#ISTE11: On Longitudinal Web Presences for Writing, Learning, Being

I had the opportunity to hear Paul Allison, one of my favorite teachers, talk at length about his work with Youth Voices yesterday. Usually, Paul’s asking about others’ work, or showcasing the work he’s doing – but not talking about the thinking behind the work. And I like it when he does so. I hope he’d do that more.

He said that the pedagogical and philosophical1 recipe for Youth Voices was something like:

  • James Beane and his work on breaking down the curriculum barriers and asking good questions
  • plus Paulo Friere’s thinking on asking learners to look for generative themes
  • with a dash of Peter Elbow who reminds us of the power of making things through free writing.

I need to return to all three of those folks and dig back in to some of their thinking.

But he said something, off the cuff, that I thought was really important. He mentioned that he’d been in the Youth Voices work for eight years2, and that students who started in tenth grade were able, in eleventh and twelfth, to return to the space and pick up where they left off. They didn’t have to learn a new space, and their work from previous years was right there.

That’s powerful and important and worth unpacking a little bit. Teachers who are using interesting technology with their students find themselves too often in the setup and infrastructure business – and that’s fine sometimes. But not every time or every lesson or every year.

One of the reasons I went to work for an IT department was because I wanted to help make spaces that had a life beyond one classroom. A student shouldn’t create one blog to suit the needs of every teacher that asks for work to occur in such spaces. Students create short term tools for what should be long term work, and they find themselves create blogs every time they start to do interesting work. The assumption becomes that the work they’re doing in these temporary spaces is throwaway work. When the unit, semester, or year ends, the space dies and the student is asked to create the next one.

That’s not how it should work.

What I love about Paul’s work, and the work of other folks who are thinking about the long game of educational spaces where work lives and breathes and mingles with other work, is that they’re building what I call3 longitudinal Web presences. Spaces where the portfolio happens as the collection grows. Places where the stuff a student made yesterday and the stuff a student makes today will be around for a student to add to tomorrow. Places that don’t die every few months or are subject to Teacher A or B’s personal web tool preference.

When Karl or Michelle or I talk about digital learning ecologies, or Paul talks about Youth Voices, I think that’s what we’re talking about. Teachers shouldn’t have to be in the creation and infrastructure business all the time. Nor should they be helping kids to cram important work into temporary places.

If you’re a tech director or a CIO, I hope you’re thinking about how to create these spaces. I also hope you’re thinking about how to help students return to them over time and to think through what they’ve made and how it resonates, or doesn’t, as they expand their knowledge and experience. In St. Vrain, we’ve built a few tools that help with this, but we’re nowhere close to figuring it out.

We do, know, though, and have been charged by our school board, that we are stewards of the work our students produce. That’s an important word – the IT department is responsible for looking after the students’ work. We’ve got to make sure it’s well taken care of and preserved and saved until they leave our care. And that they can take it with them when they go.

That’s what a portfolio should be. That’s worth making. Thoughtfully.4 I continue to be inspired and pushed by the work of folks like Paul who are building places of learning that last on the Web.

  1. My words, not his []
  2. Eight years. How many writing spaces do you have that last six months. Learning, folks, is a marathon. []
  3. Probably incorrectly, but playing with words is fun. []
  4. Sometimes, the curbs matter and the making of the containers are essential, in no small part because the traffic on the road and the stuff in the boxes is precious and worth looking after. The road needs to last for a long, long time. []
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The Podcast: USDoE Listening Session at NCTE

In this podcast, recorded on my last day at the NCTE Annual Convention, I share a recording of a listening session hosted by NCTE.  In the session, the U.S. Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, Peter Cunningham, represents the Department.  He took questions for most of the session, and I found the conversation fascinating.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be in conversation with our government, and I hope that you are making efforts to be in conversation with your public officials.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the conversation.  I’ll share two short observations.  First, I found that there were many issues raised by the questioners in the audience.  Thoughtful ones, in many cases.  But it seems that what was heard was simply “we (meaning educators) want less testing.”  That’s a gross oversimplification of the issues expressed.  I do hope that the US Department of Education is listening just a little more carefully1

I’d also reiterate my eagerness to see the specifics of the National Ed Tech Plan implementation.  Right now, it’s a fine plan.  How will it be implemented?2

Direct link to the audio

  1. I think they are, but it’s sure hard to tell sometimes. []
  2. Plans without timelines are visioning statements, and not action plans.  I hope this one becomes an action plan. []
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An Open Letter to My Favorite Educational Publisher

Dear Teachers College Press:

I’m an awful big fan of your work.  I mean a really, really big fan.  Of the five or six books on my desk at work right now, three of them are yours.  I made arrangements to order another of your titles just before I headed home for the weekend.1  Paper.  Texts.  Books.

