#DigiLitSunday: Filters, Floodgates and Us

flickr photo shared by el_finco under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

My son was born on Sept. 11.  Not the date of the horrific attack on the US. A few years later. My wife and I always say that we helped bring healing on 9/11 by bringing a beautiful baby into the world. But now that he is older, and more attuned to the world, he is asking some deep and probing questions about the nature of the attack whose anniversary coincides with his birthday.

Today is his birthday.

For years, we have acted a filter for our kids about 9/11. Not a wall that lets in no information. But as a filter, in which we have tried to let them know of things like the 9-11 attacks, and tried to address some of the reasons (as best as we can discern) for the attacks and the aftermath, and how the world changed suddenly in the aftermath.  We’ve had relatives in war zones and I’ve had friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve filtered the information to provide some Truth (or as best we can figure it) without the devastating imagery that comes with it.

It’s a losing battle, ultimately, but as parents (and as educators), we do need to act as curators of digital content for our children. Or we should try. The reality is that filters only go so far, and filters are only as effective as the thinking behind it and the information in front of it, and just beyond the filter lies the floodgates.

flickr photo shared by Alpstedt under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

The Deluge from the Digital eventually will come.

The other day, in the car, as we listened to a story on NPR about rescue workers from 9/11, my son began to pepper me with questions about the event. Why did it happen? Was it just New York? (I reminded him that his uncle worked in the Pentagon in the time after the attack there and how devastated he was to see the Pentagon, and the loss of life). What about the other plane? The one that passengers brought down, sacrificing themselves, in order to thwart an attack? Were they heroes? What would I do if I had been on that plane? Could he watch the movie, Flight 93?

I was still a filter, slightly more open now, given his age. I provided information (and told him he might need to wait on the movie). I am heartened by the number of books for middle age readers now out about 9/11 and am looking for one we can read together.

Still, I fear the floodgates.

I fear the images he might find if he does web searches when I am not there with him. I worry about when he starts to use social media as a teenager, and hears rumors and false stories about tragic events. I worry that the Digital World, which I often celebrate here and in my classroom, might be the harbinger of lost innocence.  I know I am probably already too late, that the world is quicker and bigger and more intrusive than I can ever predict. I’m fast on my feet but not quick enough. I know I can’t be my son’s protector forever.

I know all that.

I still worry about it.

The best we can do with our children and our students is try to be one of the trusted adults they can talk to, and ask questions of, and to be the ones whom they can turn to when the world turns upside down on them — in small ways and in larger ways. To be that kind adult, though, seems like walking on shifting sands so much of the time.

We do what we can and hope for the best.

flickr photo shared by Onasill ~ Bill Badzo under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

Peace (and Hope for the Better World),

At Middleweb: Forget the Tech/Focus on Learning


My start-of-the-year post for my Middleweb blog — Working Draft — is about what happened when I realized that the technology platform that I use at the beginning of the school year for a few projects with my sixth graders … died and disappeared on me. I had that slight panic of now what and then realized, again, it is never about the technology.

Read More Proof It’s the Teaching, Not the Tech at Middleweb

Peace (settling in now),

Defining Digital Writing (A Modest Proposal)

Digital Writing, in the margins

It’s quite possible this is impossible. I am trying to narrow in on the affordances of what we mean by the phrase “Digital Writing.” I may even veer way off track here, and perhaps it is best for all of us just to drop the “digital” once and for all, and just call it .. writing. Although, I, for one, still prefer the word “composing.”

Still … I am on this merry path of thinking because I am giving an ending Keynote to the (free!) 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing, which takes place on Sundays in October and because I have been engaged in an intriguing margin annotation activity with my CLMOOC friend, Karen LaBonte, who wrote a “field report” blog post that shared some critique of the phrase “Digital Writing” by close family members.

That had me thinking: OK, so WHAT do we mean? What affordances does the digital bring to writing? How is it different from what we think of as (regular) writing (ie, paper, pen/cil, etc.) And, why do we need to differentiate?

Here is a rough list of affordances, in my view, of how Digital Writing is different from, eh, Analog Writing. (Boy, that phrase looks odd, right?)

Digital Writing …

  • is more than just words typed on a screen. A simple blog post is not really digital writing;
  • potentially crosses mediums, so that words might mix with sound might mix with video might mix with other media;
  • narrows the gap between writer and reader by giving more agency to the reader than traditional relationships, and so, the writer must plan for that changed relationship;
  • can have deeper associative properties, particularly when thinking of how hyperlinks embedded within the text might connect one text to another, providing options and trails that move away from the main text itself;
  • may or may not harness the possibilities of the underlying yet mostly hidden “writing” — the computer code of the page that we read that has been represented as text but is actually not text;
  • provides for possible collaborations beyond the writer, and sometimes without their permission or notice, such as the margin annotations on a website page or a remix of media.

