Tech, as yet another teaching tool

Back for more awesome EdTech learning with Dr. Alec Couros in EC&I830, and this time our class is designed using a debate format. Fun!


via Giphy


For our second class session, brave students volunteered to be our first debators, and the hot topic was:

Does technology in the classroom enhance learning?

We saw videos made by the two groups who agree and disagree with this question, and we were asked to look at materials supplied by each group and blog our response on this topic. As I did for my tech course last term, I’ll try to make my responses relate to my experience teaching young adults ESL whenever I can.  I realize this give me a slightly different perspective from most of my classmates who teach in the K-12 system, although I’m sure there is still lots of overlap.

So, do I think tech in the classroom enhances learning after hearding/reading the interesting materials my classmates shared on this issue?  I’d have to say that, like the majority of my class (according to pre- and post-debate polls), I believe that technology does enhance classroom learning.

From an adult ESL teacher’s position, I can’t imagine not availing myself of a few of the many contemporary tools that technology affords us in my daily lessons.  My number one use of tech on a daily basis?  I’m sad to say, it’s Google.  Over the 18 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve gotten to be quite good at acting and improvising (less so at drawing) when I’ve needed to help a student understand the meaning of a new word.  But some words, like butternut squash, balcony, and speed dating, can become terribly time consuming to describe.  Whereas before I would have had to devote five minutes of class time to explaining what “germination” is… (more, if I get sidetracked!)….  now, voila!

File:Seed germination.png

                                                                                       Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Students themselves use Google images to share famous people, places, foods, and other elements of their cultures.  It allow them a quick and efficient way to share something of themselves, which is so important for language learners living in an immersion setting, far from home.

I also use my “smart classroom” computer to project a lot of work we have going on during an average class, such as when I type up student responses to questions so that we can analyze their vocabulary or grammar use, or when I create a mindmap with elicited information on a new topic I’m introducing to the class.  Honestly, I’m at the point where I can’t really imagine teaching without a computer, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t especially tech-savy and doesn’t use many of the “fancy” tools and apps that are out there.

I have to say that I agree with the authors of Teaching in a Digital Age: How Educators Use Technology to Improve Student Learning who write that technology can transform students from “passive to active learners, guided by their own quest for information” (204).  Language learning is such a personal journey, and allowing students to use digital tools, often their cell phones, to look up information, share images and videos, and occasionally (when appropriate) translate a word, phrase or idiom, really puts them in the drivers seat and give them a sense of independence and control over their learning.

Another advantage of technology that McKnight, O’Malley et. al describe is that via technology, teachers can incorporate materials that are more current than textbooks.  With the world, and technology itself, changing at such a rapid pace, our theme-based language textbook become outdated very quickly. I can supplement what is in my textbook with learner appropriate information that is “more current, ‘richer,’ and more engaging than their textbooks” (204).

For the above and so many other reasons (many of which the authors give), it really does seem that “tech enhances learning in ways not otherwise possible,” and I can see why around 70% of teachers surveyed on their “technology beliefs” (198) agree to this statement.

I agreed with a few of the other advantages to using tech in the classroom that are given in 6 Pros and 6 Cons of Technology in the Classroom.  For instance, I know there are digital tools out there that allow teachers to get and give instant feedback, and I plan to also experiment with using a few of the at least 65 Digital Tools and Apps to Support Formative Assessment Practices listed here.  I know that these tools would definitely enhance the feedback I am able to give my students on their written and spoken class work and assignments – and at the same time, it would likely be less tedious for me to use a digital tool to record myself talking about an essay (for example) than sitting with yet another red pen and marking up yet another piece of paper…  Besides, how many students actually look at those comments on their papers…?



via Giphy

I also appreciate how technology can help more students participate in class, especially those who may not otherwise speak up.

And so, as you can see, I agree that online tools can make ESL lessons so much more time efficient, interactive, interesting, up to date, relevant, and fun.

