At WMWP: Instruments in a Common Band

WMWP Best Practices Overview

The small group planning the two main conferences for our Western Massachusetts Writing Project this year have decided to have an overarching theme of the entire year. Which I think is a fantastic idea — the theme is the thread to connect our work.

Even better is the theme they chose: Instruments in a Common Band. The tagline is: Voice, Identity and Respectful Dialogue. Perfect, right?

Not just metaphorically, which works for me as a musician, but also with the intent of encouraging the consideration of different voices and identity and discussion in the field of teaching and writing. Our first weekend conference is coming up, and the sessions and the keynote address reflect this theme rather nicely.

The “common band” phrasing has stuck with me, too. How we are all making music together, metaphorically — sometimes in harmony; sometimes, with cacophony; sometimes in rhythm; sometimes, not. Our obligation is not just to make noise but to make music. Not just as teachers, but as learners. As citizens.

And the theme certainly dovetails nicely with our WMWP Mission Statement.

Peace (sung from the band of the Common),
Kevin

PS — if you are in Western Massachusetts, there is still time to register for our Best Practices in the Teaching of Writing on Saturday, October 13.

How Can We Tell If We Are Biased, If We Already Are Biased?

On Bias

I believe we all come to any table with a boatload of bias, and anyone who tells you different is either being dishonest or has their head in the sand. Surfacing bias is difficult — it shows our own weakness and makes us vulnerable to criticism. Add the online echo chamber effect to this — where the disparate voices can quickly turn from support to tear-down mode — and you have a difficult conversation.

The World You Never Knew

I’m starting to look at bias through some TED talks. Here are a few that are catching my attention for further viewing. Some are related to our use of technology, and how it amplifies or confirms our bias, and then narrows our experiences, and others are more general in nature about bias and human nature:

And

And

And

Peace (biased but not broken),
Kevin

A Found Poem from a Shared Text, Composed in the Margins

As part of my annotation of War in Translation for Equity Unbound, I found a sentence/passage that lent itself to a poem, so I wrote in the margins of the piece. Later, I took the poem and created this video version, which I think is powerful for the combination of words, image and music.

Author Lina Mounzer writes:

 In the considered, deliberate act of translation, these I’s bump up into one another again and again until they are accidentally shattered, the various pieces of these commingled selves becoming, for long moments, indistinguishable from one another.

I wrote:

from you
comes I
for I have
become you;
these words
now of us
co-mingle,
indistinguishable
in these long moments
where we both emerge
accidentally shattered
by story.

Peace (outside of it),
Kevin

What a Reader Brings To a Collective Story

Reader Interpretation

There’s a moment of realization upon reading “War in Translation: Giving Voice to the Women of Syria” by Lina Mounzer when her opening stories of anguish and war and struggle give way to the realization that she is writing in a collective voice. I found myself jolted (although, to be honest, if only I had spent more time reading the title of the piece, perhaps I would have better realized the situation).

I made a note of this surprise in the annotated margins of the article, as folks in Equity Unbound (including Maha’s class in Egypt) are crowd-annotating Mounzer’s powerful piece. I don’t want it to be a criticism of Mounzer’s writing, because it is not. (You can read and annotate, too, if you want. Just follow this link to the piece.)

But it did get me thinking about the role of the single reader experiencing a collective story. In this case, Mounzer is distilling the stories of multiple women in Syria who blogged about living in a state of war, and how it impacted their families, their lives, their futures. Her role was as translator, and also as curator of collective voices. Her intention was to give voice to the struggles of women in Syria, and she succeeds.

So what is my role, the reader removed from the scene, in this story? These are some rough thoughts this morning, before I head back into the text for more reading.

A reader must determine veracity. We live in the age of Fake News and Unreliable News. I did my due diligence by following the biography of Mounzer and her organization, and determined as best as I could that she seemed to be who she says she is, and that I could believe in her work. This is key to a collective story format like this, as a curator and translator could easily invent stories to make a point. The ‘multiple voice’ format is easily manipulated by a writer. That does not appear to be the case here. I believe these stories.

A reader must be willing to be transported. Aleppo is far from my home. I am in a comfortable, and safe, space as I read about these brave women trying to survive under a brutal regime and violent revolution. As reader, I must try to make their stories present in my head and in my heart. I must try to understand. In this case, the act of crowd-annotation is helpful, for it forces the reader to interact with the text on a meaningful level. I can’t ignore the stories. I have to acknowledge them.

A reader should find other readers. This may not be true in all cases — there are plenty of pieces I read alone and never share with anyone — but here, in a piece about collective voices that comes within a theme about avoiding “the single story,” it seems rather important that readers gather together to read together. The use of Hypothesis helps this. The reader is not alone, as the Syrian bloggers are not alone. As Mounzer brings the writers together, so does Hypothesis and Equity Unbound bring readers together.

A reader brings themselves and their own stories into the texts. I am thinking of how engaging with the text from other people from other parts of the world has the potential to expand my own understanding of the world. One’s perspective of Syria from the United States is likely different from the perspectives of someone from the Middle East, I suspect. This is because we have different stories to tell, and different ways to make connections to the story of stories we are reading together. I’m not talking about sharing intimate experiences with the world, with people we don’t really know. But readers bring where they were to where they are, and reading other readers is powerful.

