Collaboration Falls Apart: I’m Still Learning

flickr photo shared by russellstreet under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Earlier this year (which was actually last school year), I wrote about using Google Slides as a collaborative space for writing poetry with four full classes of students over the course of a day. It was a great idea that failed rather miserable and ended in chaos. You can read about it here.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but no … Actually, I hoped I had learned my lesson. But I tried something similar again this past week with my new class of sixth graders, only to sort of fail … yet again. Sigh.

Welcome to Sixth Grade title

On the first day of school this week, before my sixth grade students had activated their school Google Apps for Education account, I set up a Google Slideshow, made it a public document for anyone to contribute without logging in, linked it off our class blog site, and assigned each student three slides (four, if you count their name slide). I did, in fact, remember what I learned from the past failure. I made sure that each student had a designated space inside the slideshow, with their names right on the slides. (Each student’s task was to create a slide of something they did in the summer, a six word memoir and their favorite “media”)

I walked my students through the process of how to use Google Slides (only one student in my class had ever created a slideshow, ever, which is interesting .. and the pattern for my other three classes as well, it turns out). I presented a mini-lesson on using Creative Commons for the search for images, and how to add the links to photos inside the slides as attribution points. I showed them my example as a mentor text.

Summer Moment

And then I set them loose for the next hour.

For about 30 minutes, it was beautiful. They were engaged, helping each other out, and I was wandering around, talking to them about their summer and their memoirs, and giving help with finding and using images. We talked about design elements of slides. They were having fun.

Six Word Memoir

Then, someone tried to use spellcheck.

Now, let me say, I was quite happy they found spellcheck. It meant they were checking their writing. They noticed the red squiggles. They wanted to fix a mistake. But when they tried to spellcheck their own slide, the tool jumped them to other slides in the collaborative show, and either they began to hit “back” or “delete” or something to get back to their own slide, and suddenly, entire slides — not their own — were disappearing.

There was that murmuring energy that begins slow and then builds into crowd confusion. No teacher wants to sense that in the room, believe me.

Keep calm, I said to the class, as hands were now raising into the air. We’ll figure this out.

I helped a few with the “undo” button, but that only worked if I was with the student who did the accidental edit. If it was a student whose slide disappeared in front of them because of someone else’s actions, the undo button didn’t work.

Luckily, we were now near the end of our time, and so I announced, in my confident teacher voice, that we would be stopping for the day and I would try to go back in time with Google Slide history/revision, and find the missing pieces (I’m making it all out to be worse than it is, but I am still not sure how many slides got deleted). I expressed confidence in the auto-save.

Alas, because they were all anonymous guests, working at the same time, the revision history only went so deep, and I can’t traverse back to the time (even when going into advanced revision history) where the slides went kaput. What’s missing is still missing, and may remain missing. I’m still looking.

Here’s the thing. While I am disappointed again at how collaboration failed, I realize later I accomplished some of my goals for the lesson:

  • All of my students now have a basic understanding of how a slideshow works;
  • We started discussions around digital design with text and image;
  • They can find images with Creative Commons tags and use those images, with attribution;
  • They understand that we will be using technology for collaboration projects this year, and that means working together;
  • Sometimes, the technology just doesn’t do what we want it to do — either through our own actions, or mistakes, or through the technology’s limitations;
  • We keep on trying, and moving forward, and don’t panic;
  • Even the teacher, with the best-laid plans, doesn’t always have the answers to unexpected problems, at least in the moment when problems arise.

I am back to thinking about The Next Time I Do This and how to make this kind of collaboration work better for me, and for them. Yes, I am determined. Perhaps the solution is to have them create their own slides shows in their own accounts, and then port them into the collaborative show as a second step. That way, they always have their own versions.

They, of course, seem less concerned about it than I am. We’ve already moved on, activating their Google accounts and pushing forward.

Kids. Go figure.

