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September 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 1
Teaching for the 21st Century
J. Gregory McVerry, Lisa Zawilinski and W. Ian O'Byrne
Deliberately teaching online reading and research skills is one way to keep students from foundering on their way to the future.
After answering the same question for the fifth—no, sixth—time, Mrs. Pomona stopped the class and called the students to her attention. Slowly and reluctantly, eyes popped out from behind laptops across the class. Mrs. Pomona thought to herself, "I was sure I could use Internet inquiry to teach 21st century skills. What's going on?" She pointed to a list of questions on the board (such as, "What is Labor Day?" and "How many days are in a school year?") and addressed the class: "You do not simply answer these questions. It is not answer number one; then answer number two. These are questions you keep in the back of your mind as you work."
"So we do these questions?" shouted Sarah, her hand flailing in the air. As Sarah's arm rose, Mrs. Pomona's hope fell. Sarah was a so-called "digital native," but she really did not know how to read online. Offline, she depended on the structure of the texts her class read. Her science book, for example, was divided into chapters, each chapter was broken into sections, and she could answer the first question at the end of each section by looking for the first bold word. The structure of the textbook was a map that Sarah could easily follow.
After thinking about Sarah, Mrs. Pomona realized it did not work that way online. No one gave students a map for Internet inquiry. Students needed a sextant, a tool for navigation, to guide them.
Students today must be prepared to navigate the new "Cs of change" that the 21st century has brought us. These Cs include such skills as creativity, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and comprehension. In addition, the rise of the Internet means that teachers must shift how they teach reading and writing (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, Leu, 2008; Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004). How do school leaders build these skills in students? By creating a curriculum that allows for problem-based inquiry learning, high-level discussion, and collaboration. One approach, Internet reciprocal teaching, involves problem-based tasks in which readers create their own text. This provides students a path for navigating the Cs of change. (See "Internet Reciprocal Teaching Promotes the Five Cs.")
Internet reciprocal teaching is an adaptation of reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984), a widely used approach to teaching strategic comprehension of texts. Reciprocal teaching revolves around four global comprehension strategies: predicting, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing. The teacher explains these strategies to small groups using a shared text, first modeling their use, and then asking students to lead the groups.
Internet reciprocal teaching builds on the same principles; however, the teacher first instructs students in a whole-class setting with each person constructing his or her own text while building the online reading comprehension strategies of questioning, locating, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating.
Reciprocal teaching and Internet reciprocal teaching share core values. The gradual release of responsibility to students is central to both approaches. In Internet reciprocal teaching, there are three specific phases, discussed below. When the majority of students demonstrate proficiency with the skills taught in Phase 1, instruction moves into Phase 2, and finally into Phase 3. Group discussion and sharing of strategies are also integral to both approaches.
What does Internet reciprocal teaching look like in practice? The example lessons described here were developed out of a three-year federally funded study to teach online reading comprehension skills to urban youth, most of whom read below grade level and were at risk of dropping out. These 7th grade students, from an urban school district in the northeastern United States, took part in the 20-week Internet reciprocal teaching program that our research team, together with the classroom teachers, embedded into the regular language arts curriculum.
We hope teachers can use these examples to develop their own ideas. Ideally, teachers will integrate the approach into units that they are already doing. This method ensures that students continue to develop traditional skills alongside the new skills of online reading comprehension.
Phase 1 centers on computer basics, word processing skills, Web searching, navigation basics, and e-mail. (See the complete list of skills.) The length and breadth of this phase will vary by classroom need and the previous experience students have with computers. In this phase, the responsibility of modeling strategies lies with the teacher.
For our urban students, we began with Patricia Reilly Giff's Pictures of Hollis Woods (Wendy Lamb Books, 2002), a novel about a foster child who struggles with her placement in two different homes. To teach students basic Web browsing techniques, we asked them to find out whether any famous people were foster children. In small groups, the students had to choose appropriate keywords for searches. Groups shared their strategies for answering the question with the whole class. Next, we had students record how many search results they retrieved when using different combinations of keywords. We then demonstrated how to use basic Boolean search terms.
Phase 2 is a collaborative phase during which both teachers and students conduct think-aloud demonstrations and minilessons. Teacher modeling in the beginning of the phase gives way to student modeling in the latter half. Students take responsibility for teaching their peers a variety of online reading comprehension strategies. Instruction also begins to move from search skills to critical evaluation and synthesis skills. (See a complete checklist of skills.)
In the beginning of Phase 2, teachers challenge students to find information on the Internet connected what they have been reading in class. Another technique is to create Internet scavenger hunts connected to the curriculum. On completing the challenge, students share their searching strategies with the class.
Software such as Apple Remote Desktop enables teachers to show the class any student's screen when a student is using an effective strategy. Students can also use instant messaging software to exchange ideas and tips. Students might switch laptops or peek over a shoulder to see what classmates are doing. At the end of each Phase 2 session, a whole-class debriefing is held to share new strategies for seeking information online.
