Live, Learn, and Thrive

Meenoo Rami's Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching
Meenoo Rami’s Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching

Though I first met Meenoo Rami before a National Writing Project retreat in January 2011, it was over that long weekend that my wife, Sara, and I were able to talk with her about a new venture she was beginning, #engchat. I was intrigued by her idea that a weekly chat could be something interesting and useful for English teachers, many of whom were still brand new to Twitter. I knew right away that this would be the first of many conversations with Meenoo, and the past three years have proved me right. Since that conversation, I have hosted #engchat a few times myself, and given it a shoutout at many professional conferences. So, last fall when Meenoo asked me to “blurb” her upcoming book, Thrive, and I gladly obliged. Here is what I’ve already said:

“Meenoo Rami has written the right book at the right time. In an era of corporate education reform, Thrive reminds us of how we, as teachers, need human interaction, intellectual fulfillment, and empathy just as much as our students.  Rami encourages us to move beyond the mechanical acts of scripted schooling and mandatory professional development, offering us numerous ways to pursue our own passions and bring them to the classroom. She notes that “the rewards of this work will be paid with your students’ success and engagement.” Filled with practical suggestions, stories from fellow educators, and smart questions, Thrive will reward you as a reader, too.”

—Troy Hicks, author of Crafting Digital Writing

And, now, I want to add one more thing.

https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/422463372815499264/Ub-dq6yT.jpeg
Meeno Rami (@meenoorami)

I recently asked Meenoo to share her thoughts on this question: “As a digital writer yourself, most notably through your blog and via Twitter, what specific lessons have you learned about digital writing that transfer back to your own students as you teach them how to be better writers?” Her thoughts, as always, demonstrate her compassion and dedication to her students:

There are several things I have learned that have helped me to become a better teacher of writing by actually doing some writing of my own:

Overcoming fear: Whether you share your work with one other person, keep a public blog, or never go beyond writing in a journal, I have come to appreciate how difficult it can be for students to share their work. I am even more committed to building a safe space for writers in my classroom after going through an intense writing period in my life where I worried about doing my best to articulate the ideas that meant so much to me.

Building trust: I think it is so important for me to earn my students trust so that they can share their struggles and fears when it comes to writing. I think I can also earn their trust by being more open about own writing process with them. Writing in front of my students, as I have learned to do so from Kelly Gallagher has fundamentally changed my classroom. I think when my students see me grapple with things in my own writing, they tend to trust me more when I give feedback.

Information vs. Stories: There is no dearth of information in our age today, however, I think we need to think about helping students shape stories out that abundance of information. We readily buy into the idea of the power stories in shaping us, I think we need than take the next step and help our students shape powerful stories based on their experiences and inquiries.

So, if it isn’t clear yet, I would strongly encourage you to get Thrive. In interest of full disclosure, I am a Heinemann author, too, and received a digital pre-print version of the book in order to write the review. Still, I am going to be happy to buy my own copy, and share with my colleagues this summer as well. I hope you do, too.


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Open Letter to Educators: (Re)Defining Digital Learning Day

Dear Educator:

Tomorrow (well, technically today by the time I am done writing this) is the second annual Digital Learning Day.

Cool. I’m all for digital learning, as the title of my blog implies.

But, as we prepare for the onslaught of tweets, blog posts, videos, webinars, and other celebrations, it is worth exploring the definition of “digital learning” that the group is promoting, as well as the background of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s president, Bob Wise. Understanding a little more about each of these components for the day should, I hope, give you a better understand of why it is happening.

First, the definition, straight from their website:

Digital learning is any instructional practice that is effectively using technology to strengthen the student learning experience. Digital learning encompasses a wide spectrum of tools and practices, including online and formative assessments, increased focus and quality of teaching resources, reevaluating the use of time, online content and courses, applications of technology in classrooms and school buildings, adaptive software for students with special needs, learning platforms, participation in professional communities of practice, access to high-level and challenging content and instruction, and many other advancements technology provides to teaching and learning.

In this sense, I read the definition of “digital learning” to mean content that can be delivered to students at a low-cost and, presumably, without certified teachers in place to facilitate their learning. Or, as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder calls it, “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way Any Pace.” The fact that teaching is only mentioned twice (one of those times as an adjective) and “teacher” is never mentioned should be of concern.

