The Three Part Lesson That Works with Every Text

Some of the best teaching is DRY.

“Dry” teaching? No, not your economics teachers with a hot overhead projector, blurry transparency, and squeaky vis-a-vis markers. Not that kind of dry.

DRY is an acronym in computer programming that stands for “don’t repeat yourself.” It is a reminder for programmers to write their code so that they do not type the same thing multiple times, but instead use variables and other abstractions to have the computer do more work for the programmer.  Think of making a photocopy as opposed to re-typing the same document from scratch every time you needed a new copy.

For teachers, the DRY concept can apply to the set of instructional strategies, lessons, or frameworks that work in a variety of contexts, with multiple texts, and for various objectives.

This post will share a DRY framework that has worked for me this year, with a narration of a lesson that actually happened, and another lesson that is hypothetical.

Three Levels of Thinking

One DRY lesson that works for me it is to lead students through a three-level reading of a text:

  • Literal (Summarizing key ideas)
  • Evaluative (Making observations and inferences)
  • Analytical (Making arguments and connections)


These levels of thinking seem to work with most texts, in most genres, with most students, as long as I’ve selected a text at an appropriate complexity level and of an engaging topic for students.

Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey offer three text-dependent questions that fit into these three levels of thinking. The questions are:

  • What does the text say? (Summarize it.)
  • How does the text work? (Discuss structure, style, word choice)
  • What does the text mean? (Analyze the argument, discuss the theme, make deep inferences)

[I often change the last question to “Why does the text matter?” to get students thinking about the “so what?” significance of our reading.]

These questions are simple but versatile, so I recommend giving them a try. Whether students are reading an independently chosen novel as part of your classroom culture of readers or if students are close reading a teacher-chosen excerpt for a timed writing, students can consider these questions and gain deeper understanding of their reading.

Fischer and Frey discuss this framework in an article on formative assessment, explaining the inextricable link between solid instructional frameworks and formative assessment plans:

“A formative assessment system is only as good as the instructional framework on which it rests. No formative assessment system can compensate for poor instruction. Neither does simply having an instructional framework ensure that students will learn; both a framework and a system are required.”

One of my favorite things about Fischer’s & Frey’s questions is that, with careful planning and practice, they are both a formative assessment system and an instructional plan. The possibilities for modeling, collaboration, independent practice and assessment are endless when applying the questions to specific texts and objectives.

Here’s a reading lesson from my academic (college prep) English class of 24 sophomore students.

A sample lesson

The students had come to a long aside in Act I of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Miller explores a character’s background and comments on the moral and political reasons for writing the play in these excerpts. These are dense readings, and often inaccessible for students. But, they are essential for making meaning of the play. So, I applied Fischer and Frey’s three levels of questioning to a lesson on an aside about Reverend Hale and the role of the devil in society.

1. Begin with the three questions displayed on the board.

What does the text say?

How does the text work?

Why does the text matter?

Me: Please copy each of these questions in your notebook. To the right of each question, explain, in 5 words or less, what the question is asking you to do. What mental task is required for you to answer the question?

Ask students to turn and talk to a partner, then generate possibilities as a whole class. Lastly, I reveal my ideas about the purpose of each question to help the class come to a consensus.

2. Me: So, in yesterday’s read aloud, we stopped right at a big, scary-looking set of paragraphs that interrupt the dialogue. This is, as we’ve discussed before, called an aside. Today we’re going to apply those three questions to this excerpt as means of understanding why Arthur Miller would interrupt our reading of the dialogue between characters with this huge chunk of information.

I distribute copies of the excerpt. On our initial read aloud, I ask students to mark any place in the text that catches their attention. No annotations, no underlines, just a check. Students turn and talk to a partner, then share as a whole class.

Me: So, ladies and gentleman, what did you notice?

[As students share, I’m thinking: Are they literal-level responses or are they more inferential and analytical level responses? This determines the pace of the lesson.]

Me: Ok, thank you to everyone who shared their reactions.

3. Me: So, before I can really discuss this passage, or make an argument about why Arthur Miller includes it, I have to understand it at a literal level. Take your colored pencil and follow along with me as I think aloud. I’m going to start by circling words and phrases that appear meaningful as I re-read the text.

I circle three to four phrases, explaining my choices aloud.  Choices include: “ascertain witchcraft,” “pondering the invisible world,” and “Lucifer’s many-faced lieutenants.” I paraphrase these statements in the margins, making comments like “he’s trying to find the witches,” “he spends time thinking about spirits and religion,” “he believes that the Devil has helpers.”

Students do the same with a partner, then share their choices with the whole class. Students pick out phrases including “view of cosmology,” “man’s worthlessness until redeemed,” and “God’s beard and the devil’s horns.” Students use their circled phrases to make some literal level annotations.

4. For this level of the lesson, we never get to the “you do it independently” level of gradual release, because I’d like to keep things more structured as students are gaining an understanding of the text.

With that said, this was the check for understanding:

Me:  So, you have 5-10 phrases circled. I’d like to check to see how well you can work together to make some meaning out of our annotations. Work with a partner, or at most two people, to write a one paragraph summary of the aside about Reverend Hale. Use at least 5 keywords and phrases in your summary.

