Reports from Cyberspace – An Invitation

Last year at NCTE, we began a conversation, Three Reports from Cyberspace. We thank Jeff Golub and Jim Strickland for organizing the session, and Helen Wierenga for being our responder. And, we thank all of you, because what happened during the session was, quite simply, amazing.  

Bud, Troy, and the entire audience were engaged in a continual conversation that moved from notes appearing on the screen, to questions from the audience, back to one of one of them answering on stage, and out to the wider world through Twitter and Etherpad. Sara’s thinking was with us in the room, even though she wasn’t physically present.  Over the course of the hour, we shared a number of examples from our own teaching and research that helped illuminate issues related to filtering, curriculum, assessment, and teaching in digital spaces. We were, in short, completely engaged in the conversation, in “multitasking” at its best. And that brings us to where we are now, preparing to offer more reports from cyberspace.

So, why write about that here, three weeks from the next session/conversation?

We do so as an invitation.  

A conference session is a waypoint, a time and place to check in on where we’ve been, but more important, where we’re going.  So before we get to that waypoint, let’s take a moment to share our own reports from cyberspace as a way of starting this conversation.  Here is a link to an open Google Doc where we’ve left space for you to jot some thoughts as we move into our time together.  If you can join us for the session at NCTE, great.  But if not, and you’d still like to report or check in, feel free to do so.  

Here are some prompts that will take us into our session.  Help yourself to whichever one(s) will be the most useful in your thinking and reporting:

  • What’s the state of your educational cyberspace at this moment in November 2010?  What’s good?  What’s scary?  What’s working?  What’s not?  
  • What needs doing?  Fixing?  Raising up?  
  • Where are you focusing your attention?  
  • Where are we going with all of this Internet stuff?  What’s new?  What’s good?  
  • Finally, what do you hope to leave our session with?  What’s next?  So what?

Please take a few minutes and share your reports from cyberspace. We suspect you have something to teach us, and we’re ready to learn.

If the reporting ends at the session, then we’ve failed. Conferences are notorious spaces, in that we all get together and get excited, but then the momentum seems to die. Help us figure out where to go and what to do next. In a time of increased standards and assessments, when everyone is an expert on matters of teaching and learning, and reading and writing, we need to tell our stories. It’s never been more important to be thoughtful out loud.

Troy Hicks, Bud Hunt, and Sara Kajder

PS – If you can’t make the session, but will be at NCTE, you’ll have another chance to join us immediately after this session at the Middle Level Get Together.  We’d love to see you, and hear your report(s), wherever you’ll choose to join us.

Continuing to Create a Digital Writing Project

As I reflect on our experience in the CRWP Summer Institute, and prepare for a visit to the Boise State Writing Project this weekend, as well as the NWP Annual Meeting in just a few weeks, I am trying to capture some thinking about the core principles that I employ in planning PD experiences related to technology.

I know that my colleagues at BSWP, as well as in other sites I have visited and continued to communicate with, are continuing to think about how, when, and why to integrate digital writing into their site’s work. So, I am offering some thoughts about what we have done in our first two years at CRWP, and how technology informs and is infused in our site’s work. By taking the intentional stance that we are and will continue to be a “digital writing project,” I know that there are certain benefits and constraints that this creates for us, and I will hope to address some of them here, too.

Summer Institute
In the CRWP SI, we engage in digital writing from the moment we meet participants on orientation day. We regularly use our wiki as a space to share our daily agenda and discuss texts such as Because Writing Matters and Teaching the New Writing. (Kathy and I are going to present at the Annual Meeting about our
experiences with doing the readings and sharing responses through
digital means, and I wonder what value others see in the responses to
the texts that are evident in the links here.) We also use Google Docs to create and share materials for our teaching demos, as well as creating our collaborative response to teaching demonstrations with our writing groups. In addition, we explored digital stories, Voice Thread, and podcasts, ultimately leading to the production of a print, audio, and video anthology of our work from the summer.

