As educators in British Columbia, we never set out to be app designers.
Our school district challenged educators to be innovative in the classroom, and they were finding a lot of pressure was put on the school system to get up-to-date with technology. At the same time, they were struggling with the cost of new technology and how to justify it as it applies to student achievement. Does technology make a difference?
The other pressure on schools concerning achievement was focusing on foundational skills, particularly skills in literacy and comprehension. Schools were noticing a significant lack of growth in literacy results after grade 4. A conversation started between Gloria Ramirez, an education professor from Thompson Rivers University, the district literacy coordinator, and me to address the drop in literacy at the grade 4 level. A plan began to form.
We knew that at about grade 4 the curriculum and structure of learning shifted in our school system, with a greater focus on nonfiction reading and literacy and an increased use of subject-specific academic language and vocabulary.
We turned to the school district to ask if they would allow us to work with a small group of teachers and target academic- and subject-specific vocabulary instruction. We also wanted to focus on rural and high-risk classrooms in grade 4. We were fairly certain that targeted support in vocabulary at grade 4 would make a difference but wanted to prove our theory. The other part to our plan was almost an afterthought. The district, as well as our education research team, wanted to know if using technology would help. Wanting some advice on how best to approach introducing technology into the classroom, we invited a technology professor from a local university to join us.
From there, we started our study. Using a number of classes in grade 4, we compared classes
on the basis of the following parameters:
But even with support from Musfiq Rahman, a technology professor from Thompson Rivers, we ran into challenges right away.
We struggled with finding applicable apps to match the instruction in the classroom around vocabulary. We found most of the commercial apps were too standardized in their approaches. In other words, the vocabulary selection did not match the specific academic and subject vocabulary introduced by the teacher in the classroom, so it lacked relevance.
Also, the way the apps introduced vocabulary was not always using high-yield strategies on how we learn and comprehend vocabulary. Finally, the information gathered by the apps and shared with the teacher was subject to privacy issues.
Even with all of these challenges around using technology and finding the best app, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that classes using technology showed greater improvement than those that didn’t.
Excited to discover that technology makes a difference, but also frustrated with the flexibility of available commercial apps, we asked if it was possible to design an app, LearningApp, to meet the needs of our teachers and perhaps even produce better achievement results than what we found in our initial study.
The answer was yes!
Rahman set out to bring some of his programming students to help design an app that could be customized by the teachers and integrate some of gaming features students would find engaging.
Students and educators from the university started working with classroom teachers and students from the elementary school to design an app that would meet their needs. If you want a lively discussion, you need only to ask your class what video games they enjoy and why. You can engage a whole class by just talking about their gaming experience. Even before the prevalence of video games, games from cards to board games have captured the attention of children and even involve learning. If only we can tap into that motivation!
We learned that the use of technology allowed for increased opportunities to individualize learning. This was especially helpful in isolated rural areas or where a child’s opportunity for exposure to diverse vocabulary might be limited.
We have currently developed a back-end platform with a number of capabilities requested by teachers and students:
The back-end platform was designed to allow expansion of more complex instructional tasks. It can also be hosted on a secure server at the school board office to address privacy issues. Finally, it is a web-based program that can be used on all devices capable of accessing the Internet.
The next phase of the project is developing a gaming platform to work with the back-end platform and present students with a gaming experience. We are involving students in helping design a game that will work with the instructional components of the program and allow students to access the motivational aspects of gaming technology.
Once the app is completed, we will be able to follow up with action research to determine the level of impact on student achievement. With our initial research, in addition to what we know about gamification of learning and individualized instruction, we are positive we will see great results.
Michael Bowden is principal at Raft River Elementary in British Columbia, Canada.
The International Literacy Association (ILA) cosponsored the amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan last week as part of a pending class action litigation that was initiated last fall on behalf of students in the City of Detroit’s public schools.
Latin for "friend of the court," an amicus brief is a supplemental pleading by persons who are not parties to the underlying case. Its purpose is to place additional pertinent facts and precedents on the record for the court to consult as it renders its decision. Moreover, the court can accept or not accept the brief, in its discretion.
