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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Teacher Leadership and Digital Writing

Wordle of Initial Thinking from CAWP Professional Development Workshop
Wordle of Initial Thinking from CAWP Professional Development Workshop

This weekend, I began working with teacher leaders from the Columbus Area Writing Project on the hybrid course we are calling “Teacher Leadership in Teaching Digital Writing.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to make many trips to Columbus in the last few years, and look forward to having this opportunity to work with these NWP colleagues as they prepare for their two-week Summer Institute as well as advanced institute for teacher leadership in digital writing.

We began Friday night by looking at one of Clay Shirky’s TED Talks, and in thinking about the implications for our classrooms and professional development work, specifically as it relates to the changing environments and expectations for writing in an era of the common core standards. This initial conversation generated a number of inquiry questions and ideas including thoughts about how we can value the principles of good writing instruction over technology tools as well as how we can invite our colleagues into these broader conversations about the changing nature of literacy.

We then went on to identify a number of our concerns through the “yeah but, yes and” activity used by many theater companies, and more recently as a training exercise for MBA students. We ended Friday evening by generating a list of potential technologies to explore together over the next few weeks, including Google Communities where we had already begun a conversation.

This morning we began by looking a the chapter I’ve been writing about our experiences in the Chippewa River Writing Project end how we have positioned ourselves as an “digital writing project,” embedding a variety of technologies and new literacies into our practices. While generally complementary, we were also able to generate a thoughtful discussion about how technology can have positive — and potentially negative — influences on teacher identity, and how sharing work publicly online can affect the ways in which teachers express themselves and choose to write.

The remainder of the day was devoted largely to a deeper exploration of the technologies that participants identified Friday night as being potentially valuable for our work together over the next few months. In particular, we delved deeper into the possibilities with Google+, Twitter, and Flipboard. Here are some of our notes:

  • Google+
    • Advantages
      • Easy integration with all Google services
      • Easy to add members
    • Drawbacks
      • Conversations get lost quickly from home page/lack of threading
      • No way to upload documents easily
      • Being in real time is a challenge in certain situations
    • Hangout
      • Possibilities for conversing with more than one person
      • Having a much larger group work, writing groups
      • Someone is in their classroom, in their school and they want some feedback from other people who are in other places
      • Documenting and saving the comments and responses
      • Moving beyond Skype to use as a way to collaborate across classrooms
      • Get together on early-release days with cross-school teams
      • Giving an oral presentation and receiving feedback from the chat room
      • Connecting with kids outside the classroom
      • Creating a panel of experts
  • Twitter/Chats
    • Hootsuite
    • EngChat
    • Twitter
      • Constraints of space make you choose what you are going to write and share; gets to the essence
      • Connect quickly with people whom you would never connect
      • Who you choose to follow — finding the educational resources — who am I choosing to follow, and why?
  • Flipboard/RSS

The three books that we are going to read are:

  • Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. First ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Rheingold, Howard. Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. The MIT Press, 2012.
  • Warschauer, Mark. Learning in the Cloud: How (and Why) to Transform Schools with Digital Media. Teachers College Press, 2011.

Overall, I feel like this initial plunge into digital writing and teacher leadership was a successful one. As we concluded the day today, they generated a number of additional ideas and inquiry questions:

  • What leads to and then feeds thriving digital writing communities for students and for teachers (and are those the same thing)?
  • How do we put everything together in a coherent, usable way?
  • How do I act as a learner and a leader at the same time? What is the balance of teaching and learning at the same time?
  • Where do I find the time to learn it and then be able to teach it? Giving myself permission to be less than expert in it.
  • If you are working with in-service or pre-service teachers, how do you address the tension between the teaching of writing and the learning of the tools?
  • The potential for balancing potential use with triviality — how do we sort out and sift through what is trivial and a waste of time as compared to what will lead to meaningfulness and depth?

Over the next few weeks, we will be meeting once a week via Hangout or Twitter chat to share our experiences, discuss readings, and think about plans for their site as they create future professional development opportunities. At some point in the near future, I am hoping that we will be able to make some of our work public, and this is certainly a rich experience for me as well as I think about future models for professional development and learning and hybrid or mostly online scenarios.

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The “Tweet Aloud” as a Tool for Comprehending Digital Texts

Thanks to Tracy Mercier (@vr2ltch) for capturing my unfolding thought process as I responded to The Majestic Plastic Bag — and invited others to do the same — during an #engchat conversation about digital mentor texts on April 23rd.

I think I may have coined a new phrase, at least in the pedagogical sense, mashing together the classic reading comprehension strategy of a a “think aloud” with the idea of viewing a video during a Twitter-based conversation such as #engchat.

The result: a “tweet aloud,” which had me and about a half-dozen other teachers sharing our thoughts on the video while all watching it on our own screens, semi-simultaneously. In some ways, it was a backchannel conversation during a social media interaction, which was kind of doubly-meta. All the same, it was interesting for me as a facilitator and, I hope, for participants, too. It gives me something to think about as I continue to understand online pedagogy.

So, I thank Tracy for capturing that all through her Storify reflections, as well as for Meenoo in trusting me enough to try something like that with #engchat.

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Catching My Breath After #engchat

So, I just finished hosting the lightening round of Tweeting that is know as #engchat (wiki link).

I sat down sat down at Panera with my bread bowl at about 6:45, thinking that I would have time to eat and follow a casual conversation. An hour later, there were so many great ideas that emerged that I barely lifted my fingers from the keyboard, let alone my spoon. That said, I just want to catch a few of these ideas, and a few bites of my cold soup, before the restaurant closes!

  • Even in a world of hyper-connected English teachers, we are still asking the right questions, both about teaching and technology. About access, both to the net and the tools. About teaching, both the content and the process. About assessment, both how and why. I really appreciated the questions that people asked, especially how they forced me to keep coming back to the writing and the writer, not just talk about tools.
  • No matter how little or how much access we (and our students) have, we need to continue advocating for more. Milton Chen in Education Nation talks about how 1:1 access is a digital civil right, and this conversation on #engchat tonight reminds me of that. Both the chat itself (the skills and processes that I needed to engage in a twitter-based chat with colleagues is both a mental and technical challenge, not to mention how to stay focused) as well as the topics that it raises (when, for instance, do we want students to attend to an online chat as compared to a face-to-face one?) remind me of how incredibly complex this thing called “digital writing” really is. It is both immediate and archived. It is both multilayered/multithreaded/multimodal, yet intently personal and focused. It can enrich our minds and offer us alternatives, or it can drive us to distraction. When and how do we teach digital writing so that it can be useful and productive?
  • There are incredible possibilities. One thread of the conversation spun off into the possibilities of gaming and how one teacher, Carl, uses Scratch with his middle school students. Showing the potential for interactive media as a space for storytelling (even if it is not “gaming” in the sense of programming and designing a full narrative with complex options), this example shows the ways in which a student can work to think through the process of writing in a different form. At one point, someone in the #engchat asked something similar to “what isn’t writing then?” and I think that it raises a good point. Whether spoken, printed, or otherwise designed with media, I think that “writing” is intentional. It involves an act of planning, revising, and producing. This Scratch example, to me, is clearly writing.

Those are some brief, initial reflections. I am so thankful for having had the chance to lead the #engchat session tonight, as it gets my new year and new semester off to a good start, helping me rethink what it is that I hope to accomplish in my teaching, research, and writing in the coming months.


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