The criticism, including my own, may be be that most of what I just wrote in this list is not necessarily “writing.” It is more technology — tinkering with the way we represent writing in the larger world. But I still think if “composing” is the word we use when it comes to “digital writing,” we are more apt to be open to the use of various media, of hyperlinks like paths on a literacy map, of reader involvement in the original text, of the sort of planning that “digital writer” has to do to create a “digital text.” It is all composition.

DIGITAL the poem

I don’t think we are at a point where all writing is digital writing, and therefore, we don’t need a separate designation on it. I don’t know if digital writing is the right term, though. But it does seem to me that we need some way to show that technology is changes the way we compose our texts in the world, if only so we can talk about it (and maybe debate it).

What do you think?

Peace (write it into the world),

The Appeal of Musical.ly (and the Trap of the Likes)


My 11 year old son has really enjoyed making videos with the Musical.ly app this summer. If you don’t know what it that is, Musical.ly is a lip-syncing app, which provides short bursts of song that the user creates an equally short video for. Most people lip-sync the song and share within the community. Tons of kids are using it.

I was going through the videos my son had been making (nearly 100 now), and I was laughing at his sense of humor. His friend was over this weekend, and they made a very interesting one, that was shot entirely in reverse, as his friend catches some inflatable baseballs and items while grooving to a song. A sort of trick-camera thing. I thought it neat, but it might just be a simple tweak of the app. I’m not sure.

(Note: I asked later the boys about it. It was done in the app. So much for hacking the app for creative video editing.)

I also get a little antsy, though, in how my son, entering his middle school years, gets caught up in the number of viewers and likes and all of the suitcase luggage of social media (thumbs up, plus, etc.) on his work (not just here in this app but also in other platforms) that doesn’t really designate anything much in reality. He sees it as “someone is watching what I am making” but I suspect it is an ego thing, too. He wants to be popular, and he sees technology as one of the ways to be “cool.”

We’re already overhearing conversations about “how many views do you have?” and “how many videos have you made?” as if it were all a cold numbers game.

We’re trying to temper that impulse for “likes without context” with discussions at home, as best we can. He’s always enjoyed making movies, and has regularly written and produced videos himself with friends. (In fact, he is finishing up the editing a video that he and this same friend shot over the weekend.)

This Musical.ly app is designed for short videos, and I hope that it doesn’t suck dry the creative fountain for his desire to make longer video productions. I hope, instead, it gives him more ideas that he can use elsewhere.

And sure, he’s having fun with it. That’s important, too.

Peace (in navigating the world),

Book Review: Wonderbook (The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction)

Wonderbook cover

This book … is incredible. A real find for anyone interested in writing, or art, or teaching either. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction explores the craft of writing fiction through many lens. I spent part of an afternoon just flipping through to the illustrations, which are strange and wonderful to view, and informative as a way to conceptualize the writing process for fiction.

The theme is “imaginative fiction” but isn’t all fiction imaginative?

Writer/Illustrator Jeff VanderMeer, running on all cylinders here, brings a wide array of ideas to the forefront, from creating characters to mapping out imaginative stories to the revision process to much more. There are many intriguing interviews with published writers, exploring the minds of creativity. While Wonderbook may be more of a textbook for a storytelling class, I found it useful as a writer and teacher of young writers.

Yesterday, we used a map from the book for a writing prompt, in which students used the map as setting for an adventure story, and they were very intrigued.

Peace (on maps and beyond this world),



Slice of Life: Questions, Question and More Questions

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing activity on Tuesdays hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Come join in.)

flickr photo shared by pasukaru76 under a Public Domain Dedication Creative Commons ( CC0 ) license

“How am I getting to school?”

“What bus number am I?”

“What time does school open?”

“What time does school close?”

“Can I do the after-school programs when they start?”

“Can I ride my bike to school on Wednesday with friends?”

“Am I going to like my teachers?”

“What time do I need to wake up?”

“Am I home lunch or school lunch?”

My youngest son moves from his elementary school to the middle school (grades 6-8) today, and yesterday (actually, all weekend), he was a fountain of questions about the first day of school. It’s a nervous energy but of the positive kind. He was all dressed in his school clothes last night, with hair combed, ready to go, and was disappointed when I told him not to sleep in his nice clothes.

“Why not?”

