Since 2002 ReadWriteThink has provided literacy educators with access to a large and growing collection of free educational materials. There are hundreds of lesson plans, calendar resources, printouts, and interactive tools.

The site has become one of the most used web resources for educators and students, and has just released a much-improved design. The content is now browsable by type, grade, learning objective, theme, and allotted time. Out-of-school resources for parents and afterschool providers have been consolidated into an easily accessible section.

ReadWriteThink is a partnership between the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and Verizon Thinkfinity. Bringing these organizations together has been an important contribution of the project in its own right.

Inquiry Based Learning interview

Michael Hallissy recently interviewed me from Dublin, Ireland for a podcast on Inquiry Based Learning. I can’t bear to listen to my recorded self, so I’m not sure why you would, but in case you’re a masochist, the link above should be just what you need. Extra credit if you can spot the two factual mistakes we made, one by Michael and one by me.

New literacies and frogs

I visited the University of Connecticut in Storrs yesterday. It was a brief stop, but enough to be once again impressed with the excellent work of the New Literacies Research Team, led by Don Leu. They use new media, not simply to enhance or modernize in a superficial way, but to return classroom literacy to its roots in real communication. Nearly every project I heard about emphaizes reading and writing with a purpose and communication with real audiences.

For example, one project links a fourth-grade class studying the continents with a first-grade class in another state doing the same. The fourth-graders made online slide presentations to help teach the younger students, but quickly learned that their language was too advanced. They then recorded audio explanations to help explain things better.

On the way to UConn, I passed through nearby Willimantic, which is famous for its legend,“The Battle of Frog Pond”. This great battle occurred in 1754 around the time of the French and Indian War. It started with a huge racket in the middle of the night. The terrified villagers seized their muskets and prepared for the attack. In some accounts, they fired wildly across the town common. But no attack materialized. Instead, when morning arrived, they found hundreds of dead bullfrogs. A nearby pond had dried up causing the bullfrogs to fight for the remaining water.

Later, American Thread Company established a mill in the town, which grew to be one of the largest producers of thread in the world. Willimantic became known as “Thread City,” and today boasts four statues on its bridge across the Willimantic River, each with a huge thimble and a giant, now silent, bullfrog.

The possibility of making sense

earthquake-imgConnecting learning and life sometimes sounds like a useful accessory for the real business of learning in the classroom. But relevance to life is what makes learning possible.

Emerson (1983, p. 1088) reminds us that we need a reason to learn:

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake, on ghastly diagrams of cloven mountains, up-heaved plains, and the dry bed of the sea.

Frank Smith (2004, p. 182) adds that we need materials or activities out of which we can make sense:

It isn’t nonsense that stimulates children to learn but the possibility of making sense; that’s why children grow up speaking language and not imitating the noise of the air conditioner.

All too often, we struggle to motivate, monitor, and assess learning because students aren’t learning, or worse, the classroom feels lifeless. But that struggle is futile if we don’t face the real problem, that learning needs to make sense, to have an intrinsic purpose for the learner. Paraphrasing Wittgenstein (1958, II, iv, 232), the existence of a repertoire of teaching methods “makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us.” But the real problem in many formal learning situations is that there is no reason to learn, and “problem and method pass one another by.”

See more about purpose in learning in my post on Education for what is real.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1983). Essays and lectures. Des Moines, IA: The Library of America.

Smith, Frank (2004). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read (6th Ed.).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958). Philosophical investigations, third edition (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.

Governor’s Home Town Award for UC Books To Prisoners!

UC Books To Prisoners – a project of the UCIMC (B2P) is based in Urbana, Illinois. B2P mails books to Illinois inmates at no cost to them and operates lending libraries in the two local county jails.

guv_mansionB2P has just been awarded a Governor’s Home Town Award (for volunteerism).  The award makes B2P eligible for the Governor’s Cup, a traveling silver trophy signifying the project deemed most representative of the spirit of Illinois volunteerism. The award will be presented at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield on October 29. At that time, we’ll learn what level of award B2P has received.

Books to Prisoners has also received a Social Justice grant from the Illinois Disciples Foundation, with a press conference on October 1, and an honorable mention from the McKinley Foundation Social Justice Awards.