Counsel representing the plaintiffs, five students from the lowest performing public schools in Detroit, drew national attention to the case by asserting that access to effective literacy instruction is a federal constitutional right their clients had been deprived of by the state’s neglectful administration, inadequate support, and poor oversight.
For ILA President of the Board William Teale, supporting the class action plaintiffs was an obvious choice. “ILA knows the critical importance of literacy, and we work around the globe to promote it,” Teale said. “Our mission compels us to support the children and families of Detroit in seeking reading and writing education that enables full participation in a democratic society.”
Marcie Craig Post, ILA’s executive director, agreed. “This important lawsuit casts light on the critical issue of educational access as a central component to becoming literate,” she explained. “We simply have to address these inequities, or we run the risk of continuing to perpetuate future generations of people who are not literate.”
To support the plaintiffs’ claim, the complaint cited the persistent and pervasive failure of the city’s public school students to achieve grade-level results on standard literacy assessments as compared with students in other districts and schools in the state.
Lack of reading material and online access, unfocused teacher professional development, high levels of teacher turnover, and ineffectual intervention were also alleged.
The defendants—the governor of Michigan and a number of state education officials—filed a motion to dismiss the action last December on the grounds that a right to literacy cannot be found in the actual text of the U.S. Constitution or in any U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has never declared literacy to be a constitutional right, it opened the door for a future ruling on this point by commenting in the 1973 case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez that some “identifiable quantum of education”—some small piece—might be a constitutionally protected prerequisite to the meaningful exercise of other legal rights.
Both the amicus brief ILA signed on to and the underlying complaint argue that basic literacy is the “identifiable quantum” contemplated in Rodriguez, the indispensable skill required to exercise First Amendment and other rights.
The brief further asserts that the development over the last 30 years of reliable measures of literacy attainment needed for things like getting a driver’s license, reading a W-2 form, or applying for employment provides the court with an appropriate standard for judging whether the dismal performance of Detroit’s schools rises to the level of a constitutional violation.
A ninth-grade Flesch–Kincaid or Lexile Framework reading level was suggested to the court as the minimum level for exercising constitutional rights, participating fully in the political process, and taking advantage of numerous other legal benefits.
Also joining the amicus brief were Kappa Delta Phi, the international honor society in education, and the National Association for Multicultural Education.
Dan Mangan is the Director of Public Affairs at the International Literacy Association.
After 25 years in the education “business,” I’ve learned that visionaries are rare. I’ve also worked with resume-padders, limelight-grabbers, and narrow-minded ninnies. Some were more concerned about their own personal agenda than about personnel.
When you do find that visionary with whom you connect, it’s best to listen, learn, and trust as you absorb as much of their vision as you can. Visionaries look at the big picture and delegate ideas, suggestions, and concepts to the team. The strength of the vision should be in the trust that the work will be done. That trust becomes contagious as we all work together for the commonality of the vision.
Although we appreciate that our school has come a long way in creating a common belief system, we also realize it is just the beginning of our journey. To become the school we want to be, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we working for the covenant, or are we working for the contract?”
The covenant is the promise we make in our mission/vision statement to our colleagues, our parents, and our students that we will do what we say we are going to do and that we will be held accountable for the sake of the greater good. We will support colleagues so they develop into knowledgeable and compassionate professional educators. We will respect and communicate with parents to form partnerships that are enduring and trustworthy. Finally, we will create authentic opportunities for learning that give our students the hope they deserve and the consideration they need. In short, the covenant keeps all of us working together to cultivate the best educational experience for our peers, our parents, and our students.
When the covenant becomes too demanding or when the vision has not been made clear to all stakeholders, it is inevitable that the contract will become the purpose. If teachers don’t envision themselves growing, if parents don’t value the relationships, and if students become disengaged, our practice suffers, our relationships deteriorate, and our children fail. It is that simple.
