Wednesdays are #WhitmanWednesday, and so in a convergence with #DigiWriMo, I found a quote from Walt Whitman about writing and used it as an audio file, adding in sound effects and an underlying string melody. I like the heartbeat, although the heartbeat sounds a lot better with headphones than on my computer’s tiny speakers.
What about you? What can you do with Whitman’s words and poems today?
First, the Connected Learning MOOC (CLMOOC) almost didn’t happen. Now, Digital Writing Month is here for November but it is not really here at all. In both cases, those who envisioned online learning adventures and those who nurtured those spaces over years decided time had run out. For CLMOOC, it was my friends at the National Writing Project. For DigiWriMo, it is the folks at Hybrid Pedagogy/Digital Pedagogy.
I think there are valid reasons for founders to say, we’re moving on to other things. Things do run their course. NWP has been deep into Letters to the Next President (worth checking out … thousands of letters of all media shapes and sizes from high school students). Digital Pedagogy people may be shifting its focus to other ways to support digital writing and thinking about digital writing (and thinking about the teaching of digital writing.) Both organizations do wonderful projects, with vision.
I guess I have a hard time letting go, though.
I was part of the crowd-sourced CLMOOC this past summer (where the collective parts led the activities, and it was fantastic). Now I am part of CLMOOC folks working to plan some Pop-Up Make Cycle activities later this month for Not-DigiWriMo.
It always feels strange when the founders say, this is no more, and the folks who in the midst say, let’s do more. There is the possibility of tension there (I can hear the voice: “Hey, I thought we said this was over!”). I don’t revel in that tension, but if we all believe in the potential of dispersed ownership of Connected Learning and the open value of hashtags and social media spaces, then it makes sense that if the participants don’t want something to be over, there is no reason why it needs to be over. We’re following our passions. (Reality Check: in some cases, though, the brand of an online learning space might be legally attached to an organization, so there’s that … here, both organizations know something continued/is continuing onward.)
Where I am going with all of this? Well, DigiWriMo is officially “retired,” as the pioneering folks at Hybrid Pedagogy noted on Twitter this week. Digi Duck is no doubt kicking back on a beach chair, drink in hand, dreaming of bread crumbs.
But hey, don’t wait for us. Get writing, digitally. Make a poem. Write a video. Experiment. Tinker. Create. Many folks are still using the #digiwrimo hashtag on Twitter. Share. Inspire others. Get inspired.
(This is a post for Slice of Life, a weekly writing share hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We look at the small moments. You write, too.)
I noticed something amiss the fourth or fifth time I looked at the wall clock. It was still 7:40 a.m. Or so said the clock. It wasn’t. It was 8:25 a.m. and students would be arriving soon.
The clock was dead and I was nearly out of time.
I scrambled to see if it was just my clock. It was. Time had stopped on me. I notified the custodians, who promised to replace it, and finished up my morning message for students. I was thankful for my Saxophone Clock at the back room (although it was interesting when some students who have been with me for two months now only noticed it now, when the school wall clock was busted. So much for being observant.)
Later, while my students were at Physical Education and I was working on plans for the day’s writing, the custodians did indeed come in. They took down the old clock and put up a new one, and then told me that it would take a day to settle into the automated system.
Ten minutes later (I think), I looked up and time, as they say, was flying. The seconds hand looked like it had a jolt of caffeine and the minutes hand was doing its steady dance around the hours. By 3:45 p.m., after school had ended, the clock read 5:20.
With phrases like “rigged” and “voter fraud” dominating our headlines in recent weeks of the presidential campaign, it’s informative to read US Sen. John Lewis’ final book in his graphic autobiography series in which Lewis details the Civil Rights Movement’s push to force the federal government to enforce laws that allowed black voters to register in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Civil Rights story puts the current events in perspective, particularly when you read about the violence and the unfairness of the voting system. Plus, the hate. You can’t escape the hate. Lewis’ story also reminds you of how far our nation has come, even if the headlines give us pause. And yes, it also is a call that we still have far to go when it comes to race, prejudice and injustice.
