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New Literacies and New Books

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

There's a lot of talk out there about "new literacies," which may have some people confused. What kind of "literacy" is there beyond being able to read a book?

In an article in Wired magazine, Stanford professor and Bedford author Andrea Lunsford asserts that she believes that " 'we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization,' [. . . ]. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions."

Through online technologies, students are actively writing much more than they ever used to, the article goes on to explain. Just because they're not writing in modes and styles usually considered "academic" doesn't mean they're illiterate. Their literacy involves several different components that today's teacher has to recognize as literacy.

For one thing, today's literacy involves collaboration. Reading a book in the past was mainly a static, one-way interaction between author/text and reader. The author wrote, the text spoke, and the reader absorbed.

But now, the reader can talk back. Witness blogging and social networking, two online forms that our students are completely immersed in.  Teachers can gain much from wrapping their heads around the implications and potential of these new media. For one, it's likely to change the idea of a book.

The New York Times has already reported a shift from the printed textbook to the digital one, but this week, they up the ante with an article about an e-book that readers don't just read, but annotate, providing reader-generated footnotes:

Starting Sept. 14, chapters concerning praise for children (and why too much is not a good idea), the importance of an extra hour of sleep and the prevalence of lying among children, will be posted on, and, the Web site of the book’s publisher, the imprint that released the book. Readers will be able to highlight a word, a sentence or a paragraph and add notes that will be integrated as footnotes on the text.

It's this kind of collaborative writing that students are becoming increasingly familiar with, and can be very powerful in a classroom setting. Collaboration needn't be electronic, but the tools available online for electronic collaboration allow a kind of synergy between source and reader that has never previously existed. One such tool is collaborative bookmarking, as seen at the social bookmarking site, Diigo.

In a previous post, I wrote about social bookmarking, which enables users to share their bookmarks with a network. I mentioned that Diigo allows users to go several steps further, highlighting items on pages and adding sticky notes.

The beginning of the year is a great time to begin experimenting with a site like this one, creating a group of students in your class and having them collaborate on their reading of a Web site, using sticky notes to create their own "footnotes" and establishing ground rules for what constitutes "useful" annotation.

Further, if you can find online versions of classic texts (for example, the Gutenberg Project has long archived e-versions of out-of-copyright fiction and non-fiction), you can have students create their own annotated versions of the text, complete with student-generated study questions and debates.

It taps in to their collaborative culture, while allowing discussions about authorship, note-taking, and the processes of reading and writing.

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