Keyboards? Who Needs Keyboards?

For quite a while now, I’ve been concerned that not enough writing is going on in our classrooms1. It seems as though we really want our students to write, but we never seem to give them time or models of writing.

Now that devices are going into our classrooms, I regularly see concerns raised that without keyboards on those devices, our students will never be able to write either fast enough, or correctly, or in the same way that they’ll be expected to in an assessment. So they never write.

Might it be that we are stuck on the notion that writing happens when keys are touched and that the only way words go into computers is via keyboards?

What did we do before keyboards, and is it possible for the first time we are in a world where we can think about what will do after them?

It might be a little premature to think about a post-keyboard world, but I sure think we’re getting close.2

  1. That’s not just me – the .  I suspect that didn’t happen. []
  2. How, where, and when are you working with dictation and input tools that aren’t keyboards? []

Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom

Screen Shot 2014 03 15 at 5 40 11 PMRecently, a project I spent some time on last spring and summer came to life. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is now available for free download as a PDF or a 99 cent eBook via the Amazon Kindle store.  I’m biased, but I think you should take a peek.

The goal of the project was to put a face of specific examples from real classrooms on the Connected Learning principles.  Again, I’m biased, but I think if you read the text, and follow the links to the projects from Digital Is we focused on, I think you’ll get a sense that real, live teachers and students are engaging in some very dynamic work in classrooms right now.  They’re not waiting for someone to show the way.  I was particularly pleased to see so many examples of “teacher” and “student” shown in the text.  We all take turns with both of these roles.  That’s important to remember.  Gail, Mike, Adam, and Jenny, the teachers who wrote the examples I showcase in the chapter I worked on, were all my teachers on this project and I’m grateful for their contributions to my learning and this text. You will be, too.  So take a look already.

But other teachers, as well as plenty of non-teachers who make big pronouncements about schools and schooling, would benefit, too, from a glimpse of the work we reference. So share this with them, would you?

Last week, several of the other project editors visited for a webinar at Educator Innovator. That webinar is below.  Give it a listen.


“We Never Use Pen & Paper”

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard the phrase that is the title of this post used as a badge of honor.  I’ve also heard it said this way: “There’s nothing we do with paper and pencil.”  Folks have sworn that they never use, would never use, or would never have students use, pen and paper to further their learning, as if pen and paper were cancer-causing or habit forming.1 What’s creepy is watching other people nod their heads and smile when a speaker says that.  Those folks should challenge the speaker.  Sometimes, we’re just entirely too polite.

The last time I heard this phrase and saw the head nod/smile response was during the Champions for Change event.  My notes are below.  My, ahem, paper notes.  I hope the video of the conversation is posted soon.  

Evernote Snapshot 20131202 162247

Too many proponents of digital tools get stuck in the false either/or dichotomy that suggests that we must abandon paper to embrace the digital.  That’s silly.  Paper is good for lots of things.  Scribbling on a tablet isn’t yet the best way to get thoughts down in a hurry.  Paper is easily sharable and postable in ways that notes on a tablet or laptop aren’t.  

And anyway, the important piece of tool selection is picking the right tool for the right job.  That it’s digital or analog really doesn’t matter all that much.  What matters is that you are making something.2

I never leave my house without a notebook, or, more and more, a tablet computer.  But if I’m only taking one, I’m taking the notebook. It’s where I scribble and wonder and draft and note-take.  When I’m using a pen to do so.  

I wouldn’t even mention this troubling phrase except that I’ve met many teachers turned off by digital things precisely because the people touting them say things like “I never use a pen and paper.”   That phrase rubs lots of people, pen and paper-loving people, the wrong way.  There’s an implied sense that they have to give up what works in order to embrace digital tools.  That’s just wrong.

To those teachers, I’d say don’t drop anything that’s working for you, and don’t be too quick to pick up anything new unless you see that it might have some value.  Us geeks get into our technologies sometimes, but that doesn’t make us right.  

To the rest of us – let’s use better language, particularly if we’re trying to encourage better habits in others and ourselves.  As my school district is beginning our work with our iPad 1:1, I’ve been encouraging people to think about going “paperless.”  My team realized quickly that “paperless” isn’t what we’re after.  We’re after folks choosing the best tool in a bigger toolbox for the job they’re trying to get done.  So instead of “paperless,” we’re starting to say “digital friendly.”  It’s not yet the right phrase, but it is an attempt to break our use of language that characterizes paper as a bad thing.  

How, I wonder, does the language you use get in the way of the thing you’re trying to accomplish?  Let me know in the comments.  