Standing up for the covenant begs the question, what do you stand for? When you are able to answer that confidently and with purpose, you are on your way to building a better school. Become a visionary who develops a confident team of teachers, a thankful legion of parents, and a considerate class of students.
Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools.Learn more about Peg on her website.
I live in a teeny-tiny apartment, so in anticipation of new releases that will be arriving, one of my end-of-2016 tasks was to go through the many books I read during the year and decide which ones I would add to my personal collection of children’s books. My goal was to keep only 10 books from 2016. Here are reviews of the 10 including notes on why I chose them. You’ll notice, however, that I cheated a bit by including a few pairings of a chosen book with other 2016 releases—in one case, getting eight picture books in one volume.
Curious George (75th Anniversary Ed.). H.A. Rey. 2016. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
George, the good but curious little monkey, gets into a great deal of trouble between the time of his capture by the man with the yellow hat in Africa and his arrival at the zoo. Curious George,a picture book favorite from my childhood, will be shelved next to the new 2016 young readers edition of Louise Borden’s The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey, originally published in 2005, which tells the story of how the Reys escaped Paris with the manuscript for Curious George in 1940, and Justin Martin and Liza Charlesworth’s Keep Curious and Carry a Banana: Wisdom From the World of Curious George (2016), a small book of pithy words to live by paired with illustrations from the original Curious George books.
My Very First Mother Goose (20th Anniversary Ed.). Iona Opie (Ed.). Ill. Rosemary Wells. 2016. Candlewick.
In the introduction, folklorist Iona Opie refers to Rosemary Wells as Mother Goose’s second cousin, a believable relationship for those who share this oversize collection of nearly 70 well-loved and lesser known traditional rhymes with young children. Wells’s whimsical watercolor illustrations feature her signature lovable animals (bunnies, cats, pigs, mice, and more, as well as an occasional human) taking on the roles of such characters as Jack and Jill, Little Boy Blue, Wee Willie Winkie, and the brave old duke of York. On its 20th anniversary, My Very First Mother Goose remains the perfect volume for introducing young children to the rhythms and words of Mother Goose. It will stay on my bookshelf until it becomes a baby gift.
Tomi Ungerer: A Treasury of 8 Books. Tomi Ungerer. 2016. Phaidon.
This beautifully formatted collection of eight of Tomi Ungerer’s picture books presented in a slipcase is indeed a treasure. After reading the eight books—The Three Robbers, Zeralda’s Ogre, Moon Man, Fog Island, The Hat, Emile, Flix, and Otto—readers new to his work will recognize Ungerer’s ability to craft picture book stories (some with unexpected choices of characters such as weapon-wielding robbers and ogres with an appetite for children) that are witty and thought provoking. Ungerer does not talk down to children even when his stories deal with important issues such as prejudice, social injustice, and war. The collection is introduced with a personal letter to readers from Tomi Ungerer. An appended “Behind the Scenes” section includes a conversation between Ungerer and his Phaidon editor about each of the books, along with preparatory sketches, storyboards, and photographs for the book, and a brief biography of the author. While serving on the United States Board on Books for Young People’s Hans Christian Andersen Award committee several years ago, I read as a widely as I could on the work of previous award winners. I learned that Ungerer, who won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration in 1998, had written more than 100 books, but I had access to only a few in English. How delighted I am to now have this treasury of Tomi Ungerer’s books to add to my children’s book collection.
Where, Oh Where, Is Rosie’s Chick? Pat Hutchins. 2016. Simon & Schuster.
Rosie, the clueless hen who goes for a walk and unknowingly escapes from a fox again and again to arrive safely back home in Rosie’s Walk (1968), is once more meandering through the farmyard, this time searching for the newly hatched chick that she has lost. As the patterned illustrations in bright, fall colors show, Rosie, who is unaware that her chick (with half of the shell covering its head) is following her, unwittingly saves the chick from danger again and again. All ends well as the other hens inform Rosie that the chick is right behind her, and Rosie and her little chick go for a walk together. My copy of Rosie’s Walk now has the perfect companion.
