#ISTE11: NWP’s Inaugural Hack Jam

Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend the first ever National Writing Project Hack Jam, an exploration of the opportunities to fiddle with text and writing and code on the Internet.  It was a useful event for me, as we were able to think and play with ideas about what “hacking” means right now, and how it’s about reading and writing and thinking.

Masterfully facilitated by Chad Sansing and Meenoo Rami, the event took us to some interesting places and conversation.  Here’s my recap.

We started the day in table groups with a box of Monopoly and a simple task – hack the game.  Chad and Meenoo explained that our task was to fiddle with the rules until we found a game that was better than the one we were handed – and so Sandy and Gail and I tinkered our way through a version of Monopoly that was all about freebies.  Other groups fiddled to make the game about tossing pieces and giving to charity.  It was good1.

But the point of the hacking was to give us an opportunity to explore that games and systems have rules – rules that were made by people.  And we can mess with those rules if we understand the underlying principles involved.  That’s powerful learning – and applies not just to board games, but to school, and to work, and to civic engagement and to computer systems or the Internet.

Hacking matters.  Douglas Rushkoff would say that we need to Program or Be Programmed, but I’d fiddle with that statement and say instead that we need to hack or be hacked.  Someone made the rules and systems of the Internet, power structures, as John Spencer called them during out conversation yesterday.  And, as others have said before, we’ve got to help our students fiddle with them, understand them, and, hopefully, change them.

We moved from that work into a visual exploration of our definition of hacker – folks focused on several things, but I was reminded of MacGyver, and thought of duct tape and wrenches and making things out of what we’ve available.  Purposeful play.

This led to some interesting conversation that I think was my key takeaway from the day2.  Paul Allison, who is always thoughtful, wrote this during the workshop:

My first thought is that hacking sounds like an important idea, but really? Do we need another word that takes teachers out of the mainstream “common core” standards conversation? Does hacking get my students more college-ready? Like gaming, isn’t hacking just another thing that pushes the risk-takers into the margins, and makes risk-adverse teachers run? How do we find a way to be more inclusive in our language and processes? Is it just a language thing? What else might we call hacking?

Later on, Paul continues3:

So part of why we hack has to do with understanding our sources more deeply, and this is absolutely an academic concern. But don’t we need words like “analytical reading” and carefully sourced research? Right so what else might we call hacking? It’s about creativity, but it’s also about making new things by really understanding the old, and this is a traditional, academic exercise.

I’m looking for language that will encourage the risk-adverse teacher to join with us in these enterprises.

And that’s what I leave thinking about.  Hacking matters.  Academic reading and writing matter.  And they’re not unrelated things.  Groups like the National Writing Project know an awful lots about good reading and writing practice, and are exploring thoughtfully things like gaming and hacking – but can they do so in a way that doesn’t scare off the “risk-adverse teacher,” as Paul asks?

I think we need the National Writing Project and folks like them to help navigate these spaces, and to explore them thoughtfully with teachers – and to help folks recognize that reading and writing and thinking and gaming and hacking are related – but in a way that doesn’t lead to further fragmentation and paradox.  I think we need teachers to play, like we played in the Hack Jam, with the rules and ideas that affect them.

Yes, let’s teach kids to hack.  Both the Internet and Shakespeare.  Minecraft and Fitzgerald.  Wordle and essay.  Picture and paragraph.  Logarithm and link. Tweets and Tennyson.  Second Life and the State Legislature.  It’s a big world.

Worth doing.  If you get the chance to attend a future NWP Hack Jam – you should go. I’ll see you there.

  1. Because it was a National Writing Project event, there were snacks.  Good ones. []
  2. And I know I’ve buried the lead, but that’s okay. []
  3. Read the whole piece.  It’s good and I can’t stop thinking about it. []

Enter #EduConText

Teachers should create. Coversations can lead to tremendous bursts of creation and excitement. Capturing creation through writing and returning to it later is how innovative ideas are refined.

Enter #EduConText.

Each day leading up to EduCon, Zac Chase and I will write about some of our thinking surrounding selected EduCon sessions.  We’ll also share some questions to prompt your own thinking and inquiry around the ideas we see that might arise in the session.  There are plenty of fine sessions at the conference.  We’ll pick a few of them.  You choose some others.

#EduConText is about moving into EduCon conversations with the same critical lenses we help our students refine each day. Because a rah rah chorus of excitement and enthusiasm isn’t really going to do much to make our schools better places.

And, of course, the Internet is a free place. For now.  So you should feel free to write along with us.  Prompt us.  Share your thinking.  Preflect on the conversations you’re planning on joining. Dig in.

