Is It Reading?

Posted by Skip Johnson on February 10, 2009

It gets dark outside on a rainy December evening as twelve-year old Edgar sits in his family’s living room and waits for Mom to come home from work.  Dad won’t return until well after midnight from his job as a baggage handler at the airport.

Usually, Edgar would pass such time playing video games or watching television—conveniently forgetting homework and assigned chores.  This evening, however, Jim Dale tunes Edgar into Dicken’s A Christmas Carol via an  iPod Nano. Dale, a professional actor, presents this classic tale in a dramatic and engaging manner that captures Edgar’s attention for over an hour.  His little brother, Raul, sits opposite in an easy chair listening to Frog and Toad wonderfully read by author Arnold Lobel.  Neither boy hears Mom enter the house.  Sensing her presence, they look up, wave with a smile, and continue listening and reading.

On return to school the next morning, Raul enters his classroom, accesses his personal account on Scholastic Reading Counts, and takes a comprehension quiz.  He scores 100%.  Two days later, after finishing A Christmas Carol, Edgar  misses just one question on his 20-question quiz.

Thirty-nine of the 241 students at El Crystal School are enrolled in the Audiobook Program—which we call eCAP. Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) scores for most are rising.  Enthusiasm and motivation for reading amongst this small group has  changed profoundly since the introduction of the iPod and the audiobooks.  Edgar is the star as his SRI has gained more than 170 points!

However, is this really reading? Are the students encoding and decoding words? Are they missing some intellectual exercise that influences their thinking and reasoning skills?  Frankly, I do not know.  What I do know is that since we introduced this program in October 2008,  each student in the eCAP Program has doubled his or her reading goal for the year, and we are only halfway to June.

To Read or Not to Read, a 2007 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, details the decline of reading amongst all demographic groups with the steepest drop among young adults in the last 10 to 20 years. The sharp decline in reading is accompanied by negative social, cultural, and economic implications.   The report notes that “Children who start reading for pleasure at an early age are exposed to exponentially higher numbers of new words—and a greater opportunity to develop literacy skills—than children denied early reading experiences.”  Frequent reading is an essential ingredient for building a sophisticated vocabulary.

Hopefully, our eCAP participants are being exposed to new vocabulary words.  To ensure that our eCAP readers focus upon vocabulary we are developing a series of podcasts for each story dealing with its specific vocabulary. We have also purchased a number of commercial study guides for many of the audiobooks.

Is there support for audiobooks in articles and research?One significant and supportive article is Plato Revisited: Learning Through Listening in the Digitial World written by David Rose and Bridget Dalton.  Basically, they explore the scientific difference between hearing and listening and build a strong case for the use of audiobooks with more than just blind and dyslexic students. Jim Trelease, the author of Read Aloud Handbook, advocates using audiobooks.  In her article “As Good as Reading,” Pamela Varley adamantly defends and advocates the use of audiobooks by children.

Recently, the foundation that sponsored our initial eCAP program has offered to supply each student with an iPod and to buy more books!  Should we accept this offer? Will we be ruining the habits of good readers?

So far, I’ve told them we need some time to consider the implications.  Your thoughts, please?


Slogging Through the Blogosphere

Posted by James Scoolis on December 28, 2008

Photo by Underpuppy; used by permission.
“Chasing Tail” by Underpuppy; used by permission.

We are living in what some folks call “exponential times.” Change and information distribution are occurring at an amazing and ever increasing speed—except in schools, of course.

Since I started as a teacher, I have been interested in technology. Way back in 1984, my tool of choice was one of those green-screen Apple IIc machines. Now, I am experimenting with writing a principal’s blog. Yet, in this post-modern, instantaneous, worldwide information system, posting to blogs is being outpaced by even quicker, hipper and more impersonal postings. I haven’t even begun to Flickr or Twitter yet!

School systems—and those of us who work in them—are notorious laggards when it comes to adopting innovation. For instance, schools where I work, and elsewhere I imagine, still are using the overhead projector as a standard classroom tool. According to Wikipedia, “the U.S. Army was the first to use overhead projectors in quantity for training as World War II wound down.” We still are. Where are the smart boards, LCD projectors and document cameras in our classrooms—like the ones that are commonplace at the Palo Alto Research Center and corporate facilities?

Neither lack of desire nor intelligence explains our slowness to pick up on better technology tools. I believe it’s a commodity problem—mainly time and money. We’re rarely provided with the money to invest in equipment and infrastructure. When we do get some new technology, there’s no time provided to figure out the technical and artistic details necessary to put it to good use. By the time we manage to learn to use our new tool, it may no longer be the useful, bright new innovation that it was. We may not be good at adopting innovation, but we’re great at chasing our tails.

Little twitterings may be nipping at its heels, but the blog is far from being on the endangered species list, and it’s both affordable and easy to use. More importantly, it can be a powerful educational tool. For example, check out Karl Fisch’s “Blogging: In Their Own Words.” An Internet celebrity, at least among many educators, Mr. Fisch is a public high school teacher in Colorado and well known for his very thought-provoking “Did You Know” slide show. Fisch makes a very compelling argument for the use of blogging in schools. He maintains that not only is blogging a creative teaching and learning exercise, and a potentially very rich way to feed your professional learning community, it also has the unique and distinct advantage of meeting students where they live socially.