A Celebration of Beatrix Potter: Art and Letters by More Than 30 of Today’s Favorite Children’s Book Illustrators. 2016. Frederick Warne.
Thirty-two children’s book illustrators join in creating a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of beloved children’s book author–illustrator Beatrix Potter. Introductory notes and excerpts of nine of Potter’s tales (presented chronologically by publication date) from The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) to The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) are followed by original reimagined portraits of characters from the books by some of today’s favorite author–illustrators and reflective notes on early experiences with Beatrix Potter’s little books and how she inspired their work. Seeing which character the various illustrators selected to portray is interesting. My favorite entry: Tomie dePaola’s portrait of elderly Beatrix (Mrs. Heelis), who dePaola describes as resembling “the lovely, slightly cranky Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle,” having tea with the hedgehog laundress. This book is special to me because it includes the artwork of many of my favorite contemporary children’s book illustrators celebrating Beatrix Potter, whose books were my childhood favorites—and remain so to this day.
Find the Constellations. H.A. Rey. 2016. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In Find the Constellations (first published in 1954), H.A. Rey uses a clear, accessible text and labeled diagrams and sky view maps to present a step-by-step guide on recognizing how groups of stars are arranged to form constellations and locating these constellations in the night sky. Sections of the book have been revised to include updated information on the solar system (including why astronomers now identify Pluto as a dwarf planet), and the Planet Finder chart now covers the years 2017–2026. Find the Constellations and Rey’s The Stars: A New Way to See Them (1952), which also has a new 2016 edition, remain the best introductions to astronomy for young people (and, in my opinion, for people of all ages).
Under Water, Under Earth. Aleksandra Mizielińka & Daniel Mizieliński. 2016. Big Picture/Candlewick.
With brief text and detailed mixed-media cartoon illustrations with labels and captions, diagrams, and cross sections, this oversize volume takes readers on journeys of exploration of the worlds below the surface of our planet. As pages of Under Water are pored over, readers learn about the variety of creatures that inhabit the Earth’s lakes and oceans; properties of water related to underwater exploration such as buoyancy and pressure; special features such as coral reefs, sinkholes, underwater chimneys, and the Mariana trench; and the history related to diving suits, submarines, and other inventions that make underwater exploration possible. Each page takes readers deeper and deeper until the Earth’s core is reached. Then, flipping the book over to Under Earth, readers take a journey deep inside the Earth, exploring underground features, both natural and manmade, such as caves, tunnels, pipes and cables; creatures as varied as worms, ants, and burrowing mammals; archaeological and paleontological finds; mining operations; and explanations of tectonic plates, volcano and geyser formation, and the Earth’s layers. Under Water, Under Earth is too big to fit on a bookshelf, but it has a place nearby so that I (and inquisitive guests) can continue exploring below the Earth’s surface.
The Book Thief (10th Anniversary Ed.). Markus Zusak. Ill. Trudy White. 2016. Alfred A. Knopf/Random House.
Death, the narrator, introduces The Book Thief as a story about a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fantastical Germans, a Jewish fist fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. The girl, Liesel Meminger, picks up her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, in a snowy graveyard following the death of her younger brother, who has died while they are traveling to a foster home placement near Munich in 1939 Nazi Germany. Learning how to read with the help of her foster father, Hans Hubermann, is the beginning of Liesel’s love of words and her book thievery. This elegant 10th anniversary edition of Australian author Markus Zusak’s beautifully crafted novel includes a new introduction, excerpts from notebooks, handwritten notes on the manuscripts, and his original sketches for illustration, in addition to a Q&A. The “Anniversary-Edition Bonus Material” section at the end of this 2016 edition, which adds a wealth of information related to Zusak’s crafting of the book, left me looking forward to my next rereading of The Book Thief.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (10th Anniversary Ed.). John Boyne. Ill. Oliver Jeffers. 2016. Alfred A. Knopf/Random House.
