Things I Know 240 of 365: I wrote with the world

The world and I wrote a paper Friday.

By midnight tonight, I’m to submit my Theory of Learning for A-341 Supporting Teachers for Instructional Improvement. I’d been resisting the writing of the paper. After railing against the silver-bullet approach to education, sitting down to distill my beliefs into a single theory lived in a hypocritical room of my brain.

The temptation was strong to submit a Word doc containing only a link to this space, but that steps outside the bounds of the assignment requirements.

Two weeks ago, I asked 5 people to take a look at the first few pages of a rough draft of the paper. I’d written it up in Google Docs and shared it out.

Friday, I needed to get down to business. I wasn’t going to face a long weekend with an assignment hanging over my head the entire time.

I sent out this tweet and started writing:

Before long, other folks from wherever had jumped into the doc and started lurking. A few left comments on my friends’ comments. My friends, either from the doc or via e-mail, responded to the comments.

I kept typing.

Dan Callahan, who’s about as fine a teacher and person as you’re likely to meet, retweeted:

Google Docs let me know as more people joined me in the doc.

I kept typing.

As I neared the end, this message popped up in the doc’s chat window:

On the other side of the world, a teacher I didn’t know was reading my thinking as I cobbled thoughts together. Even more, she was moved to interact. We talked about our experiences in modeling and eliciting passion from students and shared a bit about our backgrounds. I learned her name is Jo:

I told her the doc would remain live as long as Google let it be so and that the copy would be posted here. I offered to brainstorm with her and her teaching partner if they’d like – to continue connecting.

And then she left.

I kept typing.

The difference at that point was huge.

I’d been putting together a theory of learning based on the ideas that:

  • Students learn best when they are in an ethic of care.
  • Students learn best when they know something about what they are learning.
  • Students learn best when the learning situation has real stakes and is challenging.
  • Students learn best when the learning is playful.

I’d been professing all of this to complete an assignment that initially spoke only to the second tenet. I knew a little bit of where I spoke.

The rest, as a student, I created.

As soon as I invited my friends, those whose minds and passions inform my thinking, I chose to surround myself in an ethic of care. In the initial stages of the rough draft, my sister Rachel watched from Missouri as I typed in Somerville. She offered encouragement and asked prodding questions. What I was saying mattered to someone other than me.

Each time Bud or Ben or Debbie pushed back, my learning was more playful. Every comment in the spirit of “What about X?” was an intellectual chess move asking me to refine my process and play with my thinking more deeply.

As soon as Jo entered the chat and asked if she could use a piece of thinking that was being created as she typed, the stakes became real for me. What was otherwise to languish as another artifact of academia destined for the eyes of a professor and teaching assistant was transformed into a guide of practice that would, in some way, affect the learning of children half a world away.

Unless a teacher is completely out of touch with his students, an assignment is likely to connect to students’ previous learning and fulfill my second tenet.

The other three, though, they take work. I write this as a teacher and a student – that work makes all the difference.


Things I Know 228 of 365: I’m developing new work and life flows

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.

– Igor Stravinsky

The last 48 hours have been a reminder of the future in which we live.

Yesterday, when completing an assignment for one of my classes, I needed only to open a google doc to see the notes for the readings I hadn’t done.

Through e-mail, my reading group and I divided the readings for the week. I suggested we use a 3-2-1 reading strategy to capture the most important information. We added a section for “key words and phrase” and it was done.

Another member of my group e-mailed a draft Word document of what we’d decided on. I took the doc, fed it to Google Docs and shared it to the rest of the group.

Over 72 hours, the notes came rolling in – synchronously, across all of our computer screens, with no files or iterations of files to keep track of.

Where I had questions or comments, I got to add them in and my group members added their as well.

This morning, I created a Google Collection for all the files for the course. I created a file for next week’s readings and dropped my assignments so far in there as well. Collaboration, right?

This morning, I paid for my coffee and bagel with my phone – and I wasn’t at Starbucks.

Paying attention to my surroundings, I saw a decal on the window of my local coffee shop advertising LevelUp. A download later and I was outfitted with my own QR Code for paying at local businesses. Not unlike other apps designed to get patrons to visit businesses, LevelUp has a built-in savings plan and daily deals. The piece that sold me, no receipt. It gets emailed to me and sent to my phone. Later today, I’ll be setting up an inbox filter that channels my receipts out of my inbox and into a designated folder.

