Monday, April 27, 2009

Didacticism in the Classroom:

Early American Literature in the Secondary Curriculum

by Seth Van Horne and Alexa Garvoille

In a time of growing emphasis on standards-oriented education, when teachers post competency goals in classrooms and students gain enumerated skills, English teachers increase their dedication to the state standards, especially when confronted with high-stakes testing and administrators looking to cut positions. These curricular documents, sometimes centuries in the making, represent to educators the ideals of knowledge paired with the rudiments of implementation. Sometimes, though, the standards can wear away at creativity and discovery, leaving departments with worn copies of inaccessible classics that they continue to teach year after year. However, close examination of the standards exposes occasional oversights that lead to innovative opportunities to set the curriculum right. Based on our experiences teaching American literature courses in North Carolina high schools, we believe the addition of a non-canonical novel popular in late 18th century America offers an opportunity to discuss in a new way what it means to be American, as well as addressing a curricular deficiency.

The early novels of America lend themselves to exploration of how literature and education can or should influence life decisions, as they strived to form the common opinions of the new republic. By discussing the goals of literacy in early America, students can question the goals of their own schooling, thus creating what Paulo Freire calls a “problem-posing education” (1970). In addition, students can use the novels as a springboard to evaluate of the morals expressed in the media that surrounds them. Pairing narratives produced during the boom of printing technology and those during the boom of digital technology allows students to engage in historical discussions and critique their own world. By teaching early American fiction, educators can bring character education into the classroom without imposing a set ideology on the students.

A 2003 report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies stated that, in order to engage students in urban environments, schools needed to offer “Relationships, Rigor, and Relevance” (Stipeck). At first glance, using two hundred year-old novels in order to foster relevance and relationships seems unlikely if not impossible. Yet, because they allows for investigation of the disempowered, questioning authority, and discuss literary communities, the parallels between the first years of the American republic and today offer the perfect opportunity to connect to and engage students.

Using the North Carolina Standard Course of Study (NC SCS) as a guide, we will examine how the traditional American Literature reading list misinterprets North Carolina content standards on “Colonial Literature.” We will then propose that the addition of an early American novel to the curriculum would both address the content gap and fulfill competency goals. Contrasting the current SCS with North Carolina’s original 1898 Course of Study reframes the curriculum through the new three Rs. In this article we will provide our readers with a background on the historical relationship between literature and the emerging republic, arguments for the relevance of this study in the classroom, and practical suggestions for implementation of two sample texts in high school English.

The pros and cons of incorporating an early American novel into the curriculum vary. We acknowledge that it takes valuable teacher time to invest in original research, including gathering primary source documents. Creating new units is always difficult, as it should be. However we hope this overview of the subject and examples provided should alleviate much of this stress. In order to justify the use of these novels to administrators and parents, teachers need only cite the relevance of the skills each reading can produce. These novels offer a fruitful dichotomy to explore by putting forward moral warnings alongside lascivious narration. They also allow students to practice deciphering the moral messages of different works of literature and media. As objects of advertising campaigns, targeted by corporations, affiliations, friends, and lifestyles, 21st century students need the ability to evaluate didactic messages both in and out of the classroom.

While time and tradition may work against curricular change, our students benefit from studying little-known works. Unable to look up summaries or purchase essays online, not faced with the same canonical fear of “getting it,” students can engage more authentically with the texts. In addition, the discussion of didacticism in reading, media, and education requires students to use higher-level thinking in the form of critique. As juniors in high school, students in the American Literature classroom are also developmentally prepared to use abstract thought to evaluate the texts before them. Examining these early works in public schools would offer English teachers and their students numerous advantages: curriculum integration between English and history departments (NC DPI xi), high-interest readings for students, and, of course, the ability to evaluate the didactic media of their own world. With little effort, teachers can create units that simultaneously include NCTE (National Council for the Teachers of English) and statewide standards and invite students to explore their inner selves and the world around them.

Including the Missing Texts: Standards and The 3 Rs

The content of the current North Carolina Standard Course of Study (2004) is based largely on the western canon and illustrates a world concept centuries of educators wished to communicate to citizens. Regardless of the contemporary English teacher’s goals, the contemporary English teacher’s reading lists reveal a set of moral lessons for Americans. Though educators are so often concerned with beginnings and foundations (the first president, the first great novelist, the Constitution), English teachers have failed to adequately address the beginnings of American literature. While Hannah Webster Foster, Susanna Rowson, and William Hill Brown are unfamiliar to many high school English teachers, those names tell as much about the foundations of America as the familiar tones of Cooper, Emerson, or Hawthorne. Writing at a time when national identity was taking shape in congress, revolutionary-period writers had their own national duties to fellow citizens. Novels provided readers with entertainment, but also sought to define the ideals of an emerging nation. While authors wrote sensationalist narratives replete with sex and murder to attract the interest of the reading public, publishers linked their profession with that of the legislators to promote the books as didactic tracts that would form the moral character of the country. Such a contradiction offers students a rich territory for critical debate (Competency Goal 4.03: “Assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents.” NC DPI 111).

However, as of a 2002 survey of high school English teachers (Appendix), the typical North Carolina classroom addresses none of these early novels. The English III competency goals require that learners “[evaluate] the literary merit and/or historical significance of a work from Colonial Literature, the Romantic Era, Realism, the Modern Era, and Contemporary Literature” (Competency Goal 5.01, SCS 112). While this list of five eras seems to exempt the period between 1776 and 1820, “colonial literature” should encompass early American and revolutionary texts. Yet, upon examining the list of titles commonly used to fulfill these standards, not one example of colonial fiction appears (Appendix). The list incorporates numerous documents of the founding fathers, including The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, and even the letters of Abigail and John Adams; however, not one single work of “colonial” or “early” fiction makes its way into the classroom.

Partly, this omission could be explained based on terminology: “colonial” often calls to mind 17th century Puritans, for instance Jonathan Edwards (whose sermons are included on the list). “Literature” in terms of fiction was practically nonexistent with the Puritans, for whom “literature” was constrained to the bible, sermons, and religious tracts. By the early 18th century, laws forbade book hawkers selling chapbooks of stories from peddling their wares in Massachusetts (Davidson 41). The mid- to late-18th century brought the growth of cultural centers like Philadelphia and Boston, which created more diverse literary communities. In this way “colonial literature” in the colloquial sense of Puritan fiction is an oxymoron. Therefore, we extend our search for early American literature into the revolutionary period.

