At NWP Write Now: It’s Not the Tech; It’s the Teaching

Not the ToolsI was asked to write a piece over at NWP Write Now about the sudden rush to technology that has engulfed us all in the Pandemic, with a reminder that it is the teaching and teacher and pedagogy that is always more important than the app, site or platform. I found it helpful in the writing of the piece to remember my own advice.

Read Never The Tech; Always The Teaching at NWP Write Now.

Peace (on/off),
Kevin

Facing Diversity and Race in National Park Spaces

Delaware River Gap: PEC

I took part this week in a retreat this week for a project called Parks In Every Classroom, that is run by the National Park Service in the Northeast region to connect educational opportunities with National Park and Historic spaces.

I’ve been working as a teacher and consultant with the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, in my role with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project site, for the past five years or so, helping to run summer camps at the Armory for urban students and facilitating professional development for teachers. This work with PEC is not directly related to my role in the Write Out open learning initiative (coming again in October) with the National Writing Project but there are overlaps in colleagues and the shared goal of Place-Based Learning for students.

This my second Parks In Every Classroom retreat (last year, we went to the Delaware Water Gap Recreational Area; this year, we were home, zooming) and I continue to be impressed by how well-run the days are, how thoughtful and rich the conversations are, and how the participants (about 40 of us) grapple with tough questions.

This year’s theme was all about diversity, equity and race, and we dove deep into systematic racism, looking at schools and also looking at our National Parks, and how we might design educational opportunities to address why people of color don’t seem to use public spaces in large numbers. This forces sites to look at its own demographic make-up, how a park space is marketed to the public, what kinds of community connections are being made (or not) with what groups, etc.

We’ve had articles to read, videos to watch (including one with Robin DiAngelo, of White Fragility fame), and discussion groups. I’ve explored issues of ‘red lining’ (approval of bank loans for homes based on race and location, creating areas of poverty), and it’s impact on the school-prison pipeline; the way standardized testing’s history, originated in the terrible ideas of Eugenics and race, still has resonate today in who is considered intelligent and who has access to college, all via tests that are often rooted in white culture stories and passages; and an analysis of children’s picture books on why only white characters seem to be shown exploring nature spaces and National Parks, and what that message sends to other readers about who owns those spaces and who is not welcomed.

We worked on site-based action plans and having deep, and sometimes uncomfortable, discussions about race and access, and White Privilege, of noticing the different experiences of people based on race. Like many gatherings of teachers, this PEC group is primarily white and female, but outside consultants have joined in to help ups find ways for us to identify problems in our own systems and begin to play for action to address it.

As a teacher who is technically outside of the National Park Service, I applaud the courage of the PEC organizers to take on this issue of systematic racism, particularly knowing our work might be at political odds with the White House, the ultimate boss of federal agencies. That there are National Park Service folks, like those in PEC, willing to move ahead on race issues and White Privilege even in this rhetorical landscape of this particular time is admirable, and gives hope that our institutions can survive this moment we are in.

Peace (working on it),
Kevin

WMWP: Stepping Back but Not Stepping Away

I’ve written many times in this space and others about my first year of teaching – 19 years ago — when the Western Massachusetts Writing Project was a necessary lifeline of sorts, providing me with mentor teachers and ideas for engaging students through writing, and more.

My participation in our Summer Institute my first summer after my first year led to me being invited to an increased role in the writing project site, and then through my interest in technology and the classroom, to rich opportunities within the National Writing Project (connections that remain to this day) that have included CLMOOC and WriteOut and more.

I spent many of my years on the WMWP Leadership Team, mostly as  the technology liaison and then as the co-director for technology, and finally, for the last few years, I took on the role of the co-director of outreach, allowing me to oversee initiatives like social media and partnerships with local news organizations to feature our teachers as writers.

Last month, after a year of transition with an incoming co-director of outreach (Samantha Briggs), I stepped away from the WMWP leadership team. This is all planned and part of the leadership structure of WMWP — intentional transitioning to bring in new people as leaders (like Samantha). Although it feels strange to not call myself a co-director of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project anymore, it also feels a bit freeing. This morning, I started to edit my online profiles, changing my status back to “teacher consultant” and not “co-director of outreach.”

I’m still involved with WMWP, of course, and I continue to facilitate a partnership with the Springfield Armory National Historic Site and will be involved in youth writing programs and teacher outreach, and more through a larger network partnership between the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. I also aim, after a breather of time, to offer to be part of the WMWP Technology Team again, but as a member and not the leader (that would be Tom Fanning, who replaced me for that position, as planned).

WMWP has long been my home as a teacher, and remains so. I value my writing project colleagues and the programs and support it offers, and the vision for how best to support teachers and students through opportunities and meaningful professional development. WMWP is still my home, even as my role shifts a bit.

Peace (in transition),
Kevin

Interactive Fiction with Young Writers (a resource site)

Interactive Fiction Resource SiteLast week, I was immersed in an online summer youth writing program for middle school writers through the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My topic: Interactive Fiction (with a focus on ‘choose your own ending’ formats). I had 12 young writers with me on a daily journey via Zoom of writing, exploring, creating and sharing.