5. To close, a few students share their summaries, and we compile a “master summary” together, using the ELMO.

In subsequent class periods, I reduced the teacher modeling and increased the collaborative and independent portions. Students analyzed Miller’s word choice and tone, and his use of plural first person to speak to the audience. Eventually, the class conducted short discussions about Miller’s reasoning for including this excerpt in the play. While not all students were precisely accurate, the depth of thinking, I’d argue, was possible because students gained a strong foundational understanding of the text through answering “What does the text say?” and working up from there.

It’s a framework, not a formula

In other situations, a complete reversal of the lesson above might make more sense. Let’s say, for example, that students read a poem that initially appears simple, like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow,” which I’ll reproduce below because it is in the public domain:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


For a close reading lesson on this poem, a more appropriate series of events might be to begin with the “you do” portion and gradually work towards the whole-class, teacher-led portion:

  1. Have students answer “What does the text say?” entirely independently, circling key words and writing a short summary.
  2. Ask students to collaborate with a partner and answer “How does the text work?” as they revisit the poem, perhaps with a new colored pencil, using brackets, arrows, circles and lines to make visible their thinking about the style and structure of the poem.
  3. Lastly I might pass out copies of these analyses of the poem, doing the “Why does the text matter?” question for the students, but allowing them to see models of the deeper thinking that a reader can do about a text.
  4. To bring the work back to a personal response to students, I might ask students to rank the interpretations on the photo copy on a scale based on how much they agree with the literary critics, then have the students justify their choice in writing or discussion.

The next step: Student-generated questions

The best questions in our classes are those asked by students, not the teacher. Jim Burke shares a “Types of Questions” handout in his book What’s the big idea?  And the three types of questions he suggests having students ask closely align with Fischer and Frey’s three levels of thinking for text-dependent questions.

Burke’s three questions are:

  • Factual questions: these are the questions that we can answer by pointing to a specific line in the text. (“What was Reverend Hale’s past experience with witchcraft?”)
  • Inductive questions: these require making inferences, and often rely on multiple pieces of evidence. (“What are Abigail’s motivations for her actions on page 46?”)
  • Analytical questions: these asks students to have a deep understand of a text, and connect ideas in the text to other texts or concepts. (“How is The Crucible timeless? How is it dated?”)

Notice that these are three very similar levels of thinking, but now students are doing a bit more of work, as they are required to ask and answer the questions.

The power in these lessons for me is in their elegance, in the scientific sense. They are simple solutions to the complex problem of how do we get kids to read a complex text?

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How we read digital texts

Last time, we looked at the specific features of digital texts. This is akin to examining the structure of a poem, in my opinion. It’s something we have to do in order to fully make meaning of any text we read.

Even when reading a plain article that has been published online, that’s a different experience than reading that same article on paper.  We have to be aware of those differences in our experience as readers. Increasingly, it seems that we need to explicitly acknowledge those differences with our students, and assess whether or not they have the specific skills required of reading a text on a device.

First, let’s acknowledge that the term digital text is just about as specific as the term novel.  We have to dive into the specifics in order to make progress in understanding this type of reading.

Kinds of digital texts

Here are the types of digital texts I’ve identified in my own reading, ordered from simplest to most complex:

  • The Plain Article: a simple text-based article, which could easily appear in a paper format, but is published online
  • The Hyperlinked Article: this could or might be published in a paper format, too, but the article is enhanced with hyperlinks that point to source material or references. Most of the articles on this blog
  • The Multimedia Article: Building on the hyperlinked article with images and video. Here is an engaging example, an article about the death of Fidel Castro.
  • The Digital Story: This is more of an immersive experience created by a writer, usually with a mixture of media and some other coding or design applied. This is an awesome example.

Why reading a digital text is hard

All of the skills required to read a paper text are also required of a digital text (except, perhaps the ability to avoid paper cuts). In addition, though, there are a certain set of skills and habits that we need in order to read digital texts successfully:

  • We have to be mindful of the urge to skim the text, especially when reading on mobile devices where swiping is so easy
  • We have to make decisions about what additional media (links, images, videos) to consume, and then determine how those additional media contribute to our understanding of the text
  • We have to consider the source, as it is hard to avoid straight up fake news or just bad news, well-hidden bias, or our own self-created intellectual echo chambers
  • We can interact with other readers through comments and social media, and our understanding of the text may be swayed, challenged, or undermined by these readers’ comments
  • We have to remain focused on reading the text and avoid creating attention residue. Depending on the device that we are using, our reading might be interrupted by notifications, pop-ups, comments, and advertisements that are specifically designed to distract us from our reading.

Observe your digital reading

Observe the experience that you’ve had reading this article, an email or a book on your Kindle.  Here are a few things you might pay attention to:

  • How easy it is to quickly swipe down, skimming a text
  • The immediacy of tapping the screen to turn the page on an e-reader
  • The tendency of your eyes to immediately start scanning the page instead of reading every word and sentence

If we can begin to observe the features of digital texts and the challenges of digital reading, we can recognize the skills required for successful digital reading and teach those skills to our students.

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What is a digital text?

New Texts, New Responsibilities

If one of our goals as literacy educators is to prepare or students to succeed in the reading and writing situations that they will face outside of our classrooms, then we have a new responsibility: we have to figure out the type of texts that students will encounter outside of our classrooms.

