24 July 2015

Stop Reading Blog Posts - Go Read a Book! (Okay, Finish This Post First.)


The St. Louis County Library summer reading program is giving out free +Chipotle Mexican Grill for completion of the requirements, so a month or so ago, I was gently encouraged by +Beth Baker that I would definitely be pulling my weight around here and make sure to read 6 books by her birthday (Aug 1st).

I always characterize myself as a reader, but I spend a lot of time reading from from digital magazines and/or blogs over time reading ebooks or actual books, so the commitment (and light) required of me this summer completing the reading plan was a good stretching exercise!

Here's my shelf for the summer:

The CONTENT of these books is not necessarily anything different than what I would read typically from a blog post I found on social media, but the way you INTERACT with a book is different, in my opinion.

This isn't an argument for physical books, just long-form reading. I think its important for adults and for our students to take a break sometimes from the pace of social media and ICYMI (in case you missed it) internet publishing of the 21st century and settle longer on a book.

Here's what I've noticed that gives BOOK reading more transformative power on your attitudes, opinions, and beliefs:

  • You're more likely to take on a book at the suggestion of an close friend than someone you casually know on social media, so you prepare yourself mentally/emotionally to be able to discuss this book with that person in the future (which lends to the book having a greater impact on you)
  • Especially in physical books, we write in the margins, we take notes to make sure we remember parts that we liked. We remember so we can talk about it or think about it later on when the book is no longer with us
  • Because reading a book takes longer than a 5 minute blog post, you spend more time chewing on/meditating on the ideas in the book. The ideas I reflect on in books end up being "themes" for my summer/semester/winter break. The things I pick up in blogs I more frequently file away for later into a "someday" folder in my brain
  • Reading a book gives a more complete, detailed representation of an idea than a single (or even a few) blog posts might. Where we blog writers might lean toward publishing our own opinions on a topic and then moving on, filling a book requires the author to round out their thesis with counter-arguments. 
  • The internet is awesome, and blogs have democratized the ability to use your voice and tell your story, but getting a book published is still a cultural benchmark of having "made it" as a credible source of expertise, giving more reliability to what you're reading. 
  • There's an army of editors and copywriters making sure that what leaves the publishing house for the printers is the best possible product, so you could argue that book reading is word-for-word a more valuable use of your time. You know how many editors this blog has? 1 1/4 - sometimes I make my wife pre-read my posts. 

What's this mean for our students?

For as much as you're reading blog posts like this one, your students...probably aren't. I think we need to continue to TEACH them to value books (not so much the physical artifact, but the idea of a book as long-form reading), and we need to challenge them to form ideas and opinions that are book-worthy.

A book-worthy idea probably has several quotes that makes for a great tweet on Twitter or a grainy image with text over it on Instagram, but its more nuanced than that. It's going to be fuller, more round, more complete. A book-worthy idea is one that you as the author have dedicated the time to and poured out the passion to write, rewrite, edit, and revise into a work that is more enduring than a tweet in someone's feed.

In science class, this is the analysis of an experiment and data set that you've spent weeks designing, implementing, compiling, computing, and interpreting.
In film and literature, its an analysis of many themes throughout an author's work
In math, its the solution to a real problem that the student has identified, determined the variables in the situation, and begun to model with equations and graphs
In history, its exploring and relating to narratives from a dynamic range of sources, then reflecting on what it all means.

I believe we only maintain an appreciation for these deeper, richer, slower ideas and works as we read and write them. Tweets are good, let us continue to connect! You and I obviously both appreciate blogs, too, but educators have a concurrent responsibility of modeling and encouraging this appreciation and thoughtfulness of book-worthy ideas.


11 June 2015

Creating Memes as Modern-Day Political Cartoons

Finding or drawing political cartoons to express the absurdity or irony of a historical perspective has long been a staple of history class. I remember creating a political cartoon in my study of Romeo and Juliet 18 years ago and one of the first lessons I wrote in undergrad social studies ed classes revolved around this cartoon, published after China's first manned spaceflight:


During my planning for my summer school government class last week, I wanted to think through the idea of filibuster, but I was looking for something that my students (and myself) would relate to contextually. As the print newspaper has declined in readership and influence informing the public, we've of course seen a concurrent rise in digital media and freedom/ease of expression through social media. (I did a precursory Google search before I wrote this post to see if anyone else had already written it and found this piece from journalism professor John Schacht - "Why Internet Memes May Replace Editorial Cartoons" - it didn't suggest any role in the classroom, but it exactly expressed the increasing prominence of memes beyond picture of grumpy cat.

Recently, Senator Ted Cruz gained some notoriety for reading Seuss's Green Eggs & Ham while holding the floor with a filibuster to delay vote of a funding bill for the Affordable Healthcare Act. I played this video from CSPAN of the reading, and then asked my students to create memes showing their understanding of the concept of a filibuster as part of our study of the legislative branch.

Most of my students used createameme.org - it worked well enough on the iPads - but you could use any app/website that allowed you to layer text over an image. Here's what they came up with:










The best/worst part of this activity was the giggles that ensued the rest of class because students didn't want to get off of the meme websites. :)

07 June 2015

Give Your Students "College Ready" Texts They'll WANT To Read

Its no secret that the ACT (and success in college as a whole) is dependent upon a high-level of reading comprehension. The science section on the ACT has much, much more to do with reading and understanding a non-fiction, technical text than it does your memory of mitosis or Newton's 3rd law.

That being said, it be hard to avoid the importance of raising reading skills in my ACT Prep class this summer. I haven't looked at my students' benchmarked reading scores from the school year, but given the
"don't-you-dare-call-on-me" silence of death I've gotten our 2 days of class when I asked for a reader, I'd be willing to bet they are not high. I don't think the students at my school WANT to be poor readers, and most of our low readers probably carry some shame about and would put in work to raise their skills, but putting in the hard work of catching up using reading texts that are not of personal interest to them creates a mental barrier. Rather than hurdle/climb/scratch/claw over it, many of our readers go the easier route of blaming something/someone else for their deficiencies, or they resign to "I'm not a good reader."

As I was perusing the Chrome Web Store this week looking for more utility to add to my Chromebook, I ran into Newsela, a news aggregator that promises to give my students articles that will be of interest to them at a lexile/grade level score that I can set to best support them.

I had really hoped Newsela ran on some super platform that used some fancy coding to take any article a student could throw at and replace synonyms, interpret meaning, and chunk long passages into shorter ones, but apparently I live in the future.

Newsela DOES have a respectable amount of articles to choose from (updated daily), and I was even able to find one about the dance team from a school in my district that the +St Louis Post-Dispatch profiled last fall.

Here's what Newsela allows you to do with any of the articles on the site:

  • Assign to students for reading. From their student account, they pull up their "binder" to find what you have curated for them.
  • Set a lexile level for them to scaffold vocabulary weaknesses while focusing on comprehension
  • Assess comprehension with a quiz that they put together or a writing prompt
  • Highlight and annotate passages to give your students extra insight or further scaffold their reading.

To share some of how it works, here's a few screenshots of my perusing that article:

This is the layout of an article on Newsela. You have options to assign the article (or to hide it) at the top, the text in the main column with sharing buttons above the title, and choices to differentiate reading levels and assessment on the right in blue.



Newsela doesn't ONLY replace "higher" words for lower, the editorial staff also provides subtitles and headings the lower you go down lexicles. This is the same paragraph on the 5th grade and 12th grade reading level.



Is it a PERFECT tool for getting your students relatable content? Probably not, but it gets you a long way in its ability to provide choice and scaffolding for your readers, and its faster than a classroom trip to the library for students to find and choose books on the appropriate level.