Skyline English teacher co-writes book that follows a year in the life of her ninth-grade classroom amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Jill Runstrom says Literacies Before Technologies: Making Digital Tools Matter for Middle Grades Learners explores the changes that remote learning necessitated

Jill Runstrom, who teaches English at Skyline High School, is the co-author of the newly published book, Literacies Before Technologies: Making Digital Tools Matter for Middle Grades Learners.

During her 31 years in public education, Runstrom taught ELA to students in grades 7-12 and served as a teacher-librarian. When asked about her reasons for teaching, she says they are simple: She connects with teenagers, loves learning, and likes helping people.

Runstrom, who earned her master’s degree in educational technology from Grand Valley State University, credits her work with the Chippewa River Writing Project—a local site of the National Writing Project—for the many professional opportunities that have enriched her career. Of note, she served on the steering committee for the 4T Conference on Digital Writing, was awarded a fellowship at The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights in New York City, served on the teacher advisory board at the Zelelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills, and has presented numerous times at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

On home football Saturdays in the fall, she can be found at a Michigan tailgate party with her husband, Eric, wearing the maize-and-blue sweater she knit herself. The couple has two adult children, Charlie and Katie, whom she calls “pretty fantastic.” 

Literacies Before Technologies: Making Digital Tools Matter for Middle Grades Learners is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and

Why did you want to write this book?
I was asked to co-author this book by my colleague, Dr. Troy Hicks. He is the director of the Chippewa River Writing Project at Central Michigan University as well as one of the contributing scholars who wrote the NCTE Belief Statement: Beliefs for Integrating Technology into the English Language Arts Classroom (BIT-ELA).  Cathy Fleischer, the editor for the Principles in Practice series for NCTE, asked Troy to author the book and find a middle-grades classroom teacher to co-author.  I had taught both grades 7 and 8 for several years prior to coming to AAPS and at the time was teaching freshman at Skyline. That all fit within the parameters of what was needed in terms of classroom instruction and lessons to demonstrate the ideas in the BIT-ELA.  Because Troy and I had collaborated on several projects prior to this book and connected over our shared interest in educational technology,  we knew that this collaboration would be a good fit for us.  Little did we know in February of 2020 when he asked me if I was interested in co-authoring what was about to happen with a global pandemic.

How long did it take you to write it?

  • Planning – Spring/Summer 2020
  • Chronicling the lessons, student artifacts, and reflections – 2020/21 School year
  • Revision and Editing – this was a series of deadlines for us, then with our editor (Cathy Fleischer), then with the editing team and typesetters at NCTE – Fall 2021 to Winter 2023 

The book follows a year in the life of your ninth-grade English classroom. How did that work?
We started planning the book during the quarantine and the summer of 2020.  We chronicled the year of lessons planned and taught during the 2020-21 school year.  This involved weekly Zoom calls where we brainstormed lesson ideas for upcoming units, shared and offered feedback for the writing each of us had done from the previous week, and set goals for upcoming writing tasks.  That was the basic structure for our work together.

However, there is so much more to this that set me up for success in co-authoring Literacies Before Technologies.  AAPS made the decision to transition to online school in response to the pandemic for the 2020-21 school year.  I was so fortunate to work with three other teachers—Alaina Feliks, Amanda McMurray, and Serena Kessler—on the Skyline freshman ELA TLN team.  The four of us have shared values of excellence in our teaching that quickly created a collaborative spirit among us that blossomed into a friendship that continues today.  We all agree that our year together, with the weekly agreement of an hour meeting to plan our lessons, was the best PD in our teaching careers.  

Working together with my Skyline TLN team and my co-author, Troy Hicks, I was able to intentionally plan lessons that were specifically tied to NCTE’s belief statement—BIT-ELA.  My TLN group shared the workload, each of us planning and creating materials for a week’s lessons at a time. This allowed me space to work with Troy to plan ahead; what we were doing together took a lot of reflection and discussion.   

Is there any way you would change NCTE’s Beliefs for Integrating Technology into the English Language Arts Classroom position statement in middle grades classrooms? 
Nope.  The group of scholars who originally created the statement and then revised it in 2018 is a brilliant group of people who understand the importance of literacies in technology for both teachers and students.  The beliefs statement is broken down into three areas of technology literacy:

  • What teachers should be striving to do with their students.
  • What teacher educators should be imparting to our preservice teachers who are entering the field of teaching.
  • What English and literacy researchers should be doing.

The way the statement is written, it covers grades K-12 and leaves space for emerging technologies, like AI, to be considered.

