Wesley stretches across the hallway floor. His well-worn hoodie expresses his loyalty to the Steelers, and his posture conveys complete absorption. He is immersed in his own world of writing, synthesizing, and creating. Earbuds in place, multiple windows open on his laptop, he responds to a classmate's blog post. Toggling to a streaming video, he cuts and pastes this just-right piece of media into his work. "Perfect," he chuckles to himself.
The student's history teacher approaches. She peers over his shoulder at the screen to make sure this learner is where he is supposed to be online—and not where he's forbidden to be because it might distract from the research he's chosen to pursue. She smiles: "Time to save your work now. The bell's about to ring."
Scenes like this are typical of some—although not all—classes at Auburn Middle School in Fauquier County, Virginia. Students interact with knowledge and information not through textbooks and worksheets, but with a laptop and the online world. In that interaction, they are enthusiastically exploring and creating knowledge. But it wasn't always this way at Auburn.
Five years ago, Auburn's administrators, and many teachers, would have looked at this scene and questioned the teacher's classroom management skills. We at Auburn thought we knew what "good teaching" looked like. It was almost formulaic. The teacher would begin class with something to "hook" the kids, provide direct instruction that included discussion or guided practice, then assign kids to work independently or in groups, and finally close the lesson by asking pointed questions.
Teachers who were comfortable with technology might use a PowerPoint presentation or import graphics, photographs, or streaming videos to share with students during direct instruction. But having students sprawled on the floor, viewing videos and sending online communications through individual laptops wouldn't have fit the formula, and many would have doubted how much learning was taking place. Now we hope to routinely see this kind of classroom scene. Now we get it.
Why Digital Technologies Promote Literacy
If educators want to motivate students, we must present them with tasks that arouse their curiosity and are challenging yet manageable (Marzano, 2003). When we ask ourselves what adolescent students find meaningful, what piques their interest, and how they spend their time, there is no denying that digital technology is a central answer to each of these questions. But how can we use technology to support student learning? In an age when text-messaging shortcuts (LOL, OMG) and emoticons are replacing sentences, many educators fear technology is diminishing literacy.
In fact, new technologies may spur students to read and write in their free time. But a disconnect exists between students' perceptions of literacy activities in school and at home. The College Board's National Commission on Writing and PEW Internet's 2008 research study found that, although 93 percent of students report writing for pleasure outside of school (including blogging, texting, e-mailing, and old-fashioned personal journal writing), 60 percent don't think of these communications as writing (Arefeh, Lenhart, Macgill, & Smith, 2008).
The digital literacy activities our students crave—if done with guidance—might strengthen their writing and enhance new skills they will need for life success. In a recent survey, 99 percent of respondents said that teaching 21st-century skills (defined as collaborative problem solving, critical thinking, self-direction, effective communicating, and facility with computers and technology) is important to the United States' future economic success (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2007). And 80 percent said that students need to learn different kinds of skills now than they did just 20 years ago. The new century will also require higher-order literacy skills, including synthesizing information from a variety of sources and analyzing it for accuracy and relevance.
So how do we make the connection between the writing and critical thinking students are doing outside of school, mostly online, and the work teachers are trying to persuade them to do in school? That's where Wesley's work, described in the opening paragraph, comes in. When we give students freedom to discover meaning through digital presentations, podcasts, and online discussions centered on course content—formats they respond to—we help them improve literacy and thinking skills.
Digital Stories, Anne Frank, and Critical Thinking
Consider an interdisciplinary unit that Auburn students engage in that connects reading Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl in English class with studying the Holocaust in World Geography class. Each student creates a digital presentation that reflects that student's understanding of the Holocaust, incorporating music and quotes from Frank's diary or other accounts of Holocaust survivors. First, students extensively research World Wars I and II, which helps them understand world conditions at that time and how the world reacted to Germany. Following up with research specific to the Holocaust enables students to synthesize what they learn about the worldwide climate with what they learn from reading primary sources about Nazi Germany and concentration camps.
Teachers involved with this unit guide students in how to evaluate online sources and conduct Web-savvy research. Students look at multiple sources to determine sources' credibility and to consider how each piece of information will enrich their audience's understanding. Their research may involve viewing video clips, but rather than passively watching something the teacher thinks is important, students actively seek out and evaluate videos. Appropriate citation is expected, so students carefully record where they found information and credit their sources.
Once they have completed their research, students choose quotes and music to match their intended tone and write a storyboard showing what each screen in their digital presentation will include. Each student records his or her voice reading chosen excerpts, matches each reading with appropriate photographs and music, and finally edits the piece.
This assignment motivates students particularly because, on completing it, they present their digital creations to their classmates and often a visiting administrator or resource specialist rather than just their teacher. Presentations are posted on the school's Web site for parents to view. Beyond just showing a PowerPoint, students engage their audiences by making connections between their research (which reflects the facts) and the supporting quotes and media they've selected (which reflects their learning). These presentations are more than just a collage; they reflect each student's thesis supported by carefully chosen writing and media. The knowledge these students gain by researching their topic and sharing what they discover with classmates is far deeper than what they would learn through traditional teaching and assessments.