Speaking of designations, I got around to something I’ve been meaning to do for month –

Now, more than any other time in my life, tracking my spending and keeping a budget are key constructs. In undergrad, my job at the paper supplemented my income and insured me a paycheck would be on the other end of each fortnight.

Though I’ve some contract work and a newly added research assistantship, I need some help making sure my finances are under tight control.

Shifting from a productive member of society to a straight-up consumer of goods, services and knowledge calls for a shift in thinking as well.

Mint is there to help. In about 10 minutes, I’d created a profile linked to my bank and credit card accounts as well as my student loans. Replete with budgets, savings analyses and comparisons of financial services, Mint is a financial advisor for those of us who can’t afford financial advisors. If I were a parent sending my kid to college, mint would be a requirement before I let the kid out the door.

Part of the joy of being a student that’s satisfying the curious portion of my brain has been developing new work and living flows. I’ve been working to leverage what’s free and available to me so the things I stress about are the things I care about.

Things I Know 13 of 365: You get what you pay for

I’ll gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today.

– J. Wellington Wimpy

Ordering pizza a few nights ago, I sound like a non-hilarious version of “Who’s on first?”

“Can you repeat the last four number?” says the lady taking my credit card number.

I say the previous four and start to say the next four when she begins to repeat the orignal four back to me and as we’re talking at the same time, no one hears the other.

“I’m sorry,” says she, “Can you call back? This is a horrible connection.”

I hang up and hit redial.

As it’s ringing through again, I want to get frustrated with the connection.

It’s not the first time I’ve had trouble being understood when calling out.

Then, again, I have no room to complain.

I’m using Google Voice through my Gmail account – two services for which I’ve not paid, but use on a regular basis. Were this the halcyon days of wireless communication, after my pizza was ordered, I could have called customer service to report my dissatisfaction with my calls. I would have spent upward of 45 minutes on hold and been awarded the golden fleece of customer service, an account credit.

And, yes, I realize, I could report these inconveniences to Google, but I’d feel silly.

I felt silly yesterday when I tweeted out dissatisfaction with my inability to track changes in Google Docs. The student whose paper I was grading was a comma splice junky, and inserting a comment to denote where each comma should have been was proving an onerous task.  Fed, up, I released the tweet to the world – another service for which I do not pay.

Others with similar frustrations replied with affirmations of their likemindedness. Someone even suggested I check the “revision history.” This was something I’d considered, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

“I want track changes,” I wanted to explain, “Just like they have in Microsoft Office.” (I know, bite my tongue.)

Still, though, there was something nice about the days when we bought big, beautiful, bug-ridden software packages. They were brimming with new features we’d uncover by mistake and then spend hours trying to disable.

Then, when that one thing we wanted to do wouldn’t work, we could complain in beautiful, consternated poetry and be justified because we had paid.

I get the argument that we’ve paid for Google. Today, when I logged in and saw someone on Facebook had liked my request for revision history on Google Docs because that tweet was sent by Interwebs magic to my status updates, I was reminded what I’ve paid. What were once the asides that filled my days like mental belly button lint are now pieces of data to fuel the machine and generate pageviews.

Yes, we can have the existential debate of what it means to give over our thoughts to corporations so that they can make money, but that’s not the conversation we’re having now.

I’m talking money. I haven’t spent any of it on Google.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with our agreement. My life is easier because of the free.

So, I’ll continue to keep mum about my frustration with the passing of Delicious which has been an invaluable volunteer link-sitter for the past few years. I’ll ignore the next commercial on Pandora that interrupts the songs piping through the station I’ve been doggedly curating for months now. And, when Hulu asks me which lady I’m most interested in watching test drive a new car while I’m catching up on episodes of Stargate: Universe, I’ll click without protest.

Free, has a costs.

Classy: Communal notes in gDocs

As I’ve written, Google Apps for Education is truly changing my practice this year.

We’re studying Jung’s idea of archetypes as they pertain to literature in my Sexuality & Society in Literature class. For an introduction, today, we read a simple introduction.

While the students were reading, I took my notes on key information and put them in a new gDoc.