North Carolina teachers’ attempts at addressing this oversight have been inadequate. Our district, Durham County, requires English III classrooms study either The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible early in the school year; it seems the “Colonial Literature” requirement is being filled by revisionist historical fictions, written in 1850 and 1953, respectively, centuries distant from the period they depict. While both texts offer exemplary insights into colonial life, especially when paired with historical background, students need to “examine and explain how culture influences language” (Competency Goal 2.02, NC DPI 108) contemporaneously, not merely in retrospect. Historical knowledge has a central place in the English III curriculum, but exposing students to the distinctive style of early Americans authors adds a level of rigor to language study.

Not only do the authors use advanced vocabulary and a complex (and dated) syntax but, more importantly, they reflect the culture around them. Students may track how the author’s style implies the gender or class of the readers. The narrator of Susanna Rowson’s novel Charlotte Temple, for example, addresses the reader as “he” “my dear sober matron,” and “oh my dear girls,” (Rowson 58, 59, 60). Considering the variety of readers described, students may debate the author’s reasons for including such references and who the intended reader truly was (or was not) (Competency Goal 4.04, “[identify] and [analyze] elements of critical environment found in text in light of purpose, audience, and context,” 112). Students may also critique what the use of language in addressing a particular audience implies about that class of people. If Charlotte Temple is, indeed, “for the perusal…of the fair sex,” students may consider how its contents reveal assumptions about women (Rowson 35). The novels, particularly those written in epistolary or confessional form, often use conversational language, which offers an even more authentic view into linguistics of the time. On a broader level, students may imagine how their own language in conversation, notes, emails, and texts implies an audience and a culture through its syntax, diction, and content. Instead of drumming literary conventions into students year after year, teachers should jump at the chance to offer a novel that challenges the language patterns to which they are already accustomed.

The literature is more than rigorous: it is engaging. Before reality television, there was the early American novel. Purportedly true tales of murder, seduction, and social disgrace filled these compact narratives which excited the sensibilities of 18th century readers. Viewers today follow televised ritual humiliation and cinematic tales of betrayal and retribution for the same reasons. Like the video game or social networking system of the present, in early America, the novel was the new, risqué medium, sweeping the nation through the combined innovations in printing and the establishment of the lending library. Yet high school students do not study the time in American literature when the novel began its meteoric rise, filling libraries and salons, falling into the hands of not only ladies but also men, maids, and menial laborers (Davidson 28). We protest not on the scale of a special interest group lobbying for the inclusion of a book on a list, but as teachers looking for new ways to engage and challenge our students. The rise of the novel in America, along with the disdainful remarks of our forefathers on the genre, provides teachers with a fascinating parallel to our own times that we should exploit.


Books are not only texts which allow interplay between writer and reader, but are also products. Students must learn to see communication, not only books but movies, games, commercials, songs and emails, as products designed and marketed to specific readerships. By discussing the history of the novel in the United States, teachers can not only create interdisciplinary connections but can help their students develop awareness of themselves as producers and consumers of information. American literacy, which developed alongside the popularity of the novel, provides an additional historical connection. Examining the goals of the novel with those of early education allows students to relate their own academic experience to both those presented (or omitted) in the fictions and in the primary source pedagogical documents. In the following section we aim to provide a few examples from the development of the novel and education in America and demonstrate the novels’ relevance to classroom implementation.

The Novel as Product

Novels in America at the time of the revolution were as much products of the publishers as they were of the authors (Davidson 79). Most books in the United States before the revolution were imports. Trade slowed to a standstill during the Revolution, giving American publishers a window in which to establish their own market before trade re-opened at the close of the war. Still, printers had to import most of their supplies and content from England (74). In this competitive market, publishers took a huge risk whenever they had to publish anything new. This was particularly true of fiction, which had to compete with centuries of (pirated) British texts. The costs of printing, combined with the risks involved, meant that most American publishers produced books for a small, local market (76). Since they were taking the majority of the risks, knew their clientele and controlled the means of production, publishers had to act as editors, publicity agents and producers all at once.

Relaying facts about the development of the novel as a historical reality not only provides context for students but invites a slew of critical activities. The NCTE calls for “Students to adjust their use of spoken, written and visual language (e.g. conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate with a variety of audiences for a variety of purposes.” Those same standards call for students to “to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace” (National Council 3). Students analyzing early American book markets consider how publishers adjusted and chose texts to suit their audiences based on those workplace demands. Publishers had to chose new novels and determine how to advertise them. This sets up the analysis of audiences to help teach students to modify their own writing and does so in a realistic context.

Due to the competition and the difficulties of printing, most people in the late eighteenth century could not afford to buy books. In Revolution and the Word Cathy Davidson writes that a carpenter in 1800 would make $1 a day, but a novel would cost between $.75 and $1.50, and an unskilled laborer would be giving up two days wages (85). Books, in short, were a luxury most people could not afford. Yet afford them they did, by joining lending libraries. These libraries worked through subscriptions, each member contributing and then able to borrow books from them (88). As such, libraries became the number one source of books for most readers. Due to popular demand, most of these books were novels (89).

Discussing the economics of the novel also invites discussion of modern economic issues. The first copyright laws protected publishers from global competition, providing a discussion of globalization. The cost of books invites an interdisciplinary analysis of how much we spend on entertainment today. Students can study how television and movie producers analyze the market and what determines which shows get made. The dangers of piracy and the protection of copyright demand discussion of modern piracy in music and media. These are not just connections to today, but a genuine opportunity to teach students to analyze the world around them using examples from two hundred years ago.