Of course, as its title suggests, this webpage also give the “cons” of using tech in the classroom, such as the point that “technology in the classroom can be a distraction” and “technology can foster cheating in class and on assignments.”  I can see that the writer is clearly biased towards technology in the classroom, as she points out (and I agree) that for most if not all of these possible drawbacks, the “teacher is in control,” and so there are always ways to mitigate the challenges that devices can bring to a classroom.  In the end, I like the quotation she added from a history professor in Virginia, Sara Eskridge, who “believes that technology is a tool to be used in the classroom, rather than an end in itself.”  This is how I feel about the situation – “technology” is a term that actually encompasses just about every single object that we use.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannicatechnology is

the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life or, as it is sometimes phrased, to the change and manipulation of the human environment.

Given this definition, technology includes not only the laptop I’m typing this on right now, but the table that’s under it, the hardwood flooring under the table, and every other element of my created surroundings.  Therefore, to teach without technology would be to return to the days of a strictly oral storytelling tradition, which I don’t believe anyone would argue is the way to go, even those who send their children to the Waldorf School of the Penninsual.

Matthew Jenkins writes in this Guardian article that at this school, “[t]eachers encourage students to learn curriculum subjects by expressing themselves through artistic activities, such as painting and drawing rather, than consuming information downloaded onto a tablet” and that at this school “[l]essons are delivered by a human being that not only cares about the child’s education, but also about them as individuals.” I often have to wonder how the “all or nothing” attitude is so frequently fostered by such educated people.  Surely no one is insinuating that teachers at schools which incorporate technology don’t employ painting and drawing in their toolkit, and aren’t disinterested in their pupils “as individuals.”  While I definitely work hard to help my 8 year-old develop his creativity, individuality, curiosity and passion for learning, as well as his love of nature and respect for the environment, I don’t see how letting him have one hour of screen time a day is going to squash all of my efforts…

And so, as much as I see that there are potential hazards to relying too much on “new” technology or depending on it for every element of our lesson plans, I remain certain that technology, old and new, is an essential part of education, and pretty well has been since we left the cave.

I do advocate for classroom-created policies on the use of devices, such as one approach to creating a policy I outlined in a blog post I wrote for my previous EdTec class, Digital Citizenship and Media Literacy, Classroom cell phone use policy making: of the people, by the people.  I think that if the “rules” and expectations are designed by and accepted by students, there will be more buy-in to them, and a better balance of technology’s advantages vs. disadvantages can be more easily achived.

Let me know what you think, please!


Back for more

It’s now the second semester of my six-month sabbatical, and I’m happy to be registered for another awesome class on Ed Tech with Dr. Alec Couros. Right now I’m simply testing out adding another category to my blog. Stay tuned for more posts to come. 🙂

Classroom cell phone use policy making: of the people, by the people

Well, here it is! I’ve finished creating a set of lesson plans to be used in the most advanced class that the ESL Program where I teach offers. I’m looking forward to taking them on a test drive when I return to the classroom in the fall. Given that I had problems over the course of the semester that led me to very nearly drop this class, I just want to take a moment to celebrate that I got this far:

                                               Credit: Giphy

Here’s an overview of what I’ve come up with for my final project of ECI832:

For those of you who are new to this project, here’s where I started.  I was thinking about Ribble’s 9 Elements of Digital Citizenship, specifically what he says about Digital Communication, Digital Etiquette, Digital Rights and Responsibilities. I wrote more about the connection to these elements that I saw my project having in an earlier post. I decided I wanted to do something about the issues other ESL instructors and I have with inappropriate cell phone use in our classrooms.  Of course phones and other devices can be put to great use when built into a lesson, but let’s face it, they can be major distractions, and can take away from the learning environment and in person social connection that develops in an intensive ESL program like mine.

I started out reading several articles on the topic of cell phone use in classrooms, the impact of distractions on learning, and how cell phone policies imposed from the top down don’t work well.  I gave links and summaries of a few of those articles in two blog posts, the one mentioned above as well as a later post.

As mentioned in my previous blog about this project, my objectives for this set of lessons are to:

  • Get students thinking about the pros and cons of smart phone use during class time and class break times
  • Introduce vocabulary related to classroom smart phone use
  • Have students work together to propose a set of guidelines for their own classroom smart phone use
  • Have communicative, integrated-skill lessons that students find engaging

It turned out that I had a lot more I wanted to do with this topic than I could fit into one class, and so I’ve ended up with lesson plans for three separate days spread out over a week: Day One’s lesson is 1 hour and 50 minutes; Day Two’s lesson is 1 hour and 25 minutes; Day Three’s lesson is a brief 50 minutes.

