Are you listening to this?… Why, yes. I am. But, are you?

I have spent the past two days immersed in BLC ’08, asking questions of my practice and thinking, collaborating with others, and challenging thinking (that, like all discourse really tested me to realize what I know, believe, and enact). It has been a brilliant experience, and one I will likely continue to unpack for weeks to come.

That said, in this moment, having recently departed a single, 52 minute session that worked to dismantle much of the “glow” I was feeling from engaging with so many smart ideas, I feel provoked. Not mindful. Not patiently reflective. Blatantly PROVOKED.

Sitting in on Marc Prensky’s session discussing teaching programming, I came eager to hear ideas that would complicate my thinking, full well knowing that, like all sessions at an educational conference, not everything would resonate – but that I always have something to learn. Minutes into the talk, I found myself feeling uncomfortable as the heads in the room nodded in agreement with ideas that made me shift in my seat – that we needed to consider the relative merits of not teaching reading and writing given the power of technologies that can be programmed to do that kind of work for students. On screen, Marc used an image of a shooting gun – paired with “popping” audio – to call attention to his point that “things requiring reading and writing need to be shot down.” And, we were also told that “some teachers hate when I say this.”


The room nodded. And, a participant from my session yesterday on engaging reluctant readers with new literacy driven practices, turned to me, pointed to Marc, and mouthed the words, “Are you listening to this?”

Gulp again.

Yes, I was listening. But, were those who were nodding their heads?

There are myriad answers that I have to counter the ideas that I heard expressed in the session – but I find myself centering on the reasons that I teach. As an English teacher, it is my job to help students gain access to the literacies of power. As I listened to Marc, my mind cycled through what I believe – literacy is situated, contextual, social, multiple, active and a component of identity. New literacies don’t replace former literacies. This isn’t a situation of either “new literacies” or “old literacies.” (or worse, “new” vs. “old”) And, most importantly – I was hearing the critical theorists who I studied as a preservice teacher – thinking that “literary” texts are often laden with values that lead to oppressive material conditions that keep us socially divided. I teach students how to work as readers who interrogate these texts, who work to read the word so as to really read the world.

As an English teacher, I am not sitting in a dusty corner of a room, huddled up with an antiquated book and asking students to practice close reading. Teaching English is about opening up what counts as valued communication, inviting ALL students to engage in multimodal discourses, and to put their knowledge to work. We produce and consume media; expertise means leveraging tools and spaces in intentional, productive ways; and we participate in global communities that are keenly, deeply invested. English teachers likely DO bristle up when Marc speaks about “shooting down reading and writing.” He has really missed the point and, in very real ways, moved into a dangerous place.

Our students need us to do more than nod. We need to think. Deeply. I have been moved to do that by Ewan McIntosh who spoke yesterday about the power of divergent thinking and ways that new literacies and emerging technologies lead “the barely motivated to become activists.” I have been moved to do that by John Davitt who talked about the importance of balance across literacies by providing opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge through multiple modes – and to engage, where possible, with “struggleware.” I have been moved to do that by Darren Kuropatwa who showed me what it meant to be transparent when teaching – and to empower students to teach and attain a whole new level of credibility. If I teach in the ways that they inspire me to consider, I am empowering students to engage with literacies that value the ways that they are multiply literate — and to
have access to the academic literacies that provide an additional degree of “access.” They challenge me to be a gateopener, rather than a gatekeeper.

I needed to write today because this is too important to just let go. I feel the need to get loud. Blogging is a bit more “raw” than the writing I typically do – in part because I am writing to learn, to reflect, and hopefully engage with those who read and want to join in the dialogue. It has a bit of risk to it – but it is deeply honest (and, with any luck, the most “heard” writing that I’ve done).

So, yes, I am listening. But, were you?


19 responses to “Are you listening to this?… Why, yes. I am. But, are you?

  1. Not being in the session and while I have not completed his book, I am baffled. I spent a year doing prison ministry and every stat there is leads to the majority of those who are illiterate make up the majority of those who are incarcerated. The DA in Dallas recently talked about the cost of not getting an education and we spend twice as much in Dallas on those in jail as we do on those in the classroom. Where are our priorities? Interesting and I appreciate you bringing it to the attention of those who come by your site.


  2. Hi there,

    I read Prensky last in Ed. Leadership earlier this year, I think.

    Then, I wondered where he was going with the arguments you have mentioned.

    I agree in the main, with the views of McIntosh and Kuropatwa. Davitt, I don’t know of his work, yet.

    Let’s get loud sounds like it might be a timely call!

  3. This is so great to see you on here. I am completely impressed by your first post and have already subscribed to this feed. Well written and well thought out. I also think that “struggleware” will be one of the greatest concepts that will come out of our time here in Boston.

  4. I was there and I was most definitely listening. In fact, I was the one up front who let out an audible gasp when he suggested we do away with reading and writing in favor of programming. I was equally dismayed when he called for the abolishment of geometry in his morning session. Both the content and the delivery were very disappointing for me.

  5. Oh, yeah. I’m listening. Say more. Lots more. Teach me.

    It’s good to have your voice in blog form. Thank you for firing me up at the end of a long week!

  6. “I am writing to learn, to reflect, and hopefully engage with those who read and want to join in the dialogue. It has a bit of risk to it – but it is deeply honest ”

    Wow, that is fantastic, Sara. I know it will be writing that is heard. Welcome to the edublogosphere

  7. Thanks for strapping on what Neil Postman called, the educator’s essential “BS Detector.”

    What exactly are the keynoter’s qualifications for making such institution-shattering proclamations?