The competition during the revolutionary period led to advancements in printing technology. Whereas a novel might run between 350 and 1500 copies at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by 1830 newspaper copies of books could run over 30,000 copies (75 – 76). These changes came primarily due to new innovations which made paper cheaper. Before 1800 paper represented roughly 20% of the cost of a book, now it was only 7% (Altbach 161). Congress also passed and enforced copyright laws, protecting publishers from pirating. Tariffs on foreign books also helped bring down the price of publishing (Davidson 97). Consequently, where Charlotte Temple was considered hugely popular by selling 40,000 copies in a decade, James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pioneers sold almost 9% of this figure by the day after it was released in 1823 (Southam 1). At a time when Americans were deciding what it meant to be part of a republic, changes in technology allowed novels to reach an unprecedented audience.

The amount of information available due to cheap paper pales in comparison to the communicative power of new technologies. A September 2008 CBS news survey found that people between 13 and 17 years of age send and receive an average of 1,742 text messages per month (Reardon). Research firm IDC estimated that 97 billion email messages went out in 2007 alone (40 billion of which were spam) (Leggatt). If ever there was a time when changing technology was once again democratizing information, it is now. Studying changes in the novel and the fear it caused can help students understand the role of electronic communication for them today.

The Novel as Community

Reading in the 18th century was often a communal event. Letter reading and writing was a hugely popular form of entertainment, and epistolary manuals with instruction on how to write correct styles, formats can content for different types of letter throughout the eighteenth century, often running at least five editions (Bannet 13). The guides included instructions on reading those letters aloud, including pronunciation guides and how to properly hold the paper when addressing a group (27). The expectation was that letters would be read aloud. The popularity of the epistolary novel mirrored these manuals. Like actual letters, they were often designed to be read aloud to a group as well (28). The epistolary novel and instruction manuals shared popularity reveal the importance of letters in colonial society as a communal event, through sharing them aloud, and as a cultural standard, through the rules and proscriptions.

Early American novels, therefore, offer an opportunity to talk to students about community. People in the eighteenth century (lacking television and malls) would hang out and read to one another. Letters connected families across the country. Epistolary novels revealed the way people thought about the events in their lives and the lives of those around them. Asking students to consider how they connect to people opens up the possibility of creating that connection. Write a letter to your students. Have them write to each other, or to you, or to a family member. Asking students to mirror novels by writing about people in their own lives or stories they have heard about creates opportunities to foster those all important relationships in the classroom.

The Novel as Democracy

Analyzing novels as products should not reduce them to merely pieces of consumer information. Novelists and publishers saw their role as encouraging democracy. In terms of pure economics, writing and publishing novels was not lucrative and often lost money. Yet publishers produced over 100 American books before 1820 (Davidson 99). They did so in small part because they believed they were creating and defining the cultural atmosphere of the new republic.

The popularity of the novel, through the emergence of the library, meant that novels had a vast audience. Moreover, this audience was non-elite and aware of the ways in which the republic failed to live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. New readers were not wealthy land owners (indeed they could not even afford their own books), and were not invited into the halls of the constitutional convention. Instead, they were the landless laborers who would not have the vote for another sixty years and women, who would not have it for another hundred and twenty. The texts they read mirrored their positions; these were not exclusively sermons or instruction manuals, but focused on the lives of common or disadvantaged people (105). Novels were, in short, a form of democracy, giving voice to the common man and woman.

Gentleman legislators and members of the highest offices of the nation, far from the lowly social position of the average reader, condemned the novel. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, fierce political rivals, both took time to attack the genre (104). This attack came about because, in the wake of the revolution, Americans were still struggling to sort out the bounds of authority and freedom in a world with a president instead of a king (105). If the republic were going to survive, it would need to exist on a set of cultural as well as governmental principles (Mulford xvi). Critics saw the novel as “subversive,” undermining the authority of a fragile government (Davidson 24). Given its support of the disenfranchised, this fear was not entirely unfounded. The Algerine Captive by Royal Tyler mocks politicians of the day. The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown was based on the lives of some of Boston’s wealthiest politicians and was attacked by John Adams himself. Critics dismissed novels as gossip and a waste of time. The condemnation of the novel as morally questionable, as a waste of time and energy, highlights the founders’ fear of overwhelming freedom in a world without monarchy. This provides the opportunity for educators to emphasize just how terrifying and difficult the prospect of democracy seemed.

In order to address the accusation of immorality, revolutionary publishers and authors often introduced their texts as examples and warnings. Seduction novels were instruction manuals for HOW NOT TO BEHAVE. Heroines who allowed themselves to be seduced regularly ended in ruin and death. These novels claimed to educate young women about the dangers of the world and to help create a single, common American morality. William Hill Brown even addresses The Power of Sympathy to “the young ladies of United Columbia,” revealing his own, intentional construction of morally didactic text. This project fit in with the authors' attempts to create an American democracy while simultaneously combating their critics' fears that novels would destroy America through subversion.

The Novel as Education: Moral Didacticism in Schools

The female readership of revolutionary novels through the next century gave rise to the female educator of the industrial revolution. Thus women, who had gained literacy by reading early novels, soon gained agency in the classroom of America’s common schools. Whereas novels replete with cautionary morals had once been dedicated to their “fair sex,” by 1900 women led 71% of rural classrooms in which they transmitted the morals to the nation’s next generation (Hoffman). The shifting role of women in promoting literacy in America parallels the shift from educating the masses through entertainment to educating them through a public school system. In both arenas, the goal of literacy and literature was to form a coherent political body that shared a language and a set of values.

Nation and literacy link at the roots. Over the world, language study falls under the title of the nation of origin rather than the process––reading, writing, or grammar. While in America, middle school students may only study “Language Arts,” soon enough, they move onto the more serious high school “English.” Language study and literacy have always served national purposes in America, especially. With such a diverse population of immigrants flooding into the ports by the time of independence, a young America needed to provide a standard educational system with language instruction in order to create a cohesive populace. In the movement towards universal education in the early colonial period, Americans used the common language to communicate the shared values of a nation. Today, secondary teachers across the nation continue this value-based education, promoting canonical works that speak to the glory of the American identity, working as double agents for literacy and patriotism, or what it means to be a “good” American. However, seldom do teachers explicitly educate students about the philosophical and historical nature of didacticism in education and reading.