March: Book Three is the final installment in Lewis’ re-telling of his work as a young leader with the Civil Rights movement. The three books are framed around the famous Selma March that changed the way the nation saw the unfairness of the Alabama laws, and other states that were also discriminating against black voters. Like the first two books in this series, March: Book Three is a powerful piece of raw, visual storytelling. Lewis’ voice is front and center, as is his struggle to remain peaceful and true to his beliefs in the face of institutional violence. In the first Selma March, now called Bloody Sunday, Lewis suffered head injuries from a police officer’s baton.
Here, Book Three begins where the last book left off — with the bombing of the church in Birmingham where four girls were killed and dozens others injured — and ends with the Selma March. Woven in and out of the past is something more current — Senator Lewis watching Barack Obama becoming the first black president of the United States, something nearly unimaginable in the turbulent times of the 1960s.
Like the other two books, this one is not appropriate for middle school readers (and certainly not for elementary students) due to violence and language, but it will resonate with high school readers, particularly those who know only the larger stories of the Civil Rights Movement. The March graphic novels give us the nitty gritty details of organization and resistance, and the slow shift of change. It also reminds us of the dedication of so many people who sought to change our country’s fabric. Many paid a terrible price for their work.
Note: Lewis is listed as one of the authors of the March series, along with Andrew Aydin. The artwork in the series was done by Nate Powell.
My good friend and creative partner on many an online writing adventure, Terry Elliott, has been using the term “Adjacent Possibilities” for some time now. The term first originated by scientist Stuart Kauffman, I believe, but Kauffman’s insight was centered on scientific inquiry and discovery. Terry has been mulling over Kauffman’s ideas in other realms beyond science, such as writing and creating. (And Steven Johnson has written extensively about it, too).
As I understand it, the idea of the Adjacent Possible is that one kind of creative idea spills over into another kind of creative ideas, and that spills over into another creative idea. And so on, so that what happens when you explore something new is that your ending point (if there ever is one) is a few, or many, steps away from where you started, and perhaps miles away from where you thought you were going in the first place. It’s sort of like Six Degrees of Separation, but with ideas and not with people.
Terry brought the term up again the other night during the Q/A session of my keynote presentation for the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing as he took the mic, and then later, in a private message, he expanded the notion even further.
What he hopes — what I hope, what many of us hope — is that the attendees of the conference and the keynote session do not replicate the kinds of Digital Writing that I shared out. Instead, they will be inspired to make their own kinds of writing. The Adjacent Possible is the notion that we don’t just replicate what we see. Instead, we riff off our discoveries and shift into something new.
I’ve written about this from another angle, too. It has to do with bringing in Mentor Digital Texts to my sixth graders, and then noticing how many of them just clone what they saw me share out. Of course, they do. We all start there. Hopefully, then we branch out. For example, I began playing guitar and then shifted into writing songs by ripping off the chords and melodies from bands I loved. Eventually, I began to make my own moves, and left those recognizable chord structures behind. I found my own muse.
Helping my students as writers find and then make their own moves, to discover what is not yet visible, is part of why I got into teaching, and why I still love being in the classroom with 11 year old writers.
And I tangled with this tension of the adjacent possible the other day, when I wrote about how so many of them are afraid to take chances with their writing. I was frustrated by their confusion over an open-ended writing prompt, but hopeful in what happened. I believe in my heart that I can help my students discover what they can’t yet see. That belief of possibility is the ballast in this age of frustration with the tightening educational systems around us.
In the notion of the Adjacent Possible, it seems to me, the skill we need to nurture above all is Flexibility. We need to discover the wiggle room between one idea and the next, and then dive into that gap with possibilities — both that something will be unearthed and that our path may become a dead end (so, start over and try again). Being here is not enough. Being there is where we need to be.
A flexible view of the world — not just in writing but in everything — opens up the unknown, and in that unknown, we may find something new about ourselves, about others, about the world. I know this sounds like gobblygook but it rings important to me. It underlies why we write, and why we teach, and why we learn.
Keynoting and presenting in a virtual site like Blackboard Connect is sort of like hanging out with roomful of ghosts. They’re very friendly and curious ghosts, sort of like Casper if he were to become a teacher instead of just a cute spirit. You feel the presence of participants in the scrolling chat room as you talk to a screen featuring slides you made and know by heart (mostly). Sometimes, they take the mic. Yeah, being a presenter in that kind of screen-based format is slightly odd.
