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    Digital Introductions for Building Classroom Communities

    By Kristin Webber
     | Jun 28, 2019

    As the school year wraps up in the United States, many teachers are already thinking about their fall classes. For most educators, the planning will begin with how to get to know their students and introduce them to each other. Digital introductions are an excellent way to begin building a classroom community.

    I teach several online graduate courses where my students meet virtually from across the United States. Since these are early courses in their programs it is very important that they get to know each other as they will be studying together for the remainder of their coursework. To begin building these relationships, my very first assignment is a collaborative slideshow using Google Slides. Students are asked to introduce themselves by posting their name, current position, something they love, something they do not like, one fun fact, and a “selfie.”

    I ensure the settings are set to edit and link it in the learning management system. Below is an example of my slide that I share to begin the presentation. The full class slide show introduction can be viewed here.  


    The slides take as little as five minutes to create and provide useful information about the student while a us to learn names and faces, which can be difficult in online learning environments. Of course, the questions and information can be changed as needed so it does not become redundant. In reviewing the amount of interaction between the slideshow and a regular discussion post-introduction, I have found my students to be more engaged with the slideshow. It does not take much time to read through them and they can “meet” their entire class rather than just reading a few discussion posts.

    Another way to introduce students and build class communities is through digital autobiographies. VoiceThread is an excellent tool for this project as it allows students to easily upload pictures and add narration. Even the youngest of learners can use it with ease. When I assign this project to my undergraduate students, I limit them to 12 slides with no more than 30 seconds of narrative per slide. These parameters help them focus on determining importance and summarizing when they are telling their stories—direct practice with the skills they will be teaching their future students. Throughout the start of the semester, we share one or two VoiceThread autobiographies each class session.

    One of the best features of these tools is their ability to have students collaborate and comment on each other’s work. Once the introductions and autobiographies are complete, opening them up to comments from peers takes the community building to the next level. I often see my students connecting with each other when they learn they are teaching the same grade level or they both share a passion for their pets!

    The beginning of the year is the time for creating a sense of community. From the youngest learners to graduate students, it is crucial that students feel supported from their classroom environment, their teacher, and each other. Using digital technology to create introductions connects to important literacy content as well as integrating 21st-century skills such as creativity, collaboration, and communication.

    Kristin Webber is an associate professor in the Early Childhood Education and Reading Department at Edinboro University where she teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in literacy and technology.

    This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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    Using Webjets to Elevate Students’ Technology Use in Literature Circles

    By Kimberly Kimbell-Lopez, Carrice Cummins, and Elizabeth Manning
     | Jun 21, 2019

    Webjets is a visual collaboration tool that allows users to capture, record, organize, and connect information from the web. Users can gather items (such as documents, links, text, videos, and images) on cards and add them to the platform, creating a virtual bulletin board.

    Webjets has a huge potential for teaching and learning across all content areas. Drawing on its collaborative features, students can capture and record information about any topic being read and discussed. Once the information is captured in Webjets, students can log into the cloud-based app using cell phones or iPads. Recorded notes can then be used during group or class discussions and new notes can be added during or after the discussion, if needed. 

    Literature Circles is a strategy used to engage students in a shared reading experience with a small group of their peers who are reading the same material. Students independently read designated pages/chapters of the text while keeping a written record of their responses. Students then meet face-to-face with other group members once or twice a week to discuss the reading. This process of independent reading, response, and discussion continues until the entire text is covered.

    Traditionally, students capture their written responses to text using a paper/pencil literature response journal. The journal may be open-ended, allowing students to respond in any way they wish, but most often it is used via assignment of specific roles. This format assigns (or students self-select) different roles to each member of the group so that the responses are specific to a task or way of thinking about the material. Common roles include the discussion director, literary luminary, connector, artistic adventurer, vocabulary enricher, and character captain, but book/material specific roles can be used as needed. Students who take on these roles are responsible for the following tasks:

    • Connector: Connect what was read to their own lives, their feelings, and their experiences
    • Illustrator: Draw a picture, sketch, cartoon, diagram, or flowchart that relates to the reading.
    • Literary luminary/passage master: Select quotations or special sections of the book for the group to discuss.
    • Questioner: Write down questions about what they were wondering about as they read the story, questions they had about what was happening, or questions about the meaning of words.
    • Summarizer: Prepare a summary that includes key points about the reading.
    • Vocabulary enricher/word wizard: Identify puzzling or unfamiliar words, mark them in the book, then later look up the definition.
    • Travel tracer/scene setter: Use words or diagrams to track the action that took place during the reading.

