On Language and Power: a WMWP Keynote Address

Dr. Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero gave a powerful keynote address to the Western Massachusetts Writing Project on Saturday on the topic of language, power, and teaching to all students, particularly those whose second language is English. Wilma is the 2010 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and a fearless and tireless advocate for English Language Learner students. She is also a longtime leader in the National Writing Project’s ELL Network.

Here, Wilma advocated for recognizing the authenticity of the cultural values and languages that students bring to the classroom, and use those understands as the underpinning for learning. Wilma urges all of us to open our eyes to possibilities, and even shares a few anecdotes of her own stumbles in the classroom (including a funny exchange in which she wanted her students to talk about what makes a good “speaker” but one of her students assumed she meant music speakers, not human speakers.)

Peace (in the sharing),

Some Words about the Writing Project

One of my mentors in the early years of teaching and in the National Writing Project, Bruce Penniman, received the 2010 Pat Hunter Award at our Western Massachusetts Writing Project event this weekend. To say that Bruce nurtured WMWP during his tenure as site director would be a vast understatement. And although retired from teaching, Bruce continues to be a force in education to be reckoned with. (See his book, Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support and Success, which was published last year)

Bruce instills leadership in those he works with by instilling trust of ideas and the confidence that the person can get things done. Although I did not know Patricia Hunter, who helped found the WMWP, she apparently had the same qualities.

Peace (in the sharing),

The Glogster Session at WMWP

glogster website
(Go to my Glogster Website Resource)

Yesterday morning, as part of our annual Best Practices event with Western Massachusetts Writing Project, I presented a session on using Glogster.edu in the classroom. I had about 25 people in the session and guess what? The technology worked! They all had computers to work on, the site was not blocked by the University, and they had plenty of time to play around with creating a project and reflecting on the use of Glogster in their classroom.


The things that I emphasized in the workshop were:

  • Teaching the elements of design principles
  • Copyright issues
  • Using multimedia for composition
  • The difference between regular Glogster and Glogster.edu
  • Technology being a learning tool for all curriculum areas
  • The importance of writing before technology (ie, planning, drafting, revising)
  • Advertising on websites and some strategies for avoiding it

Then, I set them up with accounts in my Glogster account, and let them have about 50 minutes (more than half the session) in playtime, which they all greatly appreciated. You can talk and talk about Glogster, but this is one tool that you have to experience to really begin to understand it.

As the Exit Slip, I had them use Wallwisher to leave a note on how they might envision using Glogster in their classroom:

Peace (in the sharing),

Fare thee well, Bloglines (old friend)

There was a time when I had no idea what RSS was, or had any clue as to what an aggregator might do for me, or had more than a limited notion of the concept of “pull” when it comes to bringing information to you. And that time wasn’t really all that long ago. I still remember the meeting where my National Writing Project friend Christina Cantrill said the word “Bloglines” to me, and explained how it would “aggregate” my “feeds” and it was as if she were speaking a foreign language to me. I had no idea what she was even talking about, although I probably nodded my head “yes” as if I did. (I’m good at that)

Christina was speaking another language (tech tongue?), really, and yet I needed to know what she was telling me because we were in the midst of a pretty large blogging project with multiple sites and, as the project leader, I was having to go to each site to check up on updates. That was a lot of surfing. I didn’t immediately catch what Christina was telling me. It too some time to sink in, to wrap my head around it, but soon I went to a RSS Aggregator called Bloglines, and I was hooked. It also helped that at the time, I was reading Will Richardon’s book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom and Richardson was clear that RSS was a game changer for gathering tools to transform the classroom.

I used Bloglines for a long stretch of time, and loved it. Except it kept breaking down on me. There were times when I would not get updates when I knew there were updates. I have patience with technology but there was a point when I finally said “enough” and moved over to Google Reader, which I love.

I learned the other day that Bloglines is now dead.  I’m sorry to see it go, even though I wasn’t using it anymore. Bloglines brought me into the Web 2.0 world like nothing else had, and opened up doors for connecting with other teachers and learning from others, and stealing their ideas (I admit it). I’m grateful for that, old friend. I’m sorry you could not keep up with the sweeping changes, and sorry I had to abandon you.

Peace (in the feeds),

Voicethread, Tech Troubles, and Student Voice

(see the voicethread)
It was too late yesterday when I suddenly remembered an old blog post from my kindergarten colleague, Gail, about her difficulties last year with using Voicethread in the classroom with all the laptops up and running. And so, I found out what Gail had earlier discovered: the wireless “pipes” soon became overloaded with data flows as my four classes of 21 students podcasted their voice into our Voicethreads of Vehicles of the Future. The browsers had trouble loading, and to top it off, our Microsoft virus/spyware protection was downloading updates in the background.

We survived, by adapting. I channeled students to my two computers, and when one of the laptops was working, we shuffled students around. I had a secondary activity waiting for them, so mostly, they all had something to do even if they were waiting. But I was running to and fro like a madman teacher, fixing problems and helping students with Voicethread, which they had never used before but liked it.

The result is that MOST of the students in three of the classes were able to complete their podcasts on Voicethread, and the remaining ones I will find a way to get to today, I hope.

