Jowel’s Journey: How Story Transforms Understanding

Jowel 3

I’ve mentioned before that I am facilitating a project with some middle school teachers in our largest urban school district (Springfield, MA) through a complex partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory and the Veterans Education Project. We’ve been doing a series of professional development days, with a focus on the historic primary source archives of the Armory, and offering a free summer camp experience at the Armory for urban middle school students. The project — which we call Minds Made for Stories, in reference to the book of the same name by Thomas Newkirk — is funded by Mass Humanities and the National Writing Project.

There are a lot of strands to our work, from writing to history, and yesterday, one of those strands — how oral history can enhance understanding of the world — came to life as a visitor to our PD session presented and talked about his childhood in Africa, during war, and his eventual journey to the United States, where he now works to help other immigrants navigate the culture.

Jowel Iranzi’s story is powerful, as he narrates how strife and violence in his native Congo (then, Zaire) led his family to flee, first to Rwanda, and then Burundi and then to Tanzania, living in refugee camps and dealing with the tragic loss of his father and separation from his younger brother and mother. He talks of adversity, of perseverance, of education, of the realization that he cannot look back and blame others for his life situation, but has to look forward and forge a new life out of the ashes of his old one.

Jowel Talk

We’ll be having Jowel come in to present to students at our camp — which has a social justice theme and is focused on immigration and the Springfield Armory. Our intention is that his personal story, through oral history, will bring to the surface how one struggles and perseveres, and the difficulty of being a refugee and immigrant in the United States can be.

We’re reminded again of the power of story. My sketch-noting of his talk is proof of how complicated a life can be. By listening to his narrative, we all came to better understand Jowel, and in doing so, the larger world, too.

Peace (across the globe),
Kevin

 

Immigration, Social Justice and the Armory: Kickstarting a New Adventure

Armory WMWP PD May17

I am helping to co-facilitate a new project that connects middle school educators and students with the Springfield Armory, our local National Park historic site through writing and inquiry and service learning projects.

Yesterday, at our first meeting, we began our work on the project, as our group of teachers from an urban magnet school took a tour of the Armory itself and learned of its rich historical resources, took part in a workshop on Authentic Writing and Performance Tasks, and began initial planning for a free summer camp we are offering at the end of June for city students at the Armory.

I can’t say enough about the educators who have agreed to be part of our project, called Minds Made for Stories (influenced by the work and book of the same name by Thomas Newkirk, who argues that narrative is the underlying nature of all writing that we do). They were inquisitive, passionate and ready to dive into the work ahead of us.

The overall theme of our project is Social Justice, and the thread that will tie our work and the development of the camp is “immigration,” as the current climate around immigration is a central focus in the lives of many of the students at the school where our teachers teach. This became clear as we worked through a variety of topics, as teachers talked about the all-consuming worries and anger about the current immigration policies and politics of the national stage.

We’ll be looking at immigration, and racism and other related topics, through the lens of the Springfield Armory and its workforce, and its work as munitions center for the country for much of the 20th Century. We’ll have guest speakers to talk about oral history, and have student at camp design some sort of service learning project that can go back to their school in the fall.

The project is supported by the Mass Humanities organization, the National Writing Project, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the National Parks Service via the Springfield Armory and the Veterans Education Project. There are lot of moving parts to this one, which makes it challenging to coordinate and exciting to put into motion.

Peace (today and every day),
Kevin

Slice of Life (Day Nine): Writing Projects, National Parks and Summer Camps

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write all through March, every day, about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

Ok. Summer is not close. It’s early March, already. But yesterday afternoon, in a meeting, all we talked about was summer. I am the lead organizer of a proposed free urban Youth Summer Camp that connects middle school students from Springfield, our main urban center, with the Springfield Armory, our only National Park in Western Massachusetts.

A lot of the work ahead of us is contingent on a grant that the Western Massachusetts Writing Project has submitted to a regional arts organization, as we propose weaving narrative writing, primary sources and local history, and professional development for teachers who will design and run a free summer camp. We’re optimistic on the grant, which would fund two years of collaboration.

