Saturday, December 21, 2013

Playing Star Wars Under the (Teacher's) Radar

When young children play together in school, they produce action stories with themes that draw upon experiences from their worlds, including themes from their favorite media. When playing heroes and villains, this often involves mock fighting, which can be prohibited in school. Yet children sometimes play these forbidden themes “under the radar”, claiming that a Tinker Toy sword or a gun made of Legos is "just a stick” or “ car” or “design” or anything else in order to turn a pretend weapon into something innocuous and acceptable within the classroom. Of course, this shows so much about the ways children negotiate the complex tensions among peer culture, school culture, and popular culture in ways that allow them to play themes that matter to them. But this pivoting and pretending also shows how play functions as a literacy of fluid action texts.

During one of my studies of literacy play in early childhood classrooms, several boys created paper tubes which they immediately used as light sabers in impromptu Star Wars play but when the teacher approached, they stopped dueling and began swimming the tubes along as "electric eels". When the boys enacted eels, they quietly held the tubes horizontally and maneuvered individually, walking side-by-side, sometimes tumbling the tubes in slow circling motions or undulating waves. When they enacted light sabers, they turned toward each other, tilted the tubes diagonally or vertically, and voiced the shoom, shoom, shoom of humming light sabers as they engaged each other in momentary fencing moves. 

This Star Wars example shows how play functions as an embodied literacy to produce play narratives with action texts that the boys could use to pivot the meanings of their paper toys. Action text describes how movements convey meanings when children play a shared narrative together. In other words, their swooshing sword fights relied on moves with paper tubes that conveyed a nonverbal (and covert) meaning shared among the boys. Their swings and taps with paper tubes could be read and reread as fencing moves in a laser swordfight by other children who were also Star Wars fans.

We tend to look for some print on a page when we consider children’s literacy development and overlook the action texts in children's play.  In a digital world where webpages routinely include YouTube links to videos on every imaginable topic, actions clearly speak louder than words. In this dynamic textual landscape (Carrington, 2005), children’s played texts take on new significance as a way of understanding and producing live action texts. At the very least, we should be looking beyond print media and recognizing and mediating the fluid meaning-making and embodied storytelling in children's play that develops skills for communicating through digital media. 

For the full paper, see:

Wohlwend, K. E. (2013). Playing Star Wars under the (teacher’s) radar: Detecting kindergartners’ action texts and embodied literacies In V. M. Vasquez & J. W. Wood (Eds.), Perspectives and provocations in early childhood education [National Council of Teacher of English Early Childhood Assembly Yearbook] (pp. 105-115). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Technology Deserts and Other Imaginaries of Childhood

Notions of childhood morph as rapidly as the technologies that zip in and out of our daily lives in an endless stream of updates: 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and so on.  As early childhood teachers, our visions of childhood shape how we teach young children who are living immersed in rapidly shifting technologies, literacies, and global innovation. Our teacher imaginaries about childhood cause us to offer one literacy to children while making another technology-based literacy off-limits. On one hand, visions of developmentally appropriate practice privilege “natural” materials, creating oases in our classrooms from a daily barrage of popular media and glowing screens. On the other hand, a vision of young children as "digital natives" and teachers as "technology laggards" blames teachers for turning the early childhood education landscape into a widespread technology desert. 

However if we recognize that our imaginaries of childhood are dynamic and negotiated ideas, we can open up possibilities to look critically at these visions, question our assumptions, and reconsider ways of doing things. We can question:
  • Can technoliteracies be compatible with developmentally appropriate approaches? Can we argue for digital play spaces as not only appropriate but necessary? 
  • Can we retool an "all-natural" and "commercial-free" classroom to support children's actual popular media knowledge, literacy resources, and technological repertoires? 
  • Do our own assumptions and reluctance to provide experiences with technology in early childhood education perpetuate ongoing digital inequities built upon economic and gender disparity? 
  • Or are early childhood teachers being blamed as technology laggards when the real issue is under-resourced classrooms and over-stretched budgets unable to afford up-to-date iPads and touchscreens?
Digital toys and tools are expensive and out of reach for many families as well as for many early childhood classrooms.  A financial divide separates not only have and have-not households but also early education centers--doubly discouraging as schools are the key site for ensuring equitable and regular access to new literacies for all children.  Recently in Literacy Playshop workshops, I've talked with many preschool teachers excited to try apps, iPads, and filmmaking with young children. Their faces fall when they discover the price of tablets; even the $100 for the now-discontinued  Flip cam would be out-of-reach. These dedicated preschool teachers who fund so much of their curriculum out of their own pockets have no idea how to find the money to bring digital tools into their classrooms. In these cases, we are asking all the wrong questions. The root of technology deserts in early childhood education is not teacher resistance based on a romantic vision of natural child but the pernicious and systemic under-funding of early childhood education.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Hot Topics in Literacy Education for 2014

The International Reading Association released its annual list that forecasts "hot" topics in literacy education. Hot is not the same as important, but indicates an area of high interest or even debate among reading experts.  Conducted by Jack Cassidy and Stephanie Grote-Garcia, the 2014 survey polled 25 leading literacy scholars and researchers to find what's hot and what's not.