Here’s the thing – I don’t really do most of my reading on paper anymore.  Nor will I be in the foreseeable future.  See, I’ve gotten rather used to the idea of having my books with me all the time.  All of them, be they in my nook or my iPad or available to me in a moment’s notice via one of a number2 of cloud services that I employ.

The problem is – you don’t publish books in etext formats.  Like, at all.  And that’s beginning to get in the way of me wanting to learn from and with your authors.   Who are wicked smart people.  I mean, seriously, they’re writing the books that today’s teachers, and tomorrow’s, need to be reading.  And you’re publishing them in the finest 20th Century style.

But you’re not publishing in formats that they’re likely to pick up.  So I’m beginning to find myself in a pickle when it comes to making purchasing decisions.

And, frankly, it’s getting harder and harder for me to carry your titles in my digital world.  My bag is so big.  Your books are pretty thick.  My devices take up lots of space.

I so want to take your texts with me into the digital world that is my library’s future.  But I can’t until you start offering them to me in a format that I can use.

So please.  Please.  Would you consider offering your titles as ebooks?  Soon?

Time is short.  There’s good stuff in your catalog.  Could you work on getting it into the digital reading ecosystem?

Soon?

Respectfully, a reader and a fan,

Bud

  1. And in searching your catalog as I was writing this piece, I saw several more books that have influenced my career and thinking.  Or that I want to read.  Soon. []
  2. That’s a referral link for Dropbox – you get extra space if you create an account.  And so do I.  I wonder if that means I’ve just put a commercial into a blog post.  Uh oh. []
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Ani & the iPad or “Much Madness is the Father’s Curse”

Ani & the iPad
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bud the Teacher

I’m typically the guy who pays attention to the latest gadgets from a distance, reading up on them and learning about what they can or can’t do, but not striking on the first day of any new thing, for a number of reasons. For one, I’m cheap. I also don’t do well in lines or crowds. And buying most stuff on day one is buying into a public beta period, and often the better deal is a few weeks or months down the road as hardware is revised and software is tweaked.

But I had an extra few minutes on Saturday around noon, and I had a hunch about Apple’s iPad inventory. Namely, I figured they’d have plenty of devices to fiddle with at the Best Buy on my way home from the gym. So, with Ani and Teagan along for company, I wandered in to take a look at Apple’s iPad, released earlier that day.

I should interrupt my story here to tell you that, just prior to the visit to the store, I happened across this article on children and mobile devices for learning1, so I’m certain that my brain was thinking about my children and learning when we made it into the store.

I spend lots of time thinking about how my kids and the kids in our schools will think, learn and live in a world that will be digitally quite different from the world I grew up in. And I find myself jumping back and forth from the positions of “It’s all the same – the stuff is different, but the world is the same place” and “Holy cow. There has never been a time or place like this one.”

And both are valid positions, but they coexist. I spend lots of time in the spaces between those two poles. I’m that guy who sees that there’s value in highly structured and sequenced learning as well as time for exploration and play without outwardly driven purpose. Most of the important things in life aren’t binary, they’re much more complex than that. And I digress. Still further.

The implications of the iPad have weighed heavily on my mind this week, as I’ve read pieces like Cory Doctorow’s:

Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

Dale Dougherty’s piece on Hypercard and its influence on a generation of young hackers is a must-read on this. I got my start as a Hypercard programmer, and it was Hypercard’s gentle and intuitive introduction to the idea of remaking the world that made me consider a career in computers.

Plenty of other folks have, in the last few days, said some pretty interesting things about the iPad either being the end of the world as we know it or the beginning of a new revolution of creativity and interactivity – and I’m just2 a dad trying to figure out how I want to introduce my daughters to the world of possibility and wonder that awaits them. I want them to tinker, to play, to explore and to dream. I want them to grab hold of the stuff of the world and make new from raw ingredients.

I worry that such making will happen in a locked down world, the world that Howard Zittrain saw when he wrote The Future of the Internet3, one where the generative devices that spawned the Internet become, like the iPad and the iPhone before it4, locked down and controlled by the people who make them, not the people who own them.

And even as I say that the iPad is a locked down device, I know that there’s creative opportunity and potential from within constraints, and that what’s locked down may or may not be a problem so long as there’s still a space for open, so long as there’s a multi-platform world where the languages spoken by one ecosystem are understood by others. My iPhone is a powerful tool. I suspect the iPad is, too.

