Using Technology to Combat the Boys’ Literacy Problem

A few months back I was approached by Robin Canedy who works with the Pathways Charter School in San Diego. Specifically, Robin had teachers who were interested in contributing a guest post to my blog. After several delays (all of them mine!) I now want to introduce my guest contributor, Alanna Gasser who is a teacher and freelance writer in California.
Her post seems particularly pertinent given the subject matter of my recent workshop on visual literacy at the Queensland History Teachers’ Association annual conference. Alanna quite rightly, in my opinion, points out that boys “…will generally respond to visual and kinesthetic teaching strategies more effectively.” I ask you to give Alanna’s post your full consideration and as always, please do post comments.

Using Technology to Combat the Boys’ Literacy Problem

It is a rather well-known educational issue that boys tend to fall behind girls when it comes to reading and writing skills. National studies including those in the USA, Canada, and the UK show that boys’ literacy scores are lower than girls’ on standardized tests, that boys are more likely to be placed in special needs programs, and more likely to drop out of school. It is also fairly well recognized that most boys will generally respond to visual and kinesthetic teaching strategies more effectively. Could embracing visual and social technologies in the classroom be just the thing we need to help boost boys’ literacy scores?

The Problem

Robert Lipsyte argues in this New York Times essay “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?”, that part of the problem lies in the female domination of the book publishing business, schools, and more specifically, school libraries. He claims that boys are generally more inclined to read non-fiction, and that the kinds of books boys are interested are not the same kinds of books supported by the education system.

Judith Kleinfeld, founder of the not-for-profit Boys’ Project, has similarly argued that the literacy gap between boys and girls is far wider than the sciences/maths gap for girls which has, in the past, been another hot education topic. Astonishingly, she claims that more than 25% of American male high school students cannot read and understand a newspaper article. A summary of her Boys’ Project findings can be found here, as explained by Richard Whitmire.

A common complaint amongst male students’ parents is that they wish their son would drop their video game controller, turn off the computer, put down their smart phone…. and pick up a school book! Something a few educators have begun to catch on to is the idea of using this kind of excitement and engagement with technology, and turning it into a tool for student success.

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

Video Games

Why not, for example, let role-playing video games play a role in literacy learning? These games certainly involve a degree of reading and comprehension, as the player must read the back story about the characters and purpose of the game, and understand the tasks he is being asked to complete.

One assignment could involve having students create their own video game world, and write the script for the game’s back story. Another assignment could be for students to write a short summary explaining the back story of their favourite game, or an episode from one of their latest role-playing video game adventures. In this way, the students are engaged by the visual and kinesthetic excitement of video games, and the teachers get to sneak in some very complex reading comprehension and creative writing practice.


While we are at it, why not turn to boys’ love of action-packed comic strips/graphic novels into yet another technology-based literacy tool? This is essentially the premise behind using Bitstrips, a web-based, teaching-friendly tool which allows teachers and students to easily create unique and interesting comic strips for the classroom.

Teachers can use them as another medium for presenting content to students, or as a creative writing assignment for students. One of the main reasons Bitstrips are so effective for teaching literacy is because the student (or teacher!) can choose from banks of images rather than relying on artistic skills, and can thus focus more time and attention to the written content of the comic strip. Boys in particular will respond to the visual element Bitstrips provide, and students will enjoy sharing and discussing one another’s work.

Text Messaging

Another popular topic in the field of technology and education is the debate surrounding the use of cell phones in the classroom. One camp is prone to arguing that cell phones are a constant distraction and that their use only hinders effective teaching and learning. The other camp argues that their use is inevitable – text communication is so pervasive that fighting students’ engagement with it is a losing battle – and that educators should embrace the technology instead. In fact, one report claims that 54% of teenagers opt for text-tech communication, and that most of them choose this form of communication over face-to-face or oral communication methods.

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

A few resources have come about which limit the number of privacy and ethical issues associated with text messaging in the classroom. For example, Celly, a mobile social networking application, allows teachers to keep phone numbers private/anonymous, and gives them the control to keep messages on-topic and appropriate.

There are many ways of using text messaging in the classroom. Teachers can encourage students to use text-messaging shorthand when taking notes, they can compare text-messaging lexicon to formal writing as a means of discussing audience and purpose in texts, they can use text messaging to promote conciseness and brevity in writing, and text messages can be sent as a medium for class discussions and debates. The possibilities are virtually endless, and because students are already so very involved in the texting phenomena, these assignments will be ones that they can relate to, and which they will be more motivated to participate in.

Despite some popular concerns related to the availability of resources (not every student will have video games, a computer, and a cell phone), privacy (sharing phone numbers), and with the possibility of cyber-bullying looming in the background, the possibility that technology can improve boys’ literacy rates is promising. Boys respond to the visual elements of video games and comic strips, and the conciseness/brevity of comic strips and text messaging make literacy more accessible to boys. If technology makes literacy skills practice more interesting and accessible for boys… well then, what are we hesitating for?

