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Engaging Students Through Multiple Literacies

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As you've likely read by now in our special report on reading and the common core, teachers of all subjects must expand their instruction to include—or further emphasize—reading, writing, and critical thinking. In a recent paper from The Educational Forum, one teacher describes engaging students through creative work that expands the definition of "text" as well.

Echoing other literacy researchers, high school teacher Andrea Gumble argues that, "since today's learners are inundated with visual, audio, and print sources in their daily lives, we must acknowledge these 'digital readings' as important to our students and actively incorporate them into our instruction." This idea of multiple ways to read led her to design a project called The Art of War, in which high school juniors spend three weeks of an American literature class synthesizing and reacting to a variety of "texts" related to war and wartime. Student work is not posted online; however, glimpses of the conversation surrounding the project may be seen in class forum threads on personal connections to war and on examining bias through films about war and organized crime.

Gumble's students use research databases to explore and select source material ranging from letters, journal entries, and photographs—what historians generally consider primary sources—to poems and non-text media like cartoons and even songs. Their assignment for the duration of the unit is open-ended but challenging: to create a video and written analysis expressing a critical framework of war, drawing upon six documents in as many media to support and reflect their thinking. Like an exploded version of digital writing, working and creating across media pushes students to cultivate multiple literacies.

Gumble describes the resulting creative engagement as a kind of "freedom," or motivation to learn. Personalized learning is also built into the curriculum: a combination of assigned readings and discovered texts ensures "the pathways to [student] learning are more varied." Literacy, then, can encompass a suite of learning skills, from information / media literacy to creativity to student engagement. The ability to read, understand, and produce appear to underpin engaged learning across subjects, whether the medium of choice is informational text (as in the common standards) or the seemingly endless array of cross-media texts available to students and teachers today.

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