Steve J. Moore

Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Defining Literacy Today

In Culture, Education, identity, Literacy on April 6, 2009 at 9:29 am

While reading through my education-related feeds, I came to an interesting post on “The English Blog” written by Jeffery Hill.  He teaches overseas and blogs about learning, writing, and speaking English. I do not deal as often with learners of English as a second language, but his post brought up an interesting point.  His quote from a local radio program got me thinking:

“The ABCs are apparently no longer as easy as 1-2-3. Recent federal studies indicate that the average American teenager’s vocabulary is less than half that of the average teenager in the 1950s.”

This comment made me recount my recent lessons in English literacy through my undergraduate and graduate studies at Missouri State. Naturally, I read the post carefully a few times again and composed a response to outline my thinking:

“I think the valuable question we need to ask ourselves here is, “how important is knowing specific words to literacy?” Does knowing what “abscond” means help people to do business better? Does understanding what “ad hoc” means help you write a better poem or essay? Communication and composition are specific only to the environment that their authors occupy. People learn what they need to in order to accomplish their goals. If teens today know less words than their parents, then is it a crisis or a sign of shift in literacy? Maybe this generation is redifining the word.”

After I posted my reply, I sat back in thought.  Did I really think that a lack of vocabulary represented a shift in literacy or was I simply playing devil’s advocate to this easy-to-accept commentary on the lazy youth and their social media addiction? What research could I find to support my statement?

I turned to E.D. Hirsch Jr. and his best-selling book on cultural literacy in America. In this book, he has lists of words, dates, and phrases that “literate” Americans should know. Do you know the significance of 1066 CE? How about absolute zero or amicus curiae? These are supposed to be common terms that Mr. Hirsch requires of you. Maybe you happen to know when the Battle of Hastings was because you were a history or an English major in college, or because you were on the quizbowl team in high school, but otherwise why should you know it?

Of course, I would tell you that learning about the importance of historical events would enrich your life. If you know that the Normans defeated the English in 1066, then you may come to learn that this military event changed the face of the English language forever. Many of the French words present in our vernacular today were introduced by good ol’ Billy Conqueror via the sword and arrow.

That being said, would you really say to someone who didn’t know the significance of this date, “I’m sorry, but you are illiterate” ? I hope not. What kind of message would that send to people? I think Hirsch has only the best intentions in mind as he writes that you should know what “aeschylus” means. He is saying that you should want to be smarter (and I agree). He says only 2/3 of our society (in America) is truly literate. Is there really a “network of information that all competent readers possess” or is literacy something more than common or shared knowledge?

I think that literacy has more to do with conveying and understanding ideas than with specific words, phrases, or concepts. If you don’t understand covalent bonding or absolute zero, but you can define curricum vitae and synecdohe, are you more or less literate than a person who can do the opposite? It sounds like the first person teaches science and the second English, but I would say neither are illiterate for having very specific gaps in their knowledge.

While it would be wonderful if we could count on every American to be able to discuss the importance stereoisomers in optical science upon pulling out a pair of sunglasses, I don’t think it’s necessary to be considered literate. For most of the third of America that Hirsch sees as illiterate, I would imagine their chief concerns are more to do with basic needs than their intellect.

Hirsch has a lot of great data to back  up his thoughts on literacy, and I agree with a lot of it, but he uses a lot of anecdotal evidence too, like in the introdcution. Ben Stein recalls his experiences with California high school students, claiming that in many years not one has ever been able to tell him the dates of any US war, any of the first ten presidents, or where Chicago is. I find that very hard to swallow. As a teacher in a sub-rural Missouri public high school, I could easily find ten students in five minutes who could answer all three of those things clearly.

There is validity to the arguments though. Students are pump and dumpers when it comes to reading, learning, and testing. Students usually can’t tell you who that World War I started in 1914, or 1917 for the US involvement, because they only chose to remember it for “the test.” It is the challenge of the teacher to help students build knowledge connections so retention of information is  easier. I think Hirsch comes to this point as well, that of making connections. I think we’re starting on opposite ends of the same spectrum though. He gives a determined set of information that people need to digest to be literate–a product to be obtained–while I think the process is where literacy is built.

The Constant Conference: Building a PLN with Twitter, Blogs, and Plurk

In Education, The Web on March 4, 2009 at 10:10 am

I don’t want to mix amongst my personal and education blogs too much, but I’m really overdue for a post on here and I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while. Rather than re-rewriting my ideas about this subject, I think it’s okay (considering my only slightly overlapping audiences) to re-post. “Repost”, by the way, should totally be a legal Scrabble word. I’m just sayin’.