QHTA: Digital Tools for Visual Literacy

Today, June 22 was the first day of school holidays but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be a presenter at the QHTA (Queensland History Teachers’Association) Annual Conference. The day began with an engaging if occasionally controversial keynote by journalist and author, Anthony Lowenstein who spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I also enjoyed a presentation by University of Queensland Classics lecturer, Dr. Tom Stevenson who discussed the life of Hypatia of Alexandria.

I presented a one hour session on three of my favourite digital tools, ThingLink, Pinterest and, of course, Haiku Deck. All three work well together and have been extremely useful and well received in my History classes. For those who participated in my session, the presentation (as promised) is embedded below. Of course, it is also available for my other, regular readers. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can offer any clarification or assistance. Two more presentations in the next few weeks … so I was never going to have a holiday anyway!


Digital Tools for Visual Literacy in the History Classroom

Student Directed Innovation and Cool Creation Tools

This year, at my own request (!), I am teaching Year 8 for the first time in perhaps two decades. I have the same group of 29 students for both English and History. This gives me seven lessons per week, ranging in length from 45 to 65 minutes. Of course, I realised early on that having the same group allowed for all sorts of possibilities; not least of all the opportunity to operate a “timetable within a timetable.”

My first decision was to give the students themselves some measure of control over what and how they learn. Of course, I remain a slave to the curriculum and the need to compile (largely useless?) reports. Still, I realised I could easily cede one lesson per week to the students in order that they might pursue their “passion.” I have read a great deal recently about how the Internet is now passion-based rather than content focused. Given that I am working with class group 8.1, I decided to call the project Innova8.1 (I know it’s hardly original!) The idea was first introduced to the students via my favourite iPad app, Haiku Deck. I’ve embedded the presentation below … please feel free to adapt and use it for your own purposes.

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app for iPad

The early signs are great … not surprisingly the students look forward to this weekly “release” from the usual constraints of the classroom. Their interests are as varied as you might expect; animation, digital music, photography, anime, mash-ups just to name a few. My only expectations are that the students must both create and share content.

In reality, I have had to make the greatest adjustments; to allow students  to move freely around the room, to sit on the floor, to listen to music, to seek the advice of their peers … to engage in noisy, laugh-filled student directed learning. Once or twice I’ve come close to snapping and demanding silence until I remember I’ve given them permission! Each Innova8.1 lesson begins with some sharing of either student created content or with me introducing a new Web 2.0 tool or an iPad app. (Oops; probably should have mentioned that we are 1:1 Apple Macbook whilst I make regular use of my iPad. Hell, I even started lending it to students despite the separation anxiety.) Now, finally I have also included here via Scribd a list that I’ve called “15 Cool Tools and Apps for Student Creation.” I have begun to introduce and demonstrate these to my class. They, much like me, seem to like nothing better than trying and mastering a new tool.

As always, I would welcome your comments, suggestions or questions; I’m already convinced that “Student Directed Learning” must become a part of what we ALL do.

15 Cool Creation Tools by Simon McKenzie

My Turn to #Battt

Over the past few months, I have developed a serious Twitter addiction. I’m certain that many of you know the major symptoms. It begins slowly enough with a sense of curiosity which rapidly develops into a full blown obsession … or is that just me? I do know that Twitter has become my PD of choice. Recently, there has been a suggestion, from some, (I call them the misguided) that educators are not actually learning a great deal from their Twitter interaction. I’m certainly keen to dispute that claim; the vast majority of what I now do in the classroom has been crowd sourced from Twitter. Further, much of my understanding about the key issues in contemporary education has grown from discussions with my tweeps.

The challenge of capturing precisely what you wish to say in 140 characters or less demands that you think carefully. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of succeeding in this respect and have realised that it also appeals to students. Just today I asked my new Year 8 students to describe themselves in 140 characters. I quickly had some complaints along the lines of “… this is so hard!” However, none of them gave in and were working on third or fourth drafts when the all too short lesson ended. Needless to say, I am keen to see what they come to class with tomorrow. I will certainly be tweeting some of their descriptions, anonymously, from my own Twitter account.

Until last week, my pleading with other teachers to join this social media giant had fallen on deaf ears. Many saw Twitter as simply being a platform for social inanities. Then I came across the hash tag #Battt … which, if you haven’t encountered it, is an acronym for “Bring a Teacher to Twitter.” So I set out to do just that by conducting a short PD session which ended in some active tweeting. I now have introduced eight of my colleagues to Twitter. They all remain tentative but I will certainly continue to help in building their PLNs. I have embedded below, via Scribd, my presentation on “Using Twitter to Build a PLN.” I would be delighted to have any of my readers download and use it; especially if it enables you to #Battt.


Using Twitter to Build a PLN by Simon McKenzie

The New Mind Set and My First Adventure with Haiku Deck

Many have announced, demanded or even prayed for the immediate death of PowerPoint. I’m sure you have all, at some stage, endured PD where you sat wishing for the laptop or even the presenter to spontaneously combust. Earlier this evening on Twitter I came across the following modified version of a well known aphorism about teachers and computers.

“Any teacher who can be replaced by a pre-recorded PowerPoint presentation probably should be.”