From both our conversations with colleagues during the summer institute, as well as from comments that they made on evaluations at the end of the summer, we know that this stance of integrating technology as a core expectation of participation in CRWP is both a selling point for teachers as they consider participation, yet also generates much frustration in practice. At least two veteran teachers discussed their interest in joining CRWP because they knew it would push them to use technology, yet continued to share their frustrations with the pace at which we moved (I couldn’t even log into the wiki because I lost my password, I couldn’t access the Google Doc that we were all supposed to share…), yet with support from colleagues and our SI leaders, they were able to (eventually) get into the sites we were using. Everyone created a digital story this summer, and everyone submitted a digital portfolio.

So, I continue to think that an immersive experience, one in which participants are expected to use technology and supported in that use through just-in-time instruction is a hallmark of a digital writing project. The expectation, for instance, that we would all use Google Docs to create collaborative responses to teaching demonstrations let to some unique discussions that were, initially, focused on how to use Google Docs, but eventually allowed us to use the technology transparently, and contributed to our experience in the response groups. That is, we were able to use Google Docs as a way to both focus our face-to-face conversation and allow everyone to contribute to the response, even though each group usually picked one “scribe” to be the main person responsible for each letter.

On a less positive note, we did find that participants, over the course of the summer, were using technology more and more to facilitate their own distracted behavior. One day while I was gone, for instance, my co-leaders told me that people were essentially ignoring the presenting teacher and focusing only on their laptops and cell phones. This led me to have a brief, yet pointed discussion the next day with the group about laptop etiquette; while we were fortunate to be in a situation where we could all use laptops, we needed to think — both from the perspective of teacher and student — about the advantages and disadvantages of using laptops. As teachers, helping students know when and how to use the laptops for learning purposes is critical, as well as the idea that we sometimes need to have “lids down” moments where we focus on each other, not just on our screens.

Still, having the expectation that we would all engage in experiences mediated by technology creates a different vibe in our SI. It means that we come to the institute with our own literacy and technology goals related to using the laptops for our own writing and for teaching writing. It means that we have the opportunity to connect and collaborate, and that those connections and collaborations are a core part of our lived experience as readers and writers in the institute. It also means that we make our work public, at least in the sense that everything we do is shared with at least our writing groups, sometimes the whole group, and sometimes the world. It makes the accountability for sharing a teaching demo and our own writing even more than it would be if it were only shared on paper, and that sense of audience and purpose, I feel, makes a huge difference in how our TCs see themselves as teachers and as writers.

Professional Development
Last year, we were able to be involved in two professional development series. In the first, we were able to meet with teachers five times over the year, and in each session we introduced a new technology (wikis, wikis part 2, Google Docs, podcasting, digital stories). In the second, we worked with teachers in a variety of contexts, but in the last two sessions we were able to work with cross-content area teachers to develop wiki pages. In both of these series, we had some teachers who were highly engaged in the process, some who were engaged, yet timid, and some who didn’t really seem to be interested in the technologies we were discussing.

This is a similar pattern for what I see in many PD sessions, and it makes me wonder what my/our responsibility is in offering background/context for why and how we should be using technology in the teaching of writing. While I have noted this before, and I do feel that the conversation about technology and teaching has, generally, moved from the “Why should we?” perspective to the “How should we?” one in the past few years, I am still reminded that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for technology  and that we need to situate our stance about digital writing when doing PD, especially for the “non-voluntary” types of work that we often do in schools, where teachers may not have had a choice in participating due to district mandates and expectations.

As I think about where we are at and where we are going to go next with our PD services, I am curious to learn more about how we can offer online and hybrid options to help teachers customize their own experience. While I know that this isn’t always possible, I am curious to see what we might be able to do to help teachers create and sustain their own personal learning networks within the context of a writing project. I am looking forward to what Sara, our tech liaison, and Rita, our PD coordinator, come up with in terms of how this might work with our current PD series and future advanced institutes. I don’t have all the answers, but I excited that we continue to explore the questions.