  1. Actually, pen and paper ARE habit forming, but writing is a fine habit that we should all encourage more of. []
  2. Other than just the decision about what tool to use, that is. []

#WHChamps Blog Posts Are Up

Earlier today, the White House posted the blog posts from the Connected Educator Champions of Change.  Including mine.  Here’s an excerpt:

Technology is often seen as an addition to the learning experience.  In the 21st century, in a time of Common Core State Standards, that is no longer the case.  Change is hard.  Doing right by our students and each other is hard.  Playing with the newest toys is easy, and can feel like change.  But it often is not and good instructional practices, like all good habits, take time and effort to develop.   The work of connected educators, then involves helping learners to make connections to good tools and habits, and to break connections to the bad ones.

They did some editing.1  See if you can find the extra spaces and commas.2

But take a peek at the posts.  Some good stuff in there.

  1. Lengthened short sentences, fiddled with some of my preposition placement, and got rid of a couple of contractions.  It’s cool.  Their website, their rules.  By way of comparison, here’s the paragraph from above as I submitted it. I find the edits fascinating.  I couldn’t resist changing a couple of things back in the excerpt above, too. Take a peek at the original. []
  2. And where you would’ve linked to things. I sent them a text with seven embedded links.  One remained.  Huh. []

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  1. Thinking about the ease of pushing handwriting to the Web. Been playing with styli and tablets lately – and it’s funny how much I’ve missed scrawling analog notes with a pen or pencil.  Even ordered a fresh pile of notebooks today.  The paper kind.  It’s the inability to move from analog to digital and back that’s bothered me – but maybe that’s not such a big deal anymore.

    I’m also thinking about how small changes to a system can fiddle in large ways with the system.  If you know where to make the changes.  I played Contra very, very differently when I was near well invincible. []


Writing in Public

It happened to me again last week, as it does from time to time.  I wrote something that I felt needed to write, to say something I felt needed to be said, and as a result, some people’s feelings were hurt.

I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings.  I suspect you don’t either.  But it’s tricky to move in directions that always result in happiness for all.  In fact, when it comes to issues of change and reform and fiddling with the essential elements of a system built by people, it’s likely that suggesting that something change results in someone taking it personally.

I try not to do that when the change suggested is directed at me.  That said, I feel like we collectively  are too nice to one another in our public discourse, or we are completely monstrous.  The middle ground is narrow and slippery and tricky to navigate.

It’s always easier to talk about big problems at a global level, to suggest change for all, but not change for a specific system, like our own.  But I find that the global comments directed at everyone are also too often directed at no one, and that’s no good, either.

I am reminded as I write this of the Four Agreements, a text that my friend and colleague often reminds me of.  Those agreements are:

1. Be impeccable with your word.

2. Don’t take anything personally.

3. Don’t make assumptions.

4. Always do your best.

I suspect we all struggle to live up to those in all that we do.  And I try to always expect that folks are living by some version of them.  But I fail to not take things as personally as I’d like all the time, and I know others struggle with that.  I also know that I do make assumptions about the folks that I work with – I try to always, in the words of Adaptive Schools language, presume positive intentions in others, even when I’m not sure.  Especially when I am not sure.

But change breaks eggs.  And can hurt feelings.  And it’d be easier to not act for fear of causing harm.  I’ve always been a big fan of the Society for Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, specifically their call to those seeking truth to work, as they aim to tell that truth, to minimize harm.   They advocate that this looks like this:

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.

— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.

— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.

— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.

— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

And they recognize that, while you might cause some harm, there’s often a greater good at work.  Tread carefully, but don’t not tread.

There’s paralysis in the moments after words I’ve written cause someone harm, and that paralysis is poisonous.  It sends my stomach on every roller coaster I’ve yet experienced, costs me sleep, and incites a healthy pile of self-doubt.1  But I realize there’s work to be done, and things to explore and wonder out loud in public about.  Many times in the almost eight years I’ve been blogging, something I’ve written has led someone to question my motives, or to suggest that it’d be better if I didn’t share in public.  Maybe, I’m often told, it’d be safer to not say anything.

And I think that’s wrong.  We don’t share in public enough.  We avoid action too often because we want to play safe and nice and not bother anyone.  That’s not the world I want to live in.  That’s not the person I want to be.  That’s not the world I want my children to enter into.  I want them to be agents for something, rather than passive participants in their lives.

And that’ll cause hurt sometimes.  Okay.  I can live with that.  Right now, at least.  At just this second of understanding.  Which I’ll do my best to preserve and protect.

How do you work to minimize harm while you also work to advocate for the change you believe in?  And what do you do when you cause harm, unintentionally or otherwise?

