Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Feeling Ok

          Last night, while winding down after teaching a night class, I flipped to the Sundance channel.  Reservoir Dogs had just started and I had to watch the iconic opening scene.  One part of that scene is Tarantino deconstructing Madonna’s Like a VirginIt reminded me how much I also love to deconstruct music while listening. And I get easily fixated on a band or on an album.  Some examples include, Wincing the Night Away by the Shins, Blowout Comb by Digable Planets, Fantasies by Metric, or The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, or Tetsuo & Youth by Lupe Fiasco, just to name a few.  Recently, I have read brilliant analyses of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, including the album cover.  On my commute to campus today, I decided to listen to Best Coast’s California Nights in its entirety (yes I have a long commute).  As the music blared while barreling down the highway, I found myself deconstructing the songs and the album from a multimodal perspective.  Music is one of the most original multimodal texts in our society and some of the earliest texts we interact with in our lives. While I often tend to focus on lyrics, it is the juxtaposition of dark lyrics and pop hooks that often reel me into a song. As a child raised during the ascent of MTV (even though we didn’t have cable and watching at friends’ houses or only seeing the most popular on Friday Night Videos on network TV had to suffice), I started thinking about the construction of the music videos from this album too.  What I intend through this post, is to discuss my own deconstructive process with this album as I closely and repeatedly listened and share some pedagogical implications.  The idea is that I am learning through my own practice of close reading a multimodal text; a full length indie rock studio album.  Plus, it is a great excuse to write about one of my favorite albums of 2015.  

            Best Coast is a band from California who have been in regular rotation for me over three albums. When California Nights debuted this summer, I fell instantly in love.  I am drawn to fuzzy guitar juxtaposed over dark lyrics especially when sung with falsetto tones.  All summer I have played my favorite tracks, added to playlists, and have shared several individual songs on social media.  I went to see the band at the Chicago Metro with my sister and friends.  Upon listening to the album prior to the show, I started getting the feel for a far greater cohesion between songs that was quite intentional rather than a collections of individually great tracks.  Now, my interpretation of the album after several listens is that it is a singular narrative arc about an acrimonious relationship that the lead singer, Bethany Cosentino, can’t get over. While critics have pointed to Best Coast's lyrics as lacking depth, I find them to be perfect for the feel they are trying to create in this album. Feelings of elation, self-doubt, loneliness, hopelessness, anger, and obsession.  My joy in the album comes not from the lyrics and the music but the synergy between the two. Combined in multiple ways to create a narrative about obsessive love, the album becomes more than a sum of any of its individual notes, lyrics, or songs.  What follows next is my attempt to describe how I have come to closely analyze this album.

With the guitarist, Bobb Bruno after the show

Best Coast at the Chicago Metro


         The album contains 12 tracks and begins with Feeling OK.  A poppy opener that is bright, yet Cosentino reveals her state of depression.  “My doctor says that I should take it.  At least I won’t have to fake it.”  But the chorus repeats the promise of a new relationship letting the listener know that “it's love that has her feeling ok”.  The guitar begins with one note and is light (:06-:20) while Cosentino’s voice elevates throughout (2:40-3:00).  Track two, Fine Without You, comes from the perspective of a friend’s advice that the now apparent break-up is out of her hands (:01-1:05).  Mid verse the song switches from 3rd person to 1st person (1:05-1:34) where she muses, “now I pace alone in my room, wondering how to be fine without you”.  The guitar drives throughout delivering a feeling of urgency and tension. The last verse is quick paced while the guitar drives home the last 30 seconds in a much more frenetic pace.   Yet in the next song, Heaven Sent, it appears the couple has gotten back together.  “When you were gone, I wasn’t good, I wasn’t fine” is a nice allusion back to Fine Without You.  Initially the guitar is measured but more raucous than the previous tracks. Consentino repeats “you are the one that I adore” and then the guitar goes off the rails (2:36-3:10).  It serves as foreshadowing that the relationship is unbalanced as adoration does not equal love and this is destined go off the rails as well.  The next song, In My Eyesopens with “I wake up alone, I look at the phone there’s no one there.”  Some of the cleanest guitar on the album is in this track, yet the guitar whines throughout much like the lyrics.  “I face the fact that you’re not ever coming back. …What hurts the most is that its done and I don’t remember having fun, but you’re in my eyes.” As the guitar is foregrounded, Costentino’s voice soars giving the feeling of a great summer track, but the lyrics are anything but reminiscent of a summer romance.  This completes the first 1/3 of the album.  Four songs about love gained, lost, regained, and torn apart. Following this arc are three songs about looking inward to find answers about why the relationship has failed. 