The first line of North Carolina’s current Standard Course of Study, written by the Chair of the State Board of Education, boasts, “North Carolina has had a Standard Course of Study since 1898” (NCDPI iii). Having established the nation’s first public university at Chapel Hill in 1793, North Carolina is proud of its educational standards. That 1898 course of study offers pragmatic examples of implementation, with the suggestion that “weary” teachers “must study and keep up with their profession, or fall out by the way and make room for those who are progressive,” evidence that educational best practices were already being broken and reinstituted (199). An 1845 report from the first superintendent, Calvin Henderson Wiley, provides more background on the goals of schools. The standards of 2004 and the earliest report on North Carolina schools are not so different: both emphasize the importance of preparing students to be productive citizens, both socially and morally. The 2004 SCS aims to form, “contributing members of society,” “collaborative workers who possess…the desire to contribute to the improvement of society,” and “responsible,” “informed citizens in a democratic society” (4, 7, 83, 8). Wiley, too lays out the basis for education in North Carolina: “To make a nation truly great and happy, its heart and mind should both be educated” (23). The repeated emphasis on “society” and “nation” reinforce the role of education in creating a manageable populace.

Wiley, however, alludes to an additional aspect of education not so freely aired in the current SCS: the education of the heart. “Extreme care … should be taken to improve the heart and subdue its passions,” he explains (23). The direct link between didactic novels and education lies in this “schooling of desire” (Bohlin 18). Character education, a movement of values-based teaching first promoted in the early 1990s, seeks to establish a school environment that promotes active reflection on morality in an effort to curb teen suicide, pregnancy, murder rates as well as counteract the barrage of media messages students decipher every day (Lockwood). While critics of character education argue that the “hidden curriculum,” or values message, of the program is more didactic than is effective, the notion of prescribing morality through literacy education has carried on as an American issue since the earliest days of Puritan religious education (Giroux). The dissenters, however, bring up the point that character education, whether between the walls of a classroom of the covers of a book, can seem stifled. The disparity between the good intentions of the educators and the occasional failures of the program, the superficiality of which “[s]tudents are quick to size up,” parallels the disparity between the intentions of early American publishers and their authors, who, like adolescents, were seemingly often more interested in gossip and seduction than utter moral righteousness (Bohlin 4). Coincidentally, in 2001 North Carolina passed the Student Citizen Act, which enforces the implementation of character education in public schools (NC DPI, Character Education). An educational policy debate could give students one more opportunity to understand their role as citizens in America; ironically, the educator can encourage character development in students by asking them to question its validity.

Asking students to write about their own view of the goals of education and entertainment (books and media) can spur an authentic discussion in the classroom (Competency Goal 3.01: “establish and defend a point of view”). Students may also find the study of early documents on North Carolina schools fascinating in their explicit summoning of moral goals. By opening the floor to students, teachers can both avoid the “non-interference policy” that leaves schools utterly divorced from explicit discussion of values and still support Freire’s problem-posing education, which itself fosters democratic individuals.

The history of education in America suggests that one key goal is to ensure all citizens understand the laws and thus form a mor(ally) perfect Union. Discussions of didacticism and moral formation go beyond the classroom to society at large. The struggle to define the role of popular entertainment continues today. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently began to pay Viacom (which runs television networks including MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and BET) to include social messages in their television scripts and run advertisements about healthy living (Arango). These messages have already started with an episode of Law and Order: SVU. President of United States operations at the Foundation, Allan Golston, said to the New York Times that, “television in this vein was essential because the foundation could reach more people than through direct support of education” (Arango). The decision to make morally instructive programming parallels the moral missions of Early American novels and reveals many of the same fears about the integrity of society. Studying both allows students to question the purpose of their own education and how much influence popular literature (including media) has on them.

Examples of Early American Novels

The didactic nature of early American novels is best revealed through examples. Examining just two of the most popular novels from the end of the eighteenth century The Coquette and Charlotte Temple, will reveal the ways in which didacticism intertwined with the roles of women and democracy in the emerging republic. Other novels to consider include William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, and Charles Brocken Brown’s Arthur Mervyn. We have selected the two texts we believe would appeal most to the students we have encountered in our work in North Carolina.

The Coquette

Hannah Webster Foster’s epistolary novel The Coquette (1797) is the story of Eliza Warton. Eliza is torn between two suitors: Mr. Boyer, who she thinks is too stodgy, and Mr. Sanford, who is unreliable. Her indecision eventually drives away Mr. Boyer, while Mr. Sanford marries another woman for her money. Sanford and Eliza have an affair and Eliza, in typical seduction novel style, becomes pregnant. She dies alone in the countryside, far from her friends and without a husband.

The novel was popular, going through thirteen editions before the end of the nineteenth century (Mulford xli). Foster based the novel on the life of the highly publicized death of Elizabeth Whitman, a lady of Hartford Connecticut who delivered a stillborn baby before passing away at the Bell Taverns in Danvers, Mass in 1788 (xliv). Critics made her story into a didactic lesson about proper morality almost immediately. The Massachusetts Centinel September 20, 1788 edition even wrote that “she was a great reader of novels and romances and having imbibed her ideas of the characters of men from those fallacious sources, became vain and coquettish” (xlv). Attacks on Miss Witman embodied the moralizing sentiment that novels at the time were supposed to embody.

Both Elizabeth Whitman’s life and Hannah Webster Foster’s treatment thereof invite examination of didacticism, women’s roles in society and democracy as a whole. The criticism of Eliza for her actions, the repeated advice that she find a husband, highlights the espoused morality of the time. Simultaneously, though, Eliza is a sympathetic character; her decision in the novel form as much due to her role as an American woman in the late eighteenth century as due to her own decisions. Her tombstone at the end of the novel, which urges readers (both in the novel and out) to “throw a veil over her frailties, for great was her charity to others” suggests a far friendlier reading and undercuts the overt moralizing of a woman dying through letting herself be seduced. This was the moral ambiguity which so terrified early founders.

These themes connect to three of the six North Carolina primary competency goals, with room for the other three. In a 140-page text made up of brief letters, students can analyze the historical significance of a text (Competency Goal 5.01), by looking at the discussion surrounding novels. They can “assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents” (Competency Goal 4.03), by looking at whether Eliza’s problems emerge due to her coquettish style or her place in society. Finally, students “demonstrate the ability to read, listen to and view a variety of increasingly complex print and non-print argumentative texts appropriate to grade level and course literary focus, by . . . identifying and analyzing personal, social, historical or cultural influences, contexts, or biases (Competency Goal 3.04) by looking at the need to include didactic reasoning in these early American novels. Students can learn to interrogate the world around them and examine themselves within the scheme of American history all at once.

