How & Not What

Part 1: The Request:

The following hit my Outlook in-box yesterday morning from our district Public Relation specialist:


I have a tough ask, but I hope that you can help.

Due to the concerns of our students, staff and community around school safety and security, Jamie [Canandaigua District Superintendent] has authorized me to draft a Digest [Our District Community Newsletter] publication that will focus on the District’s response to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida and the difficult issues brought to the public debate in the wake of that crime. We know this is a very sensitive issue that requires real care from us.

Thus, the theme of the publication is that the Canandaigua City School District’s mission is to “teach kids how to think, not what to think”.

I want to develop a central article entitled “How, not What”, so I’d like to gather your perspectives on what “How, not What” looks like in the classroom. What are your thoughts on how skills such as research, inquiry, argumentation supported by evidence, etc. are taught as they relate to how to think, not what to think?

To help you, maybe you could include some concrete examples around such items as [And you’ll see these in the questions below]:

Part 2: The Q& A:

Andy’s questions gave me a lot to think about, and helped me to reflect on my practice. I’ve put his questions below and my responses to his request in red.

How appropriate research technique is actually taught?

If we are really going to emphasize “How, not What” then classroom spaces need to start with questions. Questions that come from teachers to model what good questions look like and then working with student’s to foster curiosity around topics, and develop questions that they want to seek answers to. This is the foundation of the curriculum in the IB, where all courses are driven by inquiry approaches where students are expected to ask questions, and work together to find answers. It culminates in the capstone project, the Extended Essay, which is supposed to expose the student’s ability to engage in sustained, independent research, and reflect what the student has learned about asking important questions and finding answers.

In English 103, students engage in semester long research projects developed around topics they are passionate about, and perhaps more importantly, we ask that these students take their research and work to make it authentic by sharing through creating informative websites, and then ultimately developing arguments written as, again, authentic texts: blogs, wikis, editorials, op-eds, speeches, problem-solving proposals. In this course, students are guided through research—preliminary phases, information collection, evaluation (more below), synthesis, creation. These students get something very similar in approach to what the IB students get. A course in how to conduct college-level research.

In “Media Maker,” student generation of topics and writing is at the center. There is no “content” in the course other than what the students bring. They are asked to ask questions, and then answer them in their blogs and 20-time projects. All of what students create in the course is driven by their own interests. Thus, they are “researching” all the time—through listening to podcasts, reading others blogs, newspapers, articles, following You-tubers.

Another important part of this, and one that I don’t think we do a good job at, is modeling our own curiosity, learning and research. Teachers need to show their students how they authentically learn.

  • how we have students learn about and develop primary and secondary sources?

I think we do a lot of damage with students when all we focus on is primary and secondary and tertiary.  These distinctions are only somewhat helpful to students when we are trying to get them to think about collecting information. Another damage we do is when we get students to think about sources as objects—when a teacher says I want you to collect 5 sources—an article, a website, a newspaper source—we’re having students think about information only in terms of where the information resides.

We need to get kids to think about sources as PEOPLE. Who is giving us this information? What is the person’s bias or perspective? Who does this person work for? What platform is this person publishing on? Who asked this person to create?

Additionally, we need to get students to think about sources not as primary or secondary or article or database, but in terms of their functionality. How is this source being used? How can I or how should I use this source? What about this source must be included or discarded from my work?

Tomorrow Jamie will be talking to all English 103 classes about his recent encounter with Channel 13. We want our students, who are currently working with evaluation of sources and thinking about fake news, to see what happened between what information he had and how it was portrayed. Their story changed the reality of the situation—they created something that is different from what is actually.

  • what we require in the way of “papers” and where those fall on the developmental scale?

Certainly, for many of our students, the academic essay is an important document to learn how to produce. However, we do a disservice to students when all we ask them to produce is a “paper.” When was the last time you wrote an “academic essay” or a paper. Your writing for Gradudates of Distinction, the article you are producing for the digest move outside of the boundaries of this genre. The pieces that Jeanie writes for the first day of school, the BOE presentations that Matt or Jamie create, the emails that come from Jamie—none of these are academic essays or papers. Many of our students are going to need to write leaving CA, and they’ll make arguments—in editorials, presentations, cover letters, blogs…when we think about the product of research only as a “paper” we’re doing damage.

  • how assignments/projects build to mastery and how that skill is reflected/assessed in subject examinations and short answer essays?
  • How we handle the specifics of the Bill of Rights?
  • How we handle discussion of current events in class?

I didn’t answer these questions. I won’t go into that here, but perhaps there’s another blog post in thinking about making some responses as these questions apply to the English classroom. 

Reflection & Resources

With less than two weeks to go until my presentation on “Media Maker” at the New York State Second English Council conference (@nysec_tweets; #nysec), I’m in full revision and presentation making mode. This work has forced me back into the reading, research and inspiration that I drew on when first making the course two years ago.

This reflection and walking back through the history of my own thinking has been really powerful in reconnecting me to the core of what I hoped, and still hope, to accomplish. Mainly, student blogging provides a powerful tool for students to write to real-world audiences, and a student blog is a powerful tool for showcasing student-centered learning.

Since that time, Jennifer Casa-Todd’s (@JCasaToddSociaLeadia has made concrete for me the need to have students create positive digital identities.

As I’m rereading and surfing my digital, cyber ripcurl, several great resources have emerged:

The good folks at Edublogs, namely Ronnie Burt, Sue Waters and Kathleen Morris, put together a great post “100+ Ideas and Prompts for Student Blogging”. I’ve now got this bookmarked and will use it as a reference for when I’m looking for something fresh to throw to my students. It’s also got great tips for educators who are considering starting blogging in the classroom or creating their own blogs.