But again, I’m a dad who’s struggling to figure out how to bring his children into the world of information and digital stuff while keeping roots in the good stuff of language and learning and literacy that came before the digital. 5

When we entered the store and fidgeted in a short line to play with the demo iPads, the girls were not interested. In the line. The moment they could get to the iPad, then begun to touch and poke and pinch and explore. They were immersed in the content, in words and letter and pictures and touch this to do that. I was struck by how powerful the experience was for them, more so than a random kids-touch-the-buttons experience. They were trying, as they could, to make meaning. I got what reviewers meant when they said that using the iPad was like interacting directly with the content, and not with the device the content’s delivered through. And, again, I know that it was the article and the pressure and the fact that I was a little high on the Apple expectations myself.

But I bought one. Against all my typical instincts and dispositions. Right then and there. What better lab for their experimentation? What father wouldn’t do such a thing?

I came to my senses about ten minutes later, just before I had to try to explain to Ms. the Teacher just what it was that I did, and just why it was necessary. She’s my grounding influence oftentimes, and she reminded me of a few things. Namely, I’m cheap, my kids have access to lots of the analog and digital world already, and, well, it’s early yet. There’s more exploration for me to do before I’m sure this is a useful tool for my girls. The right tool. Or one of several, which is more likely. I returned the iPad, unopened, later that night.

If you’ve made it this far, then you might be hoping this is the paragraph where I have the epiphany, the jewel that makes this experience worthwhile. And I’m so sorry to let you down. I’m finding that, often, there are few certainties when it comes to what technology is the right technology for helping kids to learn, or societies to remain free, or work to get done, or whatever it is that you want to make the tool do.

But my kids and I are going to be exploring this world together in a way that is new for me. As Ani heads out to Kindergarten next school year, and as Teagan’s not far behind her, there’s lots of work for us to do as co-learners together. Gadgets and gizmos and questions and tinkering. There’s much to do.

And there’re plenty of voices in the wilderness calling out to us with suggestions about how to do this thing.

We’re listening. But I’m also remembering what Ani’s face looks like in that picture at the top of this post, her tongue set between her lips as she digs in, determined, to play, to explore, to make. That’s a learning face. That’s what we’re aiming for.

And the clock6 is ticking.

  1. Written by Anya Kamenetz, who’s also written this book on DIY Education that I’m very much looking forward to reading. []
  2. Just. I couldn’t understate the importance of that job more. []
  3. Yes, that’s a wonderful book that you can download for free. Read it. Please. []
  4. Two devices I find fascinating and yes, I use two iPhones. Daily. []
  5. Language that, itself, is a tool and a technology, like books and magazines and pencils and pens and ink and pretty much everything that folks think about when they think about the “good old days.” It’s all technology. I know. []
  6. Digital, analog, or otherwise []
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Digital Is. Or Isn’t. Or Always (Never?) Was. Or Not.

I spent today engaged in some work with the National Writing Project and several of their thinking partners at the Digital Is . . . Convening event, a day of structured thinking and looking and conversation about what it means to write and teach writing at a time of such profound technological change in the world and, perhaps, our schools.  It was a classic NWP event, in the sense that there was a good collection of really smart folks present as well as thoughtful processes and protocols to help us have productive conversation and inquiry time.

What follows are a collection of the thoughts and ideas that swirled around my head today as I moved from conversation to conversation. I’ll probably pick a few of these to expand on in future posts, but I wanted to get them down now before they drifted away into the nebulous space of “I’ve got some notes somewhere about something important.”  Here goes:

  • It seems like many (but certainly not all) of the projects I looked at today were created in semi-school environments.  By that, I mean that they were created in after-school programs or through work that students are engaged in outside of the traditional classroom.  I think that’s interesting for several reasons, one of which being that perhaps the role of schools and teachers is changing at the moment, or we’re stuck doing the “boring bits” that help students to be ready to engage in extracurricular projects like these.  More thinking needed here, as I know that many other pieces of work shared today happened within classrooms.
  • Lots of talk about the need to expand and fiddle with the definitions of “reading,” “writing,” and “text.”  Words, too, like writing might not be broad enough to encompass skills like making movies and extensive digital projects.  “Composition” continues to be my go to word for the common skills of making meaning that I see across genre, medium and mode.  I like the way that Pat Fox said it this afternoon in one conversation: “We need to renegotiate the terms that we use.”
  • Many of the tools that I use every day in my work and with students allow us to turn our processes into texts and to continually take apart and easily republish our final products.  Examples of “process as text” are recordings of classroom conversations, considered temporary and fleeting, that become something more than a passing conversation when they exist as video or audio recordings.  These types of texts stay fixed – we can’t really go back and change the flow of a conversation – but our finished products, when published digitally, are easily and perhaps even secretly editable and revisable after publication.  So we’re able to fix the temporary and fiddle with the permanent.  That seems interesting and worthy of further exploration.
  • Is “digital” a new skillset, or do we need to refocus on, as Chris Lehmann said this evening, “Teaching tool and teaching audience is nothing unless we teach thoughtfullness (sic) and wisdom?”  To say it differently – is there anything terribly different about what students can do today with the digital tools they have available to them?  If there is, what is it?  I think there are differences, but reaching for them is difficult.  (This is a question that I’ve been thinking about for a very long time.  It came up multiple times today, particularly in tweets I passed back and forth with Paul Allison.  I wrote a little bit more about it just before lunch:

This morning I was in a pretty fantastic session on the Youth Roots work in Oakland, California. What it reinforced for me was that so much of this work that we’re doing with digital texts and tools is sooooooo not about anything other than what we’ve been trying (often well, often not) to do in schools for a very long time – help people to be better people, preferably together.

What I mean by that is that we might’ve had a very good conversation fifty years ago about “Analog Is” – although we wouldn’t’ve known to call it that, because we didn’t have the other space of digital to compare it to. In that conversation, we would’ve talked about the tools that we had and how they helped us to better connect our students to the world and the world to our students. And we might’ve talked about the importance of honoring our students as people, and their passions as important. And we should’ve talked about what was happening in the world that wasn’t school, and what was worth bringing in to our classrooms, and what wasn’t. We would’ve had a great conversation about how the media of the day were reshaping the world, and what that meant, and how we could push back as we attempted to better understand that.

And now, we’re talking about what CAN happen in school, and what IS happening out of school, and how the two are or aren’t connected. And we’ll always be talking and writing and thinking about this, and I’m okay with it.

But as we sit here at the beginning of an explosion of writing and composing and making, I’m reminded of our humanness and our deep desires to connect and to be heard and to make a difference, to matter. And I’m excited because the tools have never been more accessible and never more powerful. Our work is as it was and as it will be, but still – there’s something new here, I think.

  • Media literacy continues to be vital.  But like so many things, we’ve never gotten that as right as we could at school.  Making media seems more and more to be the best way to help students see how media influences audience.  So, making media becomes the way to teach media awareness and literacy.  Yes?
  • A short movie, scripted and shot and edited and scored, takes much more time to make than an essay, it seems.  In fact, at least two texts are created – the script and the movie – so how do we assess all that “extra” work when we give students options for projects?
  • For that matter, what happens to assessment when we find ourselves in the middle of digital studios of made meaning?  How do classrooms that look like this get “measured” against schools that look more traditional in nature?
  • I heard again and again today that teachers must immerse themselves in the world of digital writing and media creation if they are to teach such things well.  I agree with that, and often say that I’d never do anything to a student that I wouldn’t do myself first.  But where does the time for such exploration fit into an already over-crowded school day?
  • Are digital texts necessarily more dynamic than analog texts?  (Espen Aarseth makes a good case in his book Cybertext that the answer to that question is often that the digital texts are more linear and less flexibly read and responded to than their analog cousins.  I think he’s right.)
  • How do questions of power and control get fiddled with in digital spaces?  Are there different relationships between those with power and those without online?  The same?  A little of both?
  • There are issues of technology here.  Many times today, I heard that “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning.”  And that’s true.  Sometimes.  Other times, it’s most definitely about the technology.  It’s hard to make movies without cameras.  And editing stations. Impossible to record music without recording equipment.  What sorts of purchasing decisions affect what kinds of literacies get taught?  What sorts of server connections and bandwidth considerations ensure that students leave school comfortable in networked environments?  How do those technical decisions influence the culture of schools and communities?  Culture, after all, follows structure.

Whew.  Going to stop there for now.  As always, more questions than answers.  I’m okay with that.  I’d be interested in your thoughts on any of these ideas.  If you’re interested in others’ thoughts from the day, you might want to check out the NWP Digital Is Ning.

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Would You Please Block?

Ever since we opened up lots more of the Internet in our school district earlier this year, the district has received several requests from teachers and other staff to block resources that are distractions in the classroom.  I’ve written a stock response to those requests that I thought might be worth sharing.  It’s my hope that their requests and the conversations that come from this response lead to changes in classroom practice.

Here it is:

Thanks for your question.  When we implemented our new filter this school year, we looked at all the things we were currently blocking, what things were required to be blocked by law, and what we were blocking that we shouldn’t be.