Charlotte Temple

Susanna Rowson, herself a didactic author cum educator, established a girls’ school in Boston, for which she wrote both curriculum (including manners and morals) and textbooks, eight years after publishing her bestseller, Charlotte Temple (Kirk 14). Rowson’s novel, originally titled Charlotte: A Tale of Truth for its original London printing in 1791 and later personalized into Charlotte Temple for subsequent American audiences, offers readers a morally wrought commentary on education along with a sensational narrative. Just as modern classics franchise into movies, posters, spin-offs, and endless reprints, Charlotte Temple became a distinctly American tale, inspiring over 200 American editions and numerous traveling theatrical reprisals of the story.

The story of Charlotte, a young British schoolgirl seduced, kidnapped, and taken to America by a British lieutenant quick to lose interest, offers Americans both a story of pathos over which to weep and a didactic opportunity to showcase the kindness of their nation. After arriving in America, Charlotte is soon forsaken by her seducer and left to fend for herself, pregnant and depressed. Throughout her toils and further abuses her American neighbor, Mrs. Beauchamp, offers her asylum and friendship. After giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte dies in the presence of her father come from England to find her and her savoir Mrs. Beauchamp. A love story turned tragedy, the novel offers itself to cautionary moralizing about the dangers of seduction, the kindness of community, and the forgiveness of parents.

One central point of interest for students is the discussion of how and why Charlotte makes the decisions she does. Faced with choices between duty and romance, education and adventure, trust and healthy skepticism, Charlotte could be seen as the means of her own downfall. However, in the Preface, the narrator mourns those who, like Charlotte, are “spoilt by a mistaken education” (Rowson 35). This phrase turns the blame on Mademoiselle La Rue, the French schoolteacher in charge of looking after Charlotte when she is first seduced, instead encouraging the young girl to forget her family and sail to America. La Rue, along with the other seeming villains, the seducers Montraville and Belcour, offers an excellent character for analysis, as many scenes show these characters as morally ambiguous.

An entertaining and manageable read at about 130 pages, Charlotte Temple offers opportunities for students to address five of the six North Carolina primary competency goals. Students “discover multiple perspectives,” in the classroom in debating the reason for Charlotte’s downfall for which they must provide “textual evidence to support [their] understanding of and … response to [the] text” (Competency Goal 1.02, 1.03), and “examine how culture influences language,” by locating didactic passages of narration and discussing their effectiveness (Competency Goal 2.02). In order to further explore the impact of didacticism in popular entertainment like the traveling plays of Charlotte Temple, students should analyze the moral imperatives suggested in various media (sitcoms, commercials, music videos, songs, etc.), thereby “recognizing propaganda as a purposeful technique” in “non-print argumentative texts” (Competency Goal 3.01, 3.04). Finally, by pairing the discussion of didacticism and Mademoiselle La Rue with a discussion of the role of education, students can “synthesize ideas” between their own educational life and that of Charlotte (Competency Goal 4) and “interpret the significance of literary movements” in relating the appeal of Charlotte Temple to those citizens prevented from having a full education. By focusing on the education strands of Charlotte Temple, students can evaluate moral choices in a context immediately relevant to their own lives.


We do not mean these examples to confine or limit teachers. Instead, we should work together to imagine the country at its founding. With our students, we can envision who was included in defining our country. We see their lives and their anxieties, their dreams and their nightmares, their greatest aspirations and their worst failures.

We can imagine all of these things because they still exist today. Where Adams feared the novel, we fear Myspace. Where publishers gave moral rules, modern entrepreneurs rewrite television scripts. Where texts once questioned roles and social places, our students now take their place.

Our task is still to create an American culture; that we have unified standards at all reveals this purpose. Yet in a democracy, that culture must be one of questioning and critical thinking. It is a culture which not only produces healthy citizens, but engaged and challenged students. Over two centuries after Rowson, Foster, Brown and Tyler struggled to define the limits and expectations of freedom in a new republic, it is our task to do the same.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Writing Wikipedia Pages in the Constructivist Classroom

Look for the original in the 2009 AACE-Ed Media Conference Proceedings!

Writing Wikipedia Pages in the Constructivist Classroom

by Alexa Garvoille and Dr. Ginny Buckner

Abstract: In response to current anxieties over students’ ability to critically evaluate internet-based sources, we propose a secondary curriculum that uses Wikipedia as a platform to pose questions about information verifiability, ethical use of technology, and the democratic role of internet-users. We argue that, while already prevalent in college curricula, the examination of Wikipedia page creation in secondary classrooms provides a developmentally relevant approach to guiding adolescents into higher levels of thinking. The proposed project, appropriate for any discipline, but here concerned with high school English, develops traditional research and editing skills and culminates in a contribution to public knowledge through writing and editing underdeveloped Wikipedia pages (stubs). Methods for project implementation, including suggestions for scaffolding and differentiating learner tasks, are included.


High-tech classrooms, innovative technology, and specialized software help teachers introduce students to new educational paradigms. Computing technology, second nature to students under the age of twenty-five, often aligns itself with educational prowess. As young adults prepare to face the challenges of the twenty-first century job market, educators, in turn, must devote themselves to advancing twenty-first century skills. However, amidst the development of such skills in close proximity to all things technological, lies the problem of critically evaluating that technology from a distance. Since so many young adults claim intimate familiarity with technology, educators might pass over outright discussions of how technology has changed the way students think. Despite the incredible onward and upward trend in educational technology, students can gain critical distance examining in-depth the most basic technology. In addition, students in public schools, for instance, do not always have access to the most recent technological resources. However, using just the internet students can advance developmentally and gain critical thinking skills by the careful consideration of and contribution to one of the most familiar sites on the internet: Wikipedia.

