Losing My Pigeon

I’ve been quiet in this space these last several months. I’m still finding my space and place as a consultant and library person. It’s a great transition – but there are many moments of my work of late that aren’t bloggable, and I’ve remembered that it’s easier, often, to keep quiet than to thread the needle of privacy and transparency when working to tell my stories of learning that involve others. 

There’s work to do to recover my blogging self, but my private writing self has been thriving. I want to push a little to regain some of my blogging ground, though. And I’m reading some incredible things lately.

So here’s a quick push to get you to read this incredible piece by a friend and fellow believer in people in a time of technology. Audrey said this a few weeks back, and you should read the rest:

I want to suggest that what we need instead of a discipline called “education technology” is an undisciplining. We need criticism at the center of our work. We need to recognize and sit with complexity; we need to demand and stand – or kneel – for justice. We also need care – desperately – the kind of care that has compassion about anxiety and insecurity and that works to alleviate their causes not just suppress the symptoms. We need speculative fictions and counter-narratives that are not interested in reproducing education technology’s legacies or reifying its futures. We need radical disloyalty, blasphemy.

From later in the same talk:

Care is largely absent from education technology, which instead promises rigorous and efficient training. Care is too often completely absent from education, let’s be honest; our institutions do not value the affective labor of teaching and learning.

I’ve taken her words slightly out of context, but attention to care and concern for others must be an essential piece of the work of teaching and learning, with or without technology, in the 21st Century. As I’m at work on pieces of technology right now that are meant to teach people, I want to declare that I’m aware of technology’s power to dehumanize. I reject that and want to do better. I’m willing to fight to lose my pigeon. 

You’re on your own to discover why Audrey believes that the pigeon is a worthy character in the struggle. But she’s right, and it’s a compelling story, beautifully composed. 

Go read it already.


Mozilla’s Curriculum Workshop – Summer Learning

Last week, I had the honor of sitting in on an episode of Mozilla’s Curriculum Workshop, a regular webinar where folks talk but also (and more importantly) do a little prototyping to begin building things that might be useful to helping folks make and learn with the Web.

The active format is great, and I’m a fan of the hosts, so it was cool to join in to talk and iterate a bit around summer learning opportunities. The format reminded of the old EdTechTalk Barn Raising sessions. I wish more conversations were framed as participatory and with a making focus.

I continue to be deeply concerned that the time when professional educators are “allowed” to spend time in deep learning is summertime. If the job of a learning organization is to promote learning, it sure seems to me that avoiding learning until down time or off time is unhealthy and a terrible model for sustainability. At best, it’s just poor modeling for schools to tell children that learning is so important, teachers are too busy to do so until after their “work” is done.

But editorializing aside, it was fun to visit and build some. Here’s a recap of the webinar, and the video is below.

I sure hope you’re making and learning on something good this summer. I’d love to hear what you’re up to.


Do We Want To Design Rides, or Do We Want to Create Imagineers?

Zipper ride at night

Had a check in call with my friends in the Compose Our World project recently. That’s the 9th grade curriculum project I’m working on, and not writing about enough. After our first year of exploring PBL and SEL as concepts to guide and shape 9th grade language arts curriculum, we’re beginning to decide what we want our curriculum for students and teachers to maybe look like.1

As we’re struggling with how to put the pieces together, we’re also slogging through some really big questions about what we want for the learners and the teachers in this project.

Do we want to create really incredible learning experiences, ones that teachers can bring their students to year after year and find success with? At some level, yes, it’s great to make things that are powerful learning tools or experiences, and that can be used more than once by teachers in their classrooms. But maybe creating better tools for learners to rely on isn’t the best thing we could do in this work.

Maybe instead we should be helping people to build their own really powerful learning experiences.

Because Antero is involved in this work, and he’s always thinking about games, and he’s always sending me really interesting resources on how gamers design experiences, Imagineers got brought into the conversation.

When designing curriculum, do we want to be Imagineers, or do we want to be developing Imagineers? That’s the question. And it’s never as simple as either, or2 , but I suspect long time readers of this blog will know which way I want things to lean towards.

How about you?