I created this online resource site with tutorials on the three main platforms that we used: Inklewriter, Twine and Google Slides.  There are also some student examples at the top. Feel free to use and share anything that might be helpful. I’ll share out some reflections of running an online summer writing program in a few days.

Go to Interactive Fiction resource site

I’d also like to give a huge shout-out to my thinking partner on designing this online program (an offshoot of a project I do in the classroom with my own students ) to Bryan Coyle, a teacher-consultant with the Minnesota Writing Project.

I had learned through the National Writing Project network (via Twitter) that Bryan was also doing an Interactive Fiction summer program, in the weeks before me, and so he and I chatted via email about program design. Bryan was so generous in sharing his resources, and I was able to adapt some of his work for my own program. He also wrote me a lengthy email after his program ended, reflecting on what worked for him and what didn’t, offering advice on how to proceed in an online environment with young writers one has never met. I am most grateful for the connection.

Peace (make a choice),
Kevin

NaPoWriMo: For People of Good Will (In a World of Algorithms)

(I am participating in National/Global Poetry Month as I continue to write small poems each morning. – Kevin)

Day Twenty Four: For People of Good Will (In a World of Algorithms)

Face it – it’s fake –
this world’s overflowing
with modern-day
data-mining automated
Argonauts mixing fame
and fortune, remixing the game
we think we knew rules to play,
and the question remains
of whether or not we care
to share or take the blame
of it all, to bend the algorithms
or to break them

Note: This poem follows the fourth and final session of the NWP Grapples project, in which we have been meeting monthly to tackle thorny and ethical issues of AI and learning, and society at large, and it has been fascinating to dive into the topics. Last night, we spent some time looking at and grappling with what’s real and what’s fake, but a larger discussion led to Richard talking about finding hope and beauty and humanity (a theme that ran through all of the Grapple sessions) in the connections afforded by any technology, and that “people of good will” (referencing gatherings of Civil Rights movement) can push back against algorithms that either purposefully or inadvertently dehumanize our experiences.

Peace (and hope in humanity),
Kevin

Grappling with Algorithms and Justice (Oh, the Humanity)

Last night was the second online session of an inquiry group project called The Grapple Series – hosted by the National Writing Project, Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and the CMU CREATE Lab — that is looking at the impact of AI and technology on our lives. The theme last night was algorithms and justice, a pairing that made for interesting conversations about how blind trust in both often lead to disastrous consequences.

We explored some interesting reading and video pieces before gathering in our online session. The articles explored the issue from multiple angles, but the overall connecting concepts are clear: algorithms are created people, and people have bias, and so algorithms have bias, too, and when algorithms are embedded with bias, it impacts our notions of justice in the world.

Sometimes, this is literal — as in the case of computer software being used to designate length of parole. Sometimes, it is more nuanced — the way search engines bring racial stereotypes to the surface. Sometimes it is not yet known — the way facial recognition is changing our sense of privacy in the public sphere.

The Grapple gathering began with a large discussion and writing about justice and algorithms, and then broke into smaller groups, where we engaged in deeper debate about the role of algorithms on society.

We also teamed up to create our own paper “algorithm” for fighting off the common cold, and while our group went a sort of silly route (Should a teacher call in sick or not?), the short flowchart activity reminded us how often we can fall into Yes/No binary decisions that can leave the humanity aspect out. Another small group did integrate ideas of humanity into their algorithm, and I found that quite interesting.

I appreciate being able to work through and “grapple” with these complex questions rippling through society. There is no real solution — the algorithmic genie is long gone from its bottle. But we can be aware, and make some decisions about how what information we share and how we are being manipulated by technology.

Here are resources shared before our session, if you are interested:

Peace (ain’t no code for that),
Kevin

Grapple Session: An Inquiry into AI and Ethics

Grapple Session One poemLast night, I joined an online gathering of folks in The Grapple Series, hosted by the National Writing Project’s Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and a group out of Carnegie Mellon called the CREATE Lab. This was the first of four scheduled sessions on AI and Ethics, and it was a fascinating start to the conversation and inquiry.

One of the guiding inquiry questions revolves around the dual wonder of whether we humans are making our machines more human or whether machines are humanizing us. Or some variation of that question. Essentially, it has us critically looking at the rise of AI in our society, and in education and writing. We were a mix of technology doubters and evangelists, I think, which made the discussion all the more richer.

If ever there was a time to pause and look more closely at Artificial Intelligence and humanity, now is the time. And for us teachers, this kind of inquiry is critical, not just for our profession (where Big Tech is pushing AI as the solution for problems of accountability and teaching time) but also for our students, and the social world they are inhabiting now and beyond.

I didn’t have this inquiry question formulated last night but it is starting to come together for me …

How do we teach students about the impact of Artificial Intelligence on our lives with the urgency of NOW, the present, as opposed to some futuristic notion of the Rise of Machines of science fiction?

