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),

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),

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),

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),

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),

Book Review: The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life

I’m a sucker for books about writing. And add in an author who is part of the National Writing Project and you have my interest. So I grabbed a copy of The Geek’s Guide to the Writing Life by Stephanie Vanderslice, and dove in. I’m glad I did.

With a folksy, honest, funny voice on the page, Vanderslice seeks to surface the ins and outs of a writing life, weaving in her own stories as a teacher and writer as well as setting forth some very practical advice on how to approach writing, how to publish writing, how to see yourself as a writer (no matter what other people say).

Among her pieces of advice:

  • Make time to do the writing, regularly
  • Invest in the revision process (and be ready to revamp)
  • Network network network
  • Be teachable as a writer — be curious about everything
  • Be methodical if you want to get published
  • Resilience is key
  • Believe in yourself, even if no one else seems to

My eldest son’s friend is a budding novelist and upon finishing this book, my first thought was: I need to give this to Sam. So I will. And I hope the practical advice here will be inspirational, and that the realistic advice (writing as a profession is hard) will leave him clear-eyed about where he is heading with his stories. And perhaps the long list of resources at the end — with notes on agents, publishers, etc. — will be most valuable of all (although, he may already be on this.)

NWP Radio recently did an interview with Stephanie, who notes her previous work as a site leader in the Writing Project (Great Bear Writing Project in Arkansas) as influential to her as a writer and educator.


Peace (writing it, daily),


Another Form of Literacy: Sports Play Diagramming

Quidditch Diagram Play collageAs we shift into Expository/Informational Writing during our school’s season of Quidditch, I use the opportunity to expand the notions of literacy by incorporating the diagramming of a sport play into the classroom. Students must invent a play to be done on the floor of our game of Quidditch (which we play in the gym), and then both diagram out the movement of players and write an expository piece of writing, explaining how the play unfolds.

This kind of literacy — connecting writing to the athletic field — opens up the doors for some of my students who play sports but who are reluctant to write. They immediately see the connection of clear, sequential writing, and imagine themselves as a coach in a timeout, giving out instructions on the basketball court, or the football or soccer field, with a small whiteboard in hand.

Sports plays are a language all of their own, defined by the sport. Here, for example, in our game, you may not know that CH is chaser, K is keeper, SL is sideline, and SK is seeker. The colored floor lines have meaning, too, to our game. The arrows and dotted lines indicate movement. It’s visual information with a writing companion (with a bit of trickery, since the writing is mostly what I am most after here).

This kind of activity comes from a workshop presentation I was in many years ago now, through the National Writing Project, where a fellow writing project member shared her work in using football play diagrams to teach reading to her struggling high school students. Something clicked when I saw that. It has stayed with me, this idea of meeting the literacy needs of our students on the fields where they play.

In a resource she created for NWP on Redefining Text, Bee Foster writes:

When we expand our view of text, we celebrate and support a greater number of our students on a regular basis. We acknowledge the ways in which our students are already reading and writing. We give them credit for their strengths and begin an important dialogue around the transfer of skills from one mode to another. We more effectively provide differentiation both in what students read, and in what students write. Most importantly, we more regularly allow our struggling students to take on the role of expert.

Hey – I even found her video:

Peace (run it, catch it, win it),

When Your Classroom is a National Historic Site

We just wrapped up a professional development partnership between the Springfield Armory Historic Site and the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. I was one of the lead facilitators, and it was such a great experience to use the Armory itself as our classroom as a way to explore history and primary sources. The course was supported through a grant by the National Writing Project and the National Park Service.

After all the participants shared lesson plans and resources and topics — ranging from the role of light rail transportation at the Armory, to the use of the Organ of Muskets poem that was inspired by a visit to the Armory by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to use of The Things They Carried to invite a veteran oral historian into the classroom, to deep research into local history of a community — we asked the teachers to write a reflection. Part of what we are doing is gathering resources for a future website to showcase the potential of exploring local history.

Peace (and thinking),

Sharing Out the Alchemy Lab Immersive Storytelling Collaboration

I was fortunate not too long ago to be part of a discussion group with some National Writing Project colleagues that convened to share and discuss the possibilities of virtual and augmented reality for learning. We all brought examples from the field.

I shared out the Networked Narratives project — The Alchemy Lab. It’s a rich example of collaboration and storytelling, and how objects can inspire us to make media and to experience media in a virtual space. And now NetNarr is launching again …

Peace (real and reality),