Information At-a-Glance or More?

January 3rd, 2011 llcowell Posted in design theory, information graphics, literacy, LiteracyRemix, multiple literacies No Comments »

I fret with personal frustration over the public’s tendency to ignore facts in favor of sound bytes and trite analysis offered by fevered commentators.  Too often dialogue disintegrates as someone expresses their agreement with the ideas of a given opinion-maker based on some vague (or crudely drawn) graphic presented in tandem with biased claims. And, of course, this happens on both sides of the political aisle.   It seems as if individuals can’t see, for themselves, what the graphics do/don’t say…that the value of the graphic is based simply on it’s composition of arrows and lines (perhaps numbers) and the commentator is believed simply because he USES graphics to make his point.

And isn’t that a sad point to make.   That perhaps people are more impressed with graphics than they are with the information they reveal.  It leaves me wondering if the underlying problem lies in a level of illiteracy we too easily ignore. What if people don’t bother to read the graphics for themselves because they can’t.

Google Public Data Explorer offers “data visualizations for a changing world, and yet it  (and a myriad of other information graphic resources) remains a mostly untapped resource in secondary schools.  I’ve noted that while we may teach students the basics of  create graphic information (i.e. a bit of MS Excel), I have to wonder if we take enough time teaching them to READ it.

As reported in the the UK-based Guardian’s  introduction to it’s new data site,  Tim Berners-Lee, MIT professor and director of the W3C credited with inventing the World Wide Web, recently said regarding the future of journalism:

[Journalism is] going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.

“Helping people see where it all fits together?”  Already media moguls are focusing on multi-modal delivery models that include the creation of sophisticated information graphics.  How could they not?  The medium appeals to our visually centered society and succinctly presents both information and analysis in an environment where digital publishing has reduced the size of the reading plane from that of a newspaper spread to that of a laptop screen…and even smaller (think iPad or even phone screen!).

So, if more of our news and information is being presented in this format, why aren’t schools devoting more serious time (curriculum) to decoding and re-using this information.  During research projects, to0 often, I see this type of information skimmed (or simply skipped) over by students in search of the proverbial “quote” on which to hinge their own ideas.  What if these graphics were to be the stuff from which new ideas spring?  The possibilities for deep analysis are…well…deep.

So how do we compel our students to use these rich sources of information. The first step is necessarily moving teachers to see that these are more than “data representations”–that information graphics do, in fact, require analysis, interpretation and creativity in their production and deserve the same in their consumption. We then need to encourage students to use both original and found info graphics to illustrate their thoughts and arguments.  And of course, we need to teach them to cite these as authentic sources of information, rather than a simple addendum.

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Disruptive Thinking: Not the Standard

July 4th, 2010 llcowell Posted in literacy, multiple literacies, observations, teaching & learning No Comments »

“You can’t write an essential question about Pokemon,” one English teacher told her 9th grade students. What fun we had learning otherwise. “Wow…how do you think like that,” one student asked after we settled on the provoking question: What social skills does playing Pokemon teach? She had that certain light a kid gets in his eyes when he realizes that he can ask deeper questions…critically consider…those things he’s truly interested in.

I had this discussion with my own teen daughter today. She is feeling less than thrilled about her own ACT scores at the moment. Being ranked 9th in a class of around 400 she’s simply convinced herself that her standardized scores should fall in a more impressive range. “I get so mad at a world that tests me and says that there is only one right answer,” she cried. “I think differently. I’m not a robot.”

Since her first foray into standardized tests in the 4th grade, my daughter has performed proficiently, though generally not as advanced as her sister or those peers with whom she shares high honors in the classroom. It is ironic, then, that she absolutely LOVED her AP Stats class last year…the very back bone of the data-driven world that demands standardized testing. She explained, “When Mrs. D asked us to identify research flaws…Mom, I could list 10 factors the researchers hadn’t taken into account. I love doing that…rethinking about each question DIFFERENTLY.”

As an educator, this would be the defining moment…the aha…when I knew my student could not only formulate an essential question, but that they had begun to think in this way as a matter of course.

Each year we are challenged with rethinking education. I have to wonder how we can possibly succeed in changing how we teach if we ONLY reconsider how students learn and never explore the many ways in which students express how they think, what they know, and when they imagine new ideas.