Peace (jittery cool),

The Lives of Connected Teens/The Nuances of Social Media


I read with interest an article in Wired Magazine about teenagers and their use of social media and technology as part of their ways to navigate and connect with the world. The piece, by Mary H.K. Choi, dovetails nicely with the work being done by researchers like danah boyd.

As a teacher, and a father of teens, Choi’s piece gave me a lot to think about, particularly around the nuances of Snapchat, and of Instagram, and of “ghosting” and other nuances of the social media world. I appreciate that she makes clear this is no large ethnographic study like Mimi Ito and others have done. Instead, Choi spent time with a small but diverse group of teenagers, observing their habits.

Anytime we can get some insight into the minds of teens, particularly using technology for connections, is important, so I grabbed some quotes from the article that stuck with me.

Teens and Social Media – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires;

Peace (in the minds and the world),

PS — Check out the accompanying “guides” on social media use that were part of the article, too.

It Wasn’t All Bad (There Was Success, Too)

Yesterday, I wrote about my struggles on the first days of school with technology, and how it went awry. But the week also had success, too. For example, on Friday, I was able to get all 70ish of my sixth graders to activate their Google Apps for Education accounts, with very little problems, and all of them were able to dive into Google Slides to “play” for a small bit of time. (I purposely don’t show them what to do, so they have to navigate a new system on their own, with help of friends. Mini-lessons will come later)

SixWord Collage2

A fair number of my homeroom students did, in fact, get a chance to complete their Six Word Memoirs and their Summer Experiences within the collaborative project that fell apart on us on that first day. I can see I have a very sports-orientated bunch of kids with me this year.

SixWord Collage1

And we began our classroom routines (writing prompts, discussions, dedicated reading time, Circle of Power and Respect, etc.) and I began reading the first half of Rikki Tikki Tavi, which will be our touchstone text all year long when it comes to thinking and writing about literature.

200px-Rikki-Tikki-cvrSo, overall, it was a great start to the year, with a few stumbles, and I can’t wait to get back with them on Tuesday. That said, I also don’t mind an extra day home for Labor Day.

Peace (everywhere),

Collaboration Falls Apart: I’m Still Learning

flickr photo shared by russellstreet under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Earlier this year (which was actually last school year), I wrote about using Google Slides as a collaborative space for writing poetry with four full classes of students over the course of a day. It was a great idea that failed rather miserable and ended in chaos. You can read about it here.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but no … Actually, I hoped I had learned my lesson. But I tried something similar again this past week with my new class of sixth graders, only to sort of fail … yet again. Sigh.

Welcome to Sixth Grade title

On the first day of school this week, before my sixth grade students had activated their school Google Apps for Education account, I set up a Google Slideshow, made it a public document for anyone to contribute without logging in, linked it off our class blog site, and assigned each student three slides (four, if you count their name slide). I did, in fact, remember what I learned from the past failure. I made sure that each student had a designated space inside the slideshow, with their names right on the slides. (Each student’s task was to create a slide of something they did in the summer, a six word memoir and their favorite “media”)

I walked my students through the process of how to use Google Slides (only one student in my class had ever created a slideshow, ever, which is interesting .. and the pattern for my other three classes as well, it turns out). I presented a mini-lesson on using Creative Commons for the search for images, and how to add the links to photos inside the slides as attribution points. I showed them my example as a mentor text.

Summer Moment

And then I set them loose for the next hour.

For about 30 minutes, it was beautiful. They were engaged, helping each other out, and I was wandering around, talking to them about their summer and their memoirs, and giving help with finding and using images. We talked about design elements of slides. They were having fun.

Six Word Memoir

Then, someone tried to use spellcheck.

Now, let me say, I was quite happy they found spellcheck. It meant they were checking their writing. They noticed the red squiggles. They wanted to fix a mistake. But when they tried to spellcheck their own slide, the tool jumped them to other slides in the collaborative show, and either they began to hit “back” or “delete” or something to get back to their own slide, and suddenly, entire slides — not their own — were disappearing.

There was that murmuring energy that begins slow and then builds into crowd confusion. No teacher wants to sense that in the room, believe me.

Keep calm, I said to the class, as hands were now raising into the air. We’ll figure this out.

I helped a few with the “undo” button, but that only worked if I was with the student who did the accidental edit. If it was a student whose slide disappeared in front of them because of someone else’s actions, the undo button didn’t work.

Luckily, we were now near the end of our time, and so I announced, in my confident teacher voice, that we would be stopping for the day and I would try to go back in time with Google Slide history/revision, and find the missing pieces (I’m making it all out to be worse than it is, but I am still not sure how many slides got deleted). I expressed confidence in the auto-save.