It’s a lot of juggling, though, to plan such a project. Sitting around the table with my colleagues, including a school administrator from the social justice/expeditionary learning magnet middle school we are targeting and a park ranger from the Springfield Armory, we were energized by the possibilities of the partnerships underway. The fourth colleague is another teacher who has been an educational consultant with the Armory and helped run a similar camp last year. (I’ve worked with the Armory via WMWP for Professional Development but was not involved in the camp in the past)

We talked about who will do what, and how things will unfold, and possible logistical hurdles (and solutions). We all agreed that the kids will benefit greatly from this endeavor.

I’ll be helping to run the Professional Development aspect, with mostly Social Studies teachers diving into writing about history and civics, and those teachers will co-design the curriculum of the summer camp at the Armory itself. This will be the third year WMWP has partnered with the Armory, thanks to support from the National Writing Project, so we are not starting from scratch.

Recruitment of teachers now begins and then the campaign to get as many as 40 urban middle school students into the camp for the last week of June. That seems far away. It’s not. I need to get working on a flier for students.

Peace (in connections),
Kevin

Random Notes from a Convergence

Normally, I am more organized with my thinking at conferences, but I didn’t bring a laptop to this past week’s Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project in Atlanta, and my notes and media are all over the place. So, this is a bit of this and a bit of that. I am sure I am leaving out something I wanted to say …

First, this: Sticky Notes for Literacy.

The NWP AM sessions that I attended reflected an underlying theme of the conference: how does an organization like our local Western Massachusetts Writing Project energize teachers and provide avenues (the buzzword is Pathways, which is the name for a multi-year venture by NWP to support local sites) for them to emerge as leaders now and into the future?

WMWP sketch note

In one session, a group of NWP teachers shared a beta version of a website resource they have been building, which curates articles and documents and other media files from across the many NWP websites as a way to provide information for new leaders. So, if someone who went through a Summer Institute (0r some version of it) wanted to learn more about how to start a Writing Retreat for teachers, or a book study group, they could tap into the website and easily find what others have written about on the topic. I think, once it is done, the online site will have a lot of potential.

In another session, related to Connected Learning, there was talk of how to move Connected Learning ideals into the university classrooms, particularly with an aim at pre-service educators. In the small group discussions, I joined in an intriguing look at the potential intersections of Civic Engagement (or, as Mia Zamora put it, Civic Imagination) and Connected Learning. Mia is planning an interesting project early next year, on this topic, that will be open to anyone, and it sounds intriguing.

WMWP at NWP 2016

I also helped my site director, Bruce Penniman, make a “pitch” to the NWP and a room full of spectators on the merits of a project that we are developing that provides a “pathway” for new leaders from content areas at our site. We want to create a Civics Literacy Leadership Institute, for social studies teachers, that is modeled on a Science Literacy Institute now underway. The idea is to merge literacy practices into content-area instructions. NWP folks are considering funding a number of projects, and we hope we are in the mix. It was as gentle a “Shark Tank” as you can imagine.

In the Plenary Session, we NWP teachers were encouraged to stay true to the ideals of teaching and advocacy and the writing project (teachers teaching teachers — teachers as writers) in this uncertain age. NWP Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and NWP Director of National Programs Tanya Baker brought inspirational, and much appreciated, words to the room about staying engaged in the national conversations and doing meaningful work in our classrooms and in our regional networks.

WMWP at NWP 2016

Both Elyse and Tanya infused powerful poetry into their talks, and were separated by two powerful student poets who shared their stories of the power of writing and a few poems that brought us teachers to a resounding applause. We are always a good audience for young writers.

And when Tanya asked us to write to end the Plenary, I did, with her words in my ear.

She asked us to write ...

Finally, I met many friends here and there and everywhere, some of whom I only interact with on Twitter. So, chatting in person with Jennifer Orr, Michelle Haseltine and Karen LaBonte, among others, were a great joys of connection. And hanging out and catching up with my good friend Bonnie Kaplan at the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site was a perfect way to spend part of my Friday.

Wait … I can’t forget the NCTE Hackjam, where Andrea Zellner, Chris Butz and other new and old friends hacked the conference space with blackout poetry and human coding and schwag remix on the floor, and escalator, of the conference hall. I only came to NCTE for the Hackjam (now in its xxx year .. I don’t think we really remember), and it was worth it!

