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BTW was created by Patrick & Julie Johnson, two Canadian educators with an interest in eduction & technology. This site showcases our interactive IBOOKS for students, but we also explore educational issues in our INQUIRY segments and share lessons/teaching ideas in our TEACHING TOOLS sections. Use the Labels section in the sidebar to navigate by topic or simply browse.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

UPDATE: The Details of our Boy's Literacy Video Conference! by Julie Johnson

Kevin McGill
If you've been following me on Twitter, you've no doubt heard me rave and rave about the Boy's Literacy Event from this past week that I organized for our school. It was brilliantly successful and I wanted to lay down all the details here in case another teacher or school would like to organize something similar--because you should! It really was that fabulous!

To start, a bit of background: I've written here before about boy's literacy and how as a SERT I come across many boys who are disengaged with school in general and with reading and writing in particular. It can be quite the struggle to reach these kids. I've been trying to figure out ways to reach them. My search has led me to different places, one of which was an Ontario Ministry of Ed document entitled: "Me Read? No Way! A Practical Guide to Improving Boy's Literacy Skills (2004)"

Luke Navarro
Having been published in 2004, it is admittedly dated in places (the section on technology could certainly use an update!) but overall there's good ideas to be found in this book. There's 2 in particular that I've really taken to heart--1. the idea of including popular culture in the classroom and 2. providing community 'literacy' role models to boys to show them that 'reading can be cool'.
I read this document last summer, and Idea #2, that of having a community 'literacy' male role model give a talk at our school, continued to percolate in my head for quite some time. As well as being a teacher, I'm also a writer, working on a novel in my 'spare time', and I loved the idea of bringing some male writer into our school to give a boy's literacy talk of some kind. Trouble was, I didn't belong to any local writing groups.
I did, however, belong to a very vibrant writing community on Twitter...
The idea of a community speaker stayed in the back of my mind, not fully realized, until, in the fall, totally by chance, I came across guyscanread.com by Kevin McGill (@kevinonpaper) and Luke Navarro (@lukenavarro). Here were two intelligent, creative guys writing and talking so eloquently about books from a man's perspective. In addition, Kevin had written a Young Adult adventure/fantasy novel called "Nikolas & Co: A Creature Most Foul" (nikolasandco.com)--a book I knew would appeal to boys-- while Luke had recently completed 52 weeks of geek, reading 52 books, watching 52 movies and playing 52 video games. (52weeksofgeek.com). So not only was he a reader, but he was also a gamer! I knew the boys would relate with that.
Once I defined 'community' as 'on line community', Idea #2 from that Ministry Doc--bringing in 'community role models'--became fully realized. We could hold a chat via the internet--Skype--and these two guys, as writers, reviewers, readers, gamers, could give a talk on the meaning of literacy/story in their lives. Yay!
I tweeted both Kevin and Luke to see if there were interested in speaking about boy's literacy--and they said yes! Double 'yay'!
The event itself was one of those perfect confluences of skills and ideas that came together over a few months.
On my end, with the assistance of so many people--the junior & intermediate teachers at my school, my VP Paula Smith, my Principal David Brownlee, Mr. Johnson, Mr. McCallugh from the board's tech support, as well as Mrs. Germaine and Mrs. Laybolt--I organized the event.
My VP, the savvy and brilliant Paula Smith, came up with the idea of having each J/I class send two representative to the event as 'reporters'. We wanted the event to be 'cozy' so it needed to be small, not for the whole school. We also wanted the boys to have a distinct literacy role, to not be passive, but rather active participants. The role needed to have built in accountability. So they were going to go to the video conference as 'reporters', ask questions as reporters do, then report back to their classrooms what they found out.
We had each J/I teacher nominate 2 students--students they thought might benefit from hearing Luke & Kevin talk, and who might like it. Being nominated also gave the event some 'cache'. We wanted participants to feel like they were a part of something special.
The event thus had two parts. The actual video chat was Part 2. Part 1 was getting the 'reporters' together, explaining the task and getting them to generate questions in anticipation for Part 2. I wanted them to know about the task of asking questions, have a chance to practise and feel comfortable and prepared, before putting them in the spotlight of being 'on air and live' in the video conference.
