If Public Isn’t an Option, Then It Isn’t a Choice

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. 

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Where’s Your Refrigerator?

A couple of years ago, when I was doing some regular work for an area art museum, my daughter, Ani, asked me if, on our next trip to visit the museum, it’d be okay if we took along some of her artwork to show the museum.

That was a tricky conversation we had to have then, about who gets to decide what hangs in museums for other folks to look at.  But it wasn’t hard for me to suggest to her that we can make our own display spaces whenever and wherever we have something we’re proud of, something we want other people to see.  And we have them at our house – the piano wire stretched along the back of our playroom, for one.  There’s always a fresh clothespin or two there for hanging the next made thing.  Our refrigerator is another, frequent home to excellently made things by our children.

Museums have, for the most part, embraced the idea that the stuff that visitors make or create is valuable.  They even have fancy names for it – “User Contributed Content” I’ve heard some of my museum-y friends call it.  But the stuff that the visitors make is not often given the same prominence of place as the stuff that the museum selected to hang.  That’s okay.  It’s their space.

What isn’t okay, at least to me, is how many students and grownups I meet who would say they don’t have anything to share, or to hang up for folks to look at because they’re proud of how they made it, or what it looked like when they finished.  They’re not making stuff.  And the stuff that they make by accident isn’t something they’re proud of.

IMG 7699

We should all have a refrigerator and a handful of magnets around and available for us to use to display our next creation.  We should all be creating regularly enough that we know we’ll have a “next creation.”  And it should be easy for us to find and see and respond to the refrigerators of the people we care the most about.

This blog turns ten years old right around now – I’m not sure of the exact date.  Since I started it, it’s been my fridge of sorts for posting stuff I’ve been wondering or thinking about, and some of the stuff I was proud of or wanted to share.  I go through different periods of activity here – I’ll write regularly for a while, then drift away for a bit.  Some of what I’m most proud of doesn’t make it here, because it shouldn’t be shared widely, or I don’t want it on the Internet, but plenty of it does.  And having the blog reminds me that I CAN share stuff, even if I don’t.

Even when I’m not writing here, though, I am thinking about what I might make next, and I know that I can create and make things whenever I’d like to.  That’s something that I don’t think plenty of capable people have – the knowledge that they’ll be making something in the future that I’ll want to share.  Even when I’m my most frustrated, I carry that little bit of hope, the hope that I’m not done yet, and there’s more that I can contribute.

“How can we make sure that everybody carries hope like that?” is something I’m wondering about as I start the second decade of my life as a blogger.

What’s on your fridge right now?  What’ll you put there next?  And where are the fridges that we need for sharing the stuff that won’t fit in other places?

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Follow Up to Today’s (Well, Okay, Yesterday’s) Blogging Conversation

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.
I said during the webinar that I felt like the infrastructure that we build, support and maintain should feel more like an invitation than an obligation.  We should make spaces and places on the Web where we’d actually like to spend time, and we should be working to bring other folks in to the party.  I think that’s the kind of work that Jim and Alan do.  They play in public and invite others to play along.  I think that Jabiz does that in his classroom.
Maybe I’ve been forgetting to do that lately.

 

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Ruminations on Implications: Notes from the Thesis

I’m taking a break from writing up the implications portion of my thesis by coming over here to write some more.  I’m beginning to get to the place in my research that I have some definite things to say about what I found out.  But I’m having some trouble saying them.  Not because I know what they are – but, I think, because of what I’m using to write.  Word is not where I go to think.  It’s where I go to comply.  When I need to think about something, I come here, to a WordPress window in my browser1.

So maybe I’ll just try to do a little bit of freewriting here and see how it goes.  Here’s what I think I know right now as it relates to my research.

To start with, here are my research questions:

  • What does reading and writing for school-related purposes look like in school-sponsored online writing spaces?
  • Who is doing the writing in these spaces? The reading?
  • Are the new tools and affordances of online digital writing, tools like hyperlinks, and affordances like immediate publication and world-wide audience, a factor in these spaces?  If so, how?

While it’s certainly not a definitive collection of all the writing that’s happening in my school district, I’m going to take a guess and say that the three weeks of blog posts from the beginning of this school year that I’ve looked at in the course of my study are a good-sized sample of the public writing happening in my school district.

And, to start with, there’s just not enough of it.  In three weeks, I can count on both hands the number of classrooms doing public writing in this space.  And that leaves me with three fingers left to count other things.

Are students and teachers blogging or writing online2 in other spaces?  Certainly.  One of the limitations of my study, one that I knew would be a problem for some of what I was wondering about, was that I am limited to public stuff.  If I wanted a fuller picture of what the writing that’s happening online in my school district looks like, I need to interrogate our district’s Moodle.  I need to peer into our district implementation of Google Docs.  On Thursday, a teacher in our district started sharing a Google Docs collection with me from one of his classes.  He was excited about the number of texts they were producing together.  I’ve not yet opened the folder – but I’ve watched a hundred or so documents enter into my document list.  Sometimes in real time, I’ve seen them drop into place.