Peace (back home),
Kevin

 

Heading to my Teaching Home: National Writing Project

Create Something

If ever I needed a chance to connect with other educators, now is the time. This morning, I head south to Atlanta for the National Writing Project Annual Meeting, and I am grateful to be part of a teaching community like NWP. It’s a place of spirit and invention and sharing and caring. I’ll soak in that spirit as best as I can, and find some (if only temporary) rejuvenation with my fellow writing project colleagues.

I’ll be attending a few sessions tomorrow, including the main plenary session, and taking part in pitching a new leadership project for our Western Massachusetts Writing Project site in one of the afternoon sessions for NWP’s Pathways project. We’re hoping to fund a Civics Leadership Course, which — let’s face it — is more necessary now than ever.

Peace (in flight),
Kevin

WMWP Programming: At the Springfield Armory

WMWP Armory PD

For the second summer in a row, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project collaborated with the Springfield Armory (a US National Park site) on a summer youth program. Middle school students spent a week in the Armory, learning about innovation, immigration and role that the Springfield Armory played in our country’s history.

WMWP Armory PD

This week, I joined some other presenters –in conjunction with WMWP, a regional educational collaborative (which is running the program, as part of its history programs and Library of Congress access and support), the Springfield Armory and the  Veteran’s Education Project —  in a three-day Professional Development that uses the Springfield Armory as the source for primary documents and experiences.

My facilitation role in the PD is more central to the second session taking place in a few weeks, when teachers will be exploring Narrative Writing, History and Primary Sources, as they develop lesson plans for the classroom. My goal will be to explore “voice” and “perspective” from the angle of writing and primary sources.

One of the goals of the program is to get teachers inside the National Park site, and consider bringing students there. I admit: I remain a little leery of mixing my students with displays of guns, but the innovation and invention elements of the museum are pretty intriguing.

Here is a playlist/collection of students from the summer program, presenting student research on various aspects of the Armory and its historical connection to the Pioneer Valley region. Note: I was not a facilitator of the summer youth program.

Peace (in student voice),

Kevin

#2NextPrez: Presidential Politics for the Young

Opening to Gazette piece

I wrote a column for our regional newspaper about teaching the election to our students. The quote above is how I began it, as I wondered how to make an election in which they have no voting power meaningful.

You can read my column, although the newspaper has a paywall. I believe the first few views are free. Our Western Mass Writing Project has a partnership with the Daily Hampshire Gazette around the Chalk Talk column and writing, in which we help teachers get published once a month.

Gazette

Meanwhile, I also joined in on Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast the other night, as host Paul Allison and other guests and I were talking about how we might extend the Letters to the President concept to students under the age of 13, by considering the revamped Youth Voices online space. (The Letters to the President publishing site is open to students 13 and older)

We’re making some plans …

Paul also shared out this great video documentary — Letters to the Next Mayor — which, while being site specific, lays out a foundation for how Letters to the President might unfold as a (digital) writing activity.

Youth Voices Letters to the Next Mayor from paulallison on Vimeo.

Peace (is more than rhetoric),
Kevin

 

WMWP: Shifting From Technology Towards Outreach

For as long as I have been part of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project (which is going on 15 years now, starting with my very first year of teaching after a 10-year career in newspaper journalism), I have been involved with technology in the writing project. It all happened rather inadvertently, as then WMWP Technology Liaison Paul Oh was moving on to begin work with the National Writing Project, and our WMWP Summer Institute had played around with something new (it really was brand new at the time) called “blogs” to great success.

As Paul was leaving, he and the site director pulled me aside and asked if I would be willing to step up and replace Paul as the WMWP Technology Liaison (a designation NWP/WMWP no longer uses), and I said: I guess so (rather reluctantly, since I did not see myself as a techie at the time even if I was an enthusiastic experimenter). I wrote about some of my journey into technology with WMWP and NWP for a site celebrating 40 years of NWP.

In the past years, our WMWP site has put a renewed importance on technology across programs, creating a Co-Director position on the Leadership Team. I have been the Technology Co-Director for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project for some years now, following my role as technology liaison (which was more an advisory position). Since Paul left, and I took over, I have been in the same slot (with different names). I’ve loved all of it, and count many successes.

