The Last Good Draft? Don’t Think of the Technologies….

Here’s what I have. I no longer know it if makes sense. I feel it sure as hell seems senseless w/o the pictures, but I don’t have the time to format and embed them. I’m also worried that the last bit is just redundant meandering and nonsense. To be honest, I’m not sure that any of it makes complete sense anymore and I never got to the point that I wanted to use about Chip Bruce’s explanation of a parallel to Halliday. I guess that has to be a separate note somewhere, cuz I’m not sure how to fit it in. What I meant to write was something like this:

Chip Bruce has suggested that as we think of the roles that technologies play in education, “there is a parallel to Michael Halliday’s (1978) formulation about the reasons for the centrality of language study in schools: We need to learn technology, to learn through technology, and to learn about technology.” I would argue instead that we should revisit M.A.K. Halliday’s model and consider how it can be expanded to include these wider notions of literacy.

And then I wanted to talk through the ways that technology already fits into the Halliday model, that no new formulation is needed. I think that’s a different focus though, so I dropped it. Sadly, I think it’s also the one thing I’d really like to talk about. Oh well. The draft and then to bed.

This all began on Cindy and Dickie Selfe’s porch in Houghton.There was
a copy of George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant lying
on the kitchen table, and because I was supposed to be writing something else
altogether, I picked up their book, went out to a comfy chair on the porch,
and started reading. Gracie gave me an evil look, doing her best to keep me on
track, but I found the book interesting and finished a chapter to two before
going back to what I was supposed to be writing. What I found most interesting
about the book was the way that the discussion of Democratic and Republican
values could be extended to the challenges that educators face in the classroom.

Lakoff uses the metaphor of the government as a parent, tracing the idea back
to the founding fathers, and describes how the values underlying political
positions amount to a parents’ attitude toward children, who by the extension
of the metaphor are the nation’s citizens.

Republicans follow a strict
father model, according to Lakoff. The government takes the role of the father,
knowing right from wrong, and making decisions that reward those who are self-reliant,
those "whose prosperity reveals
their discipline and hence their capacity for morality" (9). The citizens
in this model, metaphorically the children, “are born bad, in the sense
that they want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have
to be made good" (7).

Democrats, on the other hand, follow a nurturant parent model, believing that "children
are born good and can be made better. The world can be made a better place,
and our job is to work on that. The parents’ job is to nurture their children
and to raise their children to be nurturers of others" (12).

Republicans, Lakoff explains, win voter support because they focus on a strong,
moral stance—on “family values”—from a position of
patriarchal authority. Democrats, on the other hand, focus on issues, rather
than on the underlying values. Lakoff explains in the book’s Preface:

If the Democrats are to win in the future, the party must present a clear
moral vision to the country—a moral vision common to all progressives.
It cannot present a laundry list of programs. It must present a moral alternative,
one more traditionally American, one that lies behind everything Americans
are proud of. (xvi)

It’s not that Republicans do not address the same issues that Democrats
do. It’s a question of framing, of how Republicans position the discussion
of those issues so that they fall in line with the traditional family values
while Democrats are more likely to talk about the issues independently.

Now what
does this have to do with education? Plenty, especially when you consider
that the strict father model has led to standardized testing and No
Child Left Behind
legislation as a way to reward those who are hard-working
and self-reliant and punish those who do not achieve. Lakoff explains the conservative

Teachers should be strict, not nurturant, in the example they set for students
and in the content they teach . . . . Uniform testing should test the level
of discipline. There are right and wrong answers, and they should be tested
for. Testing defines fairness: Those who pass are rewarded; those not disciplined
enough to pass are punished. (84)

This authoritarian model of education is at odds with nurturant strategies
such as whole language education and Freirean pedagogy. The focus on students
who are good and can be made better with support and encouragement comes across
as lenient and indulgent. The underlying values fail to rise to the surface,
and the moral vision of these nurturant strategies go unexpressed. The focus
falls on the various ways of teaching rather than on the pedagogical goals
of the teaching strategies.

