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More Thoughts on 21st Century Literacies

Extended interviews with educators on the meaning of  "21st century literacies," recommendations for using new technologies, and ideas for updating lesson plans to support 21st century learning.  

How do you define 21st century literacies, and how are they different from 20th century literacies?

"One of the problems when talking about 21st century skills or 21st century literacy skills is that this is a nice buzzword, but nobody really defines it very well," says Karl Fisch.

As for what's different: "When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, our conception of what literacy was very, very different. For the most part, it was being able to read at a certain level, and certainly there was some writing in there, but so much of the focus at that point was on reading to acquire information."

"One of the big differences today is that we live in a world that's info-abundant. Finding information isn't the big problem—the big problem is we have too much information and we don't know what to do with it. It's a very different problem that's going to involve some different skill sets."


One definition of being a literate consumer might be that in addition to "being able to download information to your brain," says Fisch, you also are able to "remix it and repurpose it and share it back out to the world."


For Dawn Hogue, 21st century literacies are "all about a community and sharing and collaboration; it's absolutely about collaboration. It's really also about classrooms with no walls and no constraints of time. In an ideal school, you could be having class with people in a different country, engaging with partners who go to a different school."


Will Richardson has a similar view. He says the big difference in the 21st century is that educators and students aren't "as dependent on physical space or time" as in the 20th century. "If you have access and you're connected, it really is anytime, anywhere learning . . . "


"We have a lot more opportunities now to get the information that we need when we need it, and learn the things we need to learn at the moment we need to learn them," says Richardson. "We don't need to be so pigeon-holed into a curriculum that treats everyone the same way, that really doesn't provide a lot of personalization or license to pursue those things that are of interest to you.


"It's a very difficult thing for teachers to get their brains around."


Ernest Morrell points to three major differences between 20th and 21st century literacies: vastly greater communications technologies in the 21st century, such as the Internet, laptops, and iPods; rapidly changing demographics, with an increase in Latino and other minority populations; and a change in how students are expected to process information—critically, rather than simply regurgitating what they have consumed.


"Literacy is defined by communications technologies and by your culture and your community," says Morrell, who also works with high school teachers in the Los Angeles area. "A literacy is a way that people communicate with one another, so if we have been assuming erroneously that the prototypical American student is white, middle-class, and lives in the Midwest, and we have a school system where that's not the case, then we have to think of literacy differently."


Indeed, says Morrell, "literacy is always changing. It's not novel to our time." Literacy was mostly tied to reading up until about 200 years ago, says Morrell; then it referred to basic writing.


"We always have to ask: how do people communicate in our time? However that question is answered is how literacy is defined."


Today, says Morrell, "we're in an information age, where information is the primary form of capital. Reading and writing play a huge role in our contemporary society, more so than in past societies, because we deal in the production of information. Economics are tied to one's ability to read and write in ways that they haven't necessarily been in the past, so what we have is increased literacy demands in the 21st century, just for ordinary citizenship. Where my grandparents would not necessarily have had to be great readers and writers to have an ordinary quality of life, that's changed, and just in the past century."


Teachers need to take into consideration all three dimensions of 21st century literacy, says Morrell: multimodality, changing culture, and using information critically.


Does research support increased use of technology in schools?


"There's no definitive research that I know of" to show a link between increased technology usage in schools and higher performance, says Bass. "As far as I know, definitive research on a direct link between technology and test scores still doesn't exist."


Though Dawn Hogue's school has no hard data to show that CyberEnglish is better than 'regular' English—partly because it has no control group that isn't taking CyberEnglish—Hogue says she sees evidence of its value every day.


"Students feel better about ninth grade than they used to," she says. "They have a more positive emotional experience in class . . .  if you enjoy a class, you're going to be engaged and get a lot more out of it."


While some decry technological innovation as being "too overwhelming" and recommend shutting computers off, Bud Hunt advocates the opposite position.


"This is a really powerful opportunity, and it's a really neat time to be a teacher and to be a kid and to be alive and to be in the world," he says. "And I hope that our schools can grow to embrace where we are technologically."


How can using new technologies and teaching new skills help students?


One aspect that has perhaps been overlooked is how these methods can help students with differing learning styles or learning disabilities.


For instance, Hogue notes that working on a computer can help disabled students who have trouble with handwriting and spelling.


"The computer takes away some of that sting," says Hogue.


Bill Bass notes that teachers can "really differentiate and meet a variety of learning styles by using technology."


Podcasting, for example, can reach auditory learners or visual learners (depending on the type of podcast). "A lot of online resources come in multimodal form, so you can help a kid grasp a concept by using those different resources that are available."


What Web 2.0 allows people to do—"the real big change here"—is to self-publish, says Richardson. Users can create and then post what's been created to a much larger audience, and then create networks around the things that are published.


Students enjoy making their own web pages because it allows them to express their personalities through color and images, and because "it's a way of social networking: they know their friends are going to look at it," says Hogue.


While Hogue's students write frequently in class, they often don't see it as writing, because it's not the typical paper printed out and handed in to the teacher. Yet, they are more personally invested in the writing they do for her, because of the wider audience.