Alas, because they were all anonymous guests, working at the same time, the revision history only went so deep, and I can’t traverse back to the time (even when going into advanced revision history) where the slides went kaput. What’s missing is still missing, and may remain missing. I’m still looking.

Here’s the thing. While I am disappointed again at how collaboration failed, I realize later I accomplished some of my goals for the lesson:

  • All of my students now have a basic understanding of how a slideshow works;
  • We started discussions around digital design with text and image;
  • They can find images with Creative Commons tags and use those images, with attribution;
  • They understand that we will be using technology for collaboration projects this year, and that means working together;
  • Sometimes, the technology just doesn’t do what we want it to do — either through our own actions, or mistakes, or through the technology’s limitations;
  • We keep on trying, and moving forward, and don’t panic;
  • Even the teacher, with the best-laid plans, doesn’t always have the answers to unexpected problems, at least in the moment when problems arise.

I am back to thinking about The Next Time I Do This and how to make this kind of collaboration work better for me, and for them. Yes, I am determined. Perhaps the solution is to have them create their own slides shows in their own accounts, and then port them into the collaborative show as a second step. That way, they always have their own versions.

They, of course, seem less concerned about it than I am. We’ve already moved on, activating their Google accounts and pushing forward.

Kids. Go figure.

Peace (in collaboration),

Writing in the Public Sphere: You Write It, You Own It

flickr photo shared by mpardo.photo under a Public Domain Dedication Creative Commons ( CC0 ) license

We’ve had an interesting and controversial issue going on in my small liberal city in Western Massachusetts, and at the heart of it is what we consider “public space.” I find it intriguing on a few levels, but mostly, it reminds me of our community discussion two years ago in CLMOOC about the notion of the Public Sphere in the Digital Age.

Some background: Our city has a Human Rights Commission, appointed by the mayor and approved by City Council. The mayor put forth a few new people for the commission, which sponsors education programs and outreach efforts and more. It also can field complaints about equity and other issues on behalf of the city.

Just as it seemed like it might be a buried news story, the local newspaper must have received a tip about one of the mayor’s nominees, and after looking through this person’s public Twitter feed, the newspaper shone a light on some controversial comments with a front page piece. The nominee’s defense sounded a lot like Trump Lite: You don’t get my humor. I was being sarcastic. I am being attacked by the liberal media.

The nominee was quoted as calling the article a hatchet job that cut them off at the knees, but I went through the Twitter feed in question and I think the newspaper was pretty fair in its assessment. This person wrote about national events in a harsh tone, calling, for example, for a mother to stop getting pregnant by medical means as a way to stop violence in an urban community and suggesting suicide to another person in the news spotlight.

Maybe it was sarcasm, but as we know, digital spaces don’t always translate well into nuanced cold reading. This person came across as .. rather cruel and taunting with their rhetoric. I’m not sure that would be true in life outside the screen. I don’t know them. I only know their words on my screen. I’m not all that impressed with that person.

The nominee withdrew their name from consideration after the article came out and the newspaper published a flood of letters this week, all condemning the former nominee for using Twitter in this way and then complaining about it when people (and reporters) actually read the tweets.

One letter writer noted that Twitter is a public space. You write it you own it, they keenly observed. One should expect to get read, they noted, and be held accountable, particularly if you intend to become a public official that deals with rights of all people.

Kindness matters.

Which brings us to the notion of online spaces as public spaces. We examined the nature of digital spaces, or the Commons, during CLMOOC 2015, and I dug up one of the posts that I wrote, because this event in my city resonated in my mind. The post has to do with the Digital Commons, and who owns what, and our responsibilities in those spaces.

The Internet as Public Space 1 (Where the Center Meets)

A question facing our city now is whether the public social media feeds of candidates to appointed boards and commissions should be part of the review process. Currently, it is not. The mayor was caught off-guard by the newspaper article. But I think it should be, right? If you write in the public, whether it is for a newspaper or Twitter or graffiti on the wall, then what you write is part of who you are in the public.

Words have meaning.

I haven’t checked the former-nominee’s Twitter in some days because it was turning nasty, with right-wing supporters saying the city was somehow suppressing the free exchange of ideas and targeting the newspaper for its reporting, saying it is run by “white men” of privilege, as if that had anything to do with the story. The nominee promised to write an “op ed” piece but then suggested the newspaper would never run it.

Actually, that “white men” knee-jerk comment was also made by the chair of the commission — someone I know from when she and I worked together as journalists for another newspaper, and where she left to start up a regional Hispanic newspaper to give voice to Latinos, and whom I respected. Now I am not so sure.

The Public surely gets messy as we try to figure out the nuances of the world.

Peace (in all spaces),