When Computers Write The Stories

There’s been a lot of discussion recently in the educational communities that I am part of around computer-based assessments of student writing, and what that means for the teacher (less work?) and students (inauthentic audience!) and companies (profit!) when writing is put into a computer program for assessment. You can probably tell by my snarky comment inserts that I am not all that supportive of the idea, although I understand the reasons why some districts might consider moving into that direction for some writing assessments (college entry exams have long used these kinds of automated grading systems).

See Audrey Watters great post about this issue on Hack Education

In the most recent edition of Wired magazine, Steven Levy profiles the flip side of that coin: computer software programs that are now beginning to write news stories for publication by tapping into data streams. Sports and financial news are the first steps to this kind of “writing” but Levy brings up a lot of intriguing issues, such as: would a computer ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism? Well, I’d like to say, no, but can we really discount that sometime in the future, a program might be able to analyze some obscure data and create an article that would shake the world? It can happen. The folks at companies like Narrative Science (great name, btw) suggest that it may very well happen in as little as five years from now.

For now, the system built by Narrative Science is writing and publishing news articles on things like Little League and sports games and other areas of the news world that newspapers and media companies are ignoring. They are finding an audience niche, for sure, and actually, after reading the sample that Levy provided (and even this one from Forbes Magazine), the computer didn’t do so bad with the writing (as a former reporter, I’ve seen worse copy by fellow journalists). Of course, the computer-based writing misses the nuances of speech and other elements of style, but the developers claim they can tweak the program any way they want, and suggest that they could have the software cover the financial news in the style of Damon Runyan (I, for one, want to read that. See? Maybe there is an audience).

But, as someone who views himself as a writer, what does this all mean? If a machine writes, is it really writing as we know it? What does this do to the implicit compositional agreement that readers have with the writers, and what does this all do to that compact that if you read what I write, then we share a special connection? Does this idea even matter in these days when those bonds are very loose, and getting looser every day? I find it fascinating to think about. Could a machine write a poem? And what would that poem read like?

In my view, there is still something sacred about the process of putting ideas down on paper or a screen, and there is something very human about that experience. While I am intrigued by the direction that software might take writing, it scares me more than a little to know that someday, it will be difficult to judge whether a writer is a human or a machine. (And, why does it matter? Does it matter?) It brings me back to my complaints about automated assessments — the writer is composing ideas for some big black hole of nothingness, only a score. The act of writing has to be more than that.

Writing is about connecting with others, about making sense of the world around us.

Can a software program do that?

Peace (in the machine),
Kevin

 

Dear Librarian (at my son’s school): Remember the Books

 

Dear librarian of my son’s school,

First of all, I want to thank you for being a librarian. I can’t think of a more important job. Your task is to place the right book in the right hands of the right child at the right moment, and when hundreds of kids are coming through your doors every week, I am in awe of your profession’s charge to reach every child. I also know that you need to be keeping track of so many new books each year, so that you are on top of the latest works of literature. And now, on top of all that, we are expecting you to be proficient media and technology specialists. Your role is constantly shifting. That’s a lot to ask of anyone. But librarians are nothing if not adaptable, and wise. I admire what you do.

I know that you are new to my son’s school this year, and therefore, you have to carve our your identity as the librarian. The last person in that library, an aide who filled in as librarian, did her best for many years and we are thankful for her years behind the desk. At least, the library was open for children. We didn’t necessarily like that she was so strict with our children around the books they could take out. We still don’t understand the day our niece came home and told us that when she (a second grader) tried to check out a fifth-grade level book that she really wanted to read, she was denied because it was not a “second grade book.” I have trouble getting my head around that, don’t you?

So, we have high hopes for you. You are young and energetic, and we like that you are offering after-school enrichment programs. You connected with the kids right from the start, it seems. Our son would come home, talking excitedly about going to the library. But we began to notice something strange.

He never had a single book in backpack.

All last year, after every library period, he would have a book for the week. He’d pull it out and we would read it together. Sometimes it was something new; Sometimes, it was an old classic. But he always had a book after going to library. This year, no books. His backpack is empty on library day. Instead, he has regaled us with talks of what he has been doing with the computer while in the library. He’s made little animated movies, created slideshows, played plenty of online games and more. All very nice.

But … no books.