This means understanding the digital texts that our students will encounter.  Digital texts require an additional set of reading skills, both for making meaning of the texts and engaging with them.

But before teachers can understand how to read a digital text and how to teach a digital text, we have to understand what this mode of text is.

If you want to see what’s possible in a digital text. Jump right here or here, two projects from The New York Times that capture the depth of meaning that writers can convey using digital tools.

Here’s an example of the reader’s experience while reading “Snow Fall,” which is linked above:

Devote an hour or so to "Snow Fall." You won't regret it.

Devote an hour or so to “Snow Fall.” You won’t regret it.

Features of Digital Texts

Hyperlinks offer links to external webpages, or other texts from the same source, which are meant to supplement the reading experience.  These links might either be to provide attribution for information cited, or simply to offer the reading another text to read about a related topic.

When it comes to teaching digital texts, we have to acknowledge that these offer students a decision making process. They have to ask themselves if they want to click the link or not. Then, when they open the new tab, they have to determine whether or not this link is something they should dive into deeply, or simply acknowledge and return back to the original text.

Embedded images are familiar to teachers and students because they also appear in print texts, but images have never been easier to capture because of the proliferation of camera phones. We might consider having students discuss the significance of, for example, a journalist’s decision to features a cell phone photo instead of a professional photo.

Embedded videos can engage reluctant readers, especially when they appear at the topic of an article and provide context for the text below the video.  Increasingly, writers feature videos interspersed through a text that add deeper context or background information for the reader.

Interactive elements like maps or responsive features like this article, which asks you to draw your own line on a chart to predict how you think parental income affects child college attendance.  These types of features can be either engaging or distracting, depending on the reader’s level of interest in deciding how the interactive feature contributes to the overall meaning of the text.

Digital texts are increasingly interactive.

Pagination is another feature that becomes more complex when we move from print to digital texts. Often, it is difficult to perceive how long a digital text is, even if there is a total number of pages listed. Further, there is accidentally clicking or page load time that can affect our reading experience.

Pagination requires student readers to make another set of decisions while reading.

Pagination requires student readers to make another set of decisions while reading.


Reading tools like…

  • Highlighting important portions of the text
  • Defining unknown words 
  • Annotating

…all enrich our reading experience. Though all of these tasks can be done with paper text, there is a level of interactivity and personalization of the reading experience that comes with using these tools digitally.

Why this matters

Before we can teach or learn anything, we need the language required to communicate about it. For students to become better digital readers, they need teachers who are better digital readers. And before we become better digital readers, we must understand digital texts.

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The results are in: tell your students to take notes on paper

What does the research say about reading and writing on screens? And how does that research guide us towards a more mindful decision about when students should read and write on screens or paper?

One study suggests that handwriting notes is better for processing than typing notes.

There are a few interesting findings in the study called “The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, which was also reported on by some other site.

A Study on Paper vs. Laptop Notes

The study required participants to watch TED talks and take notes either by hand on paper or on a laptop. Later, students answered both “factual recall” and “conceptual application” questions about the content. This sounds just like something that might happen in one of our own classes, no?

A few overarching results:

  • Students who typed their notes tried to copy as much of the lecture as possible
  • Students who took longhand notes wrote significantly fewer words than those who typed their notes AND
  • The amount of notes that a student took affected their performance on the assessment BUT
  • The more powerful indicator was the amount of verbatim copying that students did in their notes.
  • The more verbatim copying that a student did in their notes, the worse they did on the assessments.

Now, let’s look at some specifics.

Taking notes on paper: fewer words, more synthesis

During the first round of research, the participants were given no directions about how to take notes, and they took the assessment on the same day as they took their notes. Here’s what the researchers concluded after this first round:

“Although taking more notes, thereby having more information, is beneficial, mindless transcription seems to offset the benefit of the increased content, at least when there is no opportunity for review.”

So then….the researchers tried to determine if the typing or the verbatim notes made more of an impact on student learning. During round two, they told the participants on the laptops to take notes, but to use their own words instead of copying the lecture verbatim. Again, this feels like an instruction that an English or History teacher might give.

The results: “The instruction to not take verbatim notes was completely ineffective at reducing verbatim content.”

This is the part that feels consistent with my own experience as a teacher. Whenever providing students an opportunity to take notes on paper or laptops, a few students are resistant to use anything but their laptop. It also seems that they robotically copy what I say or present, instead of paraphrasing the ideas in their own words.

For round two, the students who wrote the most notes, in their own words, on paper did the best on both factual and conceptual level questions.

From the study: “The studies we report here show that laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even—or perhaps especially—when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking.”

But wait…the laptop students took more notes. So what if they had the chance to study?

The third phase of the study involved a several-day wait between the time when the students took notes and when they completed the assessment. The idea was that the students who took notes on the laptop had a more complete picture of the lecture to study from, so they might do better on the assessment if given the chance to study this larger amount of information.

The results:

  • Again, students who took notes by hand wrote less
  • Students who took notes by hand did less verbatim copying
  • Even though the students who wrote more generally scored better, the students who did less verbatim copying also did better
  • So, overall, the biggest effect on assessment performance was whether or not the students wrote on paper or laptops.

One study doesn’t make a law

We have to be careful about making our educational decisions based on research alone, because there is so much nuance and context involved in every one of our teaching decisions (and the same goes for every study we read).