Why do you believe the primary goal is to consider  “literacies before technologies”?
This is a loaded question!  I will try to be brief.  For English teachers, what I would say is when planning a lesson using technology, it is imperative that we also are doing our best to have our students build their literacy with existing and emerging technologies as well.  When I have an idea for a lesson involving technology, I ask myself: Is this an extension of face-to-face learning or a paper and pencil activity?  In other words, could the same thing be done in the classroom in a low-tech way?  If the answer is yes, then I steer away from doing that.  To build digital literacy, we want our students to use technology to think, create, and engage in authentic ways that can’t be done without technology.  This can be something simple like a digital essay.  For example, to execute a well-written digital essay, a student doesn’t just type their essay in a Google doc and turn it in; instead, they are asked to think about where in the essay the audience could learn more about the topic and in what way: video, image, an article, etc. This requires the student to carefully think about what more their audience needs to know and for what purpose, something English teachers are always trying to get students to consider.  Additionally, they are building their online research skills to find appropriate materials and finally, they are building the capacity to use the different features of Google Docs by embedding hyperlinks within the text of their essay.  My co-author, Dr. Troy Hicks wrote a recent article for English Journal that illustrates the need for digital literacy in the classroom effectively.

Does the emergence of AI impact your thoughts on the subject?
The emergence of AI does not change my mind about digital literacy.  If anything it is a call to action for all of us as educators to get informed, embrace it, and start to use it in our lesson planning.  Let’s face it, AI is the hot new thing right now, and while its future, depending on what tech experts one listens to, remains to be seen, it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.  I did one unit this spring where my students had ChatGPT analyze an essay it wrote for them and we discussed whether or not having an AI bot write their essay was a violation of academic integrity.  It was really interesting.  As an English teacher charged with getting my students to understand analysis, this was a great exercise.  Additionally, what is really important to note is that I didn’t throw out the traditional methods of writing instruction that I know work to just replace it with ChatGPT.  Students did several skills lessons leading up to the AI assignment and demonstrated their writerly moves using rhetorical concepts we studied in class.  They certainly could have written this essay on their own, and after seeing what ChatGPT produced for them, some topics just didn’t work that well.  Those students ended up abandoning ChatGPT’s essay and writing their own.  The other students analyzed their essays written by AI, and what they realized is ChatGPT is a great tool to save time, but ultimately, a well-written essay— or any writing for that matter—has to have the genius of the author infused in the text.  Otherwise, it reads like anyone could have written it.  To make it authentic, every student had to heavily revise their essay to put their stamp of originality on it.  I would much rather do assignments like this and have conversations with students along the way about what we are all learning and thinking than have students use an AI bot to write something for them at the last minute as an overt form of cheating.  

We hear so much about the negatives of “screen time.” Your thoughts?
The Surgeon General recently published an advisory entitled “Social Media and Youth Mental Health” that addresses more than just screen time, but social media, a prolific form of screen time.  For those of us who are stakeholders in the well-being of kids, it is loaded with sobering statistics that are alarming. One that stood out to me that I see as a high school teacher is this: “Up to 95% of youth ages 13–17 report using a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.”  

I observe this during the school day, every day.  Students are on screens, specifically their phones, all the time.  I don’t think it is good for their mental health and their attention spans.  I wonder if some of this increase in screen time is the aftermath of isolation from the pandemic that will smooth itself out over the coming years or is this the world we live in that adults need to help students navigate and achieve a healthy balance? 

Jill Runstrom

What I think is important to establish when evaluating screen time is to observe what a person is doing with that time.  If it is all spent consuming content by scrolling through video shorts like Tik Tok, Snapchat, and Instagram, in my opinion, that is just idle entertainment.  On the other hand, if someone is using their screen time to create, then that is a completely different activity. For example, I have students who have a YouTube channel and like to vlog (video blog).  The videos they create require them to employ many different creative digital literacy skills that will serve them well in their lives.  While they are on the computer or phone, they may be watching other vloggers, using their vlogs as mentor texts for their own videos.  Next, they must plan and shoot the video, an amazingly creative process that gets more sophisticated as they get better at it.  The final step of putting the video together, layering in music and voice-overs, video editing, and adding special effects is a painstaking process that requires creativity, concentration, and attention to detail.  The final step of publishing and sharing the video is brave and authentic.  If this kind of activity was why all kids were on their phones and computers, we wouldn’t have anything to worry about.    

All of this matters as an entry point for parents to converse with their kids about what they are doing with their screen time.  Just setting limits to that time, while somewhat helpful, may not be a complete solution.  All of us need to consider what we do with our screen time and ask, “Am I consuming or creating?” 

