#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),

Slice of Life: On Identity, Geolocations, Games and Collaboration

(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing adventure hosted by Two Writing Teachers. But this also dovetails into extending the Making Learning Connected MOOC work into the year beyond summer AND how collaboration is a key element of Digital Writing Month underway this month. Phew. Connections flying all over the place.)

I’ve been interesting in finding ways to bring more of the ethos of Connected Learning that forms the heart of the Making Learning Connected MOOC (CLMOOC) into the world beyond the summer months. Certainly, I try to infuse it in my classroom around choice, and digital writing, and collaboration.

But I have been trying to pay attention to opportunities when I can surface Connected Learning with other teachers, particularly in off-line professional development, where participants may be less likely to have ever heard of Connected Learning or the CLMOOC.

This past weekend, I led a three-hour workshop called Make/Hack/Play (thanks to Bud Hunt for the title of the session .. Bud did his own Make/Hack/Play workshops) for the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) and we dove into hands-on activities in order to talk about what Connected Learning might mean in practice. I was joined by a Western Mass Writing Project colleague, Justin Eck, who is working in a graduate course and designing his own MOOC right now.

We worked on avatars in order to talk about identity — first, with Wiki Stix at the tables and then in online avatar spaces —

NEATE Make Hack Play

We created conceptual maps in order to symbolically situate ourselves in the world — first, with paper and colored pencils at our seats, and then in online open mapping programs —

NEATE Make Hack Play

We considered the literacy elements of game design — first, by hacking the game of UNO and then, by sharing out the new rules with others, and then in online, by discussing Gamestar Mechanic as a space for putting game design into practice for an authentic audience —

NEATE Make Hack Play

The activities sparked rich discussions from elementary teachers through university professors, and I believe that the participants came away with a clearer understanding of how Connected Learning taps into the authentic interests of young people and still provides rigorous academic learning, all in a fun and engaging way.

Would you like to collaborate with us? Sure, the session is over but our Literary Landscape map is still wide open. Here’s what we were doing and here’s how you can contribute. The idea is that we are collaboratively creating a map of settings of novels, all tied together on a single map.

First, think of a favorite novel with a distinct setting.

Second, go to the Google Map.

Third, search for the location of the setting in the search bar of the map. Go to that location.

Fourth, click on the “add marker” icon (it looks like a push pin) in the tool bar and drop it onto the map where the novel’s setting is.

Finally, add the title of the book to the text box and use the camera icon to search for an image of the book to attach to your pin.

I look forward to a larger literacy landscape developing … with your help.

Peace (in the collaboration),


#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),