If an observer were to walk into my high school English classroom during the literature circle units, that person may initially interpret the scene as “controlled” chaos. The person would see students engaged in varying activities, texts, and conversations. Some students would be talking in animated ways about the latest development in their novel, while others would be working indi–vidually, headphones in, intensely focused on ana–lytical writing. The person may also see loose pairs of students commenting on or sharing different nonfiction articles that connect their literature cir–cle book to what is happening in our community, state, and country. As the teacher, I would not be at the front of the room delivering direct instruc–tion. Instead, I might be conferencing with indi–vidual students on analytical writing, listening to group conversations, or answering questions stu–dents have about the nonfiction texts they chose to read. While these activities may initially seem unrelated, the unifying element in this unit is stu-dents’ agency over what they are learning and how they are learning. These varied activities fit into a pedagogical approach known as personalized, or blended, learning.
While a cursory glance in this classroom may not reveal much about the literacy practices in which students were engaging, blended learning allows teachers to incorporate students’ digital lit-eracy practices in meaningful ways. In many tradi-tional conceptions of schooling, the teacher, district, or state has control over what students learn and,
most of the time, the way students approach that curriculum. When this happens, many students feel alienated, as they have little control over how to en-gage in their learning, or they feel isolated, as the digital literacy practices they use outside of school are rarely addressed. Rather than reproduce these inequalities that accompany traditional conceptions of the classroom, blended learning moves the locus of control from teacher to student, allowing for po-tentially disruptive, transformative practices in the classroom. It allows teachers to embed the partic-ipatory, collaborative practices many students use outside school while—when paired with literature and nonfiction readings that challenge dominant narratives—allowing students to be central in the curriculum.
Students’ Digital Practices in and outside of the Classroom
Often when discussing the digital divide and dig-ital literacy in schools, the conversation is framed in terms of access to technology. Implicit in this discussion is the assumption that access to technol-ogy will create equity both in and outside of school. Although the question of access is still incredibly important in conversations about the digital divide and equity, the more pressing question is how stu-dents are engaging with media outside of school, and how teachers are asking students to use digital literacy practices within the classroom. In terms of digital practices outside of school, a 2015 Pew Research Center brief found a large majority of teens (ages 13–17) report having access to digital tools and to the Internet (Lenhart 16). Specifically, 94 percent of teens report going online daily, and 88 percent of teens report having access to a cell phone with almost three-quarters (73 percent) not-ing that their phone is a smartphone.
Beyond access to technology, many scholars documented that teens engage with digital media in different ways. In Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom Henry Jenkins and Wyn Kelley argue the following:
Literacy is no longer read as a set of personal skills; rather, the new media literacies are a set of social skills and cultural competencies, vitally connected to our own increasingly public lives online and to the social networks through which we operate. (48)
There are a few important ideas embedded within this new conception of literacy. First, Jenkins and Kelley and other scholars define these digital litera-cies as inherently collaborative, and often supported by social networks that work toward a larger, shared goal (8). Teens often work together in networks based on friendship or interests. Many students crowd-source their communities for ideas, find expertise in their peers, and engage in active dialogue, feedback, and circulation of media. Next, Jenkins and Kelley argue that digital literacy and media are often di-rectly linked to larger cultural understandings or conversations (8). Digital platforms allow students to co-create knowledge in ways not possible without media. While not all youth engage in each of these new literacy practices, many come into the classroom with experience in at least some of them.
Although many teens have access to technol-ogy and engage in some digital literacy practices, access alone does not guarantee youth are using digital tools or digital literacy practices in innova-tive ways. Most teens use digital media as a way to spend time with their peers outside of school or participate in collaborative activities such as video gaming (boyd 9; Ito 22). A smaller percentage of students spend time online experimenting or “tinkering” with their interests, whereas an even smaller subset uses their highly specialized knowl-edge or interest in a subject to create content or join interest-driven communities (Ito 31). Likewise, the Pew Research study on youth participation noted that youth use digital media in different ways and for different purposes as 57 percent of teens create content online by blogging, creating new content for social media, or creating projects for school (Lenhart 15–41).
