Sunday, November 1, 2015


Dear Teachers,

Those of you who know me, know that I am passionate about books and libraries. I think good books are the antidote to a number of society's ills, notably the perceived decline in reading and as a means of developing empathy, a trait that would serve just about everyone well. But maybe I'll write more about the books-and-libraries thing another time. This post is about literacies other than just the reading comprehension variety.

We are all literate in a number of ways, and we probably don't even take much note of certain literacies. One example I might call "automobile literacy." Even though most of us do not know exactly how a car works, we know what to do once we turn on the ignition. We know where we have to look, how to behave when roads are less than ideal, how to yield the right-of-way, and the meaning of a wide variety of signs and signals on the road. We learned those things as we were driving and as an incentive to keep our license. Practiced over time, all of these elements lead us to be better drivers.

We probably also possess "shopping literacy." We have a basic understanding of how, say, a grocery store is laid out; even if we walk into a new grocery store for the first time, we know how to scan the signs for cereal or household cleaners and can make our way around. We likely don't go to a grocery store if we're looking for sporting goods, and likewise we don't ask where the fruits and vegetables are when we go to an outdoors store. We understand that each type of store has a purpose, and we adapt to the type of store that we happen to be in at the time. We also know how to find someone who could help us if we should need assistance in locating something, and we know we're going to pay less for items that are on sale.

Most of us also possess at least some degree of "sports literacy." Even those of us who don't follow sports closely have a vague understanding that certain sports are played at certain times of the year, and that some sports require types of equipment that other sports do not. We are all likely aware that practice is involved in becoming more proficient at any sport.

We may have an idea of "arts literacy," even if we don't consider ourselves artistic. Most of us know that a marching band will almost always have a trumpet section and the presence of a cello there would be ridiculous. We know the basic rules of behavior when we attend a play or movie that we and others have paid to see. We expect one type of music if someone gives us tickets to an opera and another type of music if we are out salsa dancing.

Some of us have "travel literacy." We understand that vacations in other countries will require a passport, airline tickets, and some kind of accommodations once we get to our destination. A knowledge of customs and a few phrases in the country's language, as well as some awareness of the monetary exchange rate, is also helpful. Even if we stay within our country, we know that there are dialects and customs unique to different regions, and that finding good Tex-Mex in Wisconsin is probably somewhat unlikely.

Let's stipulate that certain types of literacy are just sort of givens in our society. Some, like driving maybe, we learned because we took lessons when we were a certain age. Maybe we got a little sampling of art or music or sports in classes at school. But some things, like shopping or traveling, we kind of got through osmosis, by going to stores or on vacations with our families or with other people.  We developed the necessary "shopping skills" over time because we needed them to survive in the world. It would not occur to any of us to simply opt out of shopping or driving or enjoying sports or musical events because "it's too complicated."

As teachers, we expect our students to learn every day, and if something is difficult, to try all the harder to master it. How much more then should we as teachers model that very type of learning when it comes to digital literacy? Many of us have learned over time to be very competent computer users, even though for some (like me) those skills did not come without a lot of trial and error. However, I am dismayed at the number of teachers I've met who not only don't know their way around a computer very well, but are also just flat unwilling to try to learn. I don't understand this mentality at all. I get that not everyone has a natural inclination to learning technology, but we would never let our students justify their not learning something by saying, "I'm just not very good at math" or "Books and I don't get along." Yet I still hear very similar comments from teachers: "Computers don't like me" or "I'm always the one with the technology problems."

We just can't keep saying those kinds of things any more. Computers and the Internet are here to stay, and things are only going to get MORE technology-driven in the future. It is no more acceptable to say "I don't like/understand social media, so I'm not going to participate in it" than it is to say, "I don't like/understand traffic, so I'm not going to drive."

Education is the very last profession that should tolerate willful ignorance, on ANY topic. There is truly no excuse for being functionally digitally illiterate. If your digital skills are not what you think they should be, I encourage you to try to learn something new about the digital world this week, whether it's how to use shortcut keys or how to participate in a Twitter chat. Ask someone for help (our department LOVES questions, and if you're not in my district, I'm willing to bet that the Instructional Technology people for your school would be equally happy to hear from you.) Conduct Google searches or watch YouTube videos to help you learn what you don't yet know. Sign up for classes in your school district or at your local library. And after the classes, PRACTICE. You wouldn't expect a person to be an accomplished musician or athlete after just one or two lessons or drills; getting better at something requires some effort and discipline, especially if the task doesn't come easily to you. But just like with any other endeavor, the more you do it, the better you'll become.

Just as citizenship encompasses "digital citizenship," "digital literacy" is an essential and now indelible component of one's overall literacy. I'd love to hear in the comments what your goals are for you own improved literacy - digital or otherwise. Let's all learn something new this week!