All I could do for my daughter was to help her identify the essential question…has she been a successful learner?…and then remind her to apply her thinking…this gift she has for seeing problems in a different way and imagining unique answers…to her assessment of herself.

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Indecent Indeed

February 2nd, 2010 llcowell Posted in funding, multiple literacies, teaching & learning No Comments »

Read Buffy Hamilton’s (The Unquiet Librarian) powerful response (An Indecent Proposal) to the President’s failure to include funding in support of school libraries.  This failure to strengthen his recent official proclamation through specific action (and, in fact, mention!) is a blow to those of us who professionally support the President’s literacy initiatives in the field, integrated and day-by-day.  More than this, it misleads those who do NOT understand the new paradigm of literacy in a hyperconnected and information saturated society.

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Information Deformation

January 26th, 2010 llcowell Posted in multiple literacies No Comments »

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Social Technographics and Scaffolding…

January 19th, 2010 llcowell Posted in design theory, learning spaces, multiple literacies, social media No Comments »

From a blog associated with the new book, GroundSwell, the post Social Technographics: Conversationalists get onto the ladder shows how twitter and facebook status updaters are figuring into the the world of social media. Reminds me alot of Gladwell’s Tipping Point.

Conversationalists are now on the ladder of social media

"Conversationalists" are now on the ladder of social media

The author’s note that these “conversationalists” are an intriguing lot with a definate stake in market trends. I can’t help but come back to my own professional observations of how market and classroom align in today’s marketplace of information and media. Consider the following suggestions offered in the blog:

“Convince your boss this stuff is for real, and that if you haven’t jumped on it, you’re late.”

There is a hum (or drum) in education now pushing administrators to recognize social media not just as a tool that could be harvested, but as a new way of communicating that MUST be engaged if we are to remain relevant in society.

“Profile your customer base, and see what they’re ready for, before planning a project to reach out to them.”

Know your students. They don’t learn the same way we did, even 15 years ago. The dilemma in education? Student’s today are technologically MORE ready than we are! At the same time, they’re social aptitude has slipped they navigate through the online social network “willy-nilly.” Shouldn’t we be there with them…to teach, to model?

“Segment your audience; build different strategies for different segments. (Social is so prevalent now that a single approach for your company is probably too broad.)”

Differentiate your approach to reach different learners. We’ve embraced that in the classroom, but too often we settle for seeing “technology” AS an approach, rather than as a space in need of these differentiated approaches. All said, it comes down to…SCAFFOLDING!

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Cliff Notes…REMIXED!

November 7th, 2009 llcowell Posted in multiple literacies, observations, social media 2 Comments »

Literary summaries and analyses.  In developing a library collection, teacher can’t agree.

For some, there is a double standard with regards to literary guides such as Blooms Literary Themes or the Understanding Literature series published by Lucent. One school where I taught shelved every volume (every edition) of MasterPlots “for teacher use only” because…a plot summary and analytical overview is a “refresher” for teachers and “cheating” for students!?  Cliffnotes, SparkNotes…the cheap way out of reading required materials.

Others teachers welcome the guides and the fresh, updated takes they offer.  They generally believe that any student willing to read the guide is probably immersed in the literary experience.  It’s for these teachers that I share the 60 Second Recap, a great site, whose mission is to “make the great works of literature accessible, relevant, and, frankly, irresistible to today’s teens…to help teens engage with the best books out there … not just to help them get better grades, but to help them build better lives.”  This is how the site introduces it’s mission:

“Eat your lima beans,” Mom used to say.

And now that you’re out on your own, honestly, are lima beans a staple of your culinary repertoire?

There, in a lima bean, lies the problem confronting the great works of literature. We’re all forced to read them in school so we can get good grades so we can go to a good college so we can get a good job so we can forget all about that literature they used to force us to read so we could get good grades.

The 60second Recap™ aims to break this cycle of canonical irrelevance. We want to help teens (yes, teens of all ages!) engage with literature. We want to help them see it not as some chore to be endured, but as — dare we say it? — the gift of a lifetime. How? Through the language of our time — the language of video. Video that’s focused, engaging, informative … and short enough to hold just about anyone’s attention.