I believe all of this preparation paid off and in part contributed to the success of this event overall.
Going into Part 1, I'll admit I was a little worried. I was about to have 28 boys, aged 10 to 13, in a small room, not totally sure why they were there, and I was going to have to get them excited to hear Kevin & Luke give a talk about books a week hence. To just get up and say "Hey guys, you're going to hear 2 guys talk about books next week! Even though I know you don't really like books! Woot!" wasn't going to cut it. How many times had they heard some adult give them a 'lecture' on the importance of book reading? I wanted them to realize this wasn't going to be another 'lecture'. Yes, Luke & Kevin were going to talk about how books were important to them, but it wasn't a lecture.
It was more that they were going to meet two 'ordinary guys'--Luke & Kevin--who were once boys their age, who somehow made it through all the pressures of school, yet managed to maintain a love of reading & writing & story & here's how it was from their perspective. It was a message to be communicated between them all, "man to man"---that reading and writing can exist outside of school, for fun.
I really wanted to convey that difference--it wasn't a lecture!--and to get them excited about hearing this new type of message.
To do that, I pulled out every engagement teaching trick I could think of:
1. high structure (everything we were doing was all written up on a PowerPoint presentation, I had prearranged seating with name cards on the chairs, chairs laid out in community circle style before hand),
2. visual presentation (PowerPoint on the smartboard, the educational equivalent of a big screen TV),
3. limited teacher talk (I kept my points specific and concise, as outlined on Powerpoint),
4. purposeful, accountable talk built in for the students (several questions for students to discuss in pairs, with an online egg timer as visual support to structure that task. Students were to report on what their partner said, emphasizing the importance of active listening, and I pulled names randomly out of a bin so everyone felt they had to be prepared).
5. role play (I made up press badges for the reports using business cards & string, a sign was up that this was the press room, etc.)
6. clear expectations (well defined tasks)
7. clearly defined space (signage up to re-enforce where to put their questions, etc)
8. clearly defined roles (one student was going to ask the q at Part 2, the other was going to report back to the class and they had to sign up for these).
9. scaffolded tasks (the purposeful talk also allowed them in pairs to practise asking questions and reporting to others...the culminating purpose for the actual video conference)
10. relevancy & connection to self (before introducing Kevin's bio, I had the students tell one another a story about themselves...this lead into Kevin having written a story. Before introducing Luke, I had studetns tell one another about their favourite movie, video game and text (book, comic or website) before introducing his 52 weeks of geek)
I had two other teachers, Mrs. Germain & Mrs. Laybolt, both SERTS for the J/I divisions, with me while I presented and they were there to help students when it came time to develop questions, in case students needed the support.
Mr. Johnson and Mr. McCallugh helped organized Skype and we did a test run, calling Luke & Kevin a few days before the event to be sure it worked. With Luke & Kevin living in different locations, we used the group call function. The two of them in split screen on the smartboard made it look like CNN! If anything, I thought, that alone was going to impress the students! Because they hadn't seen anything like it before, to my knowledge!
Meanwhile, Luke & Kevin were preparing their talk. As soon as I saw their proposed outline, I suspected we had a home run on our hands! Because, as I said, it wasn't going to be a lecture on how you needed to read to be successful in life, or to get a job, or any of that. It was something more deeper and more intriguing. It was about being a hero in one's own life, a hero on one's own journey coming up against difficulties, that everyone is a hero in their own story--and that reading books was a way to 'shadow' another hero as they faced and overcame difficulties.
The day of the event came. The students arrived, took their seats. Many of them were excited. Before we called Luke & Kevin via Skype, I went over the agenda I had posted--so everyone would feel comfortable before hand about what was going to happen. Then we called Luke & Kevin who then proceeded to give their talk.
And what a talk! It was brilliant! Luke & Kevin talked about their love of adventure, & how we have adventures in our own lives, & how books describe such adventures. They talked about protagonists & antagonists (I fully expect the participants will remember the definitions of those two terms all their lives). They said we are all heros in our lives facing off against adversity just like heros in books do. Like heros in books, as well, we grow and develop skills, we find mentors and friends and discover our own 'special powers'. Reading books allows us to 'shadow' the hero, to learn as they learn, grow as they grow, and overcome adversity with them. Books are 'manuals for adventure'!