    These roles help students focus on one specific area for their responses, which are shared at each discussion meeting. The roles rotate after each discussion, allowing all students to engage in different ways of thinking.

    So how can Webjets be used to elevate students’ use of technology when using Literature Circles in the classroom? Simple—instead of using the traditional paper/pencil literature response journal, students can create cards in Webjets  to house their responses to the assigned reading. Although the Literature Circles strategies were originally designed for fiction texts, the concept can be modified for nonfiction content. For example, one tweak might be changing the role of “character captain” to “fabulous fact finder” (in which the student is responsible for identifying a specified number of interesting facts) or simply eliminating that role from the assignment. The possibilities for roles are open to your area of content and your imagination!

    Artistic adventurer

    webjets1To demonstrate how Webjets can enhance Literature Circles strategy, we used The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963 (Yearling) by Christopher Paul Curtis. The first example shows the artistic adventurer role using photos of Flint, Michigan from the 1960s. The pictures are used to illustrate what Flint, Michigan looked like during that time period.

    The second example includes interesting words identified by the vocabulary enricher for chapters 1–4 from the same story. The words were selected by the student and recorded using the card feature in Webjets. When it is time to share with the group, each student can discuss their role using their Webjets cards as talking points.

    Travel tracer

    Students (or one student with the role of travel tracer) can also create a mindmap with Webjets by using lines to connect different parts of the map. In this example, the mindmap is used to trace the Watsons’ journey from Flint, Michigan to visit Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama. The lines follow the route traveled by the Watsons with other lines connecting to photos that relate to that leg of the trip. Similar to the travel tracer role, students can create a collaborative map of the Watsons’ journey by sharing it with other students. As the role is rotated to a new student for each group meeting, the new student will add the latest information about the Watsons’ trip to Birmingham.

    Students often investigate what they know about the characters as the story unfolds. Webjets has a table tool where students can add information about what they learn about the characters. The following example highlights the characters Byron, Kenny, and Joetta Watson, siblings in The Watsons go to Birmingham—1963. The dynamic of their relationship evolves throughout each chapter, and students, or the one student identified as the character captain can capture this information as they identify what they learn about each sibling based on how Christopher Paul Curtis revealed these character traits through their thoughts, words, or actions.

    The virtual bulletin board offered by Webjets allows students to create a visual representation of their learning. Students can choose from multiple options to display their work (i.e., boards, lists, cards, tables, and mindmaps), and they can organize their information in folders. They can easily incorporate images, video, text by dragging and dropping from their browser or from their desktop. Students will be actively engaged in the learning process as they make decisions about what types of information to include in their projects.

    Illustrating character traits


    Students come to us with much ease and comfort in using different forms of technology. By using these technologies in our classrooms, we can rejuvenate sound research-based strategies designed to cognitively engage students in thinking and talking about texts. Webjets and Literature Circles can work hand-in-hand to help students learn how to think about what they are reading, record their reflective thoughts about the reading, and share their understandings with group members in a very engaging and technological way.    

    Kimberly Kimbell-Lopez is a professor in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Leadership in the College of Education at Louisiana Tech University. She has been an educator for over 30 years, and her areas of expertise include literacy and technology.

    Carrice Cummins is a professor in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Leadership in the College of Education at Louisiana Tech University. She has over 40 years’ experience as an educator with primary areas of interest in comprehension, content area literacy, and teacher development. She served as the 2012–13 president of the International Reading Association.

    Elizabeth Manning is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Leadership in the College of Education at Louisiana Tech University. A veteran K–8 teacher of over 25 years, her areas of interest include content area literacy, writing workshop, and curriculum design and development.

