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Feeding Our Students' Reading Interests with RSS

Troy Hicks

Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University
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Anyone reading this post right now -- whether on your computer, tablet or smartphone -- knows that the interfaces for reading have indeed changed. Whereas just a decade ago, touchscreens were still a novelty, today they permeate our lives. And, according the Pew Internet Project, teens have a device ownership rate of 68 percent for smartphones and, overall, 91 percent for cell phones.

As devices proliferate, the amount of information we encounter each day grows. Despite their access to more substantive reading material, however, our students are most often consuming what journalist Clive Thompson calls "short form" writing -- status updates, tweets, text messages -- without digging into other texts.

How then, at a time when the Common Core asks students to "Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take" (Anchor Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.9), do we invite students to dig deeper, to find more substantive reading? To read critically, carefully and closely?

Edutopia writers have long promoted RSS, and it is time now that we apply some of our wisdom about how to develop PLNs to make RSS reading a regular part of our students' lives. You might enjoy watching the Common Craft's tutorial on RSS before we visit the fictionalized classroom of Mr. Cooper, a seventh grade social studies teacher.

Reading with RSS in Social Studies

Given his goal of engaging students in timely, relevant debates about economic topics such as the value of a college education or income inequality, Mr. Cooper works diligently to connect the study of American history to issues of finance. For Mr. Cooper, this is more than just bringing in an article for "current events" -- he wants his students to dig deeply into both sides of issues and to see multiple perspectives. Also, he is mindful that students should "Distinguish among fact, opinion and reasoned judgment in a text" (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8). So he has learners set up their Feedly accounts to bring in a variety of up-to-the-minute examples, straight out of the news media, as well as additional unbiased sources.

One student, Alisha, has been investigating the idea that a college education may not be worth her money and effort. For the past month, Mr. Cooper has been working with his students to set up a website (and smartphone/tablet app) called Feedly. Alisha has drawn in the financial RSS feeds from four major news media sources -- CNN, Fox News, CNBC and NPR. Also, Mr. Cooper has students subscribe to the New York Times' Room for Debate blog and the topic feed on Today, he teaches them a mini lesson on how to set up an RSS feed using Google Alerts, and Alisha has used the terms "value college education" to come up with a customized feed of recent news. Additionally, she found Yahoo’s Education site, which didn't have an RSS feed, but she was able to use Feedity to generate one.

Credit: Feedly

While she can view the feeds with related images, like a newspaper, Alisha snaps a screenshot of her Feedly page -- in list view -- to share with Mr. Cooper, demonstrating that she has found a wide variety of sources. As she attaches the picture to an email she is about to send him, she reflects on the process of setting up her feeds. "I know that there are tons of resources to help me decide on what kind of college degree to pick," she writes. "And keeping up on the news about the best value for my family's money is really important to me."

For Mr. Cooper, the value of having students create these personalized "living textbooks" is immediately apparent. By using RSS feeds to fuel their own interests and passions, reading a variety of sources about a financial topic, his learners make more personal connections to the study of economics.

As they bookmark resources over the course of the marking period, Mr. Cooper will invite his students to copy and paste relevant quotes from their reading into a Google Document -- along with citations -- so that he can help them shape their final, argumentative papers. This recursive process of reading new RSS feeds, selecting relevant information, writing about it, and then reading more continues throughout the unit.

Toward "Connected Reading"

In research that I have conducted with Kristen Hawley Turner, at Fordham University, we have discovered a variety of ways that students are -- and are not -- reading online. They often seek out information, skimming and scanning a variety of search results or trusted web portals such as Yahoo News. However, very few of them know about RSS or how it works. Given that RSS is the backbone of the mobile web, teaching our students to be engaged readers will require that we, as teachers, actively promote the kinds of practices that Mr. Cooper has taught his students. Also, we can invite students to share what they are reading within their peer network, asking for reactions from others so they can discuss what they have read.

We will report more findings from this research in a forthcoming book for the National Council of Teachers of English, which is tentatively titled Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World.

For now, I want to reiterate the power of RSS as a tool for active reading. Invite students to use a tool like Feedly, or other apps such as Flipboard, to create their own customized reading experiences, thereby supporting their autonomy and choice as readers.

What resources do your students use for critical reading?