And they said this with great sincerity and authenticity. They believed what they said, it wasn't just a speech. It all rang true and from that, connection grew.
Their talk was interspersed with reflective questions for the boys, which the students discussed at first in pairs (as in think/pair/share--see above) which allowed all of them to participate. (It also gave them a bit of breathing space, a chance to interact and give off some energy, so they didn't just sit there listening the entire time).
Luke & Kevin also told funny stories, and used real world examples the boys would relate to (sports, comics, etc). They related their own interest to their love of story: writing books and book reviews and watching movies and gaming.
Then the students got their chance to ask questions. Their questions were based on the brief bios I'd provided in Part 1, and as such revolved around Kevin's book writing and Luke's 52 weeks of geek ("geek", as he pointed out, as being a positive term, not a negative one).
And this leads to one of my favourite parts of this event. In the course of the answering of these questions, what came out was this: that video games and movies and books are all part of a story telling continuum. That liking one does not rule out liking the others. That books and video games don't need to be either/or...you don't need to stop playing games to start reading books. In fact, games have a story telling quality and value of their own!
Whenever Luke mentioned a particular game, students in the audience would react--raising a fist pump or giving a thumbs up--because that was a game they liked and could relate to. It was amazing, really. Here was someone--an adult!--who was telling them, sincerely and with total authenticity, that he also played games--the same games they liked--because they were fun but also because they took him to amazing places (like Renaissance Italy) and allowed him to be a hero in a story.I honestly don't think they'd received that kind of validation before.
And that just re-inforced the connection between everyone and, I think, made the boys all the more receptive to the message of reading books, as books were just part of the same story-telling continuum. Games and books were more similar than they were different. And it was okay to do both.
I think that was one of the best thing to come of this, this overall sense of validation through connection. Their talk showed that you could like the Dallas Cowboys and also write a novel if you wanted to. You could play a video game one day and read a book another day and then maybe write reviews about them both because your ideas mattered. That 'ordinary' guys could be creative and show initiative and even create their own websites! That books and writing and story were more than just things one studied in school--in fact, they superseded school. In fact, they existbeyond school. They are everywhere, in everyone, and whatever your age--10, 13, 23 or 73--you could find joy in these things and you could participate.
The effects of this event were evident for days afterwards. There was lots of positive 'chatter' amongst the boys, some of them asking if it was going to be held again, or if we were going to meet again as the same group. There was also obvious pride as they related their experience to others. (Some of them also kept the press badges!). The 'reporting' back to their respective classes went every well, with some boys including great details. They took the task seriously. And during the event, there was obvious enthusiasm, interest and connection--even after sitting in a chair for almost an hour!
Was every boy reached? I don't know. Did everyone of them rush out to get a book out of the library? Again, I can't say for sure about that. I do know that, overall, it seemed to generate an extremely positive and excited buzz that has lasted for quite a while. Personally, I think it contributed to an overall positive 'literacy identity'. Even if it doesn't translate to immediate and obvious book reading, it's a feeling that may keep. I expect its effect may last & linger long after the actual event is over.
This was one of the most positive things I've ever experienced and certainly is a highlight in my teaching career. I highly recommend it to all educators!
If any other teacher would like to have Luke & Kevin as guests, please feel free to contact them via @kevinonpaper (email: kevinonpaper@gmail.com) and @lukenavarro (email: lukenavarro@mac.com). I know they would love to do this again!

And if you've any specific questions, or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me @JulieeJohnsonn or email jujohnson@mail1.scdsb.on.ca

PS. Luke & Kevin also provided a 'recommended reading' list of books/audiobooks. These can be seen on our school site at THIS link.

PPS Luke & Kevin have written about their experience as guest speakers on their site HERE.

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