Digital Literacy, Multiliteracies, and Classroom Accommodations

Forgive my cross-posting. This was originally written for a class and I’m reposting here to share with those educators I frequently interact with. Thoughts welcome.


When reference is made to classroom accommodations, there is often expressions of distress — concern that if the student just can’t cut it in the classroom with the “normal” expectations then there will be adjustment in the tools available or to the curricular expectations. But, if, as Cazden posits, the fundamental purpose of education is “to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community and economic life”, then providing tools for students to do the job is not an accommodation to meet their learning needs — it is part of the job of teaching. Digital tools for teaching and learning are simply the latest iteration in a long line of technological advances. When discussing a return to the “good old days of teaching and learning” the reference is not to a return to wax tablets nor to a return to one-room school houses with ink-wells and chalk and slate. To what, then, is the return to basics advocating?

Adult learners have the experience with tools to decide which tools are necessary for which jobs. While occasionally handwritten work may trump digital tools (when the writer experiences difficulty wrangling a sentence into the desired form, when the learner feels like the task is not engaging or that they are falling asleep during reading, when the learner desires a bodily-kinesthetic connection between concepts), adult learners, workers, citizens, rely heavily on digital tools for work and play. Lists are made on a phone. Reading is done from digital textbooks where the reader can highlight, annotate, and export notes, which are then turned into written responses in longer form using digital mind mapping tools to plan and google docs to write, wordpress to publish, share and interact.

Digital voice assistant-controlled software, including Siri and Google, are frequently used to interact with devices. Of iPhone users, 98% have used Siri to interact with their phones, although a smaller percentage use a digital assistant regularly. “Hey Siri!” or “Ok, Google” have already become common vernacular among young learners. Blog posts, essays, letters, and emails can be dictated via talk-to-text tools that are fast approaching the accuracy of humans, although there remains reluctance to engage in voice engagement with digital tools while in public. Yet classroom educators continue to insist that if a child cannot write with pencil and paper with flawless spelling and grammar with only the support of a photocopied graphic organizer as an outline tool and a ten-pound-brick of a dictionary that they cannot write and the hand wringing begins.

As stakeholders in education, let’s  let go of the double standard and denying tools to learners until after they have mastered “the basics”. Luke and Luke assert that competence with one domain is often inappropriately reconstrued as incompetence with print-based literacies and “that the crises of print literacy and their preferred ameliorative social strategies are being used as a nodal point in public discourse both to delay and sublimate the emergence of new educational paradigms around multiliteracies, around new blended forms of textual and symbolic practice and affiliated modes of identity and social relations” (Luke and Luke p. 96). The paradigm shift will happen with us or without us.

As in the 70s with the introduction of calculators into calculus classrooms there was considerable concern that the new technology would suppress learners’ abilities to master the basics. Calculators are now standard tools in the classroom and there is an app that can easily read and solve handwritten complex equations. The work of classrooms is not to deny learners access to tools that facilitate learning and working with information but to teach them “to be information literate, […] to recognize when information is needed, and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (ALA, p18)


American Library Association (ALA) (1989). Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Final Report. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Cazden, C. Cope, B. Fairclough, N. Gee, J. et. al. (1996) A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review.

Clark, B. (2016). Microsoft’s Speech Recognition is now just as accurate as humans. The Next Web.

Dobson, T. & WIlinsky, J. Digital Literacy.

Leswig, K. (2016) Here’s why people don’t use Siri regularly, even though 98% of iPhone users have tried it. Business Insider.

Luke, A., & Luke, C. (2001). Journal of early childhood literacy: Adolescence Lost/Childhood regained: On early intervention and the emergence of the techno-subject. Sage Publications.

The Deskless Classroom – part 2

Close your eyes and imagine a classroom. What does it look like? What furniture is there? What colour are the walls? What does it smell like? How do you feel in this space? If you’re like me the image that comes to mind is of paper-lined bulletin boards, colourful borders, tables and desks neatly arranged, shelves full of books. I can practically smell the wax crayons.

This classroom in my mind is Pinterest-perfect. As a teacher, it’s kind of a nerdy heaven. Most teachers I know are experts at creating an inviting space. But I think this space, even with the addition of a computer or two is designed for a different kind of learning than is done in modern classrooms.

What if a classroom looked less like a classroom and more like an artist’s studio? Go ahead and close your eyes again… My image is that of a messy space full of artifacts and materials for making. It’s a space for something completely different, isn’t it?

This is what greets most teachers when we walk back into schools after summer. Clean (although usually we put a little elbow grease into getting it back to the bare bones). This year, this is the same place that greeted my grade 3s. 

I was only mildly nervous over the first few days and only became really nervous the night before kids came  back for the fall when I read one of those “Dear Teacher” posts on FB. You know the kind I’m talking about… “Dear Teacher, I see how hard you have worked putting your room together over the summer, the boards neatly papered, the shelves full of books, organized for reading…” and I panicked a little. “OMG, parents are going to think I just traipsed in this morning without any thought to my environment!” when the opposite was true.

I actually spent a lot of time over the summer reading The Third Teacher, talking with my PLN and thinking and sketching. On the days of prep, I also put a lot of elbow grease into this space. Even when it’s “empty” it takes a lot of work to get a classroom to a blank slate.

I had an idea of what I was going for and it took a lot of self restraint to keep myself from creating the corners and “zones” that I had created in the past. “But how will they know where to find a pencil? Where will their agendas go in the mornings? Colour-coded notebooks… where will I put them…??”

In the end, I went for as blank a slate as possible. I pushed everything out of the way. I welcomed students in to what looked like a familiar meeting place. The benches in front of the computer and we worked from there.

“Does this room look like it might be missing anything??” I asked. And students quickly rattled off a litany of things that they were missing in this space for learning.

We worked through a google presentation prepared by Shafali, a teacher at another school, who I connected with via my Assistant Principal @Shafinad. We created empathy for students. What kinds of things might we include in our space? What might we be able to accomplish in this space if it looked different than a traditional classroom? What do we want to create here?

Students began the ideation process by breaking into five groups and recording their ideas on sticky notes. This, I might add, is not always an easy task with second-language learners at the beginning of grade 3, but I refused to do the work for them. They invented spelling, they drew, they collaborated to communicate ideas, and in the end, I scribed a few ideas. Very few.

 From there, I had students begin a sketch in their journals.

Then they put their heads together and drew a large poster.

 Then they cut out pictures.

We put our ideas together and grouped all of the ideas into categories.

Then we broke the categories down by student group and decided who would represent which part in the maquette. They knew that we didn’t have a million dollars to make this space. We would have to be  creative.

 Then students brainstormed about how to represent and measured our classroom, which told me more than I expected about them as learners.
We are not done yet but are starting to get close. Looking forward to sharing our final product!