            So Unaware, When Will I Change, and Jealousy all seek answers.  “What is life?  What is love?  What’s the meaning of it all?  Do I even care or is it just that I am so unaware?” This reads like a journal entry from my 20s.  By this point in the album, anyone who has suffered through this type of break-up can identify with Cosentino’s lament.  At one point as she stretches the lyrics, “so unaware”, and "I'll never understand you" repeatedly the drums beat singularly (2:45-3:00), giving the sonic metaphor of beating yourself up over a failed relationship. In fact the drums are much more prominent throughout these three songs.  The next two tracks are similar in structure and inward focus.  Track 8, California Nights, is the pivot point of the album.  After 7 songs of guitar-driven pop, California Nights sets an ethereal mood both musically and lyrically.  “I never want to get so high that I can’t come down to real life and look you in the eyes and say baby you’re mine.”  This is the nadir of her feelings.  "California nights make me feel like I could die. But I'll try and stay alive".  Musically, it is such a stark contrast to every other track and punctuates her despair.

            However, Track 9, Fading Fast, bursts as a bubble gum pop song reminiscent of The Ronettes or Madonna's True Blue.  But, lyrically juxtaposed to the sound Cosentino croons, “This love will be the death of me, but you’ll always be a part of me, in dreams when I close my eyes” but then screams "get out of my head, get out of my head, get out of my head" (1:28-1:38)!  My favorite track is Run Through My Head.  Another guitar driven song that alludes to a back and forth that the relationship hasn’t fully ended in the first verse but the guitar plucks a single note that sounds like picking at a proverbial scab that won't heal as a result.  The second verse cleverly switches to single guitar chord progressions while Cosentino begs, “all that I wanted was a second chance, so I could convince you to take me back”.  The songs ends sounding like an anthem proclaiming “all of the things I never said run through my head, run through my head" and the guitar and drums parallel the anger.   Finally the album ends with Sleep Won’t Ever Come and Wasted Time.  Meloncholy, like California Nights, Wasted Time serves as the coda for the album. Cosentino's voice sounds like it is in a canyon as she sings “I don’t really mind, all of this wasted time. Just wish that I had to something to show for it”. After 11 songs asking every possible question for why the relationship has failed, only one thing is left. Resignation. 

            I fell in love with many of these songs this summer. After this close listen, however, I can’t think of these songs as independent 3 minute pop candy but only as an integral part of the narrative arc of the album.  That changes how I listen to them and how I hear the music.  And now how I watch the videos.  The video for Feeling Ok seemed odd to me at first. Now though I see Bobb Bruno, the guitarist, as the disinterested boyfriend at the end of the video (1:59-2:08).


 Heaven Sent, is filmed as if in dreamlike state with Cosentino adorned in a wedding dress. The intense affection is in her own head and not grounded in reality but in obsession.


By closely listening, re-listening, and deconstructing the album, I have gained new perspective on the lyrics, the music, and the videos and have an even deeper connection with the album.  It ranks right up there with the examples I shared above.

            So what does this have to do with teaching and learning?  When I have participated in #HiphopEd chat, I have tweeted that we should treat songs as texts and albums like literature.  

