Monday, February 25, 2008

NCTE - "Shifting" Toward a New Literacy

A post by Will Richardson led me to this from The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Executive Committee (quoted in its entirety for your convenience):

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
• Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments
Let me highlight a few phrases:
  • "Malleable" literacies
  • Build relationships with others . . . collaboratively and cross-culturally

  • Global communities
  • Multiple streams
  • Multi-media texts
  • Ethical responsibilities . . . complex environments

Now some folks have argued that these aren't really new literacies and, in one sense, I suppose they're right, but it seems to me they're missing the point. Previously most folks haven't included these ideas when they talk about literacy, it's new to them, so I agree with Will (I'm sure he's breathing a sigh of relief) - these are some significant "shifts" in thinking about what it means to be literate.

Due to a comment on Will's post and a subsequent email to me, I discovered that NCTE's Annual Convention coming up in November has the tagline:

Because Shift Happens: Teaching in the Twenty-First Century
NCTE President-Elect Kylene Beers has an article explaining the choice of that tagline. Now, I realize that she mentions me, so this link could be seen as self-promotional on my part, but that's really not my intent here - please ignore that part of it and read the rest of what she wrote, including this part:

Yet, in relation to our hurtle through change, our schools seem to be moving more slowly. We still move large groups of students from class to class with a shrill bell (reminiscent of the factory whistle during the Industrial Age). We still group kids by age and label them with As or Bs, though few can articulate what differentiates them. We’ve added technology—but it’s in a lab down the hall where only certain websites can be accessed. We’ve said we want kids, the kids of the only nation that has put a man on the moon, to use technology in the classroom, but for students in a remedial class, that might be only an electronic workbook, and for those in a gifted class, a PowerPoint presentation instead of a poster.

. . . We’re teaching the Millennium generation, that group of kids who arrived at school as “digital natives” who have a new set of 3 Rs in mind: Relevance, Relationships, and Responsiveness.

. . . At NCTE 2007, we explored the topic of diverse literacies in the twenty-first century literacy; now, for the 2008 convention, we invite you to push this thinking even further by joining the national conversation about how to juggle those diverse literacies while addressing current technological, political, social, and cultural shifts . Do this by explaining how you’re effectively working with English language learners, coping with political pressure to pass high-stakes tests, addressing the ever more diverse student populations, and teaching with and through technology to all levels of students across all the language arts. Explain how you use technology to enhance your own learning and how you use it to communicate not only with colleagues, but with parents, politicians, and administrators. Share how technology has affected assessment of students and of yourself.
And her last sentence:

Join us there, where together we’ll discuss all that it means to teach toward tomorrow—something we must do, because, after all, shift happens.

Let me pick out some phrases again:
  • Our schools seem to be moving more slowly

  • Relevance, Relationships and Responsiveness

  • Explain how you use technology to enhance your own learning
  • Share how technology has affected assessment of students and of yourself
  • Teach toward tomorrow . . . something we must do

Now, I know some folks will cheer when they read these, and others will vehemently protest. I think it's important to remember that they aren't throwing away the "old" literacies, they are just expanding what it means to be literate. But what I think is most important about this is the fact that NCTE is apparently basing their convention around these ideas. I think this is a major shift. This is not ISTE promoting NETS, or a coalition of folks from corporations wanting better prepared employees, this is NCTE - perhaps fundamentally redefining literacy and how we teach our children. Perhaps I'm reading (pun intended) too much into this, but I think this is huge.


  1. That you have established a dialogue with Kylene Beers regarding literacy is incredibly impressive to me. You are absolutely right to feel good about this endorsement, which validates all that you and other proponents of technology in education stand for.

    These are exciting times, aren't they?

  2. @ms. whatsit - thanks, but I don't think I'd say I established a dialogue with her. And, again, I hope folks don't focus on that part of my post - I debated whether to link and not mention it, but then I was afraid that would look even more self-promotional. I figured it was better to just acknowledge it and ask people to ignore that part. No offense, but you didn't help much with that! :-)

    Thanks for coming to Learning 2.0 - I hope it was a worthwhile day for you.

  3. Yeah...I think this is huge too. But here's what I'd love to hear your thoughts on. Do you think these are "new" literacies or an expansion of how we think about reading and writing? Or is that the same thing? Seems like there is another aspect to being literate with all of this, one that goes beyond traditional reading and writing. But I wonder if at the end of the day, it still is just reading and writing. (And I wonder if any of that makes any sense.)

