Sunday, August 28, 2011

Paying for Ad Free internet services

This morning I read a short but pithy article by Clive Thompson in Wired magazine, The Problem with Advertising. Mr. Thompson writes about how there is an advantage to actually paying for some web services. This resonates with me. I have found myself buying "upgrades" to various web based services that I use to provide information through my library. My Portaportal site, Library Links, for instance is ad free. I also have paid for a subscription to Jing, which makes my screencasts ad free. The disadvantage is that these are recurring fees and I don't get anything concrete for my money. The advantage is that I am not selling the "eyeballs" of students, teachers, and parents when I recommend (or with students require) that they use these tools.

As I have mentioned before, I do have an organizational Facebook page which of course does have ads. The difference is that although I use Facebook to reach out to constituents, I by no means require or even strongly recommend that anyone use it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Challenge of Nonfiction

Last week I responded to Marc Aronson's post about the challenges of nonfiction. He defines the two challenges as "context and engagement." I have been thinking through what this means for teachers and students. Context (in teacher-speak) is "prior knowledge" - all the stuff you know about a topic that makes it possible to understand what you are reading. Building a store of prior knowledge is a huge reason for reading both nonfiction and a greater variety of fiction. Readers who only read about what they know from their personal experience are not building collecting a store of knowledge that will help them understand the world. Engagement is a bigger problem. Readers who are engaged in their reading not only understand, they care. Perhaps it is easier to be pulled into what you read when the author's voice sounds more like yours - when it is more colloquial or speech-like. It is easier to read and understand simpler text with shorter sentences, but that isn't enough to make them engaging. The most popular fiction books tend to be those where the language of the book - the voice of the narrator and the characters - seems real to the reader. "Relateable" as some students say. (Yes - I realize that relateable is a questionable word, but it is very much in the air.)

It is worth seeking out nonfiction that grabs the reader and pulls them in. Authors such as Marc Aronson that strive to balance connecting to the reader with solid, really interesting research aim to engage readers without watering down the content. After all, finding really interesting and surprising information is one reason why we read nonfiction! It's not all about engaging with the author, it's about the story - and best of all the story is real!

Applying these ideas to the real world of books: This summer I have enjoyed two wonderful adult nonfiction best sellers. (Yes I do sometimes read "grownup" books!) Stacy Schiff's wonderfully entertaining and occasionally racy Cleopatra, and the more staid but equally wonderful 1776 of David McCullough. The Cleopatra biography often strikes a conversational tone. I described it to a friend as Chatty and "snarky." I kept wanting to read snippets out loud just for fun. Although well-researched and densely foot-noted, the author's tone often didn't seem far from the office water-cooler. 1776 on the other hand is written in a more academic style. The sentences are longer and definitely not conversational in tone. The story however is gripping, and I ended feeling I knew the characters in a deeper and more personal way than I had from my prior knowledge history. Both books are wonderful in their own way, but one is easier to engage with on the surface partly because the author chose to use a more colloquial tone with less complex language and a more familiar tone.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Text complexity and the Common Core Learning Standards

The Common Core standards, national standards and benchmarks for language arts and math were officially rolled out last June, almost a year ago. Then they were officially adopted (and renamed the Common Core Learning Standards) by New York State. Now they have been officially adopted by the NYCDOE, which with the Common Core Library has begun to put processes into place for applying them in schools. This year these standards will finally begin to have an impact on classroom practice, although many aspects including new tests won't be completely in place until next year. It will be interesting to see how the spirit of these standards evolves as they are fitted into the real world of teaching and school.

I first read the standards last summer, and have been thinking about them and reflecting on possible implications for my school and its library. It is tempting to say that there is "nothing new under the sun," and "what goes around comes around." However I don't think that this will be just another variation on a theme, or another raising of the bar. Certain aspects of the standards demand major changes from our schools and teachers. It will take time for the full impact of the changes to be felt in the classroom, but as the Common Core becomes part of educational practice changes will be felt by all involved, including students, teachers, and parents.

What has changed in the ELA (English Language Arts) standards can be explained as four "shifts" (This language was used at a conference I attended last week, it is also used in the Engage NY Common Core Video Series and in presentations from the Indiana Department of Education) 1) Emphasizing informational text 2) Literacy standards across the content areas 3)Emphasis on text complexity 4)The special place of argument.

Of these shifts, the emphases on informational text and on text complexity are the two changes that most effect reading and book choice. ("Argument" is mostly a writing focus, and "content areas" flows out of the emphasis on informational reading.) I expect these cause some immediate changes, some consternation, and unfortunately some over zealous application and misunderstanding. I am expecting teachers to want to know more about "text complexity," and I am worried that students may be dissuaded from reading what they want for pleasure.

Informational text is more challenging for the teacher as well as the students both because it usually demands some prior content knowledge of the reader and because the reader must attend more closely. More complex text is less "natural" and often harder to explain because longer and more complex sentences demand that the reader make connections and understand connecting words to fully understand the meaning. Some teachers, students, and families may feel uncomfortable with more assigned reading being in an academic rather than a colloquial style. Much written English, especially fiction, has gradually become more and more like spoken words. However the academic English that college freshmen need to understand has become if anything more complex and opaque. Academic language is almost foreign to most of our students and even many of our teachers.

So where do I go from here? I have been re-visiting the perennial issue of readability levels and text leveling. I find myself thinking about readability even as I have been reading for pleasure this summer. I will also continue reading as much current non-fiction as I can at the elementary level. As teachers wade into "complex" texts and figure out how to use more non-fiction in their classrooms I will try to be there with books to both fill needs and stir imaginations. I will also be there for my students, urging them to read more, read broadly, and yet read what they want. I want to "feed the need to read." I also want their teachers to find what they need to broaden their students' horizons.