Category Archives: literacy

Why teach primary sources?

I am debating in my mind an assumption of social studies teachers everywhere and I know it’s in the Common Core: having students interpret primary source documents. Just to be clear this is one of those rough drafts of my thoughts kind of posts. What that means is critique my ideas like crazy but don’t hold me to any position I might take here because I am not taking a stance that primary sources shouldn’t be taught. I am asking why we do and if we have good reasons.

I probably need to differentiate between types of primary source materials. Photos, art, movies, images of time period objects, seem like great primary sources to use to help students comprehend a time period. I am really thinking about text-based primary sources that are often written at a very high vocabulary level and use obscure words.

Analyzing primary sources of many types is the primary job of historians. Most of our students will not grow up to be historians. I am thinking about primary sources in much the same way that I think about the quadratic formula in algebra: important to mathematicians but not very practical to the rest of us. So future historians need to know how to read and interpret primary sources documents but do all students?

 Is it our job to teach the skills one needs to be a professional historian or is it our job to expose students to the patterns of history and to teach them to think critically?

This week we spent a day exploring the Triangle Waistshirt Factory Fire. We watched this short clip from the history channel:

This is a historical re-enactment of the tragic fire that includes many important details to the context of the situation and why it is important historically. Afterward students gave correct and thoughtful answers in a discussion about what happened, the results, and why it still matters today. We could have read historical accounts from journals of survivors, looked at newspaper articles the next day, etc. Some of my students would have really engaged with that. The truth is though that I have many reluctant readers who would probably just stare at the documents, bored and never engage because of difficult vocabulary, complex, sentence structures, and old English words. If a video gives the same content that a primary source does, but in a more interesting format, and leads to a deep level of understanding and solid discussion, what is the advantage of using the primary source?

Is it being a “literacy snob” to value primary sources over other forms of literacy?

Some teachers will argue that the critical thinking skills and interpretation skills learned through analyzing primary source documents are important for all students.  Again I think that we can teach those skills without using primary source materials necessarily. My goal in my classes is to challenge students to become thoughtful citizens.

Are we forcing a “skill” on students that is not relevant to them and actually makes the subject boring to students?

Getting "Meta" with Video Games

by Libraryman

I have started reading What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee. I am only twenty pages in but I highly recommend this book. I am interested in using gaming ideas in my classroom coupled with PBL. Not the gamification kind of stuff, but the idea that video games are self-motivating activities just like authentic learning is. This book is not anything about gamification (at least not so far and I do not think that it will be) but is really a work on literacy and learning.

Gee argues that “literacy and thinking–two things that, at first site, seem to be ‘mental’ achievements–are in reality also and primarily social and cultural achievements.” (p.5) He explains that it is impossible to learn or think in a vacuum because every individual constantly interprets according to her own culture, history, and perspective. Each “genre” of literature has its own literacy in order to understand it. Gee is using literacy very broadly here to include lots of experiences including music, art, and yes video games.

I have been thinking about getting students to think about their learning processes after a great session about teaching students to analyze by Kevin Gant at the New Tech Annual Conference. I really think we need to create experiences to intentionally get students to think about their own thinking. They need to be taught how to reflect and ask questions such as “what is learning?” and “when am I analyzing and what does it mean?”

In PBL we encourage students to “present” their learning in multiple methods to demonstrate their learning. We also talk about things such as digital or visual literacy. My students appreciate the choices in their learning but I am not sure they really understand the why of it. Gee does a great job at the beginning of this book explaining a broad definition of literacy. I decided that I want my students to understand the reasoning and importance of why they are given different ways to demonstrate their learning. So I created this presentation that I plan to show the class and have them write down their “answers” individually and then discuss in small groups.

Then I will share this presentation with them to discuss in their small groups.

I hope to start a conversation and to get students to see the importance of being literate in multiple modes. What do you guys think? How do you get “meta” with your students?