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AdLIT In Perspective > 2009 > November/December
Classroom Vignette

The Complexities of Teaching New Literacies in Our Classrooms

by Ryan Rish and Joshua Caton

The question remains: Can new literacies be taught in a traditional school environment?
—William Kist, New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media

William Kist (2005) posed this question at the end of his ethnographic study of six “new literacies” classrooms. We take up this question here to consider our attempts at supporting new literacy practices in our own classrooms. We are interested in discovering new ways to engage our students in practices of composing and comprehending texts that they find meaningful to their present and future lives. In our discovery of new ways of teaching and new literacy practices to promote, we have been drawn to new technologies that seem to have potential for facilitating new processes and practices. We both like to tinker with new technologies, and we are both easily excited by learning how other teachers have used new technologies in their classrooms.

That being said, we have found using new technologies with our students to be perplexing work. Though it should come as no surprise to us that our lessons do not unfold as neatly as those described in some studies and presentations of new technologies, we have often been mystified why our students do and do not take up our projects in meaningful ways. Our gut reaction had been to focus on the technology. When our lessons did seem to work for our students, we had been quick to credit the technology and the way it seemed to support our students’ literacy practices. Likewise, when our lessons did not seem to work for our students, we had been equally quick to question our students’ readiness to harness the potential of the technology or to doubt our own ability to integrate it and support our students effectively. After all, if a new technology helped transform someone else’s classroom but not ours, we must have been doing something wrong.


Taking a New Look at Our Students’ Use of Tools

We are reminded by NCTE’s definition and framework for twenty-first-century literacies (NCTE, 2008) that sponsoring new literacy practices in our classrooms is not solely about using new tools in our classrooms. This work also involves taking into consideration the students’ social practices within which their use of these tools is embedded (Pahl & Rowsell, 2005).

When focusing on the tools themselves, we have often found ourselves at a loss when attempting to understand why our students do and do not take up these new tools in meaningful ways—especially when the tools are familiar to them in out-of-school contexts. When we shift our focus from what the tools are doing for our students to what our students are doing with the tools, we have a different perspective from which to ask why a student who is a prolific writer of, say, fan fiction (i.e., the writing of stories incorporating characters and plotlines from existing books and movies) on websites (such as fanfiction.net) resists an online writing assignment.

In defining new literacy practices, Colin Lankshear and Michelle Knobel (2006) address the social practices in which students’ use of technology is embedded. The authors define “new literacies” as composed of new “technical stuff” and new “ethos stuff”:

  • By new “technical stuff” they mean new digital tools, such as image, video, and sound editing software, as well as wikis, blogs, Google docs, Zoho, and other Web 2.0 applications.
  • They define new “ethos stuff” as new participatory, collaborative, and distributed social practices, such as collaborative composition, shared decision making, collective problem solving, etc.


Lankshear and Knobel describe three types of cases in this regard:

  1. Using new technical stuff without new ethos stuff to replicate longstanding literacy practices, e.g., webquest used as digital worksheet, blog post as journal
  2. Using new ethos stuff without new technical stuff, e.g., paper-based literary magazine, planning and collaborating for an oral debate
  3. Using both new technical stuff and new ethos stuff, which they consider to be exemplary cases of new literacies, e.g., teacher and student co-authorship of a “textbook” on a class wiki, students collaboratively composing a persuasive digital media campaign (for more examples, see Lankshear & Knobel, 2007)


Though Lankshear and Knobel are not suggesting that supporting new literacies is simply a matter of combining the right “stuff,” they are suggesting that we consider the new social and literacy practices that new tools can possibly support. For example, for the prolific writer of fan fiction we mentioned earlier, we might consider what social and literacy practices are involved with this student’s online writing. Do these practices involve writing for a community of writers with similar interests? Do these practices involve giving and receiving feedback on each other’s writing? How might we support these social and literacy practices through the use of new tools?

These are the types of questions we ask of ourselves; below we each present brief accounts of classroom experiences in which we attempted to promote new literacies. When we were teaching these lessons, we were initially focused on what the new technology did for our students. Here, we consider our students’ social and literacy practices in which their use of the new technology was embedded.


Ryan’s Human Rights Project

In a world literature course for sophomores, the human rights project was the culminating activity of a year of studying world cultures through literature. After my students learned about the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights, I asked them to work in groups organized around a human rights violation occurring across multiple regions or a common region with many human rights violations.

The first part of the project involved groups collecting information and writing collaboratively to produce a report about the region of the world they had identified and the history of the human rights violation(s), including the present status. The second part of the project involved groups outlining and enacting an action plan for raising public awareness about the violation(s) and communicating with someone in a position of influence over the social factors which contributed to the violation(s). Throughout the project, I met with the groups to negotiate the content and direction of their action plans; I encouraged some students to define and enact their own individual plan and other students to enact a common plan with shared goals.

The first year I used this project in my class, most groups of students gravitated toward the minimum requirements of the project, choosing to write a persuasive letter to a foreign or domestic legislator or government official as the outcome of their action plan. Their engagement in the project seemed more about meeting the project requirements rather than attempting to effect change through their action plans. At the time, I wondered if the school-based practice of writing a persuasive letter was thwarting student interest in taking up the project in meaningful ways.

