Time to Unplug for August (my blog vacation)

blogvacation
It’s that time of year when I need to pull back from blogging and some other virtual writing, so this space will be nice and quiet for the rest of August. Along with some much-anticipated family vacation time, I will be doing some prep work for professional development I am facilitating and finally getting a chance to think about my keynote for the K12 Online Conference. Basically, it’s a breather.

See you in a few weeks!

Peace (in the silence),
Kevin

In the News: Me, the teacher/writer

MassLive Article
The regional newspaper (for which I once worked as a journalist in my life before teaching) did a feature story on my role as a contributing writer for the collection, Teaching with Heart. I tried to raise the role of teacher advocacy in the interview, as best as I could, and I hope the message may resonate. The collection, by the way, is fantastic, with short essays by dozens of educators writing about poems that are important to them.

Read the article and check out the book (be sure to use the discount code at the bottom of the article)

Peace (on the page),
Kevin

Children of the Screen: Reading Offline vs Online

Offline vs Online Reading Skills
A conversation with some friends had me sharing out an old piece I had written about online reading comprehension. Much of what I learned about how kids read with screens comes from the folks at the New Literacies Institute (some of whom are still in my orbit — Ian and Greg). In that article, I had created this chart with help of other folks through some crowdsourcing, and mostly, the chart still holds up.

You can read the piece over at the Learn NC site.

I’d also be remiss not to share out a few of my webcomics that I had done around this theme of “children of the screen” when I was writing Boolean Squared. (It’s a bit dated, as you can tell from the reference to Apple still developing an ereader, which became the iPad. Was it really that long ago that I was writing this BS?)

Peace (on the screen),
Kevin

Where ‘Dogtrax’ Came From

(my first dog, Bella)Bella headshot

The other day, a friend on Twitter posed the question of where my moniker, Dogtrax, came from. Actually, Maha Bali was riffing on the fact that Alan Levine, whose work with #ds106 is crazy fun, and I both have dog-related nicknames (he is Cogdog and I am Dogtrax). She wondered if we had some connections to each other (we don’t, other than #ds106) and what the story was.

I played it for humor, as if I were trying not to give away some grand secret. But then Alan shared out one of his very first blog posts, in which he explained where Cogdog came from. That made me feel as if my diversions to Maha’s questions weren’t warranted, so I told her I would search my blog for a post in which I explain my name.

I guess I never wrote it, so here it is.

Where Dogtrax Came From

The nickname Dogtrax is a variation of a nickname I had a child. I grew up in an apartment complex with lots of kids, and we would gather to play sports most afternoons and most weekends in the grassy field near the side of the apartment building. Baseball in spring; soccer in the fall; and football (American football) right into the cold months of winter. We had a whole range of ages, so little kids would be in the huddle with older ones, and usually, someone went home hurt during the games. It was just the way of the world.

A good friend of mine was a star athlete and he excelled in neighborhood football. Me? Not so much. But I was big for my age, so I could block whenever my quarterback friend wanted to run down the field. I should mention here that I have/had red hair (“had” being the fact of life of getting older), and there is a football play called Red Dog, which my friend liked to call when he wanted to run for a touchdown with me blocking in front of him.

Thus, my nickname for a long stretch of time as a kid in our neighborhood was Red Dog. Interestingly, nobody outside of our block called me that. It was a real name connection to where I lived at the time.

Cut to college, where my drinking buddies and I were talking about childhood memories and nicknames, and I told the story above of the football field, so my friends in college began to call me Red Dog again, and then they later dropped the Red to leave just the Dog (a word which later became pop culture slang for friend, as in Dawg. We take no credit for that. Just saying.)

Which leads us to Dogtrax. Its origins are in my very first email address I ever created — too many years ago to now even count — and a little music machine. Around the same time as I was discovering email (this must be the early 1990s), I was using a Tascam four-track recorder to record and produce some original music, and in the vein of feeling “professional,” if only for myself, I took to labeling my tapes (hand-delivered to friends) as being created by Dogtrax Productions (the trax being in reference to “tracks” of music. X sounded cool, but now it is overused, right?)

When I needed to create an email username, I went with Dogtrax@xxxx, and I have stuck with it ever since as I have moved email hosts and moved into Twitter, etc. I don’t really think about it much until someone like Maha asks me or someone at a conference says “Oh, you’re Dogtrax.” Actually, that makes me feel sort of foolish in the moment. “Eh, yes, but I am Kevin.”

