A Closer Look: Levels of Teaching Experiences in SOL16

sol16I know what you are going to think: Don’t you have other things you can be doing? But I was fascinated by the sheer amount of information and data that was in an opening survey for this month’s Slice of Life challenge with Two Writing Teachers.

I had used the results of the shared survey to look at the imbalance of men versus women writers the other day but then I noticed a whole section where we who took the survey self-identified our status as teachers.

Hmmm.

So I counted up the answers from the 300-plus resondents (although a few left that section blank) and then I created a chart to show how so many of us Slicers are well into our teaching career. That’s not a surprise, I guess, but I do wonder how a community like Slice of Life or Two Writing Teachers can best reach out to teachers in the early parts of their career, to encourage them as writers.

I’m not putting this on Two Writing Teachers to figure out, but certainly, as a member of the National Writing Project who leads professional development in our area, it’s an issue we have to continue to grapple with.

If we want to change the nature of classrooms, and improve access to authentic writing activities that counter the narrative of “standardized testing,” then we need to draw in a wider range of teachers, particularly those educators just starting out. No doubt, many of them are seeking resources and mentors and guidance and suggestions. I know I was, and I know that connecting with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project is what saved my sanity that first year.

How can we continue to pay it forward?

Peace (in the think),
Kevin

The Signal From Inside the Annotation Flash Mob Noise

Annotate

That was interesting. Last night, I followed an invitation of my friends, Terry and Joe, and took part in an online annotation Flash Mob experience, where a bunch of folks mostly used the tool Hypothesis (a browser add-on) to close read and annotate a New York Times article … about annotation.

The article is worth reading, just for the read. (if you have the Hypothesis add-on, you can also read all of the annotations on the article, and add your own)

But the act of annotating an online article together, as a crowd, is always an interesting experience. There are a lot of tools out there to do this, from the comment feature in Google Docs to Genius to Diigo and more. Hypothesis is a nice tool, clean to view, and if the tool is activated, when you come to a page that someone else has annotated, it allows you to view and comment and add to other people’s annotations. You can also add images, video and animated GIFs. It saves your annotation into your own “home” stream.

Annotate Flashmob Hangout

The way the Annotation Flash Mob worked was a bunch of us hung out in a Google Hangout, talked about annotation, and then got to work — all the while talking through the annotation process and screen-sharing what we were doing. Well, I found I could not really talk and listen closely, while also reading closely and annotating, so I sort of found myself in my own little cloud of thoughts for a big chunk of time. There was a bit too much “noise” for my brain to handle, but I did the best I could to listen, read and write.

For me, the best part was the end, when we stopped annotating and starting talking reflectively about the implications of this kind of online annotations for learning in the classroom.

  • Ian talked about having students in his college courses annotate the syllabus with suggestions and comments.
  • Joe talked about the power of the crowd, coming together on a single document (apparently, that is going on tonight with the State of the Union speech) as an example of social networking.
  • Jeremy (of Hypothesis) talked about (or wrote about) how teachers can keep track of student work, and the article references how this might fold into student learning portfolios.
  • Terry noticed Karen working all through the hour, and talked about how one might video-capture with reflection the act of annotation as a way to show your learning and thinking.
  • Remi noted how this kind of active annotation might have more value than Twitter chats and other social gathering activities, where too much affirmation and cordiality might soften some deeper learning and sharing of insights.

Many of us, including me, wondered, as voiced by Terry, So now that you have all this “noise” of annotation, how do you find the signal? How do you curate your annotations, and your crowd’s annotations, into something useful that moves beyond that single moment of time?

We did not have a solid answer, except to note that teaching the art of curation is getting relatively short-thrift in a lot of our classrooms. Ian noted that by not teaching curating, we are missing an opportunity and important skills in the information-rich Digital Age.

I agree. This blog post is one way that I am doing for myself. I am trying to make sense of our Flash Mob activity, but to be frank, the idea of now going back through more than 50 annotations on the page from last night seems rather daunting …

Peace (in the signal),
Kevin

 

Bonnie’s Digital Collaborative: Joy in the World

My friend, Bonnie, is a very talented digital storyteller, and each year, she gathers up images from friends in various online spaces on a theme and weaves them into a digital story.

