Class blogs should be open spaces

The walled discussion board almost feels normal at this point. As a tool, I can understand the use of a discussion board as a community builder and idea incubator. I’m a fan of those concepts.

I’m still calling wangdoodles when discussion boards are utilized for awkward or inauthentic purposes, but I can see their usefulness as an archive of correspondences for an online community. On SLA’s MOODLE install, all community members have access to a discussion forum that’s been live since the first year – SLA Talk. New freshmen are part of the fold, and their thoughts intermingle with those of the first graduating class when they were freshmen. It’s readable, documented institutional memory. An observer is just as likely to find a thread discussing student language use in the hallways as they are to find a debate about the latest movie release. It is a simple artifact of community online.

This semester, I’ve two courses implementing blogs as assignments.

For one course, a few students are assigned each week to post their thoughts on the reading leading up to that week’s class. Each other student is required to reply to one post per week with the option of passing on one week during the semester.

The posts have yet to be mentioned in class discussion.

In the other course, each person is encouraged to post weekly. The posts’ content might be related to the readings or simply to the topic for the week. No replies are required, and the posts are weekly referenced by the professor in discussion.

If blogging is to be required for a course, the latter instance comes closest to ideal practice – not required, but preferred; not for nothing, but tied to class.

In both instances, our class blogs live within the walled garden. The thoughts with which my classmates and I play will never find footing in a feed reader or enjoy comments from those who have reading lists contrary those chosen for us on our syllabi.

They should be public. Comments from anyone around the globe should be invited and commented. Our thoughts should mingle in the cyberether.

This is true for two reasons.

One, the refinement of thinking benefits from a plurality of opinions, and the Internet offers a cacophony that would challenge us to sculpt our thinking in ways we could not imagine.

Two, an open class blog asks participants to clear their throats and use their public voices while connected to a class setting in which they can find support when their voices are challenged. More than once, I’ve felt pushback when posting in this space. Early on, it was difficult to take. Sure, I wanted people to read what I posted, but how could they disagree with me?

Opening our blogs would give my classmates and I the chance to write with the training wheels of a cohort of support while enriching the experience by exposing us to the democracy of thinking on the web.

Walling a class blog runs the definite risk of students taking their opinions into the world untested and unprepared for criticism. It also robs them of the practice microphone a class blog could become.


Things I Know 345 of 365: ‘We Bought a Zoo’ reminded me of what Crow can do

Cameron Crow and Tom Robbins live in the same condo in my brain. Crow is the well-meaning nice neighbor while Robbins is perpetually ready for a casting call for Pineapple Express II. That said, they both put words together in ways that make my brain sit up and take notice.

My family went to see Crow’s latest concoction,, tonight. It was uneven, but not unsatisfying. Crow’s power exists in his ability to create a world and narrative arc in which he can pour wonderful lines to be spoken by capable actors.

Tonight featured Matt Damon’s character saying to his teenage son, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

They are words that only happen in literature and which I carry around with me in the emergency kit of my brain.

Robbins’s works are similar.

I first read Still Life With Woodpecker my junior year of high school as a way to offset the drudgery of hearing yet another book review of Red Badge of Courage.

I was amazed. I didn’t know what I had. I knew it was complex, poetic prose that used story as canvas and sentences as paint. I also knew it was a little dirty and a little beyond my understanding.

Still, there are moments in any Robbins book where I think he’s lost me and wonder if this might not be the book I decide to walk away from. Then passages like this from Still Life remind me why I keep reading:

Who knows how to make love stay?

1. Tell love you are going to Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if loves stays, it can have half. It will stay.

2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a moustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.

3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning.

Robbins is not for everyone. He is an acquired taste. If you can acquire it, though, it is well worth the reading.

I was at a similar point when the credits rolled on Zoo tonight. Not everyone will love it (as reviews are showing), but those who love beautiful words and hang on will be happy they did.

Things I Know 316 of 365: It’s best to teach two types of writing

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

– Benjamin Franklin

Yesterday, I was listening to and interview of one of my favorite television writers, Steven Moffat. He’s the head writer and executive producer of Dr. Who and Sherlock and one of the screenwriters of The Adventures of Tintin.

Moffat has been a fan of Dr. Who since he was a boy and was asked when he wrote his first script for the show.

I expected mid-20s.

Moffat answered 10 or 12. He and a friend scripted a 4-part series of the show on their own, in their free time.

My mind immediately went to how that interest could have been leveraged in school. The voice in my head sounded something like, “I’m sure they didn’t, but Moffat’s school should have had a program for script writing. He could have latched on to his passion much earlier.”

Thinking it over, I’m glad they didn’t. We might have ruined him. This was a boy so enamored and passionate about writing – this kind of writing – that he spent his free time playing with the form and structure.

While school could certainly have been the place for the development of his talent, it seems unlikely they would have given it room to breathe and time to develop.

I’m so tempted to argue that we should be teaching more forms and genres of writing in school aside from the expository and persuasive essays required by standardized tests. In the current curricular climate, though, we would teach those things in pieces with restrictions and a tone of teaching that says, “This is the way you do it.”

What I love about Moffat’s writing is how far he strays from the expected and how often he breaks the rules. It makes for interesting storytelling.

When I started my students on story slams, my guidelines were purposefully vague – tell a story, make it interesting. The judges in the audience were given two measures – content and presentation. We never stopped to define what a top score in either of those categories would look like. Rather than looking for certain characteristics, I relied on the idea they would know quality when they saw it.