During EduCon, we’ll be supplying some writing prompts to help attendees, both virtual and face to face, archive their written thinking around the conversations in which they take part.  Because your learning is worth remembering.

After EduCon, we’ll encourage folks to set writing goals for themselves that will allow them to reflect on how they incorporate new ideas into their practice and around documenting what they want to be sure to keep.

How can you participate?

Simply add the tag “#EduConText”1 to your blog, wiki, and twitter posts (or any other kind of post). From there, we’ll archive the tag and see what we build.  Mostly, we hope that #EduConText is a gentle reminder to write and write often about what you’re seeing, hearing and thinking.

Worth doing, right?

Let’s get to it.

  1. Or “educontext.”  Either way. []

The Podcast: Infrastructure Matters

Today’s podcast is an excerpt of Troy and Sara and my Reports from Cyberspace conversation at NCTE’s 2010 Annual Convention. Specifically, this is my prepared section of the presentation, which I’ve called “Infrastructure Matters.”

Infrastructure does matter, and it’s never been more important to make sure that the conditions for learning exist in every element of an education organization. I hope that my remarks get to the heart of how I try to model that in my work supporting teaching and learning here in Colorado.
As always, would love to hear your thoughts about the content of the presentation. I’m sure there’s something that I’ve missed. Let me know in the comments.

On a related note, I just want to express my continued appreciation for Sara and Troy as colleagues and thinking partners. I look forward to continuing to learn from and with them. They’re smart people, and I hope they’re on your radar.1

The thrust of our invitation for others’ reports from cyberspace was that conferences shouldn’t be endpoints, but waypoints, times to recharge and retool before heading out into the work again.  I hope that our session was useful to folks. I’ll know that it was as I see work emerge from it. Talk’s fine. It’s useful. But it’s not enough.

Hard work matters, too.

Direct Link to the Video Version
Direct Link to the Audio Version

  1. I have sections of their presentations recorded, too, but wanted to talk to them before I published them. Look for them here soon if they consent. []

An Open Letter to My Favorite Educational Publisher

Dear Teachers College Press:

I’m an awful big fan of your work.  I mean a really, really big fan.  Of the five or six books on my desk at work right now, three of them are yours.  I made arrangements to order another of your titles just before I headed home for the weekend.1  Paper.  Texts.  Books.

Here’s the thing – I don’t really do most of my reading on paper anymore.  Nor will I be in the foreseeable future.  See, I’ve gotten rather used to the idea of having my books with me all the time.  All of them, be they in my nook or my iPad or available to me in a moment’s notice via one of a number2 of cloud services that I employ.

The problem is – you don’t publish books in etext formats.  Like, at all.  And that’s beginning to get in the way of me wanting to learn from and with your authors.   Who are wicked smart people.  I mean, seriously, they’re writing the books that today’s teachers, and tomorrow’s, need to be reading.  And you’re publishing them in the finest 20th Century style.

But you’re not publishing in formats that they’re likely to pick up.  So I’m beginning to find myself in a pickle when it comes to making purchasing decisions.

And, frankly, it’s getting harder and harder for me to carry your titles in my digital world.  My bag is so big.  Your books are pretty thick.  My devices take up lots of space.

I so want to take your texts with me into the digital world that is my library’s future.  But I can’t until you start offering them to me in a format that I can use.

So please.  Please.  Would you consider offering your titles as ebooks?  Soon?

Time is short.  There’s good stuff in your catalog.  Could you work on getting it into the digital reading ecosystem?


Respectfully, a reader and a fan,


  1. And in searching your catalog as I was writing this piece, I saw several more books that have influenced my career and thinking.  Or that I want to read.  Soon. []
  2. That’s a referral link for Dropbox – you get extra space if you create an account.  And so do I.  I wonder if that means I’ve just put a commercial into a blog post.  Uh oh. []

The Clock’s Ticking

Right now, according to Sir Ken Robinson, my children are at the peak of their divergent thinking abilities.  And those will diminish as they advance in their schooling.  Uh oh.  So, how do we build schools that amplify, rather than eradicate, divergent thinking?

This is not an idle question. Watch the video and then help me answer it. Quickly.


“You Must Decide How to Read.”

From The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink:

This is an extraordinarily complex construct, because the sentence is a magical, shape-shifting monster. It blends figure and ground compactly; the gestalt has leaky boundaries limited only by your willingness to click. Note that you can kill the magic by making the links open in new windows (which reduces the experience to glorified citation, since you are insistently hogging the stage and forcing context to stay in the frame). What makes this magical is that you might never finish reading the story (or this article) at all. You might go down a bunny trail of exploring the culture and history of Bollywood. Traditionally, writers have understood that meaning is constructed by the reader, with the text (which includes the author’s projected identity) as the stimulus. But this construction has historically been a pretty passive act. By writing the sentence this way, I am making you an extraordinarily active meaning-constructor. In fact, you will construct your own text through your click-trail. Both reading and writing are always political and ideological acts, but here I’ve passed on a lot more of the burden of constructing political and ideological meaning onto you.

