Missing the Midwest

Tomorrow, I move out of the Midwest for the first time in my life. It’s off to Boston for a new job, a new place, a new adventure.

After spending the past 29 and a half years in “America’s breadbasket,” a landscape filled with golden swaying cornfields in August, expanses of blowing snow in January, golden/orange/red/purple drifting leaves in October, and the freshest-smelling rain you’ve ever experienced in April, I have to be honest — it’s unbelievably difficult to leave.

So I wanted to pause for a moment, and write a quick list of the 10 things I will miss most about the Midwest. Some of these things you might only understand if you’ve lived in and loved the Midwest yourself. Others are true for anyone who has fallen in love with a place, with the people in it, with its landscape, with its ethos.

a midwestern field with a rusted-out grain elevator

The top ten things I will miss about the Midwest:

  1. The flat fields of Illinois. These open spaces make some visitors uncomfortable. They feel “exposed,” I’ve heard. You might think you’ve seen “flat” if you’ve been to Kansas. And sure, Kansas is pretty flat. But in certain parts of Illinois, the view includes a few dots of grain elevators, barns, and farmhouses among vast expanses of land that seems to have been pounded flat with the world’s largest rolling pin. I’ve not lived in that land for years now — over seven. But whenever I go back, I feel at home again, comforted by the blue bowl of sky overhead and the beauty of wide open spaces.
  2. The laid-back humbleness of rural Midwestern communities. There’s something beautiful about those little towns, the ones with one stop sign or a single stoplight. They know if you don’t belong. If your family is from there, they know every story about you from that day you broke your forehead open playing softball to that time you ran naked through the neighbor’s strawberries and came out the other side all covered in red juice. They are unassuming and slow-moving, and they love their homes fiercely and unapologetically.
  3. Dirt roads. Sure, every region has its dirt roads. But there’s something comforting about the roads in the Midwest — they’re on a grid, with numbers. Getting lost is damn near impossible, and you can’t see in any direction in the summer thanks to the cornfields (in Illinois) or trees (in Michigan) blocking your view. Our last two houses were off of dirt roads. My cars hated it, but I found it charming in a roll-up-your-window-or-you’ll-be-breathing-dust sorta way.
  4. The kindness of strangers. I have had so many strangers help me do all sorts of things. Get chairs into my car in a Meijer parking lot when they didn’t fit. Jumpstart my car. Unlock my car when I locked my keys in it 40 miles away from home. Carry something heavy. Carry something bulky. Figure out how to do something I should already know how to do (like pour coolant in my engine). Most of these have to do with the car, actually. Maybe that should tell me something…
  5. Watching squall lines charge across a cornfield. Because it’s so flat in Illinois, you can walk outside as a storm (or tornado…) approaches and just watch the beauty unfold. Unbelievable colors — reds, pinks, yellows, deep dark blues. Fast-moving and slow-moving stacks of clouds, menacing and at the same time comforting and beautiful. When the storm arrives, the smash of rain against your windows as you curl up in a comfy chair, warm and safe.
  6. The smell of tailgates on a Saturday morning in the fall. Hot dogs. hamburgers. Bacon, eggs, champagne, beer, chips, mustard, ketchup, pickles, cookies, brats. Also the sights — college kids painted head to toe in orange and blue or maize and blue or gold and black, hanging with their parents and their friends, throwing a football back and forth or standing around a grill, playing horseshoe or cornhole in large fields set aside especially for Saturday morning football debauchery. The party goes on all day as you first watch your team, then other teams, analyzing how the conference standings will play out over the next few weeks.
  7. The decidedly unique food cultures of Big Ten college towns. They’re all different. Here in Ann Arbor, we have Zingerman’s, of course, along with just about every other food you can think of. The main street strip is its own special awesome place. Local food is king here, and it’s easy to find places that use ingredients from local farmers. In Indiana and Illinois, good Mexican food is really easy to find. And don’t even try to pretend like you know what sweet corn is unless you’ve bought it from a farmer out of the back of his truck.
  8. Lawns. Not that people don’t have lawns all over the country, but lawns are a source of pride around these parts. Lush, green, manicured, tended patches of land that are all yours. You sit on your lawn and watch the neighbor kids play in a kiddy pool, sprinkler, or slip n’slide. You have yard sales. Your kid/neice/cousin/neighbor kid picks dandelions for you and brings them inside as gifts (thaaaanks, kiddo). Your weekends are devoted to yardwork, to tending gardens, to pulling tiny weeds from between your impatiens.
  9. The roar of the crowd.  I will miss my college sports, the energy and drive of young athletes as they train alongside getting a good education, the dedication of fans from one end of the Big Ten to the other. I have been an Illini, a Boilermaker, and a Wolverine, and I sympathize with all B1G schools (except Ohio State. Love to hate poor Ohio State). There’s an energy to these Midwestern college towns that really can’t be matched.
  10. Doing shit you’re not supposed to in friends’ basements / a cornfield / a park / a movie theater. Kids are rebellious everywhere, to be sure. And not all Midwestern teens are up to something they shouldn’t be. But there’s really not a whole lot to do in corn country, so we got really good at making some stuff up. From parties out in the fields (where we were pretty sure the cops wouldn’t find us) to boyfriends in basements to school playgrounds in the summer, we could always find somewhere to get into some good old-fashioned, but not too terribly illegal, trouble.

I will truly miss this beautiful place. I know some people spend their lives trying to leave it, but not me. If anything, I’m likely to spend many years hoping to one day get back.