The theme for 2015 was JOY, which was a wonderful counterweight to some of the things that Bonnie was going through in 2015. She lost someone very close. I hope that by weaving together images of joy, she found some, too.

My contribution was a collage pic of the “band” that recorded the song that kicks off the video, as people from around the world used an online site called Soundtrap to record my song, All Join Hands.

Peace (and joy to you),
Kevin

 

#DigiWriMo: Changing Fonts and Typefaces (A Pedagogical Reasoning)

 

38

(Periodic Table of Fonts from Cam Wilde)

I was in a PLC (professional learning community in garbled edu-speak) last year with a cohort of reading specialists. Although I teach reading, I am a classroom teacher, not a reading specialist. I was in that PLC because our district was launching (yet another) math initiative and I am an ELA teacher.

I didn’t mind. I learned a lot from hanging out with these interventionist reading teachers.

At one point, we started to talk about digital reading skills (ie, reading on the screen and how different it is from reading off the screen), and I brought some of my knowledge and perspective into the mix (citing work that folks have down at the University of Connecticut with Don Leu with online reading comprehension and others). But it was a comment that another teacher brought up that had me thinking a bit beyond what I was expecting.

She noted that students in classrooms where teachers use interactive whiteboards see the whiteboard as a sort of “primary text site” for the learning environment. Daily agendas, and messages, and interactive activities … they all spring from the huge digital board hanging in the front of the room.

She then noted how many of her students with learning disabilities often have trouble with “fonts” — of the physical act of reading letters in fonts that are unfamiliar to them (vowels, in particular, can be troublesome). To help address this issue, she has been suggesting that classroom teachers regularly change the fonts they use on their whiteboards, to give students a wider range of “reading” the style of letters and to expose them to different design practices of writing.

Brilliant!

And so, that’s what I have been doing this year, changing the fonts on my whiteboard on a regular basis. Most of the time, students don’t say a thing. Sometimes, though, they ask about a letter or a font design. We’ve talked about how some fonts conjure up certain emotional responses from the reader, and how different publishers use different families of fonts.

As adults, this kind of “reading” skill gets overlooked, as if design were not important to reading. But just like anything, if a reader gets stuck on the screen — if they can’t quite figure out what is being written — then the flow of reading is impacted. By immersing young people into the basics of font design, and by showing them various models of it, we can expand their knowledge.

Certainly, my students will spend inordinate amounts of time choosing fonts when they are writing. I often have to say “You have five minutes to find a font and then get writing” or else, time will pass and only a sentence will be written. Yes, it will be a lovely font, but not enough writing to justify it.

Peace (in design),
Kevin

PS — I once published an entire collection about font, design and writing at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site. You can view that collection here.

#DigiWriMo: Writing in the Margins (Discourse on the Side)

In the Margins1

In a recent discussion before the launch of Digital Writing Month, the idea of writing comments in the margins of collaborative documents as an act of shared composition became a topic of conversation for an edition of HybridPod. We were talking Google Docs, in particular, and it occurred to us (Chris Friend, Maha Bali, Sarah Honeychurch and me) that students probably need some explicit teaching of how to write in the margins of documents, particularly shared writing pieces.

This is fairly new to the teaching of writing, right? How many of us design a lesson around writing in the margins of books or stories and what that means to write? Mostly, this is because we traditionally all had only one story or one book or one text, and it was ours to write upon, highlight in pretty colors, mark up with Sharpies or crayons or whatever. It’s readability was only dependent on whether the writer could read it and make sense of it.

One text. One writer. One reader.

Collaborative writing in a digital space turns that on its head a bit. Now, it might be one text, but it might be multiple writers crowding into the margins, and it might be multiple layers of readers — the ones doing the writing, together, and maybe even an outside audience of readers.

One text. Many writers. Multiple readers.

In the Margins2

Interestingly, I noticed this idea of “conversations about the writing” unfolding in my own classroom after a lesson on using Google Docs for peer review for short stories. My lesson had each student connecting digitally with another student, but once they knew how to share and get comments, they were sharing and asking for feedback from all sorts of friends … even students who were in our school district but not in our school.