The reason this scares some people is rather Freudian: when an author hyperlinks, s/he instantly transforms the author-reader relationship from parent-child to adult-adult. You must decide how to read. Your mom does not live on the Web.

No.  She doesn’t.  So how do we scaffold the meaning making process just enough so that a student can move into it?

Or do we need to?


The Podcast: We Shape the Tools that Shape Us

In tonight’s podcast, recording on the way home from a thoughtful meeting, I talk a little bit about a project I’ve been working on, how it’s reminding me about how tools get made and then make the people who use them, and what that might mean for some online school development in the school district where I work.  Specifically, I talk my way through some of a conversation that Michelle and I had this morning about what an online school could look like, and how that thinking relates to some of my thoughts on democratic online schools.

As always, I’d welcome your thoughts, and would love to learn more about the online schools that you are a part of, or wish you were.  I’ll admit – this is some serious first draft thinking.  Help me make it into a solid second draft.

Direct Link to Audio


Some Questions on Composition

I’m sitting at Denver International Airport this morning, waiting to board a flight to Austin, Texas, and the first meeting of a curators group on a project I’m involved in with the National Writing Project. The goal of my piece of the project is to help create a website, called “Digital Is,” that attempts to show what digital composition looks like here at the start of the second decade of the 21st Century.

As I wait to board my plane and anticipate the work ahead, I’m reminded of my conflicting thoughts on what composition looks like today. Howard Zinsser wrote in his book, On Writing Well, that:

“The new information age, for all its high-tech gadgetry, is, finally, writing based.”

I found that quote in a new report exploring what writing looks like in several classrooms today. In that same report, the authors write that:

Writing has never been more important than in this digital age. It is almost inconceivable to achieve academic success without good writing skills. And, while the fundamentals of good writing remain constant, new forms of writing are quickly evolving. Words are now regularly joined with images and voices.

Writing, or composition, isn’t all that different from the writing of generations past.1 Since we first started making markings on clay or stone or paper, we have been trying to capture thoughts in a way that would make them understandable to ourselves as well as others. We write to remember, to share, to understand. We compose to be heard, to stand up and say “This is True,” or “I am here,” or “This was scary” or “hard” or “dangerous” or “exciting”, or “emotional”, or whatever we would like to convey.

And although I make my marks today on an iPad,2 a device that makes the making of marks very easy, and almost immediately shareable to anyone who can get to the Internet, I am reminded of just how hard it is to say something in a way that accomplishes my goals as a writer, that captures what I am, or was, thinking, that lets you into my head and thoughts.

That we now have more tools for making marks, and that we have new kinds of marks – photographs, videos, complex visualizations – doesn’t make the essential task of making meaning any easier. In some ways, as our options for composition increase, it gets harder to decide, to choose which way of making marks will get the point that we wish to make across. Harder, too, is what we must do in classrooms to convey the power of language and to help make our students critical participants in the literacies and literatures of our/their/our futures/our pasts.

And what counts as “writing,” or “composition?” Is a tweet a text, or a piece of a larger text?3 Is a rambling audio podcast, recorded from the driver’s seat of my car, a composition on par with a Master’s thesis, or an essay? So long as a test or assessment or evaluation of a text occurs within a limited definition of what counts as writing, are these other forms valid? How do we who is a “good” writer? What is “good” writing?

Is “connective writing,” a term that Will and I and others use to describe blogging, a new form?4 What’s new? What’s different? What’s useful? What’s good? Who gets to decide such things?5

And how in the world does a language arts teacher, sitting in an airport tapping away on a virtual keyboard, find himself in a place to ask such questions, or to attempt to answer them for others via this particular project?

Just a few questions, questions I always wonder about, that are surfacing for me as I prepare to embark on this work.6

  1. Is it? Would love to hear your take in the comments. []
  2. Finished and published on a laptop, because the iPad isn’t quite the writing device I need it to be. []
  3. I’d say yes to both. []
  4. The more I think about it, it isn’t. But it’s a useful way to talk about and describe some types of “good” writing. []
  5. And how does federal education policy muck with these questions, in sometimes good and sometimes not so good sorts of ways? []
  6. I am humbled, as always, when I think about the power and majesty of language and teaching and learning and the fact that even a guy like me can use the Internet to talk to the world about these big ideas. []

The Podcast: ISTE 2010 Monday Brain Dump

In this podcast, recorded on my way in to the ISTE 2010 conference this morning, I talk through my conference experience so far.  I mention the Leadership Bootcamp, some of Chris’s thoughts about events like those, a conversation I’m having with Dean about digital writing, and some other highlights, as well as a concern I have about how we (don’t) read so well, perhaps.