Visual literacy in the information age

ching-chiu1Ching-Chiu Lin is a founding member of the Youth Community Informatics project. Her work with Timnah, Lisa, and Karen at the Urbana Middle School integrated art, music, story-telling, cultural heritage, and multimedia in an after-school program. That’s one of the models for our current work.

michoacanChing-Chiu’s dissertation, A qualitative study of three secondary art teachers’ conceptualizations of visual literacy as manifested through their teaching with electronic technologies, analyzed similar arts and new media projects in three schools. I’ve learned a little while ago that it was awarded second place for the 2008 Eisner Doctoral Research award. This was officially announced at the National Art Education Association (NAEA) convention in Minneapolis this month.

Congratulations, Ching-Chiu!

Today, the me nobody knows

me_nobody1I came across the poem, “Today,” in the me nobody knows: children’s voices from the ghetto, by Stephen M. Joseph (Avon, 1969). There are many beautiful, and some heartbreaking, stories and poems in the book, which is an anthology of writings by children in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Harlem, Jamaica, and the lower west and east sides of Manhattan. The year after the book was published, a musical based it, The Me Nobody Knows, premiered in New York.

Joseph, a teacher, invited the children to write, offering three choices: to write using their names, in which case he was willing to meet at lunch or outside of school to talk with them about it; omit their names, but still hand in the writing; or write, but neither sign the paper nor hand it in. But he never forced them to write at all.

The pieces in the book give one picture of life in the inner city, or for that matter, many children everywhere. They invite the question: Are we doing any better for children today, 40 years later?

This poem struck me for its rhythm and the ways that things seem not totally to fit, but do fit all the same.

Cynthia L, Age 15

Today is my day,
Today should be your day,
If it’s your day and my day
It’s everybody’s day.
In your way is my day
Because you made a day that comes all the way.
And two days of a way equal today.
That will never fade away.
In our own way let’s find ways
To make great exciting things happen.
In your ways, make my days,
You made a day that comes all the way,
And two days that are made up of your ways,
Those kind of days will never fade away.

Sharing your books, for a noble cause …

wordle_mark_quote [tag cloud from the UC Books to Prisoners site, created using wordle]

UC Books to Prisoners is an Urbana, IL based project providing books to Illinois inmates at no cost. Books to Prisoners offers books by mail to all Illinois inmates and operates lending libraries in the two Champaign County jails.

Is your book collection weighing you down? Do you have a home library that is threatening the structural integrity of your abode? Champaign-Urbana has many great places to donate books. One of the neediest is the Books to Prisoners program, profiled earlier in a Smile Politely piece.

We take donations of used books from the community, mail books in response to prisoner requests, and stock and staff the two local jail libraries. Those books that are not suitable for prisoners, for a variety of reasons, are sold to cover the postage to mail books.

Thanks to community support, we have sent 32,162 books in 8,281 packages to 5,096 inmates since we were founded five years ago. Go here for details about dropping off books.

If you’d like to get rid of your books, merely to make space to acquire more, come to our Spring Book Sale April 3–5 at the IMC in the old Urbana Post Office. A huge assortment of high quality books: paperbacks at 50 cents, hardbacks for a buck.

via Sharing your books, for a noble cause … : SPlog : Smile Politely

Digital literacy, what is it?

When in Dublin last year, Leo Casey, Abi Reynolds, and I led a little exercise on the question, “Digital literacy, what is it?” This simple activity led to surprisingly fruitful discussions, often extending more than an hour, although it never produced a consensus answer to the question.

We had found six definitions of digital literacy from leading organizations and then modified each of them a little so their source wasn’t easily identifiable. We then printed the modified definitions on A3 paper and hung them around the room. We asked participants to read them all, stand next to the one they agreed with the most, then discuss.

Every time we tried this, every definition had several strong advocates. One interesting phenomenon was that the Microsoft definition often drew the most supporters, which dismayed those who’d selected it. I don’t want to say more here, because I’d like people to experience the activity as our participants did. If you try it on your own, please cast your vote and justification through the comments (link above).