             With the emphasis on close reading, I think we need better ways to tap into the purposes for doing so.  In this case, I had an authentic purpose because I love the music.  So many instructional examples of close reading I have seen, are formulaic and remove any possible joy of critical analysis.  Close reading should lead discovery, appreciation, and deep learning not be a set of prescribed routines to meet the CCSS.  We closely read, view, and listen for many purposes.  Many of which are to add meaning to our lives.  We need more examples of how to closely read multimodal texts to extract their rich meanings. Music is an often ignored text in favor of images or videos.  Music often serves as in integral mode in video production.  Providing students opportunities to analyze, write about, create, and remix music can be a powerful use of multimodality for learning. With that power also comes a need to support these literacies.  

             After being meta about my own experience, there are a few constructs that I believe can support students literacies. First, reading an album as a text, led to several intratextual connections throughout.  Repeated listenings tuned me into to repeated phrases across songs such as "fine without you" and "so unaware" which are also song titles. Sonically, there are intratextual connections in the ways the guitar or drums sound or they way voice is foregrounded or backgrounded to the music.  An album also affords intertextual connections to other music, movies, and life experiences.  The variety of modes continually multiply the possible connections and meanings to be made.         

            Writing about music is challenging even with critics reviews as mentor texts.  Citing lyrics was easy but I needed ways to describe the instruments and the vocals.  I needed language about how music is used such as falsetto, chords, etc.  In a blog I was able to link the music so you, the reader, could listen and evaluate my interpretations. Textually, I could also mark the points in the music or music video to reference my own text.  If this blog was composed in a traditional essay format, I wouldn't have the affordances of images, songs, and videos to share.  This experience has only reinforced the critical need we have to teach kids a metalanguage (Kress, 1996; Serafini, 2014) about multimodal texts.  I would add though, we need another layer of meta-language about the modal interactions the create communicative ensembles (Jewitt, 2013). Analyzing the individual modes are insufficient to recognize the cross modal dependency to communicate the narrative.  We need to foster instructional opportunities to recognize these sites of multimodal intertextuality.  Music is an optimal media source for doing so. 
            Finally, close reading of multimodal texts invariably leads to encounters with remixes and subsequent analysis of those texts such as this cover of Wasted Time by Dntl Fan Fiction led by Jimmy Tamborello of The Postal Service.  A cool cover as an invidual track but the music doesn't match the mood of the album.  Or how songs get represented in music videos. All have implications for students’ own multimodal compositions and how they design messages that overlap modes.  A future iteration of this analysis could include a video of me talking over the music and pausing to point out parts of the song I want to highlight. Perhaps a podcast or vodcast would be a better medium.  These are all design choices (NLG, 1996) I need to decide on so that I can best share my interpretations. Students need spaces to design and redesign.

            I recognize that my critical analysis of this album is rooted in my own fascination with Best Coast and my love the genre. But the possibilities for teaching close reading of multimodal texts through the use of students’ own media fascinations are promising.  While I have been called an incredible music snob, this exercise makes me value even more that reading is intensely personal and that we should capitalize on the music and texts that youth love. They can be leveraged to teach the art of close reading and how it reframes the meanings of texts to foster transacting between the reader and the text rather than rote approaches to extracting seemingly fixed meanings.  I have yet to read a review of this album that analyzes it from my perspective.  I may be way off but I think my listening and examples ground my interpretation. While I hope you listen and come to appreciate this album in the ways that I do, it still enters the pantheon of seminal albums that constitute the soundtrack of my own life.   More importantly, I was able to construct MY own interpretation by transacting with the band and that has me feeling ok.  We have choices to make pedagogically because youth deserve to feel more than ok about their literacies practices.  

Authors note:  I often use blogging to spur my own academic journal writing.  I hope this does the trick. If it doesn't, I am happy to DJ your next event. 


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

To What End?

Recently, in the midst of revising syllabi, planning for the first day of classes, working with local high schools, I also have been reflective about what the purpose of my research and teaching have been and will be.  Over that past several years I have been focused on disciplinary literacy instruction for adolescents. But I am writing this post to address the question, "To what end?” What is the purpose for kids to engage in disciplinary literacy practices?  In a recent blog post I argued more broadly for why kids need disciplinary literacy instruction.

