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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Be Less Hesitant

This post is a bit dated – found it in the drafts folder, dusted it off, and am sharing it now.. The request hasn’t left my mind since offered a couple of months ago.

I ended up have an unexpected visit with a mentor of mine yesterday.  It’d been a while since we’d talked and the visit was unexpected. At the end of our visit, I asked him if he had any words of wisdom to share.

No, that’s not right.  What I actually said was, “Is there anything I can do for you?” His answer wasn’t expected, but has been on my mind ever since.

What’d he say? Three words:

Be less hesitant.

For the last couple of years here and online in other spaces, I’ve been holding back a bit.  I don’t know exactly why, but certainly there are multiple reasons why I’m not as forthcoming online as I once was.

After almost ten years of blogging, it’s still hard, on a very regular basis, to push the publish button.  The what ifs always, ALWAYS, run through my head:

  • What if I’m not smart enough?
  • What if what I write makes people upset?
  • What if I’m not right?
  • What if this isn’t important?

They go on. And on. And on. And on.

We all need a good kick in the rear sometimes to be reminded that the struggle is the value in the thing. Especially this thing of writing and sharing about our practice in order to be be better teachers, better learners. Better people.

And I’ve always claimed that it’s the job of a writer to write things, not necessarily to decide if they’re the right things1.

Pushback sharpens arguments.  It clarifies positions.  Sometimes, even on the Internet, it can change minds.  And, in the case of the questions up above, maybe I need to be pushing back on me a little bit more.  The friction is a good thing.

So I’m trying very hard to get back to being less afraid to push publish, to silence the editors in my head that work so hard to silence me.  I’m trying to be less hesitant.

You?

  1. Actually, I think I’ve argued that social media spaces are spaces where the poster should post what he or she wishes, and not worry so much about whether or not another person would want to continue to pay attention to them. But that’s probably another post.  Or series of posts. I might not be right about that.  Then again . . .wait. I’m being hesitant. []
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In a Moment of Transition, A Challenge to Myself

When I left my last job, and the team of great people I got to call friends and colleagues, I left behind a note for them as the best possible way I could say some of what I wanted to end our professional relationship with.  Much of that note was for them, and has no place online, but some of the letter, a bit of “last advice,” was as much for me moving into my new position as it was for them staying on to do what I used to.  And I don’t want to forget what I said.  It was, for me, a challenge to myself.  

Transitions are special moments, moments where we seem to be granted a bit of pause, a bit less to do, and the opportunity to think deeply about what’s happened, and what’s yet to be.  The yet to be bit here is important.  Transitions are also special because there’s no set way to do the new things that are to come.  Habits don’t yet exist.  So I wanted some words by which to guide the new habit formation I’ve been doing for the last three weeks now, and hope to be fiddling with for the next several months.  Here’s what I suggested they remember to do and be, and here’s what I hoped for myself as I moved forward, too:

What follows is a little bit directed at you, but it’s also a reminder for me as I head into my next thing.  

Consider this my last request – if a departing colleague gets one.  It’s pretty simple, and it’s somebody else’s line, but it’s this:

Be excellent to each other.  In all you do.

By “excellent” I mean kind.  Fair.  Honest.  Open.  Patient.  Gentle.  Firm.  Hold each other to high standards.  Be brave.  Take turns being brave.  Help each other be brave when you can’t be yourselves.  Be tenacious.  When something matters, make sure it matters.   And when it doesn’t, please let it go, gracefully.  Serve one another, in big things and little things.  Especially little things – they’re practice for the big ones.  

By “each other” I mean, well, each other.  But I also mean everyone you come into contact with.  Especially the folks we serve.  I am guilty of being too quick to judge sometimes.  Some ideas won’t have merit.  Some products aren’t good for children.  But be big enough to be excellent to anyone who offers something your way.  

Basically, be the amazing teachers I know you to be. To all people and in all situations.  That’s what I wanted from this team when it was just me.  And then two.  Then three.  Now six.  And we’ve done pretty good so far.  I’ve stumbled.  We’ve all stumbled.  There are stumbles ahead.  But when we’re at our best, we’re excellent to each other.  If I’ve such a thing as a legacy here, I’d want it to be that.  

I don’t much care, in the grandest scheme of things, about technology chops.  Or about spreadsheets, TPS reports, or the odd other deliverables that can and often should get made in the course of one’s work.  If the being excellent happens, then the rest will come along. 
 
So my challenge to myself, as I dig deeper into my new work, is to do my best to be excellent to everybody I come across.  It’s a mighty challenge, one I’ll fail at often, but one worth taking a big swing at.  
And all my new habits, I hope, are aimed in that direction.
 
There’s more to say about my new role and my new work, and the incredible people I’m serving now, but that’s another post.  

