#BPSCon Countdown is 18 Days – NEWSELA is Coming

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With BPSCon just 19 days away, I wanted to start highlighting some of the more than 130 sessions that will be offering at our 10th annual back-to-school professional learning extravaganza.  Aside from nearly 100 sessions led by BPS teachers, we also have some outside presenters coming to support staff in a variety of areas.

Our first highlighted topic is Newsela, a resource we piloted across the district last spring. Due to the tremendous feedback we received from staff who utilized Newsela, we have purchased a Pro account for all staff this year. Common Sense Media describes Newsela as follow:

an online news-as-literacy program that features current articles in seven categories: War & Peace, Science, Health, Kids, Money, Law, and Arts. Content is updated daily, with stories from a wide range of sources (from the Associated Press to Scientific American to the Washington Post) in both English and Spanish. On top of this, all articles are Common Core-aligned and available in five Lexile levels, ranging (roughly) from third to 12th grade. Each leveled text features a quiz tailored to that particular article plus a writing prompt that asks kids to write and respond to what they’ve read.


We will have a trainer from Newsela running sessions all day on Wednesday so that staff members can have multiple opportunities to get up and running with Newsela.  In the meantime, please take a moment and go to Newsela.com and click on the sign-in button in the top-right corner of the page. Choose the sign in with Google option and then your BPS Google account to be signed in automatically. If you would like to get started learning about Newsela prior to BPSCon, you can check out the numerous options on the Learning and Support page which can be found under the question mark at the top of the screen on the right once you sign in.

We are excited to add Newsela to the list of resources available to BPS staff and students! You can check out the entire BPSCon schedule here.  We will continue to tweak the schedule in the final days leading up to BPSCon.

How Many Educators Are Really Literate?

Literacy is a broad term. The definition from Merriam-Webster defines literacy as “the ability to read and write or knowledge that relates to a specified subject.” The struggle for me comes on the topic of specified subjects. Are these static or changing? Once prioritized, where do we find the most relevant and up-to-date information? Once we find the best source of information, how long does that remain the best resource and how long is that information up-to-date?

One of the words I have heard most often at a number of educational workshops over the past year regarding complicated topics like this is the word iterative. “It is an iterative process,” they say in an effort to help those in the room process the complexity of the work ahead and also understand that this work cannot be expected to be completed overnight.  However, sometimes I get the feeling that this pronouncement is taken as a signal that significant progress is not really expected. Maybe we need to explain that you can’t have an iterative process without making a first iteration? I do find it a bit ironic that the word inertia can be extracted from the word iteration.
One place where I feel this frustration is in the area of digital literacy. A couple of blog posts from Shaelynn Farnsworth and Steven Anderson following the recent ISTE Conference really got me wondering about how much has changed in regards to how we support our students in this area. We are more than eight years beyond the publication of the definition of 21st Century Literacies published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet I question how many of our students are able to do the following by the time they graduate from high school:
  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • 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 multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.
I don’t see anything significant happening here until we accept the words in the title of Steven’s post and ensure that all educators feel that We Are All Teachers of Literacy.  This will not be as much of a shift for elementary teachers as it will be for those in middle and high schools. For those districts looking for resources to help educators get started, Shaelynn’s post provides the following:
Google Inside Search  – Understand how Google Search works, explore the interactive timeline highlighting the advancement of Google Search throughout the years, and view lesson plans for educators.
BrainPop – A video introduces students to search engines and how to use keywords and phrases to locate the information they want. This site also includes lesson plans which include multi-media ideas and also skills to promote with students for online research!
ReadWriteThink – A great lesson plan to help students focus their internet searching. This lesson not only supports skills need in the initial search, but also reading strategies to locate and evaluate information once it is found!
 As I make this statement, please be assured that I include myself in this group playing catch up in regards to how to best find quality information online.  Reading beyond clickbait headlines and titles is a challenge sometimes when I do not feel like I have the time to give due diligence to the source behind that headline.  But if we are committed to fulfilling our mission to develop responsible citizens, then we have to go all-in when it comes to developing responsible digital citizens.
In an area where the majority of our information is coming to us from digital media, can we really claim literacy without digital literacy?