When the reader becomes writer, the writer knows they are being read. Sorry for the tricky phrasing, but I was thinking of how the annotations would be received by Mounzer, and if she would find a way to send those comments forth to the women bloggers she has curated. I can visualize this loop, from stories, to curation, to article, to readers, to annotation, to comments, to stories, to writers. Those bloggers needed an audience. They used writing to make sense of an unpredictable world. A world of sadness and violence. We are their audience. You are their audience. Annotation makes the reader visible.

What do you think? What’s the role of the reader in any text?

Peace (thinking),
Kevin

 

Considering Perspectives: There Is No Single Story

Beyond the Single Story

The topic of The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie in the Equity Unbound course suddenly seems everywhere in my field of vision. First, of course, the professors who are collaborating in the Equity Unbound (Mia, Maha and Catherine) have invited the open participants to view the TED talk on this topic.

But then, at a meeting this week for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, a colleague who teaches at a middle school was sharing with us one of his educational ideas to broaden cultural perspectives with his seventh graders, and he mentioned how that very day, he had been showing the TED talk with his students to spark writing and conversation.

I nearly jumped out of my seat, to say, we’ve been talking about that, too, in Unbound Equity. I didn’t jump but I did talk to him later about the discussion threads unfolding online.

Which all got me thinking about the unit I am in right now with my sixth graders, around short story writing. We’ve been exploring Narrative Point of View, and the choices a writer makes in telling a story, and how different Narrative Points of View (first person, second person, third person) bring to light different elements of story.

Number crunchers of story

Right now, my students are flipping a touchstone text story from the start of the year (Rikki Tikki Tavi) and re-writing the story from the view of what was the antagonist, turning her into the protagonist. Some of my young writers are struggling with this shift in perspective — they get locked into a story as it is told (as if a writer can do no wrong) and can’t twist it another way. Others are excited about the freedom this shift gives a writer.

A phrase I have tried to repeat to them: Every character is a hero in their own story. Everything is perspective.

And all this discussion and conversation has me wondering if it is nearly time to consider bringing The Danger of a Single Story into my classroom, as an extension of our writing. I feel inspired by the work and insights of others in Equity Unbound and beyond. I need to watch it again myself, from the perspective of my young students, and consider the appropriateness for our learning space.

Meanwhile, one of the participants in the discussion thread on Twitter brought up an interesting perspective on digital interactions and story, and raises the question of whether a digital platform expands or contracts the story. This, of course, is an ongoing question …

Multiple Stories and the Digital World

Peace (at different angles),
Kevin

 

Considering Empathy (A Discussion with Students)

Exploring EmpathyAn impromptu discussion with my young students this week on the topic of empathy found a connection my head with the Equity Unbound project. I am not sure quite yet how those pieces fit, but they do. Maybe it is because empathy for others allows one to make change for better equity for all. And empathy is an upcoming discussion theme and thread for Equity Unbound.

Empathy, as defined at Wikipedia, is:

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

The comic above captures some of the thoughts of my 11 year old students as we discussed what empathy is and why the world might be a better place if more people showed deeper empathy. (I’m looking at you, Trump).

I was thrown off a bit by this response by Ruth.

But I responded:

And Terry added:

The last panel  of the comic is interesting in light of Equity Unbound (which is an online dispersed course with university students and professors from around the world mixed with a bunch of open participants like me), and the topic of how some digital spaces may work to discourage empathy is something my students and I will explore more in a few weeks during our Digital Lives unit. But the fact that it was so prevalent in the discussion with young people is both alarming and perhaps a door open for exploration.

Peace (may it come to you),
Kevin

 

Equity Unbound: Advocating for Accessibility

Alt text considerationsAn interesting discussion unfolded into the Equity Unbound hashtag the last few days as some of the organizers — who are university professors — launched a Twitter scavenger hunt, where people tweet mystery images and others tweet guesses as to what the image is.

The issue of accessibility to images and information for disabled participants, particularly those who use screen readers, sparked a discussion about the use of “alt-text” on images. If you don’t know what that is, alt-text is an option that allows you to layer some informational text along with an image, so that a screen reader for a blind participant, for example, can understand that an image has been shown and get some understanding of what the image is. (This is not to say screen readers are perfect, either).

On Twitter, you have to go into your profile on the web version and find the setting, and turn it on. It’s way at the bottom of the options. Once on, every image you post will give you a prompt on adding text to the image. But, the default for the setting is “off,” which seems rather strange. Maybe there is a technical reason. But I doubt it. (Mastodon, for example, has the default “on” for all users.) It’s also odd that the setting on Twitter for this is at the very bottom of the options, as if were a throw-away issue.

twitter alt text

I tweeted out an idea off the top of my head yesterday morning as I was thinking about accessibility — what if the Equity Unbound community wrote a crowd-sourced letter to Twitter, asking for it to make the alt-text option to be default as “on” as a way to make the platform for more accessible. After a day of teaching in the classroom, I found that a bunch of folks had taken up the idea, and a letter was already underway.