Direct Link to Audio


Leadership Bootcamp Wrap Up

So yesterday was the first ever ISTE/TIE Leadership Bootcamp, an event that I was happy to get the chance to assist with.  Before it gets too far away from me, I thought it’d be useful to get a few thoughts down about the day, events like it, and what’s next.

The event itself was pretty straight forward – get a bunch of smart people together and talking with each other, as well as sharing some suggestions for how we might best move forward in our various leadership capacities.  Prime folks ahead of time and invite lots of folks to come along in various capacities.  The frame of thinking about leadership as communication I thought was a good one, although perhaps understated.

Of course, at the Leadership Bootcamp, “leader” was defined pretty broadly.  As it should be.  There were teachers in the room.  Superintendents.  IT staff.  Librarians.  Plenty of other folks.  Point being – leaders aren’t just the folks running the ship there’s plenty of leadership for all of us to be engaged in and doing, no matter our roles and/or job titles.  Jeff Piontek got the day started, but I didn’t feel like we were in high gear and rocking and rolling until the first presenters got going.1

From there, it was a non-stop roller coaster ride of content and conversation across several strands.  Of course, the best part of the day for me was the fact that twice folks were put into roundtable groups to process what they were hearing, seeing and thinking about.  I don’t think a formal “Stop.  Write.  Reflect.” component makes it into our professional learning opportunities.  But, as Chris reminded us during his lunch keynote, if you believe something’s important, but you don’t have it built into the structures and schedules of your organization, then you don’t really think it’s terribly important at all.2

The protocol for the roundtables wasn’t too complex, but it’s worth sharing.  So here it is.  Help yourself to it if you find it useful.  Here’s the graphic organizer that we used to help structure folks’ reflections.  Just a few minutes in a very busy day, but I think those were pretty important minutes.  If you were there, I’d be curious as to your take on that portion of the day, specifically.

The day ended with a panel where we were challenged, and rightly so, to figure out how to keep building momentum and moving forward to make the positive changes that we believe we should be seeing in education.  Chris even suggested that it might be time for a string of little events, Educons everywhere, as a way of keeping things moving.  I like that idea, and it’s one reason why we began Learning 2.0: A Colorado Conversation three years ago. 3

I hope that little events like the Leadership Bootcamp keep happening.  I hope that folks who attended saw that, yeah, they might could organize such events, too.4  The resources, in terms of schedule and process, are freely available.  They need only be used. 5  Again, if you were there, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the event.  There will be a follow up webinar to talk through what folks did with the day in October – I’m looking forward to that.6

Thanks to all of the presenters and facilitators and behind the scenes folks who made the day a useful one.  Special thanks to Michelle Bourgeois and Alison Saylor for co-ordinating the entire event. There were aw awful lot of really smart folks in the group. Let’s hope it, or something even better, happens again.  Lots.7

If you were there, let me know how it went and what could’ve been better.  Or tell ISTE directly – they’ve set up an evaluation survey for your feedback.

And now, on to ISTE.

  1. And, I’ve got to be honest, I still don’t understand the “I wrote a book on blogging, but I don’t find it to be valuable and so I don’t do it” position that I’ve now heard Jeff articulate a couple of times.  I hope that I can hear more from him on that at some point, not because I think everyone should have a blog, but because I think if you’re going to value something enough to write a book about it, specifically one that encourages folks to use that thing, then perhaps you should be engaged in that thing, at least from time to time.  Help me understand that if you can. []
  2. And writing as a learning tool is terribly and wonderfully important, which is why I’m sitting here writing right now rather than heading off to visit or do something else. []
  3. Maybe it’s time that event became Learning 2.0: A Colorado Educon, instead.  I’d be okay with that. []
  4. “No one is coming to save us,” Chris says.  He’s right. []
  5. Which is, of course, the hard part. []
  6. Although, I worry, as I usually do, about whether or not folks will attend.  Seems to me like as much as people say they want to engage in longitudinal PD, it doesn’t happen much.  We seem to have “one shot day” stuck in our brains, and may, by then, have moved on to other things.  Let’s do better. []
  7. And, heck, across the street was another group of really smart folks at EduBloggerCon – it was too bad that the events were held at the same time – but it was neat to see so many people moving back and forth between the two.  I was one, if only briefly. []