Smirk if you must. Consider this yet another mile-marker on civilization’s road to perdition. But here’s the fact: You won’t get non-readers to read by forcing them to read more. You’ll get them to read by opening their eyes to the marvels awaiting them between the covers of that homework assignment.

With the 60second Recap™, teens finally have an alternative to the boring, text-based study guides that have burdened them for generations. And — who knows? — maybe that’s just what they’ll need to begin a love affair with literature, one that will last a lifetime.

The site offers teens an opportunity to join ClubRecap, where they can get quick instructional videos that clarify literary concepts and terminology, as well as comment on the recaps offered through the site and request additional recaps.  The opportunity to participate in community is irresistible to a generation of young people hooked on the power of social networking!

One thing I’d like to see here…the opportunity for teachers to post video segments into a blog or website…for guided, manageable instruction.

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Mastrion…ISTE serious?

October 27th, 2009 llcowell Posted in multiple literacies, observations, teaching & learning, uncategorized No Comments »

I shuffled through the mail left by my daughter on the kitchen table. The cover of  the newly arrived November edition of ISTE’s Learning and Leading with Technology reached out to me….Cool Tools for School.  Ahhh…worth looking at.  Below that?  Is Your Website Accessible?, Students Without Borders, and (!!!!) Do Schools Still Need Brick-and-Mortar Libraries?  (READ IT HERE)

Kudos, to Doug…obviously.  Yes, I am a school library media specialist and I appreciate the support he offers to our programs, particularly in light of Mastrion’s out-of-touch stereotyping that leaves me “alone, in [my] information monarchy” surrounded by words, words, words…and nothing more.

But it isn’t enough to disagree with Mastrion’s point-of-view…mostly because I am a librarian, which makes my own intentions instantly suspect.  “Perhaps” I am simply an apologist who values traditional literacy over the more “progressive” approach.

So…let’s start with Mastrion’s assertion that Google (a tool I consider myself proficient in using) offers a simpler and more efficient means of finding information for students today.  I tested that theory in a quest to find out exactly “who” Johnson and Mastrion are, and how their thinking is impacting learning,  specifically with regards to technology.

Now, I’ve read Johnson before.  He’s a well-known writer in the fields of information and technology education.  Still, would the novice researcher find his work as easily online as off?  The answer is YES.  I Google his name, and irregardless of it’s commonality, Doug Johnson’s site hits the top of the list.  Johnson has made his ideas and research available across platforms (print and online).

Next, I Google Mastrion’s name (in quotes, to keep the first and surname relative to one another, of course) and get 751 hits.  Below are the results:

Hit # 1 – He graduated in 1985 from Courtland High School in Fredricksburg, VA.  I can’t tell more, since this is a subscription site to which I do not belong.

Hit # 2-3 – Mastrion’s page on the ISTE ning.  Hmmm…a couple of friends, one group, and 4 references to the article in question.  Not much here.

Hit #4 – on AboutUs Wiki pages.  Promising.  But the domain link takes me no where (its for sale).  No more information here. A search for “readingman” yields a mind boggling list of articles about men from places called “Reading.”

Hits # 5-6  – 123 People…which offers basic location information and weblinks (many no longer working, some to the same sites Google found)

Hit # 7 – The Curry School of Education schedule (mentioned the school  in his ISTE piece) … a list without much information about Mastrion, himself.

Hit # 8 – Finally… Reader’s Digest Association Announces Its 1999 American Heroes in Education.  According the article, Mastrion donned “cape, shield and size-18 sneakers” as  ”…READING MAN!!! …a young man not afraid to make learning fun. Enthralled by Reading Man and his wondrous, book-lined Read-it-torium, Mastrion’s rural South Carolina students have become eager readers and overachievers. ‘If some adults don’t get it,’ he says, ‘then so be it.’”

Hit #9 – Link to an architectural firm’s mock-up of  “a Reading Village concept for the I’On neighborhood in Mount Pleasant…an accelerated pre-kindergarten, where 2 and 3-year-olds work toward mastering national kindergarten standards. 4 and 5-year-olds master national 1st and 2nd grade standards in both reading and language arts.” Another link to, which is defunct.

