Category Archives: Aligning Resources with Priorities

One, Two, Three How Many Literacies?

As a Literacy Consultant, I have long been rethinking the traditional notion of Literacy as simply reading and writing.  Because I am also involved in a Board wide initiative to support teachers with technology enabled learning, I have been thinking about the concept of Digital Literacy which I have understood to be the technical skills needed to navigate the connected, digital world in which we live.

This week,  as part of a Digital Literacy course I am taking through UOIT, I realize that there are various terms that are out there that educators (including myself) often use interchangeably when talking about Digital and other literacies.

It seems that today many adjectives are placed before the word literacy.  In my readings this week alone I have seen: Media Literacy, Visual Literacy, Multiliteracies, Multi-modal literacies, Critical Literacy, Games Literacy, Web Literacy, and Information Literacy.  Even as my understanding of these terms was swirling around in my head, George Couros shared an article on Twitter by Amy Erin Borovoy in Edutopia, about News Literacy  which more narrowly defines what I would have otherwise called, Media Literacy.

David Buckingham wonders if “Literacy comes to be used merely as a vague synonym for “competence” or even “skill”.   He also suggests that the term “literacy” carries a degree of social status which may be why we associate some other terms with it. (Buckingham, 2008, p 75). Does this then mean that we dilute the term?  Does it really matter what we call it?

He uses this organizational framework which I think can apply to anything:Digital Literacy Components

Then, I watched Doug Belshaw’s talk and realized that perhaps Digital Literacy really should be plural.  Belshaw outlines the essential elements of Digital Literacies in this TED Talk:

But what is essential to everything?  What do our kids really need to do to understand the world?

If I had to choose one (and though I’m sure I will rethink this again next week) I think it’s Critical literacy which can currently be found in the English Language Arts Curriculum 1-8 and the English Curriculum 9-12 in Ontario, as well as in the front matter of every curriculum document. Critical Literacy is about questioning and contextualizing text: a skill students really need today.

Critical Literacy Curriculum

The Adolescent Literacy Guide  provides a good framework for teachers.  Consider some of the questions found there:

Critical Literacy Questions Related to Text

  • Who created/produced the text?
  • What does the author want me to know, think, or feel?
  • What assumptions does the author make about my beliefs?
  • What voices, points of view & perspectives are missing?
  • How significant is their omission?
  • What information does the author leave out?
  • Who will likely benefit from this text?
  • Is the text fair?

Critical Literacy Questions to Prompt Action in Response to a Text

  • How can I find out about other perspectives on this topic?
  • How have my attitiudes changed? Why?
  • What action might I need to take to address a concern?
  • How can I use literacy to support those who are treated unfairly?
  • How can I use literacy to make a difference in the world?

What I really like is that there is the authentic call to action; students don’t just ask critical questions but recognize that they need to do something as a result of their new understanding.

Below is a Mindomo I’ve created around the topic of Critical Literacy.  In particular, consider how easy it would be to incorporate Critical Literacy questions into day to day instruction for any subject.  And how essential that skill is for learners today!

Would love to hear your thoughts as l continue to refine my thinking further.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Escape Room Concept in EDU

Our family and my nephew recently engaged in an Escape Room activity in our area.  We were given a scenario, put in a room, and had to solve a series of puzzles in order to escape.  We had 1 hour.  The puzzles had us using Morse code, figuring out word clues, mathematical clues, using a dark light, lasers, a periodic table, etc…  It also had us collaborating and working as a team.  As educators, my husband and I left thinking this idea would be awesome in a classroom!

When I think of the 6 Cs, it touches on most of them:  Critical Thinking, Creativity, Character (because being in a time-sensitive situation really is a test of character), Communication, and Collaboration.Escape room

Soon after, I talked to my friend Karen Holmes about it who created an escape room for her Leadership class.  Her scenario involves a zombie apocalypse and culminates in students finding the vaccine (she draws on her science background to have students mix two gases together):

Now it’s time for you to think,

For the TRUE vaccine is the one that turns PINK.

Choose the ACID or the BASE,

Pour into one test tube and then place

Two drops of phenolphthalein in.

If it turns pink… Guess what… 

     …YOU WIN!

Hurry now, no time for fear,

The zombie’s footsteps are very near…

She spent lots of time creating the challenges and I convinced her it needed to be shared.  Here is a copy.  Please give her full credit if you use the activity.

