Never Enough Time in the Day of a Digital Writer

4T Keynote BBoard Session

Keynoting and presenting in a virtual site like Blackboard Connect is sort of like hanging out with roomful of ghosts. They’re very friendly and curious ghosts, sort of like Casper if he were to become a teacher instead of just a cute spirit. You feel the presence of participants in the scrolling chat room as you talk to a screen featuring slides you made and know by heart (mostly). Sometimes, they take the mic. Yeah, being a presenter in that kind of screen-based format is slightly odd.

But I was satisfied with how my keynote address for the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing went last week. Even with my ghosts in the machine, I felt as if I accomplished most of my goals of exploring what we mean when we say “digital writing” (even if we/I haven’t solidified the thinking) and my own experiences with how digital canvasses might push the possibilities of how and what we write in different, and new, directions. I didn’t get to all that I wanted to get to, and I left some projects hanging in the wind. We never got to crowdsource a definition of Digital Writing.

Sorry.

Thanks to the archiving at the 4T site, though, you can freely watch a recording or review the slideshow and resources of my keynote — A Day in the Life of a Digital Writer — at the 4T site.  You can also access the notes and activities in the discussion that followed the keynote. I would also encourage you to tour through other workshops and other keynote addresses from the October celebration of digital writing, too. There are some pretty amazing resources and ideas out there. All of it .. free.

My Meandering Mind and Me

I had five take-aways from my own session that I thought I would share here as a sort of my own post-keynote reflection.

  1. Presenting “what” you do requires deep reflection on “why” you do it. I found that as I was pulling together different projects that I hoped represented my “moves” as a digital writing, I was re-examining the rationale for why using a digital space might be different than a non-digital space. I’m not sure we always do this kind of reflective writing afterwards, but the value of it is immense. It informs our thinking now, and into the future. Reflection is the best non-digital aspect of digital writing, for me.
  2. I was asked a question from the participants about how I explain to parents and administrators the value and merit of all writing with digital. I had one of those “Aha” moments as I was answering. What I realized is that I never use the term “digital writing” with my students. Never. We just …. write. We call it writing. This goes to the heart of some of the discussion on what we call what we do when we write with technology and it bubbled up in the chat room and in the question/answer session of the keynote. As to the initial question, I explained that my role as teacher is to expand notions of what writing is and what writing can be. I value the writing my students do out of school and I want to hook as many of my young students as possible in as many platforms as possible, all with the goal of improving writing skills that we all value: clarity of message, sense of audience, writing to learn, etc.
  3. One of the projects I shared — Blink Blink Blink — brought back a lot of memories. As I looked at the date, I realized … that was 10 years ago. Ten years in the past, I was experimenting with multiple videos as a way to transform a poem at a National Writing Project Tech Matters retreat. I’ve been at this for some time, and still, I get the sense that I am nowhere near where I want to be as a digital writer. (Listen to my audio reflection after making Blink Blink Blink … and you can hear me struggling with some of the same ideas I am writing about here, ten years later).  I have yet to finish any project and say, That’s exactly what my vision was. I always fall short. That sense of “are we there yet?” keeps me moving forward, experimenting and tinkering and trying out new possibilities. Still, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a “we’re here” moment now and then.
  4. My push into digital writing is inspired by my students, all the time. I am constantly trying to figure out what they are doing, and why, and how what they might be interested in might inform how I can reach them as writers. Snapchat. Musical.ly. Video game design. Video production. I go where they lead me, and then I write and create, and come back to try to lead them forward, too. It’s a dance that we have, and it requires paying attention to the ever-shifting sands of technology and social media and young people. I won’t say I have a finger on the pulse — no adult should ever really claim that — but I keep my ears open.
  5. This is no new insight for me but as I look back on the projects that I shared in the keynote, you can’t help but see that collaborative elements are baked right into just about everything I do when it comes to digital writing. I can and do go it alone but I often would rather be writing and making with others when it comes to digital writing. I am empowered and nurtured by my fellow travelers — learning from those who are two steps ahead of me and encouraging those who are one step behind, as best as I can. We write, together.

Interested in the idea of digital writing? Or just writing (with digital)? Or in whatever you want to call it? Here are some resources I mentioned in my keynote that might be worth exploring:

  • The entire DS106 ecosystem is chock full of amazing ideas and curriculum, and as an open network, it is all free for the borrowing and remixing. In particular, the Ds106 Daily Create is a fantastic source of daily ideas for making, writing, creating and more. Even if you don’t participate each day, the flow of ideas will get you thinking.
  • I helped co-facilitate Digital Writing Month last November, but the founders of DigiWriMo decided, for many complicated reasons, not to do it this year. However, folks in the CLMOOC from the summer are planning Pop-Up Make Cycles mid-November as way to do some DigiWrimo-ish activities. You can keep an eye on the CLMOOC website and the #CLMOOC or #DigiWriMo hashtags. Also, explore the Digital Writing Month website for incredible resources and analysis of what it means to write digitally.
  • I curate a Flipboard magazine called Along the Edge of Digital Writing as a way to highlight some of the pieces that I come across that I think may push our thinking about the possibilities of writing.
  • Remember how I ran out of time in my presentation with the crowdsourcing concept of brainstorming a definition of Digital Writing? Well, time is relative. Why not try it now? Come to the Padlet I had set up (which was the second step in the activity) and leave a few thoughts. What IS Digital Writing, anyway?