  1. I’m in the middle of doubting myself right now.  I’m writing right now to try to free myself a bit from that. []

So Why the End Comments After Two Weeks, Then?

I’ve often read that endnotey and heavily annotated papers, returned to students after a week or two, aren’t terribly useful for improving student writing, and yet I see that that’s how many teachers seem to “grade” papers. That annotation work that the teacher “has” to do also is given as a reason why more writing doesn’t happen at school. It takes hours of time, time that’s often stolen not from the schedule of the school day, but the teacher’s family or home life.

I don’t get why we continue to think that’s the way it has to be.

In this morning’s WSJ, Doug Lemov has a piece on practice, plugging , and he writes this:

The anecdote suggests the many ways that instructors, in talking about practice, are just as likely to get things wrong as to get them right. Here, social science can help. Research has established that fast, simple feedback is almost always more effective at shaping behavior than is a more comprehensive response well after the fact. Better to whisper “Please use a more formal tone with clients, Steven” right away than to lecture Steven at length on the wherefores and whys the next morning.

I wonder how we might create structures for writing with students that are more about whispering alongside them rather than authoritatively annotating their written work after the fact. The more I use Google Docs for commenting and collaborative writing, the more I feel like that’s on the right track – but how do we change the perception that the teacher’s job is to scribble all over work after the student’s on to the next thing?


Follow Up to Today’s (Well, Okay, Yesterday’s) Blogging Conversation

It was a real treat to get to spend an hour in conversation with some of my blogging and writing teachers on Thursday.  We were assembled at Connected Learning TV by Jabiz to talk about student blogging.  I hope we get to have round two soon – there was plenty more to talk about.  Here’s the recording:

And a few further thoughts.  If I had to give my stump speech for blogging, the talking points would look something like this:

  • Blogging should be a habit, not a unit.  Multiple blogging units for students as they move through an institution makes for a really creepy digital graveyard of barely begun texts.  Better to build the habit early on and practice as you go.  Therefore . . .
  • Blogging should be buiit into the infrastructure of the learning institution, not up to the whims of a particular teacher or teachers.
  • Blogs can be really interesting containers – you can put pretty much any digital stuff into a blog that you’d ever want to – but they should also be playful playgroundy spaces.  Blogs are much better as places of play rather than places of expectation.
  • Of course, the thing about toys and choices is that sometimes you’ve got to be able to choose not to play at all.  Otherwise, you’re not really playing.  Well, you are, but you’re playing a game that isn’t blogging.  It’s called school.  And that game isn’t always all that fun to play.
I said during the webinar that I felt like the infrastructure that we build, support and maintain should feel more like an invitation than an obligation.  We should make spaces and places on the Web where we’d actually like to spend time, and we should be working to bring other folks in to the party.  I think that’s the kind of work that Jim and Alan do.  They play in public and invite others to play along.  I think that Jabiz does that in his classroom.
Maybe I’ve been forgetting to do that lately.



You Should Probably Just Grade Less

I have the pleasure of getting to pop in to the 2012 CSUWP Summer Institute this week and next, helping in a variety of small roles. Yesterday, I was present for a discussion of , a common text for the SI that I think is worth your time to read if you’ve not yet had the opportunity.

I was there as someone who knows a bit about digital writing, and so a question was posed to me by a teacher in the group. She’s working on an inquiry project about how technology can be useful to streamline grading. I believe her question was something like “How can I streamline my grading practice using technology.” She was hoping I could suggest some things she might try.

I don’t think she liked my answer.

I suggested that she might want to remove the words “using technology” from the question, as most of the things that I think would streamline a teacher’s practice when it comes to grading are things that have very little to do with technology.

For starters, I think teachers, in general, grade too many things. So one way to streamline would be to “grade” less. And that doesn’t mean that teachers shouldn’t ask students to write, and write often. But we don’t need to grade everything that comes to us. In fact, we should grade very little of it. Heck, and I know this’ll sound a bit weird, but we shouldn’t even read all the writing we ask students to do.

One of the choices that a writer makes, and that a student writer should get to make, too, is when and how and where and with whom we share our writing. Reading and grading everything doesn’t help there. Nor is it manageable for the teacher. I find that we’ve built an expectation into school that teachers are there to write lots of notes in margins and markup student writing.

We’ve built the wrong expectations.

In an #engchat conversation a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that we should take Peter Elbow’s suggestion to read and respond less like evaluators and more like interested readers. I suggested that a copy of Elbow’s would be worth reading.

