#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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Shifted Learning Interview

Last Friday, I had the good fortune to spend some time talking writing and learning with John and Julia on the Shifted Learning Podcast.  We discussed writing process, tools and the National Writing Project, among other things.  It was a good visit, and I thought I’d pass along the audio.1

You might also be interested in their podcast archive.  Some good stuff in there, and I very much like Julia and John’s interview style.

Enjoy.

Direct Link to the Audio

  1. As I listened back to the conversation, I began to wonder if it might be time to start a semi-regular podcast about writing.  Any interest out there?  Let me know in the comments. []
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Yeah. It’s Like That.

Sheridan Blau on the National Writing Project, writing on page 98 of James Gray’s Teachers at the Center:

Having experienced what it means to learn in a community of learners, teachers are inclined to count such learning as more authoritative and authentic than any other and to think of such learning as the proper aim of instruction. They therefore become determined to turn their own classrooms into learning communities that will function like a writing project, where respect for the intelligence of every learner is the starting place for all activity, and where all learners are expected and required to take responsibility for their own learning as well as for assisting others to learn — a community where learning entails the production of knowledge as well as its reception, and where knowledge is always seen as provisional and subject to challenge and refinement.

As my friends and colleagues gather in Washington D.C. for the National Writing Project’s Spring Meeting, I hope they’ll take a few moments to reread Blau’s words here.

This is what’s worth fighting for, y’all.

This matters. It’s important.

Be well, be firm, and be kind.

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A #blog4nwp in Which I Ask for Your Assistance. Urgently.

Dear Friends1:

I’m doing something that I don’t normally do – writing a letter. If you know me at all, then you know that I carry a very special appreciation for the work of the National Writing Project.  I talk pretty much whenever and where I can about the work of the NWP and what it’s meant to me as a teacher, as a writer, and as a person.

In short, it’s by far the best professional development experience/community/network I’ve ever been involved in.

And, fortunately, it has survived, grown and flourished these last twenty years with support from the federal government – originally, the National Endowment for the Humanities and then the Department of Education2.  Sometimes, the good guys win.

On March 8th, unfortunately, that federal support ended, at least for the moment, when President Obama signed a continuing resolution that eliminated NWP as well as several other groups’ educational budgets.  As of October 1st, 2011, there will be no federally funded National Writing Project.  In preparation for that, the NWP laid off 60 percent of its staff last week and announced to local site directors that they will have to reduce their local funding by 25 percent.

And that breaks my heart.

And I need your help to fix this mess.

You are movers and shakers in your respective worlds.  People listen to you and seek your counsel.  On many occasions, I’ve sought you out for assistance and/or advice.  I need your help to help restore funding to the National Writing Project through whatever reasonable, rational and responsible means necessary.

That’s, well, pretty much all I’ve got.  I suspect that the usual avenues for these sorts of situations are to do two things:

1.  Get the word out about the power of the NWP
2.  Ask people with access to money if the NWP could have some.

You may not know much about the project, so I thought I’d tell you a little bit more before I ask you to do at least one of those two things.

Basically, the National Writing Project is a professional development organization.  In the same way that antibiotics were helpful to modern medicine.  They’re powerful.  They work with universities and schools to build spaces where teacher expertise is shared and valued.  Specifically, they work to promote the ideas that:

1.  The best teachers of writing are writers themselves.
2.  The best teachers of teachers are teachers themselves.
3.  The best way to make a difference in classrooms is to invest in thoughtful reflective inquiry and practice among teachers and their students.  Cross pollinate like crazy, and let teachers be teachers.

They’d say it a little bit differently, but I’m thinking that, if you know me at all, as a teacher, as a learner, as a colleague or as a writer, then you know the National Writing Project.  I am the professional that I am in no small measure due to my exposure to the NWP, our local affiliate the Colorado State University Writing Project, the influence of the NWP on my teachers and professors, and my interactions with NWP colleagues and friends around the country.

The National Writing Project believes in teachers and their agency at a time when almost no one else does.  They believe that students, teachers and administrators should write regularly – to include composition in all kinds of media, from papercraft to circuitboard to movie to audio to video game to good ol’ fashioned paper.