While we hosted a few continuity events last year, this year we hope to do more. One way that we are trying to connect with our TCs is by sending out more messages through our listserv (a pretty standard practice from what I have heard from other sites), as well as to now connect via Facebook and Twitter. I am not exactly sure how much/well this strategy is working, although I can get stats from FB on who has looked at and joined our fan page, which is an interesting set of weekly stats.

Of the events that we are planning, we do try to use technology as it seems appropriate. For instance, a few weeks ago, Erin led a book discussion on Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, and I was able to take notes on her computer as people shared their thoughts on the book and connections to their own teaching. Last week, Penny held her first Saturday seminar, and focused on digital storytelling. Over the course of the year, we hope to plan some other events that will engage our TCs and their colleagues in digital writing and distance learning, although we are still figuring out exactly how to do that.

What this reminds me of is the fact that we can create opportunities through technology that allow TCs to connect when and how they are able. I am not sure what we will do in particular related to webinars or synchronous online conversations (either through chat or voice). I want to offer our TCs the chance to reconnect in whatever ways we can, but not dilute the experience of being connected. So, we need to continue to think carefully about when, how, and why we offer online continuity events in conjunction with our face-to-face offerings such as our 100 days celebration and book clubs.

What’s Next…
So, as we continue to evolve as a digital writing project, I am honored and excited by the opportunities to talk with other NWP colleagues about what it is that we are doing and how they might work to integrate digital writing into their work. While I hesitate to offer advice because any type of work with writing and technology is highly contextual, I can summarize what I have learned (and continue to learn) in the following:

  • Just like we expect teachers to write, we can expect them to use technology. While we neither want to or are able to expect that teachers will use digital writing tools all the time (for instance, I still take my notebook on writing marathons), it is perfectly reasonable for us to expect that a teacher can bring his/her own laptop (or borrow one from school) when they come to writing project events. Put agendas up on a wiki or Google doc. Invite a backchannel conversations through TodaysMeet or other means. Ask people to compose digital texts. We know that this is important work, and we should expect our colleagues to come prepared to do it.
  • When we make an expectation, we need to support it. Now that we expect teachers to come to the table with technology in hand, we need to offer them the time and support to learn how to use it. Create immersive experiences, yet continue to offer one-to-one support as teachers learn how to use it. Connect experiences that they know (writing on a word processor) with pedagogical practices (how to revise effectively) and then make the leap to a new technology (online word processors) and another pedagogy (offering comments and feedback). It’s that idea of facilitating learning through a “to, with, and by” model.
  • Finally, make the experience meaningful. Don’t just have people create a profile on a wiki and never look at it. If you ask them to post it, then you need to encourage others to respond to it, and offer response yourself. It’s this old idea of a tree falling in a forest… if no one is there to see the wiki post, does it matter? Show your colleagues that their writing matters, and encourage revision and response, across time, space, and contexts.

So, those are some current thoughts about teaching and learning in a digital writing project. I hope that they help others writing project colleagues as they continue to think about what it means to integrate digital writing practices into both site work and their own teaching. I look forward to my conversations about this with colleagues this weekend, and in a few more weeks at the NWP annual meeting, and hope to hear ideas about how this work is happening for you, too.

Advance Reviews: Because Digital Writing Matters

In just a few weeks, Jossey-Bass will release the new book that Danielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and I wrote with the National Writing Project: Because Digital Writing Matters. Here is part of the official blurb about the book:

As many teachers know, students may be adept at text messaging and communicating online but do not know how to craft a basic essay. In the classroom, students are increasingly required to create web-based or multi-media productions that also include writing. Since writing in and for the online realm often defies standard writing conventions, this book defines digital writing and examines how best to integrate new technologies into writing instruction.