Peace (in collaboration),

Writing in the Public Sphere: You Write It, You Own It

flickr photo shared by under a Public Domain Dedication Creative Commons ( CC0 ) license

We’ve had an interesting and controversial issue going on in my small liberal city in Western Massachusetts, and at the heart of it is what we consider “public space.” I find it intriguing on a few levels, but mostly, it reminds me of our community discussion two years ago in CLMOOC about the notion of the Public Sphere in the Digital Age.

Some background: Our city has a Human Rights Commission, appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council. The mayor put forth a few new people for the commission, which sponsors education programs and outreach efforts and more. It also can field complaints about equity and other issues on behalf of the city.

Just as it seemed like it might be a buried news story, the local newspaper must have received a tip about one of the mayor’s nominees, and after looking through this person’s public Twitter feed, the newspaper shone a light on some controversial comments with a front page piece. The nominee’s defense sounded a lot like Trump Lite: You don’t get my humor. I was being sarcastic. I am being attacked by the liberal media.

The nominee was quoted as calling the article a hatchet job that cut them off at the knees, but I went through the Twitter feed in question and I think the newspaper was pretty fair in its assessment. This person wrote about national events in a harsh tone, calling, for example, for a mother to stop getting pregnant by medical means as a way to stop violence in an urban community and suggesting suicide to another person in the news spotlight.

Maybe it was sarcasm, but as we know, digital spaces don’t always translate well into nuanced cold reading. This person came across as .. rather cruel and taunting with their rhetoric. I’m not sure that would be true in life outside the screen. I don’t know them. I only know their words on my screen. I’m not all that impressed with that person.

The nominee withdrew their name from consideration after the article came out and the newspaper published a flood of letters this week, all condemning the former nominee for using Twitter in this way and then complaining about it when people (and reporters) actually read the tweets.

One letter writer noted that Twitter is a public space. You write it you own it, they keenly observed. One should expect to get read, they noted, and be held accountable, particularly if you intend to become a public official that deals with rights of all people.

Kindness matters.

Which brings us to the notion of online spaces as public spaces. We examined the nature of digital spaces, or the Commons, during CLMOOC 2015, and I dug up one of the posts that I wrote, because this event in my city resonated in my mind. The post has to do with the Digital Commons, and who owns what, and our responsibilities in those spaces.

The Internet as Public Space 1 (Where the Center Meets)

A question facing our city now is whether the public social media feeds of candidates to appointed boards and commissions should be part of the review process. Currently, it is not. The mayor was caught off-guard by the newspaper article. But I think it should be, right? If you write in the public, whether it is for a newspaper or Twitter or graffiti on the wall, then what you write is part of who you are in the public.

Words have meaning.

I haven’t checked the former-nominee’s Twitter in some days because it was turning nasty, with right-wing supporters saying the city was somehow suppressing the free exchange of ideas and targeting the newspaper for its reporting, saying it is run by “white men” of privilege, as if that had anything to do with the story. The nominee promised to write an “op ed” piece but then suggested the newspaper would never run it.

Actually, that “white men” knee-jerk comment was also made by the chair of the commission — someone I know from when she and I worked together as journalists for another newspaper, and where she left to start up a regional Hispanic newspaper to give voice to Latinos, and whom I respected. Now I am not so sure.

The Public surely gets messy as we try to figure out the nuances of the world.

Peace (in all spaces),

A Day Late to a Twitter Chat (but not a dollar short)

Margaret Simon, who helps facilitate a weekly discussion around digital literacies with the #DigiLitSunday hashtag, organized a Twitter Chat on Sunday that I could not attend. So, I played Monday Morning Quarterback with her Storify curation, adding comments as a way to engage in the conversation (after it had already ended). And days later, I am now sharing.

The theme of the chat was about essay writing, and centered on a book by Katherin Bomer, entitled The Journey Is Everything Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them. Margaret gives more info at her blog.

Here are my comments, strung together.


Peace (write it from the heart),

De La Soul Documentary: Beyond the Age of Sampling

The new De La Soul album — And the Anonymous Nobody —  is interesting in the way it was made — after years of legal wrangling over use of samples of other artists to create the backbone of its music (as hip hop often does) — the old-school band decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to pay for recording a funk band for hours on end, and then to use samples from those studio recordings as the basis for its new songs, instead of relying on samples.

