Losing My Pigeon

I’ve been quiet in this space these last several months. I’m still finding my space and place as a consultant and library person. It’s a great transition – but there are many moments of my work of late that aren’t bloggable, and I’ve remembered that it’s easier, often, to keep quiet than to thread the needle of privacy and transparency when working to tell my stories of learning that involve others. 

There’s work to do to recover my blogging self, but my private writing self has been thriving. I want to push a little to regain some of my blogging ground, though. And I’m reading some incredible things lately.

So here’s a quick push to get you to read this incredible piece by a friend and fellow believer in people in a time of technology. Audrey said this a few weeks back, and you should read the rest:

I want to suggest that what we need instead of a discipline called “education technology” is an undisciplining. We need criticism at the center of our work. We need to recognize and sit with complexity; we need to demand and stand – or kneel – for justice. We also need care – desperately – the kind of care that has compassion about anxiety and insecurity and that works to alleviate their causes not just suppress the symptoms. We need speculative fictions and counter-narratives that are not interested in reproducing education technology’s legacies or reifying its futures. We need radical disloyalty, blasphemy.

From later in the same talk:

Care is largely absent from education technology, which instead promises rigorous and efficient training. Care is too often completely absent from education, let’s be honest; our institutions do not value the affective labor of teaching and learning.

I’ve taken her words slightly out of context, but attention to care and concern for others must be an essential piece of the work of teaching and learning, with or without technology, in the 21st Century. As I’m at work on pieces of technology right now that are meant to teach people, I want to declare that I’m aware of technology’s power to dehumanize. I reject that and want to do better. I’m willing to fight to lose my pigeon. 

You’re on your own to discover why Audrey believes that the pigeon is a worthy character in the struggle. But she’s right, and it’s a compelling story, beautifully composed. 

Go read it already.

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“Print” Sources in the 21st Century

2009 3962573662 card catalog

I was helping a teammate at the library today think through how to help a student. The student, a middle schooler, was doing a report on illness and needed some sources for their “research report.”

The student rejected my teammate’s help out of hand because the student needed a “print source,” and my teammate pointed the student to some of our online databases.

The thing is, those databases? They’re electronic versions of stuff that was originally on paper. And they offer full text. That one could print out. Back onto paper. If one wanted to. You know – because rules.

So, I ask again, several years since the last time I asked it:

What’s print? Why does that matter? Why are we still perpetuating the paper/digital false dichotomy of information?

 

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What’s This Digital Writing Stuff, Anyway?

It is better to prevent evil, when can, than to attempt to cure it.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.

  1. The collective, societal we of all the people, ever. []
  2. Maybe. But probably something else. We are bad at predictions, too. []
  3. 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. []
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On Constraints, Road Maps, and Driving Directions

1601 De Bry and de Veer Map of Nova Zembla and the Northeast Passage Geographicus NovaZembla debry 1601

I’m working this weekend with the Compose Our World project, and we’re digging in hard to the curricular units that we proposed we’d develop in that work.

As we do so, we’re struggling with notions of when to allow for choice and when to constrain it.  Constraints aren’t evil – they can be quite helpful and useful for limiting the possibilities and allowing for actual, reasonable responses from teachers and students to the events, habits and practices of the classroom.  Wide open choice for everyone on everything isn’t necessary helpful.1

One way that’s productive in thinking about constraints that are helpful and still provide for choice is the metaphor of road maps. The decisions we make that constrain possibilities are those that create the universe, or the map, where a project or learning experience can occur. We might choose a single town, or a county. Maybe a state or an ocean. And anything outside the boundary of that particular map is, well, out of bounds. When we constrain a learning experience, we hand students a map, and help them see where, at least for the moment, the boundaries are.

The territory left open on the map is available for exploration. Students can pick a path or feature or two (or three or four) and venture off to explore in more depth.

But we don’t help our students if, after providing the map, we also give them the turn by turn directions to get them from point A to point B. If we do that, then why provide a map at all?

When you’re engaging in project work with students, teachers, and colleagues, make sure that you’re thinking hard about what constraints matter in your project, and then build them in. But if a constraint doesn’t matter, isn’t important, or gets in the way of your instructional objectives, then don’t implement it. Don’t rope off a path that might be the one that is the one the folks you’re working with and for most want to take.