  • Common Core State Standards
  • Close Reading/Deep Reading
  • Disciplinary/Content Area Literacy
  • College and Career Readiness
  • Informational/Nonfiction Texts
  • Text Complexity
  • Preschool Literacy Instruction/Experiences
  • Adolescent Literacies
  • Motivation/Engagement
  • Struggling/Striving Readers (4th grade +)
  • Writing
  • Literacy Coaches
  • Critical Reading and Writing
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Early Intervention (K-3)
  • Formative Assessment
  • Professional Development for Inservice Teachers
  • Teacher Education for Preservice Teachers
  • Phonics
  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Fluency
  • International Comparisons
(Cassidy & Grote-Garcia, 2013)

Surprisingly,  lukewarm topics include digital literacies, English language learners, and political/policy influences, along with waning topics comprehension and vocabulary. The experts agree these should all be hotter!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Learning to Read by Playing Club Penguin?

Children use keypads and touchscreens on a broad range of technological devices to browse, view, interpret, navigate, interact, and produce original texts. Guy Merchant suggests that reading online texts requires a knowledge of concepts specific to screen-based text (e.g., keyboard use, the mouse–cursor relationship, screen navigation) and new understandings about the organization of space and image on screens that extend Marie Clay's concepts about print.

In our chapter on children's screen literacies published in Anne Burke and Jackie Marsh's new book, Children's Virtual Play Worlds, Tolga Kargin and I documented children's cursor moves, finger jabs, and other ways of reading computer screens as they played side-by-side and navigated in and out of snowy locations in Club Penguin. And we found that there's a lot of reading and writing going on!
Computer Handling in Physical Space
Digital Literacy Practices in Screen Space
Double-Clicking (to select options)
Searching/Scanning: Clicking to open a pop-up or drop-down menu

Clicking (to open or confirm options)
Independent Reading: Gazing or pointing at screen with words or phrases or images

Hovering (to see drop-down menu)
Partner Reading: Reading words aloud while gazing or pointing at screen
Tapping (e.g., finding and pressing one key)
Reading Aloud to Self (inner speech): Reading words aloud softly while gazing at screen

Toggling (e.g., between keys on numeric pad, arrow keys)
Selecting & Combining Pre-set Words or Phrases to Send Messages

Rereading Own Message/Confirming Action

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Campfire on Kinderchat April 24 9pm EDT

TOYS AS TEXTS: What do these toys tell you? How should you play with them?  Click on "See all toys" and try out a few toys to see what they do.

PLAY: Responding to Commercialized Childhoods

STORYING: Tapping into Children's Literary Expertise: Star Wars According to a 3 year old

COLLABORATION: Connecting Children Globally through Skype Play via Mardelle Sauerborn

MEDIA PRODUCTION: Digital Technologies and Bubble Maps

Monday, April 8, 2013

Who's in Your Backpack? Popular Media Audits in ECE

In my literacy methods courses, we're making a list of the kinds of popular media that come to school via children's backpacks, lunchbags, jackets, and shoes...and sometimes as toys and action figures tucked away in pockets. We also don't want to overlook the popular media that children bring in through their play and writing as they create stories around their favorite themes, games, and characters.

Discover particular children’s expertise so that you can build bridges to curricular activities and also help access their expertise to join play groups with ideas for character roles or storylines. Often children are experts on a wide variety of media characters that adults may not know. To find your media experts, ask sincere questions about children’s transmedia items such as, “What does that character do? Is that from a TV show or a movie? What channel is it on?”

Make a list of popular media and lead characters that children know and love. Simply knowing what children are interested in will open up an entire realm of critical, emergent, play-based learning possibilities for you.
(Excerpt from Literacy Playshop, p. 57)

Click here to add your data to our playwatching audit of children's popular media
  • In the first column, find a franchise that your students play and then add 1 to the number in the grade level column to represent your classroom.
  • Please add any missing media franchises to the list and mark the grade level column that you teach with a 1.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cursive, really? This is not your grandmother's third grade

Once again there's a bill in our state to mandate cursive writing instruction in school. Our third graders who take high-stakes tests with the risk of potential grade retention are already tasked with elementary curricula increasingly filled with test content to prepare them for test-taking. Should precious curricular time be spent on handwriting practice when teachers have difficulty squeezing in core subjects like social studies and science?
Nationally, there is widespread agreement that academic subjects and new literacies take precedence over pretty penmanship: in the new Common Core State Standards adopted by 45 states including Indiana, keyboarding is included; cursive is not. Forward-looking districts are equipping students to read, write, produce, and publish on mobile technologies, making the decision to prepare children to function with 21st century literacy tools. In this environment, the time-consuming enterprise of cursive writing instruction seems quaint at best, falling into the nice-if-we-had-the-time category.
Apparently, one can be pretty successful with minimal cursive skills. Look at  Jack Lew, the US secretary of treasury nominee who may soon be signing all our money. How long did it take him to master this signature?