We were hanging out with some other parents the other day and one of them noted that her child told them (and we will take this story for what it is and consider its source) that you told their class that if they could not behave themselves, they would not be allowed to use the computers and instead, they would have to spend their library time with books. “As if that is a punishment,” this mom said, shaking her head in exasperation. “If the punishment is quietly reading a story, then bring it on!”

I think I get what is going on. The push for technology in our schools (which is a priority of your principal) and the lack of expertise among your staff (which we know all too well … this child is our third) has you front and center with Animoto, Glogster and Go Animate. Sure, the kids are loving it. I get it.

But, please, in the hype to be teaching 21st Century Skills, don’t forget the power of the book. Don’t forget the quiet moments of story. Don’t forget the magic that can truly happen when the right book finds the right hands, and touches the right heart. You won’t find a bigger advocate for technology skills than me, but I want my son to keep loving books, too, and not just the ones that flash across the screen. I want his fingers and eyes and brain to move across the page, to connect an author’s ideas to his own experiences. I’m not ready to give up paper for bytes.

And it’s not just for my own child that I write. Here, in our home, we immerse our children in books and writing. You should see the stacks of books that we bring home from the city library. You should see the piles of books in our living room. As a librarian, you’d be very happy. No, what I worry about are those children who come from homes that are not immersed in literacy. Those children, and those families, need you more than ever. They need to have the love of reading and books instilled in them. You can make a difference in their lives just by allowing them time to read, and to choose what to read, and to help them navigate that experience.

Please, turn off the screens and open up a few books with the children of the school. There’s nothing more important for you to do than that.

Sincerely,

Kevin

 

Dr Seuss on the Driveway

Dr Suess on the Driveway
My seven year old and my two young nieces took out the sidewalk chalk yesterday and created this wonderful driveway masterpiece to celebrate Dr. Seuss. I was going to share it as part of my Slice of Life, but … I already had something there. So, this is a visual bonus Slice of Life.

Peace (with some chalk and imagination),
Kevin

 

On Reaching and Nurturing Teachers as Writers

 

I’m going to try to pull a few different strands together here …

PART ONE

The other day, I was invited to present at a school district to the north of me. My focus was on the expanding definition of literacy and how the four strands of English Language Arts (writing, reading, speaking and listening) remain the center of the new Common Core standards (which our state has adopted and adapted) and the concept of 21st Century Skills (re:technology). The district wanted me to focus on how I nurture and value writing in my own sixth grade classroom.  I began the session with what I thought might be a good opening — I asked the crowd of about 45 teachers (mostly 4/5/6 classroom teachers) what their philosophy around the teaching of writing is.

I was not ready for the silence.

You could hear a pin drop.

I am not sure if my question was unfair to them at that point in the session or whether they have not really had the time to sit down and think about this issue, and articulate a philosophy. I don’t want to make any judgments. They were an attentive group of educators, with lots of questions and insights as the day moved along. They were very engaged, and they wanted to be there. (Sometimes, that is not the case). But I keep thinking back to my question and the lack of response, and what it might mean in a larger picture.

I did try to articulate my own philosophy around writing and literacy in the session. Here is what I share with parents and students, and which is part of my classroom curriculum website:

  • The act of writing is an important way for students to learn by processing their ideas into coherent and organized form;
  • Writing should be done across various curriculum areas and not be taught in isolation;
  • Students should write for various audiences; At times, they may write just for themselves, for the classroom or, sometimes, for the world;
  • Technology can be a useful tool for composing various forms of writing and media, including audio podcasts and video;
  • Writing should be authentic and allow students to make connections between school and the world outside of school;
  • Artistic elements and the concept of design play a role in the way that young people compose writing and other media;
  • Reading quality books and stories of various genres provide an insight into the writing process and allow students to reflect, connect and utilize critical thinking skills;
  • All students can succeed and improve as writers and readers and composers of multimedia.

PART TWO

A day or two later, I picked up my latest edition of Voices from the Middle journal from the National Council of Teachers of English. The theme of the March 2012 edition is “Preparing our Student as Writers.” This is right up my alley! But something struck me in the introduction by the editors (Diane Lapp, Doug Fisher, and Nancy Frey). They note the results of a survey they administered to about 120 practicing teachers in summer courses they taught.

The teachers were asked questions such as how they define themselves as writers and do they like writing and teaching writing?

“The majority reported they did not enjoy writing, did not believe they were good writers, and did not believe they were well-prepared to teach writing.” (p. 8 )

Yikes!

Is that just a fluke of the teachers in their programs or is that an indication of something larger among teachers?