Do you allow cell phone usage in your classroom?
Yes.  I teach primarily high school juniors and seniors so I feel like part of my job is to allow students to choose how and when they use their cell phones.  We start out the trimester talking about phones and what’s appropriate behavior in class and what isn’t.  Most students understand that being on their phones in class is not appropriate, but the majority of them, without my direction to put them away, will fall back into the behavior.  As a teacher, I have grappled with a cell phone policy that will allow students to have the autonomy to do appropriate things with their phones during class but also hold them accountable for staying engaged with what’s happening in the classroom.  In a perfect world, all of my students would have the discipline to keep their phones in a pocket or backpack and use it only when needed, like during a transition between activities in class or for a few minutes after completing thoughtful, high-quality work. The reality is that many students are in communication with their parents throughout the day for various reasons. I want my students to understand that using their phones briefly to respond to a text from their mom is totally appropriate.  On the other hand, taking a video in the classroom to post to their Snapchat story is not.  I would like students to evaluate their cell phone choices and exercise responsibility as well as restraint.  

What advice do you have for parents?
This is such a hard question to answer because it really boils down to the personality of the child, family values, and communication.  Every parent has to do what they feel is best for their children when it comes to cell phone use, video games, and social media.  What is interesting and heart-breaking is when I held whole class discussions regarding the Surgeon General’s advisory, one female student confessed that she wished her mom hadn’t allowed her to get Instagram when she was in middle school.  She shared with the class how she followed many female celebrity accounts and how damaging that was to her self-esteem and body image.  While she knew intellectually that the pictures and videos were filtered, edited, and unrealistic, she revealed that at the time she longed to look like them, and in her middle school mind, it made her feel inadequate.  For a different child, video games may be a great way for an introvert to make friends and talk with people after a day at school that is socially overwhelming.  While this is not exercise and time outdoors, it is engaging and a place of community for some kids that can’t be replicated anywhere else.  

Having said all of that, I think what we know now is that social media, especially for students under the age of 16 or 17 can be really damaging, and while the pressure for kids to join in is real, I would proceed with caution.  Students are really savvy at having accounts associated with their names that they allow their parents to follow, giving the adults a false sense of security that they know what is going on.  From my own parenting experience, my two children had these accounts as middle and high schoolers, but they also had what is known as “burner accounts.” Young people create burner accounts with names that are not traceable to their real name and the picture associated with the account is often someone famous or noteworthy.  If your child is doing this, and in talking with my students most do, they can post and converse with their friends without their parents knowing what they are doing.  Kids are pretty smart, but if you are a careful listener, you can get clues to what they are doing that they think you won’t find.  

This all can sound really alarming, but I believe that AAPS students are great kids, growing up and navigating their world as best they can.  It’s a place that didn’t exist when the trusted adults in their lives were their age.  Communication is a key component to managing this unknown territory for parents.  Here is what I think is productive no matter what the situation:

  • Ask your child: What are you doing on social media?  Have them show you their favorite people or accounts they follow.  Pick one to follow together and talk about what is being posted.  There is so much positive content out there, establish a positive connection with your child to positive content.
  • If you have a daughter, be especially mindful of who and what they are looking at.  Talk to them about filters on TikTok and Snapchat.  Have her show you how they work.  This is a great entry point to talk about all the unfair things that are imposed upon girls and young women and about how the media seems to value females more when they look and dress a certain way.  
  • Talk to your younger (upper elementary and middle school) kids about algorithms and how they work.  Discuss why that can be both helpful and harmful.  Discuss ways in which your child can get balanced, diverse content in their social media feeds.
  • If you are placing limits on your children in terms of when and where they may use their phones or the amount of screen time, make sure you are setting healthy boundaries and examples for your kids.  There are many stories I hear students relay to each other about how hypocritical their parents are about texting at the dinner table or cell phones interrupting a family conversation.  If you don’t allow your kids to do it, then don’t do it either.  

Which devices do you use most, and for what purposes?
I use my cell phone and school-issued laptop computer for my screen time.  I use my cell phone for most of my personal communication and entertainment: texting, phone calls, email, podcasts, navigation, music, word games, and social media (Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook).  I use my laptop for work-related tasks: designing lessons and assessments, correspondence with parents and colleagues, finding resources, daily writing, and reflecting.

What do you most want readers to take away from the book?
The most important thing I hope teachers understand about digital literacy after reading the book is that it is a complex, ever-evolving set of literacies (plural) that are really important for both teachers and students to know and understand.  Just mastering the skills related to English, or any other subject for that matter, is no longer enough in today’s technological society.  Teachers must be intentional about designing lessons that allow students to exercise their creative muscle and use technology as content creators because so much of their day is spent consuming content.  And when students are consuming content, how are they evaluating what they see and hear? Do they understand that their likes and follows are potentially creating a confirmation bias and/or echo chamber, isolating them from multiple perspectives on complex issues?  ELA teachers need to be using technology with intention to strengthen our students’ ability to be both creators of content and careful curators of what they read and watch.    

Do you have a next book in mind?
I don’t have another book in mind at this point.  Right now, I am just grateful for the opportunity to have co-authored this one with my friend and mentor, Troy Hicks.  The whole process took almost three years and doing publicity interviews like this one is helping me reflect on the process and all that I learned along the way.  

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