    This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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    Addressing Technopanic in the Age of Screentime

    By Ian O’Byrne
     | Jun 14, 2019

    As educators that play with and embed digital literacies into classroom instruction, we believe the thoughtful use of educational technologies can help prepare youth for future practices and texts they will encounter. I study the effects of technology on society, culture, and education in my weekly newsletter, Digitally Literate. Together with a group of colleagues, I maintain a website focused on living and learning in the age of screentime and the challenges posed as we adjust to these new spaces. One of these challenges is a type of technopanic that suggests screentime promotes addiction, depression, or worse.

    What is technopanic?

    According to Christopher Ferguson, a professor in the Department of Behavioral, Applied Sciences and Criminal Justice at Texas A&M, a technopanic is a “moral panic that centers around societal fears about a specific contemporary technology (or technological activity) instead of merely the content flowing over that technology or medium.” Technopanic is accompanied by pleas to “do something” to protect society as a whole. This message is often promoted and amplified by the public, media outlets, and policymakers. In turn, the message is exacerbated when children and adolescents are added into the cultural anxiety surrounding a technopanic. Alice Marwick, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and faculty affiliate at the Center for Media Law and Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says technopanics have the following characteristics: 

    First, they focus on new media forms, which currently take the form of computer-mediated technologies. Second, technopanics generally pathologize young people’s use of this media, such as hacking, file-sharing, or playing violent video games. Third, this cultural anxiety manifests itself in an attempt to modify or regulate young people’s behavior, either by controlling young people or the creators or producers of media products.

    The challenge is that the paranoia and panic that accompanies a technopanic is often overblown and stifles the discussion, examination, and critique that is necessary as we explore these new digital spaces.

    The rise of technopanics

    Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, suggests there are six factors that contribute to the rise of technopanics and how they impact our culture and society in general.

    • Generational differences: Older generations are generally pessimistic about the impact of technology on culture and society with younger generations. They forget that they too had new texts, tools, and gadgets that previous generations never dreamed of.
    • Hyper-nostalgia: People tend to recall past events and lived experiences more positively than they perceived them to be at the time of their occurrence—this is called rosy retrospection bias. Critics often yearn for the old order, established norms, and traditional structures as they seek to find balance in a changing ecosystem.
    • Bad news sells: In today’s world, readers are greeted by a regular firehose of information when they open their devices. Fear-based tactics and alarmism—especially involving children—cuts through the noise.
    • The role of special interests: As bad news sells, there is often a company, service, or product working behind the scenes to elevate concern. These companies exaggerate the problem and offer a “silver bullet” response to this challenge.
    • Elitist attitudes: Skeptics and critics often have elitist mindsets and opinions about the use of these new digital texts and tools. These beliefs often indicate that they are superior to others because of their intellect, social status, wealth, or other factors.
    • Third-person-effect hypothesis: When people engage in debate, or encounter a problem that seems outside of their expertise, they suggest that others “do something” to correct the situation. Psychologists refer to this as “third-person-effect hypothesis” and this mindset sometimes is a call for governmental intervention.

    How to address the current situation

    We are increasingly hearing different manifestations of technopanic as all forms of technological devices (phone, tablet, computer, etc.) are conflated into a general area of “screentime” and identified as a cause of concern. As a parent, and educator, it is sometimes hard for me to read this and worry about the peril and imminent danger that are children are being subjected to. But there is a need to beware of the outrage, fear mongering, and “science” that is often spread by the news media and others.

    Rather than assuming all technology use is equal (and equally bad), perhaps we should take a more nuanced approach as we discuss these issues. We might, for example, consider different types of screentime, and the affordances of each of these texts, tools, and spaces. Perhaps spending an hour passively consuming YouTube content is not viewed as beneficial as an hour spent coding in Scratch. Perhaps an hour spent zombie scrolling through social media is not as valuable as an hour spent playing video games. Perhaps if children and adults spent time coconsuming this content, and had dialogue about the experience, we might have a better understanding of screentime.