The second year I used this project, I introduced the requirement of digitally composing public service announcements (PSAs). I asked the groups to gather available images, sound bites, and video when researching their human rights violation online as content to be used in the creation of a digital PSA. My thoughts were that because some of my students were experimenting with producing and publishing digital videos outside of school, they would be more engaged in the project and concern themselves with producing a persuasive PSA, rather than just meeting minimum requirements. I encouraged the students to publish and disseminate their digital compositions to raise awareness of the violation(s) for general audiences as well as their target audience. Many groups wrote persuasive letters that included directions for viewing the digital PSAs online.

Unsurprising in hindsight, the addition of the digital PSAs to the students’ action plan resulted in very little change to how the students approached the project compared with the first year’s students. After the initial curiosity about learning the software, selecting sound bites and music, and collecting images and video waned, the groups typically delegated the responsibility of finishing the PSA to an individual member. For many groups, the publishing and disseminating of the digital PSAs became just another task to complete for the project.

An exception that second year was a group of three students who focused on human trafficking in Cambodia, Thailand, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the process of researching human trafficking, the group contacted an abolitionist organization, Not For Sale. Through their communication with this organization (which I moderated), the three students coordinated with Not For Sale’s campaign. As a fund-raiser to make a donation to a national campaign against human trafficking, the students printed and sold Not For Sale t-shirts along with orange bracelets and shoelaces. Drawing from ideas in the organization’s abolitionist tool kit, the students located and contacted a victim of human trafficking whom they invited to speak to students in a schoolwide assembly, which they organized with the administration. Throughout all of this activity, the group also composed a very persuasive and moving PSA about human trafficking using graphics and design elements from the Not For Sale campaign.

In many ways, the human trafficking group represented what I had hoped for all the groups—the project became less about requirements and more about raising awareness about human rights violations, and the students worked closely and collaboratively to plan and enact their local campaign. However, the difference between this group and the other groups was not the technology they used—they all used the Internet, e-mail, and writing and digital composing software; rather, the differences were the social and literacy practices within which the technology was used. The human trafficking group communicated and coordinated with a nonprofit organization, communicated and worked with school administration, contacted and requested the presence of a guest speaker, conducted the production and sale of items for a fund-raiser, and negotiated project guidelines with me as their teacher. The technology was the means, in part, by which these students enacted these social and literacy practices that were socially recognized as significant to the parties involved.

The questions then became: How can a focus on the social and literacy practices that I have come to identify and value in this project help me sponsor these practices for all the student groups? How can I help students adopt and adapt an identity as an advocate for social change that will position them to take up the project in meaningful ways? What new technologies are appropriate means for these social and literacy practices?


Josh’s Lit Circles and World Building

In a continuing effort to find new ways to engage my students in reading and writing, I have started retooling old assignments.


Lit Circles—Within and Across Classrooms

I have used literature circles for several years in my teaching, with mixed results. My primary goal with literature circles has been to encourage independent reading by providing students with choice, as well as a peer group to support, challenge, and extend their own thinking about a text. No matter how I have tinkered with the format, however, there has always been a segment of students who have not been engaged by either the text or the small-group discussions.

Last year, I decided to move lit circles from in-class conversations to online discussions. It was my hope that students would be more likely to read their text and participate in group discussions if they were able to do so on the computer—after all, every student loves to chat online, right? I also hoped for greater student participation due to the fact that I could be “in” on every conversation; I could read and respond to every post, a level of interaction and oversight I could never have in previous classes.

In the end, however, I was not all that surprised to learn that things were much the same as they had been B.W. (before the wiki). Students who were independent, self-motivated readers had lengthy discussion pages about their text, while others simply “played along” by posting as little as they could in the hopes they would get by. The most reluctant readers barely participated at all. Introducing the new technology did little to transform lit circles in my classes.

This year, I decided to coordinate with two other English teachers to organize lit circles across our classrooms. Rather than thinking of lit circles as an activity contained by the physical place of our classrooms and the time we meet together, we were wondering how online lit circles could be formed by students enrolled in all our sophomore English classes. We were (and are) wondering how students’ existing social relationships with each other can support the social and literacy practices of talking about a group-selected literature text. Our questions shifted from asking how we can use online technology to improve lit circles to asking how we can use students’ existing social practices of sharing “texts” in their relationships and affinity groups to support lit circles? How can online technology provide the means to circumvent some of the constraints posed by the school schedule to do this work?


Individual and Collaborative World Building

Another example of reworking a class project is my students’ world building and storytelling in the fantasy and science fiction elective I teach. The first time I taught the class, I asked students to create their own fictional world to explore the choices authors make as they engage in “world building.” Over the course of a semester, students were to continue developing their worlds and writing stories about the inhabitants of their worlds, but after an enthusiastic start, the class had run out of steam and ideas by mid-semester. The project seemed to be unsustainable on the individual level.

