#DigiWriMo: The Tensions of Teaching in the Age of Digital Writing

I had the oddest experience in my classroom the other day. My sixth graders are in the midst of writing short stories in their new Google Docs accounts. It’s been a great writing experience. We’ve done collaborative peer reviewing, and I’ve been able to keep track of student progress. Most of my young writers are finishing up the story and now moving into the editing/proofreading stage.

The task of editing is difficult work for them, as it is for me when I write, and probably for you, too. So, I pulled out an activity around editing and proofreading, where we talk about some basic proofreading and editing marks that they can use to mark up a draft before moving into a final draft. I gave them a one-paragraph story that I wrote, and told them it had 18 errors. Who can find them all and use the proofreading strategies?

That’s the lesson and activity, right? Mark up the text to practice improving a text. Talk about technique and put it into action. Then, do the same with your own writing.

Except …

… I was halfway through that explanation to my students when I stopped and realized something rather important. It was one of those “duh” moments.

Here, my students are writing their stories in a digital space. Proofreading symbols? Marking up the text with pencil? Unless they were going to use a Sharpie on the computer screen (please, don’t), the lesson itself seemed out of sync with the ways in which I have them writing and revising with technology.

With computers as their medium for writing, I should be teaching them cyclical revision strategies — revising as you go, and then circling back around to keep an eye on audience. Keep shifting from writer to editor, and back again. Use the tools (spellcheck, etc) at hand, wisely.

Carrots (to insert text), circles (for spelling errors), paragraph indentation symbols … they all seemed rather meaningless when we write for the screen. Unless I want to print out 80 stories (many are now running 5 to 6 pages of text) … and I am not going to do that for this project. (Among other things, including disconnect from the medium of the story itself, it seems a waste of paper).

I forged ahead with the lesson, however, framing what we were doing with editing and proofreading in terms of being able to “see errors” in your writing (which is not easy) and know where changes have to be made. They had fun trying to figure out the errors — they made a game of it.

Me? I have to think about revision, too. Lesson plan revision for writers in a digital age.

Peace (in the think),

Storyjumpers 2: Holding a Map Up to the Light

(This is part two of a Storyjumper activity for Digital Writing Month, where we are handing off stories to each other on blogs and writing the story forward. Bruno W. started us off with a personal narrative, and I am taking part of what he wrote and moving into a story. — Kevin)

Story jumpers at digiwrimo

The paper note spilled out of the computer case, fluttering into in hands. I wasn’t expecting that. Not at all. But I was intrigued. Much of the wording on the paper had been smudged by water or by time, or both, but the story itself ended with these intriguing lines:

A few more days later, I realized it was again different: They are more proofs that I didn’t imagine this story, I didn’t dream it or exaggerate it. This part of the story is so trite you barely need a proof, other memories, encounters are more exceptional, surprising that I’ve been relieved to find some tracks of them. Like the sand that you find in the morning, in your pocket reminds you that a dream could have been more than a dream.

Most of my friends know I am someone who takes pleasure in old worn-out devices. I gut them out on my workbench in the basement, working at the insides with some magic that even I could never explain — I just know — finding a way to get the old machines up and running again, pulling them out of sleep.

This particular laptop and case – with the lettering saying “Bruno W., Strasbourg, France, 2015” and nothing more — was retrieved from an old shop that my friend, Sarah, visited while overseas on a trip searching for ukeles. She’s a uke collector. And she calls me strange for my obsession with technology.

My circle of friends, they know my hobby and they indulge me. An old phone. A cracked PC. An iPad with bad battery.  They all come my way eventually. And I often return the favor by fixing their devices for free. Sometimes, it’s only a reminder that “plugs go into the outlet.” Other times, it’s me, digging deep into the engine of the device. Is there anything more pleasurable than ripping out a hard drive? I don’t think so. There’s a certain satisfaction I find with taking apart something that others think can’t be taken apart, to see technology as story of parts.

I think of myself less as a fixer of technology than a reconstructor of stories.

I held the Bruno paper print-out in my hand. It was clearly the ending of some story, of a narrative. I tried to imagine who this Bruno was. I could hear his voice in his words.

Who was he writing to? Was it some loved one? Some invisible audience in the world? Was it a story he hoped others would read? Or was it some private tale, and now, as I read his lines, were my eyes were intruding on a private moment?

I turned the paper over, seeking understanding.

Faintly hidden, no doubt from the passage of time, I saw the faint pencil outline of what seemed to be a map. I held the story up to the light, trying to make the lines more visible. I was reminded of my childhood interest in detective gear, and the trick of writing in lemon juice as invisible ink. I squinted. The light filtered through the paper like an onionskin. An outline emerged. It was indeed a map and on the map, I could just make out some lines of text and a set of arrows that seemed to be leading towards ….