It’s been suggested that in these hard economic times, an expensive liberal arts education could just as easily be replaced with the absolutely free “Random Article” feature on Wikipedia. The ability to access information about anything by merely checking a BlackBerry or going to the computer lab has transformed the way we think and, more importantly, the way the next generation thinks. Information has become addictive. Most high school students look on Wikipedia for research information. Numerous college students have even been caught citing Wikipedia as a source in papers, which earned failing grades. While there is consensus that Wikipedia (or any encyclopedia for that matter) should not be cited for academic work, exactly how Wikipedia fits into our schools has yet to be determined. Though numerous post-secondary institutions have successfully incorporated Wikipedia page expansion into course requirements, some secondary schools have banned the site. The new mantra, “Wikipedia does not count!” has led schools to block its access on campus. Librarians and principals argue that students cannot distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources and therefore Wikipedia shouldn’t be available to tempt students.

Wikipedia, however, offers a consistent alternative (Giles 2005) to the vast, ambivalent sea of sites that is the internet. These days, even Google searches help the curious by sending them to Wikipedia first. Since students will certainly continue to use Wikipedia outside of school, the classroom is actually the ideal place to address questions of source reliability (Davidson 2007, Groom 2007). Secondary schools should take up the project that has already begun in universities all over the world. By examining the workings of Wikipedia in the context of the classroom, students at a younger age can understand why Wikipedia isn’t actually a source at all (thus preparing them for college), and how they can help make it a better resource by becoming budding Wikipedians themselves––that is, editors of Wikipedia. Instead of researching on Wikipedia, students learn critical skills by researching for Wikipedia. In addition to appealing to students, this high-interest project finds support in education standards: the International Reading Association in conjunction with the National Council for the Teachers of English (1996) require that, for one, “students use technological and informational resources…to gather and synthesizeinformation and to create and communicate knowledge.”

In this paper, we will present a theoretical framework for using Wikipedia in the classroom, not as a source for research, but as an opportunity to conduct research and engage in critical thought. We will specifically provide a focus for how Wikipedia relates to adolescent development. Then, we will suggest how, for example, secondary English teachers can integrate a Wikipedia-editing project into a typical high school curriculum, as well as recommend other possible academic trajectories for the project.

The Context: 21st Century Adolescent Learners

Most adolescents rightly see Wikipedia as a viable source––much more so than many adults. However, students may not understand the trepidation of parents and teachers to use the site as an academic source. Developmentally, many high school students and sometimes even college students think in concrete-operational terms, according to Piaget, meaning they understand logical processes in terms of cause-and-effect but often cannot yet grasp abstract gray-area concepts. The concept of source reliability is difficult for these students to understand (Eastin 2008, Piaget 1959). Each developmental stage builds on the last, and in order to progress to the next stage, the learner must experience a complication of their previous understanding. Exposing students to the process of editing Wikipedia pages for themselves would create a moment that Piaget terms cognitive dissonance. This state occurs when a prior assumption (the truth of the Wikipedia page, for example) clashes with newly acquired knowledge (that the page is easily edited). The new concept does not fit into the previous system of thought, thus leading to the accommodation of a new idea, the creation of a new set of paradigms in the brain. Instead of leaving students to continue thinking concretely about the internet by “just saying no” (Olanoff 2007) to Wikipedia, educators can make the ubiquity of the Wiki not only a teachable moment, but, more importantly, part of the developmental process.

By introducing students to the technical intricacies creating Wikipedia pages, we address technology and content standards (NCTE/IRA 1996) in addition to allowing students to personally possess their education by actively constructing it. Students would explore firsthand the unspoken contradiction between the casual acceptance and academic restriction of the internet. In such a way, students pursue what Paulo Freire (1970) calls a “problem-posing education.” Instead of censoring information or feeding students sources, as from a cart of librarian-selected books, a problem-posing classroom embraces the constraints placed on the students in order to lead them to a higher level of consciousness about their place in the world and, today, their place on the net. Freire suggests the goal of education is to perceive the world not as “a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” Likewise, instead of seeing knowledge (represented by Wikipedia) as static, students learn the process behind creating knowledge, thus empowering them to contribute to the transformation of knowledge, both within themselves and in the greater world of the internet.

Incorporating and even welcoming this sometimes inaccurate, vandalism-prone medium into the classroom, educators gain a platform for exploring problems of source credibility, ethical standards in technology, and the democratic role of internet-users. By taking advantage of the novelty of the medium, we offer students the opportunity to speak as experts based on intimate prior knowledge and engage in higher order thinking by evaluating a media resource. By making Wikipedia the topic of discussion, the focus of a project-based, student-centered classroom, rather than the outlawed but still-consulted secret, students can identify the shortcomings of Wikipedia themselves and actively engage in improving it.

Origins of the Project: A Graduate Student’s Perspective

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try Wikipedia-edits in a high school classroom. But I spent the year in public high schools as a candidate in Duke University’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program, a one-year, intensive teacher preparation program. I managed student teaching in Durham high schools while taking graduate English classes at Duke. Since the central element of our MAT program is the cultivation of reflective practices, I always observed my graduate professors and classmates metacognitively, taking notes on what I could bring back with me to the high school. I always tried to connect how seminar discussions with fellow graduate students might help me reach high schoolers, which was not always apparent. However, my experience in a course on the early American novel did more than bridge the gap.

Instead of fulfilling expectations about the class based on its title (“The Early American Novel”), the professor, Cathy Davidson, an interdisciplinary scholar and advocate for Wikipedia use, shattered and exceeded the students’ expectations. In the first class meeting candidates learned that the course would be devoted to improving public knowledge on the web and promoting the digital humanities (as opposed to the already-successful digital sciences). Like every successful educator, the professor set higher order thinking (evaluation not memorization) as the goal for the class. Bloom’s Taxonomy of thought, from which the term higher order thinking derives, guides many educators’ planning and applies to adolescents as well as adults.

Bloom puts forward an idea similar to Piaget’s notion of development, which categorizes thought into six levels that, like stair steps, lead the thinker from simple, lower order concerns like fact recall to more complex, higher order concerns like source evaluation. The learner progresses, in order, from knowledge, comprehension, and application to analysis, synthesis, and, finally, evaluation (Bloom 1956). This graduate literature course quickly escalated to evaluation. We questioned the very basis of our discipline, for instance, wondering why novels are categorized by nationality. We learned the content, but the main goal was always to address the big questions. By evaluating the novels, the canon, and the discipline, our discussions consistently kept the higher order concerns at hand while engaging students personally by requiring that each take responsibility for sharing knowledge gained in class with the online community.