“What we’re doing … is farming the recordings for samples … and creating new music,” says the narrator of the video.

This is a video documentary of the band’s efforts. I find it interesting because, well, I like the band well enough (and bought its album), and I am interested in the significance of this shift away from hiphop roots (of sampling others), even if the move by De La Soul caused by the legal climate of record labels being very litigious.

The age of the remix is fraught with these difficulties (although educators and students have more leeway). But one lesson here is that making your own beats and music for your own songs is worth doing, even if it adds time and planning to a project.

Peace (it’ll be here),

Slice of Life: How’s Your Head

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a weekly writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. You choose a moment and narrow your focus, and then share out into the SOL community. You write, too.)

Back to School Anxiety Dreamscape

I knew it. I knew I’d be awake in the middle of the night, with a tumble of thoughts about the start of school. And so it was. Staff goes back today and then kids start their new school year tomorrow. I did fall back asleep eventually, dreaming the dreams only teachers seem to dream.

Peace (dream it sleepily),

#CLMOOC: Arriving Right on Time

Whenever you arrive is the perfect time. You are always right on time.

I was reading this blog post by Tania Sheko yesterday morning. She reflects on jumping into the Connected Learning MOOC (CLMOOC) a few weeks after the official Make Cycles have come and gone. Tania acknowledges that she only minimally popped in and out of CLMOOC and is only now getting to some of the newsletters and Make Cycle ideas.

There’s a mantra which Tania cites in her post that was embedded early in the CLMOOC experience – something that has become part of how a lot of us think about CLMOOC:

Whenever you arrive is the perfect time. You are always right on time.

But, what does that mean, exactly?

The idea came from discussions in the first years of CLMOOC, sponsored by the National Writing Project, in which facilitators were trying hard to think about how best to leverage an open, online networked space where anyone could engage at any level they saw fit or had time for. The worry was that after the first Make Cycle was up and running, anyone new coming in would feel left out. Time of arrival itself would act as an exclusionary marker.

Whenever you arrive is the perfect time. You are always right on time.

So, the intent was to try to situate the CLMOOC with no a real starting and ending point. The timeline of activities might follow a certain arc, mostly due to logistics, but the arc is merely artificial in nature. Arrival and activity could potentially happen at any time, even long after the official Makes are first introduced. This illusion of timelessness, though, is hard to pull off unless you follow the Netflix model and dump everything in at once and let people Binge Learn (which, in fact, is possible after the summer). In reality, we are so attuned to a timeline of activities (this is Day One, this is Day Two, etc.) that giving yourself freedom to say, I’m interesting in that, so I will do that — I am not interested in that, so I will ignore that, is a somewhat discomforting notion for many of us.

But there are people who wander into CLMOOC weeks or months after the unofficial “end” and dip into the activities, engaging with the #CLMOOC hashtag and in the CLMOOC Google Plus Community, and other spaces. Not many, but some. I think most people still feel the time-bound nature of learning. They see a catalogue of activity in the archives and think, Oh, I must have missed it.

Whenever you arrive is the perfect time. You are always right on time.

CLMOOC facilitators share versions of this phrase a lot, as a welcoming and inclusive message. And we do mean it.

But the reality is that the words we say with best intentions don’t always work. Some people still feel left out if they didn’t take part in the summer experience. Others feel as if the possibilities are too large, to grand, to just dive in, solo. And others might think, I’ll just wander through what they did, and get a taste on my own time.

Perfect. That’s part of the CLMOOC experience, too. Wanderers are welcome!

Whenever you arrive is the perfect time. You are always right on time.

In the past, we’ve had some interesting revelations about how the CLMOOC extended into learning spaces — at schools, through Writing Projects, into other online experiences. (And the CLMOOC is built off the ethos and models of other open online experiences, and so it goes).  Sometimes, it is months or even years later that we learn about it. That indicates we probably don’t ever hear about a lot of other connections, too.

There’s a “trust factor” when you help build an open network that something is happening beyond the field of vision, even if one can’t see it. We learn in the moment in hopes for understanding far beyond the moment. It’s like being the classroom teacher with young kids (or even as a parent) and thinking, I have faith that what we are doing here, now, will impact their lives down the line.