This digital presentation project enables students to practice two of the four cognitive skills that Mel Levine (2007) considers essential for successful adulthood:
- Interpretation, which Levine describes as in-depth analysis of a concept, as opposed to simple memorization. For their presentations, students must form their own insights about the Holocaust, choose pictorial and musical representations of those ideas, meld them into a new creation, and evaluate whether their creations achieve the desired mood.
- Instrumentation, which means being able to plan and manage one's time well enough to complete a project. Levine recommends that high schools "infuse a project mentality" into students and give them experiences with scheduling tasks and documenting progress. To succeed at the Holocaust project, students must set their own schedule and create their presentation by the deadline. They must organize the presentation itself, choosing an order for various elements. Students must also do something difficult for many writers—decide what materials don't fit and delete them. This requires not just evaluation, but the willingness to bow to limits.
Podcasts and Online Posts
Another literacy 2.0 activity that promotes thinking and writing skills is podcasting. On the surface, a podcast has nothing to do with writing or critical thinking; it's simply a recording of someone reading a script. But the process of crafting that script draws on sophisticated skills. In making a podcast for a geography class at Auburn, for example, each student selects a location or event relevant to the country the class is studying, conducts research, and writes a script.
Converting their research notes into a polished script poses a challenge. Students have told teachers that the greatest challenge comes from not being able to use visual images to communicate. When they are pushed to make words do the work, students often find—on listening to the first versions of their podcasts—that they haven't translated the pictures they had in their minds into words. Their dissatisfaction pushes them to edit their scripts repeatedly.
In some classrooms, teachers assign students to respond to posts (thought-provoking messages or questions to the class) that the teacher, and occasionally a student, writes on Blackboard, a class online discussion board. Responding to posts has expanded class discussions for both teacher and students. Communication has shifted from a teacher monologue to a dialogue because students are more motivated to contribute to an online class discussion. No matter how hard educators practice wait time, differentiated questioning, and debate tactics to generate discussion in a classroom, some students don't participate. Online posts, however, enable students to think through an issue and craft responses at their own pace. Even our most introverted students step up and speak if given the opportunity to write a post.
Homework completion rates can be a struggle at Auburn as at any middle school, but students don't shirk online exchanges; for instance, all students complete 100 percent of required responses to teacher posts in Kay Conners's World Geography classes. Kay communicates clear expectations for the writing connected to student posts. Students must write formally (without "instant messaging" shortcuts), stay on topic, and agree and disagree with opinions without attacking a person.
Students take these assignments seriously and show high levels of insight. Some include hyperlinks in their posts that support their positions. In nearly three years of using online discussion boards at Auburn, there has never been an incident of inappropriate use.
Support For Our Cultural Shift
Teachers at Auburn who have welcomed digital literacy activities into their classrooms have moved from being traditional instructors to facilitators, and they have received great support from the school's instructional technology resource teacher and library media specialist. These staff members work behind the scenes, collaborate with willing teachers, advocate for increased student use of technology, and identify online resources and software that integrate technological applications into instruction well.
For most teachers, getting to the kind of scenario described in the beginning of this article takes hard work—planning, rethinking previously taught lessons, and making time to collaborate with the technology or media resource specialist. It takes willingness to relinquish control and allow students to take charge of their own learning. But it's worth the work. Once kids are given the chance to take charge, they become motivated by their own creativity and pride in their work.
In those Auburn classrooms in which students learn through digital exploration, the culture has changed. Enthusiastic "anywhere learning" has become the norm and collaboration routine. Social barriers crumble as kids who wouldn't consider interacting in the cafeteria work together to offer advice on the usefulness of a video clip. But skilled teachers setting up good learning conditions are still at the heart of all this.
A teacher using technology to support student learning is like a composer creating a symphony. The composer uses every element of the music—the notes, the instruments, the silence—intentionally. A conductor doesn't include a viola just because he or she likes it, but because it fits.
We must view digital applications in the same way. Any technology in itself is not a teaching strategy; it is a vehicle that can enable students to sharpen writing, editing, and research skills and work at their own pace. When teachers use such vehicles well, they shift from merely bringing knowledge to students to empowering students to make knowledge their own.
Arefeh, S., Lenhart, A., Macgill, A., & Smith, A. (2008). Writing, technology, and teens. Washington, DC: Pew Internet an American Life Project. Available:
Levine, M. (2007). The essential cognitive backpack. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 16–22.
Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2007). Beyond the three Rs: Voter attitudes toward 21st century skills. Tuscon, AZ: Author. Available:
James Angelo (email@example.com) is the former principal of Auburn Middle School in Warrenton, Virginia, and is now Director of Middle and Secondary Instruction with Frederick County Schools in Winchester, Virginia. Kay Conners (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Head of the Social Studies Department and
Tara Helkowski (email@example.com) is an instructional technology resource teacher at Auburn Middle School.
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