In our urban classroom, we introduced lessons on critical evaluation by connecting the curricular focus on persuasive writing to current events. We began by teaching students about specialized search engines such as
Google News. At the time, a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo had recently killed a patron who had been taunting it. Students worked in small groups to find five to seven articles about the attack. We discussed the differences among news articles, blogs, and editorials. Then the students had to post comments on the classroom blog about whether they thought the zoo or the patron was at fault for the attack.
In a follow-up activity, student groups had to decide whether zoos were cruel or a tool for learning. First, they had to find five Web sites that criticized zoos and five that supported zoos. Each group posted links to a classroom blog. Then the groups had to choose three Web sites for each position from the class list and rank these sites on continuums of usefulness and truthfulness. They also posted on the classroom blog comments about the strategies they used to evaluate the Web sites. Finally, each group chose a side, wrote a position statement, and posted it to the blog. (See a video of students working on this and other online search activities.)
We encouraged exchange of critical-evaluation skills during the tiger lesson in a variety of ways. One of the most successful methods involved taking aside students considered to be "struggling" and teaching them a strategy for evaluating a Web site or a new tool. These students could then go back to their group and teach the other members what they knew.
Making meaning during online reading requires students to combine multiple streams of information from text, video, and audio sources. We had students develop strategies for this type of multimodal synthesis by focusing on the 2008 U.S. presidential election. During one of the Democratic debates, Hillary Clinton accused Barack Obama of plagiarizing Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts and a friend of Obama. We wanted students to choose a position and defend their opinion using multiple sources. First, using screen capture software, we grabbed videos of the debate, Obama's alleged infraction, and Patrick's original speech. After watching the short clips, student groups had to find other relevant sources online, develop a position, and post it to the classroom blog.
During Phase 3, students work both individually and in small groups at using strategies and skills from the previous phases to develop lines of inquiry around curricular topics. This type of project requires clear questions, multiple reliable sources, citations, and a final product that communicates that information to others.
This project differs from the traditional research project in that the focus is on the process of inquiry and not the product of research. Students develop an understanding of how important it is for them to play an active role in their own learning and experience the satisfaction associated with knowing how to question, locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information.
In this phase, students incorporated all the skills and strategies they used into an authentic activity answering the question, How do I make the world a better place? Students could work in pairs or alone. We gave them a series of graphic organizers that helped them develop a research question, form possible arguments, and generate a list of keywords. Next, they used diagrams to investigate two different options for making a difference before choosing which option to pursue. The diagrams provided a framework for planning, conducting, and evaluating research.
Next, we gave students a worksheet that had them choose three Web sites and explain why these three sources were the most truthful and useful. The students looked at the sources and integrated different perspectives and details into their own thinking as they decided what they might do to make the world a better place. Finally, once students completed their research, they put together a presentation using PowerPoint or a Web site using iWeb.
Although we were impressed with how well the students used the skills and strategies from the first two phases to conduct their research, the most rewarding aspect of Phase 3 was the sense of agency that students expressed. They chose real-life issues that they face every day as at-risk youth. Sure, the school dress code and the school lunch were favorites, but many students chose such crucial issues as how to stop bullying, reducing drug use in school, stopping domestic and relationship violence, and keeping students in school. Internet inquiry offered students the opportunity to explore authentic issues while building online reading comprehension skills.
A wave of change has crested in today's classrooms as a result of the Internet. If school leaders want to keep students afloat, we must prepare them to navigate these new waters. Learners need classrooms that build critical thinking, communication, and creativity skills in collaborative environments that encourage global citizenship. As the tide shifts from page to screen, students must learn to comprehend evolving texts.
Internet reciprocal teaching can provide guidance in a world of continuous change. There may never be a clear path when reading online, but approaches like Internet reciprocal teaching can give students tools to see over the horizon.
Creativity: Students use divergent-thinking skills to generate their own questions and keywords for online searches. Their final projects require them to creatively express their own point of view.
Communication: Students share what they learn as they work in small groups and with the whole class. They communicate with a wider audience by posting on a class blog.
Collaboration: Students create collaborative knowledge through Internet inquiry and social interactions. They comment on one another's work using technologies such as VoiceThread and support one another through instant messaging.
Critical Thinking: When using the Internet, students build the text they read, choosing which links to follow and which to ignore. The nonlinear nature of online reading helps support critical thinking. Students also learn to question the perspective and bias of online sources.
Comprehension: Students learn important online reading skills, such as how to distinguish news articles from blog posts and editorials. They carefully read texts they encounter online to understand and evaluate different perspectives.
Coiro, J., Knobel, M., Lankshear, C., & Leu, D. J. (Eds). (2008). Handbook of research on new literacies. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Leu, D. J., Jr., Kinzer, C. K., Coiro, J., & Cammack, D. (2004). Toward a theory of new literacies emerging from the Internet and other information and communication technologies. In R. B. Ruddell & N. Unrau (Eds.),
Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading (5th ed., pp. 1,568–1,611). International Reading Association: Newark, DE. Available:
Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1(2), 117–175.
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J. Gregory McVerry,
Lisa Zawilinski, and
W. Ian O'Byrne are doctoral students and members of the New Literacies Research Team at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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