2012 Academic Literacy Summit in Review

What a day! I attended the fifth annual Academic Literacy Summit, an all-day event for regional K-12 educators. This year’s theme was, “What’s at the core of academic literacy?”, and discussions revolved around the Common Core Standards. There were far too many interesting moments for me to describe, so if you’d like to hear more, check out my classmates’ blogs: Jenae, Hogan, and Aaron.

The day began with a keynote by Carlston Family Foundation outstanding teacher award winner, Jose Rivas, who essentially taught us a high school physics lesson, but also narrated the process so we understood the reasoning behind his techniques. I was blown away by his use of technology and his emphasis on learning via exploration. In one hour, Rivas showed six video clips (including Action Figure Slow Motion Punches and F = MA music video, which are well worth checking out), assigned two interactive activities (we built a catapult for a marble and tested whether a marble or our neighbor was harder to move), and suggested multiple reflective activities (via journal and mind map).

Our marble catapult
The other team’s catapult

That afternoon, I found myself in a similar situation, only this time it was English class. Breakout session leader Nicole Kukrai led us in an analysis of Anna Quindlen’s “A Quilt of a Country,” simultaneously explaining her classroom “routines.” Because the Common Core standards emphasize collaboration and independence, Kukrai purposefully creates an environment in which students are expected to model “real-world” behaviors and productive adult conversations. There is no hand-raising, she frequently asks students to elaborate on their peers’ ideas, and she requires multiple readings of a text.

UNR writing center director Bill Macauley’s breakout session was more like a graduate seminar, invoking a focused discussion of writing instruction and thus claiming first place in my book. Our group included middle school, high school, and college instructors, as well as librarians, which made for a fantastic conversation about lower- and higher-order writing concerns.

Macauley’s Breakout Session: “Audience Analysis: What Should We Be Asking of Student Writers?”

One woman compared writing to mathematics instruction – if you teach the short-cut for long division before you teach the concept, students struggle to conceptualize division; they just want to do the procedure. The same is true for writing – if you only teach the lower-order concepts (i.e., grammar), students will find it difficult to master the higher-order concepts (i.e., analysis). Several other secondary teachers agreed and cited instances of students focusing on the mechanical aspects of writing even when instructed to consider higher-order elements.

On the other hand, Macauley noted that university writing centers often only focus on higher-order concepts and advertise that they are not “clean up services.” However, since editing is an important part of the writing process, this approach isn’t ideal, either.

Some participants felt technology may be a solution to this issue. One woman explained that her school has an English teacher to teach the higher-order concepts, a teacher/librarian to teach citation and documentation, and a computer program to check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation. While I appreciate the idea behind this approach, I hesitate to condone using technology in this way. The way we structure our sentences, our vocabulary selections, and our punctuation choices are an important part of communication, and I do not believe a computer can check for the nuanced way the mechanical aspects of writing convey meaning.

How do we appropriately balance higher- and lower-order writing concerns when we teach? Where do notions of audience fit in? How are these ideas impacted by digital communication?

Clearly, the summit gave me lots to mull over. It was a great day!

When you go to a conference with a bunch of teachers, there’s a lot of hand-raising.

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