How can teachers change lesson plans to create 21st century literacies?


Don't simply ask for factual answers to questions, but focus on evaluative skills instead. "You can find the answer to any question quickly [on the Internet]," says Bass, "but evaluating and analyzing the answer and determining whether it's a good one and why—that's where evaluative skills come into play."


Lee sees the Internet as providing tools that can help make topics more exciting and relevant for students.


For instance, via the Internet, "you can go to Salem and walk through a multi-media site that shows what the witch trails were like." 


"Kids need to have it approached in a way that makes it relevant and exciting for them," says Lee. "I think it's important for students to make them producers rather than consumers of the new information technology."


Bud Hunt notes that, as English teachers, "we're not just teaching them the traditional essay anymore, we're teaching them to compose in many different media now, in video, audio, and text, and we can put these together in powerful ways."


Hunt suggests teachers use cellphones in class.


"Kids think about words a lot more when only have 140 characters . . . than if they have five pages to fill," he says. "If I have to convince you you have to vote for my candidate and I only have 140 characters in which to do it, that's a really important literacy opportunity there..I wish we'd think about that instead of saying, 'Let's turn the cellphones off and put them away.'"


He also recommends teaching proper cellphone etiquette.


Richardson thinks technology will change the way curriculum is decided and implemented.


"Teachers are dependent upon administrators and systems to tell them what to teach, when to teach, where to teach. What's happening now from a learning standpoint is that we're not under those same strictures; we're not necessarily bound by that particular process anymore. I think there's a real disruption that's beginning to be felt because of this. I don't think we're close to feeling it in any real systemic way yet, but we're getting closer."


Richardson finds social learning environments and networks to be transformative in helping students connect with and learn from other people.


"While there are thousands more teachers and hundreds of thousands of kids using these social tools in schools—which is still a small percentage of what's out there—the problem is that most of it is doing what we've done before, but publishing it in a different way," says Richardson. "That's because teaching isn't changing, because teachers themselves aren't owning the changes."


How should teachers use classroom websites?

"When I work with teachers," says Bass, "I stress that we're creating a website, but the website should not just be a repository for the worksheets you used to use: it needs to be a portal, to help them think critically, and to develop deeper understandings and go beyond their regular, traditional assignments, because a lot of times those are on a very surface level."


Dawn Hogue's CyberEnglish class—in which every student creates a website, plus Hogue herself also has a classroom website— is not entirely paperless, though paper is much reduced. Assignments are either published on the students' webpages or emailed to her as attachments. When she is reading students' webpage assignments, she doesn't print them out, but instead reads them online—which means she can't make notes on them.


"It changes the whole dynamic of grading and marking," says Hogue. "You can't really mark up a website. . . My red pen is dusty." She does use rubrics to assess different things, and also works with the class as a whole if she detects common problems.


For example, Hogue uses interactive web-based grammar sites to help students learn about such basics as comma splices and agreement problems; she then posts a quiz on Moodle to test students' understanding.


Tim Lauer uses blogging software (specifically, WordPress) to create his school's website.


"What's nice about blog software is it's easy to organize information and share it in a timely manner," says Lauer. "Teachers are comfortable with it. They can link to resources rather than running around making sure resources are properly [loaded on each computer] . . . .They can put up additional information for families and students, which lets them go deeper than in a hand-out." 


What else can teachers do to support 21st century literacies?

Gretchen Lee first saw the power of Web 2.0 to transform her classroom about 10 years ago.


"I had just started dabbling in the Internet in class," says Lee, a 7th grade language arts teacher at Oakwood in Morgan Hill, Calif. "I decided to do a cyber-book preport using AOL Press, a free program that AOL used to offer that was a very basic HTML editor."


Students prepared a report on The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, including character summaries and artwork. Lee posted news of the assignment, and excerpts, to an NCTE listserv—and was amazed to receive "comments from every continent, from teachers who had seen it . . .  My kids never recovered; they were so excited and happy. It was recognition beyond just doing things for the teacher.


"That's when I first saw the power of what this kind of inter-connectivity could do for my students."


Karl Fisch's school produced a "wikified research paper" built around a book called "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel Pink. Students live-blogged in class about the book, and also discussed it with about 32 adults Fisch knew from the education community—some local, and some from countries such as Qatar and Australia (contacts he had made over the years through his own blog). The discussion was webcast, and author Daniel Pink also joined in for a live video teleconference with the students.


As a final project, students created a research paper in wiki form, with links to research, video, audio, and images. Unlike a traditional paper, this form allowed students to include live links rather than footnotes.


"The students definitely were engaged," says Fisch, "but in some respects, they weren't as impressed as the adults, because it was normal for them. They didn't see it as being unusual. Why wouldn't you have a discussion with people thousands of miles away?" Meanwhile, the adults in the building were saying, "how is this even possible?"


Lee's middle school students work throughout the year on "vocabulary statues," which involves students using materials such as papier mache and construction paper to create representations of words they study. Lee then takes photos of the students' works and uploads them to the classroom site, where the class then must go to match vocabulary words to pictures.


