5 Ways to Inspire Student Literacy with Digital Formats

This middle school teacher has found ways to leave the old essay model behind and still help her students learn what they need to know.

When Michele Haiken was in middle school as a student, aside from grammar lessons and quizzes on vocabulary, all she can remember is writing essays in English class. "We would read a book and we would write an essay about it," she said. That's not enough anymore, according to this literacy teacher at Rye Middle School in Rye, NY and adjunct professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase.

Nowadays she prefers to get "creative" and inspire her students with writing in different formats -- many of them digital -- "that are going to help them succeed in and out of school and become the effective critical creators and communicators that we want them to be."

Recently, Haiken's latest book, New Realms for Writing, was published by ISTE. Here, she shares five ways to inspire students with literacy lessons that take advantage of digital formats.

Fiction, Science and Infographics

Haiken likes to move beyond the traditional pairing of English and social studies and bring in science connections too. As she wrote in her book, by making literacy ties between those two subjects, "students can see the interconnectedness between their content-area classes." For example, she might help them draw links between Animal Farm and an article from The New York Times, such as Mark Bittman's editorial whose title quotes from the novel, "Some Animals are More Equal than Others."

But rather than having students choose a topic, do research and then simply write about it, she gives them various avenues to show their learning and understanding. That's where the infographic format comes in. This rich mix of data, text and graphics lets the students "bridge stories and emotion with hard evidence and research that they've collected."

The creation of an infographic also requires the learner to develop skill in gauging "the credibility of the author and the source of the information," she noted. " Can you note the bias? Can you pull out the essential idea and supporting details? Can you summarize it in your own words? What do you include? What do you leave out? What do you give voice to? These are all skills that we have students do with a larger text, but here we could do with research articles or information that they're gathering about their topic."

One of the challenges of this format, Haiken added, is that the graphic elements of infographics can be problematic for some students, whether that's picking the right format or choosing how to depict data and other graphic elements in a visually interesting way. "Infographics are also about graphic design and aesthetics, balancing the words with the icons or pictures and graphs, to help convey and portray a particular message," she said. When those hurdles come up, her typical response is to show them examples of components used in other infographics to jumpstart their thinking or to suggest the student work with a writing partner or somebody else in class to get feedback on their efforts.

Extra: Haiken likes to start projects by asking her students "what [they] want to change in the world," whether it's lead in drinking water, gun violence, or -- as one student undertook as a topic -- the harsh treatments currently available for cancer patients. As Haiken's book pointed out, "When students develop questions and conduct research to help answer those questions, they are empowered learners supporting their own learning process."

Listening to Podcasts with an Ear to the Details

Haiken is a self-professed podcast junkie, and she shares her fondness for that format with her students, especially as a follow-on to the infographic assignment. "We're constantly looking for models," she said. "We'll listen to a few, and then we'll brainstorm: What's the formula here? How are they making it engaging and interesting? We'll study it like a piece of classical literature: What are they doing here? Let's stop and look at just the introduction. They start with a hook and then they move in to previewing the subject..."

From there, the students begin to "craft out who their audience is, what sound effects would work, how transitions are handled." To help with that effort, she focused on Radiolab as an example and compiled a list of transition statements from 10 episodes to show students what words were used any time the hosts led into or out of an interview. That served as a go-to source for verbiage they could borrow or adapt for their work.

Extra: Haiken hasn't limited the podcast work to science coverage; she's used it to study other literary genres too, including mysteries. For example, she's played segments of the Tig Torres mystery in class and had students discuss how suspense is built, how the creators figure out where to put cuts, and how transitions help the listener identify potential clues and keep them engaged.

Lit Trips to Map Character Journeys

Haiken has worked with her colleague and social studies teacher, Francesca Miller, to develop myriad lessons. Miller follows a teaching philosophy that "requires her students to reflect on how choices impact outcomes," Haiken wrote. Miller's students use primary sources to "understand, think critically and reflect on history and its influence on our world today." In one particular unit the teachers wanted to help their students gain an understanding on "the roots and ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping." While Haiken had students read from Alexandra Zapruder's Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust, Miller had students track their characters' journeys using Google Maps and Google Tour Creator, which allows users to add or "pin" stops and landmarks on the map using images from Google Street View or 360-degree photos.

The purpose is to help the student bring the journey to life, said Haiken. "When you have a book like Alan Gratz's Refugee, it's three different stories about three young people and their families who are escaping persecution. One is told during the Holocaust, one is told during the 1990s in Cuba, and one is in present-day Syria. Students can see on a map where each character goes in the story and where they intersect," she explained. "It shows that it's not one person's journey, it's not one single story, but there are a lot of people who have that experience. To see it visually as well as to read it is very helpful for students to understand more deeply."

