Sunday, February 27, 2011

Understanding Multiliteracies & Why Educators Should Care

What is Multiliteracy?

The aim of this blog is to challenge the notion that literacy, or at least valuable literacy, is confined to only reading and writing (textual) skills.  This challenge to dominant literacy is implicit in the theory of "multiliteracies", a theory pioneered by the influential New London Group. Multiliteracy refers to the myriad (and often extra-textual) ways that people make meaning.  Kathy Mills, in her new book The Multiliteracies Classroom, states that the aim of multiliteracies pedagogy is to "be more responsive to the diversity of cultures, including subcultures, such as communities and affiliations, and the variety of languages within societies" (Mills, 2011).  The homogeneous classroom of the past is no more- diversity is a staple of an increasing number of classrooms today.  Multiliteracy provides teachers with the pedagogy to teach to all learners without alienating them from their unique social contexts.

What Does Multiliteracy Look Like?

Conceptualizing multiliteracy requires an expansive understanding of meaning making and the various sign systems that individuals employ in the process of generating that meaning.  In the old paradigm, meaning  was only valued if it was contained in static, written artifacts (books, papers, etc.).  The primary mode for interpreting that meaning was reading, and that interpretation was turned into knowledge through the writing of another textual artifact. (See a pattern emerging?)  Multiliteracies pedagogy encourages the valuation and use of other extra-textual literacies: visual, auditory, physical, and spatial.  (And yes, this does share some ground with Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, but that's a matter for another post...)

In Mill's book she describes a classroom with a focus on multiliteracy.  In the class students made clay animations movies for a PSA campaign to be shown to primary school "buddies".  This learning is situated in an authentic real world context, keeping students engaged with the work.  The students employed a variety of textual and extra-textual literacies in crafting their films: script writing, sound recording, filming with digital cameras, and set designing.  This project fostered real learning and growth of language skills without centering on text based work and assessment.

Why Focus on Multiliteracy in the Classroom?

Multiliteracy study and pedagogy can provide the educator with many benefits in the classroom.  A pedagogy of multiliteracy provides a way for working with the diversity found in the modern classroom.  Multiliteracy allows for recognition and valuation of students' unique cultural, social, and intellectual literacy.

Multiliteracy pedagogy also allows for integration of technology in the classroom.  The aforementioned clay animation project was replete with technology: digital cameras, sound recording and editing equipment.  The multiliteracy classroom, by valuing extra-textual literacy, can better prepare students to negotiate a world that demands they be able to express themselves in a multitude of ways on many different platforms.  The multiliteracy classroom is analogous with the new world of digital work.

That brings us to the final benefit of the multiliteracy classroom- its capacity for authentic assessment.  Since much of the work of the multiliteracy class is project based there are ample opportunities to engage in real meaningful work.  This is the difference between writing a paper that only a teacher will see and crafting a blog on environmental policy that will reach an infinite number of online readers.  These classroom events can never be dismissed as "busy work" because they have application far beyond the four walls of the classroom.  Authentic work and assessment also puts students into contact with their community on a local, national, and even international level, providing a level of student engagement that cannot be compared with other pedagogical techniques.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Towards an Expansive Understanding of LIteracy

This blog is going to spend a lot of cyberspace discussing and parcing (and hopefully expanding) on the notion of an expansive understanding of literacy.  The antithesis of this notion would be a narrow understanding of the subject- literacy as only reading and writing.  This blog is meant to challenge that assumption, positing the notion that literacy is reading and writing, but it is also so much more.  An expansive notion of literacy is understood as the many ways, habits, and tools that individuals employ to make sense of their world.

What does expansive literacy look like?

Literacy and meaning making take on a plethora of forms.  Literacy is bound only by human experience; it is all those things we do that help us to understand and express ourselves in a complicated world. These extra-textual literacies take on many different forms.  Physical literacy is ballet and football.  Social literacy is a handshake as well as Facebook.  Musical literacy expands to include Jay-Z as well as Mozart.  When we begin to operate in this expanded space, and we learn to value more than just reading and writing, whole new realms of possibility are opened to us.

How does an expansive understanding of literacy benefit the classroom?

The primary beneficiaries of an expanded understanding of literacy are your students.  This benefit comes in the form of decreased alienation from subject matter.  English / Language Arts classrooms have always been a place for those whose preferred literacy is textual.  The only skills that are valued in this old paradigm are reading and writing- these are the only acceptable form of expression and understanding.  If the classroom is based on an expansive understanding of literacy than all of the extra-textual literacies are afforded equal footing- all avenues of meaning making are fair game!  Students are free to pursue meaning via their prefered literacy, whether is be reading, dance, or doodles.

Expansive Literacy and Standards?

I can hear you now, skeptical (and practical) pedagogue, as you read this in the warm glow of your computer's screen- "But what about the standards?!  There is no dance section on the test! How is doodling supposed to help my students understand grammar?"

Fear not, gentle teacher, I have not forsaken the virtues of "good" grammar or any other testable skill- on the contrary, in the right context I hold any of those ideas in very high regard.  I also believe that good reading and writing skills are essential to the success and happiness of any student.  What I take issue with is the notion that the only way to teach students to read and write well to tell them that the only skills that matter are reading and writing.  That kind of environment alienates students, especially those who do not identify as "good" readers or writers.