While some might argue that a disciplinary literacy approach may only reify the disciplines, I would argue that epistemic commitments to the tentative and contested nature of disciplinary knowledge through apprenticed inquiry can empower youth to critically engage with their world.

While I still believe that to be true, it rings too broad for me after the past several days in Ferguson, MO.  We need kids to critically engage in their world right now.  And they are engaged.  The movement in Ferguson and in the US is also being led by several young people.  Here is but one example of critically engaged youth.

And yet I see so much vacuous analysis in the media that is ahistorical.  And I see downright malicious reporting in the media through the intentional use of language to coarsely dehumanize Mike Brown and the community of Ferguson.  However I also see the pushback on Twitter and I have read some of the best writing about this subject.  We need more disciplinary literacy instruction because we need more participation in our democracy. We need instruction that not just investigates literature for abstract language use but how that language serves as a societal mirror and window.  We need historical inquiry that doesn’t simply teach historical thinking practices but inquiry that is at the core of what it means to be an informed and critical citizen. That literature, language, sources of the past, and interpretations of the past are meant to be deeply interrogated because they inform the present and our reading of those texts also shape the future.  Reading, writing, and discussion are tools of protection as Dr. Alfred Tatum states.  

If literacy education is to make a difference in people’s lives then it cannot be to simply meet standards or consume more text.  My goal is to make my disciplinary literacy instruction more consequential because it has real ramifications for the society we seek for today and tomorrow.  For example we can teach lots of things this year about civil rights. Will we investigate this?  Or this? Will we read and view this? Or watch and analyze this?
Will we connect to the literacies that young people possess and capitalize on them to build greater agency? Will we value the texts they value and also introduce transforming ones? Will we read James Baldwin AND Teju Cole?  And not to be read for for literal and inferential comprehension but for language to inscribe on to our consciousness and shape our action? 

I am encouraged to see people so active in this pursuit like #FergusonSyllabus, #HiphopEd, and #sschat who are discussing how to teach Ferguson.  Disciplinary literacy instruction can also teach kids to continue interrogating their world because events like Ferguson aren’t going away anytime soon.  But this generation of students have taken the reins in the fight for justice.  As teachers and teacher educators let’s work with young people to construct a future that sees more progress in the next fifty years than perhaps we have seen in the past fifty.  That just might be a worthy end.   

Monday, August 11, 2014

Stay Chrome Not Gilded

I am excited and honored to collaborate with Mundelein High School District 120 this year as they begin to implement 1:1 computing with their students. While much is often made about the power of 1:1 from the standpoint of instructional technology, I would argue that it is more about the amplification of opportunities for responsive literacy instruction. This post is the beginning of that collaboration and dialogue with District 120 teachers as they begin to integrate 1:1 technology into their instruction.

The major premise of my talk on the 2nd day of Mundelein’s Tech Summit is that it is not about the technology but rather the literacy practices of their students, what is demanded in their disciplines, and the literacies needed to be critical and participatory citizens.  So, then how can we leverage the tools that will be at the disposal of students and teachers for this practice?

I propose five elements that make digital literacies amplify literate practice for adolescents.  Throughout the year we will then consider implications for teaching and learning. 

      1.  Students will need to be able to read every text type one can imagine.
      2.  Students will need to synthesis multiple texts quickly and proficiently.
      3.  Students will need to engage in critical literacy to vet online texts.
      4.  Students will be able to engage in collaborative meaning making
      5.  Students will have the opportunity to compose content for a wide audience.

1.     Reading multiple text types online
While just about the entire body of human knowledge is available online, it also comes in a variety of representations. While traditionally students have read predominantly written texts with audio-visual texts often treated as ancillaries, online reading often involves reading written word along with flash-animation, videos, pictures, etc.  It is critical that students be able to closely and critically read multiple text types.  To support the reading of text types, researchers like Len Unsworth and Frank Serafini have argued that we need to teach kids a meta-language about audio-visual texts. That is, the language used to comprehend audio-visual texts is different than the comprehension of traditional texts.  Attention to elements of sound, color, shape, etc all are critical to extrapolating the message of different text types.  And because so many text types of available online we also need to acknowledge that reading online always involves multiple text comprehension.