The power of writing and the power of teachers are two things that we need plenty of in this country right now.

So here’s the part where I ask for your help and thank you for sticking around in this letter for as long as you have.  If you remember that list a little while back, I need your help to either make noise or find money.  So I was hoping that you might be inclined to take some sort of action.  I’ll break down a few easy ways you can help:

Advocacy:

  • Write your Congressperson and tell them of the importance of the National Writing Project. NCTE has an easy to use form.
  • Call your Congresspeople to follow up.  Repeatedly.  It’s okay.  They work for us.  Be polite.
  • Write publicly about your exposure to and experience with the work of the NWP or your desire to fund work like the NWP’s.
  • Help NWP teachers find venues to share their expertise and remind them to mention the NWP as they do so.  Offer them conference and unconference sessions where they can write with your organization.
  • Write a #blog4nwp.
  • Borrow these easy tweets.  Post them.  Often.

Fundraising:

  • Make a donation to the NWP
  • Write your Congressperson, etc.
  • Investigate hiring your local Writing Project to do some inservice in your area.  They work for reasonable rates and you’ll get a high quality, teacher-led and centered experience.
  • Ask the people you know that work for foundations and corporations if they’re aware of the awesomeness of the National Writing Project.  Introduce them.  Politely ask for support.
  • You know that uncle or cousin or whatever that you’ve not spoken to in forever who went to work for that person that is in charge of whatever it was?  Drop them a note and let them know about the NWP.

I hope that you’re able to take one or more of these actions to help ensure that the National Writing Project remains a viable force for teaching, learning and writing into the 22nd Century.  And hopefully longer.  Writing doesn’t go out of style – it just keeps changing.

Writing matters.  And the National Writing Project does, too.

All the best to you.

Bud

  1. I’m emailing this to pretty much everyone I’ve ever known. I’m posting it here and everywhere else I can because I don’t yet have everyone’s email address.  It’s a big world.  Feel free to share this with whomever you’d like.  I’d consider it a favor if you would. []
  2. You can read more about the history of the NWP in James Gray’s memoir about its founding, Teachers at the Center.  I’m reading it right now – and it’s quite useful. []
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An Open Letter to Congressman Cory Gardner – Restore Funding for the National Writing Project

Dear Representative Gardner:

We’ve not yet met, although I’ve attempted to introduce myself to you several times via Twitter. My name’s Bud Hunt, and you represent me in the House of Representatives. I live in Fort Collins and am proud to share the state of Colorado with you. While I didn’t vote for you, I think you’re a smart guy who has promise.

That said, we need to talk.

See, sir, you’re really, fired up about eliminating waste right now. And that’s good. I’m not a fan of wastefulness in government or anywhere else. The thing is, sir, I don’t believe that you understand some of what you’re cutting.

I get it. You’re new. And want to have a meaningful impact in Congress. And two years, well that’s just not a lot of time. So you’ve got to strike fast and hard and you’re coming out strong for stopping “reckless” spending. Good on you.

But you, and many of your colleagues in the House, seem to believe that the National Writing Project is wasteful and reckless spending. For that matter, you also voted to eliminate funding for National Public Radio. Somehow, you’ve decided that those two programs are “wasteful and reckless.” And, Representative Gardner, that’s just not the case.

The National Writing Project has been making a powerful difference for students and teachers for over thirty years. For twenty of those years, the federal government has provided funding to support the important work of helping to ensure that thoughtful teaching and learning of writing is happening in our schools. many of my colleagues have been writing about the work of the NWP in light of the possibility that federal funding will cease and the work of the organization will radically change, if not outright end. You might want to take a minute and read some of the stories. They’ll make you a believer, I suspect.

If those don’t do the trick for you, then perhaps you can just skim the research on the NWP. I’ll give you a one sentence summary – the NWP works. For students. For teachers. It makes a positive difference in American education. Or it did. Until you helped to end its federal funding.