Writing is happening. But why not here?3

Here’s what I know about the writiing that I am seeing:

  • Students and teachers aren’t talking to each other, for the most part, via the blog engine.  I suspect they are talking in class, but they’re not writing back and forth in these spaces.  Three quarters of the posts I saw during the period of the study contained no comments.  Of the ones that held comments, only another large handful could be considered any sort of conversation – back and forth between the author of the post and the commenter(s).  If these students are writing because they expect an audience, well, then they’re still waiting.
  • Because no one’s responding, there’s a sense that no one’s reading.  Multiple times, I saw little snippets of text, clearly put up as tests, or left behind as mistakes, that weren’t taken down or adjusted.  Why bother, if no one’s looking – or it doesn’t seem like anyone is?
  • The kind of writing that’s being asked of students in these spaces?  Well, it’s interesting – I can break it down into three types – daily summaries, written collectively by elementary school classes; reflective essays about various topics; and responses to teacher questions.  Lots of it is writing that doesn’t require a blog.  And it’s writing that involves very, very, very little source material.  Very few quotes.  Very few links.  And the links, when they’re present, are not  embedded in the text.  They lie naked and open in the text.  And that seems problematic to me4
  • The writing that staff are doing is a little bit better5 – like students, they’re writing reflective essays, and sharing lots of newslettery information.  But I can’t be sure, from this data set, if the folks they want to reach are being reached through this vehicle.
In short, the blog engine seems to me, in this data set, at least, an utter failure underutilized tool.
And perhaps that’s an okay place to stop for right this moment.
  1. And, yeah, I suppose that means that I’ve a significant bias about blogs and the power of blogging that, if I haven’t yet, I need to be sure to disclose somewhere in the thesis. []
  2. Oddly, in my world, and perhaps in yours, the word “blogging” has come to mean anything written in a Web browser that isn’t an email, no matter where it ends up.  Isn’t that interesting?  I might be a blog snob, but that bugs me.  And it probably shouldn’t.  It’s less of a problem for me than it used to be – I don’t correct people now when they say that.  I used to. []
  3. That’s not one of my research questions.  So what? []
  4. But, again, I may well be a blog snob.  But if the potential of the “writing of the 21st Century” is that it happens online and organically and is connected to other texts and blah blah blah – suppose it’s not.  Is that *bad* or *problematic* or just unfortunate?  Or is it just so?  As I’m in the middle of arguing that we need to make sure students have the tools to do this sort of work, a body of data that suggests, nah, it’s not so important,” is a little bit problematic. []
  5. Oops – judgement again.  Might need a better word than, ahem, “better.” []
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"Pummeled by a Deluge"

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.

 

  1. Because you just needed one more awkward meal metaphor in there, didn’t you? []
  2. At least sometimes. []
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#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 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 Parenthetical

I’m spending more and more time in the spaces between the lines.  Or, at least, my thoughts are.  In my writing lately, I’ve been gravitating to the parenthetical, to the notes in the margins that surround the text.1

Whatever it is, I find myself seeking some middle ground between the tweet and the blog post.2 So I’m trying out a new feature here on the blog called an “aside.”  These are posts that aren’t quite posts and aren’t quite tweets – they’re something in between.  This might be a foolish idea, one that is meaningless to readers and is unclear to boot.  And I may well abandon the idea twenty minutes from now.3

This post is an aside.  Let’s see what it looks like.4

UPDATEIt appears that asides break my footnotes.  Which is ironic and appropriate.  So my next post will be an actual “aside,” WordPress speaking.


 

  1. Perhaps my love of footnotes is a symptom.  Or part of the problem.  Not sure. []
  2. Perhaps, if Twitlonger were still nicely integrated with my Twitter clients, I wouldn’t feel this itch that needs scratching.  Then again, perhaps not. It’s a silly need, the need for middle ground in writing – write what you need and then stop, right? []
  3. But, hey.  What fun’s having a blog if you can’t fiddle with it from time to time? []
  4. And, I’m realizing, conversations about topics like this would make for a really interesting podcast series on writing.  At least to me. []
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Digging In

If you’ve been following along on what I’ve been up to lately, you know that I’ve been facilitating, along with Michelle and some colleagues from the , some teacher research projects in my school district.  It’s good and important work, and I’m trying, as we facilitate, to be engaged in my own teacher research along with the group.  It’s one thing to say that a practice is important.  It’s a better thing to model its importance by doing it.

Earlier in the year, I wrote about my proposed research topic, and about how I thought I might proceed.  Tomorrow, I’m digging into the work in earnest.