The next semester, I turned the building worlds project into a collaborative one using a classroom wiki, in the hopes that an interchange of ideas would result in greater participation and that students would write with greater breadth and depth. The fifteen of us (myself included) collectively composed a single fictional world, Erstellen. The wiki provided us with an interactive space for posting geographic descriptions, negotiating “continuity” conflicts, and collaborating with one another on the history, poetry, songs, and legends that came out of and defined our new world. I wrote along with the students; though rather than providing “exemplars” as I had done in other classes, I was simply one of the co-creators, using student ideas in my own contributions as they used mine in their tales.

The result was a much higher level of participation and higher-quality student work compared with that of the first year. Through our collaborative exchanges we were able to sustain excitement about the project through the end of the semester. We ended with a feeling that we had run out of time. However, not all participation was equal among the students. A core group of six students participated in the project with great enthusiasm and collaborated at levels I had not seen in my classes before. Another group of six students collaborated to a lesser degree, yet in significant ways. One student wrote a small amount with almost no interaction with his classmates, and another student wrote nothing at all.

Despite the uneven levels of participation, informal student survey responses related a number of what I considered to be successful outcomes of the project. Students reported that they felt positive about their contributions to the world; they had written as much as or even more than they did in their traditional English classes; they had discussed their writing with classmates and other students outside of class; and they felt the project helped them have a better understanding of the fantasy literature we were studying, e.g., the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.

My first instinct was to credit the wiki for the success of the building worlds project. My thought was that the world we created would have not been possible without the wiki as a collaborative writing tool. Though this is true in part, I wonder if Erstellen would have been created in the same way if I had not promoted and modeled collaborative writing practices through my own participation in the project. I also wonder about the significance of the interests in and experiences with fantasy and science fiction that the students brought with them to the elective English course: Were we able to accomplish what we did because of our common interests and shared understandings? I wonder how participating in the project helped students develop a social identity as an author?


Sponsoring New Literacies

We have found focusing on the social and literacy practices of our students has helped us ask new questions about our students’ classroom experiences. Rather than focusing on what the new “technical stuff” did or did not do for our students, we shifted our focus to the practices involved with the use of these new tools. These questions bring to the fore the complexities of sponsoring new literacies in our classrooms.

  • Josh’s building worlds students took up and resisted the collaborative writing practices he modeled in complex ways. He introduced the organizing principle of continuity, having no in-world contradictions, in an attempt to redefine text as the result of a negotiated process among co-authors rather than the product of an individual. Some students wrote minimally or not at all; other students wrote collaboratively along lines established by social relationships, the intersections of storylines, and the writers’ status based on what they had contributed to the project. A couple of the most prolific students preferred not to have their “stuff messed with” by other writers, but acknowledged the importance of compromise for the sake of the project.

  • As the human trafficking group in Ryan’s class demonstrated, the walls of our classrooms are permeable and we are not the only sponsors (Brandt, 1998) of our students’ literacy practices. Our classrooms are nested in institutional, community, and online contexts that may support or thwart the new literacies we are attempting to promote. Though Josh’s fantasy and science fiction elective English course was relatively free from the institutional pressures of state assessments and graduation requirements, the building worlds project still involved assignments, grades, and alignment with content standards.


Clearly, sponsoring the new literacies of our students is more complex than promoting the right “stuff” in our classrooms. We cannot assume our students are “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001) who possess technical skills and familiarity with new technologies that align with the social and literacy practices of our classrooms. Rather, our students enter our classrooms with “multiple literacies that vary with time and place and are embedded in specific cultural practices” (Street, 1997, p. 48). Our students’ multiple literacies relate to the “new literacies” we aim for them to take up in complex ways.

This brings us full circle to Kist’s question, with which we began this article: “Can new literacies be taught in a traditional school environment?” (Kist, 2005). We think so; but perhaps not without attending to the social and literacy practices of our students which help us to understand the tensions and complexities related to their use of new tools in new ways.



Brandt, D. (1998). Sponsors of literacy. College Composition and Communication, 49(2), 165–185.

Kist, B. (2005). New literacies in action: Teaching and learning in multiple media (pp. 139–140). New York: Teachers College Press.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning (2nd ed.). New York: Open University Press.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). Sampling “the new” in new literacies. In M. Knobel & C. Lankshear (Eds.), A new literacies sampler (pp. 1–24). New York: Peter Lang.

National Council of Teachers of English. (2008). 21st century curriculum and assessment framework. Accessed September 10, 2009, from http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/21stcentframework.

Pahl, K., & Rowsell, J. (2004). Literacy and education: Understanding the new literacy studies in the classroom. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6. Accessed September 10, 2009, from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf.

Street, B. V. (1997). The implications of the “new literacy studies” for literacy education. English in Education, 31(3), 45–59.

Ryan Rish is a Ph.D. student in adolescent, post-secondary, and community literacies at Ohio State University's School of Teaching and Learning and a former English teacher at Newark High School.

Joshua Caton is an English teacher at Licking Valley High School.

Ryan and Josh are working together on an ethnographic study of collaborative composing in Josh's science fiction and fantasy elective English course, Swords & Spaceships.

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