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
- 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.
- The costume is part of the identity – but it’s up to the wearer to choose the abilities that emerge from the chosen identity.
- 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.
- Even with the suit, things can get messy. The powers don’t always work, or work in the way we intend them to.
- 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?
- All of these seem viable metaphors in some way. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
I’d never really thought about it, but I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago, when Alan Levine said that he’d be in the area and we should meet up, that he and I had never been in the same place at the same time.
We know plenty of the same people, we play on intersecting online spaces. He’s been a teacher and occasional collaborator of mine for nearly ten years. But we’d never been in the same physical space in a similar time window.
So yesterday we got to spend a few short minutes together. Overdue.
He reminded me while we were talking about one of the things he found so great about writing. He said1 that he enjoyed writing, that it was important for him to write, because as he sat down to write what he thought he wanted to say, he ended up discovering something better – that what he wanted to say wasn’t what he thought it would be. For Alan, part of creating is discovering what he wants to say.
Love that. Needed the reminder2.
I don’t know what the word is for being in the middle of a long digital conversation punctuated by short moments of physical interaction. But it happens frequently enough in my work and world and life, that I really wish I had that word. It’s pretty great.
Come back soon, Alan. In the meantime, let’s keep barking.
- I think he said this. He said it better than I’m writing it right now, but he was preaching gospel, so I wanted to try to capture it. [↩]
- He also shared this killer collection of interactive documentaries that’s way too good for you not to spend some time with. I needed that, too. [↩]
The title of this post will likely bug some folks because it’s a fairly obvious statement. Except I see plenty of teachers, well-meaning and kind-hearted every one, requiring students to post work they do in class online. Without exception or choice in the matter.
They require this work to be posted publicly for a number of reasons, but they all seem to involve the power of authentic audience, and the sense that students putting their words in public will magically create citizens who get the power of civic discourse.
The thing is, there’s nothing authentic about being forced to speak in public.
No one attending a city council meeting is forced to speak during the meeting. Folks reading newspapers never find themselves compelled to write letters to the editor.
The power of public is in the choosing of it. There’s no agency in required speech.
Writing in public is hard. Really, really hard. And it requires a mix of bravery and determination and gumption and a sense that the words one is about to share are IMPORTANT. It also requires the ability to walk away and abandon the words at any moment.
You don’t just shout to the world because your teacher says you have to. Or you shouldn’t find yourself in that position, anyway.
If you’re in the business of helping children develop their public voices, then I sure hope you’re giving them choices about when and how and what (and IF) to publish. And sometimes, “I choose not to post today,” is the most important choice you can offer.
Otherwise, I’m thinking you’re doing it wrong.
Last week, Educating Modern Learners published a piece I wrote about some of my worries about online communities and students. The piece is called What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Connectedness. Here’s an excerpt:
I say often that the Internet isn’t good or bad. It’s a mirror of our best and worst selves. And we can be pretty wonderful sometimes.
Other times, we can be downright terrible.
When do we stand with our students and model how to resist bullies? And how do we reconcile our desire to connect students to a world that is sometimes sick, twisted, and just plain mean?
How do we encourage educators and students to be brave and compassionate and firm with each other and strangers both online and off, and how do we support each other along the way?
I have no idea. But I have three daughters. And only so much time before they are potential contributors to online discourse.
Or only so much time before they are targets.
You can read the rest over at EML if you create an account. You should. They’re up to some good stuff.
For the last several years, I’ve used this blog every April as . It’s been fun, but I’m thinking it’s time to do something different and possibly combine efforts.
Ben Rimes has a great site up at Poetry for People where he’s posting visual prompts and folks are sharing poems. This month, let’s spend some time together there. Poetry is better when we’re reading and writing together1.
How are you working poetry into your life this month and all months?