I’m curious about how we, in our school district, are actually using our blogging engine, a WordPress installation that’s coming up on three years old.  I read what gets posted there, but I’ve never taken a real hard and descriptive look to see what’s there.  So tomorrow, I’m going to sit down and take a close look at a three week window of the blogging engine from this year, and I’m going to try to read, annotate, and classify every posting that appears there.  Then, based on what I see, I’d like to follow up with some of the authors, both teachers and students, and see if I can learn more about what they’re blogging about and why they’re blogging at all.

Why am I looking ? Well, in large part because I want to see what’s happening in the space, and to go after promising practices that are present.  And, to be brutally honest, I’m looking because I expect that what I’ll see is a great deal of using blogs, rather than blogging, and that’s worth knowing and quantifying.

So I’m digging in.  I suspect it’ll be an interesting look.  And, as with most teacher research, I suspect my questions will change a bit as I get into the data and see what there is to see.

Wish me luck.

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The Podcast: Bloggin' in the Rain

On today’s podcast, I attempt to answer a series of Twitter questions from Nawal about how to promote writing environments that help students to (as Will calls it.)  I also rant a bit about “blogging units” (I’m against ’em.)  Somewhere in there, I reference George Hillocks’ really excellent metaanalysis of composition instruction studies (PDF) and Stephen Downes’ recent talk in Buenos Aires, as well as Troy’s book, The Digital Writing Workshop.  I hope it helps, Nawal.

Looking forward to your thoughts, as always.

Direct Link to Audio

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US Dept of Education Press Office Won't Talk to (Bud the) Teacher

I continue to ask of everyone I can speak with in Washington and in Congressional and government offices alike: What is the rationale for eliminating funding for the ? It is a simple question, or it seems to be. But I can’t get anyone to answer it beyond broad strokes of “local and state redundancy” and “no significant impact” on students. Since I don’t understand how a national network can exist at the local or state level, and I have evidence to the contrary on impact on students and teachers, I’ll keep asking. It just doesn’t make sense.

An added wrinkle is that one of the folks that I originally started asking the question of is now, apparently, unwilling to talk to me at all. Here’s the story.

Every day this week, before and after work, I’ve left a message with the Press Office of the Department of Education asking for an answer to my question for the rationale behind the elimination of the National Writing Project from the 2011 proposed education budget. On Tuesday morning, I had a very nice and pleasant exchange with one of the women who answers the phones at that line. She was polite as I explained my request, as she read it back to me, and confirmed my phone number and e-mail address. She asked me when I’d like a response. I told her five PM that day, which is a typical turnaround for a media response. She said someone would get back to me prior to that time. She also asked me what news organization I was with. I informed her that I was a blogger, and she said okay.

No one returned that call.

But I’m stubborn I understand how busy people are. So, Wednesday morning, I called the press office back and, as luck would have it, the phone was answered by the same person. She remembered my question, and pulled up her notes. She had my phone number right. But I didn’t get a call back. I asked her why. That’s when she informed me that, as I wasn’t a member of the press, I wasn’t entitled to a response from their office. That floored me a bit.

I asked her to explain who told her that. She put me on hold, and after a few moments, returned and explained that Sandra Abrevaya, one of the folks who manages the office’s Twitter presence, fielded the request and informed the kind phone answerer that she should “only pass along (messages) if he is a reporter.”

I asked the receptionist, who again would not give me her name, so far the only person in the entire Education Department who has actually spoken to me on the phone, if she would get a definition from Ms. Abrevaya as to what constitutes a “reporter.” (I’m thinking that I sure am “reporting” this conversation and my experience.) I have yet to hear back.

I was referred to a general question and information line, which was actually quite helpful. If you’d like to inquire about an educational issue, you may have the best results by calling 1-800-872-5327 and pressing 3. Then again, it might not be THAT useful, because I’m still waiting to hear back from the person to whom I was referred from there, too.

I guess I’d have to express my disappointment in the Department of Education’s Press Office, and specifically Sandra Abrevaya. As one of the folks behind the @EdPressSec Twitter account, she has been, presumably, receiving my replies and requests for information about the National Writing Project rationale for more than two weeks. My voice messages for about a week. And she chose to ignore them. Because I’m not a “reporter.”

We cannot accept a government that simultaneously leverages social media to get their message out but ignores the messages of its constituents. I’m not willing to quit asking my question because I’m not a “reporter.” So, again, here’s what I’d like to know:

What is the rationale for the elimination of the National Writing Project? What is the information that was used to make the decision? Who is the person or persons who ultimately made the decision, and how would they answer others’ data that suggest strong results?

Why is that such a hard collection of questions to get an answer to? Seems like they’d certainly like to hear from us, but not talk to us.

I’ll keep trying. Maybe you will, too.

Notes
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bud the Teacher

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