  1. Before we iterate through another round and change most everything. That’s how design works. []
  2. Nor are rides always the best metaphor for learning experiences – because frequently the best learning happens on detours, or when we take the experience off the tracks. []

#PLA2016: Sherry Turkle and the Power of Conversation

Turkle notes  pla 2016

This morning at PLA, I heard Sherry Turkle speak on her current research into conversation, a continuation of her work on exploring what happens to people mediated by, through and with technology.  It was a useful talk – lots of stuff worth remembering in there.  

I was struck by her emphasis on empathy and intimacy, and I share her concern about people building robots to replace people without considering what’s getting replaced1 . Technology isn’t a replacement for empathy, intimacy, or conversation, she says, and I agree. 

Some hurried thoughts on the talk, written in between morning sessions, are below.

Writing Is Conversation, Too

At the beginning of her talk, Turkle setup a dichotomy of email versus face to face conversation. She used an example of office hours where students come to visit versus her students’ preference to write, and receive, “perfect emails.” I didn’t care for the example, though I understood what she was trying to say – that the edited and perfect life is a preference for many, that anything but our best polished self isn’t worth sharing or communicating. It felt like she was dissing writing.

The problem was that I don’t think she allowed for the possibility that writing, via email or text or pen and ink or any other format IS a conversation tool.  A darn good one.

There’s a reason to pause while constructing a thought, either as a sentence or as a spoken statement – and the delivery of one’s self, in intimate and empathy building ways, is just as valid when done via a letter, a postcard, an email, a text, or whatever instead of a face to face conversation. Intimacy and empathy can certainly be fostered via written exchanges.

The need for people to be people with each other isn’t about the modality of our interaction – it’s about the intentionality we put into it. And, of course she knows and believes this, otherwise she wouldn’t write books – the only way to spread her message would be face to face, a return to a pre-literate culture. And I don’t think that’s consistent with her messages, essential messages, at all.

I want teachers and students and library people and pretty much everybody to spend more time thinking about what’s on their mind, and writing/speaking/typing it in some way to someone else. But I don’t want folks to confuse the method of delivery of a message with the value of the message itself.  Email isn’t evil – but it can be used to send plenty of evil. Texts aren’t the devil – but the devil sure knows how to text. You get the idea. And can extend the idea to any place where writing can be shared among people. The platforms aren’t necessary the problem – it’s what we do – and don’t do – with them that matters2

One point I’ve missed mentioning is the notion of the edited life versus the messy life. The messy bits, she argued, are where learning and love and intimacy and empathy happen. She’s right about that – but I’d push to say that plenty of the messy can and does happen not face to face but via writing and other ways of communicating. I hope she allows for that in her thinking, and that we will allow for that in the learning experiences and spaces we create for ourselves and others. I’ve often referred to this space as “first draft thinking.” I want folks to share their early drafts often, and I think this is one reason why. There’s power in the rawness of the early thinking. We learn from the pushback that happens after we start saying things.

Technology Isn’t The Problem with Attention and Empathy – Mindlessness Is

A recurring theme of Turkle’s talk was that phones and folks’ use of them were somehow causing the problem of loss of empathy.  That’s not quite right. It’s the mindlessness of phone and technology use that causes the loss of our personness. We need to not respond mindlessly to that – but to be intentional about how we engage with technology. So don’t blame the phone, and don’t ban the phone. (A common school reaction.) Instead, work to build ways to help people manage their technology, and to pause and allow time for reflection about how, when and where to use it. 

If you’ve a quiet area that’s intended for reflection, perhaps a shoebox on the table for temporary device storage is a good idea. A local fast food restaurant makes quarantine boxes available for devices at their restaurant. I think they call them “family time” boxes, intended for device storage during the meal. That’s a killer idea, one that I will implement at my house for dinner time soon.

We Have To Be Intentional About What We Want to Be/Make/Experience

It’s not enough to be less mindless – we have to be more mindful. 

A bigger theme of her talk is that we have to be mindful and intentional about what we want our worlds to look like, and how we want to be in them. There’s a place for solitude, she argued, in helping us to figure that out. We have to know ourselves in order to be able to share those selves with others. Yep. She says the best line in her book is: “Technology can make us forget what we know about life.” And I mostly agree – but I’d push a bit and say that one of the big problems with the way that we interact with each other is that we don’t take time to consider what we actually DO know about life, or what we want to know more about. 