- Bonus option – encourage your students to enter the NY Times Learning Network’s Found Poetry Contest. [↩]
It was a real treat to get to spend an hour in conversation with some of my blogging and writing teachers on Thursday. We were assembled at Connected Learning TV by Jabiz to talk about student blogging. I hope we get to have round two soon – there was plenty more to talk about. Here’s the recording:
And a few further thoughts. If I had to give my stump speech for blogging, the talking points would look something like this:
- Blogging should be a habit, not a unit. Multiple blogging units for students as they move through an institution makes for a really creepy digital graveyard of barely begun texts. Better to build the habit early on and practice as you go. Therefore . . .
- Blogging should be buiit into the infrastructure of the learning institution, not up to the whims of a particular teacher or teachers.
- Blogs can be really interesting containers – you can put pretty much any digital stuff into a blog that you’d ever want to – but they should also be playful playgroundy spaces. Blogs are much better as places of play rather than places of expectation.
- Of course, the thing about toys and choices is that sometimes you’ve got to be able to choose not to play at all. Otherwise, you’re not really playing. Well, you are, but you’re playing a game that isn’t blogging. It’s called school. And that game isn’t always all that fun to play.
Rebecca Blood, a lifetime ago in Internet time, :
We are being pummeled by a deluge of data and unless we create time and spaces in which to reflect, we will be left with only our reactions.
And when I read Dean yesterday talking of owning one’s space to share one’s words, and then Tony’s post about the value of Twitter, I am reminded that I lean on Dean’s side of this conversation. Twitter is to relationships as wheel decals are to roller skates. Nice to have and to use, but far from essential.
Twitter is the spice that flavors what you’re putting on the table. It might be the after dinner snack. It may well be the connective tissue that flavors the stew1. But it’s not the meal. It’s part of the deluge2, and we must push against it, building spaces where we can be thoughtful.
I like new frontiers. That’s why I’m excited to be participating in Karen’s attempt to create a School of Ed at P2P University this fall. It should be a neat opportunity to fiddle with what it means to do PD.
I couldn’t be more excited to be facilitating a course we’re calling “.” I pitched the course as “a course on writing to learn for non-English teachers” and that’s almost exactly what I’ll be teaching1. Better yet – some of my friends from will be helping me to develop the course.
The six week course, which will begin mid-October, is going to begin with a deep look at the Common Core State Standards, and particularly the section of the standards that addresses the role of writing across the curriculum.2 Then,’ we’ll tackle writing in the classroom from two distinct lenses:
- Writing to Learn – the habits and bits of writing that you do to make sense of whatever it is that you’re learning and exploring.
Writing for the Disciplines – the writing that’s specific to content areas other than language arts. How do historians write for each other? Scientists? Mathematicians? And why does that matter? How can we help our students to write in these ways?
As a final project, participants in the course will use for their own classrooms that should result in some thoughtful writing for and with students. We should all get some good ideas.
As I’m developing the collection of resources, I know that NWP’s Digital Is will be an important text for the group. And I’m also reminded of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray and their essential contributions to writing as process and writing as something that teachers just, you know, do.
But I could use your help.
I’d sure be grateful if you’d offer your favorites and help keep me honest by pointing participants to actual examples of the two areas I outlined above.
And of course, this entire experience is, for me, first draft thinking. I’d be open to your ideas, suggestions, and feedback as I’m working to construct an experience that’s ultimately useful to teachers and results in increased use of writing in their practice.
Thanks in advance. And perhaps I’ll see you in class? Sign up opens soon.
- Er. Facilitating. Teaching. Guiding. Whatever. The participants and I will experience it together. And we’ll all take turns. [↩]
- Yes, technically, this is a rather large section. Pretty much the entire language arts section. But we’ll hone in on the specifics of writing for the disciplines other than language arts. [↩]
- Remember – a targeted audience of non-language arts teachers. [↩]
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 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.
- My words, not his [↩]
- Eight years. How many writing spaces do you have that last six months. Learning, folks, is a marathon. [↩]
- Probably incorrectly, but playing with words is fun. [↩]
- 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. [↩]