Capacity and Creativity

It has been over two months since I’ve written here, and I have nobody to blame but myself. While I could point at a thousand “reasons why” I haven’t been blogging — among them the fact that I am blogging, just on other blogs — they are excuses. To be honest, I haven’t had the mental or emotional energy to think reflective thoughts over the past few months. At least not reflective thoughts that I deemed cohesive enough to turn into a blog post.

Then I had my first “official meeting” with my writing group the other day, and was reminded how important writing here is for moving my work and thinking forward. One of my writing buddies noted that when it comes to her dissertation, she returns to it each and every day, even if that only means writing a few sentences or doing a few minutes of analysis. It inspired me to be more purposeful about making the time to write something down, even if it lacks cohesion and coherence. 

For me, such writing has often taken place here or in other online spaces, where I publicly process my thinking in order to make visible the messiness that is the work of teaching, learning, and composing. So, while I likely won’t be able to leave a mark each and every day (I don’t know how she does it!), I can at least re-dedicate myself to finding the time and place for doing some writing, even if the thoughts are messy and incomplete. And today, I have some messy and incomplete thoughts about building capacity while leaving room for creativity.

Building Capacity…

I am so tired of this phrase. Education these days feels like it’s all about building capacity as resources dwindle. At the same time that articles in the popular media and from the DOE argue that teachers need more support, not less, much of the focus these days seems to be on doing more with less. Less time for teachers to plan, learn, and collaborate, because they have more kids in their classes and more demands on their time than ever before. Less money for district programs to fund the purchase of devices, the hiring of more teachers and support staff, or the facilitation of engaging and effective professional development.

Our response? We need to build capacity. And what builds capacity like moving things online? After all, I can reach a lot more readers a lot faster with this blog post, which I can Tweet out, share on Facebook, or link to in an email, than I could with a print text. Similarly, one can reach more learners in a MOOC than in a face-to-face workshop. When working under the physical limitations of things like space, place, and the very reality of getting one’s body from one point to another (which trust me, is not so easy in Boston right now, what with all this snow piled up around us), it’s much easier to invite people to view a live Google Hangout than it is to ask them to schlep across the city at the end of a long school day.

Is it important that we “build capacity?” Certainly. We need to be able to reach more teachers with more resources so that they can access those resources anywhere, anytime, from any device. We need to supply them with the physical means to access these resources, too (which is why our district provides teachers with laptops). We need to support them in building their digital literacies, so that they can in turn translate those literate practices into their classroom pedagogies. Part of this involves building capacity, extending our reach, and re-thinking how we design digital and physical spaces for learning. Which brings me to the question that’s plaguing me tonight: how do we build capacity without losing sight of the very time-consuming, non-linear, inefficient nature of creativity?

…While Fostering Creativity

I have been back in K12 education for about 5 months now, designing digital learning resources for teachers and students, building online courses for teachers and school leaders, and working with a team that wants to think deeply — and help teachers think deeply — about what it means to teach in the digital age, preparing students for colleges and workplaces that do not yet exist. More than once in those 5 months, I have found myself frenzied, overwhelmed, sometimes frustrated, and unable to articulate why, exactly.

I’m okay with all of those feelings (if I weren’t okay with frenzy and frustration, I never would have made it through a PhD program), but I’m not okay with not being able to reflect on or pinpoint what is causing them.

Chances are, these tensions stem from multiple sources — not least among them a major move across the country (I’ve never done well with major life or career transitions). However, I think some of my “frenzy” and a bit of my “frustration” lies in the space between my desire to constantly be creative while also being productive, which is sort of at the heart of “capacity-building.”

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In the second year of my PhD program, I joined what would later be called “The E-book Project that Wouldn’t Die.” Our team had grand visions for a set of e-books on multiple topics, an offshoot of a larger book series for practitioners on the Common Core that we had written the previous year. These e-books were going to be epic. epic.

Our vision for them included the development of multimodal texts that included annotated podcasts of kids reading aloud, video clips of teachers talking about their practice, and interactive tasks and invitations to engage with other educators. And the ultimate e-book (yes, one e-book) that we created actually included all of these things.

But it took us 3 years to videotape, clip, and caption the interviews, to thematically code them to come up with the book’s structure, to clip and annotate the podcasts, to integrate all of this media into our written text and design the layout, to figure out what platform to build the book within (we ultimately outsourced this), to complete the editing and revision on a collaborative team of busy graduate students, and to finally — finally – publish the damn e-book.