Let at least some choices matter. But only the ones that need to.

  1. Frequent readers here know that I believe that choice is essential for agency and investment, but I don’t believe that everything should be open for choosing all the time. That way leads to madness. []
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On Agency, and #whyIwrite

Earlier this evening, I had a conversation with a colleague who is thinking hard, very hard, about how to teach and perpetuate SEL1 principles in classrooms in deep and meaningful ways for children.

We ended up talking because I pushed a bit to ask that, as she creates resources to be used widely by Very Important People, she consider the importance of including teachers and the grown ups in schools.

If teachers and administrators don’t experience care and concern in the habits and practices of their work, I cannot fathom how they will be able to perpetuate those same habits and practices of care and concern with and for the children that they serve.

Our charge in the conversation was to generate some ideas about how to “operationalize social and emotional learning.” An important charge. So she needs to advocate and articulate discreet and specific actions, habits and practices that will lead to greater care, concern and recognition of the children in learning institutions.

As is often the case in such work, it’s difficult to turn theory, even the best ones, into actionable habits and practices in plain language. And when you don’t spell out the specifics, then wide dissemination of practice that leads to significant change is, well, difficult, to say the least.

We talked for a long while, and shared stories and ideas and experiences of how we want students and teachers to feel safe and looked after, but also about agency, a key term that’s emerging for her as essential in moving forward the idea that social and emotional learning practices must happen at school. It’s essential in my work, too. So I pushed for the conversation.

I’m not sure that I was helpful, but as Toby Ziegler reminded us once, sometimes, you’ve gotta preach to the choir – because that’s how you get them to sing.

Because it was productive and fertile and rich2 , I was ruminating over the conversation and the charge. And figured it’d be worth taking a moment to try to tease out some of the specifics that came up, and that maybe, just maybe, would help move her work forward. So I took to my notebook and made a list of the habits and practices I wanted to remember:
agency notes 1
agency notes 2
You probably can’t read my writing, but I’ll come back to this list at some point to take it further if I’m able.

Agency isn’t something you can give to someone else3. It isn’t something you can demand, require or mandate. It’s something, like a flower or a good relationship, that you can work to create the essential conditions for, and if you’re lucky, you might can watch blossom.

You can invite folks to engage. You can ask them to try. But you can’t force something to grow. You can’t mandate love. You can only work to create the essential conditions under which it could grow.

If anyone ever says they can “give” you or yours agency, then they’re mistaken.

But helping to build spaces where people can flourish is quite a delightful way to get to contribute to the rich tapestry of human experience. And such a great use of one’s potential.

And, as today is the National Day on Writing, it’s worth jotting some of these thoughts down. Because, friends, here’s the thing:

I want my schools and libraries, and my children’s schools and libraries, and your schools and libraries, to be places where everyone feels safe to explore and wonder and dream and play. I want the learning environments we create for teachers and students and everyone that might enter them to feel exciting and joyous and wondrous and safe.

I want the tech that I develop, implement and support to work to support people, and not the other way around. I want the fights to be clean and respectful and focused on building things and people up, instead of tearing anyone or anything down.

I don’t know if love and care, if genuine respect for young people, can scale. But I sure want to try. I want to work on that. And, at least in some small way, that’s what I am fortunate to get to try to do.

That’s why I get up in the morning. That’s why I go to work. That’s why I write.

And I want you to want that, too.

  1. That’s Social Emotional Learning, of course.  []
  2. Three words, as you might’ve noticed, that mean the same thing. []
  3. As I’ve said before. []
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“The System Won’t Let Me”

System Lock
System Lock by Yuri Samoilov

The other day, I pulled up to a fast-food joint, trying to grab a quick bite.1

I ordered the value meal2, but I quit drinking soda a year or so ago, so I asked if I could just have water. I didn’t mind getting charged for it, I told the disembodied voice out my car window, I just wanted to not have a soda.  Could they please, I asked, just put water in the cup?

The gentleman at the other end of the speaker wasn’t able to help me.  When I made the initial request, he got quiet, and I heard the electronic beep of buttons pushing, and then he told me that he couldn’t not give me a soda.

The system, he said, wouldn’t let him do otherwise.

The system.