The thing is, Congressman, you pulled the plug on a thoughtful and long term investment in education. Killing an investment that is bearing good fruit is wasteful, sir. Maintaining that investment is prudent. Wise, even.

You, sir, know the importance of writing. You write lots. I recently read an editorial that you published on your Congressional website. In it, you wrote that

a vote against the CR is a vote against cutting wasteful government spending. It’s as simple – and as important – as that.

Excuse me, sir. But it’s not that simple. In your haste to make a difference and rein in “waste,” you’re hurting American students and American education. That’s not acceptable. I’d appreciate it if you’d pay better attention to what you’re doing.

Recently, on my website, I wrote:

I want to live in a country that honors the important work of teaching and learning. I want to live in a country where thoughtfulness about how we teach and learn is an essential piece of that work. I want a government that understands that you can use a little bit of money to make an awful lot of difference. Children who can read and write well are a precious national resource. Groups like the National Writing Project, groups that so thoughtfully help children and teachers to become better writers, deserve federal support.

So, yeah, I support the National Writing Project. I believe in teachers teaching teachers to make a difference for students. You?

Don’t you believe that modest investments in programs that make a positive impact on our children and schools are investments worth maintaining?

I suspect that you believe in American teachers and American students. I suspect that you believe that a strong education is essential to making sure that we have a strong economic foundation for our future. I know that you value writing and its place in students’ learning.

But your vote, and your rhetoric, is anything but simple. It’s wrong of you to suggest that spending federal dollars, dollars matched 100 percent by local matches in each of the 200 sites of the National Writing Project, is wasteful, when those dollars make a significant impact on children. Those dollars, sir, keep good teachers teaching at a time when half of our teachers don’t last beyond five years in the classroom. Those dollars, sir, help children realize their potential as writers and their teachers to realize their potential to have an impact beyond their own classrooms.

That wasn’t wasteful, Congressman. But you either didn’t notice, or weren’t willing to look.

I hope that you erred, sir. And I hope that you’ll stand with others to restore funding for the National Writing Project for the 2011 fiscal year and beyond. I look forward to your public commitment to the work of the National Writing Project and programs like it that responsibly serve as good stewards of one of our most precious natural resources – our children.

I’d be honored to introduce you to children and teachers in our neck of the woods who have been directly impacted by the work of the National Writing Project and our local affiliate, the Colorado State University Writing Project. When you meet with them, you’ll see the value that the work has.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll write with us, and we can overlook your error. We all make mistakes, Congressman. I’m willing to overlook this one, so long as you’re willing to correct it.

I look forward to that, Congressman. Soon.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss the work of the National Writing Project further. I look forward to the opportunity. And I look forward to your response.

All the best,

Bud

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There’s No One Coming. That’s Okay. A #blog4nwp

Chad Sansing suggested that this weekend would be a good weekend to #blog4nwp, to tell the stories of the work of the National Writing Project and its 200 plus network sites. Okay. Here’s one of mine. You can read others in my writing project archive.

I never had the fortune to meet Jim Gray. But his fingers are all over my work as a professional educator. In 1974, he had this idea – this crazy, wonderful, delightfully simple idea – that perhaps teachers of writing should spend time taking about their teaching together. And perhaps, too, as teachers of writing, they should write themselves, and work together as writers, much as they would ask their students to do. Oh, and perhaps, after they spent time learning together, those same teachers might share their learning with other teachers in after school, before school and during school professional development.

Teachers, he knew, can make a difference. And they don’t need someone else, some “expert” from far away, to do all the heavy lifting. We can help each other to get better. We don’t need saving. Teachers can be agents for thoughtful change. Together.

Not a complicated idea. But I’ve been cribbing it my entire professional career. For good reason. That idea, originally the Bay Area Writing Project and later the National Writing Project, replicated again and again in university and school partnerships around the country, works. Well.

When I was an undergraduate at Colorado State University, Cindy O’Donnell-Allen came to be a professor there. She taught my adolescent literature course, a course where she asked me to read and write in the ways that I might later ask my student to read and write. She wrote with us when we wrote in class. I always liked that.

