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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


The Podcast: Karl Follows Up on “Worth Keeping”

In this podcast, recorded last week, Karl and I continue the conversation that began in the comments to my last podcast.  I hope that he and I can keep talking like this from time to time, and that the recording of our conversation is useful to you.  And I hope you continue the conversation, too.

Link to Audio


The Podcast: Worth Keeping

Today’s podcast is a continuation of some thinking that came out of a roundtable conversation that I had at Learning 2.0: A Colorado ConversationKarl reminds me that I’ve been forgetting to share here on the blog lately.  I’ll try to do better.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.

Link to the Audio


It’s Not Glamo(u)rous. Just Essential.

I had the opportunity on Friday to spend some time with our enterprise systems manager thinking about something that certainly isn’t glamo(u)rous, but is nothing shy of essential.  That something?


Sure, there’s plenty of “free” storage out there for the taking, but I’m interested in making sure that we can offer students and staff in our district a reliable environment that will be there today and tomorrow, and won’t disappear, or fill up, in the middle of the night.  As we see more and more growth of our district’s Virtual Campus (a Moodle installation), as well as the beginnings of the use of in-district blogging tools, we’ve got to make sure that we’re planning for enough space so that we can meet the needs of teachers and students both today and down the road.

That sounds easy – but it’s certainly not.  Hence our conversation.  I actually find fascinating all the bits and pieces of infrastructure that go into making sure that, when you turn on your computer or launch a browser, the stuff that you want is there for your use.  And I know, too, that the infrastructure that we build ultimately affects what can and cannot be done with students, so there’s a direct impact on education with every technology decision made.  I take opportunities to think and learn about the district’s infrastructure very seriously.

And now, I need your help.  I’m wondering, and have been asked to make a guess (well more like an attempt at making a semi-intelligent shot in the dark) about what the storage needs of a teacher and a student are today here in the dawn of the 21st Century.  How much space does a teacher need to teach and a student to learn and to archive his or her learning over the life of public schooling?  What’s a decent ballpark?  How much space should we have available just for the digital learning and online storage needs of a district of approximately 25,000 students and 1300 teachers?  Can you defend your answer?

We’re going to be making some plans around these numbers, and we’d like to at least get close.   Any ideas you have are much appreciated.


Off to Educon. You Come, Too.

I’m sitting at DIA about to board a flight to Philadelphia, headed to Educon. It should be a good conference, and much of it will be available online. I hope we all learn lots. And I hope you, wherever and whenever you are, come, too.

Check out the wiki and join me and us. I think it’ll be useful. I’m doing a session on writing and I hope to get some writing done while I’m there.

What have you been writing lately? Where? Who’s been reading? What should we be talking about when we talk about writing? What shouldn’t we be talking and writing about?

In an age of ubiquitous publishing and always public if you want to be writing spaces, what new writing behaviors should we be adopting? What older behaviors still require our attention? What can we leave behind?

What about writing have we never gotten right in the classroom, and what can we do about that?

Your answers to these questions will probably make an appearance in the session, so feel free to share them in the comments.