On Scholarship, Significance, and the NWP

As many of my colleagues participate this weekend in the #blog4nwp cooperative, I want to thank Chad Sansing and Pam Moran for coordinating the effort and for the dozens of teachers who are adding their voices to this important conversation about saving the National Writing Project.

At the same time, I hope that my voice offers a complementary, although slightly different perspective — the voice of a junior faculty member who is also a director of an NWP site. In an era where the liberal arts in general, teacher education, and school performance are continually scrutinized, and the value of all three are constantly in question, I hope that my perspective as someone from inside the “ivory tower,” someone who is in the business of educating educators, offers yet another reason why NWP must be funded.

To begin, I acknowledge that there are many stories that have been and will continue to be told this weekend about the value of NWP to our personal and professional lives, and the life-changing experience that an NWP summer institute offers. This is all very true from my experience, and I consider myself a teacher and a writer, for sure, because of my involvement in NWP.

In addition, I am also a young faculty member and scholar whose work — my teaching, scholarship, and service — has been shaped and focused by NWP. To that end, I need to say more about how and why NWP works. I say this to show that NWP is a positive force for change, and worthy of continued funding from the federal government.

Without NWP, I can say quite simply, I would have no work.

While this is not entirely true (as I would likely still be teaching methods courses, participating in conferences, and writing for publications without the NWP). Perhaps I should say that I would not have meaningful, worthwhile work, or, at the very least, I don’t know that much of that work would matter. My teaching, scholarship, and service are all defined in relation to my work with NWP. Without NWP, I truly don’t know that my work would be possible, at least not in the way that I imagine strong, quality professional learning to happen.

Why?

As a junior faculty member, my colleagues in NWP have helped me think through all of my responsibilities to teachers and the profession, and it has given me the collegial space in which I can try out teaching ideas, explore digital writing, and seek collaboration. NWP has given me the opportunity to travel the country, work with teachers, and understand their many different classroom contexts. The people with whom I have worked offer me ideas and inspiration to write more, think more, present more, and work diligently to change the way writing is taught in this country. NWP has allowed and encouraged me to write books and articles. At CMU, I have articulated a vision for teaching, scholarship, and service that centers on the idea of active engagement, all guided by the NWP philosophy. And, most importantly, as a young faculty member who is often confronted with pressures inside and outside the university about the value of a liberal education and sometimes forced to defend myself as a teacher of writing, NWP has offered me the strength to state, with conviction, my beliefs about teaching writing as a personal and social act that can lead to personal and professional growth, reflection, and action.

If Congress wants a liberal arts education to have value, putting universities in partnerships with local schools and community agencies, then its members should vote to keep the NWP.

If Congress wants teacher education and professional development to be timely, evidence-based, and instructive, then its members should vote to keep the NWP.

And if Congress wants to see changes in teacher practice that lead to student achievement, then its members should vote to keep the NWP.

Without NWP, yes, I would still be teaching, still be researching, and still be serving my university, community, and profession. Yet, I have to wonder… to what extent would my teaching just be average? Would my research be filed away in obscure journal? Would my service be limited to peer review of articles and serving on only small committees? Would I really be a teacher, a write, and a voice in the dialogue about education reform in this country without NWP?

I am not 100% sure. However, I can say unequivocally that NWP has helped me become the teacher, researcher, and leader I am today. NWP works not only because it is one of the most cost-effective and results-oriented educational programs ever conceived, but also because it puts so many stakeholders involved with education in conversation with one another. And, these conversations matter. In schools. In communities. And, in universities.

Case in point: This past Wednesday, I was awarded with CMU’s Provost Award for outstanding achievement in research and creative activity by a junior  faculty member. I thank my family, friends, and colleagues, all of whom have contributed to me earning this honor, many of whom have NWP connections. And, now that I have been recognized by CMU with the Provost’s Award in large part because of NWP — and, more importantly, on the weekend that we are sharing our collective voice about the importance of NWP —  I want to share the text of my personal statement that I wrote.

