes who they actually are the way experience does.”

Brooke’sdescription shows the nearly spiritual side of reading that we hope our
students can learn to go through. We introduce them to great works of
literature, often types they would never encounter through their own
volition, and then teach, discuss, analyze, oppose, share, empathize
and hope that they emerge on the other side of that novel changed in
some way. The very nature of reading on the internet, as it appears to
me (as someone who does the majority of their reading on the internet)
is cursory. I read much more than ever before, but my choice of to
read longer articles or books is more rare than in the past. Reading
newspapers from around the world, reading magazine articles from
hundreds of magazines a day, or reading blogs written by people in the
education and design field, can be done with much more ease than if I
had to go out to a newsstand and buy them, not to mention the cost
associated with all of my daily reading is zero.

I don’t think our students read online for the reasons they would read a
good book; as Brooke stated in her post, it’s a different animal.
Carol’s respons to Brooke took my thinking in another direction
entirely, however.

“grazing on the Internet is a very different set of skills that our students are now automatically
acquiring on their own. Although we do need to help them hone those
skills, it still remains our primary job as English teachers to expose
them to the rigors, the complexity, the challenge, and, yes, the
beauty of literature–to the “best that has been thought or said in
the world” (to quote Matthew Arnold)– where they will develop and
exercise their powers of analysis, critical thinking, and empathy.”

The ideas she brings out here, those of analysis, critical thinking and
empathy are crucial to the success of our students in their college
years and beyond. One of the books on my summer reading list was “A
Whole New Mind,” by Daniel Pink
, which I recommend to all of you (I
have a copy if you would like to borrow it). The premise of the book
is that the abilities that dominated the Information Age, which were
primarily those of left-brained thinkers, will not be enough for our
children. They need to become able to recognize patterns, find deeper
meaning, see complexity and manage it, have a sense of design and
flow–all skills that we strive to foster in the study of literature.
With those skills, we often find it necessary to push students “To rise to the challenge, to work for something, to feel achievement in
the accomplishment, and to work that brain to figure it out,” as
Carol said. To which I say there may not be a more important set of
things we show our students than these three. And I love how she ended
the paragraph:

“If we aren’t going to guide them through this in the English class room, where will
they encounter it? Internet Age or not, these are not skills that we
can allow to leach out of our common psyche!”

We are not “teachers of technology,” but rather can use tools that
transform the ways in which we allow our students to meet challenges,
think critically, empathize, and connect with ideas larger than
themselves. Our desire to lead them through the processes of critical
thinking and analysis of literature need to be connected to something
within themselves. What is their connection to it? What motivates
them to access these skills?

Andrew expressed a sentiment in his reply about students and the technologies they use:

“Technology, with all its pros and cons, has emerged alright, so why do we have to go out of our way to expose our students to it. They get it just fine, especially for

This raises the question of literacy in general, the definition of which has
expanded greatly over the last twenty years. Our students, and
ourselves, for that matter, are inundated with information whenever
they open their computers. The ability to sift credible information
from sources they read, view, or listen to is essential. While they
may “get” technology in the sense that they understand how to entertain
themselves, they often struggle with its ability to make their academic
life richer and more simplified. That is where we come in. Just as we
helped them navigate the world of the Dewey Decimal System,
peer-reviewed journals, and the like, we must now do the same for the
systems that are making information accessible from everywhere they
are. We need to teach them how to ask the right questions, find
things, evaluate them, and synthesize them into a credible whole. That
part hasn’t changed. The tools that get the job done most efficiently

Image Credit: “”we love to read” mosaic @ HMCRA” via ehoyer’s photostream

Questioning the Research

What types of research skills should we be teaching our high school students?

We recently sent home a survey of our 2007 high school graduates, and one of my primary aims was to find out how they are conducting their major research projects in college.  The method we teach currently, which is similar to the one I was taught in high school in the early 1990’s, is the standard research format taught in American high schools: Select topic, narrow topic through cross-referencing and research, select sources, write source cards, craft an outline of your paper, write notecards, categorize your notecards into where they will fit into your outline, write draft, revise, create works cited list using current MLA formatting rules, write 2nd/3rd/4th draft (if necessary).

I am in need of some assistance from the collecitve mind:

  • Do they need to do notecards?

This is one I struggle with, if only because I understand the need for students to be taught a method for categorizing information.  We often complain that while our students today are able to entertain themselves online in myriad ways, their ability to cull information from larger sources and categorize that information into useful chunks is lacking.  Let’s face it, to a 15-year old, Facebook is infinitely more appealing than tracking an online debate series on The Economist and pulling quotes into your Google Notebook titled “World economic issues.”  Broad generalizations aside, the majority of students I have worked with can handle themselves academically within systems that they view as academic: MS Office, Email, Google, but when we require them to go further into areas in which they need to transfer skills and apply them in unique ways we often hit a wall.  My question here is what now?  Do we use the system that we have known and trusted forever to prepare them for a world that may not use that system?  Will they ever use it again?  Or, do we give equal footing to other systems which we are experimenting with now?  We have teachers on both sides of this issue, and due to limited access to computers during the school day, teaching the students how to use online research tools becomes an issue.  But wait, the power of the screencast!

  • Do they need to know MLA style and APA and what the citations look like?

A large part of our research guide, last revised fully in 2005, but updated once a year to include changes, focuses on how to cite sources at the end of the research paper.  Because the pace of the change of the information landscape and the new types of media available for research, MLA and APA change often.  Are these the types of ideas that authors like Friedman and Pink have talked about: if the machine is more efficient, shouldn’t we let it be?  Will this free us up to do better quality thinking and writing?

  • Is the ability to use digital tools to synthesize and record information more important than using print sources?


  • Does our ability to do research hinge on our changing reading aptitudes?

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Tim Lauer’s NY Times article from this Sunday about the nature of reading today, especially in the youth.  Carolyn Foote wondered aloud about a few things that I really enjoyed:

So my question is, where do these findings leave us? What should we be doing differently?
  • Trying to engage students more in printed texts?
  • Engaging more with the types of online texts they may already be reading?
  • Teaching more evaluative skills?
  • Teaching more “connections” between texts–so that whether students are reading online or offline they are focused on how things connect to one another?
  • Helping students slow down sometimes in their reading so as to have the “back burner” time to ponder things?
And the last point she makes in this bullet series got me thinking:
  • Creating a mixture of methods for students to engage in all sorts of texts by bringing them into connection with printed texts via online tools?
  • The more I look at where the solution to this problem lies, it’s not going to be an “us or them” issue, an “old school v. new school” issue, but rather one in which we blend the thinking and categorizing we have always taught with a tool or set of tools that matches the need.  We need to categorize and sort, what can do that?  How can I avoid the boxes of note cards that are inevitably spilled in the hallways and thrown into color-coded confusion?

    I would like to know, if you don’t mind sharing, what your opinions are on conducting research in 21st Century classrooms.  Are we preparing our students for success by teaching them in the ways in which we were taught?

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    Image Credit: “Dewey or Don’t We?” from scampion’s photostream