To successfully defend the use of Wikipedia in any class, it is important to note here that this class focused on novels popular mainly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but not considered canonical or common knowledge. The Wikipedia pages for these texts reflected their marginal status, giving the class much to work with. Of the six novels on the syllabus, at the beginning of the semester, four of their Wikipedia pages were classified as stubs, one was short enough to be a stub, and one, though more thorough, cited no sources. Again, the unsung status of these subjects was key to ensuring the success of the Wikipedia project. These were the kinds of novels that have no SparkNotes, no eNotes, no cheat sheets. Having come from the public school system, entrenched in canonical classics, the idea of working with little-known literature struck a chord. While classics will generally maintain hold of education in terms of content, I could use less seminal works to teach skills––of source evaluation, writing drafts, conducting research––all in the name of Web 2.0. Imagine the impact high school students could have on the knowledge base of Wikipedia if, instead of using it as a source, they learned the value of finding print and non-print sources in order to contribute to the site; if, instead of turning in a book summary to the teacher and then throwing it away when returned, students were required to post the checked draft to Wikipedia, where it would be saved forever in the history of an article? Our small class of nine graduate students alone has since removed the stub status of all articles, added a significant number of sources, and, overall, contributed more than twenty kilobytes of information to early American novels on Wikipedia. High school students could improve the resource and feel a sense of empowerment and social responsibility, just as I did after adding my first edit.

As a teacher and learner, the experience of evaluating contemporary media and engaging in Web 2.0 materials during a course helped me see the value of maintaining a focus on relevance and immediacy in the classroom. Because of my experience in the course, I now spend hours looking through Wikipedia stubs and page histories, just correcting grammar and editing style. Even if students do not have internet access at home, this kind of project is so much at the core of our reading habits that it can follow the students beyond the classroom. For high schoolers, publishing on Wikipedia would provide a readership beyond the teacher and the classmate (NCTE/IRA 1996), subsequently offering an authentic writing experience for the student. In addition, research shows that adolescent brains favor novelty (Spear 2000), so bringing ever-new technology into the school keeps students engaged and looking forward to class. For teachers, principals, and families, this means students will be more likely to attend and less likely to stay home or linger outside school. In addition to using novel technology (which still seems young at eight years old), improving Wikipedia stubs necessarily involves interacting with new information. In order to supplement the SparkNotes Classics of our reading lists, students will interact with little-known books or subjects to increase the knowledge base of Wikipedia and to gain higher-order thinking skills.

Wikipedia Applied: A Classroom Project

We’ve explained how studying Wikipedia supports adolescent growth and higher order thinking in students from high school to graduate school. Now, based on my combined experience of using this tool in a graduate-level class and interacting with high school students on a daily basis, we will propose one method of implementing the project in a high school English classroom, explaining the educational or developmental impact of each different step. Wikipedia offers students an expansive opportunity for intellectual growth and innovation. Most curricula require research, summary, and writing skills. In this project students will gain all three, with the added benefit of increasing their technology and media knowledge. After assigning a project to ninth-graders in a public high school to create a Facebook page on a character from literature, I know that students with both extremes of ability level consider Web 2.0 a worthy and entertaining project. In addition, both levels of students find innovative ways of using technology that the teacher usually does not think of.

At the point in the school year in which the project would be introduced, my students will have already conducted research using a database. In addition, students will have practiced summarizing text and identifying main ideas. The Writing Wikipedia project reinforces research and summary skills in addition to incorporating the evaluation of information and opinions. The educational goals for the project enable students to 1) understand the need to verify information through multiple sources by experiencing the fluidity of knowledge on Wikipedia, 2) improve editing skills regarding clarity, style, and mechanics, 3) conduct research, cite, and synthesize information, and 4) understand that all new media requires critical evaluation.

At each step of this project, which culminates in expanding a Wikipedia stub, younger students need extensive support to help them utilize prior knowledge and skills in order to apply them to the next step of the process. This support, or scaffolding (Vygotsky 1978), ensures that the learners can reach a goal appropriate to their current skill level. If experience is an indicator, students can never have too much support; intermediate steps ensure gradual thought development and skill mastery. Vygotsky suggests that both scaffolding and social interaction increase the effectiveness of education (Vygotsky 1998); therefore, students should be divided into small groups to establish social development goals alongside intellectual ones.

The eight-step project outline that follows gives one approach to incorporating Wikipedia into a secondary classroom. Each step aligns with a level of thought from Bloom’s taxonomy or an instructional procedure found to be successful in previous university-level executions of the project.

1. Set the stage: The teacher conducts a Socratic-style seminar on the ethical and practical pros and cons of Web 2.0, including Wikipedia, Facebook, and YouTube. The class assembles a list of pros and cons to reference throughout the project. This initial discussion engages students in the project, allows them to speak as experts, and contextualizes editing Wikipedia as a timely and relevant problem. This discussion engages the highest order of thinking (evaluation, level six) from the start, thus issuing an initial buy-in from the students.

2. Learn the rules of Wikipedia: Students create a document that communicates, in their own words, the core values of Wikipedia. Instead of using direct instruction (lecture) to communicate the rules, the teacher allows students to construct this information by reading Wikipedia’s “About” section and its Manual of Style. This activity anticipates how students will interact with the page itself to answer questions throughout the project. Students should work together, ideally each at a computer, to instill at an early stage a sense of collegiality rather than competition. This step involves display of knowledge and comprehension (levels one and two).

3. Reinforce Wikipedia style: Since encyclopedia writing is very different than essay writing, the teacher needs to reinforce the importance of code-switching, that is, using different styles for different purposes. To assert style and content requirements, the teacher might lead students in evaluating numerous sentences copied from Wikipedia or other sources that may show bias or unverifiable information. In small groups, students could sort these sentences into two categories and explain their rationale for each grouping of “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” Once students begin to compare results, this activity results in productive debate. Students use analysis, Bloom’s fourth level of thinking, to group the sentences.