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I’m Not in Love with the Word Empowerment

I’m not.  I cringe when I hear it used lately.  And I say that as someone who used to have it on my resume.  Right up near the top.  

Because for me to empower you, especially when I hear the word used by others, I’ve got to have something that you don’t have, and I have to give it to you.  That thing is, of course, power.1

Power doesn’t work that way, at least, it shouldn’t. Not in the classroom.  Plenty of stuff that I have the ability to allow you to do wasn’t necessarily my thing to keep you from doing it in the first place.  And you came to my classroom knowing things that I don’t know, and won’t know, unless you tell me about them.  But that doesn’t mean that I was necessarily in the place of knowing what was worth knowing, doing, or being.  I didn’t have all the answers.  Still don’t.

Or, said another way, the only reason teachers have power sometimes is because they chose to adopt it.  Asking our students to make that choice isn’t so much empowerment, giving power to someone else, as it is helping them realize they had it already.  Asking our colleagues to realize the same isn’t about us having something they didn’t.  It might’ve been we noticed it first.  

So don’t be in the empowerment business.  Be in the “helping folks realize they can do things they didn’t think they could” business.  Or maybe the “huh, I wonder why we’ve always done it that other way” business.  

Let’s get out of the way more.

  1. Power takes many forms.  But at it’s simplest, it’s always something that has to be given in the context of “empowerment.”  Never discovered, or realized, or co-developed.  Given.  By me to you.  Or them to us. []
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Investing Meaning, Clarifying Objectives, and Remembering Care

No one has come out openly for the smashing of television receivers, teaching machines, or even computers, but there is an uneasy feeling among some educators that technology is dehumanizing education.  There is conversion that the student is becoming a programmed robot; that decision making in matters of school management, methodology, and even curriculum, is slipping into the hands in impersonalized computer-programmers; and that the ever-widening, ever more rapid flood of electronic, photography, magnetic, automated instructional systems is turning the teacher into a button pusher.  

The business of education is to invest experience with meaning and organize it in a way which will expand the individual’s capacity for further learning.  Developments in educational technology are amplifying and accelerating this process.  

The significant effect has been to force both teachers and learners to clarify their objectives and methods, and assume more, not less, responsibility in the search for leaning in a world of ambiguity, change and stress.  

The sophistication and proliferation of machines, and more carefully designed media programs offer no hope at all to those who believe that someday man’s thinking will be done for him.  

“Machines, Media, and Learning,” Robert W. Wagner, Educational Leadership, March 1966

I came across the above passage while I was searching through some old EL back issues this weekend.  My original quest was to find older articles on writing instruction.  Then I slipped into looking for past articles about technological developments.1 I love the two purposes for education and teachers therein – the business of education being to invest experience with meaning and the idea that teachers and learners should clarify their objectives and methods.

Let’s be intentional.  Good reminder, and one I incorporated into a talk I gave today to my colleagues regarding what we should be focusing on now that we’ve distributed iPads to our middle school students.  The tablets by themselves won’t change a thing about instruction.  But they’ll give us some new opportunities and options.  Let’s be intentional about what we do with them.2

Tonight, as I reviewed Audrey’s keynote on “Ed Tech’s Monsters,” I found a third purpose that seems connected to the first two.  Or I liked it because Audrey and I share a fascination with the revolutions of the past and how similar they are to the revolutions of today, particularly in the “there’s never been anything like this”-ness of them that turns out to be repeated over and over and over.

Her added purpose was, and I’m taking this a bit out of context – you should really read her entire talk:

To be clear, my nod to the Luddites or to Frankenstein isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation. It is about rejecting an uncritical and unexamined belief in progress. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that we have pretended like it is truth and divorced from responsibility, from love, from politics, from care. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that it does not, despite its insistence, give us “the answer.” 

And that is problem with ed-tech’s monsters. That is the problem with teaching machines.

In order to automate education, must we see knowledge in a certain way, as certain: atomistic, programmable, deliverable, hierarchical, fixed, measurable, non-negotiable? In order to automate that knowledge, what happens to care?

I wonder about love and care and their place in teaching and learning.  I wonder about how we make sure to invest experiences with meaning and create capacity for further learning.  I want teachers and students both to think hard – very, very hard – about their objectives and the way they approach them.

As I’m beginning a new school year with plenty of new challenges, one of which is my struggle of late to document and reflect upon my experiences, I feel like these are worthy purposes to ponder a bit right now.

So that’s what I’m doing.

  1. Found some fascinating pieces on the need for audio-visual staff in schools in the 1940s. []
  2. We’ve, of course, been down the “this new thing will change everything” rhetoric before.  And before.  But nothing much changes.  We incorporate the new technology into some old (often bad, but sometimes good) habits.  Then hope for the next thing. Let’s stop hoping and start doing. []
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Defining Success in Learning, or, So I’m a Runner Now

Last Fall, I began a new learning adventure, one that many of my friends and family have been on for far longer, and with more success, than I. I started running.

