What’s This Digital Writing Stuff, Anyway?

It is better to prevent evil, when can, than to attempt to cure it.I’m speaking tomorrow with my wife’s college course for preservice teachers on the teaching of writing. I’m the featured expert on “digital writing.”

Whatever that is.

Over the last week, the students in the course have been jotting some questions and thoughts down on a Google doc in preparation for the session. I basically asked what it was they wanted to know about, because we have an hour to talk about what I’ve spent an awful lot of the last ten years of my live worrying and working on.

And as I’m prepping for just what I want to leave them with in the fifty five minutes, minus announcements and time for whatever else will come up tomorrow, I’m thinking hard about just what it is about “digital writing” that’s worth wondering and worrying about amidst the eight hundred thousand other odd things rolling around in a teacher’s mind as they begin a career of working with young people.

As I sketched out some ideas and a plan of action on a pad of paper with a freshly inked fountain pen, I was reminded that someone’s new toy is always someone else’s essential tool. And vice versa.

It’s not the digital of digital writing that matters. It’s the writing.

We’ve1 always been fumbling with whatever we’ve had available to us to use to communicate with each other, and to leave a mark beyond ourselves. The exploration of tools for communication beyond our voices in a crowded room is a five thousand year old pursuit. Paint. Sticks. Pencils. Cursors. Whatever we can get our hands on – we’ll write with it.

It’s rather silly sometimes to pretend that it’s only in the last five years or so any of that fumbling and reaching has actually changed the nature of the game. But that’s what we do. Every five years or so.

The nature of the game is that it’s always been changing, and teachers have always been fighting to make sure that we all use the same tools the right way, or that we only use the tools in the ways that the folks who teach the tools are comfortable with. Today’s “digital” is yesterday’s “ink” is tomorrow’s “3d2”.

William Alcott was a teacher in the 1840s who I often point people to when they get stuck on how different right now is from any other time in human history3. He wrote an engaging book on the integration into instruction of a new and modern technology of his time – the blackboard.  It’s worth your time.

He opens the book with fine advice for anyone seeking the answers to how best to teach digital writing today:

Should the teacher who takes up these “Exercises,” attend to the suggestions I have made both in this preface, and in several of the chapters, and instead of following, mechanically, the methods which are pointed out, attend rather to the principles of which these exercises are intended as illustrations, and thus be led to form his own plans and methods, my object will be far more perfectly accomplished than if he should transfer its scanty exercises to the black board, and there let the matter end. . . . Hardly any mistake could be greater than for the teacher, who should take up a book like this, to adopt its various methods without reference to existing circumstances.

Our contexts matter, folks. The why and what and whom we are writing for. That doesn’t change when there’s a tablet, a stylus, a camera, a keyboard or a piece of chalk in play as the primary writing tool. The differences with those tools are matters of technique. Matters we’d all be better off taking up once we’ve actually gotten serious about making sure our classrooms are places of deep creation, revision, and sharing.

So write on, with whatever you’ve got, is what I’ll say to those preservice teachers. Write and explore writing environments with your students. Play with lots of tools and toys and make the one that work for you your own. But try hard to figure out why the others don’t work for you – and who they might work for. And don’t bother teaching students how to write unless you’re writing yourself.

Maybe it’d be easier to just tell them to get to work on their Twitter accounts instead.

  1. The collective, societal we of all the people, ever. []
  2. Maybe. But probably something else. We are bad at predictions, too. []
  3. All the times have been more different than any other time in human history. Ours is a rich and fascinating tapestry, made no less extraordinary or fascinating by the fact that our shared sameness is actually the change we swear is different. []
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“Let’s Find Out,” Writes Cogdog

Bud & cogdogI’d never really thought about it, but I didn’t realize until a couple of weeks ago, when Alan Levine said that he’d be in the area and we should meet up, that he and I had never been in the same place at the same time.

We know plenty of the same people, we play on intersecting online spaces.  He’s been a teacher and occasional collaborator of mine for nearly ten years. But we’d never been in the same physical space in a similar time window.

So yesterday we got to spend a few short minutes together.  Overdue.

He reminded me while we were talking about one of the things he found so great about writing.  He said1 that he enjoyed writing, that it was important for him to write, because as he sat down to write what he thought he wanted to say, he ended up discovering something better – that what he wanted to say wasn’t what he thought it would be.  For Alan, part of creating is discovering what he wants to say.

Love that.  Needed the reminder2.

I don’t know what the word is for being in the middle of a long digital conversation punctuated by short moments of physical interaction.  But it happens frequently enough in my work and world and life, that I really wish I had that word.  It’s pretty great.

Come back soon, Alan.  In the meantime, let’s keep barking.

 

  1. I think he said this.  He said it better than I’m writing it right now, but he was preaching gospel, so I wanted to try to capture it. []
  2. He also shared this killer collection of interactive documentaries that’s way too good for you not to spend some time with. I needed that, too. []
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Be Less Hesitant

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

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

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

What’d he say? Three words:

Be less hesitant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You?

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

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“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. []
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#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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Up Up Down Down . . .

Page 0 1

  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. []

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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. []
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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?

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