And we certainly, at least in formal learning situations, are far too quick to decide for others what they know about life, and what that means for them. We’ve got to look after each other better. 

After hearing this talk, I’m certainly off to get a copy of her latest book. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you’ve gotten into it already. Tell me about it in the comments. 

  1. I also wonder if the replacement, if it’s “good enough,” can actually lead to more empathy and intimacy for people – but that’s a different blog post. Likely about Turing tests. []
  2. That’s not to say that the way we build these platforms isn’t important, too, but again, that’s a different post. []

New Pathways to Leadership – A Design Challenge within the NWP

I’m writing this weekend from the New Pathways Design Challenge meeting, an add-on meeting to the National Writing Project’s Spring Meeting in Washington, D.C.

It’s the third stool to the Building New Pathways work I’m involved in with the NWP, where I’m co-facilitating a team thinking hard about micro credentials that might be useful for thinking about what experiences people need to have to be a “writing project leader.” 

Twelve local writing project sites have received small grants to help them approach the practical problems of reaching new folks in their service areas, and connecting those folks to writing project experiences. They’ll be designing in a big hurry, and the badges team and the knowledge base teams are hoping that we can provide resources and support while getting some on the ground feedback on our pieces of the work. Their designs will be pitched at the NWP Annual Meeting in November, and many of those designs will turn into actual work with teachers not yet in the NWP network.1

Today is all about the twelve teams thinking through the work ahead and learning more about each member of the cohort and their hopes for their designing, prototyping and tinkering. 

I’m facilitating some discussion of their plans, moving from proposals to bigger visions for what leadership in the National Writing Project might look like in the future. What an honor to get to dream big with teachers and teachers of teachers who want to create better opportunities for the students and teachers that they serve.

What a responsibility to attempt to steward the network that has done so much for me so that it’s there for the next folks who are coming along to teach my children, and theirs. 

I sure hope there’s room in your world to dream big for the teachers and students that you serve. I sure hope there continue to be opportunities to remember that things don’t have to be as they are, and that we can all do better. 

  1. Boy, I wish everybody that wanted to be was in the NWP network.  The network is better with more voices, and new voices. []

“Print” Sources in the 21st Century

2009 3962573662 card catalog

I was helping a teammate at the library today think through how to help a student. The student, a middle schooler, was doing a report on illness and needed some sources for their “research report.”

The student rejected my teammate’s help out of hand because the student needed a “print source,” and my teammate pointed the student to some of our online databases.

The thing is, those databases? They’re electronic versions of stuff that was originally on paper. And they offer full text. That one could print out. Back onto paper. If one wanted to. You know – because rules.

So, I ask again, several years since the last time I asked it:

What’s print? Why does that matter? Why are we still perpetuating the paper/digital false dichotomy of information?



Badges. #nwpleads Badges.

I’m writing this morning from the last morning of the Building New Pathways Working Meeting, which stopped being a Listening Retreat and became the Working Meeting at around 10:30am yesterday, as the larger group of assembled National Writing Project leaders headed home and a smaller subset of the group stayed to begin their work as action teams, tasked with synthesizing the stuff we heard, and additional needs and experiences of the network, into something tangible for local sites to use to build new pathways for leadership in their work.

There are two working teams:

  • A Knowledge Base Team, tasked with curating and collecting and helping to make more visible, discussable and useful the many collected existing resources of the National Writing Project to help local sites think about and bring to life the work of building new pathways to leadership in the NWP.
  • A Badges Team, which I’m co-facilitating, tasked with identifying ways to use microcredentialling and badging to help local sites make visible and discussable (and actionable) some of the many, many characteristics of “NWP leaders” or “teacher leaders” or “educator leaders.”1 It might also be that badges are visible invitations to help people who wish to adopt a role of “NWP leader,” formally or informally, begin to explore and adopt that role.

Later this week, the NWP will release an RFP2 to provide some support to local sites who want to explore and develop some new pathways to leadership, too. Neat stuff. Prototypes. Design sprints. Massive success and failure potential all at the same time. Hooray, bravery!

Our tasks are great.  While we’ve got two years to develop the things we were tasked to make, we’ll be sprinting our way to drafts that the network can see, review, and critique and improve every few months along the way.  There are many paths we could take through this work, but  sometimes the hardest part isn’t following the path to  the finish line – it’s finding a place to start.

