But, they are supposed to be digital natives… aren’t they?

I’m collaboratively teaching a pilot course this semester that brings together preservice English, social studies and music education students — all centered around the study of digital humanities, web 2.0 tools, and conducting action research during the student teaching semester from which our folks can actually walk away and say “here was the instructional value added” of teaching in the ways we’re trying to model in the class.

All of this was predicated from the notion that our students (ages 20 – 24) were coming to us with skills/talents/interests that map into their role as “players” in a generation that has always known a digital world.

This started to get disrupted a bit as we examined their early thinking about learning 2.0 and digital technologies, but as it was the first day of class, we pushed on.  First reading for the course – Born Digital (a really compelling, new read that most of the students were talking about as they entered the classroom – always a good sign).  First task for the second day of the course – using a flip video camera, interview one another (approximately 2-5 minutes, depending on the direction and track of the conversation) in pursuit of the question “Are you a digital native?”

20 students in the course.  On the first day of class, we’d asked the same question using pollanywhere – 38% yes, 33% no, 29% A What???  On this second day, 20 students in the course (each who had done some signifcant reading and had experienced activities during the first day which were designed to really rattle their thinking) – 18 no, 2 yes.

Where this was striking to me, more compelling were their comments…

“A characteristic of the digital native – they are somewhat less original than others as ideas are so quickly distributed.  I don’t want to be that.  I am transitioning into this culture but I remember and miss life before technology.”

“I am not a digital native.  Computers aren’t my thing.  I reject that whole scene.  Technology doesn’t come naturally to me… I think deeply across one source.  Digital natives read on the surface and mix across sources.”

“I collect beta tapes.  Now, you get a cell phone in elementary school.  Big gap there.  I don’t consider myself to be in that.”

“You’re talking about someone who can adapt what they know about technology and move that into what is new.  I’m kind of up to date at this moment, but there is too much new stuff to say that. I’m not that flexible.”

“My life is online with facebook, photos… But, that is me the person, not me the teacher.”

“I resist being up to date.  Maybe it is this generation, but I’m not.”

“I’ve never done what I see in this class – blogs, wikis, ipods.  So, if I thought I knew something, that has shifted.”

“My parents are more digital natives than I am.  They send me picture messages with sound, and I have no idea how they did that.”

“I don’t know how to use an ipod.  I don’t have a digital camera.  I email.  That shuts me out of that, right?”

“We’re all behind.”

“Maybe I’m a digital adolescent.  I can figure it out, but I’m not immersed in it – and don’t go there first… or even second.  I check my email… other than that… umm…”

“I might be.  I use the cell phone to get money from Mom and Dad.  But I have no idea what a flip, a meno, a kindle is.”

“I’ve thought about this a lot.  I am one.  I’m not as savvy as I’d like, but I like to know what is going on.  I’ll give it a couple of hours – or all day and all night.  That’s play.  I’m a multi-tasker who isn’t afraid of change.”

Where am I going with all this (keeping in mind that I have so much more unpacking and thinking to go)?  We have a growing body of literature in the field of education that argues that THIS GENERATION OF TEACHERS will be the ones to really move student learning through their unique grasp of new literacies and technology.  Not only do my students here (at a highly technical university) not have the schema of what this looks like in terms of their teaching – they also are not engaging in the kinds of practices that are generalized to be happening across their generation.

As seems to be usual, I’m left with more questions than answers as I think this through… Are my students unique?  Were the researchers who forecasted this large shift in the pedagogy, practice and literacies of young teachers just wrong?   After all, aren’t these preservice teachers/students supposed to be digital natives?

The “terms” by which we define ourselves…

When I first started teaching differently through the use of technology and new literacies in the English classroom, it wasn’t pretty. I made a lot of mistakes, most of which served as entertainment for the tech-savvy students in my classes. Elliott, one of the more talented – and perhaps surly, students in the group that first semester, worked with me before school, during lunch, after school – all moments where he feverishly sought to “teach the teacher” (with great glee and delight). At the end of the school year (while I was nowhere near a place where I’d made meaning out of all we’d experienced together, he left a sign for me on my window-sill, reading “techie” – a term I’d teasingly called him and a gift that I valued more than I do my diplomas.

I’ve kept that sign hanging in my classrooms and offices since.

Last week, a graduate student in the program I run stepped into my office, read that sign and offered, “what a cool sign! You are a teach-ie, aren’t you?”

I looked up, surprised by his misread – and halfway wondering if it was deliberate. And, as it popped around in my brain for a minute, I realized that I liked this way of reading the sign much better. Techie infers technology junkie who always has the newest and greatest tool/gadget (which likely fits me as I write this using a MacBook Air with an iPhone sitting to the right of it and Tweetdeck in the background so I’m still “in touch”). “Teach-ie” communicates the kind of critical inquiry, questioning and thinking that I think marks my new work. The “teach-ie” in me wants to push against boundaries and work harder to really see the ways kids come to us multiply literate — and to find ways that we can all communicate, navigate and work smarter amidst the rapid change around us. The “teach-ie” is also constantly learning, keeping up with the smart thinkers in my network, lurking over their shoulders by sharing links through tools like delicious, and sharing back through my participation in ning communities and other virtual spaces. I learned how to be a “teach-ie” by watching the practices of my teachie heros (Joyce, WIll, Darren, Clarence, Ewan, Bud and so many others).

So, a question that I’m “kicking around” – what is a better term for what we really do?

Raw thoughts on “change”…

As much as I’ve been mulling over some “draft” blog posts over the past week or so, the ideas I am compelled to share in this post are a little more “raw.”

In a training this morning, speakers shared state-level criteria for teacher evaluation. As I was giving it a quick scan for literacy-related content (and an eye on what I need to be moving into my methods courses so preservice teachers incorporate these behaviors like breathing…), the “technology-related” criteria rose up to meet my eye – “the teacher uses comprehensive materials, technology and resources that promote the development of critical thinking, problem solving, and performance skills.” One reference out of 20 criteria – and it is a little bit hidden, lumped in with materials that could range from “silver-bullet,”packaged software tools, textbook resources, and anything that fits in the category of “resource.”

In mulling this over, I’m thinking that this language and framing functions as a deterrent to the kinds of new literacies teaching and thinking that I want my preservice teachers to value, know and practice (let alone what happens with the practicing teachers that I work with almost daily). If technology is limited to the “stuff” we use in the classroom, we aren’t really thinking about literacy or learning.

There is such a huge opportunity in the crafting of these documents to talk about technology in a really different way. What I’m not sure of – do we call this out by writing about new literacies? Do we call it out by seeding ideas about inquiry, authentic assessment, participation in global communities, rigor and relevance in teaching? Or, do we find a way to talk about learning 2.0 that is more “in your face” in the same way that these documents speak about rapport or assessment instruments? How do we change the language in the “echo chamber?” Is it about the volume of your ideas – or the language you use? Or, is it bigger?

Some of my colleagues argue that standards documents and policy documents don’t matter when it comes to the every-day in a school. I’m not sure I see how that argument holds weight – as the guidelines I am evaluated by as a teacher play a really significant role in how I think about my teaching and how I document what happens with student learning. Why change/grow/develop if it isn’t reflected in the criteria by which I am evaluated?

Another stream of thought – who is it that writes these documents, anyway? (Or, do I hold different expectations given the process – and involvement – that lots of us had in crafting the ISTE NETS)

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?