Sarah Thomas, who reserves Fridays in her classroom as “Figure it Out Friday” , and others in my Edumatch Voxer group, told me about BreakOut EDU which is basically the same thing as an Escape Room. Best of all, they have resources, templates, and ready-made games which you or your students could use to create Break Out scenarios.  It is currently in Beta but you can sign up and use some of the games already on their website. Kits are available from their website and (Canadian residents need to submit a request). They have recently added lots of new games for a variety of subjects!

Ask a Biologist is a site that has created Virtual Escape Rooms for Science in collaboration with the Arizona Science Education Collaborative.  Check it out here.

Kelly Tenkely of iLearn Technology has some ideas about using Virtual Breakout Rooms in the Classroom.

Here is a link to a few puzzle ideas put out there by Quora members.

Practical Applications in the Classroom

  • A teacher-created Escape room can provide a valuable opportunity for students to practice collaboration and teamwork.  Students can reflect on the choices they made and how well they communicated and collaborated with one another.
  • A Leadership class can create one for students coming in for grade 8 or 9 orientation.
  • Subject-specific Escape Room puzzles can be created as an alternative to a test.  In English class for example, puzzles can be created around grammar or figurative language concepts. Students would need to know the material very well in order to create clues.
  • This activity provides a unique opportunity for a variety of subject classes to work together on one culminating project (English creates the word puzzles, Math creates the puzzles involving calculations, Science utilizes the periodic table, etc..).
  • Once a semester or once a month, the school makerspace can be transformed into an Escape Room.  This might encourage a variety of other students to come into the space to see what’s going on.
  • I also think there could be potential for this to work with another class similar to a Mystery Skype.  It would require some collaboration by the teachers, but it would add yet another interesting element to the challenge.

In a similar vein, I learned about an online critical thinking challenge happening in November using computational skills called Bebras Challenge. More details about this can be found in this post by Doug Peterson.

What ideas do you have for bringing the Escape Room/Breakout EDU concept into the classroom?

Big Idea at ISTE2015: Student Agency

I was fortunate to be able to attend the ISTE conference in Philadelphia.  There were over 15,000 educators there, so you can imagine the passion, excitement, and learning that happened!  I will share the tools I learned about over the course of the summer, but in this post, I want to reflect on the presentations that had the most significant impact on me.  Perhaps it is because I have been focusing on digital leadership and student voice in my own work,  but the big idea which seemed to be an over-arching theme  at ISTE for me, was the notion of student agency which I heard a few times at ISTE and which is articulated nicely in this post.  The idea being that when students are given autonomy and power over their own learning, they are in control of their own development and therefore more invested in the process of learning. This is not a new idea in Education–it’s been a buzzword for a long time now, but it’s one thing to talk about it, and another to see examples of this in action.  Below are the presentations and the examples which made this idea come to life for me.

Jennifer Scheffer, Panelist for ISTE 1:1 PLN — Challenges and Solutions for Large-Scale PD

Jennifer Scheffer (@jlscheffer), a Technology Integration Specialist/Mobile Learning Coach for Burlington Public Schools, located in Burlington, Massachusetts spoke about a unique course she created in which students run a Help Desk to assist other students and teachers.   This was perhaps one of the most significant examples of the power of student agency.  Students are not only assisting other students with tech applications at their own school, but they are interviewing industry people, and using social media to create a powerful digital footprints.  They are true Digital Leaders!  Check out the link to the Burlington Publish School Help Desk Site for a glimpse into what this looks like.

Here’s Jenn’s ISTE Ignite where she encapsulates the BHS Help Desk program in 5 minutes/20 slides:

What is the impact of this program? This powerful video reflection by one of her students says it all.

I’ve reached out to Jennifer, who has been amazingly helpful, and hope to explore what this could look like in our District.  Surely, there is potential for the Help Desk idea to happen anywhere?

Shannon Miller, ISTE Librarians Network Annual Breakfast Keynote.

A Teacher-Librarian extraordinaire, and Tech Integration Specialist, Shannon Miller (@shannonmmiller) has made connecting students a priority at Van Meter in Iowa.  She engages students in opportunities to connect with experts and other students around the world and advocates that it is important for students to have access to other people in the world.  One of the most powerful testimonials came from a young 6th grade student whose school experience was transformed when she connected with an author on Skype.  Meridan has gone on to create her own blog, Meridan’s Little Voice,  in which she showcases tech tools and inspires other students.  Check it out here.