Here are brief screen cast videos showing the PowerPoint file I created for use with these three lessons:

Day One:

(here’s the Nomophobia Questionnaire, in case anyone’s interested in taking it)

Day Two:

Day Three:

In case anyone is interested in using/modifying this idea in their classrooms, here are the lesson plans for the three days. Before I leave you with those, I’ll sign off with a reminder to feel free to comment on what you’ve seen here or contact me directly. I also want to thank my classmates and my prof, Dr. Alec Couros, for a great learning experience this semester. I feel more in touch with the 21st Century now that I did before taking this class, and I’ll also have several new considerations regarding media literacy and digital citizenship when I return to teaching in September.

Thanks for reading!



Day One’s Plan (1 hour and 50 minute lesson; 10-minute break after 55-minutes):

Slides 1-2 0 minutes Tell the class that you’d like to talk about cell phone use in the classroom, but to begin you’d like them to think about their cell phone habits in general.

Begin the PowerPoint presentation.

Slide 3 8 minutes Have students discuss the questions in small groups; elicit answers for whole class follow-up
Slide 4 2 minutes Introduce the vocab challenge

Divide the class into two teams: Team Phone and Team No Phone

Slide 5 5 minutes Show the words and say them each out loud once (students can repeat if they want)

Have students in Team Phone leave the room

20 minutes Students are working on the vocab challenge in teams
20 minutes Students from Team Phone return to the room.

Move desks to the sides of the room

Introduce and play the fly swatter game:

·         Have the 14 words written in large letters on the black/white board in advance

·         Have students in their teams line up down the centre of the room.

·         Hand the student first in line of each team a fly swatter

·         Loudly read out or act out a clue that indicates one of the words on the board.

·         The students holding the fly swatter need to consult their teams (if necessary) and then run up to the board to “swat” the word that corresponds to my clue.  The team member to swat the correct word first scores one point for her/his team.

Review each of the words, answering questions and eliciting sample sentences on request.

10-minute break
Slide 6 1 minutes Show the slide and say the word “nomophobia.” Ask students to guess what this word means.
Slide 7 2 minutes Show the slide and read the definition and sample sentence to the class.

Ask if anyone has heard of this term, or if they know of a similar term in English or in their language.

Slide 8 27 minutes Hand out the nomophobia questionnaire and ask students to fill it out.

Tell students to write a number from 1-7 beside each of the 20 questions, and then ask them to total up their scores.

Have them discuss the questions on Slide 8 with the student next to them.

Slide 9 5 minutes Have students think about the questions on Slide 9 for 1-2 minutes, and then have them share their answers with their partner.
Slides 10 and 11 10 minutes Go over Slide 10 with the students.  (Fill in the date on this slide in advance – the date when you’ll carry on to “Day Two” of this lesson).

Hand out the small pieces of paper for them to track the number of times they look at or use their phone during a 50-minute lesson.  Tell them to write a check mark for each time they look at their phone for an “on topic” (class related) reason, and an “x” each time they look at their phone for an “off topic” (not class related) reason.  (The teacher should distribute them at the start of a lesson and collect them at the end).

Show Slide 11 as an example of what we’ll do when we move on to Day Two.

Explain the homework assignment.

Thank them and dismiss for break/end of day.

Day Two’s Plan (1 hour 25-minute lesson):

Slide 12 0 minutes Introduce the topic of the lesson.
Slide 13 15 minutes Hand out their small papers with their tracking of their cell phone use. Give them a couple of minutes to calculate the average number of times they look at their phone for “on topic” and “off topic” reasons in a 50-minute lesson.

Poll the class with questions like “how many of you look at your phone for on topic reasons between 0-4 times in an average 50-minute lesson?”

Select the appropriate number of squares on the table on this slide. Using the “shading” feature (top bar, centre of the page), select the colour you want to use.  Continue this way until all students have told you how often they look at their phone for “on topic” and “off topic” reasons.