Congress, quite simply, I ask that you reallocate funds to the National Writing Project. It is an investment that will pay dividends that go far beyond dollars. My hope is that both this letter above and my personal statement shared below can contribute to this conversation.

Troy Hicks

Director, Chippewa River Writing Project

Personal Statement for CMU Provost’s Award
Troy Hicks, January 2011

Significance of scholarship can be measured in many ways, including acceptance rates for a journal or the number of citations a work generates. More importantly, given the increased scrutiny on the role of arts and humanities in a liberal education, measurements of significance can include grant dollars, credit hours, and public recognition beyond the university, including commendations and awards. These measures are, indeed, important, and my scholarship had earned significance in these ways.

Yet, as a public intellectual in a digital age, my work takes many forms, including traditional academic formats such as books, journal articles, grants, and conference presentations, as well as a scholarship of application that includes teacher research, workshops, webinars, and blogging. In turn, my scholarship is significant because it reaches a variety of audiences, from the local level at CMU to the larger field of K-16 education, affecting the ways that we teach and learn writing in a digital age.

In my work, I explore the ways in which teachers adapt writing instruction to newer literacies and technologies, an emerging field called “digital writing.” Thus, the nature of my work has been—and will continue to be—flexible and timely, connecting the rich history of research in composition studies to the ever-changing needs of my colleagues who are teaching a new generation what it means to write with pencil and paper, as well as with computers, mobile phones, and digital cameras. My thoughts on digital writing are summed up best in a recent interview for District Administration, in which I stated:

The shape of writing has changed… Kids are now writing for real audiences and for real purposes, not just other kids in the class or the refrigerator door. And they are composing on computers and on phones in text and multimedia. These are substantial changes.

At CMU, my scholarship has direct effects on the undergraduate and graduate students that I teach, most of whom are pre-service and in-service teachers. Because I explore how we can use technology to teach writing, I am constantly collaborating with colleagues to write grants, plan workshops, collect data, and analyze what is happening in their classrooms. Along with the undergraduate writing methods course that I teach, ENG 315, I have worked with CMU colleagues to establish our site of the National Writing Project, the Chippewa River Writing Project (CRWP). In 2009 and 2010, and again in this coming summer of 2011, we offer a four-week summer institute for K-16 teachers of writing. My scholarship moves immediately from the process of writing a grant to fund CRWP into a process of application where we work with teachers to improve their practice. For instance, the chapter I have included in my materials that I co-authored with Dawn Reed, “From the front of the classroom to the ears of the world: Podcasting as an extension of speech class,” is indicative of the types of teacher research projects that I develop with my colleagues through writing project work. At least nine teachers affiliated with CRWP have completed or are working on their own teacher research projects, including IRB protocols and systematic inquiry in their own classroom practice. I encourage teachers to engage in the research process, leading them to create conference presentations, journal articles, and book chapters. In short, my work at CMU with the CRWP is an applied form of scholarship, showing the importance of how we can study and teach the arts and humanities broadly, and writing in particular.

From the immediate effects on CMU’s campus, my work is significant in local, state, and national professional development, too. While teachers can often read about ways to integrate technology in their classroom, we know from research in teacher education that they need time for their own learning and reflective implementation of these plans. Thus, professional development must be timely and embedded in teacher practice, and I actively move my scholarship forward from the articles and books that I write into my relationships with teachers. This past year, I have collaborated with the Center for Excellence in Education to develop a Title II Professional Development grant, WRITE NOW, extending many of the ideas of that I write about in my work into workshops and literacy coaching for local teachers. For instance, my co-authored article “Transforming the group paper with collaborative online writing,” offers many examples for how teachers can invite their students to use technology to collaborate and revise. To enact this, in the summer of 2010 I led a five-day workshop for twenty local teachers to learn how to use these tools. Then, as a follow-up this year, I am working as a literacy coach in Mt. Pleasant High School and Oasis Alternative High School, helping teachers take the ideas that they learned and applying those ideas in their classrooms. Again, my work on this grant is scholarship in action, leading teachers as they examine research on digital writing and immediately applying it. These initiatives with teachers are where most of my day-to-day work happens, and it is through this process where change occurs, leading to significant effects for students in their classrooms.