    As an educator the focus should be on guiding your students as they explore and negotiate these new spaces, places, and practices. As a parent, there is an opportunity to talk about all of these elements with your children, and not be afraid to confront your own practices. Finally, there is a need to understand that we’re still learning as new technologies are developed, and as we interact with these texts and tools. To continue to learn more about these elements, you might consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter or following the blog feed at The Screentime Age. Lastly, Kristen Turner and I developed a podcast all about technopanic, and it explores the challenges experienced by children, parents, and educators. Feel free to send us an email at if you have a question you’d like us to answer.  Together, we can work to avoid getting caught up in fear of new technologies and learn how to use them safely and productively with children. 

    Ian O’Byrne is an educator, researcher, and innovator. His research investigates the literacy practices of individuals in online and hybrid spaces. Ian’s work can be found on his website. His weekly newsletter focuses on the intersections between technology, education, and literacy. Ian is an assistant professor of Literacy Education at the College of Charleston. You can find him on Twitter @wiobyrne.

    This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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    Let's Get Graphic: Meeting the Needs of Today’s Readers and Writers Through Graphic Novels

    By Susan Luft
     | Jun 07, 2019

    lets-get-graphic-3It was a frigid January morning right after the holiday break when I met a group of 45 fourth-grade students assembled in the library of a suburban New York elementary school. In the first hour of the school day, following a two-week break, a visiting teacher would expect to be greeted by sleepy-eyed students longing to return to the freedom of vacation. Instead, I was welcomed by the enthusiastic hum of excited learners clutching novels, notebooks, and pencils.

    The students already knew that today they would begin studying the format and structures of graphic novels and they were eager to dive in. We spent the next six days of one-hour reading workshop sessions in a graphic novel bootcamp. Each day, students engaged with a specific set of teacher-designed inquiry lessons that explored the elements of art, design, and story that are consistent with the graphic novel.

    The request to begin an inquiry into the format of graphic novels and their features came from teachers who recognized that the narrative structures, visual images, and design features offered in elementary literature were growing more complex. They also recognized that the publishing trends that were emerging in children’s literature were placing increased literacy demands upon strengthening a visual culture that included illustrated books, graphic novels, and visual narratives. Likewise, these texts were bringing new challenges to teachers who desired rigorous reading skills and strategies for their students. The teachers felt they had a responsibility, and desire, to foster new approaches in helping their readers navigate these changes.

    lets-get-graphic-2Although the changing role of visual images in literature has had a profound effect on teaching literacy acquisition in the 21st century, it has also provided new options for classroom engagement while connecting readers with books that matter in their lives. These are the books so many of our students love and want to read. However, many students often do not have the skill set needed to read visual images in graphic novels because they have yet to have the opportunity for guided learning in reading this format.

    We know that there are many benefits to providing students with experience and engagement with graphic novels as this guide from Scholastic demonstrates. One benefit is that students become better prepared to read and understand the visual information that they encounter. Our learners are raised navigating narratives presented through websites, video games, and interactive media. As a result, learning and maintaining strong visual literacy is a necessary skill. Learning to read the elements of art in graphic novels gives students experience with visual literacy in a way that is engaging and builds meaning.

    Second, graphic novels require a repertoire of reading strategies of which students may not yet be familiar. When reading a graphic novel, the meaning revealed in images is as important as reading the text. The Random House Educators’ Guide explains how panels, frames, color, shading, graphic weight, positioning, and physical interpretation need to be “read” in order to understand the story being told.

    Finally, graphic novels can help to improve reading development for students struggling with reading and/or language acquisition. These texts are referred to as the “grand equalizer” by Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity because of their “universal appeal to most students” and ability to “invite all levels of readers into reading conversations.”  For readers, the illustrations provide context clues which add to the meaning of difficult vocabulary and understanding of written narrative.

    Still, graphic novels include classic elements of narrative storytelling such as character development, hero's quest, and theme. These visual elements and the comic book format make them more accessible, especially for struggling readers. As Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History(Pantheon), so insightfully stated, "Comics are a gateway drug to literacy."