After I saw Mr. Fisch’s movie I was compelled to at least try and make use of this technology. So on December 9, 2008, the Monarch Grove Principal’s Blog was born. I’ve even received my first comment! Now, if only I could get the LCD projectors installed and find funding for some document cameras.  I ask you: what’s a principal to do?


Brain Research and Technology

Posted by Stephen Vaughn on December 2, 2008

Have you run across Brain Rules? It’s a great book by John Medina that sets out basic rules for surviving and thriving at home, school and work. These rules have some interesting implications for the use of technology in learning. Example: For short term memory, remember to repeat. Repetition is one of the strengths of technology because you can set up a system to repeat concepts many times without getting tired or without getting angry.

Another rule is: Vision trumps all other senses. So technology that provides visual media helps students learn and remember more. A research study indicated that computer animation that is too complex or lifelike may be distracting to learners. Simple, colorful, two-dimensional, animated graphics are best.

Example 3: Learners are natural explorers, so technology that provides access to other ideas, regions or people will help learners learn more and apply what they learn in their life.

Still not convinced? Example 4: Stimulate more of the senses. Technology can be used to simultaneously present text, images, sounds and even smells that combine into a robust learning experience cheaply and easily. Think teaching the concept of circumference by showing a clip of Indiana Jones running away from the large sphere at the beginning of the movie.

One of the obstacles we face in using technology is not having a solid rationale for why and how we are using it. The concepts in Brain Rules can help us build a foundation of research for making sound choices about how we use technology to improve learning.


What’s in Your Digital Dossier?

Posted by Susan Brooks-Young on November 20, 2008


“…access to the technologies is not enough. Young people need to learn digital literacy—the skills to navigate the complicated, hybrid world that their peers are growing up in. This type of inequity must be overcome. The costs of leaving the participation gap unaddressed over time will be higher than we should be willing to bear.” (John Palfrey and Urs Gasser,Born Digital, p.15)

An article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle on Nov. 10 underscores the importance of teaching digital literacy starting at a very early age and then on an ongoing basis. The story isn’t new—just the latest in an ongoing saga of students (even school officials) who do not understand that things posted online are public! In this case, a University of Texas football player was expelled from the team after using his Facebook page to post a racial slur about President-elect Obama.

Kids and some adults today have a new take on privacy. Many don’t realize that, even when posted in ‘private’ areas, anything they put online can be accessed if someone wants to badly enough. And we all have plenty of private data posted. Palfrey and Gasser call this collection of data we reveal about ourselves a digital dossier. They argue that although giving up control of this data makes life easier in the short run, we may later regret having been quite so open with this information. They also are concerned that adults are giving their children too much latitude with giving up control of this information because we choose to look the other way rather than teach them how to manage their digital dossiers. Click here to view a short video clip that explains this concept. (Of course, because the clip is posted on YouTube, your school’s filtering software may block it, in which case you may need to wait and watch the clip at home!)

Here are some questions to ponder: What are your thoughts about digital dossiers? How much information can we safely post online and what should we try to protect? What is our responsibility when it comes to teaching children how to protect themselves?


Clickers: Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Posted by Michael Simkins on July 31, 2008

Thumb doodle drawn by Mark Turner.

Next to interactive white boards, clickers seem to be today’s technology of choice for many classrooms. Buy a batch of these little gadgets, hand them out to your students, and the world will be a better place. Or at least that’s what those who hawk this expensive technology want us to think. A recent experience did nothing to convince me.

I was in a seminar with 200 or so other educators from around the world. Every table was supplied with a set of clickers. At the beginning of the meeting, one of the moderators posed a series of questions and asked us to reply by means of our clickers. After each question, we could see the collective results on the Big Screen. Ooooo. Ahhhhh. Until the trouble began.

First, one of the participants said, “How do you want me to answer that question? Two of the choices are true for me, but this only allows me to choose one or the other.” The question was, “What time zone do you live in?” The response options were: Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, and Not in U.S. “I live in Canada,” said the frustrated fellow, “not the U.S., but I’m in Central time zone.”

Clearly, having a set of clickers instead of a pile of Scantron forms does nothing to change the fact that constructing sound closed-end questions is a challenging task. But the next clicker faux pas was even more embarrassing. Mysteriously, when we would view the collective results for questions that had “A,” “B,” “C,” or “D” as the response options, the results display kept showing us that a significant number of people had chosen “E.” At that point, the moderator wisely decided it was time to put the clickers away and hear what the first panelist had to say.

Back in Paleolithic times, when I learned to teach, we didn’t have clickers, but we did have a variety of student response systems. Ice cream sticks, each marked with a different letter, were one example. Individual student slates were another, and they worked really well for open-ended questions. And of course, there was the simplest solution of all: thumbs up for yes, thumbs down for no, and—if you wanted to get sophisticated—thumbs sideways for “not sure.” True, these methods would not have been useful in a room packed with 200 students, but then neither were the clickers on this occasion.