My First EdWeek Blog Post – Is Your District Missing the Digital Literacy Boat?

I am thrilled to announce that I have been given the opportunity to Blog regularly for Education Week. You can check out my EdWeek blog here. My first post , which you can read below, was posted on Tuesday. 
In many ways, today represents an unprecedented opportunity to advance student literacy! With tablets, e-readers, and mobile phones, you can literally carry endless shelves of excellent books in your pocket. In addition, education technology offers breakthrough tools to help teachers raise the literacy bar. Yet numerous factors hamper schools’ abilities to bring these benefits into our classrooms.
When it comes to purchasing and utilizing digital books, confusion reigns among educators. Lacking a good understanding of this fast-changing space, I see educators making short-term decisions about the transition to digital books and building ebook libraries without plans for instructional use. Perhaps worst of all, I see districts staying on the sidelines, delaying purchases of ebooks because the options seem too murky to fully understand.   
I believe we need to amplify the national conversation about this critical subject. As a district administrator, I want to highlight three under-recognized points: (1) the emergence of educational technology that can dramatically improve literacy outcomes in schools, (2) the cost-effective options for bringing digital books into schools, and (3) the funding challenges involved in making these new tools available to all students. Let’s address ebook purchasing first.
Best Bang for the District Buck
Some digital book options are simply better for schools than others. Unfortunately, the landscape is not well-understood among school and district leaders. Here is what an informed purchaser should know:
Ebooks for schools are often available from publishers in an “in-perpetuity” purchase model. This means that a school or district purchases the book once and owns it forever. The book will never wear out, be written in, or lost, which saves money in the long term. Such ebooks typically cost more than paperback books, and can sometimes cost more than hardback or library-bound books. For example, when purchased from Follett, Lois Lowry’s The Giver costs $7.69 in paperback, $15.34 in hardback, and $8.99 for an in-perpetuity ebook. Seymour Simon’s Extreme Earth Records costs $6.84 in paperback, $15.34 in hardback, and $16.89 digitally – also in perpetuity. Especially for school libraries, the indestructible, impossible-to-lose digital book is clearly the best long-term value.
Some schools purchase ebooks from providers like Amazon or iBooks because the price tag sounds attractive: The Giver costs $2.99 on Amazon and iBooks, and Extreme Earth Records costs $9.99. Yet those ebook licenses are intended for consumers – and thus are limited to one user account – so these ebooks can’t be shared across a school or classroom with any ease. Only two students need to read Extreme Earth Records for the $16.89 Follett ebook to be a better value than the $9.99 Amazon or iBooks purchase. Similarly, after the third read of The Giver, the school saves by purchasing the ebook. Why, then, do schools still buy from Amazon and iBooks? Usually, I find it boils down to misunderstanding the options.
Some ebook licenses allow multiple students to access an ebook simultaneously, making those texts very cost-effective for whole class work. Cheetahs by Tammy Gagne – which is $20.54 in hardcover – costs $20.49 for an in-perpetuity ebook which can be read one student at a time, and $30.74 for an “unlimited access” license, which could be used by an entire school simultaneously (and again, in perpetuity). At this price, the unlimited-use ebook is more affordable than a class set of any text!
As these examples illustrate, in-perpetuity ebook licenses, which are available to schools through suppliers like Follett or Baker & Taylor, represent the best long-term value for digital books. In many cases, they may even represent a better value than physical texts, especially for classroom-wide use. Yet evidence suggests that educators are still learning these options: in a recent survey featured in School Library Journal, 40% of school and district leaders said they are still unsure which ebook purchase model makes the most sense for their district.
The Challenge of Funding the Digital Transition
If the long-term value of most ebooks is good news, the bad news revolves around the disconnect between classroom needs and district budgeting:
  • Instructional realities: To take advantage of ebooks in the classrooms, teachers need quality classroom libraries and class sets of texts. Teachers can’t leverage new technologies with a few students reading digitally and the rest in a paperback, so a piecemeal approach won’t work – schools need funds to replace book closets with ebook libraries. Yet schools budget to replace a portion of their books each year, not to build new libraries from scratch. A swift digital transition is challenging for schools, whose budgets aren’t designed to absorb one-time costs.
  • Tapped budgets: Districts, pushed to increase their capabilities to handle computer-based testing, have invested heavily in digital devices, costly peripherals such as keyboards, and wireless infrastructure, leaving limited funds for the content and software needed to support digital reading initiatives.
These factors must be brought to the attention of school communities, parents, and philanthropists. Fortunately, efforts to increase students’ access to digital books have gained attention through President Obama’s ConnectED initiative and articles such as Jim Duncan and David Rothman’s recent Education Week commentary calling for a national digital-library endowment. I would add to the calls for philanthropic support, which will be necessary for schools to tap the promise of digital books.  
Unprecedented Instructional Opportunities Using Ebooks
While these challenges delay the transition to digital, our schools are missing out on significant instructional opportunities. The education technology market is currently producing tools that can dramatically alter literacy instruction through the use of ebooks in the classroom. Tools likeLightSailmyOn, and Actively Learn are engaging readers in ways that are impossible with physical books while also providing realtime feedback to educators and students.
In my district, we use LightSail, a literacy platform that assesses students while they read digital books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Book Thief. Based on the assessments, teachers see student progress across a number of metrics, including a daily update of students’ Lexile measures. The software calculates actual reading time, so we accurately know the volume of reading done by each student, and we can correlate reading time with reading performance. Teachers also see student annotations–the kind formerly recorded in reading journals–in real time. By using this tool, our teachers are personalizing and fine-tuning instruction in ways that cannot be replicated with a physical book.
Such classroom tools are true “game changers” for literacy instruction, supporting literacy outcomes in our schools that were previously unimaginable–and the technology keeps improving. But to capitalize on these opportunities, we need to determine how we will ensure the necessary funding to provide all students with access to these tools.