Back to Tania  … I pulled out a few lines from her blog post (see up top) which I think makes me the happiest of all, as one of the CLMOOC facilitators. The ways in which she articulates how CLMOOC is a welcoming network of people with different experiences and backgrounds (which could still use more diversity in the mix) and a community that values her play and work, and even monsters, that she can turn to beyond the summer months is heartening. I feel it, too. To see others express it is satisfying beyond belief.

Whenever you arrive is the perfect time. You are always right on time.

Peace (it’s time),

Going Behind the Scenes: ESPN Studios

A good friend of mine works at ESPN Studios and I took advantage of that to bring two of my sons, and my dad, on a tour of the huge media complex down in Bristol, Connecticut (about an hour away from where we live). My youngest son is interesting in video production, and my middle son is interested in sports. Our eldest, also interested in digital media, is off to his first year of college, so he could not come with us.

Saturday mornings are pretty quiet in the sports world, but that allowed us to go through the myriad of engineering rooms and editing booths and sound rooms and a handful of the massive recording studios that ESPN uses to deliver sports to the world. A “farm” of about 30 massive satellite dishes sit on top of a hill, sending out signals to the dozens of outlets for ESPN media.

You realize rather quickly how technical the entire operation is, and how studios use illusion to create reality — the fake grass, and the corners of tables that the cameras can pan to seem large on the small screen but are often just kitty-cornered against a wall in a room larger than a football field. Dozens of people work together to produce a 30 minute sports show that seems so slick and seamless on the screen. (My friend does technical support. Nothing is ever seamless for him. Things break down and don’t work.)

Our eyes can deceive us.

It’s a bit like Oz. You pull back the curtain to see the mechanics of the visual world that seem magical and you get a larger sense of how the magic works from the reality point of view. It doesn’t take away from the magic, per se, but it expands the notions of how the world comes together in the first place.

Peace (it’s not just a show),

Workshopping in the Digital Age: A Close Reading of Franki and Troy

Students as Writers and Composers

I finally got around to coming back to an interview with two of my favorite people — Franki Sibberson and Troy Hicks — as they sat down for an interview for Language Arts to talk about Digital Writing Workshop. (You can access the article as a PDF at the National Writing Project site).

There are a lot of great insights and honesty in their conversation, and as I sought to reach closer, I started to grab some quotes from the text in order to pull them out for further thinking.

I was nodding my head here, because, like Franki, I hope I stay in tune with my students and their interests when it comes to thinking of ways that technology and digital platforms might push their own writing and compositional strategies further along. I’d also add that, along with listening, we teachers need be doing the technology, too. Snapchat, Pokemon Go, and others are unknown terrain unless you try them yourself. You might decide, this does not have application for my classroom (for now). At least, you will know from the experience.

I like Troy’s point here, that the technology should have a rationale or basis for use in composing. He uses a heuristic called MAPS (mode (genre), media, audience, purpose, situation), which is very helpful in this regard, as it allows teachers to consider such things as audience and intent. The technology is not just an engagement factor — it’s an intentional design of the classroom experience to help students explore writing in different angles, with different strategies, for different reasons.

Here, Troy is talking about how to expand the notions of Mentor Texts by drawing from the world outside the classroom, from Pop Culture and beyond. Like Franki, Troy notes the importance of “listening” to students, to figure out where interest lies and then tap into that for learning.

This is so true, and I have written at times about this, too. Some days, when we are moving into something new, things go awry, and the room is full of noise and seemingly chaos. I say, seemingly, because, as Franki notes, often amidst the chaos is some interesting reflections going on. Part of our role as teachers to find focus on the reflection (the process is more important than the product, most of the time) and draw that out, highlight it, make it the learning of the day. And keep calm.

That same theme of analyzing process points is what Troy is discussing here, when the question of “How Do We Assess Digital Writing?” comes up. He notes how technology has the potential to uncover compositional strategies, and make a digital piece more accessible for comments and review and revision. If we can take our eyes off the final product and keep them attuned to all that goes into that work, we can assess learning in a more strategic way.