I began with a series of training exercises that took me from no distance to being able to run a 5K (3.1 mile) distance. I ran my first 3.1 mile run on a treadmill in December. That was, for me, a pretty big deal.

But it was nothing compared with the first time I strapped on a bib number and ran in my first road race, a 4 mile event in Loveland on Valentine’s Day with Ms. the Teacher. Crossing that finish line was a real achievement. And it set me up for my next goal – running in my first 10K, the Bolder Boulder, here at the end of May.

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That’s me and Ms. the Teacher after the race. I can’t tell you how good it felt to run that race in, for me, the amazing time of an hour and seven minutes. That’s not fast, by any universal human standard, but it was, for me, a pretty big deal.

And as I’ve become a runner – one who runs habitually and regularly, one who chooses to run as opposed to doing something else – I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I’m learning about myself and goal setting and learning. I’ve often thought about the connections between my developing habits of running and the arena of my work life – education.

Now, I’m pretty sure that it’s both obligatory and cliched that I’m writing about how my running experiences connect to my work as an educator, but bear with me.

Runners are folks who set goals for themselves and then work to achieve them. They use clocks and other gadgets to track their progress over time and to set and track goals. I use a little app called Runkeeper that helps me to track my runs and my time. When I run on a road, the app uses GPS to map out where I went and how long it took me to get there. I do many of my runs on a treadmill, and track those slightly differently, but still am able to see my progress over time. I’ve built a little data dashboard for myself via that app and my data tracking. It’s similar to how I track my weight, eating habits and activity using my Fitbit pedometer.

When runners run road races, I’m learning, there’s a shared purpose – we’re all trying to get from point A to point B – but we each have our own goals and plans for how to get there. How fast we’ll go. What pace we’ll keep. Which parts of the road we’ll use. Stuff like that. While we’re all at that same place at roughly the same time, and we’re all doing the same thing, we each have our own plan for how we’re going to get there.

School, it seems to me, should feel like that.

Learners are folks who wonder about things and set goals for themselves to help them get better at wondering. Learners at school should be aiming to get from point A – unknowing – to point B – mastery of a concept or concepts. More broadly, seeking a degree or a diploma or the completion of a course or grade level. But we should be setting our own goals perhaps on how to get there. And while we’re all at the same event – school – we’re each running our own race, or should be. We should be tracking our progress in some way, and working to improve as we’re able to, but we shouldn’t be so obsessed about all getting to the finish line at the exact same time. Seems to me that there’s plenty of pressure on students and teachers and anyone learning anything that we’re supposed to all arrive at the finish line together.

But what is success in learning supposed to be like? As a runner, I’m successful if I meet my goal to cross the finish line in roughly the time I’ve set for myself, but if I finish slower or faster, I still cross that line. Am I unsuccessful if I finish slower than I meant to? Faster? Ms. the Teacher, who ran the Bolder Boulder with me, had a goal of finishing in under an hour. She blew past that goal, finishing in 54 minutes. I finished almost fifteen minutes slower than she did. Were we both successful? I’d argue yes, we were. She’s been running for longer than I have, and she has successfully completed many more road races, and far longer ones, than I ever have. But we are both successful runners, participants in a culture about shared activities and individual goals. If my standard of success were the elite runners that run 10Ks in half the time I took, then I’m a failure.

But I’m not. I’m a successful runner so far, and judging by the number of folks standing on the sidelines and rooting for me and all the other huffing and puffing folks with me in the road, plenty of people recognize that I didn’t fail.

My success was judged, not by some outside observer, a third party off in the distance, but by me.

So I wonder about cultures of learning that could look more like cultures of running. Learners are all on the same trail, or at least similar ones, but we make it down the trail at different speeds, with different plans for how to get there. And our schools and learning cultures should be helping us to get better, to improve, without too often requiring that our success be defined by how the elites in our culture perform. And I wonder how we can build tools and resources that can help us to set, track, and achieve our goals more than the goals of the elites in our midst. As a runner, I’m comparing my today self against my yesterday self, and aiming for my future self to be in a better place than the today self I’ve got right now. So long as I move along a trajectory of improvement, one set both by me and by the folks organizing the races – plotting the starting and finish lines, making sure the cars stay out of the course, and ensuring there are plenty of resources and water stations along the way – then I’m moving towards success.

I want “learner” to be a mantle that people choose to take up and work at. I want learning culture to be about that.

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The Filter. For the Moment.