  4. This is big, for the reasons above and others. This very bold statement by the NCTE gives professional developers like me leverage to open doors. It’s one thing to talk to a principal or a department head and say, “Well, ISTE says…,” but quite another to quote NCTE’s definitions of literacies. The fact that this is coming from a curricular group, from a respected expert on helping struggling students acquire language skills only adds to the magnitude of this “shift.” Karl, you once said that all you wanted to do is start conversations, well, I think this is an important one.

  5. I think this is a very bold statement and posted parts of her announcement on my blog for teachers in my district that follow me to read. This is terrific and bold. Thanks for helping me find this conversation.

  6. @Will – First, I need to take a moment to reflect on the fact that a former NCTE member is asking me – a former NCTM member – for my thoughts on literacy.

    OK, moment taken.

    I think the answer to your question is, “Yes.” I think that initially these are just an expansion of how we think about reading and writing, to take into account the new media landscape and global connections made possible by technology. I would hazard a guess – and it would just be a guess – that most NCTE members would interpret these “literacies” in this fashion and therefore in some respects these aren’t new, just inclusive of some of “the shifts” we’ve been talking about. (Although as I said in the post, if it’s new to those folks, perhaps they really are new.)

    But that’s just initially. I do think there is a fundamental new literacy, an emergent literacy if you will, one that can’t be seen or defined in a local system, but is created somehow by the network itself. But I don’t have my head around it yet. (To be honest, I’m kind of hoping you and the rest of my network are going to do most of the heavy lifting figuring that out, but let me ramble on some more.)

    It’s this idea of network literacy that you talk about; a self-organizing, give-and-take, fluid network that we should be helping our students set up, grow, nurture, contribute to, prune, and deeply understand. It’s also the idea that several folks (Chris Lehmann, Christian Long, a few others after EduCon) have written about lately of developing “local” communities and networks and then expanding those networks to intersect with the wider “Network” with a capital N. The idea that learning networks are no longer bound by physical proximity and limitations, but are actively constructed by those that participate (as I now see you basically said in your most recent post). That literacy itself is not a fixed concept, but is actively constructed and defined by the individual learner, a result of the interaction of the learner with the various nodes in the network.

    It’s also this idea of “passion based learning” that you keep coming back to in your writing – and tried to get my students to engage with you about in the live blogging. Every time I try to talk about it (and the associated idea of a personal learning network) in my school – with teachers or students – I get the same response. There’s this initial spark of understanding, this tantalizingly close moment, then it gets buried in the “yeah, buts” and the presumed realities of mass education. I then get angry with myself because I feel inadequate to the task of explaining it, and I know I have holes in my arguments big enough to drive NCLB through, and then the vision of a deeply personalized education in a community setting that I so desperately seek for all students (and most especially my own daughter) seems to drift ever farther away.

    So, yes darn it, there is a new literacy here somewhere, I just can’t define it. (And, yes, I also wonder if any of that made any sense.)

  7. I tend to agree with Carl Fisch's views concerning literacy and what it means to be a literate person in the 21st Century. Writing from a historical viewpoint, change is most definitely inevitable (even though sometimes we may think that it isn't proceeding at the right pace). Technology changes things forever once it is unleashed (mostly for the good). Multiple literacies will be the name of game in the future as we layer new literacies on top of "older" literacies. In the near future it may be possible that a truly "literate" person is one that is at least bilingual (Spanish, Mandarin, and English?), knows how to manipulate the computer (including programming languages), possessers multitasking abilities, and communicates ethical concerns.

  8. I have to admit that I really enjoyed reading the postings in this section of the blog. As a young teacher working on my Master's degree in literacy, I am faced with the decisions to determine what literacies are most important to teach to my most struggling readers. I currently teach special education in an inclusion room and have students at various reading levels. I have one student in the fourth grade that falls into a level 1 reading comprehension, but can navigate his way around a computer and the web like its second nature. On the other hand, there is a student in the classroom who is reading at an eighth grade level, but cannot navigate herself through a website, let along know the literacies that revolve around it. This brings me to the question as to who needs the instruction more? The student who does fine in the digital world and will probably have a job as a computer programmer/engineer when he is older...or the "bright" student who is a computer teacher's nightmare?

  9. @Sarah - I think the answer to your question, of course, is both of them. As hard as it is, we have to try to find a way to meet each student's need.