Additionally, while many youth spend their time online hanging out with friends on social media, digital tools also provide a way for stu-dents to engage in civic life and to challenge dom-inant institutions. Many teens are wary of politics, its institutional barriers, and its disconnect from their daily lives. Instead, many youth turn on-line for their activism as 67 percent of youth ages 18–24 engage politically in some form (Kahne et al. 6). This political participation is equal across racial and ethnic groups. Some youth activism grows out of interest-based communities. For ex-ample, the Harry Potter Alliance mobilizes their interest-based community to focus on issues such as worldwide literacy and gender equality (Jenkins). Others are drawn to online communities out of a need to connect with likeminded peers to fight against oppressive institutional norms. Examples of this online activism include the Black Youth Project, DREAMers, and American Muslim youth who come together to share their stories digitally (Cohen et al. ix; Gamber-Thompson and Zimmer-man; Jenkins; Kahne et al. 14). Regardless, in a world full of institutional barriers, digital media af-ford students the opportunity to create, collaborate, and share their unique perspectives with the world.
While digital media certainly do not equalize op-portunities, they give youth a platform to spread their voices, develop new cultural competencies, or disrupt “power relations between adult authority and youth voice” (Everett ix).
The “Participation Gap” in Digital Literacy
Because many students bring new and varied dig-ital literacies into the classroom, it is critical that English teachers adopt transformative practices to address them. While access to technology is in-creasing, the literacy practices that accompany the technology are not necessarily changing. Many scholars argued that the biggest gap in the digital divide, then, is not access to digital technology, but the ways in which teachers ask students to interact ;with digital media (Beach 46; Kahne et al. 24; Taborn 48). Unfortunately, due to lack of professional development surrounding dig-that prioritizes digital lliteracies, and the many other constraints placed on English teachers, digital literacies often are under-addressed in the classroom. Instead, when technology is part of classrooms, it is often used to accomplish traditional literacy tasks—the “tool” is the focus instead of the literacy practice. For example, using a tool such as a laptop, interactive whiteboard, or tablet does not guaran-tee students’ digital literacy practices will be met (Garcia 94).
There are also important equity concerns in how different populations of students are asked to use technology in the classroom. High-income or white youth are more likely to be asked to develop their digital literacy skills in school through cre-ating collaborative content, whereas low-income or non-white youth are more likely to use digital media to practice basic skills (Taborn 48). Jenkins and Kelley term this disparity as the “participation gap,” as many youth do not have supportive net-works to help mentor them in the new collabora-tive practices of digital media (14). This problem is critical. The lack of training on digital literacies for non-white and low-income youth has serious implications for both their engagement in our class-rooms and, more importantly, their success navigat-ing digital literacies outside of the classroom.
To fix this participation gap, scholars rec-ommend incorporating the collaborative, socially embedded, and inquiry-based literacy practices students use outside of the classroom into our lit-eracy curriculum. Specifically, Mizuko Ito et al. called for teachers to adopt principles of “learn-ing connected civics,” which establishes a learning framework where teachers design curriculum that is peer-supported, interest-driven, and academi-cally oriented (15). They argued the convergence of these three areas will engage all learners and work toward creating equity. Similarly, other researchers found students were highly engaged when working on projects that asked them to collaborate, provide feedback, research, and create digital products. Jen Scott Curwood and Lora Lee H. Cowell saw stu-dent engagement rise significantly when students worked on an iPoetry project (114), and Jessica Dockter et al. saw similarly strong engagement with students working on creating an academically rigorous documentary (418). To achieve equity in digital literacy and close the participation gap, En-glish teachers need to adopt a transformative, rigor-ous digital literacy pedagogy that prioritizes digital literacy and is more than a digital tool.