There are students with special needs, students with certain preferences that have to be appeased or at least acknowledged, and the fact that we can’t possibly read every single study about every pedagogical decision we are making.

But this one just feels like it makes sense. I know that’s not the best reason for something, but the combination of gut instinct plus this convincing study begins to make me think that are a certain set of practices that can be deemed paper-appropriate or screen appropriate. Note taking might be the first of those processes that I strictly deem as a print only activity in my classroom.

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First, Do No Harm: Beware of Teacher-Centered Decisions

Sometimes, teachers get psyched about something because it makes our lives easier. Let’s ensure that our instructional decisions are in the best interest of students and sustainable for us.

A story of teacher-centered decision making

I can still feel the rush of warmth that began in my lower back, wrapped around my mid-section, and lingered up around my neck. The feeling was met with a scrambled dash to find that piece of paper with the certain student’s name on it. It must be somewhere in this mess.

It feels terrible to lose a student’s paper. But it has happened more than once.  That’s almost physically painful to type, but it’s true.

Any of my own high school teachers might have predicted as much.  That student with the bulging folder, the folder that’s for every subject? Yea, that was me.  

During my first few years of teaching, the articles, exit slips, drafts of writing, and vocabulary quizzes all left me overwhelmed and disorganized. The sheer amount of paper involved in teaching English seemed to eat up a large chunk of my colleagues’ time, too, even if they were the colleagues with organized hanging files.

I know what you might be thinking. This is about the life-saving help of technology for teachers. But it isn’t. It’s a warning for teachers enamored with things that make our lives easier.

Around my second year, I discovered Google Drive, and it immediately caught my attention: online folders, accessible from any computer, allowing students to submit their work digitally. And I can comment on their docs instead of writing in the margins? Had the moment been recorded on video, I’m sure that a golden light beamed from my monitor as a quartet of angels sung a perfect-pitch C chord.

The love affair grew deeper as I discovered Doctopus and Goobric, tools that acted like personal assistants to deliver student assignments, collect them, and help me grade them more efficiently. For a while, this was my educational obsession.

Without a doubt, using less paper improved my life as a teacher. I was better organized, less stressed, and physically lighter–my brief case was at least.

Last year, as our school moved to Google Classroom, I’d reached peak paperless.  There was nary a handout in my English class.  Simultaneously, my freshmen students were experiencing the “no grades classroom,” where we used digital portfolios in place of traditional grades, so the online system for organizing student reading and writing seemed superior.  This was a win all around, no?

A gap in thinking

If you’ve noticed, this reflection is about how I was stressed and disorganized, made a discovery, and then felt better. What I realize now is that my decision on moving towards a completely digital reading and writing classroom was a totally teacher-centered one. It was just more convenient for me.

Teacher convenience is not the best criterion for decision making in the classroom.  We need a balance of teacher sustainability, which is the more positive framing of convenience that I’ll use,  and student learning impact, which I think we all agree is why we’re here.

The chart below illustrates a potential teacher decision making matrix, providing examples of practices or activities that fall within one of four quadrants depending on whether they are sustainable or unsustainable & effective or ineffective. The practices or activities mentioned here are categorized strictly by my subjective judgement.  This is much more of a spectrum than the image below demonstrates. That said, I still think this might be a useful reflection tool for our pedagogical decisions.

This applies to how we use technology

It’s the teacher’s responsibility, as literacy educators in the digital age, to not only determine what the most important content and skills are for our students to learn, but also how the students should interact with the content or practice their skills.

This matrix is one way that I’ll make decisions on the type of reading and writing that my students do, and whether they do that reading and writing on paper, on devices, or some mixture of both.  Broadly, it’s important to stay aware of any decisions that we make as teachers that begin to run on default.  As my teacher and mentor Bill Sowder says, “When does a routine become a rut? When does a structure become a crutch?”  

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Research Sprints and the Double-Edged Sword of Digital Literacy

by Gerard Dawson

Teachers of my generation occupy a unique place in the historical context of our profession.  We may have been introduced to things like the card catalog at the library and the note card system for keeping track of research notes, yet online research quickly became a dominant force in our educations.  I’d like to say that I’m just old enough to realize that these glowing blue screens can save us some work if used properly.

Among the areas of literacy instruction where teachers and students are moving from paper to screens, research seems like one of the more logical choices.  However, it also appears that teaching students to inform themselves by researching online is one of the more complex parts of this profession, regardless of your content area.  Teachers want students to be better researchers, but there is just so much to teach.

Today I will offer reasons for why digital research is a double-edged sword of opportunity and challenge for our instruction. Then, I’ll describe one idea for how we might teach students to research in a way that takes advantage of the great opportunity while addressing the many challenges.

The opportunities of digital research

Consider some of the unique opportunities afforded by online research tasks (in no particular order):

  • Students have the opportunity to create what Jim Burke would call a Digital Essay, using links and media to emulate the texts that we encounter as online readers.
  • Students can present information to an audience in a variety of engaging ways. Rehearsing this in school is practical for future professions when students present information, train others, or design anything.
  • Teachers have the opportunity to introduce databases to students.
  • Teachers can show students about verifying the reliability and determining the bias of sources (H/T to Carrie Ross for sharing a lesson with me that specifically taught these skills)
  • Teachers can help students use digital tools that help them save time when finding and organizing their information.

