Reflections from National Writing Project, ancillary discussions

nwpam2010Sometimes at a conference, some of the most interesting conversations happen in the spaces in-between the official sessions. I made a few mental notes about some of the informal discussions that I was part of at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting last week — in hallways, near the snack area, after sessions, etc. — and thought I might share some of those topics out because I seem to think that they are bigger topics than I first imagined. That’s what happens when you get to talk with very smart people, as I was lucky enough to do last week.

Digital Identities: A few of us had a long conversation one night about the use of social media and tools and how we go about finding a “voice” on those platforms that is real. We find ourselves often caught between our official role as a “teacher” and 0ur role as a creator of content. There are legitimate fears from educators about how authentic one’s online voice should be, and yet, I would argue that we need to let some of that come through in our writing, our sharing, our collaborations. Hiding behind a veil of parsed language seems increasingly at odds with why one would create an online space in the first place, doesn’t it? And yet, I myself create a sort of wall for myself, too, ducking behind a nickname in some spaces. But I do try to write with an authentic voice as much as possible.

Future of Apps: There is no doubt that the biggest change from last year’s NWP meeting to this year is the explosion of Apps on handheld devices, and there was plenty of talk outside of sessions about what that means. Will the use of Apps mean a push towards allowing cell phones and other handheld devices into the classroom? That’s what we wonder, and then, we talked about what that would mean. Will the influx of new applications open up new spaces and new ways for composing and creating? In a session I did around stopmotion movies, one of the participants pulled out his iPhone and used a new app (imotion) for making stopmotion that used the camera in his phone. In minutes, he had created a movie and emailed a version of it to me from his cell phone. That’s pretty amazing.

First Steps: I had a lot of conversations with folks, wondering how they could take their first steps into the digital conversations. I mentioned places to enter with Twitter, and with social networks, and I pushed the use of RSS feeders to follow blogs. It seems to be me that this wave of conversation signals a concern that teachers are being left behind, and that they cannot ignore the technology any longer, if that was their tact. There’s more and more talk, and more and more evidence, that the media and tools that our students are using outside of the classroom are not filtering their way in, and the teachers I talked with are concerned about that trend. They want to feel relevant to the lives of their students.

The Standards: This topic came up in sessions as well as out of sessions. How do we balance the use of technology with the push and pressures of standardized curriculum and assessment? It’s a legitimate concern, and one that is local to the school and district where we teach. Some of us have greater freedom, as long as we are following curriculum frameworks, while others have more shackles, such as a cookie-cutter curriculum. It seems to me that we need to find ways to get more administrators involved in the kind of discovery that teachers are doing. If teachers have that support from the principal or superintendent, they are more likely to dip their toes into the water.

Plugged Out: At our conference, there was no Internet access. The cost was too much for NWP, I suspect. What that meant was that all sessions were off-line explorations, which works better for some ideas than others. But it was clear that many of us felt odd and strange, off the grid as we were. Many of us (not all) are used to taking notes online, sharing ideas from conferences “in the moment,” using backchannels for related discussions, creating multimedia interpretations of events, etc. It wasn’t until someone in a session pointed out that what we were feeling in this unwired space was probably exactly what our students feel like when we tell them to turn off and hide their cell phones when they walk in the schools. It feels disjointed when you have integrated something into your ways of communicating, and then find it suddenly revoked. We persevered, as most of our students do, but it never felt quite right.

Access: This is a constant from year to year — how to make sure our student have access to the technology and access beyond the firewalls so that the tools that we want to use for learning are not hurdles of frustration. I still hear about computer labs being used only for reading assessments, and of firewall filters being so strict as to be meaningless. Like many, I long for the day when this is NOT an issue facing schools.

Peace (in the discussions),

  1. Great post. Gets me to think about what conversations bubbled up during this action-packed two-three days. We had a great session with Peter K. and Andrea Z about digital identities and we read some great pieces with the conversations.
    When we got back to our HVWP rental we moved away from tech and into the reality of how tenure will be replaced by a very complicated formula including a percentage for the high stakes tests. That’s a reality to deal with and of course, one more:
    will we continue after 2010 as an NWP?


    • And after two sessions on gaming, I want to know more and my plan is to check out the new school in NYC focused on gaming. Good thing I have a connection from my NWP networking.

      • One more thing…:)
        Liked many of us, I loved Donalyn Miller’s keynote. I loved her book and wondered if she could live up to my expectations. I’m wondering, after reading the recent article in the NY Times, about kids and reading, what will happen to kids if their teachers can’t keep the passion strong?


  2. Very interesting. It’s always interesting to hear about the in-between conversations. Thanks, Kevin. I’d add that I found it interesting how much the talk I heard was a belief that we may be at a moment where we’re ready, as teachers of digital writing, to move away from conversations predominantly focused on “how” and move towards conversations focused more on “why.” I heard that from a couple of people. Wondered if that was something you sensed, too.

    Also, it’s interesting to hear the analogy between how we felt without Internet access and what our students experience in schools. I think it’s apt. One question I have, though, is if as presenters ubiquitous access makes us less creative in our exploration of a topic with participants. I’m thinking of the Going On session, which involved a cutting out of materials with paper and scissors and glue sticks. Reminded me of Bud Hunt’s early days of using yarn to understand webpage navigation. The answer, I realize, is probably not an either/or. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

    • I am hoping the “why” is bubbling more than the “how” and I think that is the case.

      There is value in the non-tech tech session, for sure, but it would be nice to have some choices, too. The give-and-take of online components of sessions can be valuable and bring the audience into the mix. That said, I completely understand the expense involved.


  3. With my iPad I had internet access and I was tweeting away. I wonder if it would have been better for me to power down more and listen without multi-tasking.
    Okay, enough from me,

  4. This post is really great. I wasn’t at the NWP annual meeting, but as a writing center tutor/FYW instructor, I’ve been thinking about these issues myself, especially the digital identities. I’m not sure that I have anything fantastic to say, just that I appreciate the summary and the “off the grid” issues you speak about.

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