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Making a Case for Reading Joy
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    Online Learning Tools for Learners of All Ages

    By Aileen Hower
     | Mar 01, 2019

    Earlier this year, I embarked upon the task of designing one of our graduate courses to be completely online. This cannot always be done with a master’s of reading program, but students see other online programs and desire this format.

    Additionally, spring weather in Pennsylvania can be challenging; I have already lost four days of classes and it’s only the beginning of February! Certification tests and future instructors need all the content covered. I had to find a way to teach, even if I could not be face to face with my students. Therefore, I sought out technology to support synchronous and asynchronous learning.

    Synchronous video chatting

    This past winter, at the start of our winter course (and to close it out as well), I used Zoom, a video conferencing app that was recently acquired by our university. I have also used Zoom to attend mandatory biannual meetings with an online professional development organization I worked for in the past.

    I prefer to use Zoom because it allows you to mute attendees to avoid distracting background noise; to foster interaction by using a polling tool, the results of which can be shared with the entire class; and to encourage students to ask questions and post responses without interrupting the speaker using the chatting feature. I was also able to record our live session in case a student wanted to revisit a lesson or could not attend.

    zoom-hower-1 copy

    Zoom also automatically saves a .txt receipt of any chatting that takes place during the session.

    zoom-hower-2 copy

    After my third set of classes was cancelled this past week, I used an intriguing feature that allows the instructor to divide students into breakout rooms. This was a great success. For one class, I manually and strategically broke students into groups so that they could present lesson plan ideas with each other. With another class that was being quiet (there were 21 students in attendance), I had Zoom break them into pairs for discussion. I could visit each of the breakout rooms, send all the rooms an announcement, and reunite the whole group with just the touch of a button.

    My mid-level education students shared that Zoom offered more opportunities to interact with others as opposed to just accessing static information online. Some of my students who commute long distances expressed gratitude that they could attend a Zoom session instead (I offered to add Zoom to a face-to-face class for students facing barriers to travel).

    Online discussion tools

    Of course, I don’t always plan for us to be synchronous. I have tried to mix up the different tools that I use for asynchronous discussion and interaction with the content of my courses.

    In addition to having students use the typical discussion board through the university’s online management system, I have been a long-time fan of Padlet, a digital corkboard where students can post through a variety of means (as shown in the figure below).

    zoom-hower-3 copy

    With Padlet, students can reply to each other’s post with a comment, whereas before, they would have to create a new post and name it to grab the attention of the person to whom they were responding. Students appreciate the opportunity to share a favorite resource that supports the content we are learning.

    Communicating online is convenient, but it can also be slightly impersonal, until students get to know each other. Therefore, I have recently become a big fan of Flipgrid.

    Flipgrid allows students to discuss a topic for as little as one minute and up to five minutes. Not only do students reply to each other with their own video, they can also respond with “vibes,” emojis, and stars. Its interactive nature and resemblance to social media platforms makes Flipgrid one of the “coolest” tools available.

    zoom-hower-4 copy

    With Flipgrid, I got to know my students better through listening to and watching them. It was also a personal way to hear their ideas.

    This spring, I have given students the opportunity to participate in a blog run by one of the Keystone State Literacy Association’s local chapters. A different teacher/author poses questions about the week’s chapter in a blog post, and all are encouraged to post their thoughts/reactions and reply to others. Although this takes a very similar format to our discussion boards, the opportunity to interact with individuals outside of class adds a layer of meaning and interaction that I would not otherwise be able to embed in my class.

    One colleague shared her frustration via social media that students as young as elementary school should not lose days of learning due to weather. Rather, they should know their learning can just take on a different format. Many of the same tools I am working to integrate into my college classes can be used productively with younger students. My colleague argued that it should become the standard to use virtual tools rather than miss learning opportunities because of closed facilities. After my experimentations this winter and spring, I would concur. I encourage you to explore these tools in your classroom as well!

    Aileen P. Hower is an assistant professor of literacy and the Graduate Coordinator for the Masters in Language and Literacy at Millersville University in Pennsylvania where she teaches at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She also offers a summer literacy institute in writing through her university. In addition to teaching, she is the president of the Keystone State Literacy Association and was the conference chair for the KSRA 50th Annual Conference in Hershey, PA, in 2017. Aileen is a proud member of TILE-SIG. You can find her on Twitter at @aileenhower or on her blog at aileenhower.wordpress.com.

