Mrs. Ryan's Class

A Digital Learning Hub for students and parents

The Power of Language in Cultural Models

When thinking about cultural models in my school environment, I had a difficult time separating the impact of appearance from that of vocabulary, language, and grammar. I will force myself to focus on the linguistic aspect of this issues this week, and focus on written communication within a school, most often email.

imagesIn my professional community, any grammatical error, misspelling, or omission of a word in an email will likely result in an instant loss of respect from the staff. We have the cultural model that all written communication is proofread, edited, and perfect. When a professional, or even worse, a superior, makes an error in an email or written communication, members of our community can’t help but feel frustrated. This easy slip can result in a slightly less flattering reputation that may not be wholly deserved, but our cultural model dictates that professional language must grammatically correct, and formal.

This contrasts with the cultural model of the professionalism of verbal communication at our faculty meetings, and goal setting meetings. These interactions with fellow teachers and administrators have a much more colloquial and informal tone. This type of “round table” format helps teachers to feel at ease, and comfortable – a helpful state of mind when trying to problem solve and collaborate with colleagues. Everyone present is certainly respectful and maintains a level of professionalism, but the standards of this in person communication are undoubtedly different than written communication.

canyouWhen thinking about my student’s world, a cultural model that comes to mind is classroom management and the “appropriate” way of speaking that teachers expect. We have all likely participated in this conversation at some point (either as a student or maybe a teacher):

Student: “Can I go to the bathroom?”

Teacher: “I don’t know, can you?”

After reading Gee’s thoughts about how cultural models can impact a student’s ability to master a language, (Social Linguistics and Literacies, 2012), I wondered how an english language learner would interpret this teacher-student interaction. This interchange between a student and a teacher is usually presented as a bit of a joke to teach students to use the word “may”, but I do think that we as teachers need to be mindful of english language learners, or really any student who is new to our cultural model and educational system. We need to be careful about the sarcastic tone that can creep into exchanges like this one and confuse children.

Another cultural model that is currently changing is the role of a teacher from the bearer of all knowledge and the ultimate judge of your learning, to a facilitator of student learning and experience. The shift in education to include collaborative learning environments, student generated rubrics and assessments, and student content construction definitely has made an impact on our perspective of “normal” teacher and student roles in school, but I have found many students still perceive teachers as the ultimate keepers of knowledge.  Kids still want to know if they got an A (when we don’t even give letter grades until 5th grade) or simply to know if they did “a good job.” This cultural model is changing, so I can imagine that students who are new to our model would have an even more difficult time navigating this system.

Ultimately, I believe that in order to affirm all students’ prior experience with education it is necessary to develop a set of classroom and school norms that every member of the community can learn. At the beginning of the school year, all students should practice expected behavior for the cultural model for school, because it is likely much different than the individual cultural models for at home behavior. Below, is a photo of my classroom constitution this year.


I follow a process each year, based in Responsive Classroom, to generate expectations for our classroom community that will hopefully make our cultural model of education more accessible for young students.

Class Expectations:

  1. Brainstorm outcomes/rules/expectations that the students want for themselves, each other, and the teacher
  2. Look for patterns in all of the suggestions
  3. Consolidate these suggestions into 3-5 all-encompassing statements
  4. Agree on the new expectations, discuss what they look like in different school settings
  5. Sign the document

In Social Linguistics and LiteraciesGee writes, “Any student faced with the myriad aspects of reality in a culture which might be relevant to the cultural models used by members of that culture could well take forever to master the meaning of language. The typical second- language learner does not have the great amount of time available to the infant and young child learning a first language.”  Here, Gee references the vast capability of infants and young children to not only absorb the cultural norms and models in their environment, but also grasp language skills.

In the video “Two Modes of Talking” from, Dr. Todd Risley presents his researching findings that show the that large disparity in the language abilities of children who come from families who did not talk a lot to their young children (mostly in “business” language giving directions, etc.) and families who talked directly to their young children both in business language and through “chit-chat, gossip, and commentary.” By the time the child is 4, their language and experience differences are vast.

Children who hear diverse language have a larger capacity for language and a much larger vocabulary. These children will have a higher aptitude for literacy skills and will likely have stronger decoding skills. Dr. Keith Stanovich argues in the video “The Matthew Effect”, from, that reading does make people smarter because the strength in decoding affects a child’s ability in reading, declarative knowledges, lexical distinctions, vocabulary,  and ultimately how he/she functions in the world.  