It was later, when she started the Colorado State University Writing Project, that I learned the story behind why she taught the way she did. And it was during the first summer institute of the CSUWP that I began to realize the kind of teacher I wanted to be. 1

According to this recollection, Gray was a lover of people and of living. And that passion for life and people was the fire of his teaching. He made community. So does the National Writing Project. So do writers and writing and teachers of writing.

I’ve never met a more thoughtful group of people. Sometimes, it’s downright infuriating. I like to move. NWP teachers like to ask thoughtful questions. Thoughtful questions sometimes slow you down. But when you do eventually act, you act better because of the thoughtful inquiry that informs your action.

My participation in the National Writing Project is what led to the poetry course I taught for students who didn’t believe they had much to say. It led Antonio, the quietest student I’ve ever met, to say and share more of himself that anyone had ever seen. He made us laugh and cry through his poems, and we were never, ever the same.

It led to Paul and Raeven figuring out the point of what they wanted to argue because they had to write and write and write their way through their thinking. Repeatedly. And they were willing to do that because the NWP helped me to understand how to build a classroom environment where it was safe to start over again and again until we got it right.

It led to a class where five students and I explored the idea that blogs might be a place where we could write with and for the world. Their ideas about blogging have been published and republished and shared and reshared and mixed and remixed because the NWP gave me practical ways to respect my students as co-learners.

My participation in the National Writing Project led to the creation of CyberCamp. And the work of the Digital Learning Collaborative. And pretty much every other piece of work I’ve done as an educator that I am proud of has roots in the work of the NWP. In my work, I try to model that teachers have much to learn from each other and that we should always be doing the work that we ask of our students. Always. And, of course, ten minutes of focused writing now and then never, ever hurt.

I can tell you many more stories about the NWP’s influence on my work2, but I think you get the idea.

Our federal government, I believe, wants to do right by children and by the country. But they don’t have a handle on what thoughtful teaching looks like. As I watch the Congress gut support for the NWP, along with NPR and other programs, I realize that, as I’ve heard again and again in writing project conversations here, there and everywhere, there’s no one coming to save us. There is no Superman waiting to swoop in and set things right.

It’s up to us to do so. We. Right here. Right now. And you know what?

We are enough.

Teachers can teach teachers, and politicians and anyone else who needs some learning.

That’s the lesson of the National Writing Project, and that’s what I remember and will focus on as I head back to the telephone and the keyboard later tonight to remind my elected representatives of the importance of thoughtful teaching and learning infrastructure in our great nation.

I want to live in a country that honors the important work of teaching and learning. I want to live in a country where thoughtfulness about how we teach and learn is an essential piece of that work. I want a government that understands that you can use a little bit of money to make an awful lot of difference. Children who can read and write well are a precious national resource. Groups like the National Writing Project, groups that so thoughtfully help children and teachers to become better writers, deserve federal support.

So, yeah, I support the National Writing Project. I believe in teachers teaching teachers to make a difference for students. You?

  1. Actually, that’s not quite true – I knew that I would be a teacher of writing who wrote alongside his students. I just didn’t realize how truly exceptional that actually was. The NWP is an exceptional group of teachers. And the door’s always open for others to join the conversation. []
  2. And I’d be happy to if you ask me to. []
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Well Isn’t It?

I’m listening to Donalyn Miller right now speaking about reading and writing and teaching at the NWP Annual Meeting in Orlando.

She just mentioned a conversation that I wanted to get down before I forgot it.

Donalyn was asked about her students’ reading. “Your students,” the inquirer asked, “read fifty books a year without any rewards or incentives?”

Donalyn replied, “Isn’t reading its own reward?”

Yes. It is. The reading of the book, the mastering of the text, the enjoyment of the story.

That’s the reward. That’s the prize. That’s the incentive. That’s what gets folks to put down one book, and pick up the next one.

We don’t need stickers, or points, or prizes. Just good books, thoughtful people who know their students to read and recommend to them, and students willing to explore the world through writing.

So let’s spend less time with systems that add to the mess, and distract from the books. Okay?

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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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