Some Recommended Reading On Reading

Photo via http://res.freestockphotos.biz/

A group of us here in Burlington Public Schools spent a couple of days in a workshop last week that was focused on reinforcing comprehension skills.  The sessions were led by Shauna Cotte from Keys To Literacy which is based in Rowley, MA.

During the second day of the session, Shauna shared some books with the group that she saw as required reading.  Check out the list below and feel free to pass along any that you would add in the comment section:

The Book Whisperer – Donnalynn Miller

How Children Succeed – Paul Tough

I Am Right! A Follow-up To My Rant About Online Reading

The future of books
The future of books (Photo credit: Johan Larsson)

On Monday, I posted some thoughts regarding an article from last week’s Washington Post that was titled Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researchers say.  I was excited to see a rebuttal to Michael Rosenwald’s perspective by his Washington Post colleague Valerie Strauss this week. 

In her article, Actually, online skimming probably hasn’t affected serious reading after all, Strauss notes the skepticism of Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist from the University of Virginia. Here is a bit of what Willingham had to say:

“… teachers aver that students can no longer read long novels. Well, if we’re swapping stories, I — and most of my classmates — had a hard time with Faulkner and Joyce back in the early ‘80s, when I was an English major.”

“A more plausible possibility is that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to…If I’m right, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully. The bad news is that we don’t want to.”