On the side, I included comments on the ideas found in the notes. (We’ve been working on summarizing before offering up commentary.)

When the class was done reading, I had them close their computers and share their initial thinking on the ideas from the write-up. It was slow going. One of those moments where I can see the bigger picture and am thereby inherently more excited about the ideas we’re investigating.

When it felt like the conversation had reached critical mass, I moved to the screen and pulled up my gDoc of notes.

I pointed out that I’d included the title of the article (linked to the original text), author information, my name and notes on the key ideas, and notes containing my thinking and questions.

From there, I set them free to find more information with the directive of “build notes about archetypes in literature that work to answer our questions.”

The link to the editable gDoc was posted on the class moodle page. They logged in and started building notes.

As they built, I asked questions via the commenting tool to prod their individual investigation.

In the doc’s chat sidebar, I asked questions of the entire class to make sure our notes took on greater breadth.

Soon, the class will be writing essays with the help of their notes. Because of what they’re building, they’ll have the benefit of many minds as points of reference.

Next semester, when I’m teaching Storytelling, I’ll be able to produce the gDoc to introduce archetypes in conjunction with The Hero’s Journey.

Here’s what I didn’t do:

  • I didn’t build a wiki. I’m not interested in worrying about architecture, and a wiki would have required more click-throughs than seemed logical.
  • I didn’t have them blog. Though I’m making the work public here, the notes were meant for in-class use. Additionally, I wanted everything to live in the same place. While a common tag would have allowed the gathering of the posts, it wouldn’t serve the purpose of notes.
  • I didn’t use a discussion forum. The goal was putting the information in one place and allowing for the common culling of ideas. A discussion forum would have, again, required clicks. As the ideas within the students’ courses found connections at different points, threading discussion would have limited the intertextual connectivity of the reading.
  • I didn’t use guided notes. With the goal of exploration and investigation of dynamic concepts, guided notes would have put the onus on me and prevented one student’s uncovering of the periodic table of archetypes.

Though not perfected, this approach will be one I take again.

Classy: Rethinking the conversation of revision in writing

As much as I believe the tools should be in the background, this is as much about tools as it is about learning.

Two years ago, I started asking my G11 students to write bi-weekly analytical essays on topics of their choosing. Every other week, they are responsible for drafting an original thesis, doing research to back it up and then composing a brief analytical essay proving their points.

The essays were dubbed “2fers,” as they were due every two weeks and assigned as being 2 pages in length.

Larissa Pahomov, my G11 English teaching counterpart also decided to have her students complete these papers. This quickly became a lesson in the effects of a grade-wide assignment. Every SLA senior knows 2fers, and every SLA sophomore knows they’re on the horizon.

This year, we tried something new.

Revision and editing are always difficult components of the writing process in a 1:1 program (and any other program, for that matter). Whereas my English teachers asked me to turn in copies of each of my drafts with my final copy, writing on the computer calls for something else.

I edit and revise as I compose on the computer. I’m editing and revising as I type this. My first sentence of this piece went through three drafts the world will never see.

Still, when I’m done writing something that’s a little shaky, I’ll send it to someone else to check out.

Most of my students don’t have that switch in their brain.

Physiologically, the adolescent brain isn’t built for reflection. Sharing an electronic doc via e-mail can end up with many copies. Printing can waste paper and creates one more thing to keep track of. If I think I’ve edited it whilst writing, wasting time to have someone else do the same thing, well, wastes time.

This year, the students are utilizing our new installation of google apps for education in their 2fer writing.

Here’s how it went down:

  • With a max of three 2fers per quarter, each student created a file in the first quarter that would contain that quarter’s 2fers.
  • Those files were shared with me.
  • I dropped each file in a shared folder so all students could see every other student’s work.

At first, students were told to pick the most ruthless editor they could think of and ask them to look at their first papers.

The first go wasn’t great. Not everyone looked at their chosen partner’s essay. Some people chose editors with skill levels insufficient for pushing their writing forward as far as possible.

For the second go round, I assigned each student to a group of three. They kept their original editors, but were also responsible for looking at the two others in their group.

Results improved.

Now, this is not to say I was completely removed from the process. On the contrary, I was in there as well.

When I was assessing, my comments were added to their peers’. The rubric was pasted at the end of each essay with targeted comments for improvement.