Another Edublog’s resource comes from Sue Waters, and it’s part of this year’s Student Blogging Challenge. Her post, “Let’s Learn to Comment,” helps students to have the knowledge of the form and the tools to make substantive comments on other’s writing. It got me thinking about the value in blogging for students as a means to teach how to participate in conversations, both on and off-line.

Through reexamining Troy Hick’s wikispace, I came across Bud Hunt’s “Teaching Blogging Not Blogs,” published on October 19, 2010 and found here. Go deep into his article and read the original post from 2005. Doing so will connect you with Will Richard’s comments on the value of blogs for both student and teacher.

Looking forward to sharing this thinking, and discussing these resources further at NYSEC.

(Re-)Thinking about Digital Literacy

As part of the 2017 Summer Learning Challenge as well as my own efforts to become a better digital leader, and prepare for helping my students next school year become better digital leaders, I’m spending time reading about digital literacies, citizenship and leadership. Jennifer Casa-Todd’s book SocialLeadia references, at several points, Doug Belshaw. I’m working on reading through his white paper on digital literacies, but I found his Tedx Talk.

Doug Belshaw’s Tedx talk on digital literacy. 

Here are my take-aways from this Ted Talk in both a Sketchnote and in list format:

File_000 (8)

  1. Digital Literacy (DL) is contextually dependent.
  2. We need to think about digital literacy as progressive rather than linear and sequential.
  3. Digital Literacies are complex and multifaceted rather than singular (Digital Literacy)
  4. DLs are social in nature.
  5. Teach DLs through tapping into student passion and interest.
  6. DLs are best taught through remixing of media.

Students, the Twitter-verse and Me

Here was my vision.

Students would create an informational website with a white paper on their issue. They’d create a series of ads and flyers (using Canva) for both on-line and off-line ads to be distributed via a Twitter feed. They’d use Twitter and the ads to draw audiences to their websites, seek feed back on the concerns of the community, and then ultimately write a problem-solving proposal shaped on the feedback from the community. I’ll be posting later about how I rolled all of this out to students along with the resources I used. I was inspired to this vision after reading about such a sequence in Understanding and Creating Digital Texts: An Activity-Based Approach (Beach, Anson, Breuch & Reynolds 2014) and a parallel sequence of activities from the Michigan State University FYC. [If you would like to see my launch event for the project, you can see it here.] Although this is not the only reading I did. Both Troy Hicks (@hickstro), posts at Movingwriters , and the good folks at KQED Mindshift have pushed my thinking about writing, social media, audience and the use of Twitter. 

Laying the Foundation for Twitter.

So, really, this is the first in a series of posts about using social media, particularly Twitter, as a way to help students think about digital citizenship, to create academic and professional profiles using social media, as a tool for research, connection, and a new resource to bring us to texts to use as mentor texts, analysis and evaluation.

One step I took before building any materials, was to check in with my principal, who also actively tweets (@vtenney3) to make sure I had his support in this endeavor, and in my weekly email blast to parents, I let them know that we were going to use Twitter as part of the course.

Unfortunately, one thing I didn’t do, and I don’t know if it would have made a difference, was to check in the the IT department to make sure that Twitter was unlocked (as it should have been). On the planned roll-out day, my first period students couldn’t access Twitter through their network accounts. I pushed things off for a week to make sure after the filters had been changed, students could access.

Roll-out and Procedure

On the day I rolled out to students, I started with them reading an article, “Why Every Personal Brand Deserves and Early Start,” which had come to my attention through reading George Couros’ (@gcouros) newsletter. Students got links to the articles in a Schoology update and then had to comment on the articles. Here is a snapshot to give you a sense of the tenor of the overall response from students: 


Several student responses to the launch article. 

So, I created a Schoology page with ISTE standards and my own learning objectives for why would be using this social media tool. The page provided students with the details I wanted them to use.


My Schoology resource page for my students. I wanted the use of social media to capture and focus their attention, and I also wanted to make sure I had formal purpose to our work as justification to administration and community.


For the first Tweets, I used the weekly KQED Mindshift “Do Now” questions. To help us all connect, I used a hashtag (#kpedz103). Using the hashtag allowed me to discuss the formal purpose of using hashtags as a way of search for conversations appropriate to research, as well as to help them aggregate their own research. 

As you can see, I most of what I did here was synthesized from a number of different sources and resources. Like what I was asking my students to do, I was using Twitter, links to followed Tweeters to aggregate information and put it together. I also had to employ a number of tools and resources to get this all to work.

At this point, students knew how to write a tweet, follow, re-tweet, search hashtags, and use a hashtag to help link tweets around a central idea.

We went on to start to use Twitter as a research tool. Students would need to find organizations that created content, research, writing, blogging about an issue that they were studying. We used a Gale publication and database on their issue, which provided a list of organizations to contact. I instructed them to see if these organizations maintained Twitter feeds and to follow them.

Where I’m headed…

Working from there, we will return to the Twitter feeds in the next day to evaluate the sources and the kinds of information these sources were providing to us through the Twitter links.

The next part of this, about source evaluation and teaching students to think about how Tweets are making arguments will be coming soon.

I started this post describing a vision I was working towards in my English 103 class that would bring in real-world writing, distribution of this writing, and working with audiences to shape writing products. Teaching Twitter as a tool became the first step in making this vision reality for my students.