Lauer says having a document camera and projector opens up opportunities for teachers to very easily enlarge images from books or magazines or photographs (keeping copyright issues in mind) and share them with the class. 


The school is using Skype for videoconferencing, so that children can see and talk to experts, authors, and others from outside the community.


What are impediments teachers face in using the Internet or other new technologies?

Gretchen Lee dislikes heavy-handed site-blocking filters. "A major issue for teachers in public schools is the prevalence of filters blocking sites that they want to use," she says. "It's such a hassle in some schools to get them unblocked that they give up in frustration."


"I had a teacher come up after a presentation I did last year and get very agitated about it; he wanted to use all the cool, free sites online for his students, but the district was so afraid of liability that he couldn't get to what he wanted. The approval system was too cumbersome to be useful. I've heard of teachers having to wait MONTHS to get a single site unblocked."


Another factor holding back teachers is unreliable equipment—computers that crash, printers that won't print, projectors that won't project. "It drives teachers crazy," says Lee. "When it's more reliable, more and more people are happy to try it."


Lee cautions teachers to expect glitches, but to ride them out, because the end results are worth it; she also notes that equipment seems to be becoming more reliable.


Aren't new technologies costly to implement?

Melissa Pomerantz's film project was not prohibitively expensive, she notes: she applied for a grant through her district's technology fund, which allowed for the purchase of five handheld cameras, five microphones and five headphones. These were split among the five student teams Pomerantz created to examine five global warming issues. Adobe Premiere Elements was purchased for each of five computers the school used for the project. (The education site license was about $27 per computer, Pomerantz says.)<

Other free and easy-to-use tools include those provided by Google, says Pomerantz.


"The things that anyone can use that work out really nicely are the Google tools; anybody who has Internet access can use these—Google Earth, Google docs, Google calendar, Google reader (for RSS feeds)," says Pomerantz. (RSS feeds allow students to receive automatic updates of topical content from selected websites and online publications.)


How can teachers prepare themselves?

 Teachers can use blogs for themselves, too, as part of teacher development. Lee, for instance, says she follows 15 to 20 education blogs (as well as about 10 listservs) and learns tips from other teachers about technological tools and ways to use them.


Hogue finds belonging to discussion listserv helps with her professional development. Also, she says, "just having a web presence, like a blog or website or both" can result in networking, because readers email you and this results in connections. "It's the same for teachers as for kids—when you use the Internet for collaboration, school is no longer this place that has walls. It's everywhere; it's the world."


Hogue recently joined Facebook. "I thought, 'I've got to see what this is about,'" she says. "I can't talk about it [with my students] if I don't even know what I'm saying."


As a result of having her own Facebook account, Hogue has learned "that I need to tell students to be more careful with what they publish . . .  I think teaching students how to be responsible web content generators is one of our roles."


Hunt recommends teachers dive into technology themselves, in order to better learn about it.


"One of the greatest ways to get immersed in anything is to start doing it," he says. "I would never do anything to a kid that I wouldn’t do myself, and technology's no different."


Richardson agrees: "I think we have a responsibility as educators to help our kids really understand what's changing and what their roles are in a much more participatory media society, and the best way we can do that is to become participants ourselves . . . . I know it's very difficult for a lot of teachers to see a way of getting to that point, but to me, it's imperative."


Richardson says teachers can search for people who are blogging about things they are passionate about and start engaging in conversation with them by leaving comments on their blogs. Or they could share other information, such as add pictures to a site devoted to a particular topic (such as Flickr's photo pools).


"At the end of the day, you have to be a publisher yourself," says Richardson. "You have to begin sharing yourself," whether by Twittering, blogging, creating a wiki page, starting a Facebook or MySpace page, or another means.


Teachers do need to try to keep ahead of newer technologies, which is a difference from the past, notes Morrell. In the past, a teacher wouldn't need to continually learn how to read in order to teach reading. But now, he says, "we're all kind of flying the plane as it's being built. . . Teachers have a pretty steep learning curve around these technologies, not just so they can teach them, but to be aware of how literacy is changing."



Bill Bass, a former English teacher, is a technology integration specialist at Parkway School District, Chesterfield, Missouri.


Karl Fisch is director of technology at Arapahoe High School, Centennial, Colorado.


Dawn Hogue is a teacher at Sheboygan Falls High School, Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin.


Bud Hunt is an instructional technologist and former language arts teacher in Longmont, Colorado.


Tim Lauer is the principal at Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, Portland, Oregon.


Gretchen Lee is a teacher at Oakwood School, Morgan Hill, California.


Ernest Morrell is associate professor of urban education and cultural studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.


Melissa Pomerantz is a teacher at Parkway North High School, St. Louis, Missouri.


Will Richardson is an author, speaker, and blogger. (



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Most Recent Comments (1 Total Posts)

Posted By: Anonymous User on 10/29/2011 9:47:19 PM

Your article was educational and really raised my awareness level on what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century. I mostly appreciated the comment on "the greatest way to get immersed in anything is to start doing it". So, that is what I will need to do. I am always a step behind and need to be on the same page as my students in order to help them be come 21st century individuals who can collaborate and compete in a global market.

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