See the draft of the letter and consider signing it

Our friend, Greg, has been helpful in starting to share some online resources about this topic, and one of the links breaks down the types of images that might need alt-text for screen readers (such as informational images, photos with text in it, maps, etc.) and those that may not (decorative images). I also found a neat flowchart for making a decision about alt-text. There are also tips and tricks, and Alan even shared out a link about his suggestions for how one might write alt-text in a way to adds to the conversations.

Will Twitter listen to such a letter? Who knows. At times, it has seemed to ignore complaints and suggestions from its users. At other times, it seems like it has listened and made changes. If nothing else, it has all of us in theEquity Unbound network thinking about accessibility issues with digital platforms, and how to make the barriers of entry as low as possible for as many voices as possible.

Peace (write it for all spaces),
Kevin

 

Equity Unbound: Collection o’ Comics

I’m making some assorted comics for Unbound Equity project. These  are sort of hit or miss, to be honest. I’m hoping making comics will help me think about issues of equity and access in different ways, and add a little variety to the conversation stream.

The following comic is the best of the bunch from the last few days, I think. I was watching a Twitter Scavenger Hunt unfold in the #unboundeq hashtag (people were sharing mystery photos and others were guessing items), and I thought about someone misunderstanding the directions, and searching for Twitter itself. Particularly since so many people think Twitter has lost its original concept in this age of disinformation and hate.

Losing TwitterAnd this following comic came from me wondering about how we interact with people in places like Twitter, where personality is often understood through words alone. While this can be powerful, from a writing standpoint, it can also lead to misinterpretation. The last line is a nod to my six-word-bio I have pinned on Twitter.

Surfing Words on TwitterAnd then, there has been a conversation going on about using the alt-text feature of Twitter for photos — so that blind and/or disabled readers can still engage in the conversations (alt-text is read aloud by screen readers.) In Twitter, you have to turn the feature on. Which makes no sense to me at all. (In Mastodon, it is a default feature). This comic didn’t work as I wanted it to — the telescope was supposed to be a metaphor for narrow vision turned around into a wider understanding of the world. It came across as too preachy. The version I shared on Twitter was a video format, with audio voice (since one of my suggestions was to use audio for content). Ironically, by making the comic a video, I was unable to add alt-text to it.

Accessibility strategiesFinally, this comic is a response by Chris to another comic (about identity). The thread moved into technology platforms disappearing, and what happens to our data and our digital identity when that happens.

Disappearing Act

Peace (framed and sometimes funny),
Kevin

 

 

Equity Unbound Webcomic: Amplification Effect

Identity and Understanding Comic

I am doing some personal exploration for the Equity Unbound course/class/discussions, with the intent of making regular webcomics (I hope) to think through some of the prompts and points about, as the site says:

… questions of equity issues such as equity in web representation, digital colonialism, safety and security risks on the web, and how these differ across contexts.

Yesterday, I shared a comic and thoughts on how difficult it is to forge our own identities.

Today, I have a comic (above) thinking on how others views impacts how we see ourselves. The last frame/box is the most important of the comic. While it is easy to fall these days into the traps of negativity, I remain hopeful of the possibilities of networked digital spaces to expand not just notions of others, but also some semblance of kindness.

I hope you do, too.

I used kid characters in this comic for purposeful effect — to remember that this world we are in now contain the seeds of the world our children and our young students (I teach in an elementary school) are growing up in. We have an obligation to make it better than it is, for them as much for us.

I hope you agree.

Peace (making it happen),
Kevin

Equity Unbound Webcomic: Splintered Digital Identities

Composite Identity Comic

I am dipping into Equity Unbound, a new online course/collaboration with Mia Zamora, Maha Bali and Catherine Cronin. They will be working with university students as well as opening things up to other spaces where folks, like you and me, can jump in. (The Twitter tag is here: #unboundeq)  I am always interested in seeing how new offerings can be riffs off previous open learning networks, such as NetNarr, Rhizo, Digiwrimo, CLMOOC, and others.

One of the topics of the first week is to think about the nature of identity. I’ve done regular mulling on this topic of digital identities before and continue to be intrigued by the way we are perceived and the ways we project ourselves through networks and platforms. In my classroom with sixth graders (11 year olds), we have discussions about this in relation to creating avatars for online spaces and gaming platforms. What do your choices about your avatar say about you? About what you want others to think about you?

In some ways, we have the possibility to create new identities or to build off existing interests, to find groups with our interests (that long tail effect) and use identity to connect. In other ways, once we project ourselves into the world, we relinquish (sometimes, rather reluctantly) some authority over that identity since we lose the human interaction (facial expressions, hand movements, emotional reactions) that plays such a large role in the ways we understand another. This tension sits at the heart of the possibility and the problems of engaging in online discussions with others.

See more posts in the Identity tag here at my blog from over the years.

So, I am thinking I might do some webcomics for this Equity Unbound course as much as possible, as another way for me think about different issues. I created the comic above as I was pondering this question of how our digital interactions are often two sides of our identity — sometimes on purpose and sometimes, not.

Peace (framed),
Kevin