PART THREE

This brings me to two personal observations.

First, most of the readers here know that I am part of and a strong advocate of the National Writing Project, which is built on the premises of teachers as writers, and writing to learn. Now, more than ever, as many states make the shift to standards that have writing and research and analysis at the center of classroom instruction, organizations like the NWP that support and nurture teachers as writers, and allow for reflection for how to bring those skills into the classroom, are more important.

And more in danger than ever, too.

The NWP lost all of its federal support a few months ago during budget cuts, but recently, it received some back through the federal SEED initiative. Teachers need support networks and places to share expertise and learn from each other.

Second, I began thinking of the Slice of Life challenge that has been going on this month over at Two Writing Teachers. Each day, more than 100 educators are now writing, and sharing, and commenting, and creating a writing community. Some days, the numbers reach nearly 200 posts, plus countless comments that writers are leaving for each other.

This is a huge jump from other years of Slice of Life, and it shows how technology can transform writing practices for teachers. Ruth and Stacey, the wonderful overseers of ideas at Two Writing Teachers, have really nurtured a lot of teachers who sometimes express in their posts their fear of writing in a public space coupled with a desire to see themselves as writers, if not just for themselves then for their students. They are diving in with Slice of Life, and hopefully, they are experiencing something transformative.

Teachers, as well as young writers, need places to be nurtured as writers. Formal organizations like NWP and informal networks like Two Writing Teachers and countless more that are out there in the world are making a difference. If you have been on the outside looking in, come join us with your own writing and then reflect on how that experience as a writer might shape or reshape your own teaching instruction with your students. Writing is more than writing for the classroom. Writing is about making sense of your world.

Peace (on the soapbox),
Kevin

 

Some Thoughts on Digital Curation

digital is pinterest

I’ve been taking part in an online study group through the National Writing Project around the topic of digital writing, with the NWP’s Digital Is website as our “text.” This week, we’ve been giving some guidance to consider the importance and role of “curating” content for ourselves and our students. Being a thoughtful curator means gathering pertinent resources that, taken together, have some meaning to the one who is viewing the collection.

In some ways, teachers have always been curators, right? We seek resources and information that we can share with our students in hopes of sparking insights and education along a line of thinking or inquiry. We lead our young people into places will get them writing, thinking, shifting. We help them see the value of things (through our own lens.) Why I choose this article over that article for them to read is all about the act of curation.

But the access to information and data in the digital world has made this responsibility ever more important, it seems to me. Given the deluge of sources (some maybe not so useful) and materials, our students often have trouble navigating in a way that is meaningful. Our role as educators is to provide some intellectual framework, and we do this by curating the content. (On the flipside, curation can also be viewed as a negative by narrowing the possibilities or filtering the content, right?). Technology tools that allow this kind of curation navigation include Diigo and other bookmarking tools; Jog the Web and other Internet site “tours”; Webquests, and more.

And even Pinterest is a curation tool, of a sort. (See my board on collections within Digital Is that I find notable and notice how I was able to provide a little commentary on each, and how others can react to my comments.)

An interesting discussion we have been having in our study group is all about annotation, and how technology can provide more and more means for collaborative marking and sharing of ideas and reflections right within the documents themselves (sort of like margin notes, but saved and shared electronically, and conceived for collaboration). I have not yet done this kind of activity with my sixth graders, but with the shift towards more research-based writing under the Common Core, it makes sense to try to figure out if there are tools that might pave the way for better and more efficient research gathering for our students, who then can make the shift themselves into the role of curator.

I like the NWP study group is sparking my thinking along new paths, and new possibilities.

Peace (in the information),
Kevin

 

Celebrating International Women’s Day w/Women in Science

 

I know every day should be a day of recognition for women in all fields. But it is nice to have today designated as International Women’s Day around the world. I try to do my part in my classroom by countering the gender biases that my sixth grade boys are already beginning to develop (just the other day, this happened when we were using a Time for Kids magazine that featured women pioneers) and to remind my students of the inequities of history, where women were often forgotten or shunted aside.

Google has a cool Google Doodle today.

And I wanted to share out (again) a video game that I made for my students about Women in Science.

