Friday, June 26, 2015

A Modern Literacy Experience

A Response to Lankshear & Knobel, New Literacies, Chapter 3

I would like to tell a story about an experience I've had over the last three weeks at school. After reading Lankshear and Knobel's third chapter, I realize that this was a "new literacies" experience, and I'd like to relate it to what I've been reading.

I'll start with the set-up. The State of Massachusetts had decided that all schools must create an assessment tool called a District Determined Measure, or DDM, for each course. The tool could be whatever the school wished to create, but it needed to measure each student's progress in some fashion. Progress was to be measured relatively for each student in the context of all students in a course. The State provided, typically, little guidance on how this was to be achieved. Most teachers in my school opted for a variety of pre- and post-tests. I spoke with my fellow physics teacher at length about how such a test could be scored in a manner that meaningfully and equitably measured individual progress. We quickly realized that an absolute scale would not suffice, and we threw some numbers around as examples of how we thought the scoring should work.

Later I realized that the solution was to use a relatively simple scaling formula, like what you would use to scale exam results up. I opened my favorite go-to tool, Excel, and starting tinkering. It didn't take long for me to construct the scale, and soon I was building a test template. I mentioned it to my supervisor, and she thought it could be used school-wide. With that in mind, I cleaned the Excel workbook up, added some more functionality and instructions, and made it available to all teaching staff.

Of course no one knew, for various reasons, how to use it or what it even meant.

I volunteered to make myself available toward the end of the school year, after the seniors had left (and teaching loads had correspondingly diminished). I held a series of group workshops, and then helped teachers individually. It turned out to be quite an exercise in teaching the new literacies to my fellow teachers.

As Lankshear and Knobel pointed out, a literacy can be new in the ontological sense of new technical practices and practices related to a new ethos (p.55). The technical practices involved going online, retrieving a file from the school's server, downloading that file to one's machine, and possibly emailing the file to a comrade. These practices were the most likely to have been mastered by the staff, though some older staff still struggled at this level. Then came the real fun - how to work with Excel.

There is an entire literacy of Excel, and most of the teachers had not developed an Excel practice. I am something of an Excel guru, so I was able to teach the specific practices necessary to complete the DDM scoring, but it was time-consuming. Many of the teachers were familiar with Word, some of them gurus, but Word skills do not translate to Excel - it's a different literacy! The teachers who struggled thought they struggled because they were not comfortable with the math, but the point of the Excel workbook was to make the math happen automatically. I had to keep in mind, while tutoring, that this was a literacy problem.

Some teachers wished to understand the underlying premise of the workbook, and this introduced another literacy - statistics. I kept it as simple as I could, and eventually crafted a response that easily conveyed the statistical underpinnings without actually broaching statistics itself.

What was even more surprising for me was the teachers' response to the other ontological facet of a literacy - the ethos "stuff." In this case, to make the DDM scoring work, teachers had to collaborate with other teachers teaching the same course and establish testing and scoring standards and protocols. I had assumed that the teachers of English Language Arts, say, were in regular communication with each other. This turned out not to be the case. Outside of email and maybe Google Docs, the ethos of digital participation and collaboration in the pedagogical affinity space was poorly developed. Certainly the teachers were aware of and some well-practiced in the personal digital-social space. I was heartened to hear that everyone enthusiastically agreed that more digital participation and collaboration in the pedagogical instance would be a good idea going forward.

I was glad to have been an enabler, and I was aware of seeing a lot through the lens of Lankshear and Knobel.

As a way of keeping notes, I list below, without elaboration, some phrases and ideas that jumped out at me in this week's reading:
  • What counts as new? (p. 51)
  • The new ontology: technical "stuff" and ethos "stuff" (p. 55)
  • digital remix = "writing" (p. 67)
  • "performing" software (p. 70)
  • "folksonomy" and distributed expertise (pp. 75-76)
  • Jenkins (2010): Web 2.0 is a business model (p. 80)
  • proprietary, projective, and participatory configurations (pp. 81-82)

1 comment:

  1. Hello Bill, I enjoyed reading your insider experience from how you are putting in practice the chapter ideas in your teaching practice. Like you I think it is great to read other peers' posts showing their (our) enthusiasm about the benefits of digital participation. I also think we are aware of the difficulties inherent in developing educational affinity spaces and the complexity of incorporating students and teacher in a real collaborative space. There are many variables and challenges to considerer, but I am optimistic. I personally experience progress and a progressive collective conscience of the importance to improve our digital practices. The way is long and full of obstacles but I believe the future is promising. Thank you for sharing your practical perspective.