One way to create transformative digital literacy pedagogy is to use the framework of personalized, or blended, learning. Originally a tool designed for undergraduate courses or nontraditional K–12 classrooms, blended learning has the potential to be a powerful tool for achieving equity in digital literacy practices. Rather than relying on access to digital tools to transform the classroom, blended learning is a disruptive pedagogy that shifts the control in the classroom from the teacher to the student, providing opportunities for students to use the socially embedded, collaborative literacy practices many have developed outside of school. To be considered blended learning, at least part of the student learning needs to take place in a traditional brick-and-mortar school with a teacher in the classroom—the course cannot be completely online. Most importantly, though, blended learn-ing necessitates that students have some control over the content, the pace at which they learn, and the place or time when they learn (Means et al. 8; O’Byrne and Pytash 138; Staker 5; Tucker and Um-phrey 37). This shift in control is critical in terms of student engagement; when students feel as if they have a say in both what and how they learn, many feel their voice is being honored. Therefore, in a blended learning classroom, the role of the teacher transforms from delivering the instruction in favor of acting as a curriculum facilitator or mentor.
Educators can “blend” their curriculum in multiple ways, as there is no “one-size-fits-all” ap-proach. In fact, researchers recommend teachers create their own curriculum framework, as they best understand local and state standards and, more importantly, their students’ needs. Just as with any pedagogy, blended, personalized learning should include frequent student assessment, use of mod-eling, and teacher support (Frey et al. 60). In fact, constant, frequent assessment should be a central part of blended learning, especially if teachers are designing multiple paths in the curriculum to fit students’ skill levels.
For English teachers seeking to create blended learning in their classroom, there are several differ-ent generalized approaches or models. One famil-iar approach is the “station rotation” model, where teachers design a series of activities connected to the curriculum’s core standards. For this activity to be truly blended, however, teachers should release control and allow students to determine the activ-ities they complete, the pace at which they move through the stations, and who is in their group. If a teacher controls the pace and content, the activ-ity is not truly personalized to students’ needs. This is where the collaborative digital literacies come into play; students’ learning is peer-supported and interest-based, and learning can be co-constructed through dialogue.
An even more disruptive shift in pedagogy is the “flex” model of blended learning. With the “flex” approach, teachers could create a “menu” or “playlist” of texts and tasks with differing topics and complexity, all of which address the essential content standards (Staker 76). During the unit, students would move at their own pace, submit-ting artifacts of their understanding as they work.
Students could elect to read texts individually or in small groups, based on their interests and skill level. Pre-assessment and ongoing formative assess-ment are critical to help students identify strengths and select texts or activities that properly challenge them (Frey et al. 60). While much of the learning occurs online, teachers could require activities like group discussion that allow students to work on their collaborative literacy skills. In this model, while students are working, the teacher would pull students individually, or in small groups, for reme-diation or provide additional challenges to students who demonstrate mastery. As the teacher is not de-livering direct instruction, the teacher can provide specific interventions for students based on their literacy skills.
Literature Circles and Blended Learning: A Disruptive Framework for Equity
In my ninth- and tenth-grade English classes, I used the “flex” model to maximize student agency, help students develop digital literacy skills, and provide students with opportunities to interro-gate privilege and challenge dominant institu-tions. With the essential support of Jackie Biger, a colleague and teacher-librarian, I designed units based on the socially embedded, collaborative, and interest-driven digital literacy practices. As Ito et al. recommend in their discussion of connected civics, my unit attempted to balance these partic-ipatory practices with rigorous content standards. While student choice was a priority, I did imple-ment some basic, structural requirements for stu-dents to meet course goals. Additionally, to help students track their weekly progress, Jackie de-signed a “game board” where students monitored their progress (see Figure 1). By the end of each week, students were required to submit three ar-tifacts: an analysis paragraph focused on theme in their book; a short synthesis writing where stu-dents connected a supplemental nonfiction article, video, documentary clip, interview, or cartoon to essential understandings in their book; and a dis-cussion log. For me as an instructor, these weekly artifacts gave me critical, formative insight into students’ performance. While these basic struc-tural requirements existed, students had complete control over how they spent their time in class.