The funny, and good, thing is that they didn’t seem too flustered with all the problems. I kept my calm demeanor (sort of), and came up with solutions as needed, and they mostly just went right with it. In the past, I have used Voicethread by having students come up to me and podcast with me working the computer. I didn’t want that for this project. I wanted the tools in their hands.

(On a sidenote for teachers considering voicethread: I used my teacher account to create the four voicethreads — for four classes — and then had a secondary Voicethread account for students to use. I did this so they could not edit the thread beyond adding voice or text, and because we don’t have student email. I then embedded the thread at our blog, which is where they worked from. This system seemed to work fine.)

Next time, I am going to do things a bit differently. I will have them pair up on a single computer, alternating, so that we can reduce the flow of data on our wireless server. Yes, there will be a “next time,” because I try real hard not to let the technical difficulties get in the way of using a tool that brings out the creative voice in my students. We’ll figure it out.

Peace (in the threads),


What vehicles may look like …

We’re moving towards the end of our Vehicles of the Future project, in which my students are envisioning a time when we move beyond fossil fuels to power our transportation vehicles. Later today (fingers crossed), I will be showing each of my four classes how to use Voicethread, and they will be adding a podcast descriptive paragraph to each of their illustrations of their vehicles. They’ve been working on the pictures on and off for a few days now, and yesterday, I said: that’s it! Everyone is done today!

And they were, except for about three students who had been out of school for a day or two in the last week and were a bit far behind.

As luck would have it, in my mailbox yesterday afternoon was the latest issue of Time for Kids magazine, and the cover story is all about the world of electric cars. Yep — another perfect fit with Time for Kids (a few weeks ago, just as I was about to talk about our work with Voices on the Gulf, TFK ran a cover story about the recovery efforts in the Gulf.) And I see there is a cool timeline of invention of the electric car, which is a nice touch for our work around informational text. (Now it makes me think: could I create a timeline of when my students’ imaginary cars would be released to the public? How would I go about doing that? Hmmm.)

The Voicethread projects will also be for Voices on the Gulf but I will try to share out how it went here.

Peace (in the future),

WMWP’s Journey of Language Diversity Inquiry

Two years ago, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project went through an intensive self-look at the work we were doing and the teachers we were serving (or not serving) through a National Writing Project initiative called Project Outreach. The results of that study is now shaping the way we view ourselves as an organization of writers and teachers, from the places  where we are offering our professional development, to ways in which we advertise our work, to the philosophical backbone of the decisions we make as an organization.

This year, we are launching into a theme of Inquiry around Language Diversity, and so many of our programs will be viewed through this lens. For example, this Saturday is our annual Best Practices event — a fall gathering for workshops and reunions — and the sessions hing around the theme of language and diversity. One session is about Code Switching. Another is about Validating Culture Wealth and Knowledge of ELL students. Yet another is helping students advocate for themselves.


Meanwhile, in conjunction with a UMass professor of linguistics (Lisa Green), our site is launching a year-long inquiry study group called Language Diversity in the Classroom. These sessions will center on attitudes towards language, native languages of all students, and how to understand and use language diversity for learning opportunities.

Finally, our WMWP Executive Board is going to be doing various pre-meeting readings around the diversity and language issues, and using those readings for our writing-into-the-meeting activities. The other day, we began with a passage from Paul Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and used it as a prompt to write about our own “hopeful inquiry.”

The passage from Friere ended with this:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Here’s what I wrote, hanging on the “invention and reinvention” of the Friere passage.

I am the bear;
transformed by inner dreams of slumber.
I emerge hopeful, into the world
that I never saw coming,
yet brace myself for changes afoot.

A yawn; the pain of hunger;
I am driven forward towards new terrain
in hopes I find footing
along a path that I will create here myself.

I invent this world anew
each time, each season, I emerge from darkness
into light.

What’s your hopeful inquiry?

Peace (in the sharing),

Book Review: Because Digital Writing Matters

(hear the podcast of this review)
I’ll admit many biases with this review. I am an avid supporter of the National Writing Project, which has given me many opportunities and connections as a teacher, writer and technology dabbler. And I get mentioned in this book, too. (More disclosure: NWP helped co-publish our book, Teaching the New Writing.) So, take my words for what they are — a reviewer who is deeply connected to the work highlighted here, including being an attendee at some of the conferences where conversations helped formulate the start of this book project.

But I think Because Digital Writing Matters (to be published this fall for $15. Disclosure: I was sent a review copy) stakes out some important ground in defining the role that digital tools have on the writing classroom and instruction. The book also lays the groundwork of rationale for using various elements of technology in all classrooms, not just writing classes. Writers Troy Hicks, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl and Danielle Nicole DeVoss center their arguments on a number of hooks, including documenting the long history of the National Writing Project in the field of exploring technology and writing, advocating the use of professional development to help teachers not just use but also reflect upon the use of technology, and pushing forth the call for more schools and teachers to consider the possibilities of publishing, rhetoric, voice, mixed media and more that technology brings to the table.

