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March 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 6

The Principal Connection / Teaching Two Literacies

At a recent family gathering, the teenagers demonstrated their new technological toys to somewhat skeptical relatives. This was the first time some of the adults had tried text messaging, Facebook, chat rooms, wikis, or nings. The experience triggered fears in parents, aunts, uncles, and especially grandparents like me who hope that children will always curl up with books and fall in love with reading the way we did. Instead of plunging into books for enlightenment, however, youngsters now exchange information across state and national boundaries, seemingly ceaselessly.
Just as Gutenberg's invention of the printing press transformed the process of learning, digital technologies are revolutionizing the way people read and write. Yet, educators of my generation hope that in addition to following blogs and instant messaging one another, today's students will also relish such experiences as reading a great book, writing a personal letter, or memorizing a poem.
Although the nature of how people read and communicate is changing, the ability to understand, use, and appreciate the written word remains the core quality of an educated person. Schools are caught in a paradox: They are expected to incorporate nontraditional methods of gathering information and communicating into instruction, yet they remain accountable for students' mastery of traditional skills.

Two Literacies and Three Mind-Sets

It's obvious that technology is reshaping students' reading and writing practices, with or without educators' intervention. Our challenge is to teach students to be truly literate in two languages—those of the pre- and post-digital worlds.
So how can we teach to two literacies at once? We must approach this task with three mind-sets.
First, we must continue to encourage students to relish good books, cherish the beauty of expressive writing, and communicate through powerful (and correct) language. We must ensure that our students communicate about something worthwhile, whatever media they're using. It is one thing to acknowledge the validity of digital tools, but this acknowledgment shouldn't keep us from pushing students to communicate around meaningful issues. "Yo! Wuz up?" does not substitute for thoughtful communication!
Second, as we redefine "literacy," we must examine longstanding teaching traditions and abandon a few. Presenting textbooks as students' primary source of information, relying on end-of-chapter tests, and asking learners to fill in the blanks or write spelling words three times are a few practices educators should question.
Third, principals and teachers should embrace a rock-solid belief that reading, writing, and thinking are what we do in school. A "literate school" centers itself on the meaning, beauty, and power of the written word. Language should be everywhere in school and infused into all curriculums, including math, science, and art. Only when school leaders articulate this "language everywhere" mind-set and act on it intentionally will it become reality.

Keeping Schools Language-Rich

  • Create opportunities to emphasize reading and writing schoolwide. For example, during a "poetry week" in one school, older students read their poems to younger ones, young students illustrated their poems, and a published poet gave a reading and helped students compose poetry.
  • Establish school-sponsored chat rooms or blogs on which students are expected—and guided—to discuss current national or international events.
  • Create a space in school for silent reading. One school offered a parent-created "loft" in which kids could stretch out and read books undisturbed.
  • Urge teachers to explore taking up digital tools that transform literacy practice while still valuing skills and mindsets associated with print-based literacy. Discussion groups centered on articles in this issue of Educational Leadershipmight be a good start.
  • Create voluntary teacher book groups. Some schools invite parents to join these groups, allowing parents and teachers to interact as adult thinkers.
  • Encourage students and teachers to keep electronic journals (keeping privacy issues in mind).
  • Hire teachers who read and write in both traditions of communication. Ask candidates to talk about their favorite books, but also explore candidates' skills in helping students read and write well with digital tools. Teacher evaluations should reflect the expectation that instruction will incorporate powerful language, in both traditional and digital media.
  • Model good literacy in both the old and new languages. Take pains with your own writing. Create a blog or chat room through which you communicate with students, parents, and teachers.
  • Teach parents the importance of reading to their children.
Students have already crossed over to a new way of reading and writing. They, no doubt, will remain our best teachers as we struggle with new technological tools. But students have incalculable amounts to learn from us about the beauty, awe, and power of language.

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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