Slide 14 10 In pairs, have students read the chart and answer the questions on Slide 14 (keep slide 13 up, though).

Have a few students report their statements to the class, correcting grammar where appropriate.

Slide 15 5 minutes Have students discuss their answers to the questions on Slide 15 in pairs.
Slide 16 5 minutes Have students discuss their answers to the questions on Slide 16 in pairs.
Slide 17 20 minutes Have the pairs fill in the t-chart on Slide 17 (using their own paper).

Have a reporter from each pair report one point to the class and fill in the chart on the PowerPoint with notes from everyone.

Slide 18 1 minute Introduce the question for the next phase of the lesson.
Slide 19 10 minutes Have students work in pairs to fill in the mindmap.
15 minutes Have the pairs call out information from their mindmaps and compile it on a large paper (poster board); alternatively, students in pairs or groups could put their thoughts directly onto poster board that you then have them pin to the wall and share.
Slide 20 4 minutes Summarize the discussion and have students answer the question on Slide 20.

Day Three’s Plan (50-minute lesson):

Slide 21 0 minutes Introduce the topic of the lesson.
Slide 22 1 minute Review the discussion from the previous lesson.
Slide 23 27 minutes Have students look at Slide 23. Have them discuss their opinions with a partner.

Ask if anyone has another option to add to the list as an “other” way to have limited cell phone use in the time (for instance, only on one or two days of the week? Only for solo work, but never for group work?).

Have students discuss their opinions in pairs or small groups.

Ask students to vote!

Slide 24 (optional) 10 minutes, or longer as necessary. If the class is somewhat divided, have students give their reasons in support of their opinions in an informal debate.

If there is a strong division in the class, proceed to put students into groups that can debate this topic further (carry on with this stage at this time, or save it for another day’s lesson).

Slide 25 1 minute Determine if a debate needs to take place, and prepare for one if necessary.
Slides 26 and 27 10 minutes Show Slide 26 so students see what we’re aiming to accomplish.

Have students discuss the two questions/scenarios on Slide 27.

Have them share other ideas they come up with.

Have them vote, if necessary, and then finish filling out Slide 26.

Slide 28 1 minute Thank them!
follow-up Monitor how things play out!

Interview with my 8 year-old on digital citizenship (a.k.a. my summary of learning )

Hey all in EC&I 832, here’s the vid for my Summary of Learning:

I’d like to thank my eight year-old for being such a great interviewer, if only slightly distracted by the bribe (chocolate) I used…

Thanks, too, to my prof for this course, Dr. Alec Couros, and to my classmates for all of their contributions.

I haven’t yet figured out how to embed my WordArt word cloud, but please stay tuned for updates on this blog entry…




Developing lesson plans and materials for an in-depth conversation on student cell phone use

I’ve started creating a lesson plan and materials for this project, and I’d like to share how things are looking so far.  For those new to my project, I am aiming to create a lesson (or a series of lessons) that would get my adult ESL students reflecting on their own cell phone use – outside, but mostly inside the classroom. The objectives so far are to:

  • Get students thinking about the pros and cons of smart phone use during class time and class break times
  • Introduce vocabulary related to the topic
  • Have students work together to propose a student-created classroom cell phone policy for their class only (whether this means there are no guidelines at all, a few guidelines for time-restricted use, complete removal of cell phones during lesson time, or something else altogether)
  • Have a communicative, integrated-skill activity that students find engaging

I’ve decided to start off by focusing on our most advanced ESL class, but will also eventually modify the lesson so that it’s suitable for two intermediate levels as well.

So, for a first step, I’m going to have students begin by thinking about their cell phone habits in general, with questions such as,  “how much time do you spend using your phone in an average day?” I’ll then have them take the “Nomophobia Questionnaire,” mostly to spark interest in the topic and get them thinking about it. (Just to note, for the more advanced level classes, I’m considering getting them to read an article and/or watch a video on nomophobia as well, and there will likely be some writing that comes out of this set of lessons too.  I’m still working out how I’d integrate those components to the lesson, but I do want to end up with an integrated-skills set of activities.)