The challenges of digital research

But, there are so many lessons that feel essential if we are going to have students engage in digital research, including…

  • When to use databases vs. when to use Google
  • How to properly give credit for text, images, and video (The memes were a poorly delivered, joke, it seems)
  • How to determine the most important information in a source and ignore the rest, especially when under time or space constraints.
  • How to avoid “death by PowerPoint” when presenting information to your audience
  • How to paraphrase vs. quote directly
  • How to draw meaningful conclusions from research and avoid logical fallacies
  • How to interact with and take information from digital texts with unique features

With all of this to consider, is there any foundational pedagogical knowledge that we can draw from when deciding what and how to teach this stuff?

Digital reading is better…er…slower…er…something!

A study from Kol & Schcolnik, titled, “Enhancing Screen Reading Strategies,” looked at the benefits of teaching students specifically to overcome the difficulties unique to reading on a screen. In the introduction to their study, they paint a complex picture for what it means to engage in literacy activities on a device as opposed to on paper:

“Most research comparing reading in the two media… has shown that subjects take longer reading a text from the screen than reading the same text from paper…Some studies have looked at reading comprehension as well as speed and found no significant differences between reading from the screen and reading from paper…On the other hand, O’Hara and Sellen (1997) compared reading and writing in both media and concluded that whereas writing on-line offered clear advantages, reading on paper was far easier.” [emphasis mine]

This one summary of existing research in the field suggests that we are still figuring this stuff out as we go.  We might serve ourselves and our students well, then, if we begin to make our own instructional bets as to what we believe works best, testing and learning from our ideas.

One idea: the research sprint

One answer is to do less of the massive, semester-long research papers that are expected in some classes, and more tiny research sprints that resemble the shorter formative reading and writing tasks that are part of many classes.  This term, “research sprint,” is one that I originally encountered when reading about Dave Stuart Jr’s efforts to do as much reading and writing about student motivation as he could in a short, fixed time frame. 

Here’s an example:

Before reading an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s haunting, transcendent novel Beloved, I wanted students to develop some prior knowledge about the author,the book, and its historical and cultural context. So, students worked in groups of four to research a narrowly defined topic, and present just two slides to the class in two minutes.

The skill of focus was determining the important information and presenting it concisely.  The students had a short time frame to do the research (one full class period) and one other class period to design the slides and practice the presentations. I showed students examples of well and poorly designed slides, then had the students design and present their own. I think these sort of “research sprints” are important for teaching literacy today for a few reasons:


This slide is easier on the eyes. (Pairing fonts is about as artistic as I get.)


If this makes you feel like you’re in a meeting, you’re not alone.


  1. Outside of class, our students are very likely to conduct tiny bursts of research on their phones. Think about how the nature of conversation has changed, where one person can immediately fact check another. 
  2. This is manageable for teachers with a densely packed curriculum. It took less than three class periods to teach the lessons, give students work time while I conferenced with them, and hear the presentations in the research sprint described above.
  3. It allows teachers to focus on several small research skills throughout the year and have students get multiple practice opportunities with them. This feels better than having students conduct one massive research task.

The research sprint described above was a short opportunity for students to practice searching for, making meaning of, and presenting information, all digitally.  In order to properly address all of the opportunities and challenges listed above, students would benefit from  regularly engage in those sorts lower-stakes, not-too-long types of research activities.

How do you have students engage in research in ways other than the massive research project?  Please reply with your lessons ideas.

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“How do you cite a meme?” and other questions for literacy teachers

No, a student hasn’t asked me that question. But I’m waiting for the day it comes. Scan any Facebook newsfeed, and you’ll find a low average quality of information shared. One of the 21st century skills that educators need to work on is obvious to see: source reliability verification.

This is apolitical. There are dubious memes and murky articles from the far left and far right with few to zero links to source material, cleverly hidden biases, and “remixed” images that demolish the original context of the content.  The ease with which we can create and share information has plummeted the average quality of the information that we see.  We have a new set of responsibility to ourselves and to our students if we want to maintain the quality of our democracy and society in general.

Consider how the process of gathering information has changed for us, without anyone undergoing much of a formal education on how to deal with this change:

Then: We read the newspaper or watchedTV and learned about current events happening locally and worldwide.

Now: We have a torrent of information propelled at us.  This requires us to have a specific plan for selecting the sources we consume, saying “no” to an infinite number of other sources, and constantly vetting the information presented to us for accuracy and objectivity. We don’t understand how Facebook tailors the information we see and we can easily become stuck in an intellectual echo-chamber if we don’t seek out perspectives that are different than our own.

Just as the modern physical education teacher must battle the pervasive Standard American Diet and sedentary lifestyle that is part of our culture, literacy teachers must face the Standard American Info-Diet and passive consumption of media that has seeped its way into our students’ lives.

This is a new frontier with many unknowns.  Here are a few questions that expose the realities of teaching literacy today:

  1. How do we manage to help students see that a plethora of misinformation exists online, so that they can learn to sort through it and become well-informed citizens?

    As the title of the post suggests, this is the one that is most pressing to me right now.  When students are completing a research task in class, it is relatively easy to give them parameters for their sources and ensure that they encounter reasonable information. But when they leave the classroom, both this year and after graduation, how do we reduce the likelihood of them blindly sharing memes that alter reality and present it as truth? Instead, we want students to get in the habit of doing the hard work of sifting through multiple perspectives and coming to their own conclusions.

