#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

Lunar Eclipses and Short Attention Spans

Japanese Lantern: Savor the Moon

We huddled our kids outside last night, just after 9 p.m. It was clear skies, beautiful clarity, here in New England, and the Super Blood Moon Eclipse was underway.

I don’t know what my kids were expecting, but the slow-mo effect — which my wife and I found fascinating — was a bit too slo in the mo for them, particularly the youngest child.

“This is so boring!” he moaned, from his spot on the pavement, sitting there in his pajamas. Another of our boys was running up and down the street with our dog, teasing the creature with a banana peel. “Why are we out here?”

He knew why, because not only had I explained an eclipse (“Imagine you are the moon, and I am Earth, and that light is the sun …”) but I had also mentioned he would be in his 30s when this kind of natural event would occur again. However, unlike the apps and games he likes to play, this event unfolded slowly, and required patience.

A little quiet would have helped, too.

“Why are we out here?” he asked again, but I did notice he kept his eyes up on the moon, which by now was being taken over by the expanding black sliver to its left, a section disappearing even as we were talking. Ten minutes later or so, the partial eclipse was clearly underway.

I mentioned the need to read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which led to a discussion about Mark Twain, and scientific knowledge. The moon and the Earth and the sun kept working. More of the moon was now in shadow.

Finally, after hearing more than our share of groaning about the pace of the event, we sent the kids inside. They had seen enough. They had experienced the eclipse, at least. And we had heard enough. In the house, they went, leaving the movie to unspool by itself.

Upstairs, getting ready for bed, my wife and I raised the curtains on our window, and gazed up at the sky. The window framed the moon, perfectly. The eclipse continued.

“Why did we even go outside with the kids?” my wife joked, as we watched the magic of the skies in the peaceful, warm house. She started to hum “If Moon Were Cookie” from days of listening to Sesame Street songs on the van.

“We could just show them the time-lapse video in the morning,” I joked back. We both know that being “in the moment” of the natural beauty of the world is what was important and that even with the complaints, it was worth it.

Interestingly, the theme of our church service that morning was all about connecting and reconnecting back to the Earth and the environment. The guest speaker talked about the firebrand preacher, Jonathan Edwards (whose home church was our very own church), and his writing about seeing wonder in the world around him. The guest speaker connected Edwards’ writing to the Pope’s visit and the recent papal environmental report on Climate Change.

Earth, and its future, was on our minds for much of the day. The skies, too.

In the middle of the night, I woke up, thinking someone was turning on the lights in the house. But it was just the moon, coming back from darkness, filling the skies with a brilliant glow, as if announcing, Here I am.

There it was. Welcome back, moon.

Peace (on moonbeams),
Kevin

When the Focus on Form Takes Away from Focus on Function

Fish form function

I’m going to skirt around the specifics of an issue here because, to be honest, I don’t want to get my bosses mad at me for writing publicly about an issue even as they continue to work behind the scenes to revise and update what I am referring to here. I also remain hopeful that this issue that has been bothering me the last few days will be resolved in a thoughtful way.

It has to do with the idea of form and function.

I know there is plenty of design theory out there around the ways in which the format of a thing shapes the content of the thing, or how the medium is the message and all that. I see it and I understand it, and I even often work as a writer in those very confines, even as I seek to push at the edges of the possible within forms.

But there are times when, well, the function has to influence the form of the thing. That is, if the structure of the container takes so much away from the content and message of what goes into the container, then you probably need a new container, not a new bag o’ content. Not if the content is important enough, anyway, or not if you are so passionate about what is being said that you can’t fit that fish in that fishbowl, you know what I mean?

Get a new fishbowl.

In this particular case, I have made some suggestions about some content being proposed in a sort of new container but I haven’t been able to articulate this perception (and I am not alone in this) that the design goal of the container itself is greatly impacting the content that will go into the container.

We seem to be wrestling cats into a box, and the cats refuse to fit. You don’t cut the tails off the cats to make them fit in the box. You get a bigger box. Or something other than the box you had in mind. Maybe a mobile home or something.

I haven’t entered this particular design fray discussion because it has taken me a few days to mull over what has been bugging me about it so much, and I realize, we were never really asked for input over design. The shape of the container seemed to have been decided already, in advance. So, we might have tail-less cats and dead goldfish on our hands (if you take my comedic, metaphorical thinking to a tragic conclusion here).