(the end of the chapter. Maha Bali now takes it from here …)

Peace (in the exquisite corpse story),


#DigiWriMo Slow Book Review: Reading the Visual

Someone, somewhere, in some space, mentioned Frank Sarafini’s book — Teaching the Visual: An Introduction to Teaching Multimodal Literacy — and, well, if that was you, thank you. I had reserved it through our library system weeks ago, and it has just arrived … and right on time for November’s Digital Writing Month adventures, too.

I actually won’t do a full book review here. Instead, I have pulled out 30 quotes from Sarafini’s book that I will (try to) share one every day throughout November. Consider it a “slow book review” of sorts, where I hope my curating of Sarafini’s wonderful exploration of the changing world of writing and composition and the teaching of multimedia will inspire you, and me.

Us. Together.

We can get inspired, and what better month to do that and try our hand at digital writing, and share out our success and struggles and new understandings, than with Digital Writing Month, right?

Here is the first quote, which I will share out more widely tomorrow as DigiWriMo launches in my time zone (since we have all sorts of folks all over the world, Digital Writing Month posts may come earlier than it seems — or later than it appears — depending on your place in the world.)


Sarafini looks at not just the visual, as the title suggests, but also the various elements of multimodal compositions as a means to help teachers move this kind of literacy practice into their classroom in a meaningful and practical way.

I will be sharing the 30 Frank Quotes (I hope he doesn’t mind this informal name calling .. hey, I see he’s on Twitter, too. I will give him a shout out to join in DigiWriMo) via Twitter at the #Digiwrimo hashtag and in the DigiWriMo Google Community, and anywhere else I feel it might resonate. I will also be creating a collection over at Flickr.

Don’t just read the quotes. Live them. Teach them. Write them. And do yourself a favor: get Sarafini’s book. You’ll get inspired. Now I need to get my own copy and remove the sticky notes from the library version …

Peace (in the depth of digital writing),


Gearing Up to Make, Hack, Play

Making Hacking Playing at NEATE

I am heading across the state tomorrow to the New England Council of Teachers of English to facilitate a three-hour session in hopes of bringing forth the ethos of the Making Learning Connected MOOC into a workshop for teachers unfamiliar with Connected Learning and the CLMOOC.

We’re going to make, hack, and play … to pull a phrase from Bud Hunt (and later, Karen Fasimpaur) that has become the title of my workshop at NEATE … with mapping activities, avatar creating and game hacking, all with a reflective stance on how Connected Learning might open up possibilities in the classroom for student learning and engagement.

Bringing the ethos of an online community into a live space is sort of an unknown … but building bridges from the open learning from the CLMOOC and the principles of Connected Learning into a session where we can be doing things and creating connections is an exciting possibility.

I’ll let you know how it goes …

Peace (in the make),

Graphic Novel Review: El Deafo

Cece Bell’s graphic novel, El Deafo, is a powerful example of how the storytelling possibilities of a talented writer/illustrator working in a graphic form can create a powerful response from a reader. If every that was in doubt, read El Deafo.

Bell uses her own childhood loss of hearing, due to illness, as the hook to tell the rich story of identity and individuality, even as she brings the reader into the often-confusing world of growing up in an auditory world where you can’t hear everything that is going on around you.

As if childhood weren’t difficult enough …

But Bell never lets her character or us, the reader, wallow in any pity or disconnect for too long, as CeCe, the character, shows her pluck and fortitude, as my grandmother might say, to make friends, to help teachers understand her hearing impairment, and to navigate through the use of hearing aids and lip reading. CeCe is patient and understanding, and willing to go the extra mile to be accepted by others for who she is.

The moniker — El Deafo — refers to her exciting discovery that, as long as a teacher is wearing the microphone clip that sends signals to her hearing aids, she can hear “everything” that goes on (including times when the teacher uses the bathroom, bringing much humor to the book). Bell’s use of empty dialogue bubbles, or fading text, as well as even the animal-like characters that suggest Marc Brown’s Arthur series, are very effective here, on many levels.

Personally, I found the story even more interesting than usual, as I have a hearing-impaired student and I do wear a clipped-on microphone for part of the day. (I do take it off when I use the bathroom, just fyi). CeCe’s story had special resonance for me as I think about the world of my student, who does so well in the regular classroom and who only needs some supports to help him communicate with me and classmates (who speak into a microphone during class discussions.)