  2. How do we help students to develop the self-control and self-awareness required to do the Deep Work required of meaningful literacy tasks?

    Most adults need to work on this as well, myself included.  Notice the boom in mindfulness, habits and productivity shared all over the Internet over the past few years. Our self control has never been more important.

    We give students deadlines, ask them to work together, and encourage proper behavior. We do this because our job responsibilities include helping students have the technical and soft skills they need to be successful in their next stage of life. Teachers must develop approaches for encouraging students to manage the barrage of distractions they face while trying to do their work.

    (A P.S. on this one: Do we realize that we have to model a new thing now? Just as we show our students what it means to be a well-informed, literate adult by doing the reading and writing, we’ll have to show students what it means to be a well-informed literate adult who can focus on one task for a sustained period of time. Time for me to close a few tabs and turn off my cell phone.)

  3. As I mentioned in my last post, what do we know about reading and writing on devices? 

    I know it matters, but I’m not yet completely sure about how and when we should use paper-based texts or digital texts. Sometimes, there’s a clear answer. But there’s a big gray area where we need more research in order to make a good decision.

  4. How do we get district and school leaders to see that introducing devices into a literacy classroom is a neutral act?

    Inherently, a wheely cart filled with 25 Chromebooks, 15 iPads or 3 MacBooks does not help or hinder instruction. Sure, with proper training, clear expectations set for students, and an adaptable curriculum, teachers can use devices in class to connect students with each other and the outside world like never before. However, if these new devices are simply inserted into an existing curriculum and pedagogy with no further considerations, it is more likely to hurt than help.

  5. Seriously, though, does MLA 8 include anything about citing memes? (Asking for a friend.)

As literacy educators, it’s more important that we teach students to be great readers, writers, speakers, listeners and thinkers than great technology users. I’m sure about that.

But as we speak, the amount of information and the number of distractions grows. These are what stand in the way of the meaningful reading and writing that we want students to do. So, considering that, we now have to become experts at navigating the intellectual spinach that our students need, and teaching them the self-control to stay away from the intellectual junk food.

How do we do that? I’d love to hear your thoughts here.

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Paper or screens: how can teachers choose?

This post is part of an ongoing series on what it means to teach literacy in the digital age. I’m exploring the ways that reading and writing are affected by 1:1 classrooms, paper vs. screens and the constant battle that we face against distraction. Several teachers have already shared their problems and solutions with me through conversation and a quick survey, which you can fill out here.  If you have a quick moment to contribute to the conversation, thank you.

One problem that I see in the current world of education technology is that there seem to be two firmly dug-in camps in regards to the utility of technology in the classroom.  Below, I’ve outlined two caricatures of teachers who fall onto opposite ends of the spectrum on this debate. Then, I offer a potentially more sensible middle ground. Lastly, I offer some examples of when we should likely not use technology in the classroom, when it’s a toss-up, and when we likely should use it.

Two Archetypal Teachers in the EdTech Debate

Image result for old school teacher

There’s a 90% chance that he refers to it strictly as “The Google.” (Wikimedia Commons)


The first type of teacher uses paperback novels, lined paper and a chalk board, if his school still let’s him keep the chalk. That’s it. Everything in his system of teaching students to read or write works already. So, there is little impetus for change.  His argument is that technology is often a hindrance and a distraction to the deep work required in an literacy classroom. Through high expectations and firm rules, students can learn the value of unplugging from their devices and having real face-to-face conversations with each other during class.

Pros of this teachers’s mindset: he has very clearly defined expectations for students, he has a clear lesson plan and students and parents understand the type of classroom that he runs. And his argument about student interaction is a strong one: our students certainly need practice interacting with each other without devices around.

Cons of this teacher’s mindset: he may limit himself to new opportunities (e.g. Internet research, formative assessment tools) because he feels it is a distraction from the paper-based reading and writing that has worked so well in the past.

Image result for teacher with cell phone

“Can you imagine the student engagement?” he says, eyes glazed over the massive screen. (Flickr)


The second type of teacher has experienced a revolution in his classroom, potentially after attending a professional development session, participating in an especially meaningful Twitter chat or reading a practice-changing professional book.  This teacher has set a specific goal of becoming a paperless classroom, and uses devices in nearly all reading and writing situations.  The teacher has a depth of knowledge about the latest edtech apps, and is constantly trying out new ones with his classes. Some of the students might get confused about which app is used when, or how they log-in to all of these websites. This teacher sees himself as preparing students for the modern world.

Pros of this teacher’s mindset: Students will need a foundation of technology skills to compete in the 21st century workforce, so this teacher is correct about that. Additionally,because he’s trying so much different stuff, the teacher has the possibility of hitting on a discovery about how certain intentional uses of technology might accelerate or facilitate learning.

Cons of this teacher’s mindset: This teacher is likely prone to putting the cart before the horse, and getting a little too focused on the technology itself instead of the content and skills being taught.

A Happy Medium: See Technology Like Construction Paper

In a recent conversation with Tracy Enos, she made an observation that has stuck with me and inspired this post. She explained that technology is “like construction paper.”  If we are asking students to display information in a large-print format so that other students can read it, we would provide them with chart paper instead of an index card. If we are asking student to respond to a whole-class novel, we would provide them with sticky notes as opposed to grid paper. Different types of paper serve different functions for student learning.

