I’m speaking tomorrow with my wife’s college course for preservice teachers on the teaching of writing. I’m the featured expert on “digital writing.”
Whatever that is.
Over the last week, the students in the course have been jotting some questions and thoughts down on a Google doc in preparation for the session. I basically asked what it was they wanted to know about, because we have an hour to talk about what I’ve spent an awful lot of the last ten years of my live worrying and working on.
And as I’m prepping for just what I want to leave them with in the fifty five minutes, minus announcements and time for whatever else will come up tomorrow, I’m thinking hard about just what it is about “digital writing” that’s worth wondering and worrying about amidst the eight hundred thousand other odd things rolling around in a teacher’s mind as they begin a career of working with young people.
As I sketched out some ideas and a plan of action on a pad of paper with a freshly inked fountain pen, I was reminded that someone’s new toy is always someone else’s essential tool. And vice versa.
It’s not the digital of digital writing that matters. It’s the writing.
We’ve1 always been fumbling with whatever we’ve had available to us to use to communicate with each other, and to leave a mark beyond ourselves. The exploration of tools for communication beyond our voices in a crowded room is a five thousand year old pursuit. Paint. Sticks. Pencils. Cursors. Whatever we can get our hands on – we’ll write with it.
It’s rather silly sometimes to pretend that it’s only in the last five years or so any of that fumbling and reaching has actually changed the nature of the game. But that’s what we do. Every five years or so.
The nature of the game is that it’s always been changing, and teachers have always been fighting to make sure that we all use the same tools the right way, or that we only use the tools in the ways that the folks who teach the tools are comfortable with. Today’s “digital” is yesterday’s “ink” is tomorrow’s “3d2”.
William Alcott was a teacher in the 1840s who I often point people to when they get stuck on how different right now is from any other time in human history3. He wrote an engaging book on the integration into instruction of a new and modern technology of his time – the blackboard. It’s worth your time.
He opens the book with fine advice for anyone seeking the answers to how best to teach digital writing today:
Should the teacher who takes up these “Exercises,” attend to the suggestions I have made both in this preface, and in several of the chapters, and instead of following, mechanically, the methods which are pointed out, attend rather to the principles of which these exercises are intended as illustrations, and thus be led to form his own plans and methods, my object will be far more perfectly accomplished than if he should transfer its scanty exercises to the black board, and there let the matter end. . . . Hardly any mistake could be greater than for the teacher, who should take up a book like this, to adopt its various methods without reference to existing circumstances.
Our contexts matter, folks. The why and what and whom we are writing for. That doesn’t change when there’s a tablet, a stylus, a camera, a keyboard or a piece of chalk in play as the primary writing tool. The differences with those tools are matters of technique. Matters we’d all be better off taking up once we’ve actually gotten serious about making sure our classrooms are places of deep creation, revision, and sharing.
So write on, with whatever you’ve got, is what I’ll say to those preservice teachers. Write and explore writing environments with your students. Play with lots of tools and toys and make the one that work for you your own. But try hard to figure out why the others don’t work for you – and who they might work for. And don’t bother teaching students how to write unless you’re writing yourself.
Maybe it’d be easier to just tell them to get to work on their Twitter accounts instead.
- The collective, societal we of all the people, ever. [↩]
- Maybe. But probably something else. We are bad at predictions, too. [↩]
- All the times have been more different than any other time in human history. Ours is a rich and fascinating tapestry, made no less extraordinary or fascinating by the fact that our shared sameness is actually the change we swear is different. [↩]
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. [↩]
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.
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?
Recently, a project I spent some time on last spring and summer came to life. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is now available for free download as a PDF or a 99 cent eBook via the Amazon Kindle store. I’m biased, but I think you should take a peek.
The goal of the project was to put a face of specific examples from real classrooms on the Connected Learning principles. Again, I’m biased, but I think if you read the text, and follow the links to the projects from Digital Is we focused on, I think you’ll get a sense that real, live teachers and students are engaging in some very dynamic work in classrooms right now. They’re not waiting for someone to show the way. I was particularly pleased to see so many examples of “teacher” and “student” shown in the text. We all take turns with both of these roles. That’s important to remember. Gail, Mike, Adam, and Jenny, the teachers who wrote the examples I showcase in the chapter I worked on, were all my teachers on this project and I’m grateful for their contributions to my learning and this text. You will be, too. So take a look already.