From overseeing a massive blogging project called Making Connections funded by a NWP grant that connected middle school students across socio-economic areas, to running youth digital writing camps; to documenting with video and audio the work of WMWP; to facilitating a WMWP Technology Team; to launching the iAnthology social network in partnership with Hudson Valley Writing Project; to facilitating workshops and planning Technology Conferences; consulting on the launch of a new WMWP website and now consulting on yet another version of the WMWP website; and on and on. Not to mention all of the NWP activities on the larger stage, such as helping to facilitate CLMOOC in the past four years and writing regularly for the Digital Is website.

But I began to feel in a rut, a bit. Not that I had done everything I wanted to do but that there just wasn’t that spark of energy. Perhaps, I began thinking, it was time for me to be doing something else in WMWP.

Last Spring, after considerable thought, I decided to propose a change to my WMWP fellows. We had an opening on the WMWP Leadership Team. The position of Co-Director for Outreach was available, and I had already been focusing more and more on how to use more social media tools to reach our WMWP teachers.  We revamped our Facebook account, became more active with Twitter, and launched an Instagram site. Our YouTube site was growing with each conference WMWP hosted.

I proposed to WMWP that I leave the post of Technology and move into the post of Outreach, where I would still harness technology with the goal of reaching and connecting teachers together (something I was sort of doing already with Technology).

And now, I am happy to say, one of my WMWP Technology Team colleagues — and someone with whom I have worked closely with over the years on a variety of projects — has stepped into the role of Technology Co-Director. Tom Fanning will do a fantastic job, breathing new life into the role of technology in our writing project site and laying out his own vision and plans for where WMWP goes next.

Our site director, Bruce Penniman, always says, The first task of any leadership position is to start looking for your replacement. I’m very happy that Tom in is place and that I get to keep working with him. If Bruce is right, though, now I have start looking for my replacement for the Outreach slot. Hmmm.

Peace (here, there, everywhere),
Kevin

No One Reads the Manual: My Steps to New Tech

In my new role with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project (I guess I haven’t written about that yet .. will do later), I have been tasked with putting together our twice-yearly newsletter of events and activities for our writing project. I’m fine with that job. I like to write and share and connect. But the WMWP newsletter is created (for now, anyway) with a certain software program loaded on a specific WMWP laptop, and now that I have both computer and program in my hands, I’ve realized that learning a complicated piece of technology is … well … complicated.

As I was diving into the software this week to immerse myself in its inner workings, I realized I was going through some stages of “new technology” immersion. It began when I realized I would have be venturing back into an aging PC, as opposed to my Mac, and continued when I opened the software program up and saw dozens upon dozens of keys and buttons and options, all written in some language that didn’t make sense to my brain. Many, many bells and whistles.

Then, as I am apt to do, I just dove in, starting clicking things and working in the space, seeing what I could figure out as I went along. I’d get frustrated, try something else, get it working, hit another dead-end, try to find information help online, go back in, try again, and keep going. There were periodic little successes that at least allowed me to push forward with some limited sense of accomplishment.

For example, all I wanted to do was find a way to replace a photo. (apparently, that is done by “pointing” and that took me nearly 30 minutes to figure that out). And then I wanted a quick way to “preview” the newsletter I was creating, out of edit mode. I’m still searching for how to do that, believe it or not. It must be me, right? Where’s the big fat “This is What It Looks Like” button?

The next day? I had mostly forgotten what I had done the day before and how I had done it. A pitfall of diving in and not being methodical with new technology is the lack of clear paths and archival maps for the return journey. I didn’t document my dive in because there was never any method to the madness.

So, I began all over again.

The comic is just another way for me to deal with the feeling of frustration. I know I will figure out what I need to know (I already know more than I did just a few days ago), and I know I will turn to those within the writing project who have used the program for tips of the trade. It will all work out.

But I also know that I follow a certain pattern when it comes to new technology, and I hope that by making my own thinking somewhat visible — with a bit of humor — it shows me a bit more clearly how my own students learn when they come up against new technology. And if I can better understand that process, perhaps I can be a better teacher.

Let’s face it — no one reads the manual.

Peace (it’s in there, somewhere),
Kevin