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    • Digital Literacies
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    YouTube Kids App: How Multimodality Supports and Challenges Young Children's Digital Literacy Skills

    By Damiana Pyles
     | Feb 22, 2019

    In a previous post for ILA’s TILE-SIG series, author Carolyn Fortuna discusses how digital literacy is different from other literacies in that, among other things, it’s best acquired through hands-on learning. One potentially promising hands-on application I am exploring with my research team in kindergarten classrooms is the YouTube Kids app.

    Since its launch in 2015, the YouTube Kids app has generated a flurry of support and critique. Most concerns have stemmed from inappropriate videos finding their way past the algorithmic filters, such as sadistic Peppa Pig videos or other so-called “YouTube Poop” videos (see Burgess’ in-depth analysis). In response to this criticism, in 2018, YouTube Kids developers created new filters to allow for more parental control. Parents can now create individual profiles for each child, choose the videos they want their children to watch, and turn off searching for younger children or open the search to revamped, “safer” algorithms.

    But, when it comes down to it, what does the YouTube Kids app allow for in terms of entertainment and learning for children? In this post, I describe some of the app's features and how it can be used to enhance digital and media literacy skills. 

    Features of the YouTube Kids interface

    After opening the app, a child must decipher several multimodal images and tools: the supportive images of category icons, the decorative images on the side of each video, and the thumbnails of actual videos that the child can select to watch. Children choose recommended videos by clicking on the thumbnails and swiping for more options.

    youtube-tile-1Once the video opens, the child gains access to more controls that overlay the video, including a back arrow, a pause button, a scrollbar to fast forward or rewind the video, and a next button.


    Another multimodal feature is the search function, which provides opportunities for children to practice media literacy skills. Children can use the search feature to explore a topic (such as “dogs” in the image below). Children can learn to search by using the microphone or search bar. Then, a selection of recommended videos appear in the same format as the home screen. The familiar elements across different parts of the interface helps build confidence as children begin to intuitively interact with newer parts of the app to navigate the space more independently.


    Challenges become opportunities to teach media literacy

    As with most digital tools for young children, the interface is not without its challenges, especially when children use the app on their own. Although the selection of recommended videos shown with each video creates choices for the child, the interface also enables and encourages children to seamlessly watch more videos. While parents and teachers can set a timer within the app, it isbetter for children to learn how to set limits for their own consumption.

    Narrowing down search terms to recognizable words for the computer algorithm can sometimes be difficult for children to  understand.  Moreover, as Google warns, unless a parent has turned off searches, searching in YouTube Kids is governed by algorithms, rather than by humans. The search feature is more open, therefore children will need more skills to navigate that feature on their own.

    Before allowing our children to use this app on their own, fostering media literacy is imperative. Parents and teachers should set aside time to prepare children to interact with the app (e.g., helping them to set their own boundaries for video consumption, along with practicing other media literacy skills, such recognizing semiotic cues in the thumbnails of recommended videos or in searches to suss out inappropriate content on their own). Media literacy at home and at school could make the difference between a child who consumes YouTube media with awareness and one who is reliant on the YouTube Kids’ interface and its inherent faulty algorithms that are beyond their control.

    Damiana Pyles is an associate professor at Appalachian State University. After teaching as a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Wyoming, she decided to pursue her PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where her research interests focused on media production, identity, and media literacy practices in order to understand the intersections of the visual, the spoken, the written, and the performed in digital and print literacies in youth media production in non-profits across the U.S. Her current research projects include exploring literacy and science learning in kindergarten classrooms, understanding parent and teacher beliefs about preschool literacies, and exploring concepts of space and place around Instagram and local organic farming.

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    Critical Media Literacy for Helping

    By Alexandra Panos
     | Feb 15, 2019

    critical-media-literacy-helpingMaking sense of today’s complex media sources has been the topic of many blog posts on Literacy Daily and is addressed in the National Association for Media Literacy Education's list of core principles of media literacy education. Thoughtful scholars and educators have emphasized the need to include media in the classroom, to learn to critically evaluate complex representations and engage civic media literacy practices in a post-truth society, and to consider the range of questions we might pose to scaffold student understanding and sensemaking about digital texts and media.

    Less often addressed, however, is the immediacy of a maelstrom of media reporting about complicated news that might directly deal with violence, politics, and inequities. In fact, a new genre of media and online text might be understood as “disaster media,” or media produced in response to intense global disasters (man-made or natural).