In her keynote, Miller focuses on the many ways in which connecting students and giving them a voice is not only rewarding, but should be a priority for educators.

(Fast forward to 10:15) The quality isn’t the best, but it the message is worth the effort.

Miller’s blog can be found here. 


Chris Lehmann and Diana Laufenberg:  Transforming Schools into Modern Learning Environments

Chris (@chrislehmann) Diana (@dlaufenberg) of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia spoke to the Inquiry process and how it has transformed learning for students at SLA.

I was completely inspired by the way in which inquiry-based learning has created a place for students to take control of their own learning.  One example Lehmann & Laufenberg showcased centered around the inquiry question, “How are local communities shaped by history?” Students were to create a hypertextual narrative telling the story of a building within their zip code.  They selected a building with a name on it and had to research the origin of that name.  The results?  Incredible and meaningful.  Check out their CAPStone Project in which students explore the questions,  “How do we learn?” “What can we create?” and “What does it mean to lead” through a self-selected and designed independent project.

I am excited about exploring the potential of Inquiry-based learning in secondary schools in our District and Diana has offered to lend a hand!

George Couros  The Innovator’s Mindset

George (@gcouros), whose presentations are always so dynamic and engaging (in fact people were pressed up against the back doors to hear his talk), speaks to the Innovator’s Mindset, which is intricately connected to giving students opportunities to not just “do school” but to become participants in what that school could look like.  He advocates that leaders spend time in schools to listen to students and what they have to say.  To me, Couros’ focus on relationships & the innovative leader are the essential ingredients: only by establishing a context of trust by leaders in Districts and schools can innovation flourish as in the examples above. Each of the presenters had Superintendents & Principals that were champions for them so that innovation could happen.  Couros resources can be found here.

Everyone who attended ISTE brought their own context and experience to the sessions they attended. I’m sure that what I got out of these sessions, may be completely different from the learning of others.   Feel free to peruse the #ISTE2015 hashtag for other perspectives and check out for post-ISTE reflections at Tech & Learning.

Reflections on using tech in lesson planning

Technology tool


I recently shared this image on Twitter.  It was presented by Eric Sheninger in his keynote at Connect 2015.  It’s not a new image by any means, but lately I’ve been far more reflective and perhaps cynical about using tech for tech’s sake.

Twitter wasn’t probably the best tool  to share my thinking on this.  What I was thinking when I shared the image was about my early days of technology integration/enactment.  When I learned about an “exciting,” “new,” tool, I would immediately try to bring it in my class or my co-teaching–I basically built my lesson around it.

The classic example was when I first learned about TodaysMeet a few years ago.  I loved that tool and thought it would bring so much opportunity for student voice and input into the classroom.  The first time I used it was a disaster from the beginning.  What I wanted, was students to infer meaning from an image and delve deeply into the issue of homelessness and our stereotypes around the issue.  My purpose was to elicit conversation and ensure that every student made a contribution.

What did I do?  I had students look a the image, post an idea to TodaysMeet, view someone else’s comment and comment on that.  Yes, I had a fancy transcript of the “conversation” and the students enjoyed using the tool because they had never used it before, but the technology distracted me and the students from any meaningful interaction.  Students really never delved further than their 140 characters would allow.  There was no real place in Todays Meet to pull all of the terms together as the comments fill in sequentially.  The focus became less on the conversation and more on what they were going to write using the tool within the confines of the character limit.  At the end of it, I realized that the lesson would have been far more powerful if I had chosen not to use that tech tool at all or if I had just used it as a Minds On at the beginning of the lesson to capture our initial ideas.

And that might be the risk of using a tool as a starting point.  What if I used this experience as a reason NOT to allow for the opportunity to integrate technology because it didn’t really help me to meet my learning goals ?

At the same time…

There were several students who never spoke in class the whole year who expressed an opinion on that day. So if I did allow this experience to jade my perspective, would I be limiting the transformational possibilities that can also come from using technology (especially for those students who require alternative ways to demonstrate their learning)?

I’ve since used Today’s Meet thoughtfully and effectively in my planning.  

But for that group of students on that particular day, I had allowed a shiny new tool to take away from rich conversations and deep learning.

So,  these are the questions that now guide my thinking:  What do I want my students to know, understand, and be able to do?  What tools might help me to help my students to get there?