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One of the luxuries the academy afforded me — and my team of e-book compadres — was the space to be messily creative, to get sidetracked, to do it wrong five times before doing it right, then to decide that we actually did it right the third time.

I love designing digital content. There is something thrilling to me about hitting the “publish” button, about sharing a digital resource I’ve created, about designing a course website, social network, or space for learning and collaboration (sometimes all at once!). Part of why I love creating digital content is because I get to not only teach, but design. I love to make, create, then share and disseminate. It thrills me.

But dammit if it isn’t hard. And time consuming. And often, quite frustrating. And inefficient. 

Take this blog post, for example. I have been composing it for two hours (so far) while also doing various household tasks. I have been designing it in anticipation of a reader’s eyes, thinking about how my argument evolves and where my paragraphs break, what my sections will be and how they will unfold for my reader. I’m not even integrating hyperlinks and images, as I normally might, because my goal here is to reflect. I am, however, thinking about the accessibility of my post for diverse readers, whether my musings will make sense, whether they will prove coherent enough for this space, for this moment. It’s taking so much longer than I thought it would. 

And therein lies the tension. The digital world holds such promise to build capacity and creativity, all at once. The interwebs give us a magical, dangerous, terrifying, beautiful space in which we can create, connect, compose, publish, explore, and interact. Where we can be messy in affinity spaces of our peers who provide feedback and help us push our craft forward, or where we can present our most polished versions of ourselves in online CVs and portfolios.

But for me, at least lately, my desire to take the time to be creative, meandering through a project for as long as it takes to do it well, comes into dissonant contact with my desire to reach more teachers, more quickly, with more learning opportunities and resources. The immediacy of this work — its relevance to teachers and students right now — was the very thing that drew me to it. And yet, I wonder, as we search for more ways to build capacity in education, do we sometimes lose sight of the inefficiency, the outright disastrous mess, the productive but capacity-defying reality, that is creative design?

And to take this line of questioning a step further — what does it mean for teachers, who design learning opportunities and resources for students, that the modern rhetoric of K-12 education revolves around concepts like efficiency, productivity, and capacity? I am consistently searching for ways to encourage teachers to be designers who take risks in their planning and practice as they engage in the very creative work of teaching our young people. Do they share my feelings of frenzy and frustration? Is there a balance to be struck between capacity and creativity? What does that balance look like?

And with those questions, I leave this very inefficient, messy, but entirely #worthit blog post to the wandering eyes of the interwebs.

Why I’m Not Writing

Scratch that, I am writing: this counts, right?

drawing of person face-down on table with sleep "z's" above their headMy plan for tonight was well-hashed. I was going to leave work around 4 and head straight home, knowing full well I’d beat my spousal unit home by a couple hours. I was going to carve out some time to write. And by write, I mean work on an article that received a revise (handily) and resubmit about a month ago, before conference season blew up my calendar (#NCTE14 and #LRA14 were pretty epically worth it, though).

By the time I had gotten off of the train and sprinted to my bus (I made it… barely), I was ready to fall asleep in the seat. There’s something weirdly calming about looking out a bus window on a cold, dark night that makes me comfortably drowsy. By the time I got home and took the pup out for a walk in the freezing cold wind, I was ready for a pot of chamomile tea. By the time I made the tea and sat in my overstuffed recliner, my phone had alerted me to 13 new emails. By the time I sorted through emails, my tea was half gone and my muscles were becoming one with the chair. I opened up the article, tweaked a few sentences, and tried to wrap my head around a shift in my theoretical framework before I gave up and decided to write about why I simply. can’t. write. right now.

To be clear, I’m not complaining. After a somewhat taxing end to last week, today was optimistically productive. Collaborations are rolling, people are communicating well with one another, and I’m excited about the work that promises to fill every minute I’ll let it. So before I launch into my reflections on how my life simply isn’t allowing me to write right now, let me just say: the choice to work in a K-12 institution post-PhD is not one I regret. 

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When I was first considering taking a job in K-12, I met with one of my mentors at my university: someone who knows me well and whose opinion I trust. She was, to say the least, a little surprised… until that moment, I had always voiced wanting a job at a research institution. But at the same time, she was not surprised. She knows me well, and knows how much I enjoy working directly with educators.