To view technology like construction paper means that we view it on the same spectrum of tools available as paper novels, whiteboards, notebooks and index cards.  Then, we don’t use technology just to try something out or because we received a district mandate, but we intentionally use to meet the learning goals we have for our students.

The three examples below are my attempt to provide evidence for this technology is like construction paper mindset, specifically for literacy teachers. Whether you are interested in learning how to navigate the complex digital transition we are teaching in or not, I hope at least one of the example activities will give you something to consider for your teaching tomorrow.

Definitely Paper: Use Printed Copies of Essays for Read Around Groups

Paper copies are great for peer response activities like Read Around Groups

Paper copies are great for peer response activities like Read Around Groups


When students are working in Read Around Groups to read and respond to each other’s work, printed copies of the writing is best.  Asking students to trade Chromebooks or move from screen to screen is inconvenient and maybe even dangerous depending on your classroom arrangement. When students are passing papers from seat to seat and eventually group to group, it is far easier to stack up a pile of essays than move bodies or computers.

Additionally, in many cases it can be easier for students to make simple annotations or comments on each others’ papers if they are using a printed copy and pen/pencil. This differs from my philosophy on responding to student essays using Google Docs.

Both the intellectual task and the physical task of this type of peer response to writing make paper the better choice.

A Toss-up: Use Google Drawings to Teach Writing Structure?


You can use Google Drawings to move around the pieces of text and change the structure.


Here is an example where the “tactile” experience might be better on a device than on paper. Yes, I recognize the irony (or absurdity) in that statement.

Google Drawings can help students to easily manipulate a piece of writing in order to allow the students to visualize and revise the structure of their writing.

The example above is an instance where I wrote a sample introduction for comparison essay that my English 10 Honors students are working on.  I broke the introduction into pieces and copied them onto a Google Drawing. Then, I mixed up the pieces and posted it to Google Classroom with a “Make each student a copy” setting. This let each student determine what they saw as the best order for the ideas. Additionally, students used the comments feature to label the purpose or function of each piece.

Can all this be done on paper? Yes.  Many times, I’ve written a sample piece of writing, printed out copies for individuals or groups, and had the students arrange the pieces of writing on their desk. That worked, too. But it was a lot more convenient to do digitally. Plus the commenting feature allows me instantly see students thinking by pulling up one Drawing from each table of students while I stand by my computer. This is a nice time saver for formative assessment.

Here’s a situation where it is unclear to me as to whether digital or print reading would be better. It’s a matter of preference and circumstance.

Definitely Digital: Use a Whole Class “Can Edit” Doc to Lead a Literature Discussion


The "can edit" setting on a Google Docs can facilitate whole class discussion of a text.

The “can edit” setting on a Google Docs can facilitate whole class discussion of a text.


One of the challenges of facilitating any discussion around a text is having students cite text evidence.  This presents at least two problems I can see:

  1. It’s difficult for students to find text evidence “on the fly” during a discussion
  2. Other students can’t or won’t easily find the section of a text that their classmates are discussing

This example offers a potential solution to both of those problems. If you are asking your students to read an article or short story in a Google Doc,  make one copy of the doc to share with every student in the class.  Set the permissions to “Anyone with the link ‘can edit.'”  This will allow all of the students in the class to make changes (add stuff and delete stuff) to the same document. Yes, this can be scary. And, yes, there is always one student who writes “Hi,” “Sup,” or “Yo Mr. D.”  The class laughs, I laugh. I say that “someone is always that guy when we do this activity, but now let’s get to work.”

So, when reading the whole class text, you can pose a question to the class, then ask students to work independently or in pairs to answer the question and find a piece of evidence that best supports their answer. Then, the students highlight the evidence. As the document owner, you can see the name of any student who makes a highlight. This makes facilitating the conversation easy, as you already know that students who’ve made a highlight have a thought about the text and have evidence to support it.  As students share their answers, the whole class can see the relevant place in the text on the interactive white board or on their device. The class can move through the pieces of evidence, as they are all displayed on the board. The class can also see when multiple students highlight the same piece of evidence.

This activity is valuable in a digital setting because it helps student share their thinking with the whole class in a way that might be difficult with each student having their own paper copy of the story.

Take it Back to the Learning Goal

At this point, you might be wondering how you can manage to make another set of decisions in your daily teaching. You are already differentiating instruction, integrating literacy skills into your non-ELA classroom, ensuring you prepare students for common assessments.

“Now, this blog post is suggesting that I evaluate each activity for whether it would be better in print or in paper?”

Well, yes.

Ultimately, that’s just now part of best practice as a teacher. At times, we all have to make decisions strictly out of convenience or time-saving, but the more we make decisions that align with supporting our learning goals, the more students will get the skills and content we are trying to have them get out of our lessons. And that sounds like it’s making things not harder…but better.


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Close Your Tabs: Ideas for Better Digital Fitness

As we adapt to our digital world, skills of mindfulness and focus become increasingly important. Many, as I argued last week, seem to believe that multitasking is a prized skill. We rarely stop to consider the effect that our perpetually connected life is having on our physical and social health.