Students will be asked to discuss their results of the nomophobia questionnaire in small (3-4 student) groups, with focused questions such as:

  • Did your score surprise you? Why or why not?
  • Did any specific question(s) surprise you? Why?
  • Do you feel you need to change your cell phone habits or attitude? Why or why not?

From there, I’ll guide the class towards thinking about their classroom cell phone use specifically.  They’ll be asked to discuss these two questions in their groups:

  • How many times do you look at your phone in an average 50-minute class?
  • Of the times you use your phone in class, what percentage is on topic (class related use, such as looking for a translation to a word), and what percentage is off topic (not related to the class, such as checking a social media app or a message from a friend)?

Following that preliminary discussion, I’ll have the students look at a chart I’ve made, and I’ll explain that I’d like them to keep an approximate record of how many times they look at their phone during the next few classes so that we can fill it out at a later point.

How many times do you look at your cell phone during an average 50-minute class?

0-4 times 0-4 times 5-10 times 5-10 times 11-20 times 11-20 times Over 20 Over 20
Number of Students: On topic Off topic On topic Off topic On topic Off topic On topic Off topic

In the follow-up lesson, a few days (or a week) later, I will ask students to share how often they look at their phone during class, and would use “shading” on the graph to indicate how many students use their phones for on topic and off topic uses, and how often. As a class, we will practice chart-reading and making statements about the facts we see. This will be good practice of certain English grammar forms, such as the comparative and the superlative.  Discussing a graph interpretation is an indicator of an outcome our advanced-level students need to reach.

Students will once again be put into small groups and asked to discuss the following questions:

  • Do you sometimes get distracted from the class lesson because of things happening on your phone (such as receiving a message)?
  • Discuss what you feel happens to you when you are distracted by your phone during a class.
  • How do you feel when you see your classmates using their phones during a lesson?

The next set of discussion questions would get students thinking about how their cell phone use may or may not be influencing their English learning:

  • Of the time you spend on your phone, how much is in English?
  • In what ways can your cell phone help you improve your English?
  • Are there apps you use on your phone for learning or practicing English?

After discussing these questions, I’d have the groups each fill out the following chart:

Cell phone use in the ESL classroom
Advantages Disadvantages

Discussion would follow, of course, with some heated debate (I hope!).

This would lead to the next phase of the lesson (possibly on a third day – depending on how the teacher wishes to break things up) in which we’d begin to discuss our own ESL classroom and how we’d like cell phones to be incorporated into it.

My hope is that my lesson plans and materials will be of interest to my colleagues in the ESL Program, so that those of us who are interested can use them to open this discussion with our classes near the beginning of the term and therefore reduce the tension surrounding cell phone use in our classes that, to my understanding, is quite widespread.

That’s where I’m at for the moment. I’d love to get feedback from fellow students in my ECI832 class, or from anyone else “out there” who wishes to give it. 🙂

My daily news, and why I’m sad

My topic for this week is, “What does an average day look like for you in terms of reading and making sense of information, media, and the world around you? What are your personal strategies for analyzing and validating information (e.g. fake news or other information)?”

As someone who is just starting to adjust to a life on social media, I’m not yet at the point where I rely on it for my news… and after reading the articles my classmates have posted on social media and fake news, I think I’ll try to continue looking to more “old school” news sources even as I get accustomed to using social media for its other features and uses.

What does my average day look like in terms of how I get information and make sense of my world?  Well, I’ll start by saying that I can’t make sense of my world. What I learn about in the news constantly tells me that there is so much going on that I can’t understand and have no way of even beginning to understand.  I feel overwhelmed by the complexities of the moment we’re in, politically, socially, humanitarian-ly, and environmentally. There is just so much going on, and while some of it is good and inspiring, most of it is horrific and completely depressing. I also get very sick of seeing Trump’s ugly mug on my computer screen first thing in the morning. For these reasons, I try to keep in touch with the major events taking place, but I don’t allow myself to get too absorbed in any news forum. Basically, the time it takes for me to have my morning three cups of coffee is where the bulk of my news-viewing happens. What do I read during those three cups?  Well, pour yourself a cuppa and let me tell you…

In terms of my news sources, I stick to news agencies I feel I can trust to not spread fake news.  I spend my first cup of coffee of the day with CBC online.  It’s my homepage. I try to scan all of their headlines, but my focus is usually on their top stories, local stories, health, and tech and science sections. I also keep up with what they’re posting in their Indigenous section.