2.     Multiple text synthesis online
We often treat the reading of text in the classroom more singularly. Working through a single text and then perhaps reading others from a text set or reading a new text the next day.  Online however, reading multiple texts becomes simultaneous. Consider the number of texts embedded on a single webpage as well as the host of links that lead the reader to other texts.  While I would agree that all reading is intertextual, school based reading has been treated more singularly.  Research has consistently demonstrated though that people struggle to synthesize multiple texts.  Therefore we need to engage kids in specific strategies for reading and comprehending multiple texts.  There are a few multiple text synthesis strategies explained in a strategies book I co-authored with Roberta Berglund and Jerry Johns: ContentArea Learning: Bridges to Disciplinary Literacy.  

My three favorites include Synthesis Journals, Multiple Text GIST, and I-Charts.  While working to read to synthesize multiple texts, students also need to be judicious about the texts they select.

3.     Critical Literacy
Traditionally, teachers have been the gatekeepers of information through they textbooks and supplemental handouts.  A 1:1 environment removes that gate and opens up and endless amount of text.  While the Internet is replete with texts, many are unauthored, unvetted, and unreliable.  It is critical for students and teachers to not approach reading as merely an act of consumption but one of critical analysis.  Critical online source evaluation (McVerry, 2012) is necessary in the selection process of texts that will ultimately need to be synthesized.  Additionally, critical media literacy (Morrell, 2013) is needed to read not just the word but the world. A critical reader online could be said to be more engaged as a citizen.  Criticality is not simply transmitted from teacher to student.  It is learned through social participation and collaborative sense making.

4.     Collaborative meaning making
1:1 environments create opportunities for powerful collaborations across time and space.  While a plethora of tech tools can engender collaboration, they are meaningless if only used because they are collaborative tools.  Tasks designed to be collaborative are more important that the tool.  A blog with no audience is a word-processed essay.  A wiki with no collaboration is a poster with digital glitter and glue (from my friend Gena Khodos). Start with your learning objectives and task design that require collaborative meaning making. Then select the tool to deepen that collaboration.

5.     Writing for publication
These collaborative engagements also have the power to be shared with the widest audience possible.  Online Content Creation (O’Byrne, 2013) means that students have the ability to create and share a variety of productions such as digital storytelling, blogging, video creation, tweeting, etc.  Publication moves from an audience of 1 (the teacher) to potentially a global audience. If we are to truly value what young people have to say, then we need to provide opportunities to share their voices, cultivate their ideas, and grapple with local and global problems. 

As I conceptualize digital literacy practices, I see students embodying them by:

Reading multiple forms of text
Writing in a variety of mediums
Speaking to the widest audience possible
Listening to global perspectives

As we begin another school year I hope these considerations are ones that inform instruction and assessment.  At the end of the day no amount of technology will do the teaching and learning for us. I often like to share this quote:

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box."

I wish I had written it but it was Edward R. Murrow who wrote it in 1958 about the television. It is a reminder that we can either place our emphasis on the technology or we can focus on the using the technology to forward our pedagogical goals.  

There are several researchers that have influenced my thinking about digital literacies including, Julie Coiro, Kimberly Lawless, Ian O’Byrne, Greg McVerry, Kristy Pytash, Ernest Morrell, Amy Hutchinson, William Kist, Phil WilderNathan Phillips, Blaine Smith, Bridget DaltonRyan Rish, Sean Conners, Rachel Karchmer-Klein, Rick BeachAnna Smith among many others.  I encourage you to click on their names and follow their work. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Working Toward the Promises of Disciplinary Literacy

Join us Monday 11/4 at 2pm EST for the first LRA Research to Practice Video Chat with Michael Manderino, Kristy Pytash, Phil WilderPaula Di Domenico, and Catlin Dooley for a conversation about disciplinary literacy hosted by Ian O'Byrne and Greg McVerry. For resources and a place to leave comments and questions use this link: TitanPad.