Here are the modified definitions we used:

  • the term multiliteracies highlights two related aspects of the increasing complexity of texts: (a) the proliferation of multimodal ways of making meaning where the written word is increasingly part and parcel of visual, audio, and spatial patterns; (b) the increasing salience of cultural and linguistic diversity characterized by local diversity and global connectedness 

  • basic computer concepts and skills so that people can use computer technology in everyday life to develop new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities
development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good 

  • the knowledge and ability to use computers and technology efficiently
  • the ability to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information
  • a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural, and philosophical context and impact

With coaxing, I’m willing to reveal the original definitions and sources.

Why I came to library and information science

My academic career includes degrees in biology and computer science, teaching computer science in two universities, research in a high-tech, R&D firm, teaching in a college of education, and teaching now in a school of library and information science. My dissertation adviser was in philosophy, and the dissertation itself was in mathematical logic and artificial intelligence. I’ve published in a variety of journals, including those in other fields. People have often asked: Is there any rationale for this? Were you just booted from one place to another?

I could give a practical account of why I moved to a library and information science school nine years ago, but that wouldn’t explain how I think of the field and what led me to that decision. To do that, I need to start a bit earlier…


Chip in Fort Worth, 1954

When I was three years old, I enrolled along with four other children in the Frisky and Blossom Club held at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum (now the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History). Frisky and Blossom were de-scented skunks who lived in the old house that was the Museum then. The club evolved into the Museum School, the largest in the US, with over 200,000 alums. I stayed with the school, learning about plants and animals, astronomy, history, and many other topics. Most importantly, I learned how energizing learning could be when it’s connected to what we care about and how it can grow out of things in the world around us.

That interest in informal learning bolstered by museums and libraries, continued. When I was eight years old, I never missed the bookmobile when it came by our neighborhood. I was a collector of insects, sea shells, postage stamps, books, and all sorts of other things. But reading and writing were the most important means for expanding my world. It’s sad to say, but little of this occurred for me in school, which often felt like some unjustified punishment. I learned arithmetic from card and board games outside of school, but also by counting the minutes until the end of the class, the school day, or the school year. Science was as much through a chemistry set and nature study as through classes. And so on.

These experiences led me to value inquiry-based learning. They also made it harder for me to understand knowledge as confined within static categories. When I applied to college, I considered majoring in history, geology, biology, and English, but later thought philosophy or behavioral sciences might be better. For graduate school, I chose computer sciences, not because I was so enamored of the machine, but because the field appeared the be the closest to offering a general tool for interdisciplinary inquiry. My work in artificial intelligence emphasized computer natural language understanding and reasoning. That led in a more direct way than might appear at first into education. Fortunately, working on projects such as a statistics curriculum and software for high school students, or Quill, a program for reading and writing, allowed me to create learning environments that were more integrated and connected to the life of students, something I had missed to a large extent in my own schooling.

Later, I brought those experiences to a college of education. I found many opportunities to expand on those experiences. But I also found that the means of formal schooling were sometimes disconnected from the ends I valued. The emphases on measurable learning objectives and teacher credentialing often crowded out discourse on the changing nature of literacy or the connection of learning and life. Because my work involves collaborations with those in other disciplines, I saw space for those ideas in other realms, such as writing studies, communication, occasionally in the sciences, and especially, in library and information science.


Chip in Dublin, 2007

As I worked with people in library and information science, I found a serious engagement with issues such as the moral and political aspects of texts and information systems, changes to literacy practices related to new technologies and globalization, distributed knowledge making, information for community needs, and new ways of organizing and providing access to information. Although not all of my colleagues would characterize it this way, I see issues of learning threaded through everything we do. Learning is the creative act of meaning making that occurs in praxis, the integration of theory and practice. More than any other discipline, library and information science provides the space to engage with that phenomenon. It brings together the informed and critical understanding of texts and information systems with serious attention to the impact on human life.

There are many other reasons I might add for my joining GSLIS per se–the high level of collegiality, the moral commitment, the respect for both the old and the new, and the sincere interest in and openness to continuing to learn. These things make coming to library and information science seem wise, in spite of myself and my meandering path.