But I was satisfied with how my keynote address for the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing went last week. Even with my ghosts in the machine, I felt as if I accomplished most of my goals of exploring what we mean when we say “digital writing” (even if we/I haven’t solidified the thinking) and my own experiences with how digital canvasses might push the possibilities of how and what we write in different, and new, directions. I didn’t get to all that I wanted to get to, and I left some projects hanging in the wind. We never got to crowdsource a definition of Digital Writing.
I had five take-aways from my own session that I thought I would share here as a sort of my own post-keynote reflection.
Presenting “what” you do requires deep reflection on “why” you do it. I found that as I was pulling together different projects that I hoped represented my “moves” as a digital writing, I was re-examining the rationale for why using a digital space might be different than a non-digital space. I’m not sure we always do this kind of reflective writing afterwards, but the value of it is immense. It informs our thinking now, and into the future. Reflection is the best non-digital aspect of digital writing, for me.
I was asked a question from the participants about how I explain to parents and administrators the value and merit of all writing with digital. I had one of those “Aha” moments as I was answering. What I realized is that I never use the term “digital writing” with my students. Never. We just …. write. We call it writing. This goes to the heart of some of the discussion on what we call what we do when we write with technology and it bubbled up in the chat room and in the question/answer session of the keynote. As to the initial question, I explained that my role as teacher is to expand notions of what writing is and what writing can be. I value the writing my students do out of school and I want to hook as many of my young students as possible in as many platforms as possible, all with the goal of improving writing skills that we all value: clarity of message, sense of audience, writing to learn, etc.
One of the projects I shared — Blink Blink Blink — brought back a lot of memories. As I looked at the date, I realized … that was 10 years ago. Ten years in the past, I was experimenting with multiple videos as a way to transform a poem at a National Writing Project Tech Matters retreat. I’ve been at this for some time, and still, I get the sense that I am nowhere near where I want to be as a digital writer. (Listen to my audio reflection after making Blink Blink Blink … and you can hear me struggling with some of the same ideas I am writing about here, ten years later). I have yet to finish any project and say, That’s exactly what my vision was. I always fall short. That sense of “are we there yet?” keeps me moving forward, experimenting and tinkering and trying out new possibilities. Still, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a “we’re here” moment now and then.
My push into digital writing is inspired by my students, all the time. I am constantly trying to figure out what they are doing, and why, and how what they might be interested in might inform how I can reach them as writers. Snapchat. Musical.ly. Video game design. Video production. I go where they lead me, and then I write and create, and come back to try to lead them forward, too. It’s a dance that we have, and it requires paying attention to the ever-shifting sands of technology and social media and young people. I won’t say I have a finger on the pulse — no adult should ever really claim that — but I keep my ears open.
This is no new insight for me but as I look back on the projects that I shared in the keynote, you can’t help but see that collaborative elements are baked right into just about everything I do when it comes to digital writing. I can and do go it alone but I often would rather be writing and making with others when it comes to digital writing. I am empowered and nurtured by my fellow travelers — learning from those who are two steps ahead of me and encouraging those who are one step behind, as best as I can. We write, together.
Interested in the idea of digital writing? Or just writing (with digital)? Or in whatever you want to call it? Here are some resources I mentioned in my keynote that might be worth exploring:
The entire DS106 ecosystem is chock full of amazing ideas and curriculum, and as an open network, it is all free for the borrowing and remixing. In particular, the Ds106 Daily Create is a fantastic source of daily ideas for making, writing, creating and more. Even if you don’t participate each day, the flow of ideas will get you thinking.
I helped co-facilitate Digital Writing Month last November, but the founders of DigiWriMo decided, for many complicated reasons, not to do it this year. However, folks in the CLMOOC from the summer are planning Pop-Up Make Cycles mid-November as way to do some DigiWrimo-ish activities. You can keep an eye on the CLMOOC website and the #CLMOOC or #DigiWriMo hashtags. Also, explore the Digital Writing Month website for incredible resources and analysis of what it means to write digitally.
I curate a Flipboard magazine called Along the Edge of Digital Writing as a way to highlight some of the pieces that I come across that I think may push our thinking about the possibilities of writing.
Will Stephen, a comedy writer, gave this TEDx talk about Nothing as a way to expose the rhetorical moves of TED talkers in a hilarious yet insightful way. In doing so, he makes us laugh as he deconstructs the appeal of TED talks. It’s worth your five minutes.