Progressive educators who support these nurturant strategies must focus on
reframing, on foregrounding the underlying educational values, rather than
describing the various ways of teaching.

This same tension plays out in our educational work with digital technologies.
If we are to create sustainable environments, we must foreground the underlying
educational values supporting those environments rather than focus on the specific
strategies we employ in these various environments.

To see this strict father/nurturant parent metaphor in play, we need look
no further than the ways that our work is generally defined. There are many
ways that we identify what we teach in English language arts, composition,
and literature classrooms:

  • media literacy
  • visual literacy
  • film literacy
  • technology literacy
  • multimodal literacy
  • technological literacy
  • game literacy
  • out-of-school literacy
  • adult literacy
  • computer literacy
  • emergent literacy
  • multimedia literacy
  • cultural literacy
  • information literacy
  • content area literacy
  • early literacy
  • adolescent literacy
  • young adult literacy
  • new literacy
  • multiliteracies

And for us, the differences among these terms are meaningful and significant.
The challenge is that they are often meaningful and significant ONLY to us.
To the many people we encounter outside our discipline, these words and phrases
can be confusing. How well does the average family member understand the difference
between technological literacy, computer literacy, and multimodal literacy?
For that matter, would our colleagues who spend more time with literature be
able to explain such terms?

What we have here, friends, is a laundry list. The areas we teach end up broken
out in so many ways that the underlying values become hidden. General audiences
assume the most basic definitions, and the work that we really do is lost.

As an example, let’s focus on those literacy areas that have to do with
digital technology in some way. Cindy Selfe explains:

The prevailing cultural understanding of [technological literacy] as simple competence
with computers
serves to misdirect the energy put into the national
project to expand technological literacy—limiting the effectiveness
of literacy instruction as it occurs within schools and homes in this country
and hindering efforts to formulate increasingly complex and robust accounts
of technological literacy.
(xx, Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century)

Though the political leadership has changed in the country since Selfe wrote
those words, the gap between the cultural understanding of technological literacy
and the more complex and robust understanding of technological literacy most
of us share persists; and as a result, there is still a lot of misdirected
energy expended in the pursuit of educational goals.

The reason for this misdirection is that the explicit nature of technological
literacy distracts from the underlying educational goals and values. When we
talk about digital technology in the classroom, too often what others hear
is a discussion of competence with those technologies rather than significant
literacy education.

Following the strict father model, students need to learn to read and write.
Their use of digital technologies should be limited to learning how to use
the tools available in the service of that goal. Focusing on game literacy
or film literacy simply diverts attention from the more significant educational
goals. Playing games, watching films—those things aren’t what’s
important from this perspective.

Most of us would argue that exploring game literacy or film literacy IS learning
to read and write. The problem is that the technologies hide what is going
on. Our challenge is to make the underlying educational values more obvious.
As Lakoff would say, we need to reframe the debate based on our values, not
on others’ conception of what we care about.

For most of us, what we value in our teaching is the ways that we encourage
students to expand their literacy by exploring the various digital technologies
available to them—a collection of resources that can include computers,
camcorders, audio recorders, handheld game systems, cell phones, and PDAs.

The general public, those folks who define technological literacy as simple
competence with computers, focuses on those digital technologies. They question
why, for example, students learn about the ways that video games work and never
think of the classroom exploration of the games’ complex narrative and
hypertextual structures.

What are we to do? How are we to reframe our work so that we get beyond simple
competence with computers? Don’t Think of the Technologies. We
have to focus on the literacy instruction, not on the technologies that we’re
using as part of the instruction. It’s contradictory in a way. To focus
on the ways that technological literacy goes beyond simple competence with
computers, we have to reframe the discussion to focus on literacy, rather than

The NCTE/IRA site ReadWriteThink provides an example of the way this reframing
can be done. ReadWriteThink publishes lessons on a wide range of subject areas,
for the K-12 classrooms—from literature to composition, and from technical
writing to critical thinking. Each of the lessons on the site uses the same
basic structure: 

  • an overview of the lesson activities
  • the underlying NCTE/IRA standards
  • the supporting pedagogical theory
  • the estimated lesson time
  • the required resources necessary for the lesson
  • the instructional plan
  • and suggested reflection and assessment activities

Additionally each includes an “Internet connection.” This Internet
connection is the highlight of the lesson plans in some ways. ReadWriteThink
is part of MarcoPolo, a nonprofit consortium of education organizations and
the Verizon Foundation, dedicated to providing the highest quality Internet
content and professional development to teachers and students.