Over the past few weeks, a number of NWP folks have received copies of the book, and here are some of their reviews. If I have missed someone’s, please let me know:

Andrea Zellner’s Book Review

The authors address all of the issues that surround taking one’s students into online and digital environments.  They begin with a discussion defining the nature of this type of composition.  The text then moves into more prosaic concerns, those concerns that ultimately make or break the taking of instruction online or digital: issues of copyright, acceptable use policies, standards and benchmarks, assessment.  I was impressed that even the physical layout of a computer lab was considered: the very physical positioning of the students and teacher has an impact on the overall learning ecology.

Steven Moore’s “Guns, Germs, and… Digital Writing?”

Because Digital Writing Matters speaks to the important idea of balance in many ways; talking first about the value of using writing to organize ideas in new and useful ways and then about the significant role that tinkering with technology plays in learning. You can do too much of either and the communication event fails to have an effect. Too much technology and not enough methodology and the writer or writing teacher becomes encumbered like a soldier whose sword has a one ton hilt. It won’t matter how sharp the blade is if you can’t lift the weapon.

Kevin Hodgson’s Book Review — check out the link, because he has an embedded Glogster file there!

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.

Finally, there is Bud Hunt’s thoughtful photo composition: Lenses

Plus two more critical reviews, which I welcome, from reviews on Amazon.

This book makes it seem like digital writing is *special*, different than other writing; but we could say the same thing about writing on wax tablets, then parchment, then on paper, then on a typewriter… I don’t really believe the medium of Microsoft Word or Google Docs significantly impacts how we *think* about how we write. It possibly has more to do with the issue of *audience*, not medium — and in that case, a good “digital writing” book should make this more apparent from the first page. (Dame Droiture)

While this book covers the basic ways of communicating via e-mail, texting, and the way these ‘genres’ have influenced “standard” writing, it’s not a very creative way of addressing the problem. Cultural practice changes very fast, and digital cultural practice changes superfast, so I think it’s preferable that teachers do their own “cultural study” of digital writing and decide for themselves its significance and influence, or better yet, develop personal assignments figuring out ways to get students to meta-analyze the way they write depending on the medium and to whom their writing. (JackOfMostTrades)

So, that’s what people are saying. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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(Still) Learning How to Be a Digital Writer, Digital Teacher

As I whittle away some time between flights on my way to visit colleagues at the Boise State Writing Project this weekend, I finally have a few moments to capture some thoughts about my experience leading the book club conversation on the English Companion Ning during the month of September. Overall, I want to start by saying that it was a positive experience, and that I was energized by the participation and enthusiasm of the 100+ members who joined in the conversation. So, my comments below don’t reflect negatively on them… it is more of a musing about what it means to be a digital writer and digital teacher, even when technology doesn’t cooperate. With the smart, collegial nudge from Kevin, I offer some thoughts on what I had hoped to do over the course of that book club discussion, as well as what really happened.

Week One: (Mis)Adventures with a Webinar
In the first week of the discussion, we got off to a wonderful start with some pre-discussion threads that led nicely into a conversation about how we are using digital writing in our classrooms this fall. There were many thoughtful conversations that happened on the forum (which I hope to reflect on in more detail in another post), and I wanted to have an opportunity to more directly address some of the questions that were emerging. So, I signed up to host an Elluminate session through LearnCentral. I thought I had gone through the steps necessary to have a full session, not the kind that was limited to only three participants. I broadcast the URL on the ECNing and on Twitter, and anxiously awaited the opportunity to chat with people in the webinar.

What happened, unfortunately, was that I had signed up to host only a three person “room” with the free version of Elluminate and, once I had logged in, only two others were able to join me. Notes appeared on the ECNing and via Twitter, and I quickly had to change gears and launch a chat in an alternative space, a Meebo chat room. That, too, gave me difficulties as I had to login (after not using Meebo for almost two years) and finding a stable URL for the chat room to share with people. Eventually, we were able to make it in, and about 15 people were in the conversation at one point.