Reading and vocabulary are closely connected to speech, so we can make the leap that children who have less of an advantage due to their early childhood exposure to language and talking will likely have a more difficult time speaking up and questioning the cultural models they are in. Are their voices sometimes lost? Gee comments that it is the teacher’s job to ensure that no voices are lost, and encourage students to question and challenge our current models.

We also must consider the members of our population who don’t have a voice – literally. In “New Voices For The Voiceless: Synthetic Speech Gets An Upgrade” we learn that the speech scientist, Rupal Patel, has discovered a way to make a personalized robotic voice for a child, Samantha, who can not speak. 

Although the outcome of such scientific advancement is remarkable and a huge success for children with speech disabilities and their families, I do find it to be slightly unsettling to hear a manufactured child’s voice.

Click Here to listen to “Samantha’s New Voice”

Logically, I know that there is nothing creepy about this – it is nothing more than research based science doing good for humanity…but the emotional side of me feels unsettled that we can be so easily deceived. Do I have a right to know if the sweet voice is a real child’s voice? What difference does it make to me, really? I think the answer comes down to my the desire for experiences to be authentic.

For instance, if I am trying to reach a customer service representative to work out an issue, being forced through prerecorded robot voices and selections does nothing more than infuriate me. In this situation, I need to engage in an authentic, person-to-person conversation to problem solve and respond to my needs. I feel validated when I hear the person on the other end of the phone show empathy, concern, and determination to help with my problem – these are human connections that can not be mimicked by an automated voice.

On the other hand, this authentic human contact is not always needed, depending on the task at hand. I’m thinking particularly of checking a gift card balance, or activating a credit card. In situations like these, direct human interaction over the phone can be more time-consuming and feel like more of an ordeal. I actually don’t need to hear empathy or concern if there is no real issue to solve. In situations where I have a simple task to complete, I have no real issues with the fact, I might prefer it.

This discussion of the impact of voice in our cultural models and everyday communication reminded me of a professor I had in college, Gina Barreca. She taught me an english class, “The Femme Fatale,” and I learned more from her than any other professor I had.

Gina Barecca

Gina Barreca

She was tough, engaging, demanding, passionate, and hilarious. Because of these qualities, Gina Barreca shatters another stereotype of the cultural models of teachers in education.

If you google image search “teacher” you get this:

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Out of the first 15 images, 14 are women – happy, smiling, women. These women are wearing muted tones, look kind, approachable, and soft. My colleague Keely Garden will also appreciate that all of the women depicted here have pin-straight hair. They are perfect models of put-together, professional women.

Gina Barreca does not fit this mold, and her article “Loud Woman Teaching: Using your Voice to Make a Difference” discusses the impact that teachers can have when they don’t fit into this cultural model. In this article, Barreca recounts a conversation with a student who noted that her “loudness” helped the student to be less afraid, less shy, less lazy, and less irresponsible because you expected a lot from me.”

In this short article we learn that loud doesn’t only refer to voice, but also mannerisms, clothing, the richness of ideas, and the boldness in the expectation that every student has a voice, is engaged, and participates. This is the power that voice, sound, and identity can have.

*Note on the media used to create this response:

I chose to write this response in a traditional blog post format. I did this for two reasons:

  1. This written format allowed me to move the text around on the page a few times after I responded to each part of the question. I tried to achieve a sort of flow by transitioning between topics, and dragging and dropping paragraphs around the page.
  1. I wanted the freedom to embed images, and include links for my readers to access additional information and resources. The blog seemed like the best way to easily incorporate these additions.

Starting Up My Digital Learning Hub

I have used to create this blog for a few months. As I have said in earlier posts, I enjoy the design, features, and flexibility that offers, and I like how customizable it is. At the beginning of my research into Digital Learning Hubs, I became interested in, so I did some more research into the possibilities that this resource would allow. I was impressed by the vast amount of creativity and flexibility that this resource offers, but I was a little overwhelmed and did not know exactly where to begin.

imagesI found and article article, and WordPress.orgon a support page that compares the benefits of and It was very helpful and definitely laid out the pros and cons of each resource in a digestible way. I also read The $64,000 Question: or which helped me to see that although really has endless possibilities, it seems to be more complicated and difficult for a novice to use.

I have to admit that I felt nervous about the idea of hosting my own page and diving into the world of coding and publishing a website from scratch, especially at the beginning of what promises to be a busy school year!

Finally, I discovered the article, Make the Grade: Build an A+ classroom site on which answered lingering questions I had about privacy, customizing, and embedding resources on I decided to start here with my free blog, but I am open to splurging on the premium membership to be able to customize my hub even more down the road.

privacy copyIn my last post I shared an example of a Digital Learning Hub created on, so I spent some time revisiting that resource to use as inspiration. My first step was to figure out how to create separate pages on my blog to make it more user friendly for the intended audience of my learning hub: parents and students.