All MarcoPolo resources, in accordance with the funding grants agreement,
include Internet-based resources. Typically the lessons use Web resources,
and partners are urged to include student “interactives” in as
many lessons as possible. For MarcoPolo, “interactives” are essentially
Flash or Shockwave tools that either present information, serve as online graphic
organizers, or produce print-based artifacts such as newspapers and brochures.

Despite this focus on Internet resources, the collection of over 500 lesson
plans on the ReadWriteThink site was designed to engage students in authentic
and meaningful language learning, with the Internet component included
in pedagogically appropriate ways. The site’s design is based on literacy
engagements, as defined by M. A. K. Halliday (1982). Literacy engagements simultaneously

  • learning language
    (as students listen to language and use language with others in their everyday
  • learning about language
    (as students try to figure out how language works, engage with their teachers
    in focused instruction on how language works or in critiquing its impact),
  • learning through language
    (as students use language to learn about or do something).

While all three literacy functions—learning language, learning about
language, and learning through language—operate in any literacy event
that makes sense to a learner, teachers, according to Kathy Short (1999), frequently
find it instructionally useful to highlight one or more of these functions
at a time (at least in their minds) so that they can consider which curriculum
experiences are most likely to engage learners in that specific literacy function.

Once teachers determine the experiences they want to highlight, they can sort
the lessons by the literacy engagements (in addition to grade level), to find
the resources the will address those language functions in the classroom. Digital
technology is included in each lesson, but the focus is on
the literacy engagements. In other words, the site strives to foreground the
educational value of strong literacy skills rather than listing the technologies
that students will explore as they work on the activities.

Literacy frames the site. This focus on literacy does not mean however that
the site ignores the ways that technologies shape our notions of literacy.
It is simply that the definitions of reading and writing are expanded to take
into account more complex and robust ways of reading and writing—and
students are asked to engage in this process of reframing what it means to
be literate.

Let me share three examples. Defining Literacy in a Digital World asks students
to create a working definition of literacy that they refine and explore as
they continue their investigation of the texts that they interact with at home,
at school, and in other settings. The lesson Star-Crossed Lovers Online: Romeo
and Juliet
for a Digital
Age invites students to use their understanding of modern technologies to make
active meaning of an older text by creating their own modern interpretation
of specific events from the drama. Campaigning for Fair Use: Public Service Announcements
on Copyright Awareness asks students to explore a range of resources on fair
use and copyright then design their own audio public service announcements
to be broadcast over the school’s public address system or posted as

These three lessons engage students in standard literacy activities: persuasive
writing, research, literary analysis, and expository writing and analysis.
All three engage students in activities that focus on learning through language
and learning about language. Literacy frames the lessons. Yet at the same time,
students clearly engage in technological literacy activities. Focusing on literacy
does not mean that we forget about the technologies. We have simply reframed
the way that we address them.

This is the work that we must do to create sustainable educational environments.
We must foreground the underlying educational values—in our case, the
importance of literacy education and a literate community—rather than
focusing on the various strategies and technologies that we employ in pursuit
of those values.

In short: Don’t Think of the Technologies: Know your pedagogical values
and focus on the basic underlying literacy goals that frame your work.

Works Cited

Halliday, M. 1980. Three Aspects of Children’s Language Development: Learning
language, Learning through Language, Learning about Language. In Oral and
Written Language Development Research
, Y. Goodman, M.H. Haussler, and D.
Strickland (Eds.), 7-19. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Short, K. 1999. The Search for "Balance" in a Literature-rich Curriculum.
In Theory into Practice, 38(3), 130-137.