    While doing research in a small town in the rural Midwest, I worked alongside elementary teachers who joined Global Read Aloud in the fall of 2015. Classes around the world read books and participated in social media and video conversations with other classes. In fall 2015, one of the books, Fish by L.S. Matthews (Yearling), dealt with migration caused by war and climate change. That fall also saw intense and pervasive media reporting about refugee migration from northern Africa to the shores of southern Europe. Media stories shared gruesome details about the trek people took across the Mediterranean; the uneven, and at times violent, welcomes received in Europe; and the extraordinary loss of life by people, including many children, making this journey.

    It was impossible to avoid this media as we read a book about migration with fourth- and fifth-grade students. As one teacher put it, “no one could have planned for the events going on in the news.” Together, I worked with other teachers and students to collect and share numerous news reports about this global disaster. We discussed the news, explored historical migration and refugee experience, defined key terms, and continued to read children’s literature. In addition, we spoke with classrooms around the world about their reactions to the book Fish and to the horrific images and events being reported. Across these conversations, every child expressed a strong desire to help the individuals seeking safety. One classroom in Chicago, Illinois, described sponsoring refugee families in their city. Another classroom in Buenos Aires, Argentina, described examining the political response to welcoming refugees to their country.

    In the small town in which I worked, students did not have access to refugee services to sponsor a family in town. Their community is very politically conservative, and teachers were wary of diving straight into politics. Instead, together we devised a series of questions for students to critically interrogate just how to help refugees. We did this by identifying texts that might come up in a typical Google search. For example, recent sources about supporting or helping refugees include a listicle from TED (the popular lecture video series) and the UN Refugee Agency's guide. We used an online reading platform to allow students the time to examine a series of these online texts in pairs, using the following research-supported questions to scaffold textual critique and reader reflexivity.

    • Who created this source?
    • Why was this source created?
    • What story does this tell us about refugees?
    • What does this source want you to feel, think, or do?
    • What ideas does this source give you to help refugees?
    • What would you need to help the refugees based on this source's ideas?
    • Would these ideas be possible for you (and your classmates or family or community) to do? Why or why not?

    Students came away from these discussions with concrete next steps that matched their local experiences and context. Teachers and I hoped these critical media literacy practices would support thoughtful ways of taking action. After brainstorming, discussion, and planning, students lead several actions. They created a letter about the need to support refugees and were then given time to read their letter at a local school board meeting. They started a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization selected from their critical reading and donated money they had raised. They led read alouds on migrant and refugee experiences in lower grades classrooms at their school. The students, and their efforts, were, frankly, remarkable.

    As a result, teachers and I learned that the media of the moment, often media that is not deemed appropriate for children, cannot be avoided in any classroom—regardless of the age of its students or the content or the local context of education. We now recognize the need to integrate media thoughtfully, to look for opportunities to support critical media literacy, and to allow students the time and space to act on their desires for a more just future world.

    Alexandra Panos is an assistant professor of elementary literacy at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her research focuses on the literacies needed to address complex spatial and environmental challenges. She seeks, along with the children she writes about in this blog post, a multitude of ways to contribute to a more just future world.

    This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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    Using Alexa to Engage Children in Literacy Experiences at Home and in the Classroom

    By Tammy Ryan
     | Feb 08, 2019

    alexa-literacy“Alexa, spell.”

    “Alexa, define.”

    “Alexa, tell me a story.”

    Meet Alexa—the voice-controlled, search engine assistant who listens for commands and then responds with an answer, reminder, joke, fact, music, song, story. Users can also enable Skills, or third-party voice apps that allow the device to communicate with hardware and software to perform tasks.

    Yes, Alexa is a convenient device for checking the weather or playing music hands-free. But it’s also emerging as a powerful tool for engaging children in fun learning experiences.

    Engaging children in fun literacy learning using Alexa

    Following are five Skills that enhance children’s vocabulary, comprehension, and phonics development while engaging them in global topics. These Skills are free with the purchase of a device.