Link # 10 – Link to New York Creative Managements list of Currently Available Children’s Books.  Mastrion’s book 12 Crabs in a Basket is listed.  A side-search for the book itself, on Google and on Amazon (in quotes and out, numberical “twelve” and spelled-out) yields nothing more. (Sigh…)

#11  – Mastrion’s Profile on AtLinks. Not alot here.

#12 -  Respected library, Joyce Valenza’s twitter feed (she tweeted on the ISTE article, of course!)

# 13  – A link to the Village Montesorri School’s parent connection site, which features a quote from Masterson and note that he was 1998 National Teacher of the Year

A child’s mind isn’t a blank slate; it’s more of a jungle. Each time a parent helps a toddler read, the child is walked through this jungle from one side to the other. Trip after trip, a seemingly impossible passage becomes a well-worn path. Children sent to kindergarten skipping merrily along this path to literacy fare far better than those sent to school with machetes.

More of the same, including a result that promises

Teacher recognized for inspiring classes with his creativity …For DuBose Middle School teacher Keith Mastrion, all it takes is a little imagination and some bright red tights. Day in and day out, the 31-year-old

but I gave up on after it froze my browser five times.

Finally…Hit #20 yields me Mastrion’s BLOGGER address…a blog that began (and ended?) with a single post on September 1, 2009

I could go on…through the 70+ pages of links.  If I were an adolescent (or most adults), I’d give up now. As noted in The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine

the number of documents in the indices has been increasing by many orders of magnitude, but the user’s ability to look at documents has not. People are still only willing to look at the first few tens of results.

I decide to look at one more page.  Surprise…Mastrion’s response to an editorial by Doug Johnson, “A Proposal for Banning Pencils,” written in 2006 and reviewed on the blog, edfocus,  just this fall. Mastrion’s response to Banning Pencils? (scroll down to the comments on the post) is enlightening.  While I don’t really agree with Mastrion’s inferred criticism of Johnson

(…the problem I have with reductio ad absurdum pieces, when I read them, when I write them and when I speak them, is that whomever they’re directed toward has an easy out. They’re simply able to laugh them off, not take them too seriously, walk away without too much afterthought…)

it would seem they are arguing on the same side.  In fact,  I applaud what both Johnson AND Mastrion have to say.  Mastrion writes:

Ban. It’s a powerful, frightening concept, packed into such an elementary word. The mentality behind it, most often ignorant and fear-based, has the power to ruin, even end lives. We’re the lucky ones. We don’t have to tolerate its usage too much. But consider the world around us. Consider those struggling against bans imposed upon them … My best classrooms were always microcosmic democracies … Throw in the great number of disruptive technologies in the hands of our students, and you’ll understand some teachers’, some administrators’ and some districts’ hesitancy toward adopting higher usage of technology … Still, that’s no excuse … Education is a tool that needs to be used, worked with, experimented with, worn and torn to the point of breaking … as educators we’re duty bound to place the tool of technology firmly in the grasp of the masses we teach. If we don’t, it could cease to become a tool in the hands of everyone and quietly become a weapon in the hands of a self-selected few.

And yet, Mastrion’s own words lead me to ask Mastrion a few crucial questions:

  1. With ONLY 50,000 books on Google (+ what’s online at other sites), should we limit students to reading ONLY these texts?  In fact, if we limit students to online access resources, are we not, in effect, banning materials that do not lend themselves conveniently to online consumption.  It’s all good (well, not really) to suggest reading online for children who consume 15-30 page stories that are largely visual.  But reading on screen is, for the most part, a skimming activity… something in writing literacy circles we need to teach more towards.  But, imagine reading a Harry Potter novel on the screen of your laptop.  Many students simply couldn’t situate themselves so (it’s downright uncomfortable to “curl up” in bed for 6 to 20 hours straight with a screen).  Many students simply wouldn’t!
  2. If the classroom is a microcosmic democracy, how can we, in good conscience, teach a child to trust Google to simply “deliver” the information they need at the push of a button.  Libraries are more than repositories of print.  School libraries are PROGRAMS that teach children to dig deeper and ask questions about the information they encounter.
  3. Finally, if all children do NOT have access to a laptop and/or a father (much less a well-educated, reader of a father), are we not limiting education to the “self-selected” few?