But, I’d like to suggest that a new responsibility for educators, and certainly parents, is to teach habits of digital health. These will be the physical and mental habits that allow us to interact with our digital world, without having our physical selves and our social lives suffer.

Just as an abundance of calories in the Western world has led to obesity and a subsequent explosion in the nutrition and exercise industry, an abundance of information now requires a set of skills that allow us to manage the quality and quantity of the information we consume. This is our digital fitness.

The word fitness seems more appropriate than, for example, nutrition, because it involves a lot of doing, similar to how are physical fitness relies not just on diet, but on the doing of physical exercise.

Here are a few ways that educators can maintain their digital fitness, and maybe, while we are working on these habits, we can begin to introduce and teach our students about these same ideas.

Tab Overload

Be mindful of how many tabs you have open. If you can’t count them quickly, there are probably too many open. This sounds trivial, but it is a way of maintaining mindfulness about your use of technology and staying away from those black holes of Googling/YouTubing/Facebooking that we are inclined to do.

Cut off the source

Try removing one social media app from  your phone. If that works out well, try removing all of them. I’ve found that every time I do this, it works well for a few weeks, and then I make an excuse to gradually let one back in.

Revert to “dumb phone” days

If you want to go big, turn off the ability to search the Internet on your smart phone. On the iPhone, for example, you can do this by going to Setting>General>Restrictions, then checking “Safari.” Just like that, your phone is back to being, well, a phone again.

Save your conversations

Put your phone completely out of sight while having important conversations. Sure, putting it on silent is polite, and turning it off is a great next step. This study shows that just the SIGHT of a cell phone in a room ruins the quality of our face-to-face conversations. And you thought you were able to listen just as well to someone (“yea, uh huh, uh huh”), while scrolling on your device.

Conference through the chatter

Practice holding a conversation with a student, and not allowing other students to interrupt you. This is one that is so hard for me. While conducting a reading/writing conference, or having an after-class conversation, students are always interrupting or saying “Mr. Dawson” as another student and I talk. A great practice of focus, in general, is to maintain focus on the student with whom your currently talking, showing both the students you’re in conversation with and the interrupting student that you are devoting your attention one one thing at a time.

It’s important to remember how much of a frontier we’re on, how much of a revolutionary time we are existing in. It’s ignorant to believe that the role of educators and education won’t have to adapt along with it.

You can’t improve a whole system without beginning with its parts. We, as educators with our own digital fitness regimens, are the parts.


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Attention Residue and Our Digital Health

Last year, I was lax with my cell phone policy with students in class.

So by the end of the year, it wasn’t much of a policy at all. It was yours truly, nagging at students to put their phones away and focus on their reading or writing, without a clear set of rules or consequences. And even though it’s important to have clear expectations for behavior in class, rules and consequences aren’t the foundation of motivating students or classroom management.

A reason behind our actions, a “why” as Simon Sinek would say, is a more powerful motivating force. The why behind my words of “put your phone away,” was an implied…because I said so.

After discovering Cal Newport and his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a much more clear reason emerges for things like a strict cell phone policy. And it applies to the lives of teachers as well as students.

Teachers are distracted, too

Have you ever done these things?

  • Quickly, or not so quickly, check email while students work independently on a task
  • Jump back and forth between social media, work email or personal email while reading student work
  • Sit down during your prep period and flounder between a few meaningless tasks, eating away most of your time
  • Lift your head in a meeting, feeling a digital haze, after staring at your phone for 10+ minutes

Newport acknowledges that these behaviors are symptoms of living in our distracted world. And, he says, there’s only one way to combat this distraction and success. The answer is “deep work,” or sustained, focused effort on a single task. As we try to achieve deep work, there is something called attention residue that eats away at our ability to focus on a single task at a time and succeed at working on that task productively.

Newport says, “When you turn your attention from one target to another, the original target leaves a “residue” that reduces cognitive performance for a non-trivial amount of time to follow.”

Newport cites research on attention residue but also points to a reader example. One of his readers noticed that whenever he paused his video game for a quick interruption like checking his phone, he was much more likely to fail in the game shortly after returning to the game after the interruption.

Doesn’t that sound like the few minutes it takes to get the mental motor running when you stop reading papers to check your phone?

The Insidious Danger of Task Switching

There’s almost a high that comes from multitasking in the digital age. We fly around the computer, with seven tabs open: articles, grade book, several Google Docs, email. We zip from one task to the other, quickly editing this doc, replying to that message, skimming this text. The end result is the quick passing of time, and a sense of full engagement. After all, technology is meant to be engaging, and the constant dopamine hits that come up with task switching mean that we never have to be bored. The other end results, though? We do less meaningful work.

I’ve started the education process by simply sharing the definition of attention residue with students, reminding them that I will be vigilant about ensuring that they are focusing on the task at hand, and asking them to be mindful of their impulses to check their phones or open a new tab.

All of this might sound a little trivial to some. You might argue that this is simply the world we live in, and there is no going back. And that is correct. There is no going back to the pre-digital age, but there is certainly a going forward, as we develop new tools to help students adapt to the world they live in.

Next week, I’ll talk about strategies to manage digital distractions for personal lives and the classroom.

Do you notice attention residue in your students’ or your own life? How have you tried to “clean up” the mind from digital distractions?