So we’re working today to identify some of our roads into the work. Already, the intersection of experiences, expertise and thoughtfulness has provided useful friction to modify how I’m thinking about the right place to start, and the right checkpoints along the way. Pretty cool.

Though I’m humbled by the work ahead, I’m excited today to work with thoughtful colleagues, friends, and new friends, to build tools and resources to support leadership in and beyond the NWP today and tomorrow.  Putting smart people from all over into the same spaces to work through difficult problems of practice matters.  It’s important.  It’s how pathways get built.

Deep breath.  Here we go.

  1. It’s tricky to get the right words to talk about the people, both in and out of school, who work to, as Ben Bates said it so well yesterday, “Work to develop young people.” Those folks are the allies in this work, and the types of leaders I’m thinking and talking about. []
  2. Yeah. You know me. []

Me, #nwpleads, and 2 Metaphors for NWP Leadership

The Greatest American Hero (13948198067)
I’m working this week from Austin, Texas, where I’m at the Building New Pathways event with the National Writing Project. One of my more interesting consulting projects right now is working on this project, a deep dive into how we build and sustain new pathways for leadership development in the local sites, and the national network, of the National Writing Project. I’m co-facilitating a piece of this work, with my emphasis on helping to think through how we can identify and help others to identify and build the attributes that are essential for NWP leaders.

We’re defining “NWP leaders” broadly. Earlier today, Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl asked us to think of NWP leaders as those who are entitled to do work in the name of the Writing Project.

We’ve talked about many things, and you should follow along if you’re able and interested. There’s a Yammer group where much of the conversation and work so far is being collected and discussed, and the conversation is on Twitter as well under the hashtag #nwpleads.

I’ve thought a lot these last few weeks of what we hold to be the essential characteristics of “National Writing Project people.” For some, this means people who have been through the traditional entry point for NWP Teacher Consultants – the Invitational Summer Institute. For others, it means people who have glommed onto, into, or through projects sponsored or inspired by NWP principles, people and ideas.

I’m struggling with how to think about what an “NWP leader” is, how we know, and how one can enter into thinking of themselves or others in such terms. Jim Gray is heavily on my mind. So is the notion of what’s the “minimum viable NWP leader.” And metaphors abound as I try to think about these things. Is NWP leadership, NWP-ness, something that is learned? Lived? Experienced? Grown? Developed? Inoculated?1

Plenty of questions, and as this is a project I’m committed to for the next couple of years, I’m certain the blog will become a scratchpad for many of them. But right now, I want to get down some thinking about two metaphors in particular that are helping me think through leadership pathways and how we might recognize – or help others to recognize – what an “NWP leader” is.

The Greatest American Hero

I loved the TV show The Greatest American Hero when I was a little kid. I remember tying a blanket around my neck and “flying” around the living room while Joey Scarbury’s theme played from the 45 my parents bought me spinning on my record player. If you don’t know the premise of the show, it’s about a guy who is given a costume by some aliens. The costume gives him access to a wide collection of abilities and powers – super strength, flight, invisibility, telekinesis, etc. The only problem is, that the guy, who happens to be a special education teacher (at least when the show begins), doesn’t know how to make the suit work. And the manual, which the aliens gave him, is lost. So the normal guy is able to adopt a mantle, a superhero identity, but he’s never quite sure which powers he has, and which ones he will be able to draw upon, until he finds himself in a moment of need. Frequently, he’s able to call up the powers and abilities he needs. But not always. And sometimes, the abilities he expects to use to get him through a moment of crisis aren’t the ones that ultimately help him solve the problem.

Other times, the suit itself isn’t the thing that helps the teacher to be the hero.

Why in the world does this story work as a metaphor for me for leadership in the NWP? Here’re a few reasons:2

  1. The hero is the hero because he decides to be. No one forces Mr. H. to put on the costume. He chooses to, because he feels an obligation to adopt the identity of the hero, to help when he can, because that’s his theory of action in the world. Teachers and NWP leaders do similar things. They see a need and adopt a stance that says, yeah, I can do this.
  2. The costume is part of the identity – but it’s up to the wearer to choose the abilities that emerge from the chosen identity.
  3. There’s nothing “special” about Mr. H., except that he chooses to be the hero, or the leader. Others can wear the costume, can assume the identity of “super” or “hero” or “leader.” The power is partly in the costume, but it’s also in choosing to put it on. We can all choose to wear the costume, or to pick up tools. It’s what we do after we’ve chosen to do something that things get interesting.
  4. Even with the suit, things can get messy. The powers don’t always work, or work in the way we intend them to.
  5. You’re not a hero, or a leader, even with great power or amazing tools, unless you choose to be. And you can still choose to lead without access to the costume or the tools.