I had to quickly give an impromptu lesson about the role of commenting, and the word “resolve” in Google Docs. Actually, that word become an anchor point in the discussion that Chris, Sarah, Maha and I had: what does it mean to “resolve” a comment? And who makes that decision? How do we un-resolve a comment? Does “resolve” mean I agree with you or does it mean I don’t want to see your comment anymore?

In a recent professional development workshop with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, I had a group of teachers annotating an article together by Victoria Alessi, to show the power of collaborative writing in a “close reading” activity. I actively encouraged “conversations in the margins” about the text, and told them that I would be sharing the annotated document back to the writer, who is part of the Long Island Writing Project.

The results were interesting and fascinating, as this room of educators, who did not really know each other, began to unfold a conversation about teaching writing. In the margins, sharing and understanding were taking place in a room of clicking keys, which then led to a wonderful conversation about teaching and writing and teaching writing.

Peace (off the sides and everywhere possible),
Kevin

Student Reflective Voices in the World

I shared this out on Twitter yesterday, but I wanted to include it here at my blog, too. As part of the National Day on Writing, I had my students reflect on the theme of “why I write” and then we did some class podcasting.

I was blown away by the depth of their reflective stance around the act of writing.

 

I don’t know why I am surprised — I know they are strong writers and I know we do a lot around reflective stance — but still … hearing them telling the world about why they write, in their own voice … it’s a beautiful thing.

Peace (in the voice),
kevin

A #Whyiwrite Collaboration for National Day on Writing

(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing adventure with Two Writing Teachers, and for the National Day on Writing 2015).

Why I Write for NDOW

Over at our iAnthology writing space, an unofficial online site for National Writing Project-affiliated teachers to hang out and write each week, I put out the call for teachers for today’s National Day on Writing celebration. The Day on Writing is hosted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and supported by a wide range of other organizations, including NWP.

(View the slideshow in Google Slides)

Each year, there is a theme, and this year’s theme is “Why I Write,” a theme that was explored during the first years of NDOW (National Day on Writing) and provided some interesting depth to responses of writers in all age groups.

I’m doing a podcasting activity with my sixth graders today. They wrote a prompt yesterday about “why I write” and I will be showing them Garageband today, and we will be using my Blue Snowball microphone for sharing out thoughts with voice, and then connecting with the world via the #whyiwrite hashtag on Twitter. I love getting voice out in the mix.

For this collaboration with NWP teachers, I went a simple route with a low technology threshold. I set up a Google Slideshow and sent out the link, asking folks to choose a slide and write. (I will be doing a similar activity this coming weekend at an event for Western Massachusetts Writing Project). The whole idea is to invite us in as writers, and explore writing from a meta-thinking angle.

The range of reasoning, and how writing so deeply impacts our daily lives, is at the heart of this kind of prompt. From the joy of writing to the need to understand the world to coming to terms with loss to tapping into childhood memories, the responses hit on many topics, all with a three word prompt.

So, why do you write?

Peace (in the words on the page),
Kevin

 

Shifting into Digital Portfolios: A 4T Conference Reflection

Digital Portfolios 4T Conference

Last night, the first day of the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing kicked off, and one of the first sessions meshed nicely with my own teaching goals this year. Aram Kabodian, a friend from the National Writing Project (and fellow poet and middle school teacher), presented a session webinar about the benefits and logistics of digital writing portfolios. (He wrote about digital portfolios for Digital Is, too.)

This year, I have launched digital portfolios with my sixth graders, using our Google Apps for Education system. My professional teaching goal (and student learning goal) center around digital portfolios, so Aram’s webinar and resources were perfectly situated for what I am thinking deeply about and implementing right now.