    1) Programming IS reading and writing. Prensky displayed an ignorance of all three. It is cheap populism to think in zero-sum terms.

    2) There are (IMHO) no new literacies and the folks who sell the notion often lack an understanding of literacy in any form. The basic assumption that literacy is hard or unnatural is fundamentally wrong.

    3) An old friend wrote her doctoral dissertation on how Logo programming closely mirrors and enhances a child’s understanding of the writing process almost 20 years ago. (Leslie Thyberg)


  8. Sara I agree with Clarence, it is great to have you as a voice here. I have attended several of your sessions at various conferences in the past three years and have tried to implement some of the strategies you talk about here in my district. Prensky is not the only one talking about programming as a literacy of the future, I believe, as you have stated, we cannot separate literacy into “new” and “old”. We should get loud, welcome to the world of blogging, you have a great deal to share.

  9. Anne Van Meter

    I’m beginning to think that some of us were (are) lobsters in the pot of cold water. Are any other “loud” educators realizing that the water is warming rapidly?

    Education needs to get deep, to re-examine itself, to re-create itself. But I worry sometimes about the loudest and most well-recognized voices. Be loud Sara! I’m forwarding this blog to several friends and colleagues…


    I was sooo thrilled at BLC (though I was in CA) that your session was ustreamed…..because you were a new voice, a new name to me…..and then I was even more thrilled when you had great content, conversation, etc etc etc.

    I made the false assumption that you must be a long time blogger and was suprised that perhaps this is new to you??

    If so — KEEP IT UP. I am very much enjoying your thoughts!!!


  11. Wonderful post – I’ve just subscribed! Please… write more thoughtful posts like this!

    I wasn’t in the audience and didn’t hear this first hand, but if Prensky really is calling for an end to learning how to read and write then he really has missed the mark on this. I agree with everything you’ve said as well as what everyone has stated in their comments.

    I’m not a programming genius, but I know enough about some scripting languages to know that it requires the ability to read – to decode, to understand context – and to write and follow specific syntax/formatting rules. Additionally, in order to be a successful programmer, one MUST – at the very least – have knowledge and skill in effective communication through language and visual elements. I don’t know how else you would learn these skills without effective language arts instruction (facilitation of learning).

    Thanks for sharing your insightful reflection on this topic 🙂

  12. You go Sarah! Continue writing and sounding the alarms. Your words are fresh, crisp and will give all of us the reasons to comment!

  13. I’ll echo everyone’s sentiments from above and give you a hearty welcome to this type of reflection; it’s wonderful to have a fresh new perspective.

    I was in the audience with you, and I’ll admit that I did nod at times, and at others I wondered aloud (in the shared notes with my colleagues), what he was thinking. I first read your post this morning and have spent a good deal of the day hashing it out in my head. In every instance I come to a very similar understanding to Gary above: programming is reading and writing. To assume that we do away with reading and writing would be ludicrous. That said, the message I took away from Mark was different.

    We are moving, and in many ways, have moved already to a different definition of literacy. In his own way, I believe Mark was attempting to define some elements of what he feels the new literacy will be. As we’ve stated above, spurred on by your post, the future of programming doesn’t exist without the both the celebration of and spreading of fundamental literacies. Leaving his presentation, I couldn’t help but think that we’ve got to have people like Mark Prensky and some of the names above on this blog (and now your own) pushing against what we already accept and know to form what we want for our children.

    Thanks for the push.

  14. This is probably one of the deepest entries I’ve ever read into educational blogging. You powerfully convey the logic and emotion you shared when we spoke briefly after you had left Presnky’s session.

    Prensky tends to oversimplify in order to amplify his message. On a number of points I disagree with the perspectives he holds and it seems to me that a growing number of people do as well.

    On the other hand, provocative arguments are wonderful when they provoke us to think more deeply and articulately. I think on that level, Presnky succeeded here. Unfortunately, on many other levels, he doesn’t.

    Welcome to the blogosphere. Looking forward to reading more thoughtful posts here. 😉

    One of the highlights of BLC08 for me was meeting you and becoming friends. This’ll be a great way to keep in touch.


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  16. Hi Sara,
    So nice to have finally found your blog. Your post was everything I knew it would be from your session. It was a delight to be able to ustream it for you and I see that our California participant found you as well. I didn’t attend any of Prensky’s sessions but heard a lot of dialogue around them. I too, teach English and the quotes that I kept hearing discomfitted me. Our students need so much from us. I choose to see possibility and open horizons and hope to convey that to them through my teaching. “As an English teacher, it is my job to help students gain access to the literacies of power. ” Yes, I agree with you and those literacies change as the world gets increasingly complex.

    Your writing is good. Warm fresh bread after a long day at work. Thank you.

    I ordered my first flip camera. I opted for the mino and can’t wait to start using it with my kids. I will take some of what Marco Torres taught me and set them free. I am going to try and order a few for the classroom too. I will let you know how that goes. Thanks for the exposure to this.

    Best wishes and great job here. I am looking forward to reading more.

  17. Hello Sara,

    It was wonderful to be able to attend your presentation on Friday afternoon and then to have a chance to chat on the bus (on the way to the airport). I am sure you enjoyed your homecoming! We are having some problems with our Internet…sigh…and so I have not been able to get in touch with Lynn from Acadia. I will get in touch with you ASAP. Looking forward to reading both your post and everyone’s responses in full. Thanks for the reminder not to swallow everything one hears. Questioning is a good thing!! Sometimes creates discomfort and seems risky…but good!

    Gabrielle Stanton

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