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. []

What Automated Essay Grading Says To Children

“Your thoughts and ideas and writing are so important that, rather than investing in other people to mentor you and nurture your abilities, I’m going to have you put your words into a machine so I don’t have to be bothered to look at them.”

It’s a mixed message.

I’m all for students writing more. There is not enough writing occurring in schools. But someone should be reading the precious texts we ask of our students. They are too important to be left to machines.

Or, perhaps, we should be rethinking what we ask students to write. And when. And why.


#DML2012 – Museums as Experience Places

I’m sitting right now in a panel session on digital media creation and museums. it’s an interesting look at several institutions’ attempts to bring students into their spaces to create digital media projects. We’ve seen several examples of those projects this morning, and I wanted to get a couple of observations down before they slipped away. In no particular order:

  • There’s a recurring theme here that, if the mission “students should be making things here” is stuck to, other constraints (time, logistics, resources, etc.) can be worked through. Yeah.
  • Bringing in students to make things is a pretty simple idea, but a resonating one. How can we promote more situations like these for students? And, as I’m in a suburban and rural area, I wonder about what spaces beyond big city museums can be places for students to come into to make things with. Where can we send kids out and whom can we invite in to be in making together?
  • Panelists have mentioned that they are not fiddling with the work produced by the students. “We don’t edit the students’ projects,” one panelist said. There’s an interestingness in the idea that students can say things to museums that the museums themselves cannot say, for a variety of institutional and logistical reasons. I’m struck by the reminder of the power of an outsider voice being brought into an institution. This is a two-way thing, of course. And having outside eyes, ears, and voices in your space is a valuable way to see that which you cannot. But it requires an intentional desire to invite in outsiders. I wonder about when our schools and classrooms are inviting outsiders in, and how long they can remain outsiders.
  • I’m struck by how the constraints of design processes and museum practices are useful in design process thinking. But they’re referred to here as opportunities, rather than restrictions. This is a good example of “Yes, and” thinking. I’ll say more about that in my next play post.
  • I’ve been in several sessions so far here at the DML conference, and all of them expect too much listening from the audience. Not enough engagement. This isn’t a dig on this particular session – there’s certainly a culture to this conference and to conferences and institutional dissemination in general – but I’d like to see more doing in sessions like these, particularly as we’re talking about engagement.
  • In the Q & A, it surfaced that the students are asked to write and reflect on their work – blogging, journaling, etc. That’s really important – but it was suggested that they have trouble getting the students to engage in those tasks.1 I asked about how the museum staff working with them are surfacing and modeling their reflective practices. It seems to me that they should be writing with the students. I heard that the Smithsonian is working to digitize many of the journals and logs in their collections – looking forward to seeing those, but that’s not quite what I meant.
  • It’s fascinating to continue to think about how museums are vibrant spaces of learning and making and being together.
  1. Gever Tulley mentioned that students blog at the end of every day at his Tinkering School programs – note to myself to follow up more on that. []

Getting Unstuck

I had a productive phone conversation yesterday with a colleague in the district.  She’s on one of our DLC teams and is a fine and thoughtful preschool teacher, the kind of teacher I want for my children, and she wanted to talk through some of her ideas for the teacher research project that she’s working on.  It’s “due” in the Spring, and she’s having trouble coming up with a good idea for her research.

Actually, that’s not true.

Her “problem” is that she has several really good and interesting areas where she might turn her attention and skills as a teacher researcher, but all of them are appealing to her.  She talked through three ideas that sounded fairly fleshed out and interesting, and two or three more that might workout, but are less developed.  I wanted her to tackle all of them.  And I think she did, too.  But she was stuck because, really, she could ultimately only spend the time and energy on one of them.

I think she mostly needed to say that out loud, and to have me reinforce it.  I look forward to the one she picks.

It came up in the conversation that she’d noticed that I was stuck lately in my own writing and exploration, as you might have noticed, too, Dear Reader.  It’s been rather quiet here on the blog, and all the other spaces where I’m writing in public lately.  It’s been rather quiet in the spaces where I write for just me, too.

This fall’s been a busy one, and I’ve had a pretty full plate.  But that’s not really why I’ve been quiet.  See, I’ve been stuck, too.

Maybe I’ve been distracted by all stuff I’ve been doing to see what it is that was worth doing, or maybe it’s that I’m just tired.  Or maybe it’s just that time of year for me, a time of quiet.

Or maybe, on my worst days perhaps certainly, I’m losing my way.  Maybe I’m losing hope.  But I try to work through that.  Being without hope, in the long term, isn’t a productive place to be.