D&D Character Sheet (for an NWP-er)

Another way to think about the capacities and attributes of leaders in the NWP is to think about a character sheet for a role-playing game. What is “NWP leader,” but a role one has chosen to adopt? And when it comes to characters in role-playing games, it’s helpful to think about attributes that are necessary for all, but can exist in differing levels or degrees. All D&D characters have strength and agility – but each character starts with a different number for these abilities. Wizards are often smarter than warriors. But warriors are stronger than wizards. And even once we’ve chosen a class or character type, we can choose to specialize. Maybe we adopt the identity of a rogue. And we want to be good at lockpicking or stealth. So we choose to adopt those abilities through training and/or experience. And those abilities grow over time. But we can’t choose all of the abilities. In D&D, choosing one character type may open or close doors on the types of experiences that we adopt and/or can grow.

And in a good D&D adventure, it’s not one character facing the adventure – it’s a party. A group of players has to have several different character types to be successful. You need a tank who can take lots of damage, and a healer or two to help recover. Maybe that thief to pick some locks. And a ranger who can see in the dark. It’s not that you need all the types in all the situations. You pick your party sometimes through chance, and other times through intentional selection of roles and attributes that you believe will be helpful in the adventure you’re about to face.

But you’ve got to have a party. You’ve got to have a network.3

In both metaphors, there’s lots to consider to help me think through both what it takes to be an “NWP leader,” as well as lots of problems. Metaphors will only take you so far. But they can be helpful lenses for thinking through what’s bedrock, as Nicole Mirra has been calling core NWP leader attributes. What are the core attributes that every NWP leader has to have to be a member of the NWP “tribe?”
And what are the ones that you want distributed throughout the network, but not necessarily embedded deeply in every member? What are the skills and attributes and pathways that folks might want to dig into as they grow as characters in the network? What pathways do you want to emphasize? What skills and attributes do you want to nurture and develop in the network, but allow individuals to choose to develop for themselves or their parties?

What do you believe makes an “NWP leader” or a “teacher leader” either of those things? How do you know, how can you “prove” it, and how might we share that knowledge with others?

  1. All of these seem viable metaphors in some way. []
  2. And for my purpose here, let’s use “hero” and “leader” synonymously, even though I prefer models of servant leadership to ego-driven, “hero” leaders who save the day. But leadership and saving the day, moving the ball, etc., are often the same thing. []
  3. And, in the case of D&D, someone else builds the character sheet template that the gamers use as a tool. And then the DM and the players create the game together – so things get complicated quickly, and the rules on paper are only useful until they aren’t. That’s when good players improvise. []

What’s This Digital Writing Stuff, Anyway?

It is better to prevent evil, when can, than to attempt to cure it.I’m speaking tomorrow with my wife’s college course for preservice teachers on the teaching of writing. I’m the featured expert on “digital writing.”

Whatever that is.

Over the last week, the students in the course have been jotting some questions and thoughts down on a Google doc in preparation for the session. I basically asked what it was they wanted to know about, because we have an hour to talk about what I’ve spent an awful lot of the last ten years of my live worrying and working on.

And as I’m prepping for just what I want to leave them with in the fifty five minutes, minus announcements and time for whatever else will come up tomorrow, I’m thinking hard about just what it is about “digital writing” that’s worth wondering and worrying about amidst the eight hundred thousand other odd things rolling around in a teacher’s mind as they begin a career of working with young people.

As I sketched out some ideas and a plan of action on a pad of paper with a freshly inked fountain pen, I was reminded that someone’s new toy is always someone else’s essential tool. And vice versa.

It’s not the digital of digital writing that matters. It’s the writing.

