#ISTE11: On Longitudinal Web Presences for Writing, Learning, Being

I had the opportunity to hear Paul Allison, one of my favorite teachers, talk at length about his work with Youth Voices yesterday. Usually, Paul’s asking about others’ work, or showcasing the work he’s doing – but not talking about the thinking behind the work. And I like it when he does so. I hope he’d do that more.

He said that the pedagogical and philosophical1 recipe for Youth Voices was something like:

  • James Beane and his work on breaking down the curriculum barriers and asking good questions
  • plus Paulo Friere’s thinking on asking learners to look for generative themes
  • with a dash of Peter Elbow who reminds us of the power of making things through free writing.

I need to return to all three of those folks and dig back in to some of their thinking.

But he said something, off the cuff, that I thought was really important. He mentioned that he’d been in the Youth Voices work for eight years2, and that students who started in tenth grade were able, in eleventh and twelfth, to return to the space and pick up where they left off. They didn’t have to learn a new space, and their work from previous years was right there.

That’s powerful and important and worth unpacking a little bit. Teachers who are using interesting technology with their students find themselves too often in the setup and infrastructure business – and that’s fine sometimes. But not every time or every lesson or every year.

One of the reasons I went to work for an IT department was because I wanted to help make spaces that had a life beyond one classroom. A student shouldn’t create one blog to suit the needs of every teacher that asks for work to occur in such spaces. Students create short term tools for what should be long term work, and they find themselves create blogs every time they start to do interesting work. The assumption becomes that the work they’re doing in these temporary spaces is throwaway work. When the unit, semester, or year ends, the space dies and the student is asked to create the next one.

That’s not how it should work.

What I love about Paul’s work, and the work of other folks who are thinking about the long game of educational spaces where work lives and breathes and mingles with other work, is that they’re building what I call3 longitudinal Web presences. Spaces where the portfolio happens as the collection grows. Places where the stuff a student made yesterday and the stuff a student makes today will be around for a student to add to tomorrow. Places that don’t die every few months or are subject to Teacher A or B’s personal web tool preference.

When Karl or Michelle or I talk about digital learning ecologies, or Paul talks about Youth Voices, I think that’s what we’re talking about. Teachers shouldn’t have to be in the creation and infrastructure business all the time. Nor should they be helping kids to cram important work into temporary places.

If you’re a tech director or a CIO, I hope you’re thinking about how to create these spaces. I also hope you’re thinking about how to help students return to them over time and to think through what they’ve made and how it resonates, or doesn’t, as they expand their knowledge and experience. In St. Vrain, we’ve built a few tools that help with this, but we’re nowhere close to figuring it out.

We do, know, though, and have been charged by our school board, that we are stewards of the work our students produce. That’s an important word – the IT department is responsible for looking after the students’ work. We’ve got to make sure it’s well taken care of and preserved and saved until they leave our care. And that they can take it with them when they go.

That’s what a portfolio should be. That’s worth making. Thoughtfully.4 I continue to be inspired and pushed by the work of folks like Paul who are building places of learning that last on the Web.

  1. My words, not his []
  2. Eight years. How many writing spaces do you have that last six months. Learning, folks, is a marathon. []
  3. Probably incorrectly, but playing with words is fun. []
  4. Sometimes, the curbs matter and the making of the containers are essential, in no small part because the traffic on the road and the stuff in the boxes is precious and worth looking after. The road needs to last for a long, long time. []
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#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. []
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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. []
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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. []
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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?

Soon?

Respectfully, a reader and a fan,

Bud

  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. []
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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.

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“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?

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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

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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. []
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