I do have a complaint that I need to voice before I move further here. The authors end up defining digital writing as “compositions created with, and oftentimes for reading and/or viewing on, a computer or other device that is connected to the Internet. (page 7)” My sense is that this definition probably came following lots of discussions and debate. I can appreciate that. Digital writing is not clearly defined elsewhere, either, as it is still an emerging concept. Here, though, it’s that “connected to the Internet” phrase that I have trouble with because I don’t think all digital composition needs to be connected to the world via the Internet. Sometimes, we make digital writing on our computers or mobile devices, for ourselves. A digital story, for example. I know that the writers here are trying to demonstrate the predominance of the connected world, the networked spaces that we increasingly inhabit. For me, that connection is important but it is not the end-all-be-all of digital writing.

That aside, there are many things that stand out for me in this book (which is the companion to NWP’s Because Writing Matters, which laid out the rationale for writing as a means of learning across all curriculum). Among the points where I grabbed my highlighter and marked up the text (much to the surprise of my sons, who kept asking me why I was writing in a book):

  • I like and think it is important that much of what we are calling writing falls under the term of “composition,” which involves using elements of words, audio, video, image and more to create a sense of meaning. That mixed-up, mashed-up element is highlighted throughout the book, as is the need to be able to teach those elements to our young writers/composers.
  • The book highlights many NWP teachers in the classroom, showcasing a wide range of projects on various themes: engagement, assessment, curriculum alignment, etc. That is very helpful to have. I know a lot of the folks mentioned here, and admire their work immensely from afar. I like that they are being recognized, even though there are plenty more NWP folks doing amazing work, too.
  • The chapter on the ecologies of digital writing was fascinating for me. I guess I hadn’t given this idea enough thought when it comes to the physical setting of a connected classroom. I have thought about the online environment, but pulling these two strands together (physical and virtual space) was an interesting turn.
  • I appreciated the long list of “traits and actions” that are associated with digital writing because they highlight a vast array of elements of what is going on when young people compose with computers and devices. This list runs from creativity/originality to observations/inquiry to the remix culture. Plus, I am a sucker for lists.
  • The sense of play is all over the stories in this book. We need time to play with technologies ourselves, and we need to give students the time to play and experiment, too. It’s hard to overstate this.
  • The authors use the phrase “double helix” to describe the meshing (or not) of technology curriculum standards with writing standards. I love that phrase because it shows both the connections and the separate qualities of both.

The book ends with a powerful call for educators of all stripes to get engaged in the digital world and listen to what our young people are saying about how they communicate, and to recognize the power of technology in the emerging literacies of young people.

…more and more, our students are learning to think, to read, and to ask questions in networked environments, enabled by computers, mobile phones, e-book readers, and other technologies. They will encounter information requiring them to think critically because information travels quickly, in multiple modes, in many different directions …. In short, we need to do what we have always done as educators: guide and respond to our students’ writing even though technologies continue to change. (page 150)”

I’d put this book right on the shelf next to Hicks’ The Digital Writing Workshop, Will Richardson’s Blogs, Wikis, Podcast and other Powerful Tools, and other books that continue to make visible the shifts that are going on underway in education and in our lives.

(See more information about the book at the NWP website)

Peace (in the sharing),

Joel Malley Video: Writing in the Digital Age

This is worth a view, as fellow NWP teacher Joel Malley (who blogs at Buried in Wires) gives us some insights into the digital work of students and the classroom environment of his classroom. Joel produced this as part of an upcoming appearance at a Congressional briefing around technology and writing in conjunction with the National Writing Project, the College Board and Phi Delta Kappa.

Writing in the Digital Age from Joel Malley on Vimeo.

Peace (in the sharing),

Bailing out on NBC’s Teacher Town Hall

I’m sorry to report that I spent about 20 minutes of the 2 hours with NBS’s Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall yesterday, and then found that the lack of focus of discussion made my brain ache, so I sort of bailed out on it for other things. I imagine I was not alone, nor do I doubt I was alone in thinking just how Charter School-centered much of things seemed to be. Or was I just seeing what I thought I would be seeing? That might be possible.

I tried my hand at about eight to ten chat posts, but none of them got through the logjam of comments. Some were great. Some were not-so-great, but honestly, the wave of information was just too much to assimilate and make sense of, and therefore, for me, it was a fairly meaningless venture.

But I am sure NBC will make a big deal of the backchannel chat room, which had thousands of teachers in it. A lot of folks on Twitter reminded us that many of us do that kind of backchannel conversing about education and schooling every single day on blogs, on Twitter and elsewhere. So if you felt empowered by the NBC experience, come join the mix.

So, I am not sure what to make of the Teacher Town Hall. It’s nice that so many educators rose up and got involved. That’s good. But there were too many of us to have any real message being heard, in my opinion.  And why did I get the sense that maybe someone was filtering the chat room comments? Is that possible? Of course, it is, but I am not sure if that was the case.

So, now I brace myself for the next wave of post-Waiting for Superman media frenzy and continue my work of planning out engaging lessons, helping my young students become better writers and readers, and finding ways to continue to push myself as a professional. I suspect you are probably doing the same, and making a difference in the lives of your students.

So, I applaud you. And maybe that voice won’t get lost in the mix.

Peace (in reflection),