Here are some of my takeaways from the sessions:

  • I loved that he had us sharing out the oldest piece of writing that we still have. It reminded us about the power of the past, and how writing can connect us to who we were, and who we are. I wrote about a notebook of poems from high school that became the first steps into writing songs. I’m afraid to look at that notebook but I know where it is and what’s in it, and that writing is me, the past me;
  • We talked and wrote with Aram about the rationale behind digital portfolios. There are some main reasons why one would use digital portfolios: to capture growth of a student over a set period of time, to document; to incorporate media into the collection; to share with parents what work is being done; to share with administrators; and to give students a representation of the writing they are doing (for future look-back moments);
  • Aram explained how he assesses digital portfolios, using some focused literacy lens around writing standards connected to classroom lessons, and around the number and genres of pieces that students must work on throughout the year. To be honest, I have not yet gotten that far in my implementation, but I know I need to figure out assessment somehow that makes sense for students and myself;
  • I was thankful that we spent time talking about how to nurture reflective stances by students, so that the reflective writing is part of the writing experience and of the digital portfolio itself. This requires scaffolding and modeling of reflection that goes deeper than the general ideas that most students fall into;
  • Aram uses a wiki site for his portfolio system, and I wonder about whether a wiki really works, when thinking of reflection and public space, and also, ownership of writing (Whose space is it? Aram’s or his students’?). Aram says he can only keep a student page up for a year after they leave, and then it gets removed (otherwise, he has to foot the additional cost). It make me acknowledge that just about every platform right now that I have researched has its downside;
  • I asked Aram about whether his use of digital portfolios is an isolated experience for students — if teachers in the grades above him also use portfolios, so that student growth might be seen over a longer period of time rather than a single grade. He said, no. He is the only one doing it, as far as he knows. I’m the same, I think. With Google, students can keep their writing for the next six years, from sixth grade to high school graduation …. what an opportunity that is, right? But I fear the potential for a true writing and learning portfolio might be lost if our district doesn’t see the merit;
  • Aram’s webinar reminded me of where I need to go from here:
    • I need to get my students doing more writing so that they have more to choose from in the end;
    • I need to mull over the assessment of portfolios and how to make it meaningful;
    • I need to work on lessons around more reflective writing practice;
    • I need to think about what the writing portfolio will look like in June. Right now, they are collecting writing in Google Drive. Next up, we will make some folders. But eventually, as with Aram’s wiki site, I want students to carve out a place where they “present and publish” — with Google Sites, probably (although I get frustrated there, too);
    • I should connect with the seventh grade teachers in our regional middle school system.

Overall, I learned quite a bit from Aram’s presentation at the 4T Conference, and I know I have a lot to think about and consider, and a lot to try out and figure out this year.

That’s the benefit of a pilot year, right?

Tinker, try, adjust, reflect, reset ….

Peace (inside the inside of the portfolio),
Kevin

Robots As Publishers: Curation Conundrums in the Digital Age

NWP Daily NewsIt’s been some time since I shared out my curated NWP Daily News via Paper.li, and I use that word “curate” very lightly here, as the robotic overlords who feed on algorithms are the ones who gather up news and sharing from a Twitter list of National Writing Project folks (670 peeps, listed as of this morning … wait .. make that 669 … see below), and somehow, it comes together in what I think is a moderately interesting daily collection of media, tidbits and more.

But I received a direct message on Twitter from a person in my NWP network about their inclusion into the “newspaper”  this week and the notice of their Twitter handle in an auto-tweet that comes out every day. They clearly were not happy with it, and they wondered how their Twitter account got so entwined with mine. They suggested that it was a misrepresentation of both of our Twitter accounts. I think they thought I have been intentionally scraping their content and representing it as my own.

Have I, inadvertently, doing that? Not in my mind.

I messaged back to them, politely, and then removed from them from my NWP List, so as to avoid putting them in the same situation in the future. The last thing I want to do is make anyone uncomfortable when the robots take over. To be honest, I’m not sure bringing other NWP folks to their Twitter account or bringing a small spotlight to something interesting that they shared out or wrote about is such a bad thing, but that’s not for me to decide.

Or is it?

Here I am, making a “newspaper” of Twitter folks who self-associate with the National Writing Project, and that message reminded me that I never do ask permission of anyone to become part of my NWP Twitter List. I just add them in. I also assume that the tweets from public accounts are public and that if you tweet something out into the open, then you are signaling your approval in having it viewed and collected  — or, in this case, curated under an unofficial NWP umbrella (“unofficial” because NWP bigwigs did not sanction me doing this, nor did I ask permission.)