Peace (upon reflection),
Kevin

 

When the Algorithm is the Writer

As an experiment, some folks turned over scriptwriting for a short film to an algorithm. You can read more about it in detail at this post, and/or watch the opening credits on the movie embedded above. It explains how and what they did. The film itself? It makes no sense, and yet, it is intriguing as an experiment.

And it reminds of the very human nature of writing. Maybe someday, computers will be able to write (or, in an educational connection, assess writing) but I don’t think we are there yet. I know we are not there yet.

There are complexities that come from subtext, from story, from character motivations, and other elements that can’t (yet) be replicated by machine.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting to see what a machine will do. Check out SunSpring and see what you think.

Peace (it’s with us),
Kevin

Making Political Buttons (and Using Loaded Words)

Political Buttons

We’re in the midst of our version of the Letters to the President project right now. My students are too young to partake in posting to the site, but wow … I think I saw there are nearly 2,700 letters at the site already. What a rich resource of student writing and ideas!

My sixth graders have had lesson on the Electoral College (an eye-opener to them, who thought the candidate with the most votes wins the election) and worked on a short essay on whether voting should be mandatory or not. We’ve read articles and watched some videos. Yesterday, I had them set up a Research Journey in Google Docs and showed them the Research tool inside of their Doc. Today, they will determine a topic for their Letter and start diving into some websites to be informed when they start writing (and hopefully, podcasting).

And in-between, we had them work on a Political Button (via Make Beliefs Comix) in which they had to invent or use an imaginary candidate and create a catchy button for their candidate. We talked about phrases, rhyming and loaded words. Some of their buttons were very funny. It was a nice creative break from the serious talk of our country’s future.

Peace (right on the button),
Kevin

Slice of Life: They Should Be Bursting With Stories

sol16(This is part of Slice of Life, a regular writing activity designed to look at the small moments of life. It is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. You are invited to write, too.)

The paraprofessional who works alongside me with my sixth graders — she’s someone for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration and gratitude for, on so many levels —  pulled me aside yesterday.

“They’re so afraid that they will be wrong that they don’t even know where to start,” she whispered. I nodded. Like her, I too had noticed a sense of reluctance in the room. Many students were staring off, empty page in front of them.

“That’s because there is no right or wrong answer here. That confuses them,” I responded. She agreed. We both were saddened by that insight.

What we were doing was writing short stories as a daily writing prompt. Now, this is not the first time we have done writing into the day, but it was the first time that I pulled out Chris Van Allsberg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a story generator. If you don’t know what this picture book is all about, check out this video I found by a high school student on YouTube. This YouTuber does a pretty decent job of explaining it.

I had featured four of the 15 mysterious illustrations from the book (I have a portfolio version), instructed my students to choose one of the images (which have a title and caption but no story), and use it as inspiration for 15 minutes of short story writing in their writing notebooks. My only stipulation was that they had to write in First Person Narrative Point of View. Other than that, they were free to use the illustration anyway they wanted.

“There is no wrong way to do this,” I instructed. “The story is yours to write.”

But for some, this open-ended instruction stopped them dead in their tracks. They didn’t know how to begin or where to begin. They didn’t know what I was looking for. How could they write “the story that had gone missing” if they didn’t have the story in front of them?

It saddens me that we have to wrestle creativity like this out of sixth graders. At age 11 and 12, they should always be brimming with ideas, bursting with stories. But their response raises questions: Is this what standardized testing is doing to our students? Has the right/wrong dichotomy immobilized our students into inaction? Is this what the Common Core push away from narrative/poetry writing is doing to our classrooms?

Yes. It is.

In all of our edu-talk about “inquiry”, the question remains: how do we best help our young people see the rich possibilities in the blank slate before them if we don’t give them more opportunities, more freedom, more chances to explore their ideas on the page? Perhaps this happens more in your school than it does in mine. I get them at the end of their time at our school. I notice the echoes of past lessons. I can sense the shift in instructional practices.

Let me end on a positive note: when it came time to share the stories they had written (and we always build in sharing time), there were so many amazing pieces of writing. Stories told from the strangest perspectives. Dialogue-rich and thought-rich stories of characters struggling against the oddity of the world. Stories told in the present, the past, the future. Descriptive language that brought us deep into the landscape of the imagination.

They had it in them. Of course, they had it in them. They needed permission to write the way they wanted to write. Let’s provide them with more of those opportunities, and understand, as teachers, that this kind of creative writing pays dividends in the future.

Writing stories just for the sake of writing stories — no assessment, no grades — is a small gift we can give to our students in this time of data points and standardized testing. Give it, freely, won’t you?

Peace (don’t be afraid to make it happen),
Kevin

 

What Goes On in the Chat Room … Spills Back Out

Word Cloud Chat Room

I had the great pleasure of being the keynote speaker for the ending of the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing last night, and I wish I had had another hour. My aim was to bring to the surface some thinking about our notions of defining the term “Digital Writing” and share out some of the ways in which I use digital canvasses for writing and composition.