She provided me with three warnings related to taking a job in K-12, one of which I forgot. Here are the two I remember, because they’ve proven true: (1) Your time will not be as flexible, and (2) It is hard for such institutions to make the space for you to write and research.

The flexible time thing doesn’t bother me, because I thrive on a busy routine. The research and writing time thing, on the other hand, is proving a bit of a struggle. 

</aside>

Why the struggle to write today? To some extent it’s about being tired at the end of a long day, about there never being enough hours for all the things, and about the fact that I should know better than to check email before I sit down to write. However, it also has to do with a number of other things:

  1. I’m still processing the defense. Even though revisions are submitted and accepted and I officially receive my degree on Sunday, I’m still thinking through the comments and conversation that took place in late October as a room full of really smart scholars helped me further complicate and contemplate my work. I need time to think more about their ideas and comments before I can launch meaningfully into the revisions of the article I’m working on.
  2. I’m still in conference mode. “Conference mode” looks like building and fostering collaborations — thinking ahead to the next project, the next study, the next connection. In the past three weeks, I have developed ideas for future conferences, outlined a few new papers in my head, and even planted the seed for a book (it. will. happen. I don’t know when, but it will.) “Conference mode” makes me look forward, which is making this article-derived-from-the-diss a little mind-numbing at the moment.
  3. Writing is hard. This is obvious, right? No. No it’s not. Good writers make it look easy, but for realsies, peeps, writing is hard. Writing articles is really hard. Revision is when writing gets real, which means revising articles is really, really, really hard. And as you can probably tell from my use of super descriptive adverbs like “really,” I’m feeling particularly articulate tonight (*snerk*). Which brings me to my last point:
  4. Forcing it is futile. Sometimes you’re in the mood to think deep theoretical thoughts, to synthesize those thoughts with concrete data, to process the feedback from anonymous reviewer person who wrote you another article’s worth of comments. And sometimes you’re just not. And guess what? It has nothing to do with how awake you are (not very), how much tea you brewed (three cups), how many miles you ran that morning (none), how many busses you rode today (two), or how many inspiring people you talked to today (five)… it just ain’t happenin’. If there’s one thing that writing that book-shaped thing called a dissertation taught me, it’s that forcing it is entirely futile.

So that’s why I’m not writing. Er, why I’m writing about why I’m not writing. I will need to find ways to work this whole writing thing into my new normal one way or another — even on days when it’s a struggle. Advice, anyone? Tweet me (@lizhoman): how do you make writing happen when, in the words of one of my mentors at #LRA14, “your time is not yours?”

Literacy Research Association 2014 Materials

I’m in beautiful Fort Myers Florida, about to pick up a friend from the airport and head to Marco Island and what is sure to be a beautiful few December days of conferencing, and wanted to share my #LRA2014 conference materials.

First, a paper that boils down the verbosity of grad school dissertating into a succinct (and, as I usually feel when I have to be concise, somewhat lacking) 10ish pages. Then, some slides I will present on my panel with Julie Learned (SUNY-Albany) and Darin Stockdill (Oakland Schools), after which we will discuss contexts and literacy with our chair and discussant, Elizabeth Moje (University of Michigan)

Looking forward to a fun conference with my literacy comrades!

Paper: Teacher Networks and Digital Pedagogies

LRA 2014 Presentation Slides

Thanks

My coffee, in my favorite mug — the Polish pottery one my grandma sent me to congratulate me on my new job — pours steam into the air beside me. I need to leave to catch the bus soon, so I only have a few moments, but after my beautiful walk with the dog this morning, I wanted to pause and write before the hectic day began.

I’m feeling inspired by last night’s #edtechchat on Twitter, which was all about being thankful for the educators who have shaped our lives. I don’t normally get all warm and fuzzy about Thanksgiving — I prefer to thank the people who have shaped my life throughout the year, in the small ways that I can: with smiles, time spent, conversations had, help given.

However, last night’s chat really left me thinking about how blessed I have been this year. It has really been a pretty epic year for the husband-person and I. We have moved across the country, run marathons, seen me through the last bit of a PhD and him a post-doc, started new jobs, and begun a new life.