Mr. Mastrion, considering your apparent championship of literacy, are you serious?

NOTE:  Join in the conversation at

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Lessons in the News

October 15th, 2009 llcowell Posted in learning spaces, multiple literacies, observations, social media, teaching & learning 1 Comment »

On September 30, 2009, John Temple, former editor, president, and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, posted a transcript of his keynote presentation at the UC Berkeley Media Technology Summit, delivered that same day.  Under Temple’s direction, the paper won a total of four Pulitzer Prizes.  And yet, seven months earlier, that same paper printed it’s final edition, after almost 150 years of publication.

I see valuable lessons in what Temple has to say to news professionals that apply in the secondary school setting–not just in our journalism classes and school publications, but also in the classroom and school paradigm in general.  Below are some key points to consider:

Newspapers, like schools operate under  long-established and respected models of delivery. Each is served by professionals rigorously trained to operate within these models. And those models and the paradigms they support are difficult to shift, largely because they have deeply engrained conventions and cultural functions. Temple notes:

“…we thought we were in the newspaper business….and put the vast majority of our efforts into the print war. We didn’t understand what was happening to the playing field. Media companies used to think they were in control. That they could “own” a market. What we didn’t take into account is that in this new era, consumers were going to be in control.”

Failure to adopt technology was not “the problem” that plagued Temple’s newspaper, anymore than it is a failure in most American schools today. And yet, too often technology is seen simply as a way to make existing tasks easier or more efficient. Use and development stop short. We adapt the adopted technology to fit the existing model of delivery, rather than adapting the model of delivery to adopt the new ways of thinking made possible by the technology.    Temple writes:

“Right from the start, new offerings were measured by what they did for the core product, not on their own merits…The Rocky’s first Web site…grew out of the newsroom’s night copy desk crew, a few of whom had learned some HTML… the attention of the paper’s leadership was on print, not on new possibilities…The message to the newsroom at that time regarding the Web site: “Do not let it interfere with the print edition.”

Because the adoption of technology is so often reactive in established institutions, its application is mostly hit-and-miss.  Temple continues:

“We knew the Web was a place we needed to be. But we didn’t have a clear strategy. Mission. Or objective. It was a “complement to the paper,” as we said in our initial ‘About us’ page.”

How often do we hear that in the school setting?  Yes, we’ve moved beyond “teaching technology for technology’s sake,” but our new mantra–”technology as a tool”–falls short of innovative use.  The word processor is the accepted new “typewriter,”  as we continue to teach the literacy of writing for print publication (rather than online or other media).  PowerPoint (and sometimes, even SmartBoards?) are often harnessed as multimedia presentation tools, rather than the means of promoting more interactive, user-driven learning.

The problem, as Temple sees it?  Focus is all on “keeping the newspaper alive.”

“We didn’t understand the Web or new technology and didn’t have the time to learn much about it. We weren’t a consumer-driven company…”

Just as new technologies in Temple’s world were neatly seperated from the “real business” of running a newspaper, technology in our schools often remains departmentalized.  And while, as Temple admits, “it was probably a smart move to get the Web out of the newsroom”  because “it made it possible for the Web staff to carve their own path,” it  ”also separated the newsroom from its new online product.” According to Temple, “that clearly had its downside.”  Temple explains:

“A pivotal moment – perhaps the most telling about the paper’s approach to the Web – came on the morning of April 20, 1999 when two students opened fire at Columbine High School. The world was watching. At that time, we had one content producer whose job was essentially to shovel the newspaper onto the Web. The Web team was on the first floor of our building. The newsroom on the third. After news of the shooting broke, the producer came to the newsroom and asked the city editor for any news he could give him. ‘I’m not giving you anything for the Web site,’ he remembers being told. ‘They’ll steal it.’ They, in this case, was The Denver Post. The culture of the newsroom at this point was still to save any possible scoops for the morning paper to keep the Post a day behind us. The Rocky’s Web team ended up relying on our TV news partner for its reports.”

This particular insight cuts straight to the heart of what is happening in our schools–particularly secondary schools.  As departmentalized entities, we jealously guard our resources. School libraries and other common resources are too often not seen as centers for ideas and sharing, but rather as places for going and getting.

