Changing World, Changing Literacy

This week I kicked off the Superintendent’s Conference day at the Millbrook Central School District in the Hudson Valley of New York State. One of the goals I set for myself was to lay the foundation for answering the simple question most professionals ask (rightly so) when we advance the notion that they should change their classroom practices. The simple question, “Why?”. “Why should I, a successful teacher, go through all the time and effort it takes to learn new new ways of doing things?”

Of course, no matter what I provide as an answer, if the educator is not open to change, it won’t matter. With all this in mind, I set out to create a space for teachers that were willing to open themselves, to pursue new lines of thought and behavior. I used a video created by Tom Woodward over at the Bionic Teacher, Henrico Schools.

Changing World

If we want teachers, students, and administrators to change the way they do things, we need to provide them with the context for why change is necessary. Make no mistake, when we talk about utilizing new technologies in the process of teaching and learning, we are talking about serious change.

As an example of changing literacy, I compared George Washington’s first Inaugural address and Bill Clinton’s.

“AMONG the vicissitudes incident to life no event could have filled me with greater anxieties than that of which the notification was transmitted by your order, and received on the 14th day of the present month. On the one hand, I was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years—a retreat which was rendered every day more necessary as well as more dear to me by the addition of habit to inclination, and of frequent interruptions in my health to the gradual waste committed on it by time. ”

-George Washington’s First Inaugural

“My fellow citizens, today we celebrate the mystery of American renewal. This ceremony is held in the depth of winter, but by the words we speak and the faces we show the world, we force the spring.”
-William Jefferson Clinton First Inaugural

A comparison of the readability statistics of both addresses is astounding. George Washington’s address is rated at a 12.0 grade level and Bill Clinton’s an 8.8 grade level. One of the most interesting statistics in this analysis is that Washington used 61.7 words per sentence on average and Clinton about 17 words.

As I read Washington’s first two sentences out loud, I could see many faces in the audience go blank. They would have attacked me if I had attempted to read the entire address. Two sentences was more than enough to make the point. Our literacy has changed so much in the last few centuries that I doubt George Washington could be elected today.

But….to the student who wrote this sentence in an IM session….

“r u smart bcoz i need some1 smart”

….Bill Clinton sounds like George Washington.

Literacy is continuing its evolution. In our speech heavy classrooms, we “Washingtons” do our best to talk to the “Clintons”; but the gap between us is widening. Is it any wonder that dropout rates are over 30% ?

At the same time, all hope is not lost. Even as these cataclysmic shifts in literacy take place, more books are being sold and read than ever before and kids are writing and creating like never before. Just check out FanFiction, where devotees of specific authors write in the genre of the original books.

The shifting of our “generational literacy” is just the tip of iceberg. The fun is just beginnng.




6 thoughts on “Changing World, Changing Literacy

  1. Pete, I would further your notion of shifting literacy by suggesting that the most creative kids I know are not creating with words, and that many new ideas they engender are being transmitted in other formats.
    This is one of the issues I see in my self, and in many educators of my generation.. we are fixed upon words .. writing and reading of them.. as the means of exchanging what we learn and think. Paper is the medium most of us used to record and exchange information and share our culture, beliefs, and history. An inability to process text on paper became a one-way ticket to … dropping out.

    This text primacy idea hit home when I was responding to written submissions from graduate students. I was pleased with myself that I accepted their work electronically, then inserted written “pop-up” comments to react to their work in context. However, I had a microphone on my machine and could have picked it up and included each commentary as a spoken reaction. But I didn’t because I was raised as a good text processor.

    But my own kids exchange information that is visual and oral, often using text only when necessary to explicate the images and sounds. Think SimLife, iTunes, YouTube, Hypertext/media etc.

    Along those same lines, I can’t tell you how many of my acquaintances will email me beautiful pictures, or jokes, or “wise” sayings.. with no explanation other than thinking the postings would be accepted with some common appreciation?

    Perhaps there is a larger literacy shift that involves mutiple “layers” and embedded media in “electronic documents”, rather than moving from one form of single-layered writing/reading on paper to another?

    I think you are right… Let the fun begin!

  2. I’m interested in your response, Ken. I’m not sure I would have picked those three as the greatest skills needed for the 21st century; but I’d like to get an insight into your rationale. Will you elaborarte just a bit?

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