Even as the world has shifted more towards open names in webspaces, I still fall back on my Dogtrax moniker, as sort of a touchstone of childhood and young adult memories, and a bit of a veil of identity, too (now completely gone as I write this). The name has guided my avatar creation over the years, too, to some degree (see an earlier post here about my shifting avatars). I realize, as I write this, that Dogtrax is my anchor in shifting spaces, an identity that has stayed constant over the years as my presence in different networks and communities has come and gone.

It’s interesting, too, that the Internet world is overrun with LOL Cats, and us dog-related identity folks (like Alan and I) often find humorous ways to push back against the feline presences in our feeds. When we wag our tails, it means we’re happy, by the way.

And that is the origin story of Dogtrax.

Duke(my current dog, Duke)
Peace (in history),
Kevin

If It’s Not on the Web, Does a School Exist?

I’ve had the oddest experience lately with my sons’ school district (where I live but don’t teach). The other day, I was trying to find some information about one of my boys’ teachers, and I could not remember their email. So I went to search for the school district website.

Nothing came up.

I thought for sure it must be me, using the wrong search queries. So I tinkered with words to modify the search. I went very specific with my terms. I even waited a few days and tried again.

Nothing came up.

It was as if the school district had been yanked off the Web. I went to our city website and searched for a link to the School Department.

Nothing.

I scratched my head. Later in the week, my wife came downstairs, clearly frustrated, because she was trying to email my high school son’s guidance counselor to talk about his junior year. She had been searching and searching and searching for the high school website for 30 minutes.

Nothing came up.

I’m baffled on a few levels. First, I suspect that the school must have done some upgrade to its web presence that has completely taken it off the grid (maybe a new Google “Right to Be Left Alone” experiment?) at a time when schools need to do more to reach out to parents. But where is the site? And, second,  I find it interesting that, as a parent, I really do expect our community schools to have at least some sort of presence on the web so that information is available. I want information, now.

I’m assuming this disappearance is only temporary. The school is still there (or so my son tells me …) and my wife cobbled together an email address from some older email archives. But still, it should not be this difficult to find a school, right?

Peace (on the web),
Kevin

Cultural Contexts: The Strangeness of Slender Man

You know how, every now and then, you realize that kids have been talking about something you think you know about — usually from making some assumptions of context of their speech– and then a kernel of information floats by, and you realize, Oh, THAT’s what they are talking about!

This week, I learned about Slender Man. But it turns out, references to Slender Man have been in the air all year, particularly when my sixth graders have used our BitStrip Webcomic site. A few students have created faceless characters, called them some version of Slender Man, and I just assumed they were tinkering with the avatar creator’s advanced tools, and that the name described the characters they had created (no eyes, long face, long thin body). One student even wrote his expository writing piece around how to make a Slender Man in Bitstrips, and demonstrated how to create the character in front of the class.

I thought it was odd, but I honestly didn’t think much more of it.

What I didn’t realize is that Slender Man is one of those cultural touchstones of youth — a meme gone viral whose origins are a bit murky but whose presence in fan fiction and app games and other elements of social media.  Slender Man is a mysterious figure that spooks and stalks children. Me? I was clueless about Slender Man, until I opened up my New York Times yesterday and read a piece about two girls who killed another as a way to prove themselves worth to a Slender Man they imagined was real and lurking in the shadows of their lives. Or something like that.

So, realizing the connection to the expository piece from a few days earlier, I turned to my 13 year old son, and asked, “Who’s Slender Man?” and got a full overview of Slender Man’s origins that matched pretty closely to some research I did online later on in the night. Know Your Meme has a good overview of the Slender Man story. When he asked why I was asking, and I told him about the story of the girls, he shook his head, and said,” That’s tragically stupid.”

Uncovering Slender Man is another reminder that cultural information often flows beneath the surface of our lives, as teachers and as parents. You don’t know what you don’t know until you find out what you didn’t know. Now I know Slender Man, but what else don’t I know?

Peace (in the information),
Kevin

A Boatload of Journalistic Excellence

It’s not that there are not excellent pieces of journalism floating around the Internet. It’s that finding them can be difficult, unless that kind of task is your full-time job. So, it is always a pleasure when someone else, like Conor Friedersdorf in Atlantic, does it for you. He has collected “slightly more than 100″ examples of excellent journalism, and I could spend a few hours moving through them, I suspect.