But I had to rush in the second half of the hour I had in the keynote, due to the clock, and so I didn’t give people enough time to explore some of the projects on their own and the come back to reflect, which was my intention, nor did we get to a collaborative activity around brainstorming the affordances of Digital Writing. Luckily, the session was recorded in the Blackboard platform, and the slideshow and resources will be shared out in the coming days.

As I was speaking and sharing, though, the chat room inside Blackboard was a streaming, scrolling site of pretty intense activity by those attending live in the session. I kept an eye as best as I could on it all, but I know I missed a lot of the conversations.

I don’t mind.

I like that there was this parallel track of my sharing with their wondering and sharing, and the swirling pool of ideas is exactly what this kind of session should be about. I aim go back and dig deeper but some of the themes in the Chat Room included:

  • Access and equity issues around technology in some schools
  • Perceptions of doing Digital Writing in the classroom, by students, by administration, by parents
  • The overarching question of why do we need “Digital” as part of the phrase itself — why not just “Writing”?
  • Integrating writing in digital spaces a seamless mix with what we are already teaching (and are expected to teach)
  • Acknowledging the real-world literacies of our students outside of the school
  • Amount of screen time, for younger students in particular, and how concerns over time on screens impacts technology use in the classroom
  • Curation of student work over time

The Word Cloud above is my attempt to gather up all of the chat room and see what themes emerged a day later. It’s cool to look at, but no one element jumped out at me from the chat room, at least in this particular Word Cloud formatting. The Word Cloud image almost invites annotation (ThinkLink?), so that the phrases and words (I tried to remove people’s names as best as I could) have meaning.

Here, they are taken out of context. And, really, context is everything.

Peace (together, we learn),
Kevin

 

Book Review: Plotted (A Literary Atlas)

I love the whole concept of this book, Plotted: A Literary Atlas. Illustrator Andrew DeGraff uses his skills as an artist and mapmaker to create an atlas of the imagination, drawn from famous literary works. Daniel Harmon provides some of the written context, but it is DeGraff’s wonderful evocative maps of books such as The Odyssey, Hamlet, Watership Down and more that are bound to draw you into the fictional worlds and let you wander.

One of the more bolder and pivotal maps, I think, is the literary map of Frederick Douglas, where DeGraff shapes the history of this great man from Slavery to Freedom to Advocacy, all through the path of the map that echoes of the path of the man.

And I found this video of DeGraff, sharing a video on how he made this particular map in stopmotion framing. I love the Internet!

Creating the Literary Map of “The Narrative of the Life ofFrederick Douglass” for “Plotted: A Literary Atlas”, by Andrew DeGraff from Andrew DeGraff on Vimeo.

Peace (along the lines, plotted),
Kevin

 

WMWP Programming: At the Springfield Armory

WMWP Armory PD

For the second summer in a row, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project collaborated with the Springfield Armory (a US National Park site) on a summer youth program. Middle school students spent a week in the Armory, learning about innovation, immigration and role that the Springfield Armory played in our country’s history.

WMWP Armory PD

This week, I joined some other presenters –in conjunction with WMWP, a regional educational collaborative (which is running the program, as part of its history programs and Library of Congress access and support), the Springfield Armory and the  Veteran’s Education Project —  in a three-day Professional Development that uses the Springfield Armory as the source for primary documents and experiences.

My facilitation role in the PD is more central to the second session taking place in a few weeks, when teachers will be exploring Narrative Writing, History and Primary Sources, as they develop lesson plans for the classroom. My goal will be to explore “voice” and “perspective” from the angle of writing and primary sources.

One of the goals of the program is to get teachers inside the National Park site, and consider bringing students there. I admit: I remain a little leery of mixing my students with displays of guns, but the innovation and invention elements of the museum are pretty intriguing.

Here is a playlist/collection of students from the summer program, presenting student research on various aspects of the Armory and its historical connection to the Pioneer Valley region. Note: I was not a facilitator of the summer youth program.

Peace (in student voice),

Kevin

Why THEY Write (Student Voices)

Yesterday, as part of the National Day on Writing, my four classes of sixth graders went into a reflective pose, and wrote about why they write. I invited them to come into our “podcast station” (a comfy chair, Snowball Microphone, and Garageband up on the screen) and share their words with the world. Many did. It was wonderful.

Peace (in the share),
Kevin

Why Do YOU Write? (The National Day on Writing)

Today, my sixth graders will be writing to the prompt of “Why I Write” — which is the theme of this year’s National Day on Writing. I aim to show them Garageband for the first time this year, and get some of them podcasting their voices as a class. We will then share out via our class Soundcloud account, and on our class website, and be “part of the conversation” of the world.

The other day, I wrote about why I write digitally.

Why I Write Digitally 2016

I also found and revised a poem I had written before on the theme of why I write.

Why I Write poem 2016

And I found this podcast mentor text from a past year when Why I Write was a theme of the National Day on Writing. I’ll be sharing it out with students today.

Why do you write?

Peace (celebrate it in writing),
Kevin