The work that I do with these teachers in local contexts then leads to broader conversations that occur across the nation, beginning with the books that I write and continuing with the subsequent conference presentations, webinars, and workshops that I lead. For instance, my first book, The Digital Writing Workshop, has combined two areas of composition studies – writing workshop pedagogy and the study of digital writing – and solidified the use of the term “digital writing workshop” in the discourse of K-12 writing instruction. My approach to writing this book was one that would speak to writing teachers about pedagogy, not just offer a list of technology tools that they could use in their classroom. One review of the book summarized it in this manner: “Teachers’ fear and preoccupation over technology tends to feed an either/or dualism that sets teaching and technology against each other… Hicks avoids this pitfall. Instead, he portrays technology and writing as ‘intricately intertwined’ by keeping a firm hand on two visions.” Because of this approach, my book has been adopted by numerous National Writing Project sites and English education courses across the nation, and Heinemann began a second printing only eight months after its initial publication in September, 2009. As a result of this work, I have been invited over the past eighteen months to speak at over twenty professional conferences and workshops broadly related to English education and teacher education, as well as one invitation even to speak with an audience of school architects. I estimate that I have delivered over 10,000 contact hours of professional development, thus extending the reach of my scholarship well beyond traditional academic publications and conference presentations. Also, as a sign of the book’s effect on English Education, I was awarded National Technology Leadership Award in English Education from the Society for Information and Technology Education’s English Education Special Interest Group.

Along with classroom practices, I am interested in larger concerns about curriculum development, school policies, and infrastructures. My second book, Because Digital Writing Matters, released in November 2010, has already entered the discourse of K-12 education by influencing school district policies and curriculum design, as well as teaching practice. For instance, the Etowah County Schools in Alabama have recently adopted Because Digital Writing Matters as a text for their latest professional development initiative. As a co-author of the book, published jointly by the National Writing Project and Jossey-Bass, I am also involved as a “curator” of the new NWP website, “Digital Is,” a collection of multimedia resources created by teachers and students. As writing continues to change, I understand that the ways in which we share our scholarship needs to change, too, and online resources that complement traditional academic publications will be significant as educators create professional development initiatives nationwide.

As demonstrated in my work, there are many measures of significance—especially the effects that it has on teacher professional development and student learning—that matter as much or more than traditional measures of academic success. When I lead a workshop and have a teacher tell me that my work has changed the way that she teaches writing, that is significant. When I am compared by my peers to some of the historic leaders in the field of teaching writing, that is significant. When my work inspires others to do research, create workshops, and reflect on their own teaching, that is significant.

Significance can be measured in many ways and my work appeals to both traditional academic audiences and K-16 educators more broadly, thus changing the conversations about how we teach writing in our schools and contributing to a new line of scholarship that will last for decades to come.

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Back to Teaching, Post-EduCon 2.3

Although I would have posted this last night upon returning from EduCon, Sara and I found ourselves rerouted by Delta and not arriving home until about 2AM. So, a little time to sleep this morning (in fact, very little) and a little time to think about this all day today has now brought me back to my computer tonight, and I am reading a flurry of tweets and posts, post-EduCon. In particular, Liz B. Davis shared her “EduCon Struggle” with a thoughtful follow-up from Chris Lehmann, among others, and Bud just asked for our “educontext” in a tweet just a while ago.

So, where am I at in my “educontext?” Well, with encouraging words from both Sara and Liz to share my thoughts, here is where I was at 24 hours ago, when composing a draft on a plane, with a few more comments below.

My second visit to EduCon (and third visit to Philly) in three years gave my time to reconnect with many progressive minds in the education and edtech world, including many NWP colleagues whose support made my presentation on Because Digital Writing Matters a success (see our shared Google Doc for details from the session). Although EduCon bills itself as “not” a technology conference, I find the distinction between “tech” and “not tech” conferences to continue blurring, and the number of smart phones, laptops, tablets, and other devices at EduCon would suggest that we, as educators, are increasingly reliant upon a number of technologies to stay connected. At least, within certain contexts.