Peace (in the recognition),
Kevin

 

Developing a Keynote: Why Literacy Matters

screenshot of Literacy Matters Presentation
It seems like a long, long time ago that I was invited by my friend Ben Davis to give a keynote address to the Red Mountain Writing Project’s 21st Century Literacies Conference. And yet, here it is. Tomorrow, I will be presenting my thoughts and stories on what it means to be teaching in a world dominated by shifts to the Common Core, and technology as tools for writing, and more. (Today, I travel). I’m excited about the opportunity to visit Birmingham, Alabama, and of course, a tad bit nervous about the responsible of giving one of the keynote addresses (the other is by writer Sharon Draper). I hope what I have to say resonated with the crowd, and I hope I am not boring.

As I have been developing the ideas to present, I have been working hard to connect what I teach to not only what is expected of me as a teacher in this standardized environment (ie, Common Core influence), but also, how I can best engage my sixth graders as writers in this digital age when our definitions of writing is in the midst of some shift, and just what that may mean to a classroom teacher.  My aim is to share my own classroom experiences, and to relate how I try to “pay attention” to what my students are doing with their literacies outside of school. I’ll work to weave those stories together into a narrative that (hopefully) inspires others.

I named my talk “Literacy Matters” because it seems to me that now, more than ever, writing and literacy is at the heart of all that our students are doing — in school and out of school. When they communicate via text messaging, they are engaging in literacy. When they shoot a video and post it online, they are engaged in literacy. When they play a video game, they are engaged in literacy. When they write a story or an essay or a poem or a reflection, they are engaged in literacy. The technology aspect of composition sometimes hides the literacies taking place, however, and we need to make those ideas more visible, bring them to the surface.

That’s part of my intention, anyway. I hope it goes well.

:)

Here is a handout that I developed to accompany my talk.
Literacy Matters Handout

 

Peace (in the keynote),
Kevin

 

Exploring Pinterest 1: Books About Technology and Learning

I’ve been reading so much about Pinterest that I finally got into the site to give it a shot (thanks to an invite from a friend on Twitter). It’s OK. I like the visual element of sharing, but it seems like navigation is sort of tricky and not very intuitive to me.  The homepage of the site is a visual mess. I do like how easy it is to create a project in Pinterest, and the javascript button now in my tool bar sure is handy for adding new elements (oh, excuse me, a new “pin”) to existing sites (eh, they are called “boards”).

Still, I created some “boards” around some themes that I am interested in. Here is one: Technology and Writing.
Pinterest book board

Technology and Writing: Book Reviews

Peace (on the board),
Kevin

 

 

Young People, Search Evaluation and Information Quality

This infographic comes from The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University where researchers examined various literature around youth and the Internet, focusing in on how young people use the Internet to gather information and assess credibility.

The study notes:

As youth increasingly turn to the Internet as a source of information, researchers, educators, parents, and policy-makers are faced with mounting challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, the amount and diversity of “speakers” online, the lack of traditional gatekeepers and quality controls, and new modes of dissemination mean that youth are faced with challenging information quality judgments. On the other hand, these same shifts in the information ecosystem afford youth the opportunity to access, share, and create knowledge in entirely new ways, presenting myriad learning opportunities inside and outside of school.

Here are some key findings from the study (entitled: From Credility to Information Quality) worth noting:

1. Search shapes the quality of information that youth experience online.
2. Youth use cues and heuristics to evaluate quality, especially visual and interactive elements.
3. Content creation and dissemination foster digital fluencies that can feed back into search and evaluation behaviors.
4. Information skills acquired through personal and social activities can benefit learning in the academic context.

 

Peace (in the info),
Kevin

 

Using iMovie’s Movie Trailer Tool


This is the first time I have tried out the “movie trailer” option in iMovie. Here is a teaser from my son’s upcoming movie project — Robbers on the Loose. He wrote the story and directed the scenes, with friends and family in the movie itself. I was behind the camera (with our Flip HD) and we are working on the editing. (Volume of voices … very tricky)

Oh, my son is seven years old, as is everyone in the movie. They’re all seven and just about all of them are in first grade.

The movie trailer option is interesting because iMovie does much of the work for you, after you choose  style. My son chose the adventure theme, of course, and then we dropped video segments into the system. We added the text, too. It got a bit cumbersome at times to figure out which video segment would work where. The tool could be a little better designed … BUT, he loves what the trailer looks like. And his older brothers’ snarky comment: The trailer is better than the movie. Ouch.
:)

But the work on this piece for my son got me thinking about the possibilities for my own students, creating short trailers for books or short stories.

Peace (in the little screen),
Kevin