And, as a number of educational historians, most notably Larry Cuban, have pointed out, when there is no teacher buy-in with technology or technology-based efforts at reform, very little if anything changes. This line of thinking is very much with the proposals that organizations like iNACOL (one of DLDay’s partners) through their federal policy frameworks have proposed to essentially eliminate teachers and fuel public education dollars into private, online corporations.

Also, there are number of buzzwords and phrases in this definition that should raise the eyebrows of anyone who follows educational reforms efforts. Phrases like “online and formative assessments” is certainly a nod to the impending PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, which will be relying on computer scoring of writing, rather than informed, teacher-led assessments. The phrase “learning platforms” also barely hides a thinly disguised approach to curriculum delivery that is, at best, a type of self-paced credit recovery option coming in the form of programs like e2020 and Read 180. Finally, the euphemism “communities of practice” is code for teacher groups that are formed under the guise of choice and interest, but usually are created to fulfill a school’s need for performance to meet AYP goals, not genuine inquiry through teacher research.

Lastly, it is worth noting that Bob Wise, who teamed with Jeb Bush for the first Digital Learning Day let year, remains the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, the main sponsor of DLDay. Despite his Democrat party affiliation, it is worth noting that Wise is an advocate for digital learning who has shared his views in conservative forums such as the Mackinac Center. Lastly, and perhaps most concerning, Bob Wise has close ties to ALEC and many other organizations tied to the corporate educational effort movement.

All of this hubbub about DLDay thus raised major concerns for me — as a teacher, teacher educator, author, consultant, and parent. As I look towards tomorrow and the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of educators that will participate in Digital Learning Day, I wonder what we are truly celebrating?

Kids?

Creativity?

Real, authentic learning?

Contrast that paragraph full of edu-jargon quoted above and compare it with what happens when authentic assessment, student centered technology interfaces, and teacher driven inquiry guide digital learning that happens in places and spaces like NWP’s Digital Is and the DML Hub, through conferences like EdCamp and EduCon, or other affinity groups that coalesce through twitter or other social networks like Connected Learning. There is great digital learning going on out there, but not necessarily in the spaces or formats that DLDay actively promotes through their corporate partnerships and special interests.

So, what do you plan to do as you celebrate Digital Learning Day this year?

While I certainly encourage everyone to participate, I also strongly suggest that you think about the message you are sending in relation to digital learning: who has power and agency? Who has access? Who is accountable, and for what reasons? Are we talking about students, teachers, and parents working toward a common goal of universal literacy and civic engagement?

Or, is this just another corporate effort at “reforming” education into another line in their profit ledger?

However you celebrate DLDay, you have the power to show what digital learning is and can be, not just what corporations and politicians tell us it should be.

Use your power — and hashtags — wisely over the next 23 hours.

Update on February 7, 2013: Minor editing/typo changes. 

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Reflections on Digital Writing (Future of Education Interview)

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to talk with Steve Hargadon on his Future of Education webinar series. Details of the show, including access to the MP3 version and Elluminate sesssion archive are available with those links, and also are on his blog. It was a wonderful and far-ranging conversation about the importance and effects of digital writing and social media on our culture, as well as the state of writing instruction and teacher professional development in our schools. Many NWP colleagues joined in the backchannel conversation, including Christina Cantrill who kept a steady stream of resources from the Digital Is site flowing into the conversation.

There is so much to think about and reflect on from the conversation. As many others have noted, Steve is a well-prepared, thoughtful, and entertaining interviewer. He kept asking me great questions and was very attentive to trends and ideas raised in the backchannel. This kept the conversation moving along, and I found myself trying to limit my responses to two minutes or so (although I am not entirely sure how well I did that!). Of the many questions that I tried to field during the show and answer while talking, there were a number of other ideas that popped up, and I wanted to look at some of them here.

The first key idea was one of our main principles from NWP, just with a slight addendum. Steve Taffee stated that “It’s difficult for teachers to advocate for digital writing if they are not practitioners themselves.” Indeed. The trick, then, is how to invite our colleagues into discussions and opportunities to do digital writing which led to a humorous comment from Lisa Cooley who asked, “I wonder if Troy knows what Douglas Adams had to say about technology and age.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.” Sadly, I haven’t read any of the Hitchhiker’s series, or any of his other work. This gives me new inspiration to check them out.