Another thing that I suggested, before thinking about technology options, is that we need to make sure the assignments we are asking of students are the right things to be asking them to do. And, we need to build structures that support our students reading and writing and making things in partnership with each other.

Then I think I did suggest that many tools of the Web can help to make the work of putting writing in to each others’ hands and eyeballs easier than ever. But that only matters if you’re thinking about how you want students to spend their time. I’m eager to help this teacher in her inquiry work – the question, with or without the last two words, is a good one and worth her time.

Were I thinking about it, I probably would’ve recommended Dave’s recent posts about contract grading. While he’s teaching at the university level, I think they provide some useful ideas for thinking about assessment.

Too often, when we reach for technology, we do so in the service of something that isn’t just a technology issue. When a grading load is unreasonable. that’s likely not a technology problem. Taking a look at the whole picture is sometimes necessary before moving to suggestions of new tools or platforms. Then we can look for tools or apps or whatever that will help us do what needs doing. The problem is, taking that look takes longer than handing out a list of apps or websites.

So guess which thing happens?


Responding to Responses to "What Automated Essay Grading Says To Children"

I about what I feel like the use of machine scoring for student writing looks like to children.  The responses were strong.  I thought it made sense for me to clarify what I was saying, what I wasn’t saying, and what I didn’t say.

Let’s tackle the last one first.  I didn’t say that I’m unsympathetic to the idea that more writing would happen if there was less grading to do.  Certainly, one reason that writing isn’t happening enough in classrooms now is that there’s a perception that every piece written must be “marked” or “graded” or “bled upon” by a teacher.  That’s completely false and a terrible idea.

What our students need isn’t so many end comments or suggestions for grammatical or technical correction, but they need to be responded to as writers by readers who are reading their work.   says this far smarter than I ever could, but we teachers should be doing less evaluating and more responding.

So, yes.  Teachers are taking too long with papers.  The answer isn’t to stop reading them. It’s to read them differently.  Or to have more teachers reading fewer students’ writing.  And we don’t need to read everything that a student writes.  We certainly don’t need to grade everything a student writes.

Where I think this gets messy is, as , is the notion that students need more grading from us in order to get better as writers.  They do not.  They need for we teachers to write with them, and to create cultures of inquiry and reflection rather than regurgitation in our classrooms.  They need to be treated as apprentice writers and brought up accordingly.

Robotic graders are for people too busy to read the work our students are investing in.  That’s not fair to our students.

Now, to clarify.  I’ve ben in classrooms where existing writing assessment software has been used, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve seen.  My most recent experience with a writing assessment tool was in a middle school classroom in my school district, where a gifted teacher was using the tool as a starting place for her writing courses.  The software did free her up to be in conversation with her students about their writing.  That was just the right way for her and the class to be – the students drafting, the teacher conversing and reading and being with her students.

The students wrote more and revised more.  In talking with them, they felt a connection to their teacher and that she was concerned for them as writers.  The software was a scaffold, and a place to start.

I was okay with that.  More than okay.  The teacher made the classroom shine.  The software augmented the teacher.  She could’ve run a similar, maybe not as prolific, writing workshop with her students using only paper and pencil.

And she read what they wrote.  And encouraged them to share their writing with each other.

Writing for a machine to read all the time, though, is not really writing.  It’s pretending.  It’s make believe.  And not the good and playful kind.  It’s faking it when there’s not an other someone reading at least some of the work.  We want our students to write well not because they’ll need to do so in some far off future job.  We want them to write well because they have something important to say to the world right now.

So let me clarify further.  I get how the computers do the “reading” that they do1.  And I won’t completely knock it.  It’s handy if you need to score a bunch of tests in a hurry. And that’s one kind of writing – writing as proof of knowing.  But it’s writing that assumes unimportance.

And it’s writing that suggests that the students could build their own robot essay writers to write their essays for them.  In fact, that’s what an awful lot of student “cheating” cases are – they’re crowdsourcing their homework.  Some students do that out of malicious intent.  Others out of ignorance.  But too many students fake their way through essays out of boredom, and out of the knowledge that the teacher’ll be in a hurry and probably not notice.

You’ve got to notice what your students are doing.  And you’re going to miss some things.  But you can’t miss all of them.  Maybe even most.

I don’t think a machine grading writing is the end-all of everything I hold dear.  I’m sympathetic to the argument that our students need to write more and perhaps the machines will encourage that.  But the fervor with which I suspect machine grading of writing will be adopted suggests the real problem – we don’t actually want to read and write with our students.  We want to do reading and writing to them.  And that’s wrong.

  1. By the way,  is worth your time if you want to understand the processes and processing involved. []