What I mean by that — and this takes nothing away from what EduCon is, both as an actual event and an educational phenomenon — is that I think we might be lost in our own echo chamber.

When Sara noted at one point that, in her TweetDeck columns, her Twitter feed of “All Friends” and also of “#educon” looked almost exactly the same, I began to think about what it was that we were experiencing… and when the panels of distinguished guests and educators, let alone the hallway conversations and scheduled conversations, continued the chorus of innovation, change, and educational evolution, I started to (I will be honest here) lose focus. I tried to attend, literally by being in my seat and choosing not to tweet, as well as figuratively, by wrapping my head around the big ideas. But, I lost focus, and it was frustrating.

I am not saying this in any sarcastic manner, as I appreciate all the work that SLA staff and students have put in to making EduCon what it is. And this is not to say that my experience at EduCon, as a participant and as a presenter, were not valuable, because they most certainly were. I just preface the second half of this reflection with the idea that we — as the innovators, the thought-leaders, the doers — need to be very conscious of how and why we attended EduCon and what we are taking back with us to our day-to-work.

And, that is where I want to focus the second part of this reflection… on my day-to-day work with pre-service and in-service teachers and what I am taking from EduCon 2011 back with me as I return to Michigan (via a rerouted trip to Minneapolis). Do we need more “steam” in STEM? Yes. Do we need time and space for kids to innovate? Absolutely. Do we want to empower all learners to share their voice in democratic classrooms? Of course we do. Again, I am not being sarcastic here, as I truly appreciate all the insights, dedication, and inspiration that everyone involved in this weekend shared with us.

But, I feel like something is missing in the conversation, and I am hoping to write myself into finding (at least) part of it.

First, I was reminded about how one’s own continuous partial attention can, in fact, lead to not paying attention to anything at all, and I was reminded of the power of face-to-face conversation. No matter how many conversations I enter into online — even the exchanges I had during EduCon this weekend — I continued to be most impressed with my conversations with colleagues when we are sitting next to one another. Some were serendipitous “tweet ups” (oh, I just started following you last week!). Others were intentional (let’s meet between sessions), yet most were the casual, comfortable conversations that I had with colleagues I’ve know for some time, or who I was introduced to during the weekend. It is good to connect and reconnect, yet sometimes make an effort to move beyond.

Second, as much as I value those conversations, I also value the opportunities to introduce colleagues to one another, and to say hello to those around me who I have yet to meet. EduCon lends itself to friendly conversation, yet it is still a challenge to make sure that we take the time and make the effort to have those conversations. While I am not as critical as some voices I heard who went so far as to call EduCon “cliquey,” or worse, I know that it is still tough to break out of our comfort zones. Oddly enough, at one of the most innovative high schools in the country, many of us sat last night in the cafeteria with groups of our friends. During the sessions, I would intentionally try sit at tables with other EduCon participants that I had yet to meet, and I tried to strike up conversations when I could. To the extent that I was able, I tried to widen my circle and I am continually reminded that I am the one who needs to move beyond, even though I would hope that others make an effort, too. That a little intentional focus on my part can lead to conversations that I hadn’t imagined. Again, I hope to take back the idea that we need to move beyond our own echo chambers, and make opportunities for ourselves to do so.

So, where does this leave me? Well, one component that I am bringing back with me is the idea that I closed my session with — no matter how many digital tools we invite students to use, it is the quality of the community that matters. And, let’s face it, we are the community. What is it that we, as a self-identified group of progressive educators, hope to (and plan to) do to move beyond our own comfortable conversations and invite other voices, even dissenting voices, into the mix? Do we want innovation? For sure. Who are those that are (from our perspective) stifling innovation… do you think that they want innovation, too, even if they are going about it in a different way? I imagine that they do. Sure, it may be a race to nowhere, not the top, but those who are designing these reforms have intentions, and it does us no good to preach to the choir of progressives if we are not truly understanding the logic of those who think otherwise and, if at all possible, attempt to come to some common ground. What voices were missing from those panels and what value (and values), positive or negative, might they have brought to the conversations?