I changed the look of my site to be more kid friendly with bright colors and fun fonts. I also added pages to the vertical sidebar and changed which widgets I wanted to be displayed. I created a separate section for my blog, edited the content of my about page, and added a text in a welcome section.

The look of my blog before the conversion to a Digital Learning Hub

I was frustrated for a while because the new pages were being displayed in alphabetical order in the sidebar and I wanted the student page to be first for easy access. After about 20 minutes of poking around, I finally found where to edit the order!

I have a feeling that I will be celebrating small successes like this throughout the creation of this learning hub. My next steps will be to add content and to really flesh out the purposes of each of my pages. Down the road, I anticipate adjusting the privacy settings on certain pages, especially those that have content specific to my district or students. I don’t plan to share this hub with my students or families yet, but when I do I’m sure the question of privacy will come up – my priority is to make this a resource that everyone will be comfortable using.

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Exemplars of Digital Learning Hubs

This week, I set out to find an exemplar Digital Learning Hub that I can use as an inspiration and model when creating mine. Since I would ultimately like to create my hub on or, I started there and found this found this classroom website, It is designed almost exactly like I hope mine will be.

pages The menu to navigate the site on the left is where I envision the links to different pages for students and teachers on my site. I also got some new ideas about content to include in my own Learning Hub. I especially like the “Specific to G5” page that defines the lingo that teachers use with parents. What a helpful resource!

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I also reviewed some of the Learning Hubs created by graduates of the IT/DML Program and was impressed by the design and content. After browsing each of the sites, I decided to include the following pages in my Learning Hub based on their examples: Read Aloud (, Tutorials (—digital-instruction-specialist/home), Curriculum (, and Newsletters. I also like the “More” tab on that shows links to personal information like the teacher’s blog, resume, and philosophy.

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My next step will be to get started on creating my own Digital Learning Hub. I anticipate some growing pains, but ultimately the benefits that this resource can provide will be worth it.

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Plato Inspired Podcast

This week I decided to share my thinking about Code Switching in the form of a podcast to honor Plato’s belief that true learning is gained through questioning and dialogue. My husband Kyle graciously participated to help me in this quest!

The musical introduction to my podcast is a piece called “Thinker” that my husband Kyle Ryan wrote, performed, and recorded. I felt that the tone of the piece, and the title itself were fitting for the context.

I hope you enjoy!

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Digital Learning Hub: Coming Soon!

I began this Instructional Technology and Digital Media Literacy program with no real professional online presence. I had a website provided through my school and some personal social media outlets, but I was lacking in the area of a defined and well developed online representation of myself as a professional. Throughout my coursework this summer, I designed and maintained my first blog using I like the freedom that wordpress allows and although I anticipate a continued learning curve using this platform, I would like to begin to design and develop my Digital Learning Hub using wordpress to create a website. I hope this will help me to align my blog and website into a seamless, one-stop-shopping type of resource.

While planning for my Digital Learning Hub, I need to consider the elements I want to include (including digital text and tools), the purpose of my website, and the intended audience.

In Researching New Literacies: Web 2.0 Practices and Insider Perspectives, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel write, “Almost anything available online becomes a resource for diverse kinds of meaning making.” I intend to design my Digital Learning Hub for the audience of my current students and parents. I hope to provide my students and their parents with the opportunity to create meaning and purpose from a variety of helpful resources available on my website. I envision different pages on my website for students and and parents. My goal is to create a Digital Learning Hub that is easy to navigate for my young students, so a clear and easy to find area for students is essential.

In the student section I plan to include elements to practice and extend classroom learning (Math and Language Arts IXL, Math Magician, Spelling City, Math Playground, Sheppard Software-USA Games), as well as classroom information including homework assignments, resources and due dates for ongoing projects, upcoming field trips, and celebrations of student success. As I add resources to my website, it will be critical to spend a few minutes in class to share the resource with my students and teach them how to access and use each online tool or text. This class time will allow me to help clarify the connection to school and build excitement for the website and online resources. I am also considering including multi-modal tutorials for how to use each resource in the student section so students can access the directions at home.

online games

created on

In the parent section I plan to include a brief explanation of each online resource/game in the student section. I think it is critical to explicitly state the purpose for online games so parents are supportive and aware of the academic purpose. I would also have some content overlap from the student section and include resources and due dates for ongoing projects, upcoming field trips, and celebrations of student success for parents. I think it will be important to provide parents with easy access to important district and school information such as the district and school calendar, reminders of upcoming events, lunch menus, and important policies and procedures.