And a few things have made this transition easier, or at least more manageable in the face of so much change. So here are a few things I’m thankful for this morning, and this holiday season:

  1. The view as I climb over my favorite hill in Dorchester, next to an elementary school, when the landscape opens up and I can see the harbor in front of me, the skyline to my left. More than once I’ve thought, coming over that hill, pinch me… is this really my life?
  2. My sister’s courage as she braves her way through her first year of teaching 1st grade.
  3. My mother’s constant and dependable support and mentorship as I re-entered k-12 education this fall (and always).
  4. My husband’s passion for our little family and for his work. I can always depend on him for somehow intellectual AND light-hearted conversation at the end of the day.
  5. Food. Specifically, SEAfood. Which it turns out is plentiful around here, and which will grace our Thanksgiving table this year.
  6. Running. Running, what an epic year we’ve had. Thank you for helping me find my center in the midst of much chaos.
  7. My friends and colleagues here in Boston and across the country — you make my hard work (and my hard play) so much more meaningful.

Happy holidays, wherever you are, and however you celebrate. It’s off to the bus for me, and back into this hectic life I love so much.

Jamming, Hacking, and Connecting at #NCTE14

It’s been a whirlwind at #ncte14, and I’ve enjoyed every second of it so far. Here’s a rundown of a few of my favorite moments:

(1) Going for a river run with my former HS teacher / forever career mentor / PaperGrader blogger extraordinaire / generally awesome person, Sarah Zerwin (aka Doc Z).

me n' doc z

me n’ doc z

(2) Lunch with former methods instructor / another forever career mentor / joyous human and great friend, Kim Parker and the amazing Elliott True (#ETatNCTE!)

(3) Beverages and long conversations about surviving graduate school with JPEE compatriots Christie Toth and Bonnie Tucker, featuring reflections on how finishing a PhD changes both everything and absolutely nothing at all (but mostly nothing at all).

etatncte

#ETatNCTE! this is the happiest kid in the universe, ppl.

(4) Presentation with incredible teachers and friends Dawn Reed, Aram Kabodian, and Jeremy Hyler, chaired by our co-digital-thinker Troy Hicks, where I met a couple Boston teachers who made it to NCTE and added a few dozen more tasks to the to-do list.

(5) Late night conversations (sometimes featuring being locked out of our hotel room) with NCTE roommate / NWP and MSU PhD genius / Social Network buddy Andrea Zellner, who led the coolest Hack Jam session this morning. Sarah, Dawn, and I hacked the convention hall and thought deep thoughts about how hacking helps us reimagine spaces (a few deep thoughts below).

hackjam

#ncte #hackjam fun

This is my fifth NCTE, and every year I’m reminded why this conference is a non-negotiable one for me; not only do I have the opportunity to reconnect with incredible people who have shaped my career, but I get to brainstorm, collaborate, co-create, and generally challenge my own thinking and writing. In the hackjam session, for example, I was reminded how powerful “hacking” can be, and was inspired to bring some hacking ideas back to Boston with me. We had a few minutes to freewrite after we hacked. Here are a few of my in-the-moment thoughts:

I’ve avoided the exhibit hall always. It’s a scary place where ppl try to sell you stuff, where the “Common Core” is written on everything, where test scores drive sales and agendas, where PEARSON lives. Ick.

Tasked with getting “all the free stuff,” it felt fitting – HAHA! I will go to this place I detest and jack them of all the free crap they give you so that you’ll buy stuff, and then I’ll remix it. What followed, I did not expect.

I talked to those sitting around me about how hacking helped us reimagine the space of the vendor-thick exhibition hall; suddenly, I was looking for things I could repurpose, reimagine, and recreate, and the general malaise I always felt about the exhibit hall was lifted. I was searching for colorful things, things I could rip up, cut up, tape together, or stick to other things. When we returned to the session, we (in collaboration with others who had also hacked the exhibition hall) created a banner (pictured above) with all the free stuff we had gathered. The banner invites participants to create their own story, with bins for “characters,” “settings,” and “conflicts.” Presenters shared other resources for hacking in the classroom, like X-Ray Goggles, which lets you “hack” websites (thereby teaching you, or your students, some basic web authorship and coding).

The session challenged me to think about the skills students need for the 21st century — is one of these skills the ability to hack — to look at a space, a tool, a thing, and reimagine it? This is at the heart of innovation.

How can teachers help students learn how to do this? How are digital tools part of this learning? What kind of classroom supports this kind of thinking, learning, making? The mind boggles.

Also I’m going to write a book with Jeremy Hyler on interdisciplinary collaboration and digital literacies. IT’S HAPPENING. Along with about a thousand other projects I’ve saddled myself with in the last few days. Because that’s what these conferences are for, yo. More reflections to come, I’m sure.