Here’s the beauty. On the second round of 2fers, I saw the students using the same language as I had used in my feedback. I didn’t need to correct formatting, they were doing it for one another.

At its best, the revision became wonderful asynchronous conversations about the ideas and arguments being made. At its worst, it was surface level revision. Either way, it brought improvement, and students were learning the habits and language of revision.

I know this looks like a writing workshop, but it’s not quite. I know it looks like an electronic portfolio, but it’s not quite.

It’s asynchronous nature challenges that. The fact that no conversation or draft is never really done challenges that.

What’s more, in a writing workshop, what gets turned in at the end is usually the final copy. The conversation that led to that copy is hidden or lost unless, like my high school English teachers, students are asked to turn in all drafts. Even then, I’m fairly certain that was a check for completion, not a check for conversation.

At the start of the second quarter, I asked students to review their Q1 docs and look for trends in the comments their editors and I left. From their, they wrote goals for improvement in the second quarter. Those goals were posted at the top of their Q2 2fer doc.

They brought the most important pieces of the old conversation with them to the new conversation.

I realize the pieces of this aren’t anything new. The process, on the other hand, and the tools utilize to build the process, strike me as something new. I’m throwing this in the “Doing old things better in new ways” category.

Not the same

The Gist:

  • The issues are not the same.
  • We’re not all in this together.
  • Thinking it’s the same is wrong.
  • Have different conversations.

The Whole Story:

Tuesday, we ended Day 2 with an Elluminate session connecting the e-Personnel here in Eastern Cape with folks back in the States attending ISTE.

Thanks to Steve Hargadon for hooking us with the Elluminate connection. And thanks to Monika Hardy for joining in and talking about the work she’s doing with classrooms around the world.

It was quite the day.

Just before we were ready to reconvene following lunch, we lost connectivity. Here’s what’s funny, connectivity wasn’t an issue for the first few sessions. We were talking about backward design and working with adult learners and workshop design components. Computers were necessary, but not Internet.

After lunch, Google Docs was on the docket. (Geez, I’m witty.)

Then…it wasn’t.

As near as we can figure, some moderate winds in the area blew a telecom cable loose down the road. Telecommunications from here to Port Elizabeth were down.

There’s a dangerous trap to being here. Similarities can seduce. In an attempt to connect to the environment, to seem a part of rather than apart from, my mind went to “We have so much in common.”

That is the visible.

The invisible is not the same.

During the Elluminate session, a guest said, “I have a feeling we’re not so different.”

We may not be, but our situations are.

Picture a training for all the district technology coordinators for your state. Now, picture the Internet going down due to moderate winds.

What’s the reaction?

Would they sit as though nothing had happened?

We’re talking district-level folks as well as the heads of technology integration for the state.

My guess would be a series of hardy “harumphs.”

Here, there was no surprise.

Not the same.

What if your state was pushing to get every school connected to the Internet? What if several districts said no because they didn’t have electricity and then argued further that they didn’t want to get a generator to power connectivity because they knew the reliability of the generator would likely play havoc with or destroy the equipment if they had it?

Is that happening where you are?

This is me out on a limb saying, likely no.

What’s more, the local press would probably be on the story in hours.

Not the same.

What if the telecom provider your district contracted with honored the legally-required 50 percent e-rate for connectivity, but treated your school as a third-class consumer, arguing that the American satellite they contracted with to get their connectivity didn’t give them a 50 percent reduction for their account? And, no one did anything.

Again, the press, the parents, the district, all stakeholders would be on the line looking for answers.

Here, scenarios 1 and 2 above are such a part of life that snubbery by an international corporation seems par for the course.

Not the same.

I’ve more time to think on this over the next few weeks.

For those of you at ISTE this week, look at your programs. Where are the sessions about building connectivity across the world?

Where are the conversations about the importance of everyone’s voice?

Are we doing so greatly if we’re leaving so many behind?

Does having a “connected” classroom in North America matter when only 25.6 percent of the world’s population has access to the Internet?

When we talk of having our students collaborate with students around the world, do we celebrate the success AND tell the story of the road their partner countries had to walk to find access?

If information is currency and the haves and the have nots are finding themselves more and more separated, we’re fooling ourselves if we think it won’t lead to great troubles down the road.

What are you doing?