I realize, as you read this, you may be scratching your head as I dance around the specifics here on the page, wondering what the hell I am talking about. Fish? Cats? No. Neither. Sorry. Again, I am hopeful this issue all gets resolved through a process now underway, but I found I needed to get down on the page some of my thinking about form and function, and which trumps the other, and when.

Thank you for the reader therapy session … I’ll pay my fee on the way out the door. If I can fit through the door. Maybe you need a new door. It seems a bit too small ….

Peace (that fits in all boxes of all sizes everywhere),
Kevin

Reading about Writing about Writing about Reading

Reader writer writer reader

I remember the first book I encountered about a writer writing about writing. It was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and then I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which led me to Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek by Annie Dillard, and then onward into the world of authors unveiling the art of writing. (Stephen King’s On Writing is a more recent one in the mix.) It was a magical experience for me to find those kinds of books as a young writer, and I continue to devour these “let’s pull back the covers and show the inside” stories even today.

I am most intrigued about the relationship between writer and reader, and the narrative gaps between them. And I am conscious of this, as best as I can, when I am using technology and digital media to create a piece of writing. The role of the reader, I think, is changing, becoming more assertive, more part of the “story of the story.” Mulling over how an image replaces text, or how a video disrupts the narrative flow, or the well-place/misplaced hyperlink, or the use of an audio to add a layer of sound … these are all part of our emerging world of writers in the digital spaces, right?

The question of how far does the writer go and how much space does the reader need/want is one of those running rails that always seems to hover over my keyboard when I am trying to create something that I hope will find an audience. When I am working on short-form writing, in particular, I am keenly aware of the reader and work to find a balance between the gaps. Of course, there is a lot of unknowns in the writer’s perceptions, too.

This week, I came across an insightful piece about writing in The New Yorker by writer John McPhee, who shares stories about his life as a staff writer and teacher of non-fiction writing but he also helpfully narrows his piece to the art of “omission.” What to leave out. The dictate of the Green # (see article for reference). Not just for publishing reasons (we need more space so get cutting) but also, for the sake of the reader engagement and involvement. Parse your story down and let the reader build it up.

McPhee cites Hemingway, of course, and others, and he says that consideration of the reader does a writer well.

“The creative writer leaves white space between chapters and segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Let judgment be in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.” (John McPhee, New Yorker, Sept. 14, 2015)

Taking his advice, then, I bid you leave.

Peace (_______in the gap________),
Kevin

Me — on Medium — Writing

Me on Medium

I’m trying out the idea of writing posts over at Medium, a publishing site that I have been following and reading for some time now, but never took the plunge into posting to beyond a comment here and there. For now, I am revamping some of the material that I have posted here, at my blog, for over there, at Medium.

Check out my posts at Medium:

Medium is an interesting site, as it is trying to find some ground between long-form journalism and small form writing. It seems a bit as if other journalist groups are linking into Medium to publish/republish content. There are a lot of technology-related pieces (and too many tales of the “start up” culture for my tastes, as it feels as if companies are using their Medium stories of being a start up to get publicity to get funding … is that too cynical of me? It may be that I don’t quite know Medium’s audience)

Still, some of the education pieces that I have read have been pretty insightful and intriguing, and my reading of those pieces gave me the courage to wonder if I might add my voice to the site, too.  Why not, right? Writing and posting to Medium is certainly easy enough with the publishing tool they provide.

I’m in …. how about you?

Peace (in the new),
Kevin

Here We Go — The Start of School

In just a few hours, I will get to meet and hang out with my new crop of sixth graders for the school year. I’m excited about that, and nervous about the first day. Even though I have a plan in place for beginning our community-building, and even though I have been doing this for a few years now, I still get nervous.

But I slept mostly OK. So, there’s that.

I spent part of the weekend working on student learning and professional practice goals for the year, but those are still “under development” for now. We have some class schedule changes this year, so the timing of the day is a bit disjointed than in the past; and I have some students with specific needs that I need to be cognizant of on a regular basis, and we have a new lunch count system; and add to all that, I have reading assessments already hanging over my head; and ….

Still, this is where we start … at the beginning.

As we begin this new school year, I wanted to share out my latest post over at Middleweb, in which I write back to a former student, as writer to writer more than teacher to student. (I write a monthly column there called Working Draft.)

Read My Letter to a Former Student

Badge for Mr H

Peace (today and everyday),
Kevin

Straight Outta Somewhere

We walked out of the movie theater last night — three white suburban teenage boys and one white suburban middle-aged male — and I asked them whether they enjoyed the movie. One of the boys has been tracking all of the movies has seen all year, filing away ratings in his own system on his phone. He gave Straight Outta Compton a 93 on his 100 scale, he told me, and the other two boys — one of whom is my son — agreed that the movie was “great.”