Students could complete extension or challenge activities if they worked faster than their group members as the entire curriculum was available to them at the beginning of the unit (see Figure 2). Equally as important, this unit allowed students to challenge dominant cultural institutions through their full-text book, supplemental texts, and sub–sequent class discussions.
In my classes, students chose to read from a wide variety of classic and adolescent texts, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Lang, and dystopian literature. Thematically, the full-length books and supplemen–tal texts were connected through essential questions asking students to consider privilege, societal struc–tures, and oppressive institutions. For example, a popular supplemental selection for students reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings included videos on redlining, privilege, and cultural appropriation. Asking students to connect their books to current supplemental materials made the unit feel relevant to students’ lives and digital practices as students often track major concepts, ideas, or stories across different mediums outside of school.
An important element of the unit was stu-dent dialogue and collaboration. Although stu-dents were only required to have one formal group discussion about essential questions, most students collaborated much more frequently and in a variety of informal ways. Many students engaged in dia-logue about the texts they read, giving each other feedback, critiquing perspectives they read, and just generally co-constructing knowledge through conversation. Conversely, some students preferred to work independently, apart from the group dis-cussion, and complete tasks on their own time. The learning could be as socially embedded or as interest-driven as students wanted it to be.
From an instructor’s perspective, there were a few challenging elements to implementing blended learning. First, all the materials for the four-week unit needed to be designed before students started their work, which required a great deal of work to prepare multiple pathways and choices for five dif-ferent novels. Moreover, some students were not accustomed to the academic or structural freedom inherent in this unit, and consequently initially struggled with how to structure their time. To help with this, I modeled the flex structure with a week-long short story unit where students could prac-tice goal setting and time management. Finally, I worked intensely with students unfamiliar with digital literacy practices to ensure this did not be-come a barrier to success.
Beyond these challenges, I thoroughly en-joyed my role shift in the classroom. Instead of de-livering direct instruction or managing students’ time, I was free to work with students individually, talk with small groups about their interests as con-nected to their texts, effectively deliver formative assessment, specifically support learners’ needs, and push students who needed extra challenges. I be-came a facilitator or mentor in these literacy prac-tices, instead of the “instructor.” This role change was especially important as students were grap-pling with questions of privilege and power in soci-ety. Because I was not directing these conversations, students could ask questions, critique dominant in-stitutions, or challenge different perspectives.
Most importantly, most students loved the freedom and structure of blended learning. Students who met or exceeded proficiency standards liked that they could work at their own pace and complete extension activities. Students who struggled appreciated the oneon-one attention I could devote to them. On observing this type of pedagogy and talking to students about this type of learning, a visitor to my classroom commented, “I asked students about how this system worked for them and their eyes lit up: this way of learning, reading, and analyzing a novel was a revolution.” Finally, inviting students to challenge, critique, or participate in larger cultural conversations with their peers was inherently interesting to many students. Students asked probing questions of the texts they read, and of their peers. For example, I spent much of one class period discussing mass incarceration and Kalif Browder with a group of students shocked by his story. These generative moments emerged by inviting students’ digital literacy practices into the classroom and giving them control over their time and the ways in which they learned.Conclusion
While blended learning is not a cure-all for fixing digital literacy gaps, the framework provides op-portunities for educators to create a more equitable classroom, especially when paired with texts that challenge dominant institutions. As with any new instructional pedagogy, blended learning requires adjustment and mindset shifts from both students and teachers. However, in a setting where students often have little say over how their time is spent or what they learn, blended learning allows educators to honor student agency in meaningful ways. In my experience, the increased student agency, engage–ment, and digital literacy practices students experi–ence in blended learning are well worth the effort. If educators hope to create more just classrooms, put–ting students at the center of learning is an effective way to begin that transformative process.
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Mackenzie O’Connor Kaspar, a language arts teacher at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a University of Iowa graduate (BA 2011, MA 2017), and a member of NCTE since 2017, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.