Maybe I am still riled up about all the political rhetoric lately about the new tone in Washington that, very quickly, degenerated right back to where we were at election time (if not worse). Maybe I am tired after a long weekend at a conference that encouraged me to think, share, and connect, yet still left me with more questions about how to do so than answers. Maybe it is because I need to translate this all to pre-service and in-service teachers who, rightfully, want to know what they can do to engage reluctant students and help them master content all the while defending their profession to parents, administrators, and politicians. Or, maybe, just maybe, I am a bit unsatisfied with the way that the conversations played out, that I want something more… that I want us to really, really move toward something new, something different, but no one really knows how.

Sara and I just finished our coffee break on the flight and she mentioned the idea that software, when moving from version X.Y to X.Z will usually do some major overhauls, adding some features that make it richer and more robust. For all the wonderful panels, collegial conversations, and student voices we heard this weekend, perhaps those who organize it need to think more about what EduCon 2.4 could be. What other voices, however contradictory they may appear to be, do we want to join in the conversation? What value would that add to the conversations within our own echo chamber?

Thank you, EduCon — SLA staff and students, participants both onsite and online — for a wonderful weekend, for pushing my thinking, and for helping us all become better teachers and learners. I look forward to continuing the conversations.

Now, back to the present. I need to encourage the teachers with whom I work to get out of their own echo chambers, to listen to and understand the voices of others, and to make sure that they are bringing their own voices — classroom-tested, inquiry-based, well-reasoned voices — into the conversation. Understand the key ideas about innovation, democratic classrooms, STEAM, and the like. Yet, don’t stop there… be sure to listen, to engage, and to be a part of the conversation in wider circles. Despite my frustrations, that is still my take-away from the weekend.

All that said, I was hesitant to post any of this at all, feeling much like Liz in that I might hurt the feelings of colleagues at SLA and in the EduCon community. But, Chris’s response to her post was generous, and in the spirit of the conversations that EduCon fosters, I hope that my post will provide an opportunity for response, too.

Again, thank you EduCon for pushing my thinking in ways that I would otherwise not be able to move myself. I appreciate the ways in which you make the conversations happen.


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Conversations and Collaborations from EduCon

We have quite a crew of NWP colleagues here at EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia this weekend, too many to list right now. As we begin our conversations this morning, for instance, I am in a room with Chrsitina Cantrill (NWP), Meeno Rami (PhilWP), Paul Allison (NYCWP), Chad Sansing (CVWP), Cindy Minnich (CAWP) and probably even more colleagues who I have to meet yet. As I sat down this morning for the presentation, I met Shelley Krause (@butwait), who I had been conversing with about digital literacy via Twitter when at the NWP Resource Development Retreat a few weeks ago. EduCon’s theme this year is “innovation,” and the ideas and connections so far this morning remind me of how creating an environment, a space (both physical and virtual) is so important to creating opportunities for innovation. And, the fact that all the sessions are being streamed, tweeted (#Educon), GoogleDoc’ed, blogged, wikied, or whatever, it is truly an opportunity to help us innovate.

So, speaking of innovating, I know that webcasting isn’t really an innovation (in the sense that people have been doing it for years). But, for me, trying to do a live presentation and a webcast at the same time is something that I haven’t done yet. Also, our local site (Chippewa River Writing Project) and state network (National Writing Projects of Michigan) will be hosting a month-long online book study for Because Digital Writing Matters beginning later this week. So, as a kick off, Sara and I are going to give webcasting for BDWM a try this afternoon when Christina Cantrill and I present at EduCon in Philadelphia from 2:30 to 4:00 EST. You should be able to watch live on EduCon’s site, but we hope that you are able to join us in the webinar to by clicking on this link, launching Wimba, and joining as a participant:

http://cmichlive.wimba.com/launcher.cgi?room=_cmich_s__43031_1_826813

This is a new experience for Sara and me, even as techies, and we hope that we are able to get you as our NWP colleagues to join in the conversation. So, enjoy all the conversations coming out of EduCon this weekend, and we hope that you can join in our webinar, too.


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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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