    Susan Luft is an elementary English language arts coordinator for Scarsdale Public Schools, New York. She is also a member of Drew University’s Digital Literacy Collaborative project. You can follow her on Twitter.

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    The Makerspace: A Model for Making That Values Community, Inclusion, and Student Agency

    By Michelle Hagerman
     | May 31, 2019

    Joël Desjardin’s decision to become an elementary teacher was driven in part by his personal belief that to thrive in school and in life, many children need learning conditions broader than those offered by traditional paradigms. As we talked about the impact of the makerspace that he has worked tirelessly to establish over the past two years with colleagues, his voice resonated with passion and a deep respect for his students and their learning needs.

    “The makerspace is the heart of our school. When I was a kid, the gym was the heart of community in the school. Whenever there was a big event, we all gathered in the gym. But I see the makerspace as our ‘gym.’ Our whole community can’t gather here physically but we do use technologies in the makerspace to create community, to bring us all together—through our TéléMC newscasts, for example. And, the comings and goings in this space are incredible,” he said. “The kid who comes in here and finds that he can make something driven by his own interests—he’ll keep coming back to school. That’s what will keep him here.”

    In the makerspace, Joël’s mission is to create the conditions and cultivate the relationships that will enable every child to find their voice, strengths, and purpose. More than 60% of students attending this school have lived in Canada for fewer than three years, and many do not speak French (the language of instruction) at home. In Joël’s words, “We’re imposing Canadian culture and language on these kids, and then we’re imposing Canadian schooling on top of that—they need to have spaces inside of these systems where they can leverage what they know, where they feel competent, capable, and valued.”

    As they work to support students’ language and literacies learning, Joël and his colleagues understand that their work is also fundamentally about creating an inclusive community where students can find connections to themselves as they develop new identities as learners, as makers, and often, as first-generation Canadians. I think the work happening in this school can inform the design of culturally sensitive, social justice-oriented maker pedagogies for literacies learning everywhere. Following are two examples that could inspire other school communities to imagine new possibilities for their maker programs.

    Café Altern

    This spring, sixth-grade students from Joël’s school visited Café Altern, a coffee shop in Ottawa’s Byward market, run entirely by high school students and their teachers. For Joël’s students, the purpose was twofold. First, he wanted to expose them to the program which is designed for high schoolers seeking pathways to employment through entrepreneurship. Second, he wanted his students to practice their media literacies skills. To this end, groups of students planned for, and then interviewed a Rwandan–Canadian artist whose work is exhibited in the Café, a local chef who supports the café, and the teachers and students who run daily operations.

    Using the industrial kitchen, the sixth graders also learned to make, prepare, and then sell maple syrup that they had tapped from trees at school (using spiles that they 3D printed in the makerspace). Post visit, the students used 10 hours of class time to edit their footage in WeVideo and create two-minute videos promoting the café. In my view, this activity integrates layers of culturally situated, physical, and digital meaning making, centered on community partnerships and student agency.


    With a team of student media makers, Joël also produces the morning announcements which they livestream on the school’s YouTube channel from their makerspace every morning. For these students, Joël cites vast improvement in confidence and oral communication skills. Every Friday, the team produces a longer newscast that includes highlights of the week and explores an important theme.

    Last week, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia,  their newscast focused on equipping the school community to understand what it means to be LGBTQ2+, to recognize and reject LGBTQ2+phobic language and behaviors, and to emphasize the importance of LGBTQ2+ people in their school community. Especially poignant—the principal, who cohosted this special newscast, drew a picture of his own family, showed photographs of his family celebrating important moments together, and explained that his children have two dads. With more than 250 views for this newscast alone, the work in this makerspace is reaching community beyond the school walls, and equipping students and faculty to understand and use a shared language of inclusion.

    As Joël, his colleagues, and his students show us, a school makerspace can become its heart—a place where technologies can be used to make meanings that strengthen, empower, and create more inclusive communities.

    Michelle Schira Hagerman is an assistant professor of Educational Technologies at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. You can read more about her work, including research on literacies and making at

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