Thursday, March 5, 2009

Blog Book Tour Visit with Johanna Riddle

In my last posting I had the opportunity to review Johanna Riddle's new book Engaging the Eye Generation: Visual Literacy Strategies for the K-5 Classroom (2009) published by Stenhouse. I hope that blog viewers had a chance to read some excerpts online. Some of you left comments/questions on the blog, I also received a few questions via email.

What sparked you to write this book?
It’s always interesting to watch the progress of sharing ideas and to trace the synergetic domino effect of that decision. If you are reading this blog, then you know how important it is to connect and collaborate with others in our profession.

My interest in visual literacy is grounded in my training in art education, and that interest was inherited from my mother and my aunt, both of whom were art teachers. In the context of the art classroom, I spent a good deal of time teaching students to interpret visual information, and to develop original visual work with intention and skill. As I moved from art education to the world of the media center, I began to see clear links between writing devices and visual devices, such as metaphor, context, inference. I also began to look at picture books with a new eye, as a crucial nexus between visual and traditional literacies. In addition, I was beginning to explore the role of technology in education. I began to build a textual/ visual approach to literacy, often frame worked in the context of informational literacy. I decided to share these ideas at FAME, our state media conference. Someone in the audience mentioned my presentation to an Adobe colleague, and that resulted in an invitation to become an Adobe education leader. A prime benefit of that alliance was access to software and training that I was able to infuse into the classroom. I also offered training to my school faculty. It was about this time that I also began to write for Multimedia and Internet @ Schools magazine. The magazine editor, Dave Hoffman, invited me to speak at the MMIS East conference in Washington, D.C . Immediately after that presentation, a high school teacher from Pennsylvania came up to me and said “My principal wants me to teach this way, but I don’t know how! Have you ever thought of writing a book?” (My response was ‘No!’) She even mentioned Stenhouse Publishing, a company that specializes in books by teachers, for teachers. I sent a sample chapter, a proposed outline, and a query letter to Stenhouse, and the rest is history. The moral of the story: You never know who is listening to your ideas, and where in life they may lead you. We all have something valuable to share. Go for it!

What are some of the biggest obstacles or barriers for teachers when it comes to integrating technology into their lessons?
The first word that popped into my head when I read this question was “fear”. It’s an intimidating barrier. We fear failure, fear loss of control, fear the unknown, fear looking stupid. I know, because I have felt that fear! My mantra is "Embrace the fear, and do it anyway." When you build a community of learners on a foundation of trust and respect, that foundation supports everyone involved in the community--including you. We expect our students to "let go in order to learn" and we must be willing to do the same. Be brave! We need to make a concerted effort to understand and embrace technology as a creative, communicative tool for relevant learning, and not just a screen and keyboard for viewing software-learning programs.—think of the creative difference between filling in the lines of a coloring book, and creating an original painting on a blank canvas.

Management issues create another barrier. Too many of us are still teaching in that old factory model. We are inured to the format of whole group instruction; it's familiar, comfortable, and seems the most efficient way to check off all those little boxes at the end of the day. King Schedule doesn't do too much to help us move away from that old tradition. These days, so much in education is also driven by state testing, federal, state, and district mandates, and various other incremental requirements that seemed like a good idea at the time. I'm very interested in the dynamic decision of school districts such as Adams 50 in Denver, Colorado, who are scrapping the old factory models entirely, and rebuilding their education programs through a 21st century lens. Talk about embracing your fears and doing it anyway! I’ll be watching their progress with interest, and cheering them on as they boldly go where no man has gone before!

What suggestions do you have for teachers who are digital immigrants and are trying to incorporate 21st century skills into the classroom for the first time?
Teachers are doers. We cultivate an amazing ability to focus and respond to the tasks before us. We may be less likely to take time for reflecting, mapping, and "big picture" professional development. But that’s the essential starting point. If our ultimate goal is to prepare our students to successfully participate and contribute to life in the 21st century, what skills do they need to develop in order to experience that success? It’s a question that we, individually and collectively, need to consider carefully. Further, we must consider it in the context of the world, and not just the classroom. I sometimes perceive a big disconnect there. I mention, in Engaging the Eye Generation, the impact of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. That book inspired me to look at teaching, and learning, in a radically different way. There are some excellent resources in the back of my book. I know that they helped me to establish of vision of the ultimate learning goals that I held for my students. Once that vision is in place, you will look at your curriculum, benchmarks, and standards with a fresh eye. Then start to make those changes, in simple ways. When you see how engaged your students become in learning and how rich and relevant your content becomes, I promise you will be hooked. There is nothing more rewarding than a classroom of students who are excited about the world of learning that you are opening to them.

How important is it for a school to have a vision that recognizes the importance of 21st century literacies and technology integration?
It’s essential. If the way we choose to approach education—as a community of learners-- is not relevant to the ways that today’s students interact with, perceive, and apply information, then we are missing the boat. These literacies and integrations are skill-building processes. That means that everyone must be on board to learn, communicate, and apply those skills.

Have you had experience teaching adult education? Are the processes and projects in the book adaptable for the adult classrooms?
My experience with adult education has been limited to the university classroom and workshops and training within the context of professional training. But you bring up an excellent point: If visual literacy is a crucial process, and a learned process, how is it being addressed at every level of education? Anyone familiar with the GED knows that visual literacy skills are assumed; that test requires proficiency in visual interpretation, not only in the form of map, graph, and chart reading, but in the direct processes of interpreting and inferring meaning behind photographs and political cartoons. So, engaging adult learners in visual literacy strategies has direct correlation to the level of proficiency required for the GED. Right now, I am involved in a project with high school ESL students. They’ve written stories about their experiences as immigrants, and are creating digital stories. A final piece of the project will be a digitally altered, interpretive self-portrait, which will serve as the CD cover for their project. This is a good example of a multiple literacy project that could easily adapt to an adult education context—simultaneously teaching traditional literacy skills, visual and technological literacy skills, as well as pronunciation, inflection, and presentation skills. It serves a higher purpose as well, that of giving voice to the students who participate in these modes of learning and expression.

To what extent do you think that teachers have adapted 21st century literacies into their personal lives?
I think that the answer to that has to be as individual as teachers themselves. Some adaptation is unavoidable. After all, we are living in a multimedia world. Consciously, or unconsciously, we are perceiving and streaming in information nearly continuously. Whether we choose to be passive recipients or empowered communicators of those literacies is up to us.

I would like to thank Johanna Riddle for visiting Teching Around! Thank you to Stenhouse for facilitating this blog book tour visit.