While I find Willingham’s feelings on online reading versus more traditional means more palatable than those cited in Rosenwald’s artilce, my conclusion is still the same. There is no one right answer! We need to embrace the struggle between reading online and reading from paper-based products. Forcing our students to do one or the other denies them the opportunity to see the benefits that each has to offer.  In addition, there needs to be an increased focus on the advantages of online tools so that students can meet more modern standards of literacy, like the ones below described by the National Council of Teachers of English in its Definition of 21st Century Literacies:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology; 
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought; 
  • 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 multimedia texts; 
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

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    BYOT and one-to-one initiatives are literacy initiatives

    The following post was on the Smart Blog On Education earlier this week.

    As a school leader who recently sold my community on the importance of moving to a one-to-one environment where every student has access to a web-based device, I believe strongly that our students will be more literate than students in other schools who do not have access to web-enabled devices.  A look at the world outside of our schools and the technological resources being accessed in so many professions that allow people to work “smarter” is a clear indication of the track that our students need to be on in order to be able to function in the “real world.”

    The biggest stumbling block in schools even if we can get the devices is the proficiency level of the adults in the building in utilizing the technology resources effectively. This is not meant to be an indictment of educators, but it is a critical question that we all have to look at, assess, and then move forward. Technological tools/resources can assist educators in some of our biggest undertakings (i.e. common core standards integration, teacher evaluation, providing relevant professional development, etc.). However, because so many educators in schools are not comfortable with the most modern literacy skills we are not able to make better progress.

    Are these your literacy standards?
    From an educator’s perspective there are a few places that we can turn for a concrete look at the standards.  The best resources for modern literacy standards are the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Let’s start with NCTE.  The Definition of 21st Century Literacies listed below was adopted by NCTE in 2008. While you look at the list below,  think about how many educators in your community are comfortable in these areas.

    • 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

    As educators, we need to be able to start to list concrete examples of how we meet each of these standards and then assist our students in doing the same.

    What about the ISTE standards?
    Like NCTE, ISTE also provides us clear standards to help schools better prepare students in the digital age. Unfortunately, the vast majority of educators look at the ISTE standards as technology standards when in reality they are learning standards. As the introduction to the standards states on the ISTE website, “Technology has forever changed not only what we need to learn, but the way we learn.”
    Like the NCTE standards, ISTE’s contain six focal points:

    • Creativity and Innovation
    • Communication and Collaboration
    • Research and Information Fluency
    • Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
    • Digital Citizenship
    • Technology Operations and Concepts

    As with the NCTE standards, I question how many of these our staff members are comfortable with at this point.

    Is this even on our radar?
    So as we look towards the new things on the agenda for schools throughout our country like common core implementation and new teacher evaluation methods, I am worried that the integration of technology is still looked upon as a detached task that will have to be kept on the back burner.  The reality of the situation, however, is that if we understand how to utilize the vast array of collaborative resources out there that we can accomplish our tasks more effectively. But we cannot even start down this road if we do not provide access.

    There is a great quote about technology in Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great”: “Technology alone is not going to move an organization or an individual from Good to Great. However, technology that is thoughtfully deployed can help us move a bit faster. ”

    In closing, I have to mention the seven survival skills that Tony  Wagner discusses in his book “The Global Achievement Gap,” skills that our students need whether they are going on to college or the workplace.

    1. Critical thinking/problem solving
    2. Collaboration/leading by influence
    3. Agility and adaptability
    4. Initiative and entrepreneurialism
    5. Effective oral and written communication
    6. Accessing and analyzing information
    7. Curiosity and imagination

    We cannot get where we need to go, if we as educators do not model these skills and we cannot model these skills if we do not provide learning environments where staff and students have access to digital resources that allow them to experiment and discover the power of being a connected learner. We are at a point where we have to consider whether or not those who are learning in “disconnected” environments can be called literate by today’s standards.
    So as you are thinking about whether or not a BYOT or one-to-one initiative is right for your school, you need to ask yourself the following question: Is it important that students in our school are literate?

    Patrick Larkin (@patrickmlarkin) is the assistant superintendent for learning for Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts. He is a former high school principal and former commission member of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

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    BYOT and one-to-one initiatives are literacy initiatives originally published by SmartBlogs

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