Below is an entry from my Education blog “teachersaid” posted on February 12, 2009.

The long-term subbing job I have has allowed me some great opportunities so far. I’ve got my foot a little farther in the door at this school, for one thing. I know about job openings before they happen and I can speak easily to other teachers and administrators. Since I work at a computer all day (I’m a computer aide sub), I’m able to spend a great deal of time reading and completing my homework. I don’t think I would have attempted going to grad school full time right away if I had a teaching job right now. This way, I’ve been able to ease into my program and give it great attention.


Furthermore, and perhaps most beneficial so far, I have been able to build and maintain a powerful personal learning network (PLN) online. I started using Twitter (@stevejmoore), Plurk (stevejmoore), and GoogleReader (Steve) to connect with teachers and administrators across the country and beyond. I’ve been able to find blogs, ask burning questions, and ultimately make significant connections with people whom I would have otherwise never met.

You’re obviously here, so I have either asked you to visit this page or you’re already hip to the benefits of reading Education blogs (maybe you’ve built a PLN of your own too). In case you’re with the former, I’ll explain each service that I use as a teacher, a grad student in Administration, and as a writer.

I’ll use a macroanalogy that most everyone should be able to grasp: the conference. When you go to a conference of any kind there is a similar format. Why do we go to conferences? To learn new information about our profession and to build relationships with other professionals. In my experiences, there are three basic environments at conferences: the keynote speech, focus groups (workshops), and mingling (unstructured). I use a digital counterpart that meets each of those networking criteria.


These are the keynote speeches, the main events of conferences and PLNs. All social media networks lead to blogs at some point. This is where authors, the pros pen their prose. Like at conferences, there is usually one big headliner who sets the tone for the whole, and several more mini-keynotes that function as bullet points to the larger headline. This is a good way to stucture your blog reading. Have fewer big blogs you read and focus your attention on. These are bloggers whom you may not ever personally contact or meet like LeVar Burton or Erin O’Connor, but whose material is widely read and considered a part of many larger conversations. Then, there are a myriad other bloggers that you can find whom are more specific in their situation and whom you may come to know personally due to their smaller readership.

For example, I’ve come to know Scott Elias, a principal in Colorado through my spiderweb-like PLN. I live in Springfield so I started searching Twitter for teachers using the service nearby through a service call Twello. I found Melinda Miller, an elementary principal in nearby Willard, MO. I started following her and checking her blog regularly. Through her, I found Scott. He and Miller run a blog and a podcast together called The Practical Principals. I’ll write more about them in the Twitter section.


If blogs are the main event, then Twitter is the exact opposite. When you’re at a conference, you spend most of your time socializing and browsing: snacking on Chex Mix, drinking mysterious hotel punch, and browsing tables of displays that other people like you have set up. Maybe you’ll exchange emails, web addresses, and chat about your classroom practices. Maybe you’ll end up collaborating on a project together in the future.

This casual open forum is like Twitter. This service is like walking into a giant ballroom full of people and eavesdropping on conversations as you walk through. When you someone posts a link, it is like one of those displays leading to more information you may or may not be interested in. The bottom line is that you are exposed to a great deal of people and materials very quickly in little snippets. Twitter is a social gateway for building longer conversations, it’s like browsing the internet and making bookmarks of people rather than sites.

I mentioned Scott and Melinda before in blogs. Twitter is different than a blog because of the length. Twitter is often referred to as “microblogging.” There you are limited to 140 characters to express your opinion, state your question, or reach out to someone. At the risk of sounding very 1996, I’ll liken Twitter to a chatroom, one that never ends though. The more you use it and the more people you follow, the larger and more powerful your PLN can become.



Lastly, I discovered Plurk through Paul Bogush. His blog was nearly named the “Best Education Blog of 2008” by the Weblog Awards. I found him on the awards page and started reading his work. I started following him on Twitter and saw that he linked to something called “Plurk” on his blog page as well. Being the curious person I am, I decided to check it out. At first, I thought that this service was a lot like Twitter, only newer and more strange. I started following Paul and his “plurkers,” as they’re called.

You see, Plurk isn’t open and microcosmic like Twitter, nor is it as large in structure and as singular as a blog. Plurk is like the part of a conference inbetween the casual browsing and the big group keynote speeches. The small groups or workshops on specific topics, that is what it is. You can participate in whichever ones you want and the people running the groups are usually very casual about it. Plurk has a character length like Twitter and resembles another form of the chatroom. The difference with Plurk is that conversations are grouped by the person publishing each comment.

Just like at a conference, with Plurk, your reputation counts for something. You earn Karma through your volume, regularity, and quality of comments. Plurk is a great place to go with a question for other teachers.