When I said some of the scenes of the movie reminded me of what was happening in Baltimore, Ferguson and other cities where blacks were near or beyond the boiling point of frustration with police brutality and systematic problems, the three boys went silent, thinking (I hope) and connecting the news headlines to the story. The movie is a fictionalized biopic of the emergence of rap music in LA, told through the story of NWA members.

I thought it was a strong movie, too, with a typical but powerful narrative arc of a “band movie,” although the story and images and music also brought back memories for me.

When NWA first broke on the scene in the late 1980s (along with Public Enemy and others from New York City), I was an infantry soldier in the Army National Guard. My home armory was inner city New Haven, Connecticut, and for much of the six years there, I was the only white soldier in a platoon of black soldiers.

For much of the time, I was an outsider — a white suburban, lower-middle-class college boy working alongside young men and Vietnam veterans from the inner city, where life — I learned by listening and talking — was a very different experience for them than it was for me. In a strange twist, the Armory (now closed) was situated right next to a New Haven prison, so as we did work outside the Armory, soldiers in my platoon would sometimes be calling up to people behind barred windows. College was not on anyone’s radar screen, and living was a day-to-day experience for many.

Here, I heard stories of police beatings, or gang strife in neighborhoods, of who got robbed, of who got away, of whom was fooling with whom, and of the lack of jobs and opportunity. AIDS and HIV were soon topics of conversation, too, as were stories of powerful drugs ravaging the streets. For many, the National Guard income, as a little as it was, was the only reason they were in the military. There was no love of country, or trust of government. Quite the opposite. It was a job, of sorts, that could pay some bills (one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer).

Rap music and what we now call Hip Hop was everywhere, all the time, in our platoon. Boom boxes were standard military equipment in our unit, much to the chagrin of the officers (whom, I should note, were all white men who mostly kept themselves separate from our unit).

I was raised on rock. Led Zeppelin. Aerosmith. The Rolling Stones. Bad Company. Kiss. What they were playing was nothing I ever heard on the radio in the late 198os (how times have changed) and they amused themselves by trying to get me to appreciate “the music of the street”, as they called it. Just as in the movie, when Ice Cube articulates how NWA’s rap music captured the reality of living in the Daryl Gates’ years of Los Angeles (sparking the LA riots that were to come later, following the Rodney King verdict), so too did my fellow soldiers explain how the beats and lyrics of rap spoke to their own experiences with street truth in New Haven.

I’ve never forgotten those years in New Haven. By the end of my time, I was part of the unit, but I know I was still and always separate. My skin color and my upbringing, and the fact that I could drive home to suburbia, was a wall between us that never came down.

In many ways, we spoke different languages and lived in different countries. But I’d like to think and remember that they did let me in to their lives over time, and I let them into mine. I know I learned more from them than they learned from me. I will always deeply appreciate an unofficial mentor that I had, Sergeant Calvin Nelson, who took me under his wing during my first scary days and taught me lessons about life. He was the first person I knew who was a member of the Nation of Islam and the first Vietnam vet I knew up close and personal. He was a calm, patient man worried about supporting his family with his manufacturing job and my relationship with him went a long way with the others.

Being a cultural outsider, as I was for those years, teaches you hard lessons about acceptance (or not), and about listening and compassion, and if you let it, about the world much larger than your own. You realize rather quickly the bubble we all live within as we grow up. Slowly, I made my way in to a community that would have otherwise been forever outside my field of vision. I am wiser for the experience.

We walked to the car last night and I wondered to myself if these three boys came away with a new wrinkle of reality after viewing the movie. Maybe not. It may have been nothing more than a big screen movie, set years in the past. For many people, in many places, the hardships shown in the movie are still a daily reality, and I hope the prospects of art and music transforming the reality is also still a possibility. That, and education.

One can hope …

Peace (in the think),
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

August Hibernation/Low-Tech Pause Mode

Blogging vacation comic

It’s August and that means laying low, turning down the tech for a few weeks, and coming back in September with the start of school rejuvenated and reconnected ….. Normally, this would have happened a week or so earlier, but the CLMOOC was still running …  I won’t be completely utterly off-the-grid but I won’t be very active even when I am checking up on some things … so, see you in a few weeks!

Peace (in summer siesta),
Kevin