Let me confess my sin, I have in the past been a regular user of PowerPoint … and for that I am now truly sorry! This week I found the ideal replacement; Haiku Deck has (for me at least) finished off PowerPoint once and for all. Unfortunately, for some of you, it is currently only available as an application for iPad.

Now, of course, the quote above opens up a whole can of educational worms. I’m certainly not entirely in favour of flipping the classroom as some would advocate. However, I do accept that the time for numerous changes in our schools has well and truly arrived. Until recently I was convinced that many of my colleagues lacked the necessary skill set to teach in 2012 and beyond. Now, I’ve accepted that in fact it is all about mind set; a refusal on the part of many to accept and embrace change. When school returns for 2013 I will be presenting a PD session that will be entitled The New Mind Set. I intend to use the opportunity to provoke those that I work with, who seem destined to be trapped forever in the halcyon days of PowerPoint (… though many still haven’t mastered that!) Too many teachers believe that because schools have a 1:1 laptop program that they are “progressive” or even “transformative.” Rubbish, just having the technology doesn’t guarantee anything. The first change has to be in the mind set of teachers.

And what, you rightly ask, does all this have to do with Haiku Deck? More than once in the past I have based presentations around huge, unwieldy PowerPoints with text laden slides. And then I’ve wondered why the audience has become disengaged. Well, as the philosopher Homer Simpson would say, “Doh!” Haiku Deck is elegant in both its ease of use and the final look of your “deck.” A range of themes are available and you have the choice of a number of slide layouts. But, and this is the best part, you can only enter two lines of text on a slide and once you’ve typed this in, Haiku Deck will provide you with a selection of Creative Commons images to use. No more searching for images yourself or investigating if they are subject to copyright. A completed “deck” can be shared via email, Facebook or Twitter; or embedded in a blog such as this. (And, although I refuse to do so on principle, you can export your “deck” to PowerPoint or Keynote where you can add video or transitions.) Haiku Deck’s own blog will give you a list of 23 ways to share your deck. Just go to  Below you can check out my “first adventure with Haiku Deck.” I would welcome your feedback upon any or all of the following:

Am I right when I speak of mind set? Have you found ways in your own school to transform teacher thinking? Are you prepared to give up PowerPoint? Are you going to start using Haiku Deck? Do you have suggestions for other ideas that I might include in this presentation?

Haiku Deck is the best application for creating presentations on iPad

Using ThingLink and Hello Slide

One significant part of my role as the Learning Technologies Coordinator at my school is in providing teachers with instruction in the use of effective Web 2.0 tools. Across 2012 I have presented a number of voluntary out-of-hours PD sessions for those interested in building their skill set. One of the best attended sessions focused upon the use of QR Codes, ThingLink and SoundGecko, all of which I have used in my own History and English classrooms.

ThingLink certainly became an instant hit as it allows the user to embed images, videos, links and sounds into an image. The resulting interactive image can be easily shared and, as many of you would already know, it now can be used with both Twitter and Facebook. In my Senior Ancient History class I found ThingLink to be particulary effective in assisting students to “unpack” an artifact. One of the first ThingLinks that I created was of a well known statue from Aphrodisias in Turkey which portrays the emperor Nero and his infamous mother, Agrippina the Younger. This image is embedded below as an example for you to explore. Simply “hover” your mouse over the image and the links will become visible.

Although there are subscription packages available, ThingLink Education offers teachers free accounts with the ability to create up to 100 images. To become a member, simply go to

SoundGecko and QR Codes also have myriad uses. To learn a little about these you might wish to view the presentation which follows. It was created with one of my new favourites, Hello Slide, an easy way to turn a PowerPoint presentation into a narrated short video. It’s another great Web 2.0 tool for you to check out, either for your own use or for when the introverts you teach struggle with speaking in front of the class. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to post them here or email me.

A Crowdsourced List: Web Tools, Websites and Apps

When I first joined the Twitter-verse earlier this year I had no idea of the benefits that doing so would bring. I learned early on that it is not a matter of numbers; Justin Bieber can have his 30,428,926 followers (as of 11 am November 20, 2012) and I’ll settle for quality. One of the first things I discovered was how to crowd source, to learn from the collective expertise of those with whom I connected.

Before long I had “favourited” a large number of suggestions about effective Web 2.0 tools, websites and apps. Over the last few days I have spent (too many) hours working through these. The end result is a PDF file which I have given the descriptive if rather unwieldy title of A Crowdsourced List of 55 Websites, Web Tools and Apps: Categorised by Subject Department (With two random Pin Boards, one case of doubling up and even a song) Told you it was unwieldy!


The list includes hyperlinks (or directions as to where to find an app) along with my overview and recommendations. I’m pleased to say that I have used many of the 55 and therefore know them to be effective for classroom or wider use. Though principally created for the teaching staff at my own school, I’m hoping the list will gain a wider audience. Just click on the link to access the PDF.

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Crowdsourced List of Web Tools, Websites and Apps

Please leave comments, questions or even suggestions for additions to the list.