We’ve1 always been fumbling with whatever we’ve had available to us to use to communicate with each other, and to leave a mark beyond ourselves. The exploration of tools for communication beyond our voices in a crowded room is a five thousand year old pursuit. Paint. Sticks. Pencils. Cursors. Whatever we can get our hands on – we’ll write with it.

It’s rather silly sometimes to pretend that it’s only in the last five years or so any of that fumbling and reaching has actually changed the nature of the game. But that’s what we do. Every five years or so.

The nature of the game is that it’s always been changing, and teachers have always been fighting to make sure that we all use the same tools the right way, or that we only use the tools in the ways that the folks who teach the tools are comfortable with. Today’s “digital” is yesterday’s “ink” is tomorrow’s “3d2”.

William Alcott was a teacher in the 1840s who I often point people to when they get stuck on how different right now is from any other time in human history3. He wrote an engaging book on the integration into instruction of a new and modern technology of his time – the blackboard.  It’s worth your time.

He opens the book with fine advice for anyone seeking the answers to how best to teach digital writing today:

Should the teacher who takes up these “Exercises,” attend to the suggestions I have made both in this preface, and in several of the chapters, and instead of following, mechanically, the methods which are pointed out, attend rather to the principles of which these exercises are intended as illustrations, and thus be led to form his own plans and methods, my object will be far more perfectly accomplished than if he should transfer its scanty exercises to the black board, and there let the matter end. . . . Hardly any mistake could be greater than for the teacher, who should take up a book like this, to adopt its various methods without reference to existing circumstances.

Our contexts matter, folks. The why and what and whom we are writing for. That doesn’t change when there’s a tablet, a stylus, a camera, a keyboard or a piece of chalk in play as the primary writing tool. The differences with those tools are matters of technique. Matters we’d all be better off taking up once we’ve actually gotten serious about making sure our classrooms are places of deep creation, revision, and sharing.

So write on, with whatever you’ve got, is what I’ll say to those preservice teachers. Write and explore writing environments with your students. Play with lots of tools and toys and make the one that work for you your own. But try hard to figure out why the others don’t work for you – and who they might work for. And don’t bother teaching students how to write unless you’re writing yourself.

Maybe it’d be easier to just tell them to get to work on their Twitter accounts instead.

  1. The collective, societal we of all the people, ever. []
  2. Maybe. But probably something else. We are bad at predictions, too. []
  3. All the times have been more different than any other time in human history. Ours is a rich and fascinating tapestry, made no less extraordinary or fascinating by the fact that our shared sameness is actually the change we swear is different. []

On Constraints, Road Maps, and Driving Directions

1601 De Bry and de Veer Map of Nova Zembla and the Northeast Passage Geographicus NovaZembla debry 1601

I’m working this weekend with the Compose Our World project, and we’re digging in hard to the curricular units that we proposed we’d develop in that work.

As we do so, we’re struggling with notions of when to allow for choice and when to constrain it.  Constraints aren’t evil – they can be quite helpful and useful for limiting the possibilities and allowing for actual, reasonable responses from teachers and students to the events, habits and practices of the classroom.  Wide open choice for everyone on everything isn’t necessary helpful.1

One way that’s productive in thinking about constraints that are helpful and still provide for choice is the metaphor of road maps. The decisions we make that constrain possibilities are those that create the universe, or the map, where a project or learning experience can occur. We might choose a single town, or a county. Maybe a state or an ocean. And anything outside the boundary of that particular map is, well, out of bounds. When we constrain a learning experience, we hand students a map, and help them see where, at least for the moment, the boundaries are.

The territory left open on the map is available for exploration. Students can pick a path or feature or two (or three or four) and venture off to explore in more depth.

But we don’t help our students if, after providing the map, we also give them the turn by turn directions to get them from point A to point B. If we do that, then why provide a map at all?

When you’re engaging in project work with students, teachers, and colleagues, make sure that you’re thinking hard about what constraints matter in your project, and then build them in. But if a constraint doesn’t matter, isn’t important, or gets in the way of your instructional objectives, then don’t implement it. Don’t rope off a path that might be the one that is the one the folks you’re working with and for most want to take.

Let at least some choices matter. But only the ones that need to.

  1. Frequent readers here know that I believe that choice is essential for agency and investment, but I don’t believe that everything should be open for choosing all the time. That way leads to madness. []