As with all things tech, I realized again that I needed to have a back up plan for when something didn’t work the way that I wanted. My pedagogical goals were still accomplished, but only after dropping five and punting, which was frustrating. It reminds me that I (and all teachers, for that matter) need to have a certain level of TPACK in order to make plans, and contingency plans, on the spur of the moment. Fortunately, people were able to follow me to Meebo, although I am not sure how many. They had to have a certain level of experience to know that it was a problem with Elluminate, not them, and then to navigate their way to Meebo based on my updates. That takes some initiative and skill, which is tough to coach when I, as a teacher, was not able to really talk with them. While I was hoping for one experience, I had to settle for another, yet still held tight to my purposes (talking about the issues raised in the forum through an interactive chat). From this, I am reminded that we can meet our pedagogical goals using a variety of technologies, yet both teacher and learner need to have some level of expertise with navigating online spaces and be highly motivated to participate.

Week Two: A Voice(less) Thread
The second week, I wanted to create an interactive, multimedia experience through which we could all contribute to a conversation about a piece of student work. Voice Thread seemed to be the logical choice for this. So, I created a Voice Thread about Looking at Student’s Digital Work, and posted it to the ECNing forum with some discussion points for people to respond to. I welcomed comments on the forum, as well as on the Voice Thread itself, where people could leave voice, video, or text comments right there. I sent out the email to the book discussion group, and waited for replies. Kevin replied quickly to let me know that I had to adjust the settings on the Voice Thread to make it public (a point I will come back to in a moment).

By the middle of the week, there were only a few replies, and one person emailed me to say that this was a big jump for most people — moving from a text-based discussion thread on the ECNing to a Voice Thread — and that they may not have know what to do, both in the practical and technical sense. While many people still seemed comfortable with the process of reading and replying to discussion threads on the ECNing, suggesting/encouraging alternative discussion formats without the opportunity for explicit coaching and mentoring stifled the conversation. Also, it could just be that people got busy with back-to-school work, but I seem to think based on the initial technical difficulties of not being able to post, combined with the hesitation that many people may have had about moving their conversation to a Voice Thread, I inadvertently made a pedagogical move that, instead of opening up conversation, unfortunately shut it down.

As I continue to think about how and why I would invite fellow teachers and students into a Voice Thread, I think back to our brief experience using that tool in the CRWP summer institute and to this conversation on the ECNing. I am still not exactly sure why the technical problems with Voice Thread occurred in the manner that they did, but I do know that, again, I had tried to make a technological move that didn’t work with the pedagogical goal I had in mind. This time, I failed to drop five and punt. I just turned the ball over on downs, and let the week’s discussion remain stagnant, both on the Voice Thread and the ECNing. In a classroom situation, I couldn’t have let that happen, but I was able to in this case given the context of the situation. Not a teaching move that I am proud of, and it makes me think about how I might recover from such a situation in the future, both in face-to-face and online teaching. I’m still thinking.

Week 3: A (Semi) Failed Attempt to Teach Both F2F and Online
Knowing that I would be delivering an opening session at the Eastern Michigan Writing Project‘s “Writing Beyond Expectations” conference at the end of my third week of leading the book club, I had thoughts that I would create a video stream of the session for others to join into the conversation. Having cleared it with colleagues at EMWP and knowing that I would have a wifi connection that would handle the stream, I sent out a note to the ECNing and on Twitter to join in the next morning. As luck would have it, this would be strike three.

As soon as I connected to UStream and had a signal, I sent out the tweet. I tested the broadcast in another browser and it all looked good. As the time to begin the presentation neared, however, UStream lost connection to the server. I don’t know exactly why this happened — was it a UStream error, a wifi error, or user error? It doesn’t matter because, again, the technology that I had hoped to use failed me. This time, I had no backup, although I am sure that I could have tried to get another service to connect and stream if I had wanted to. But, I had no time since the presentation was starting with the audience in front of me waiting.