I realize now that it is a bit of a can of worms, indicative of the Information Age.

On one hand, I hate the lack of agency I have in actually curating the darn Paper.li thing. I don’t think I can manually add content, just people’s streams of information (or at least, I can’t do that with the free version I use. I’m not sure about the paid version.) On the other hand, I am grateful that the algorithms do all that work on my behalf, so that I don’t have to spend the time each day. Because, you know, it wouldn’t get done, otherwise. I’m a realist.

It’s the typical Digital Age Cunundrum, right? How much agency do I give up to technology in order to achieve what I hope to achieve with the smallest amount of effort? And if I give up too much, am I really achieving what I wanted to achieve?

I don’t have the answer to that. (Do you?)

Instead, I just read my NWP News most mornings, and think, these NWP folks are doing some amazing things, and I enjoy reading about it. I get inspired by them. I learn from them. I guess you could say, I made this “newspaper” for me. But I am happy if others enjoy it, too. I even get a kick when someone who get mentioned shouts out some thanks to me, via Twitter, and all I can do is say, “You’re welcome. I had little to do with it. The robots are in charge!”

What I hadn’t realized, until this morning, is that not everyone would be so open about it and grateful to be part of my NWP experience. I guess that part of curation — the view of the skeptical curatee (is that a word? The one who is being curated?) — never crossed my mind until this morning. Maybe it should have.

Peace (on the page),

Kevin

Knowing Someone from Afar

for Bonnie

It’s an interesting twist of the digital age — many of us are more connected with more people than ever before, but many of those connections are fragile, held together by words and media and posts and comments. A string of ideas becomes the centerpiece of connections, and our notions of whom we call a “friend” becomes a bit convoluted as a result, doesn’t it?

This morning, I was met with a headline that 1 billion people used Facebook yesterday. People connect. But how deep are the connections? A piece on Medium yesterday took an interesting stance on how people represent themselves in online spaces. We put our best foot forward, the author surmises.

I have been thinking of this concept of identity and connections and friendship the past few days as a very good friend, one I know beyond the wires of social media spaces and one whom I have worked with closely for many years on a variety of projects through the National Writing Project, has been in a difficult transition period, of losing her loved one and cherished life partner.

She has been powerfully articulate on her blog in capturing their lives together, documenting and archiving the love of the years. Many people, myself included, have been leaving her comments of support. No doubt the writing has been an avenue for her in dealing with loss, which moved in slow motion over the past few weeks.

This is what writers do. We write, in good times and in times of struggle. We write to understand the world.

And in her writing of the moments, she has brought us into her world with compassion and voice, and she has made us feel connected to her experiences in a very personal way.

The pieces she has been sharing also had me thinking is how much I feel as if I have known her partner, who just passed away, over the years from the many blog posts and videos and images and more that we have shared over time. I met her partner once in person, I think, and yet, his presence has been felt strongly over the years because my friend was always in the present with him. She represented her life as a partnership with him regularly, and I feel as if I knew him as well as her over the years of our friendship.

I realize there is a certain fallacy to this insight. I don’t really know the full person — who no doubt was much more complicated than I will ever know, as we all are to those outside our emotional circles —  and I am sad now that I never will. I think I knew of the person who loved my friend, and I think I saw a powerful love and partnership between them that made her happy and content. His constant presence in that picture in my mind — of them on beaches, in Israel every year, in concerts, at the breakfast table, reading books and the newspaper, traveling into the city … my mind has many moments of them together — is formed mostly by our digital connections.

And here’s the thing: in her sharing of her life with me, a friend, over the years, he will remain an active presence in the world, even in passing. In that, I will miss him, too, even if our connections were echoes in a digital world of connections. In my mind, at least, his presence will always remain a part of her, and I am thankful for the friendship and partnership that she and I have, and I am sad for her loss.

Here, though, the digital connections fall short. I can’t drive down the street to comfort her and sit with her. I can’t make her coffee, and play guitar with her. I can only send words. Writing is the way I am trying to help her through it. It’s what writers do. We write. I write this, then, for her, and for me.

Peace (for my friend),
Kevin