I gave that teacher a little suggestion as we ended our conversation yesterday, and I’m thinking I might take my own advice.  She was having trouble getting started because she didn’t know what project to choose.  I’m stuck because I don’t know where I want to go next, either.  What I suggested to her was that perhaps she might start writing her way through her topics and questions, and that, along the way, she might discover what it was that was worth her doing and seeing through.  I know that’s helped me in the past, and, in fact, is pretty much why I write in spaces like this.

She responded that she might not know who’d want to read about that, or if what she’d be writing about would be obvious to everyone else1.

That pushed me to one more suggestion.  I’m certainly interested in what she’s up to, and I’d like to hear from her when she thinks she’s something to say.  So, I told her, write to me.  Just do it in public.  She’s going to try.

And that helped.  Both her and me.   I think.

I forgot for a while.  One of the ways that I’ve always gotten myself unstuck is to try to write with one person in mind.  Writing for one person is better than writing for a universe of people.  Writing for one person might make sense.2
So I’m writing today for just one or two people that might be interested in this update.  And I’m going to try to come to the blog for a while with one or two people in mind and see where that gets me.

Because, for so many reasons,  I can’t stay stuck for long.  Just can’t.  So maybe this will help.

It’s certainly worth a try.

  1. In her case, as in most cases, that’s certainly not true. She has things to say that no one else can.  I bet you do, too. []
  2. When I wrote music, something I wish I were doing more of, and have been thinking about starting again lately, I found that the best songs I had within me were written in the second person. Maybe there’s something to that here, or at least right now.  Or maybe this is a self-indulgent post.  For the moment, to get unstuck, I’m quite content whichever it happens to be. []

We Didn’t Choose the Title

I’m pleased to share with you that a piece that Michelle and I wrote about our work to create our school district’s Digital Learning Collaborative is in this month’s Journal of Staff Development.  Here’s a copy of the article, called “Teaching 2.0: Teams Keep Teachers and Students Plugged Into Technology.”

I think it’s a good overview of the work that we’re up to here.  We would love to know about intersections with your work.


But Suppose They Don't Care

I had the opportunity today to visit with a class at one of our high schools.  It’s a neat class where students are exploring the digital world that their schooling happens within.  They’re looking at electronic resources and portfolios and other things.  They asked me in to talk about blogs and blogging in light of my recent thesis work as well as my overall interest and experience in the topic.  They’ll be starting a blogging project soon, and I’ll be visiting with two more sections of the course tomorrow.

I shared this with them, a distillation of some of the descriptive and prescriptive ideas I’ve written about blogs and blogging and bloggers.  I tried to emphasize that good blogging, is a simple set of skills: reading, writing and thinking, although not necessarily in that order.  Good blogging is a continuation of the tradition of good writers and folks from pre-digital times, too.  Good blogging is paying attention and asking good questions. Thomas Paine’s name came up.

Good blogging, too, is hard to do well.  It’s play dressed up to look like work.1

My comments were nested in some of and what they have to say about reading and writing.  I dropped the s-bomb a few times.  Not because I wanted to, but because David Coleman, one of the architects of the standards, who’s now out on the road teaching folks what the CCSS are about, did in a talk a while back.  The larger talk he gave was about how the CCSS shifts the focus from some areas of literacy2 to others, namely more emphasis on informational text and close reading and writing.

I don’t mind that shift.  And I think some others have over exaggerated it.  But what I do mind very much is when he says this:

Do people know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today? Texting someone said; I don’t think that’s for credit though yet. But I would say that as someone said it is personal writing. It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”3

While Coleman’s right about needing to be able to make an argument, or at least to use evidence and be verifiable4, he’s certainly wrong that no one cares.  As I told the students today, I’d say that the trick to writing with voice and passion and agency and with owning your learning is that people will give a shit about what you have to say.  But you’ve got to make them.  And that’s what a good writer, or blogger, does.  She makes others care and shows them why they should.  A blogger, at least in the ideal5 is the embodiment of a close reader and attentive writer, or, as Coleman describes as the aim for students through the standards, a good blogger should:

Read like a detective and write like a conscientious investigative reporter.

Yeah.  Bloggers should be like that.  Good crap detectors making interesting stuff.

Sounds great, and there’s only one problem.

Suppose the students whom you want to blog and write and bleed their passions on a digital page somewhere as a way of learning to read and write and think just don’t care?

Suppose they’re indifferent about learning?   Or at least appear to be.  What do we do about that?  And what did we do to make that happen?

  1. Sometimes, with footnotes.  Footnotes look much too workish to be fun, right? []
  2. Read: the personal. []
  3. Link to the video – about 8:30 on the time code.  The unofficial transcript I’m quoting from is here.  The off the cuff reference to not giving a shit, surprisingly, isn’t in the “official transcript.” []
  4. One concern I do have about the CCSS is the same that I do about education policy in general right now; who decides “what counts?” []
  5. Which I think is the right model to aim for. []