4. Introduce stubs and their weaknesses: The class explores the “List of Stub Categories” on Wikipedia to find small, incomplete articles on literature. At this point, students should explore the “History” of the article, including how to compare two versions of it. The teacher may choose to quickly demonstrate an edit on one of these pages to create a moment of cognitive dissonance, showing students the power they have to fix errors (or create them). One way to introduce students to the amount of work that needs to be done on Wikipedia would be to allow teams to print and edit a few pages for mechanics. This could also lead to an initial, less intimidating edit of a live page, thereby preparing students for their full content edits. This step engages Bloom’s third level of thinking, application, since learners apply previous editing knowledge to a new medium.

5. Stub selection: In order to best differentiate for a multi-level class the various requirements of page edits, the teacher should create heterogeneous (mixed-ability) groups of three to four members. As a team, students decide each member’s strength and assign each an appropriate role: for example, source identification, research, image addition, or style consistency. The teacher may choose to specify a stub category (for instance “Poetry stubs”) in order to avoid the indecision or vague goals characteristic of students faced with too much choice (Groom 2007). Student groups should then decide on a stub to expand. This step involves interpersonal evaluation (level six).

6. Research: This is the most important step and should be allotted enough time to ensure that it is truly effective. After surveying their entry, students should compile a list of information they will need to expand it. For instance, students might list “plot summary,” “list of characters,” “history of writing,” as categories to add. Since students are constructing their own knowledge in this project, the teacher should not suggest categories, but instead direct students to full Wikipedia entries on similar topics to see their format. The teacher leads students in research, which they will conduct collaboratively. Students will then synthesize the information (Bloom’s level five) into one document, for instance on GoogleDocs. At this point, the advanced student can take a leading role to ensure clarity and style consistency, two main critiques of Wikipedia. One student should also lead the others in ensuring the consistent use of in-line citations. Before publication, students peer-edit and the teacher reviews the articles.

7. Publish: To learn how to edit pages, students may look to the Wikipedia tutorial: The teacher may then refer students to the “Sandbox” feature on the site, which allows experimentation.

8. Follow-up: Sign up for the “Watch List” on all student-edited articles to see how other Wikipedians improve them. This may also allow students the opportunity to revert page vandalism.

At the end of publishing on Wikipedia, students can feel both a sense of entitlement and accomplishment for adding to public knowledge in a responsible and credible way. Student will have also gained critical research skills from page building. If not, they will soon find the page deleted by other Wikipedians. No grade can impact students like the acceptance or rejection of their work by the English-speaking, internet-using world.

Beyond the Classroom

Here, we’ve suggested a project-based method of integrating Wikipedia use in a secondary English classroom, an extension of the current university-level work, but the applicability of the project is wide-reaching.

In addition to teaching English content strands, this project offers faculty an opportunity for an interdisciplinary collaboration. Schools that pair English and History classes or use the Freshman Academy model to keep one small group of students circulating within a team of teachers could use Wikipedia for the basis of joint planning. Research skills are central to educational goals in many departments, as well as being central to Wikipedia’s standards.

As noted, the creation of Wikipedia pages enriches post-secondary and doctoral work by encouraging an active online community of scholars. Research universities’ humanities departments can use Wikipedia as an opportunity to break out of the ivory tower or the obscure journal to increase public interest, readership of their work on the web, and, eventually, readership in their subject area.

New teachers looking for positions in a competitive market of schools focused on twenty-first century skills benefit from understanding and embracing cutting-edge technology in the classroom or lecture hall––not as a cheap trick to lure the attention of hyperlinked brains, but as a platform for profound discussion on a topic for which boundaries have not yet been established. A discussion of Wikipedia may lead to one on social networking and its etiquette, for instance––a topic far from having such boundaries. Students are much more likely to take an active role in discussion when they know the teacher isn’t looking for a certain answer… Because right now there is no sure answer.

In a broader view, since Wikipedia pages and their history can be accessed from anywhere, a course on Wikipedia improvement could be offered by a variety of institutions. As a higher-order thinking project, Writing Wikipedia Pages could be a distance learning class gifted students in rural or underprivileged districts. Likewise, summer enrichment programs could develop such a project into an intensive workshop devoted to debating the social and ethical underpinnings of public knowledge before focusing on significantly expanding stubs into scholarly articles.

With Wikipedia edits in hand, our adolescents will have gained the power to impact readers all over the world, the resources to answer their own questions, and the critical analysis skills to evaluate sources. The next generation of information managers will know that Wikipedia is not a source, but rather a collection of sources and a seed for a powerful shift in the educational paradigm.


Bloom B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook I: The cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Co., Inc.

Davidson, C. (2007). We can’t ignore the influence of digital technologies. Chronicle of higher education, 53 (29), 20.

Eastin, M. (2008). Towards a cognitive developmental approach to youth perceptions of credibility. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning: Digital media, youth, and credibility, 29-47.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Giles, J. (2005). Internet encyclopedias go head to head. Nature, 438, 900–901.

Groom, M. (2007). Using Wikipedia to reenvision the term paper. Information futures: Aligning our missions, 2007, EDUCAUSE, Seattle, WA.

National Council for the Teachers of English and International Reading Association (1996). Standards for the English language arts. United States: NCTE/IRA. Also available

Olanoff, L. (2007). School district unites in banning Wikipedia. Seattle Times. 11/21/2007.

Piaget, J. (1959). Language and thought of the child. (M. Grabain, Trans.) New York: Humanities Press.

Spear, L. P. (2000). The adolescent brain and age-related behavioral manifestations. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 24(4), 417-463.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1998). Early childhood. In R.W. Rieber (Ed.), Collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: Vol. 5. Child psychology, 187-205. New York: Plenum.


Broughton, J. (2008). Wikipedia: The missing manual. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media. Free copies for educator use.

Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). Educator and graduate student perspectives on the digital humanities, including information on Cathy Davidson’s courses at Duke University.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning. Boston: MIT Press. Available to download free at

Wikipedia School and University Projects. Listing of Wikipedia-editing projects currently being conducted.