Once my website is ready for student and parent view, I would like to change the settings to private so only people with the link to the site can view the content. I feel this is important to protect the privacy of our school and students. I am eager to begin work on my website to help my students and their parents easily access resources and tools, and to further establish a school to home connection.

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Biker Bar Moment

I chose to use my blog to tell the story about a moment when I felt like the “other”, or what James Paul Gee refers to as a “biker bar” moment in his introduction to “Social Linguistics and Literacies”. Blogging feels like the most appropriate and comfortable tool to tell this story and reflect on my students and teaching in this context. As Sherry Turkle states in her Ted Talk: Connected but Alone?, technology affords me the ability to “edit, delete, and retouch” my writing before I send it out into the world to make sure I represent myself in the way I intend. This is comforting, especially when telling a personal story that makes me vulnerable.


Me: age 6, walking into my first day of first grade

Despite my edits, deleted sections, and retouching, the following story is 100% true: My biker bar moment happened when I was 14 years old on my first day of public high school. I attended a small, close knit Catholic School for all 9 years of my primary, elementary, and middle school education- I didn’t know anything else. My family was very involved in the school and church community and all of my friends were from my school. To provide you with a frame of reference of the culture at my school, I was not allowed to wear any makeup, nail polish, color my hair, or wear any non-religious jewelry. My skirt could be no more than half an inch above my knee, and the heels on my shoes could not exceed ¾ of an inch. (I wouldn’t dare push these boundaries because the nuns used rulers to measure.)

I did not know what to expect out of my first day at a large public high school, but I was definitely not prepared for what I experienced. I walked into the building and immediately heard kids talking loudly to their friends and using curse words. They were wearing tank tops and jeans, and I could see some of their “exposed midriffs.” (Gasp!)  Then I passed by a 6 foot tall teenager with a lime green mohawk listening to music in headphones. Everything I saw and everyone I met that day scared me – it was so different than everything I was used to. I didn’t look like anyone, didn’t talk like anyone, and didn’t fit in.

Eventually I made friends and found a group of people that I could relate to, but I was not prepared for what to expect when I went to high school. With a little pre-teaching to provide me with perspective on the reality of public high school, I might have been able to enter that new environment without fear and worry that I was an outsider and everyone was looking at me.

Boy in the middle looking nervous and confused. Photo labeled for reuse from USAG- Humphreys

Boy in the middle looking nervous and confused.
Photo labeled for reuse from USAG- Humphreys

I teach 3rd grade at a 3-5 school, so my students are brand new to the building, teachers, and many classmates. As I get to know my kids this week, I have begun notice the evidence of their fears and insecurities. This class of eight year olds look to each other and mimic behavior that they think is expected. They start out very quiet, and gradually build up courage to talk to the people sitting near them or at their lockers. Students at my school are allowed to use e-readers or personal devices during school, but are blocked from social media resources.

In a way I am grateful that my students do not have the opportunity to hide behind a device and are encouraged to communicate directly with peers, though at home I know that social media prevails, even at the age of eight. In years past my students have talked about Facetiming, texting, and video-chatting their friends at home instead of participating in clubs, sports, or play dates. I agree with Turkle when she says, “technology not only changes what we do, but who we are.” My students are learning how to be social and interact with peers in school, but at home they interact with each other at an arm’s length. They are able to “edit, delete, and retouch” the conversations and experiences they have with friends.

As my students navigate their new school, it is easy to see what background knowledge and understanding of school expectations that they bring. Each child has different experiences that inform their decisions and understanding both behaviorally and academically. Gee highlights this idea of perspective through the discussion of Patricia William’s 1991 Court Case involving sausage. Different people can draw much different conclusions from the same scenario based on their prior knowledge and experience. (p. 11)

I believe that ensuring a common understanding is essential before I can expect students to perform in a certain way. For example, I do not assume that students automatically or intrinsically know what I mean when I say, “Take out your whiteboard, dry-erase marker, and eraser and set up your whiteboards for the Trash Can Game. Then come to your rug spot for Math.” During these first few weeks of school I model and explicitly teach every transition, routine, and expected behavior one at a time. I also provide ample time for students to observe their peers, practice in groups, and practice individually. It is not expected that all students master every transition, routine, and expected behavior right away, but each child has an opportunity to learn what to expect, even if it is a brand new situation or task.

This type of common understanding of classroom expectations ensures that each student knows what to do and how to do it. My hope is that this will diminish the “biker bar” feelings that my students may have in my classroom so they can focus on learning, connecting, and having fun.