Friedersdorf also curates a Best of Journalism email newsletter. I haven’t yet subscribed but having someone with his lens on the world of quality news and quality writing might be worth the cost attached to getting his newsletter on  regular basis, particularly if this collection at Atlantic is an indication of how he works.

Check out Slightly More Than 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism

Peace (in the news),
Kevin

Dear Ysabelle, Who Hacked the Hallways

(In order to understand why I am writing this letter to Ysabelle, you need to read Paul Bogush’s post over at Medium. It’s a powerful reminder of how students react to the stifling nature of our educational system by pushing at the boundaries of rules.)

“Despite Thomas Jefferson’s famous “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” in America, and in public schools, any rebellion now and then is a little rebellion too much. People who do rebel are seen as outsiders, as weirdos, as the crazy ones. Most kids who rebel are seen by teachers as being kids who do not have the qualities to be successful, yet they possess the very qualities that we would include when we list the attributes of heroes, role models, and leaders.” — Paul Bogush, Legacy at Medium

So, I found myself writing to this student that Paul featured in his post. This letter to Ysabelle goes like this:

Dear Ysabelle,

This morning, I read Mr. Bogush’s piece in Medium about your thought-provoking project to hang signs encouraging creativity and independent thought throughout the hallways of your school. I appreciated that you took the time to wrote a letter to Mr. Bogush about the rationale for what you did and why. I want you to know that I, a teacher too, applaud you, and so much of what Mr. Bogush writes in his piece, inspired by your act, is what I believe in, too.

Ysabelle, your response seemed reasoned, passionate and a powerful call to action for your fellow students. Your “hacking the hallway”, which is how I think of what you did, sent forth a strong message that no one is in this world is alone but that doesn’t mean we have to think and act like everyone else, either. The world changes for the better not because we shun those who think different and have a tilted lens on things, but because we embrace the crazy ideas that have the potential to become innovative ones.

I know enough about Mr. Bogush to know that he admires what you did, and so do I. Although I spend the school year with my sixth graders working to engage them as independent thinkers, so many students have already fallen into the comfortable role of following rules so closely they don’t know where to begin when given a task with no directions or specific outcomes. This is not their fault. It’s society’s fault. It’s us as parents who micromanage their days, and it is us as teachers who have clear expectations that narrow the possibilities of learning, and it is the world at large that casts a sneer at anyone with an original thought that falls outside of expectations … until that thought becomes something that alters the way we engage with the world (prime evidence: the admiration crowd surrounding the myth of Steve Jobs).

Your project reminded me of a Hackathon that I joined during a convention of teachers in Las Vegas a few years ago. Like you, we decided to “hack the hallways” by posting sticky notes on the artwork that was hanging throughout the convention center. Yes, even teachers like to be creative and break the rules. The task was to spark thinking in our fellow teachers in the convention, and to use the public artwork on the walls as a space for art. It was a blast, and even more importantly, there were a lot of teachers who asked what we were doing and who stopped to read our satirical notes. We hope we made a difference, just as you do. The convention center staff was not pleased, however, and some followed a few minutes behind us, ripping down our hacked signs as if we had used Sharpies and not sticky notes. It didn’t matter. The point had been made. Pictures had been snapped of the hacked art and the hacked notes were shared in online spaces, becoming a viral part of the conference. Our mark had been left behind.

The same goes for you, Ysabelle. Sure, your signs were probably taken down at some point. But the signs were only temporary outposts to your thinking, and yes, you have “accomplished more than just helping a few people…I have hopefully made every reader of this article’s day better,” as you write in your letter to Mr. Bogush. You did with me, Ysabelle.

If you ever find yourself in Western Massachusetts, Ysabelle, I invite you to come hack my classroom. Hang posters up all over the place. Spark my students to think creatively and independently. Take what you’ve done there at your school and pay it forward. In some ways, your poster brigade is a small act with small ripples. But ripples can become waves, and waves can change the world.

Thank you, and thank you to Mr. Bogush for sharing your story.

Sincerely,

Mr. Hodgson
Sixth Grade Teacher
Southampton, MA

Peace (in the response),
Kevin