Digital Literacy (or Lack Thereof) in Title 1 High Schools

Happy Friday (and Valentine’s Day), everyone! I hope you all had a great week. I know my post is two days early, but my thesis is on crunch time and I’m ready to git-r-dun a la Larry the Cable Guy

Red, white, and blue picture of Larry the Cable Guy saying git-r-done!
Photo taken from Pinterest

This week, I’d like to revisit digital literacy in connection to socio-economic accessibility, particularly in Title 1 school systems. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the “Title 1” terminology, it’s generally defined as low-income area schools whose students need supplemental government funding in order to meet district- and state-wide educational standards.

Being a Reading, PA native, I grew up in the Reading School District and graduated from Reading High School (RHS) in 2013. RHS is a Title 1 school, and it has been since 2008 at the very least. When I went there, we had just gotten the funding to put smartboards in the AP classrooms – and only the AP classrooms – towards the end of my junior year. With the exception of a couple computer carts that the entire school of 4,000+ students had to share, in addition to the four computer labs used for the mandatory Computer & Career Awareness class that everyone had to take freshman year and junior/senior credit recovery classes, we didn’t really have access to technology. There’s a good chance that we still don’t, based on the NCES’s data. There’s still a high number of students with a low number of teachers, and the implications of the drop in number of students between 10th and 11th grade don’t look good. 

Photo of data and the demographics of Reading Senior High School from the National Center of Education Statistics website. It indicates that the high school is a Title 1 school and shows the school houses over 3,000 students (not including the 9th grade, for which data was unavailable).
Photo taken from the National Center of Education Statistics website

Most people in my school couldn’t afford smartphones (even I only got my first iPhone in my senior year, and I was considered a bit more well-off than some of my friends), so the only internet access we had was if our teacher put in for the computer carts or if we went to the public library after school. This lack of funding and technology meant that the majority of RHS students missed out on the digital literacy necessary to becoming college- and career-ready. 

“But I thought everyone had to take that Computer & Career Awareness class, Sam?”

One would think that a class called “Computer & Career Awareness” would help with digital literacy, right? Unfortunately, the only things we learned how to do in that class were make Super Mario characters in Excel by filling in the boxes, insert charts into Word documents, and increase our WPM typing speed to 60 by making the strangest sentences without looking at the keyboard (this is how I discovered that a leek was indeed a real thing). 

A nice photo of leeks, the vegetable.
Photo taken from Simply Recipes

To this day, I still don’t understand what the student learning outcomes (SLOs) of that class were, nor do I think I learned anything from it. I’ve been finding in my research lately that too often, Title 1 schools create classes or introduce digital technologies without explaining to the students taking/using them why they are important, which contributes to the decrease in graduation & retention rates and increase in need for credit recovery programs. 

In her study of digital literacy in Title 1 high schools, Lisa Scherff’s interviews with students revealed that the lack of teacher-student transparency in digital tool implementation (like credit recovery programs or the introduction of Chromebooks to the classrooms) made students feel like the little technology they could access was for nothing more than facilitation and compliance: “the one ineffective way that our schools are teaching my generation is that they depend on computers to teach students. Take, for instance, credit retrieval classes that use online classrooms. I cannot seem to learn a thing when I take online classes” (149).

Once again, it seems as though literacy falls by the wayside in order to teach skills or, to be more cynical, to meet mandated state numbers and tests. The entire focus of my junior year of high school was passing the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment standardized tests, or PSSAs. All students, AP/Honors or not, were forced to take PSSA Prep classes that focused on preparing them for the month-long testing period; however, the majority of us felt similar to the students in Scherff’s interviews. We learned nothing, and now we had a bunch of added homework that we had to turn in every week to pass the class. The teacher in my PSSA Prep math class wasn’t even a math teacher! She was actually a social studies teacher and was very nice, so I feel bad that I can’t remember her name simply because the class was so pointless that I tried to erase it from my memory.

So, teachers, why am I telling you my life’s story at my Title 1 high school? Because I want us to do better and be better. Clearly, the teaching of digital literacy (and the explanation of why technology is important) due to lack of technological access in Title 1 high schools is at an all-time low, and it’s our responsibility to change that. How can we do this? By re-designing our assignments, being upfront with our students, then engaging with and listening to their feedback. Scherff makes several great suggestions on how to do so, my favorite being devoting class time to “interrogating mini-documentaries, commercial advertisements, and photographs from around the world… [and] looking for rhetorical appeals in TED talks and political advertisements” (147). This approach allows students to work with multiple types of digital media, learn how each approach is different and why it is effective in that format, and address current social events that interest them. 

Our first and most important priority is to teach our students to prepare them for life after high school; it would be unethical of us to do so by ignoring their interests and concerns in favor of improving how our high schools look on paper and in standardized tests. Those numbers will begin to go up on their own the more we start advocating for our students and really listening to what they say is and isn’t effective. We won’t need to teach online credit recovery classes later if the students are interested in and engaging with the classes and the digital literacy that we have to begin to teach them now. So, let’s get to work!

Until next time.


Published by taemove94

Soon-to-be master's degree holder. Lover of Japanese culture. Career Coach and student advocate.

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