The second major idea that surfaced was first mentioned by Adam:

In Because Digital Writing Matters, there’s a phrase that keeps resonating for me. It’s one Tim Wright said about digital writing being collaborative, yes, but also “real time, improvisatory writing…” This resonates because it breaks down a traditional notion that writing has to be “final draft talk” and writing can be “exploratory talk.” In the way this Elluminate Level is allowing us to do now…I’d like to hear more about this notion of digital writing as improv.

He elaborates a bit more:

Having to jump in and learn to use a wiki or Google Docs, if someone has never done that before, in a way forces them to improvise…For me, great digital writing occurs when I am in over my head and I have to figure out creative ways to make new things happen…

Digital writing as improv.

I like that.

That’s a unique take on the old idea of “writing as discovery” or “writing to discover.” It brings new meaning to the aphorism, “How do I know what I think until I see what I am going to say ?” (or something to that effect). Also, I like it because it reminds us that the tools for digital writing — computers, mobile phones, cameras, recorders — are all open to interpretation and revision. There are opportunities to capture, recapture, and rearrange words, images, sounds. Digital writing is like improv, and we only get good at improv when we play.

In that same vein, a second key idea about what counts as digital writing came up. Richard Close asked “Is creating your own YouTube digital writing? Or sending a pic with a text digital writing?” Yes, indeed, it is, although I want to clarify that a bit. We can teach students how improv with both creativity, and responsibility. Simply recording something on your cell phone and posting it to YouTube without thinking about how, why, when, or by whom your video could be viewed or repurposed is not, in my eyes, a responsible way to think of yourself as a digital writer. Just because you can post something doesn’t mean that you should (think of all the scandal that has happened just this week about indiscretions via Twitter). We want to teach students to be intentional, to frame their thinking and the composition process in light of purpose, audience, and situation. So, if they are going to use an image or video clip and share it through a text or social network then, yes, they are writing, and they need to take responsibility for themselves and their products, for better or for worse.

Third, a bit later, Peggy George notes “does digital writing change the notion that writing isn’t “finished” until it’s the final, published version? seems like it’s much more about writing as communicating and growth–not necessarily final products.” Again, a good point. I think that is one of hallmarks of all writing, at least all authentic writing, is that it is never done, just due. The digital nature of texts and wiki-fication of the writing process now allows us to think about writing going through many stages, many revisions, and many audiences. Also, I think it is important to understand the idea that when we make a multimedia piece, all the elements fit together in just such a manner, and any change to part of the composition will change the the other elements. And, once something is publicly available online, it becomes open to public comment, criticism, and repurposing. So, digital writing is very much work in progress, even when we think it is done.

Finally, I end with two quick questions that came up:

First, Jeff Mason asked  “Are there models of Writing Workshop in content classes? ..as opposed to LA classes.” I am sure that there are, and one is in the Annenberg Series, “Developing Writers: A Workshop for High School Teachers.” Check out episode 3, “Different Audiences,” at about 44 minutes into the show; there you will see an example of a writer’s workshop happening in a science classroom. And, as Christina pointed out, “There are some beautiful visions of a digital writing workshop here created by Joel Malley and his students in western NY, http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/1133

Second, Steve Taffee asked “Troy – What thoughts do might you have about alternative input devices for writing, for example speech to text?” I am all for them. As Ira Socol points out, text-to-speech software is useful both for special education students in their writing, as well as for anyone else who wants to learn how to use it so that they can hear their own writing in a different voice. Moreover, I personally have started using speech-to-text software to compose some of my own writing. Writing and speaking are, at least from my non-linguistically trained perspective, very different processes, so using speech-to-text to write things like emails generally works well, although not so well for composing longer pieces like this blog post or academic papers.

So, those are some thoughts and reflections from the show. Going back to review the transcript has been useful for me as I prepare to teach for MSU’s Ed Tech program this summer in France. The interview with Steve provided me a chance to collect my thoughts as I work on a few articles and a book proposal, too. I will go back and give myself a listen at some point soon, but first I need to catch up on Renee Hobbs’ talk with NWP on BlogTalk Radio and brush up on my French, so I will have to save my own recording for the plane. Au revoir!


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