As an experiment, some folks turned over scriptwriting for a short film to an algorithm. You can read more about it in detail at this post, and/or watch the opening credits on the movie embedded above. It explains how and what they did. The film itself? It makes no sense, and yet, it is intriguing as an experiment.
And it reminds of the very human nature of writing. Maybe someday, computers will be able to write (or, in an educational connection, assess writing) but I don’t think we are there yet. I know we are not there yet.
There are complexities that come from subtext, from story, from character motivations, and other elements that can’t (yet) be replicated by machine.
We’re in the midst of our version of the Letters to the President project right now. My students are too young to partake in posting to the site, but wow … I think I saw there are nearly 2,700 letters at the site already. What a rich resource of student writing and ideas!
My sixth graders have had lesson on the Electoral College (an eye-opener to them, who thought the candidate with the most votes wins the election) and worked on a short essay on whether voting should be mandatory or not. We’ve read articles and watched some videos. Yesterday, I had them set up a Research Journey in Google Docs and showed them the Research tool inside of their Doc. Today, they will determine a topic for their Letter and start diving into some websites to be informed when they start writing (and hopefully, podcasting).
And in-between, we had them work on a Political Button (via Make Beliefs Comix) in which they had to invent or use an imaginary candidate and create a catchy button for their candidate. We talked about phrases, rhyming and loaded words. Some of their buttons were very funny. It was a nice creative break from the serious talk of our country’s future.
(This is part of Slice of Life, a regular writing activity designed to look at the small moments of life. It is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. You are invited to write, too.)
The paraprofessional who works alongside me with my sixth graders — she’s someone for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration and gratitude for, on so many levels — pulled me aside yesterday.
“They’re so afraid that they will be wrong that they don’t even know where to start,” she whispered. I nodded. Like her, I too had noticed a sense of reluctance in the room. Many students were staring off, empty page in front of them.
“That’s because there is no right or wrong answer here. That confuses them,” I responded. She agreed. We both were saddened by that insight.
What we were doing was writing short stories as a daily writing prompt. Now, this is not the first time we have done writing into the day, but it was the first time that I pulled out Chris Van Allsberg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a story generator. If you don’t know what this picture book is all about, check out this video I found by a high school student on YouTube. This YouTuber does a pretty decent job of explaining it.
I had featured four of the 15 mysterious illustrations from the book (I have a portfolio version), instructed my students to choose one of the images (which have a title and caption but no story), and use it as inspiration for 15 minutes of short story writing in their writing notebooks. My only stipulation was that they had to write in First Person Narrative Point of View. Other than that, they were free to use the illustration anyway they wanted.
“There is no wrong way to do this,” I instructed. “The story is yours to write.”
But for some, this open-ended instruction stopped them dead in their tracks. They didn’t know how to begin or where to begin. They didn’t know what I was looking for. How could they write “the story that had gone missing” if they didn’t have the story in front of them?
It saddens me that we have to wrestle creativity like this out of sixth graders. At age 11 and 12, they should always be brimming with ideas, bursting with stories. But their response raises questions: Is this what standardized testing is doing to our students? Has the right/wrong dichotomy immobilized our students into inaction? Is this what the Common Core push away from narrative/poetry writing is doing to our classrooms?
Yes. It is.
In all of our edu-talk about “inquiry”, the question remains: how do we best help our young people see the rich possibilities in the blank slate before them if we don’t give them more opportunities, more freedom, more chances to explore their ideas on the page? Perhaps this happens more in your school than it does in mine. I get them at the end of their time at our school. I notice the echoes of past lessons. I can sense the shift in instructional practices.
Let me end on a positive note: when it came time to share the stories they had written (and we always build in sharing time), there were so many amazing pieces of writing. Stories told from the strangest perspectives. Dialogue-rich and thought-rich stories of characters struggling against the oddity of the world. Stories told in the present, the past, the future. Descriptive language that brought us deep into the landscape of the imagination.
They had it in them. Of course, they had it in them. They needed permission to write the way they wanted to write. Let’s provide them with more of those opportunities, and understand, as teachers, that this kind of creative writing pays dividends in the future.
Writing stories just for the sake of writing stories — no assessment, no grades — is a small gift we can give to our students in this time of data points and standardized testing. Give it, freely, won’t you?