If we could teach writing like this – if we could say, “Work until you think you’ve gotten to quality” – then I’d say we should carve out space in classrooms for our future-Moffat’s. Until then, their curation of their passions is safer in their free time.

Things I Know 251 of 365: Writing differently lets the words say more

Our research suggests that the lack of education related to literacy is problematic, and the situation is exacerbated in the field of education.

– Barbara R. Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne L. Flannigan

My last post was a bit of an experiment.

I had an idea of what I wanted to say. When I’d written out the text, though, it didn’t say enough.

I tried adding more words, but that turned out making the text say less.

I tried changing the words, but it turned out they were working pretty hard to say what I wanted them to say.

It occurred to me that pictures might help. From time to time, images have helped communicate what I’m trying to say in a post.

I looked around Creative Commons, but couldn’t quite find what I needed.

This led me to the drawing option in Google Apps. I was able to create rudimentary versions of the images my words couldn’t stretch themselves to cover.

When I tried to embed the images, they didn’t quite fit. The post still seemed flat. I wanted it to say more.

I needed to write in video. I needed image, sound and words to work together to say more than what I was able to say in text alone.

This has me thinking about the kind of message creation called for in classrooms. The as I’ve been thinking about recently, the essay is the coin of the realm. Should it be?

In attempting to make images, texts and audio work together, I needed to pull together understandings of message and meaning well beyond putting sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into some sort of cogent narrative.

What’s more, I still needed that narrative to make it all work. I still wrote the post. Even more importantly, what I put together wasn’t very good. It did what I asked it to do, but it could be so much better. The room for revision in fifty different directions makes me want to jump back in and try. When I was in my online program last year, I couldn’t figure out why this kind of composition wasn’t a part of the courses. We were people learning together who would never be in the same physical space. The easiest thing to do would be to construct an environment that allowed us to be people with each other and build learning artifacts that actually spoke to who we were.

This is the type of writing we should be teaching. Not forsaking traditional texts, but folding them, extending them, and reconnoitering them into what they can be.

Students’ writings want to say more. We should let them.

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 205 of 365: There’s a new poet in town

The truth of poetry is not the truth of history.

– Philip Levine, United States Poet Laureate

We’ve a new poet laureate.
We had an old poet laureate.
Digest it quickly,
Move on.

No hippy, liberal elitist.
No ivory tower academic.
He’s from Detroit.
He worked the line.
He’s gotten his hands dirty.
Some of it rubbed off on his soul.

America has a poet.
This feels right.
At it’s best,
America strives to be poetry.

At our worst,
We clunk along like prose,
In a technical manual,
From when we needed stereo instructions.

I met a Poet Laureate once.
He shook my hand.
He signed my book.

Later, before sleep,
his words filled me with the capital “T”
Only poets can tell.

If we wanted School Improvement Plans
That told us where we’re going,
That reminded us where we’ve been,
That showed us the best and worst
Of who we are and what we could do,
Every budget would include

… a Poet Laureate.

Things I Know 138 of 365: English 101 ain’t got nothing on us

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?

– Langston Hughes

The ENG 101 syllabus of one of my former students states the following:

Students who pass the course will be able to do the following:

  • Use appropriate rhetorical development (such as analysis, comparison/contrast, interpretation and argument) to respond to the central ideas of an assigned text
  • Paraphrase sentences and short passages from reading texts
  • Analyze a written assignment
  • Develop essays of varying length and complexity that incorporate ideas from texts
  • Use a variety of sentence patterns, indicating a generally mature style
  • Evaluate effectiveness of their own writing via feedback from professor, peers and self to produce a rigorous revision
  • Use vocabulary that conveys meaning accurately and appropriately for a college student




The thing is, I send my students out of my classroom with those skills. I send them out of the classroom with more than those skills.

As we fast-approach the end of the school year, my senior students are practicing their ability to analyze texts at their linguistic, semantic, structural and cultural levels and then apply various schools of literary criticism to find deeper meaning.

To their future professors, I say, challenge them.

We have been. It’s fun; trust me.

I’ve read plenty of articles denouncing the abhorrent linguistic skills with which college freshmen enter their university experiences.

Get over it.

Perhaps the problem lies not in the skills of the students but in the work they are being asked to complete.

On this same syllabus, the workload of the course is outlined:

In this class, you will write and revise 5 full-length essays plus write an in-class essay for a final exam. These will range in length from 3 pages (early essays) and gradually lengthen to 5 pages (last take-home essay).

My favorite implication in the above is the idea that an essay of 5 pages in length is somehow superior in content than an essay of 3 pages in length. I love the COSTCO approach to writing in bulk. It’s an excellent lesson to teach our students that more writing equals better writing.

Of particular note is the fact that the learning described in this syllabus will bore students to tears. Many high school teachers have gotten the memo that technology and 21st-century learning open up the ability for our students to learn and produce artifacts of their learning in varied and complex ways. And, we’re doing it while sticking to the content of yesterday as well. My G11 students will have written 12 analytical essays by the end of the year. Each of those papers will have centered around a thesis statement that is unique, inciteful and debatable – not to mention self-created.

Professors should also know they’re working and revising on google docs with peer feedback, building a portfolio of work on which they reflect at the end of each quarter. Their writing process is transparent, collaborative and authentic.

When the syllabus states, “Essays must be submitted to me in paper form (not email)…” I want to email the professor asking, “Why?” I reconsider, remembering this professor’s aversion to such correspondence.

My argument is simply this, whomever is designing the curriculum and pedagogy for the nation’s ENG 101 courses, know that we’ve been bringing our A-game for the last four years, and we’re sending you students who will be expecting the same from you.