Also, Sara and I had hoped to have a back channel conversation occurring on a Google Doc, but because of our set up in the room (two computers running, with one unable to connect to the wifi), and the fact that many participants couldn’t connect either, I was stymied. Luckily, I was able to jump from one computer to the other and deliver my Prezi, with the few people who were able to get on the Google Doc adding some ideas. In my evaluations, many people expressed frustration with the pace of my presentation and the fact that they couldn’t get online. I know I was moving at a speed that assumed most people were online, but I wasn’t able (or, at the very least, didn’t take the time to) confirm that this was the case. Because of this, people in the room weren’t able to engage in the ways that I had hoped they would, and there certainly was no external audience either. Again, the technology didn’t work in the way that I wanted, and while we were able to recover and still have a good presentation overall, I agree with some of the comments from participants that what I did was not immediately applicable to their classrooms because, well, it just isn’t practical to fumble so much during our limited class time.

As the presentation continued and I was asked smart, hard-hitting questions about how and why we should continue to use technology when, not only in my own presentation but also in the schools in which we work we can’t rely on the technology to do what we want or need it to do, I continued to answer with my belief that we are still able to use technology now in more flexible and robust ways than we were able just a few years ago. I still believe this, and I think that technology can allow us to write beyond expectations, as I shared in an earlier blog post. Yet, these are important questions when, for the third time in three weeks, the technology guru was stymied. I began to wonder about my own stance related to technology use and I shared my frustration on Twitter. And, as I noted before, Kevin encouraged me to write and think about this experience, and here I am.

Closing Thoughts
As much as I want to say to say that I have clearer answers about why and how we should use technology to teach writing after this experience, I simply don’t. What I do know, however, and have reaffirmed through this experience, is that online and face-to-face networks of teachers who work together have the potential to make substantive changes to their teaching practices. n particular, by working together to use technologies in new ways, we can see what works, when it works, and why it doesn’t work. I am glad that I shared these “failures” in front of my colleagues because, as I noted above, it shows that even the “tech guru” doesn’t even have all the answers. Yet, I keep asking the questions and trying things out. That’s the philosophical response.

Here is the more practical response, for those who are teaching other teachers about digital writing, as well as for those of us who want to integrate digital writing into our own classrooms. When introducing a new technology/digital writing practice into our teaching, make sure that you are building on an established practice, and make sure that you have a back up plan. For instance, I wanted people in the session to be able to contribute to a collaborative Google Doc during the presentation. Many were not able to, and I simply asked them to write down (on paper) words and phrases in my talk that sparked other ideas for them. This led to a turn-and-talk moment, and we were able to move forward from there. When Elluminate didn’t work, and we couldn’t literally talk through our ideas in that forum, we switched to a chat room which, while clunky, still worked.

I wish that I had a particular plan to share with you for how to use all different kinds of technology for all different situations (when, for instance a wiki is better than a Google Doc, or which program you “should” use for digital storytelling). Yet, what this experience leading the discussion on the ECNing, and the associated failures that I had with it, remind me of is the fact that we really can’t have a strict blueprint. This is the reason that we have to think about our teaching with technology from a broader perspective, thinking about how to build our own TPACK through our own personal exploration, play, and failure. I am thankful that I continue to have opportunities to read, write, and teach about digital writing in a variety of contexts, and to learn from my mistakes.

So, I end this post where I began it… with the energy and enthusiasm of those teaching in their own digital writing workshops. At the end of September, Joel Malley represented the NWP on Capitol Hill, and shared this video about his digital writing workshop. I appreciate what he is doing with and for his students, and for all of us, in providing this vision of what it can mean to teach digital writing and it reminds me that, at the end of the day, we are all still learning.

Writing in the Digital Age from Joel Malley on Vimeo.

Thanks, Joel, for sharing this resource, and Kevin, for prompting me to write this blog post.

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