For my second cup of coffee, I’ll turn over to The Guardian. This British publication gives me a different perspective on world news stories, with great international writers, and their online articles are way more in depth. I highly recommend reading (and supporting) the Guardian. They also have a great video and documentary section.  For example, check out this scary interview with Christopher Wylie:

Then, if I get the time for a third cup of coffee, I’ll browse through the Tyee, a Vancouver-based independent news source that is, well, AWESOME.  Take a look at this two minute vid to see why:

So there you have it. I never allow myself more than three cups of coffee in the morning, so hence I’ve now introduced you to the three main sources of news I take in each day.  (Oh, I also listen to and support CBC radio 1, though I’m frustrated with them at the same time).  Occasionally, I’ll look at an article in the New York Times that arrives at our house every Wednesday, or the New Yorker we get delivered on Tuesdays, or the Harper’s that comes ones a month, but to be honest, with working full time, being a mom, a swimmer, and a ceramist, I don’t get in as much “deep news” reading as I’d like to. And as I said above, I need to protect myself from “bad-news-overload,” which can happen very easily.

Speaking of bad news, I found it disturbing to read in our materials for this week that “a false story is much more likely to go viral than a real story,” and that

“[a] false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does. And while false stories outperform the truth on every subject—including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment—fake news about politics regularly does best.” (The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News).

The reasons given for this fact were that “fake news seems to be more ‘novel’ than real news” and “fake news evokes much more emotion than the average tweet.” The writer, Robinson Meyer, goes on to say that:

“The researchers created a database of the words that Twitter users used to reply to the 126,000 contested tweets, then analyzed it with a state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool. Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust, they found.”

I guess that what this information tells me is that people would prefer to spend time thinking about and posting things that are surprising and/or disgusting rather than thinking about and posting things that are sad and/or true.  And that we have “less emotion” about real world events than about made up, fake ones.

This in itself makes me, well, sad.

I know I’m guilty of not wanting to get too absorbed by all the sad news out there, and thus not knowing as much about today’s world as I should, but I think I can say that I don’t allow myself to get distracted from the real state of things by looking at surprising or disgusting news items instead of the sad truth of the world’s affairs.  It seems like there’s this tendency out there to get all wrapped up over some disgusting, surprising, and maybe even “atrocious” yet ultimately NOT hugely important issue, and then leave less time for considering the major events taking place in the world today.  Let me know if you think I’ve got it wrong.

I think it’s sad that some people create and others spend their time on often trivial fake news stories, when the real “surprising and disgusting” stories are the ones that are true:

… how could anyone need to, or even try to, make up news that is more emotion-evoking, and even more disgusting than the recent shooting? More disgusting than the the refugee crisis? Than climate change, or the slow but steady “sixth mass extinction” we’re causing?

I guess, though, that the situation I’m talking about is nothing new. I smiled when I saw the quotation from Johnathan Swift in Carter Davis’ vlog: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

True.  But still, this is why I shy away from using social media to get my news.  I know I could be tempted to fly with the falsehoods, too.  However, not using social media as a news source doesn’t mean I feel I’m impervious to fake news… if I’ve learned anything in the recent weeks in this class, it’s that we can all be manipulated much more easily than we may realize. I feel I’m much more media-savvy now than I was before taking this class.  If nothing else, I’m more cautious about everything I do online.  I’ve learned from my classmates and from Alec (my prof) that there are tools out there that can remind us how to be critical of sources of information. For example, my classmate Regan Williams posted a great vlog in which she points us in the direction of EAVI Media Literacy and their tools for teaching/learning about this media literacy, and the info-graphic posted in Jaimie and Jocelyn‘s vlog with similar points to consider.