Oliver Jeffers’s illustrations add haunting visual images to this historical fable that explores the horrors of the Nazi death camps through the eyes of naïve 9-year-old Bruno, who moves in 1942 from Berlin to Auschwitz, where his father is the new Commandant. In his introduction to this 10th anniversary edition of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne references his interest in writing about “the manner in which war affects and destroys the experience of childhood, which is supposed to be a happy and carefree period, and what it means for a child to be thrust into an adult situation far ahead of time.” Boyne does this beautifully in his writing of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and in The Boy at the Top of the Mountain (2016), the story of a young boy living in Adolf Hitler’s Austrian retreat.
Scythe (Arc of a Scythe #1). Neal Shusterman. 2016. Simon & Schuster.
In a post–Age of Mortality world, death has been conquered. No one dies from hunger, disease, aging, or accidents. To control overpopulation, professional scythes (or reapers) “glean” citizens randomly following a set of commandments, the first of which is “Thou shalt kill.” In this first book in the Arc of a Scythe trilogy, 16-year-olds Rowan Damisch and Citra Terranova are chosen by Honorable Scythe Faraday to be apprentice scythes. As the two teens are pitted against each other in their training (only one will become a scythe; the other will be gleaned), they become aware that all is not perfect in MidMerican Scythedom. Scythe is a dark, disturbing thriller that raises moral and ethical issues for readers to ponder as they wait for the next book in the series. I’m keeping Scythe on my bookshelf, knowing I’ll want to reread it before I read the second book in the Arc of a Scythe series.
Carolyn Angus is former director of the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.
Writing fanfiction—creative works that fans write based on storylines and characters in existing books, movies, or other media—has moved from the fringes of fandom activity to having more mainstream visibility. Some of the earliest examples of fanfiction appeared in science fiction fan magazines in the 1930s. However, the advent of the Internet and the popularity of online sites like FanFiction.net, Archive of Our Own, and Wattpad have brought fanfiction writing to millions of readers and writers worldwide and garnered the attention of literacy researchers and the popular press.
Literacy teachers can connect their classrooms to these online communities to foster their students’ development as writers. As a literacy activity that requires authors to become experts on the original source material, fanfiction has opportunities to practice reading and writing skills valued by the Common Core State Standards, including close reading and writing narratives. Sharing their work in an online fanfiction community further provides youths with authentic opportunities to produce and distribute their writing with the help of technology (also covered in Common Core) as they collaborate with others and receive feedback, though not always very helpful feedback, from the online audience.
Because of the intermittent quality of feedback available in online fanfiction communities, teachers can play an important role in guiding their students’ writing for and with online audiences. As my own long-term research with one fanfiction author has revealed, even skilled writers may be only haphazardly tapping into the potential of a site like FanFiction.net. Young writers need teacher support to fully benefit from participation in these online writing spaces. Such support might include the following:
I recently talked with literacy teachers about these suggestions when I gave a presentation at the New York State Reading Association conference in Rochester, NY. During this session, we shared ideas for how teachers interested in connecting their students to online fanfiction communities find space to do so in already crowded curriculums and school days. One local high school teacher planned to return to her building and suggest that they consider turning an existing Creative Writing elective into one that explicitly and systematically connects young writers to online writing communities. Two teachers from Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in Omaha, NE, told us about their FanGirl Club, which meets monthly after school. Members run sessions to teach other kids about writing fanfiction and host a fanfiction writing contest at the end of each year. Finally, we discussed possibilities for structuring an ongoing unit about online writing spaces as part of a literacy or language arts block, in which students research, select, write for, and maintain a connection to an online writing community of their choice throughout the school year.
Whether you find space through electives, after school, or as a small part of the existing literacy curriculum, providing teacher guidance can go a long way to helping young writers benefit from the rich learning opportunities in online writing communities.
Jayne C. Lammers is an assistant professor and director of the secondary English teacher preparation program at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. She can also be reached on Twitter.