Expansive literacy, and its utilization of students' preferred literacies can actually increase student performance in testable areas!  Taking some of the value away from reading and writing can actually encourage students to read and write better! (Don't believe me? Check out the work of the Educational Arts Team...)  This negotiation between preferred literacy and testable skills describes the concept of transmediation, an idea that will be explored on this blog every week in the form of lessons plans for your classroom.  Simply put, transmediation is the process of utilizing a student's preferred literacy to influence their performance toward some testable end.  Transmediation describes the process of moving from drawing a picture of a farm to writing a pastoral poem.  Through transmediation all of the ways a student makes meaning are given space in the classroom.

Where do we go from here?

In a very short space I've outlined some of the central (and very complex) ideas I hope to explore in this blog.  One of the beautiful things about operating in cyber space is the potential for collaboration.  I'd like to invite any reader to post their comments, critiques, and suggestions about any post I write.

In future posts I hope to explore different instances of this expansive idea of literacy. Check back soon for an upcoming 4 part series called "Let's Get Physical", where we will explore methods for encouraging physical literacy in the classroom.  Also, remember to check back for lesson plans for incorporating expansive literacy practices into your classroom.  Lastly, check back for my take on the latest news from the literacy and education world.

As always, thanks for reading and happy teaching.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Focus on Math : Language & Mathematic Fluency

new study from the University of Chicago and Harvard University Departments of Psychology hope to answer a very interesting question: "Does learning language change the way we think about number[s]?" (Spaepen et. al, Number Without A Language Model, 1).  The implications of this study could have a very interesting impact on how we think about the role of literacy and language acquisition outside of the English/Language Arts classroom.

Study Summary

The study looked at the mathematical literacy of a population of Nicaraguan "homesigners", that is, profoundly deaf individuals who have not had the benefit of formal sign-language acquisition.  The study says that "[homesigners] use homemade gestures to communicate with the hearing individuals around them." (Spapen, 1).  These unschooled homesigners were compared to several different populations, including control groups made up of individuals without a hearing impairment as well as hearing impaired individuals who had received formal sign-language training.  In a series of experiments designed to elicit an "exact cardinal value", homesigners performed lower than the two control groups, especially on tasks where the exact value was greater than 3.  The study posits that one deficit that may impede the ability for homesigners to represent exact cardinal values is a lack of a "successor function", which is described as the idea that "each natural number n has a value that is exactly n + 1." (Spaepen, 5). The study concludes that:
...we have found that adults who do not have conventional language but are otherwise integrated into a numerate social and cultural world have difficulty generating exact values for sets larger than three. A cultural context in which exact number representations are valued, and a social context in which one’s communicative partners share a counting routine and an associated system of exact number concepts, are not enough to scaffold the creation of a count routine or representations of exact number that are flexible and generalize across domains. (Spaepen, 5).  
Implications for Literacy

I was compelled to blog about this study because it highlights what I've long suspected to be a gross misunderstanding- that mathematical literacy and language acquisition are completely foreign to each other.  We've all heard students who are excellent readers and writers lament that they cannot succeed in their math classes because they are somehow "wired" for linguistic success only.  The reverse is often heard from students who take to numbers naturally.  This study shows that their may be some important overlap in these two areas that may be a key to eliciting gains in these perceived deficit areas.  

Also, this study could provide scientific support for greater collaboration between language educators and their mathematics colleagues.  Teachers who can collaborate on lessons provides a richer experience for their students while minimizing subject-based alienation. Increased Language Arts / Mathematics collaboration also speaks to a greater number of students preferred literacy, often resulting in greater understanding of both subject areas and increased student satisfaction.  

Exploring "Beyond the Text"

Welcome and thanks for reading the inaugural post here at Beyond the Text.  I've flirted with the idea of starting my own educational blog for some time now and it feels wonderful to finally get my plan off the ground.

A (brief) Introduction of the Author:

My name is Will Johnston and I am 24-years-old.  I am a recent graduate of Indiana University with a degree in Secondary Education English.  I am currently searching for a full-time teaching position.  My dream teaching job is in an urban middle school teaching English/ Language Arts. 

I am currently directing the Indiana University School of Education's production of Anna Deavere Smith's play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; an opportunity that has allowed me to explore the possibilities for theater and drama in the classroom.  

I am the founder and current alumni adviser for the Arts in Education Club at Indiana University- a club chartered with the task of promoting the arts and arts centered pedagogy in the classroom. 

About the Blog:

This blog is dedicated to exploring emerging notions of literacy- both in the classroom and out.  The goal is to understand literacy as more than simply reading and writing, but rather the myriad ways that people make sense of an ever-changing world.  My passion for this area of study was sparked by my friend and mentor Dr. Gus Weltsek, a researcher and practitioner at the forefront of the movement for an expansive understanding of literacy. 

This blog will explore and share new research and ideas from the field of literacy learning as well as interesting news about educational technology, 21st Century Learning, and mobile/decentralized education.  Also, check-in for weekly post on transmediation strategies and lesson plans for including extra-textual literacy events in your classroom.

This blog is intended to be an extension of my Personal Learning Network (a topic I'll be exploring throughout this blog) and it is my hope that this virtual space will help to facilitate a dialogue between educators, parents, and students about notions of emerging literacy practices.  Like any dialogue this blog is meant to be an ongoing conversation with anyone who is willing to participate.  I look forward to your comments, critiques, and ideas. 

I'm excited to begin this exploration with you, the web community at large, and know that we can learn so much from each other.