Thanks to Troy and Franki for sharing their ideas. I found it useful and helpful, and I hope some of their words inspire you, too.

Peace (sharing it out),


Not Even Remotely Visibly True: More Distorted Graphs

I’ve spent the last week or so making another push to create a series of Distorted Graphs as a way to engage with the politics of the US Presidential Campaign. What I am doing is creating graphs and charts that look sort of real, but which have no data underneath. I am making it all up.


Mostly, I am seeing how I can use visual misinformation (which I clearly label on all of the graphs) to make a political and satirical point about the state of politics. I am also curious to see how something sort of polished might appear to be true, and how to remember not to trust my eyes with charts and graphs and polls and such. Although I try to poke at both sides, I don’t try to be “fair and balanced” with it.

But I am having fun. So there.

This round (done entirely in Haiku Deck and exported out as image files) began with an interview Donald Trump did about his “regrets” over some of his comments. Who really believed that? Seriously.

Distorted Graphs

I was wondering where Bernie’s folks have probably gone. Then I saw the news that he bought a $750,00o summer home, and the word “hypocrite” started to flow from my GOP friends. Would Bernie be inviting all those young people to his $750,000 home for a little summer break? I doubt it.

Distorted Graphs

The presidential debates are coming soon. Will they tackle important issues? Or will the idea of wondering what Trump will say trump anything of substance?

Distorted Graphs

I had a strange moment when I could not, for the life of me, remember who Clinton’s vice presidential running mate was. Really. Then I thought, it can’t be just me. (Note: his name came back to me not long after I forgot it. I didn’t Google it.)

Distorted Graphs

All of Trump’s rhetoric over “rigged elections” and “rigged polls” had me looking at my own Distorted Graphs. Rigged? Well, yeah.

Distorted Graphs

The Clinton Foundation is still a headline. I wondered if there was talk about changing its name. The “staff” referenced here is rather nebulous — did I mean I secretly polled the staff of the Clinton Foundation or my staff here at Distorted Graphs? (Hint: One of those organizations has more than one person. The other does not.)

Distorted Graphs

Just the idea of Trump flipping and flopping, and then getting heat from his own party and supports for it, is worth a graph.

Distorted Graphs

The most ridiculous stories in this latest news cycle, I think, has been one questioning Clinton’s health. One can’t help but hear Monty Python in the head (“I’m Not Dead Yet”) as this foolishness goes on.

Distorted Graphs

Peace (we always tilt towards it),

PS — here is the entire collection of Distorted Graphs, which began in the Primary Season

Graphic Novel Review: Tetris (The Games People Play)

The other day, I found myself with a few dull minutes to spare while waiting for my son. What did I do to kill the time? Tetris on my Android phone. It’s amazing that this simple game still holds appeal in this modern age,  but it does. A new graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play by Box Brown not only explains the appeal of the puzzle challenge on the brain and psyche, but also explores the fascinating history of the game itself – from origin to launch to pop culture icon.

The appeal of Tetris has to with the psychology of games, and Tetris hits it on all cylinders. There’s the frontal cortex, trying to flip and slide the shapes while they drop. There’s the rush of finishing a line. There’s the quickening pace of action. The player hits a “flow.” It’s all part of the psychology of game design.

Then there’s the rich history of the game itself. Developed by Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov as a side project during the Cold War, in the early days of PCs and video game programming, his Tetris concept of interlocking blocks first took root in the old USSR. Then the game was smuggled out of Russia on floppy discs, and then the game became the object of a global bidding war between companies in Japan, Europe and the United States, even as the political structure of the USSR made negotiations nearly impossible.

You may remember Tetris as the anchor game on many early gaming systems — including Game Boy — but how it got there is an amazing tale of politics and copyright and deceit, and lots and lots of money. Box Brown weaves the tale wonderfully in this graphic novel, which could find a home in a high school classroom where gamers and historians collide.

Peace (block by block),

PS — I received an early copy from First Second Publishing to review. The book is out in October.