Extra: The social studies assignment was similar to Google Lit Trips, which are downloadable files that lay out the route of characters from literature that show up on Google Earth. As the nonprofit that created these explained on its website, "Along the way, placemarks with pop-up windows contain 'just in time' resources including relevant media, thought-provoking discussion starters and links to supplementary information about 'real world' references in that portion of the story." The focus of the service: to create "engaging and relevant literary experiences for students."

Hacking Poetry with Makey Makey

Haiken said her students "love" to play with Makey Makey, a tiny invention kit that helps users turn everyday objects into touchpads. The book profiled the work of Colleen Graves, a librarian and blogger, who uses the tool in a poetry project with her high schoolers.

According to Haiken, Graves' students choose a poem that "intrigues them," and read and analyze the poem through drawing images (using a conductive material like the soft graphite of a pencil) of meaningful aspects from the text, such as the imagery or symbolism, with specific touchpoints that work with Makey Makey. Then they record themselves reading the poem, focusing on "meaning, mood and tone." Next, they create a program in Scratch to "play" the drawings and recordings and add sound effects and music as needed. Once the program is done, they attach Makey Makey clips to their drawings, link those to the computer and set up triggers to play back the poem.

When Haiken tried that with her own students, "it became a whole experience," she recalled. "By touching the picture, you could hear the student read the poem aloud with a musical aspect to it. It gives them an interactive experience with words. It's not just something that you see or you hear, but it taps into all the different senses to [help you] understand and see how powerful words are and can be."

Extra: Haiken said she also likes to make student work more broadly available through blogs or Flipgrid. "I want my students to know that they're not to writing or creating something for me, their teacher, who they think is evaluating them. It can be an opportunity for readers and viewers to comment and share their insights. It's not a one-way dialog. It can be more of an extended conversation."

Virtual Revision Rotation Stations

Up to six years ago, Haiken used a set of physical locations in her classroom where students who had finished writing their first essay would visit to get more attention on specific aspects of their writing. Now those "stations" are virtual and gamified. By gamifying the revision process -- letting them generate points or get passport stamps -- Haiken said she's hoping to give students a bigger incentive than just getting a grade, to make their writing "powerful and stronger."

"Revision Olympics," as she calls them, consist of challenges or stations where students participate in some revision activity to help them improve their essay. The stations consist of these:

  • Student exemplars and reflection, where the learners read an exemplar and then ask themselves: What does this student writer do well? What could be "borrowed" from the essay? What's one thing I'm going to do differently in my essay as a result of reading this?

  • Building better introductory paragraphs, which focuses on the introduction, by walking students through a checklist: Does it have an attention-grabbing statement to hook the reader? How do you bring the reader up to speed for background knowledge? Is there a "clear claim" that lays out in a single sentence what you're writing about?

  • Supporting your claim walks students through a graphic organizer to review their evidence and analysis. They use highlighters to code the evidence in their essays and share their graphic organizer with a writing partner to articulate their proof points.

  • Grammar check is where students check grammar, usage, spelling and mechanics. Since the students in Haiken's classroom are outfitted with Chromebooks, she has them access various online grammar tools to help them with their editing.

The physical stations have now given way to virtual stations, support materials that are hyperlinked and scaffolded on Google Classroom and that might include videos for them to watch. "It's not me at the front of the classroom teaching one lesson. Students have access to the materials and the resources that they need," Haiken pointed out. "If it's something that I feel everybody is struggling with, I might stop and do a large class lesson. But for the most part in writing workshop, my students are at all different places. By putting that material online and having that flipped material, it frees up the time for me to get to each student individually and help them where they're at."

Extra: Inspired by educator Lisa Guardino, who shared her use of game boards online, Haiken created her own, which she used when students were revising investigative journalism articles they had written. As she described in her book, the gameboard was posted on Google Classroom during a writing workshop and, like Snakes and Ladders, allowed her students to move up and down the board to guide them through the revision and editing steps.

Looking for the Fun in Learning

Ultimately, as she's developing new units or lessons, said Haiken, she constantly asks herself, "Would I want to be sitting in my class every day? Would I want to do a project like this?"

Her advice to others: "Be creative and get outside of our traditional thinking space. Yes, there is so much technology out there that it can be overwhelming, but if you home in on a tool and think about how it can help you to boost your students' writing and literacy skills and it fits well into your unit or the ideas that you're teaching, explore and work with the students to try it out and have fun."