Bell brought me into the world of the hearing impaired in a way that none of the articles I have read nor none of the discussions I have had with hearing loss experts have been able to do. She humanized the experience, and in doing so, she made her character of CeCe a universal “kid” struggling to fit in while learning to accept and celebrate her differences.

Peace (in the graphic),

What’s Really Important: The Unofficial CV Activity

The “gearing up and getting ready” stage for Digital Writing Month is underway … with a sort of teaser, pre-writing activity in which we are encouraging folks to create an “unofficial CV/Resume” of what is really important. The title of the post is important: Your Story, Your Terms.

The whole idea is try to turn the act of making CV with its narrow focus on our world of work on its head … by tapping into various modes and mediums, and using those elements to better express the person you are, in your own terms.

Here’s mine, in comic form:

Kevin's Unofficial CV Comic

What will your Unofficial CV look like? Come share it within and beyond Digital Writing Month.

Peace (outside the frame),

Their Digital Lives: State of Technology and Media 2015

I’ve been giving my sixth graders a survey for a few years now on the State of Technology and Media in their lives. The results become the anchor points for conversations in class around technology and social networks and privacy and digital footprints.

Here are this year’s results, which I also shared with parents:

And here is the famous Gary Hayes Social Media Counter that I also shared out, and had a long discussion about what its data flow shows about the world they are growing up in:

Peace (in the share),

Slice of Life: Sixth Graders in the Wild

(This is for Slice of Life, a regular feature with Two Writing Teachers).

Study of Sixth Graders

My latest column at Middleweb is a humorous take on an ethnographic study of my four classes of sixth graders. I was trying to have some fun, even as I was thinking of the trends of class characters that can emerge after a few weeks of teaching into the new year.

Read An Unofficial Field Guide to Sixth Graders in the Wild

Peace (and quiet),

Compelled to Write (Every Day)

writing in the head

Jeffrey posted this question as we gear up for Digital Writing Month in November:

Good one.

I can only answer for myself and say, that as Maha noted in her own response, I find myself writing all the time: either in my head (knowing I need to remember that in order to write that down) or on paper (that scrap will do) or on various screens (although I find that using my thumbs to write takes too long and is very frustrating to the train of thought … my words feel like a caboose).

Here’s how I end up finding ways and time to write: I stake out the morning. I get myself up early before my family (three boys, wife and dog) are all up and the house gets its crazy-time feel. I usually have about an hour or so before the day begins. I walk the dog, make my coffee … and sit down to write, either at my blog (the starting line) or in some other space.

But I am writing in my head all the time, too.

Years ago, when I was writing a long of songs, I used to walk around with melodies and lyrics humming in my head. I’d be lost in thought, literally, using my footfalls for rhythm, working out word choices based on rhymes and patterns and meaning. I still write songs, but not as much, and now, I find myself working out ideas around teaching and writing and art during the drive to and from work, while walking the dog, when waking up after sleep.

I’m blogging even when I am nowhere near my blog. I am a poet of ideas out in thin air. I am a storywriter, spinning characters out of clouds. I am essayist with no paper, a songwriter with invisible notes. I am a writer even without the physical tools of writing. (Or is that just a thinker?)

It’s as if I have this huge invisible notebook and pen, and I am mentally jotting down ideas. For a long time at this blog, I was writing two posts a day. But even I knew that was too much for any reader. But I felt compelled to write, write, write, and so I did. Now, I try to focus a bit more on a single post a day, and some things just never get written. Not every idea is a good one, anyway.

I’m not suggesting this all-day-writing-in-the-head works for anyone else. In answering Jeffrey’s query about writing management, I can only speak for myself: the words are coming all the time and I need my morning quiet time to write. When I don’t have that time, as happens now and then, I feel empty that day, as if the writing nourishes me.

I need to write.

Peace (in writing this from me to you),


More Reasons We Write (from WMWP Teachers)

During a workshop at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project on collaborative writing and reading with Google Apps yesterday, I pulled out another version of my “Why I Write” collaborative slideshow as an opening activity, and it was a huge hit with the folks who attended my session.

The slideshow theme was connected to last week’s National Day on Writing. Once again, I love the depth of the responses, and also, the ways that the slideshow allows many to write together on a single project, and then the ability to share that project out to the world.

As an aside, it’s interesting for me to share the project because you (the reader of the file) can only see the slides themselves in my embeddable file above. But there is a whole set of comments and conversations that took place in the margins of the slides themselves as folks reacted to what others were writing (sometimes in real time, which was a cool surprise for many who had never used Google Apps for collaboration before). That’s another post for another time.

Peace (that’s why I write),