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Troy Hicks

Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Troy Hicks's picture
Troy Hicks
Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University

Thanks, Candice. I appreciate your comments and agree that other tools such as Pocket, Instapaper, Evernote, and Readability could complement and extend our students' use of RSS. Thanks for the reminder!

Troy Hicks's picture
Troy Hicks
Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University

Thanks, John. How do you plan to use RSS with your students?

Troy Hicks's picture
Troy Hicks
Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University

Thanks, Michael. Your screencast does, indeed, show some power user tips. Using IFTTT as a tool for notifications (and phone calls) is certainly a unique way of getting our students reading with RSS. Thanks for sharing!

Michael Britt's picture
Michael Britt
Psychology teacher and host of The Psych Files podcast

Thanks Troy. Yes, IFTTT is very cool and becoming more powerful all the time. Receiving a phone call when a new items is posted to one of your rss feeds is probably a little too "geeky" for most, but it is pretty cool when it happens!

km07143's picture

I believe this is an excellent example of how technology can be used in the classroom to promote student learning that is engaging and authentic. I know my students LOVE using technology and even my reluctant readers are more than willing to complete a literacy task when technology is involved. Times are changing and if we want to truly prepare our students, then we need to make sure we are exposing them to the skills that they will need to survive in the global economy.

I also believe that using RSS when teaching social studies is a must. As a former social studies teacher, I know how hard it can be to find current information. My social studies content focused on Asia and the Middle East. One more than one occasion, the information that I found that morning to teach my students was obsolete by the time I saw them in the afternoons. I also feel that by using RSS feeds in the classroom, we are promoting our students to become aware of what is going on in the world around them. If we want our students to be able to make informed decisions, then we need to equip them with knowledge from multiple viewpoints. I believe that using RSS feeds is one way of achieving that.

Alison D's picture

Until I actually researched today while reading this post I had no idea what RSS was referring to. After investigating I realized what it was, that I am in fact familiar with it, and that it could really be a great tool in social studies courses. I currently teach high school social studies to students receiving special education services and the tools mentioned (Feedly and Flipboard) could be great to use in the classroom. I like the idea of guiding them through the use of the applications as well as providing them with the opportunity to select text/sources that are of interest to them. I think one of the biggest reasons students do not read is because it is forced. If they have some say I believe they would be more inclined to read without excessive prompting. I can imagine a variety of ways to incorporate reading texts using RSS in my history, government, and economics courses. My one concern is the fact that not all of my students have iPads, smartphones, etc. We have classroom sets of these items but the students do not have their own individual items. I will have to investigate if these apps, or other similar ones, allow for easy logging in and logging out so students could use them when they are in class and then log out for the next student to use.

Troy Hicks's picture
Troy Hicks
Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University

Thanks, KM, for your thoughts. I wonder how we might use the fast-paced news environment that you describe to our advantage as we build students' critical thinking and problem solving?

As you note, "the information that I found that morning to teach my students was obsolete by the time I saw them in the afternoons." Could we, perhaps, invite them to think about those changes from a cause/effect or problem/solution pattern? Have them compare the two versions of the story -- the AM and PM -- and specifically note the changes? Follow the story over many days, making a timeline with links to the original news sources?

Thanks again for your comments and I look forward to hearing more about how you use RSS with your students.

Troy Hicks's picture
Troy Hicks
Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University

Thanks, Alison, for your thoughts on RSS and how you could use these tools to support your students. I know that Feedly is web-based as well as app-based, so that is an advantage.

Also, Jeff Utecht just shared some more thoughts on using Flipboard as a textbook replacement that you might find useful, too:

Candice Smith's picture
Candice Smith
Educational researcher

Feedly can be easily logged in and logged out. When it comes to using technology in the classroom (specially in groups) i avoid using compact devices. I always prefer the web based feedly.

If you don't want to repeatedly log in and log out for each student then there is a more collaborative way. You could form student groups and then divide each group's feed sources in feedly. If you have group A and B you could add a category for group A and they can decide which website sources they want to add. Same goes for group B. This can help you manage what reading each student is doing. Plus it will help both teams learn from each other's sources too :)

If you integrate pocket to your feedly students can add a blog from the RSS feed they find useful. Then access it when they go home on their personal computers. Since all the student activities can be monitored by the teacher with one account it is easier to guide them how to decide which sources are reliable and useful, and how to develop the desired learning from all this data on the internet.

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