But other teachers, as well as plenty of non-teachers who make big pronouncements about schools and schooling, would benefit, too, from a glimpse of the work we reference. So share this with them, would you?
Last week, several of the other project editors visited for a webinar at Educator Innovator. That webinar is below. Give it a listen.
In today’s podcast, I talk about a couple of projects that are keeping me pretty busy this fall – finishing my thesis and building with some friends from the NWP. Oddly, they go together. Which is a good thing. Keep your fingers crossed. And, as always, would love to hear your thoughts in response to mine. This time, I could definitely use the help.
This afternoon, Mary Ann and WIll were talking a bit about Kindergarten standards. I butted in.1
And Mary Ann and I, and some others, worked our way into a
conversation back and forth talking at one another chat about a post of Mary Ann’s. You should read the post2. As I read it, I was struck by the notion of connectedness – and the implication that it was about online. Now, the Gee concept she references3, and I’m about to requote, does state that:
An affinity space is a place where informal learning takes place. According to James Paul Gee, affinity spaces are locations (physical or virtual) where groups of people are drawn together because they share a particular common, strong interest or are engaged in a common activity. Often but not always occurring online, affinity spaces encourage the sharing knowledge or participating in a specific area, but informal learning is another outcome.
But even though these spaces don’t have to be online, I got the sense from the post that the online-ness of connected children’s experiences might be the unique thing.
And I want to push back on the assumption that connected of today is somehow significantly different than the connected of yesterday. Just as , so, too, would I wonder about the necessity of the Internet for the creation of the modern connected child.
That’s not to say that it’s not a factor, that speed and access are not better than they’ve ever been4. But I want to push against the idea that they’re new. That wanting to know what’s going on somewhere else as quickly as possible is a trait of only the 21st Century. That seeking an audience for one’s efforts is a notion of those of us born after 1985. That being in conversation with someone from a different place didn’t happen prior to Skype.
Easier? Perhaps. Likely, even. Faster? Often. But new?
I don’t think so5. And when I say that I wonder about connectivity, or connectedness, this is what I’m talking about. Certainly important. I want my children, and their schools, to be about connectedness through the tools of today. But what makes them differently different than all the children that’ve come before?
But I’m not so sure that’s new6.
- That’s one thing Twitter’s good for – having open conversation – both so that you can model what that might look like as well as allow folks to intrude. And, yeah. I know I just wrote this. And am now praising Twitter. It’s a contradictory night. [↩]
- And most of what she writes. She’s wise. [↩]
- By way of Wikipedia [↩]
- Too many nots there – of course it’s faster and better than ever. But that’s mostly been the case for the last several hundred years. [↩]
- I may well be wrong. I argue with myself about it. Frequently. [↩]
- I’m grateful for Pam Moran’s gentle suggestion that I should pause to write this up. She was right. [↩]
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.
One of the honors and privileges of my current position is that I get to work with some really smart people. I mean wise folks. The folks I want my children to learn with and from.
And I get the opportunity, from time to time, to see these smart folks in action. This year, on the first day of school, MIchelle and Kyle and I took a lap around the district and happened to wander by Kevin’s classroom a few minutes into his year.
And, boy, was he in the zone. Already. Inside a few minutes.
He was introducing reading notebooks to his students when we happened by. We were approaching the classroom, no appointment, just saying hi, when we heard him say this:
We are going to have thoughts as we read, and it’ll be good for us to write those down so we don’t forget them.
And so we turned around and kept right on walking. Kevin’s students didn’t need us to interfere with some very serious exploration of what it means to be a reader, writer and thinker. Nope. Anything we might’ve done in that situation would’ve been an interruption. They were in quite capable hands.
Of course, the more I think about that one sentence, the more I think it sums up so much of what I think school should be – people exploring thoughtfulness. Thoughtfully.
And I am grateful for folks like Kevin, who works with 4th graders, because I know that they are well served because he is there exploring their thinking with them.
If your school year’s just getting going, I sure hope that you are reading something interesting, and asking your students to, and that you’re all pausing from time to time to write something that you’re thinking about down.
And if you’re not – why aren’t you?
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. [↩]