    • Play Mad Libs. “Alexa, open Mad Libs.” This Skill involves an entertaining word game. First, Alexia asks for adjectives, verbs, nouns, or plural nouns. After she collects the words, she embeds them in a uniquely created story or poem.
    • Listen to a short story. “Alexa, launch Bedtime Story.” These short stories are personalized using your child’s name. You can also upload your own stories.
    • Strengthen listening comprehension. “Alexa, ask Hutch to tell me a story.” This Skill offers happy, silly, spooky, or tall tale short stories focused on Hutch, a fifth-grade boy and his adventures, such as eating too much chocolate cake. After listening to the story, Alexa asks yes or no questions and gives correct answers to incorrect responses.
    • Encourage curiosity. “Alexa, open Curiosity.” This Skill delivers interesting facts on topics of interest. Subjects include science, fashion, history, music, health, current events, and more.
    • Practice spelling. “Alexa, open My ABC.” This Skill features alphabet, word, song, and spelling practice. Simple say, “Alexa, alphabet,” “Alexa, song,” “Alexa, word,” “Alexa, spell (give word).” It features animal sounds, rhymes, and songs.

    For more ideas, check out TurboFuture’s article “25 Amazing Kid Friendly Alexa Skills.”

    Tips for home and the classroom

    Alexa is continually updated with new Skills and features. The following tips will support your shared learning experience when using Alexa with children.  

    • Speak clearly. Alexa app offers a voice recognition option to help Alexa better understand a spoken command. If a statement is not recognized, you will need to rephrase the command. Rephrasing is an authentic way for children to practice speaking and listening skills.   
    • Practice commands. At first, you may want to write commands in a notebook and keep the notebook handy until they are memorized. “Alexa, Cheat Sheet for the Classroom,” offers commands to use at home.  
    • Stay informed about the pros and cons of using Alexa and activated voice assistants. “What Parents Need to Know Before Buying Google Home or Amazon Echo,” published by Common Sense Media, is a great place to start.
    • Do your research. Learn more from research exploring the use of technology with children. “Apps, iPads, and Literacy: Examining the Feasibility of Speech Recognition in a First Grade Classroom,” an article published in Reading Research Quarterly, examines the feasibility of using speech recognition technology to support struggling readers in an early elementary classroom setting.

    Tammy Ryan, and ILA member since 2002, has over 25 years of teaching experience. She is an adjunct professor of reading education at Jacksonville University and at the University of North Florida where she teaches undergraduate and graduate reading courses.

    This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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    NowComment Enhances Students’ Composing Processes

    By Chris Sloan
     | Feb 01, 2019

    nowcommentIt’s common for ELA teachers to require students to cite the sources they use in their compositions, but it was always a bit of a mystery to me as to my how students were interpreting those sources and integrating them into their writing. When my students composed problem–solution online essays this semester, instead of having them link directly to their sources, I had them link to their annotations of those sources using NowComment—an online annotation tool that has given me unprecedented insight into my students’ writing processes.

    As my students and I read George Orwell’s 1984 (Houghton Mifflin) this fall, we kept a running list of his predictions. Then, they were asked to craft inquiry questions about  whether there was any relevance to what they have observed, read, or experienced. For example, in her essay, Yulisa makes connections between the rampant xenophobia in 1984 and the treatment of foreigners in contemporary society. Not only does Yulisa provide links to her sources, it’s clear how her annotations contributed to the essay.

    It’s worth noting that Yulisa obtained some of her sources from SolutionsU, a website that curates stories that serve as models for how to identify, analyze, and solve problems.  This turned out to be a valuable resource because, as the quarter progressed, it seemed like this assignment was creating a sense of doom among students. I found it especially helpful for this assignment to have them annotate sources that not only documented problems, but also those that offered solutions.

    Another affordance of NowComment is that annotations are searchable and all in one place (using the blog feature in NowComment), which made it more manageable for students to reference as they composed their essay. Collaboration became a lot easier too; some students who were researching similar topics combined their collections using the group blog feature on NowComment.

    NowComment also enables students to be critical readers. For example, when Anika remarks on a questionable source, Ari counters, “This sounds a little extreme to me. Is there any example that proves this or that puts it in context of what is really happening in the US?”

    NowComment has also made it easier for me to help struggling writers. Yulisa’s essay was well written, but others weren’t. By being able to go to their annotations, I was able to make them aware of common problems, such as not providing enough evidence for their claims or where they had misread the text. In many cases, it amounted to merely going back over the source with the student to help them see the examples that were already present in the text but that they had overlooked.

    And finally, unlike many other annotation applications, NowComment allows users to annotate videos and images. That makes it especially useful for the kinds of multimodal compositions our students are producing.

    Chris Sloan teaches high school English and media at Judge Memorial in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the summer he’s an instructor for Michigan State’s MAET Overseas program in Galway, Ireland. Join him on the Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast every Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.

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