This isn’t to say that there hasn’t been some incidental progress…in schools, as in the newsrooms. Temple remembers:

“Something else happened that day, though, that changed the perspective of the newsroom. We decided to give all our best photographs from the high school to the Associated Press as soon as we had them in our computer system. The result, the Rocky pictures you’ve just seen appeared on front pages around the world the next morning. The staff saw the tangible benefits of sharing in real time. The quality of their work captured the attention of the world and raised the paper’s profile. That day was a turning point for how the newsroom worked with the web, although the results wouldn’t become fully visible until a few years later.”

Temple recognizes (partially in hindsight) what was needed to maintain the progressive momentum:

“If you want to compete in a medium, you have to understand it… you need to get the right people into an organization, people who can see and seize new opportunities…The question is why would talented people want to join companies that are held back by their past? I think that’s a real problem for legacy media organizations.”

And so we stand, in our schools.  Too often, the innovators are quickly “humbled” and silenced by the culture of tradition that surrounds education. Too many young teachers retreat to the oasis of the department or the individual classroom. Or, they leave the profession altogether, to pursue careers in field where new ideas are encouraged and their fresh points-of-view respected.

Some might argue…and I can’t agree..that what happened at the Rocky Mountain News can’t truly be seen as a harbinger of what is to come for schools, or even other newspapers–that I’ve stretch the analogy too thin. But like Temple, in expressing his concern for the future of historic titles like The New York Times, I am concerned about the future of schools as the center of education. “There’s still too much of a sense of entitlement in the industry.”  Rather than blame the innovations (media remix, blog proliferation, etc.) for the demise of the institution, Temple advises:

“The industry should be focused on building new and better products and services…look for ways to answer the needs of the people in their communities. They have to know what business they’re in. We thought we were in the newspaper business. [We're] not. [We're] in the news, information, knowledge and connection business.”

Temple’s parting advise to news agencies is pretty solid advice for educators (administrators and teachers, alike)–”Know your customers.

Imagine new potentials for your students…not just their potential to learn what you know, but their potential to learn in new ways. “Partner more with others and invite more people to participate.” Reapply Temple’s advice and give students more control over how they learn.  We’re still thinking too much about how we ourselves learned and not enough about what today’s student know and needs.

“And, of course, finally, the most difficult recommendation of all…stop making decisions…based on how they’ll affect…legacy business.”

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Disney Copyright Video…

September 9th, 2009 llcowell Posted in design theory, multiple literacies 2 Comments »

Disney is well known for it’s jealous protection of their works, even in educational settings.  Using micro-moments from those same works to teach us about both copyright and fair use is both unique and irreverent. Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University’s approach manages to educate, while at the same time offering subtle critical commentary of the most ardent adversary of this remix culture we live in. Original video posting can be found here.

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Finding vs. Inquiring

August 4th, 2009 llcowell Posted in multiple literacies No Comments »

The Info-Fetishist, a blog maintained by Anne-Marie Deitering, a professor at Oregon State University Libraries recently reviewed David Palmer’s 2009 research findings published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46 (2).  The research focused on student interest (or focused attention) generated during various learning situations or activities.   The entry, titled Motivating students in the one-shot offers an assessment of this research on library-based inquiry skills instruciton.  Deitering notes that Palmer’s research

suggests [that] “multiple experiences of situational interest” can develop into long-term interest.  At best, this suggests that students would need repeated exposure to awesome information literacy teachers to develop a long-term interest in research or inquiry just from IL classes alone.   In fact, Palmer suggests that one reason for the mediocrity he observed in inquiry skills was the fact that students didn’t really have the experience with independent inquiry to know how to talk about what they were doing.

In my own practice, I’ve certainly found that students have too few opportunities to engage in the broad personalized inquiry that is available in a library setting.  Instructors too often provided (or at least point to) all of the informational pieces students will need to research the same conclusions previously discovered (whether by expert or educator).  And while there is an expectation of informational analysis, there is generally an “anti”-expectation of variation in findings.  Is it little wonder that students view library research opportunities as times for “fact gathering” and “answer finding” rather than a time of discovery and scholarship?

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