I argued this for a minute or two.  Could you type in “Sprite” or something, but just, you know, fill the cup up with water?  Or just put water in a cup and hand it to me with the burrito and tots?

Nope.  The system just wouldn’t allow it.

Being someone who can’t support systems that won’t let folks do things, I drove off without making a purchase.

As I think now about the beginning of a new school year, the first one in fifteen years I’m experiencing as an observer, I’m wondering about the systems you might find yourselves in.

Do you work, promote, or build systems – in your classroom, school district, or organization – that allow for choice and change?  Or do you work, promote or build systems that are lockstep systems, systems predetermined to know the answers that resist and/or require participants in them to remain locked in?  Does your system, instead of your judgment, shape all the interactions that occur within it?  When can the system be overridden, and how often do you do so?

And if you are in a system that’s locked down and doesn’t allow for change or choice, how are you going to resist or challenge that system this school year?

How will you teach your students to resist such systems, too?

I’m asking for me, but I’m also asking for my children.  I don’t ever want them to find themselves in a situation where they can’t do something they might like to do because “the system won’t allow it.” Worse yet, I can’t fathom them becoming people who are bound from doing what’s right or better or good because they feel stuck inside a “system” that’s beyond their control.

And I suspect you don’t want that for your students or children, either.

  1. Okay.  It was a Sonic.  I really, really like breakfast burritos, and I can get one there pretty much any hour of the day.  Eggs and bacon is the “fast food” I eat these days. []
  2. Because tater tots. []
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Stop Filling Pails

The number of people who believe that education is simply pouring facts into children, whether those children like it or not, is astounding to me.

We won’t serve children better by buying better funnels for those facts, or better shovels for those facts, or better containers for those facts once we get them into the children.

Admiring the hoses, shovels, and funnels is certainly not a productive way to improve learning for children, nor do fancy shovels make the process any better for the children involved.  Fancy tools used for terrible pursuits are a tremendous waste of resources.

We won’t serve society((Or the children.)) better by making sure the students sit more quietly, obediently, or patiently while we shovel, pour, or toss those facts, either.1

That is not what education is, should be, or could be.

Not even close.

  1. And children reacting negatively to having their time wasted is not the fault of the children, nor should it be used to justify more pouring or shoveling. []
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Let’s Hack School: A Recent Talk at CSU

Earlier this week, I had the honor of giving a talk in the CSU Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life speaker series. With my time, shared below, I talked about some of our work around professional learning and agency, as well as some of my thinking on the essential actions/literacies/habits that should be in our schools. I probably tried to cram too much into a fast talk, but I think it got some thinking going, which was my goal in the first place1. Below is a Google Hangout video of the talk, and below that is the slide deck from the talk, which is rather hard to see in the video.

I’d love to hear your response to these ideas and where and when you’re fitting in make/hack/play in your teaching and learning.

Thanks so much to Antero and Cindy and the CSU Writing Project for having me out as a part of a really great series.2

The talk starts at nine minutes into the recording.


  1. I’m certain there’s a workshop or two in this talk, specifically around helping folks design learning spaces with certain attributes in mind. I’m tinkering now with building a thinking tool to embody the slider stuff I get into near the end. Get in touch if this is something you’d like to know more about. []
  2. PS – Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the Executive Director of the National Writing Project, is speaking on April 7th as a part of the same series. You should go if you can. More info on the CSUWP’s website. []
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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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Building (Better) Organizational Habits

I become more and more convinced each passing day that learning and culture are habit-based skills1. We either have healthy learning habits, or healthy cultures, or we don’t.

Any organization can improve its habits. But habit formation and cessation aren’t events. You don’t change habits in one-day workshops, or a summer conference. You change habits through long term, intentional planning and execution of the behaviors, choices and experiences that lead to better behaviors, choices and experiences. That lead to better habits.

Why do schools and organizations spend so much time on Band-Aids – one time shots at change – and/or the justification of the ability to not improve/change/grow?2

Denial? Doubt? Disbelief?

When does compliance and the convenience of comfort get in the way of changing the rules that perpetuate old, and maybe ineffective, behaviors and habits?

What are the long term structures, routines and expectations that you’re using to change the learning and culture habits in your spaces?

  1. Maybe skills isn’t the right word. But perhaps you know what I mean. []
  2. Why do people do that, I guess, is the same question. []
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