What we’ve decided is that we will no longer use the web filter as a classroom management tool.  Blocking one distraction doesn’t solve the problem of students off task – it just encourages them to find another site to distract them.  Students off task is not a technology problem – it’s a behavior problem.  It is our intention that we help students to learn the appropriate on-task behaviors instead of assuming that we can use filters to manage student use.  Rather than blocking sites on an ad hoc basis, we will instead be working with folks to help them through computer and lab management issues in a way that promotes student responsibility.  We know that the best filters in a classroom or lab are the people in that lab – both the educational staff monitoring student computer use as well as the students themselves.

This opens up possibilities for students and staff using websites for instructional purposes that in the past were blocked due to broad category blocks.  It requires that staff and students manage their technology use rather than relying on a third party solution that can never do the job of replacing teachers monitoring students.

That said, we will still block sites that are discovered to violate CIPA requirements.  If you discover one, please do not hesitate to share it with us.  Also, if you discover a site that shouldn’t be blocked, please pass that along so that we can open it up.

I hope this makes sense.  I’d be happy to speak further with you if you have further comments or questions.

How do you talk to folks in your districts about your Internet (un)filtering?

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The Textile Network

I’m spending some time today with the folks at Flagstaff Academy in Longmont and digging into an old bag of tricks. Can you guess which slide is the yarn slide? Flagstaff folk – I hope we can continue some of the conversations that we started today here in the comments.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions.  Thanks.

PS – Terri, the link to the video you saw is here.

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20,000 Volumes. 18 e-Readers. (Only 18?)

The Boston Globe reports that Cushing Academy will be eliminating their library and replacing their 20,000 physical volumes with 18 e-readers. And a cappucino machine.

The article goes on quote various experts lamenting or praising the decision.  My only question is this: How bad was circulation in their library when the assumption is that 18 e-readers will be enough to meet reader demand for books to take home?

I continue to worry about the rush to replace paper books with electronic ones.  Seems like we’re in the early days of digital rights management with electronic texts, and Kindles are sexy, but not practical for sharing books with others.

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It’s All a Pretty Big, Jumbled Up Mess & I’m Okay with It

I’m writing this post from the back porch of a family beach rental in South Carolina.  The breeze is ruffling the pages of the paperback Ive just put down, and will soon pick back up.  The ever-present hum/roar of waves hitting the beach drones on, in a most delightful way.  My father’s swimming in the pool below me, and my children are upstairs napping.  They have every right to be tired, because they’ve been exploring the ocean and the house and the pool and the greater Charleston area for the last several days and have plenty more exploring to do.

I try pretty hard to take a few technology breaks a year, to distance myself completely from the devices that rule my work week and can dictate, on occasion, priority.  (Well, at least, I allow myself to believe that devices, and not the people connected through them, or my own agency, or lack of it, can determine priorities. But I know that’s not the case.)

This trip, I’ve found myself taking my “break” in a slightly different way.  Today’s a good example.  I made pancakes for my daughters with a few Twitter friends.  Then we dined on the porch, about three feet from where I’m sitting now, and I announced the view.  The girls and I then hit the pool for several hours, and returned for a late lunch.  In their pre-nap stupor, as they “rested” on the couch, I caught up with several colleagues attending a conference and chatted with a couple more friends/acquaintances/people I (don’t always) know.

Some of the folks I’ve interacted with today are folks that I work with.  Many are not.  Most have no business being “here” on a family vacation.  That said, I’d have it no other way. My world’s at my fingertips on my own terms mostly all the time now, and I’m nowhere close to prepared with how to deal with that.

I feel like I balance work and personal responsibilities fairly well, sometimes leaning one way, other times the other, and I still don’t think I’m anywhere close to certain about how best to handle the blending of personal and professional that we’re smack in the middle of.  It’s new.  It’s different.  It’s awesome.  And it’s tricky.  And I rather enjoy it. I’m not quite sure why I’m choosing to think about it on a day like today, except that I’m aware that my normal “power down completely” relaxation strategy isn’t comfortable today.  Balance is important.  But balance isn’t binary.

I’m an hourly employee in a world where schedules are less and less important at a time when time’s never been more precious.  My friends and my colleagues may or may not be on the same short list of people, but they’re always close and reachable.  And that’s a fine paradox for such a sunny afternoon here at the ocean.  As I head back to my novel, I’m going to take a few minutes to ponder the point further.  Whatever’s happening at present to my nomal routines, I’m still getting some rest and relaxation, and I’m not going to squander it.

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