We did a fun game of Bot or Not, that had us looking at poetry and trying to decide if it was created by human hand/mind/soul or a machine. I did a fair job, mostly through luck and instinct and not through any real insights I have in knowing what’s a bot or not with a piece of writing. (My morning poem, above, was inspired by further thinking this morning of last night’s session)

The hosts — Michelle King, Laura Roop, and Beatrice Dias — were fantastic, guiding the discussion and opening the Zoom space for conversations (which is difficult when you have a lot of people in the space). I’m looking forward to the next session, when the conversation will turn on Algorithms and Ethical Design (I think that was the title, but I could be wrong …)

Peace (in a human world),
Kevin

Write Out Twitter Analysis (Part Four): Tweets, Retweets and Mentions

WriteOut Sorting of Tweets, Retweets, Mentions

I’m trying to take a closer look at what happened on Twitter with the Write Out project in October through network analysis. I’ve shared out the nodes and clusters and edges of the two-week project and then dove into cross-hashtag analysis and the timeline of user activity

The graph above sorts out all overall tweets during Write Out into the categories of original tweets (something new that a user added to the hashtag of #writeout); retweets (a tweet from someone else that a user tagged and forwarded back into the stream); and mentions (where a user not just shares someone else’s tweet, but adds some of their own commentary or text).

This network analysis look is valuable from a post-project perspective because it indicates how much original material was flowing into the project, and also, whether people were active (tweets, mentions) or non-quite-active-but-not-quite-passive-either (retweets). Part of this flows from how easy it is to retweet, and there’s no real way to know from this kind of analysis whether a person retweeted and then did something else as well (such as created something original as a result of the retweet). It’s also difficult to know if the retweets were fly-by users — someone not really involved in the Write Out project, but who saw something interesting worth amplifying.

It’s heartening to see that the main clusters (yellow and blue here) are mostly original content — either tweets or mentions — which indicates a level of involvement that we hoped to see when designing invitations and activities. Ideally, in a Connected Learning project like Write Out, the overall sense of activity involves original media being shared out and noticed, so some retweeting makes sense.

It’s the green/Mention element that most interests me most, and I wonder if I can dive back into the Tableau software (used for this network analysis) to get a closer look at what people were doing, and who. When a user takes the time to notice, and do something more than just hit the retweet button, it shows a much higher level of engagement. A Mention tweet indicates not just recognition, but also response, and in that responding, the possibility of interaction and sharing.

For us, as facilitators of Write Out, these are the golden moments, for it could be that one person is inspiring another to react or remix or make note of something important. It could be that someone is taking the spark of Write Out and through a Mention, sharing it with a secondary network (sort of like the cross-hashtag analysis from an earlier post). A Mention also tells the maker of the original tweet that there is an audience that is interested, and noticing, and that kind of spark of responsive activity is a powerful element of learning, making, exploring, connecting.

Peace (making sense of it),
Kevin

Write Out Twitter Analysis (Part Three): Where The Hashtags Meet

WriteOut CrossHashTags ALLI’m trying to take a closer look at what happened on Twitter with the Write Out project in October through network analysis. I’ve shared out the nodes and clusters and edges of the two-week project and then dove into the timeline of user activity. Today, I want to look at how the #writeout hashtag connected with other hashtags.

This is important because of the cross-pollination effect. What I mean is that when a user with affiliation to different affinity networks makes connections through hashtag combining, it potentially expands the various networks. So when a participant in #writeout includes the #nwp or #findyourpark hashtag, now all people who follow the #nwp and #findyourpark hashtags see the content of #writeout.

Purposeful cross-pollination of content across hashtags in a single tweet is a powerful megaphone. So what do we notice with this kind of analysis, done with the Tableau software?

WriteOut CrossHashTags Top10 (2)

First, the obvious. The Write Out project is supported and hosted by the National Writing Project (and the National Park Service) so the #nwp tag makes sense, as does the #clmooc tag. CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC) was an earlier initiative of NWP, and folks in CLMOOC (like me) step easily into projects like Write Out, which is built on similar foundation of connected learning principles.

Second, there are plenty of hashtag connections to the National Day on Writing, which makes sense, since we planned Write Out with the NDOW timing in mind, and made many explicit invitations to NDOW folks to think about place for their writing.

You may notice the variations of the NDOW hashtags, such as #whyiwrite and #ndow, though, as no one single hashtag ever surfaced. There are also hashtags affiliated with NWP sites, who were sharing within their own smaller network while also drawing lines to the larger initiatives.

The one hashtag, and the activity seems substantial, that surprises me is the #savedbythepbl one. I don’t remember seeing it in the #writeout stream all that often during our two weeks in October, although project-based-learning (I think that is the PBL referenced) and place-based-learning (another PBL) have many overlaps, and perhaps the folks who use that hashtag were exploring and creating in sync with Write Out in a way that wasn’t visible at the time. As a Write Out facilitator, though, I am making notes about remembering that hashtag for next year. Those folks were doing something.

Other smaller hashtag clusters like #dance and #grafitti and #onthisday are ones I am not sure about, in regards to connection analysis. It may be that some daily prompt or activity caught someone’s attention. Or it may be that there was overlapping sharing going on, invitations within affinity networks that went beyond what we were seeing. That’s what we hope is always happening. This kind of deeper look makes some, but not all, of that more visible.

Peace (pollination),
Kevin