Once again, if you feel I have anything wrong in this post, please let me know. I certainly don’t want to be posting any more misinformation than what’s already out there. 😉

An issue to consider when teaching critical thinking in classrooms with students from different cultural backgrounds

My prompt for this week’s post is: What does it mean to be literate today? What might be some different elements of being “fully” literate (you might include digital, media, physical, or mathematical literacy, for example). I’m going to address the element of sociopolitical background when dealing with media literacy, and how students from non-democratic countries may experience an even greater challenge of coming to terms with media literacy if they have been systematically taught to not ask certain questions.

But first of all, what does it mean to be literate today? As many of my classmates have already spoken about in their content catalysts or blogged about in their weekly blog on this topic, being literate today must involve more than the ability to understand the information being presented in a message. With the prevalence of fake news, it is becoming all the more important to teach ourselves and our students the skills involved in critical thinking. Dani quoted a great website, Resource Ed, in her content catalyst video to share with us this quick definition of digital literacy:

digital literacy = digital tool knowledge + critical thinking + social engagement.

I also enjoyed watching Dr. Rob Williams’s TED talk on media literacy. Dr. Williams uses the parable of of the fish that “seldom thinks or is conscious about the water in which it swims” to illustrate his point that “skepticism is key to media literacy education.” Interestingly, after doing some digging around, I found out that it appears as though this “saying” originated from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College, in which he begins his talk with “the standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories”:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This provides a nice segue into my second question, what might be some “different elements of being ‘fully’ literate? I agree with Dr. Williams that being literate today must also mean being skeptical. However, I believe that part of our ability to be skeptical, to critically analyze, comes from the training we have via our families, our schools, and our societies about what and how much a person is allowed to criticize. In other words, we don’t all come from the same water.

I’m going to speak about my experience living and working in China for a while. First, I want to be clear that I am in no way suggesting that Chinese people are not able to think critically, analyze, or speak up on issues that concern them. One of my favourite artists is Ai Weiwei, who has made a career out being critical. I will, however, make a few generalizations based on my own observations and experiences in China for the sake of demonstrating the need to be aware of different sociopolitical backgrounds when teaching a multicultural group of students (such as is often, if not always, the case in Canada today).

When I went to Beijing in 2003 to teach ESL in the Beijing Language and Culture University, I quickly understood that I’d need to leave my naturally critical/skeptical side behind in most situation I’d encounter. For example, before even entering the classroom, I had to sign a contract that makes the Sask Education’s Professional Code of Ethics I was critical of in my last blog post seem absolutely liberating. Here is an excerpt from it:

As you may be able to make out from this photo of my contract (don’t ask my why I still have it!), I was not allowed to “speak in any way, or at any place, against the Chinese government.”  There were several other no-nos that I had to obey.  I was also told that people were not allowed to meet in groups larger than five while in public places on campus, and that meeting privately with others for any religious reason would get me into trouble. These are just a few of the examples of “state control” that I experienced while teaching in Beijing.

I’m not sure how much has changed.  I do know that back in 2003, democracy was “booming,” or so they claimed:

A page from my scrap book: article taken from the China Daily, March 20th 2003.

And along with democracy, human rights were also getting more attention in Beijing starting in 2003, and so greater freedoms were just about to become available:

China Daily, January 2003

This was China 15 years ago. I’m not sure how much has changed, but I have the sense that large-scale social reform takes a long time to filter into one’s mind and unconscious… If for generations you’ve been taught to be careful of certain forms of criticism, that ingrained trait isn’t likely going to change in a matter of years.  And in fact, I know that many of my Chinese students today are very surprised to hear me voice my opinions on all sorts of topics that they consider forbidden to discuss while in China. For this reason, critical thinking applied to many topics, especially those related to politics, is a concept that is a sensitive one for ESL teachers to broach at times. One needs to be careful so as not to come across as “critical” of “non-critical” thinking.

As you can see, coming from an adult ESL-instructor’s perspective, I can say that engaging my students in the issue of digital/media literacy is complicated.  While there is a huge difference between speaking critically of one’s government and knowing how to read an online article to assess its legitimacy, I feel that these two issues are connected. Critical thinking, overall, is not a skill that I believe is as highly valued in all countries as it is in Canada. So, for teachers with students who come from a variety of cultural and political backgrounds, we need to be sensitive to the different experiences, training, or even skill-sets that our students have.