Here are some initial thoughts before our conversation:

The promise of disciplinary literacy for me is grounded in the opportunities for young people to become more agentive in their knowledge construction. Disciplinary literacy is fundamentally about knowledge building instead of knowledge banking. To scaffold adolescents’ skill and agency in constructing knowledge we can attempt to approximate disciplinary inquiry through activities like Document-Based Questions (DBQ’s) in history, science labs or experiments, and critical analysis essays with literature. The rub, however, is that these approximated activities should engender disciplinary inquiry that apprentices cognitive skills (i.e., thinking like a historian, scientist, literary critic) with a range of disciplinary texts and tools rather than lay out a prescribed path to a fixed answer. Questions that may arise then, is how do we best scaffold these skills and how do these skills unfold so that students can grapple with existing disciplinary knowledge, critique extant interpretations, and generate new knowledge?

An argument I make about approximating expert skills with students is that we ask students to act like experts in multiple aspects of their school experiences.  As a former basketball coach, we used highly technical language, and expected our players to run sophisticated offensive and defensive schemes taken from college and pro teams. If we had a less proficient team, we didn't just say lets play pick up ball and hope for the best.  We still expected our players to mirror more expert practice yet acknowledging they we're not college or pro players. I think the same could be said of the speech team, the musical, the marching band, or the debate team.  We expect applications of expert behavior in every area of a student involved in extra curricular activities but not in our disciplinary classrooms when we reduce the text or summarize the content into supposedly more digestible bits.

A disciplinary literacy approach also offers the promise of apprenticing students into the communities of disciplinary inquiry that use cognitive skills and knowledge of linguistic markers. But perhaps more importantly, we avail opportunities for students to gain access to the ways knowledge is constructed and communicated.  We also give students the thinking and language to critique content and the agency to construct knowledge for their own purposes.  While reading Dr. David Kirkland’s A Search Past Silence, I was struck by his use of the African proverb, “Until the lion has his own historians, the tale of the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter”.  We need to build the capacities of young people to be able to construct instead of simply consume knowledge.

An approach for me to help build that capacity is authentic inquiry versus prescribed inquiry that seeks a single correct answer. We can scaffold and support inquiry practices but should aspire to release responsibility to our students to ask and seek meaning to their own disciplinary questions.   While that may seem lofty, I believe it is the best way we can support students learning while also valuing their interests and cultural knowledge.  Disciplinary literacy instruction then draws on the habits of thinking to interrogate the texts that are instantiated in the disciplines.  Disciplinary texts are constructed using norms, conventions, genres, and linguistic patterns that have evolved in the discipline.  Teaching isolated sets of disciplinary skills is insufficient because the disciplines are not static. They are historical, contextual, and contested sites of organized bodies of knowledge.  Therefore, students need to be apprenticed into disciplinary inquiry.

Questions that arise for me then are: What approaches are profitable for disciplinary apprenticeship?   How can we best support student learning in the disciplines?  What specific studies will uncover how to get kids to construct models in science, create defend interpretations in history, read and create arguments about literary interpretation, or communicate mathematical representations?  Are literacies in biology the same as chemistry and physics?  How do we prepare science teachers, for example, to tackle multiple subjects like earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics?

For example, model building in science may be a generalized disciplinary literacy but models constructed in biology may represent visible biological processes whereas in chemistry models are created to make the invisible' visible. I love the way Elizabeth Moje discusses youth navigation across the disciplines.  How do we conceptualize navigation within a discipline as well?

While some might argue that a disciplinary literacy approach may only reify the disciplines, I would argue that epistemic commitments to the tentative and contested nature of disciplinary knowledge through apprenticed inquiry can empower youth to critically engage with their world.  The use of literacies to develop those habits of thinking, the cultural tools, habits of practice, and ways of knowing are critical. Researching student learning, teacher practice, the design of learning environments, and use of texts are ripe with possibility.  Our young people deserve opportunities to read and write the word and the world as agentive and critical citizens.

Like Jay Bilas would say; we gotta go to work.