This morning, Darren mentioned that he’s decided to block Facebook in his school district.  To his credit, he then asked:

Nonetheless, I’m as sure as you are that this is a debate far from over, and therefore maintain a stance of open inquiry into whether or not we’re doing the right thing.  So give it to me straight:

  • Would you leave Facebook open on your K-12 network?
  • If so, why?
  • And, what are you doing to train your teachers to effectively utilize it with their students?
  • Additionally, what can you do on Facebook that can’t be done elsewhere?

I think he’s asking important questions – but not the right ones for a filtering decision.  The world’s a big place.  Not everything in it has an educational purpose or goal.  Many things that don’t seem overtly “educational” actually are.  (And vice versa.) Yet – the world is the place that we working in schools are supposed to be helping students to succeed in.  So why do we keep turning off the parts of it that make us uncomfortable?  The questions of Internet filtering are often focused on the notion that we can control everything that happens to a student.  We cannot.   We must create safe environments for learning and teaching – but we should never hide behind empty promises of “safe,” promises we can never actually deliver on.

In our school district, as we made a switch from sharing ISP service with other districts to becoming our own ISP and investing in our own firewall and filtering solutions, we had to make a decision about what to filter and why.  As I’ve never been a fan of overfiltering, and I know that even the best filters make mistakes of both permissive and restrictive natures, I and some others suggested that perhaps it was time for us to rethink our filtering strategy.

Basically, we argued, let’s quit pretending that the Internet filter is something that it isn’t.  Namely, the Internet filter can and should never take the place of a responsible educator working with students to ensure they are working with the best possible resources to accomplish their educational work.  When a teacher isn’t around, we want to make sure that our students are able to move forward and not get mired down in the random world of distractions that the Internet can offer.  But we want students to be able to internalize the discipline that it takes to do that.  And our boss took that idea to our district leadership, and they agreed.  As of the start of the school year, we are blocking the categories we feel meet the requirements of law as well as a few additional categories relating to hacking and software downloads that our technical side of the house deemed risky to the network.  A very few categories (three, I believe, though I am working from memory as I write this), those dealing with particularly sensitive topics, are available only to staff and to students with staff override.  This is a big change and we’re all pretty excited about it.  Filters are like any other source of power and control – they begin to become solutions to problems that they weren’t created to solve – no matter how badly they fail to solve them.

We’re going to block very few things, beyond the legally required ones, that are distractions.  Distractions aren’t a technology problem.  They’re a people problem.  And creating artificial spaces that don’t actually help to promote the behaviors and attitudes that are important for success is maybe the biggest distraction of all.

We could argue the educational merits of Facebook.  (But it’s mostly a distraction.  Every now and then, it won’t be.  Let’s let students and staff get to it when they believe they need to and stop making it and a few other websites such big deals at school.)

We could argue the educational merits of MySpace.  (But same thing.)

We could take a random stab and try to guess what the NEXT BIG WEBSITE will be, the thing that students will want to do rather than do their school work.  (But we’ll probably guess wrong.  And the websites will almost never be the problem.  The problem is that students don’t want to do their schoolwork.  That’s a problem that deserves more attention than whether or not a profile might get updated or a playlist shared.  Heck – at least in the case of a playlist or profile, something is getting created.)

There are an awful lot of distractions on the Internet.  Every time we focus on them, we draw attention to them and away from the educational goals and objectives we’d like to, and should be, focusing on.  Let’s all stop doing that.

Our filters have prevented us from getting a great deal of work done.  Teachers spent lots of time under our old filter trying to route around it to share important information with students.  Students spent countless hours trying to route around the filter.  (And succeeding.)  I’d’ve rather they’d each have been able to do the thing they wanted to do and then go on with their days.

And now they can. Mostly.  It’s not a perfect solution.  There are still glitches and overblocks – but we are working to unblock things that come up blocked for a teacher as quickly as we are alerted to the errors.  As we see use of resources increase, we may have to do some traffic shaping – which might be a better alternative to blocking outright, or it might create an entirely new set of problems.  We’ll see.

Darren is right about one thing – this is a new idea, the idea that the Internet’s there and (mostly) available.  And there’s plenty of teaching and learning to do about how to avoid distractions, and how to make sure that we are expecting the best of our students and staff.  But let’s not get stuck in command and control positions of assumption that lead us to discredit the experiences and expertise of the adults in the classrooms with our students every day.  Let’s believe in them rather than worry for them.

People will rise to the expectations that are set for them, and in our district, I am proud to say that we are beginning to expect big things from staff and students regarding their Internet use.  There’s lots and lots of work ahead, but I feel very good about the fact that we have finally started framing the problems of Internet misuse as problems of behavior and not of technology.  I hope other school districts can do the same.  And I hope that my district can hold true to its vision.  I have high expectations for us, too.

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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

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