Tackling the To-Do List

There are actually a number of strange to-do lists occupying my life right now, not just the one I’m going to talk about here. They include:

  1. The Packing To-Do List. You know, cuz I’m moving to Boston in 5 days (OMG).
  2. The Dissertation To-Do List. That’s the one I’ll talk about in a sec — hold tight.
  3. The CV/Cover Letter/Teaching Statement/etc.etc.etc. To-Do List. Because the academic job market kicks into high gear soon, and the partner-person and I might need to go hunting for jobs in the same city, depending on how some things hash out over the next few months.
  4. The What-Do-I-Want-to-Publish To-Do List. Now that I’ve written a dissertation, I should really publish some of this stuff.
  5. The Must-go-to-all-the-Places To-Do List. Because it’s imperative that I eat at all my favorite Ann Arbor restaurants before I leave.

But for this post — The Dissertation To-Do List.

I’ve hit that funny point in the process where there’s simultaneously very little and TONS left to do. Here’s my list as of this very moment:

to do list

Not too bad, right? I mean once you get about halfway down, all I have to do is format (hahaha — I’ve heard so many horror stories about formatting). Really, there’s relatively little writing and revising left to be done (depending, of course, on a bit of pending feedback from committee members). This list feels manageable. I could knock out a few of these in a single sitting, if I dedicated a few hours to the task.

And at the same time, this list feels downright huge. In part because of all the other to-do lists, and all the to-do lists that I’m going to acquire in about one week when I arrive in Boston and start my new job (again, OMG). So sure — not too bad. But still oh-so intimidating.

It’s okay, though. I have a plan.

My plan is going to sound crazy, but here it is: every morning before work, I’m going to get up at 4:30 a.m. and work on this sucker for an hour and a half. YES. I’m going to. I have multiple things that will motivate me to do this:

  1. The dog. Because she’s a weimaraner and thus extremely high-energy, my dog needs a run every morning. But because she’s a weimaraner and thus prone to an awful and deadly condition called bloat, she also needs to rest before and after every meal. This presents a timing conundrum that can be solved by getting her up and feeding her early, then running her right before I leave for work.

    me and my pup after our daily run

    after our daily run

  2. I’m a morning person. You know, once I convince myself to get out of bed, wash my face, and make some coffee. I get a lot of my best writing done in the morning, when my mind is fresh and the world is quiet (including social media).
  3. I’m NOT an evening person. Around 7pm every day, my body starts to shut down, brain first. I have held many jobs that require me to be “on” well past 7pm, including evening teaching jobs, but I have always struggled with working after the sun has set on the day. This means working in the morning is a far better move for me than planning on working after work, which will inevitably just not happen.

So that’s my plan. What do you think? Too ambitious? Probably. I’m hoping, though, that sticking to a schedule and allowing for occasional slip-ups will enable me to get through this particular to-do list without too much trouble. How have you tackled scary to-do lists, I wonder? Tell me on twitter!

 

Social Media and Professional Engagement

I have loved Facebook since four years ago, when I arrived at The University of Michigan for my PhD program. I would post to FB before then, and joined in 2006, but I didn’t really love FB until I had PhD friends who could lament and otherwise narrate the PhD experience with me on the book of faces.

I have loved Twitter since sometime last week. I hated it before then. I couldn’t interact with my F2F friends on Twitter, bc none of them liked to tweet. And I didn’t have followers, and I didn’t know how to get them. The impetus for figuring out Twitter? A job in k12 #edtech that starts in two weeks. I know Twitter increasingly matters in the lives of teachers and teacher leaders, who create professional learning networks via social media and who share ideas and resources in organized Twitter chats and less organized RTs and MTs. Not learning to love Twitter was not an option (which is okay, because it wasn’t long before I was hooked).

This has raised new questions for me about how exactly we engage — learn, question, think, interact — professionally in social media. For me, social media has always been a site of professional connection. Connections with people I know f2f or who are interested in the same issues as me. Connection with individuals who share my professional passions — but also a few of my personal ones (I’m not ashamed to tweet about my dog, for example, or the fact that my morning run must immediately be followed by a giant vat of steaming hot coffee).

Sidenote: Some people divide these spaces — personal and professional — using Facebook as a primarily social-personal space and Twitter as primarily professional. While I understand the distinction and separation, it’s just not me. I have “more” and “less” “professional” or “personal” social medias — on FB, I’m more likely to post personal stuff, and on Twitter, I’m more likely to post stuff related to ed tech or teaching. But neither space is exclusively dedicated to one or the other; I gain and share professional resources and experiences on FB all the time, and cultivate that space as though anyone from my professional world might see it.

So how do we “learn” within spaces like this? What does this sort of quick-paced, rapid-fire sharing of links and infographics and images grant professionals as they seek to learn from one another and build professional networks (and here I’m thinking mostly about Twitter)? Because I’m new on the scene, I haven’t quite developed a system for archiving the many things I find on Twitter (suggestions welcome), but I know I have come across more potential resources and interesting articles that have challenged my thinking (and caused me to challenge the thinking of others) in the past week than I probably had in the month that preceded it. I’m not sure how much of this I have retained or thoroughly absorbed. I don’t think much. And I can’t decide if I think that’s a good thing, a bad thing, or just… a thing. Maybe it’s okay that I have only deeply engaged with a few tweets and a few conversations on Twitter. Something tells me that’s sort of what Twitter is all about — mining, archiving, storing those things that actually matter for later, and letting the noise of the rest of it pass you by.

But what does this mean for teachers who use spaces like this as sites for professional learning, engagement, and development? How do we develop “PLNs,” or professional learning networks, within spaces like this… and are those networks robust? By which I mean, are those networks lasting, or fleeting? Do we want them to be fleeting? If not, is there a way to make them more lasting, more robust? A way to take the power of a space like Twitter, which connects so many people so quickly in social networks so vast, and to combine it with the power of a space like a professional learning community of just a few teachers taking the time, in a quiet classroom, to ask difficult questions about pedagogy? Or are there online spaces that allow for some combination of these attributes, inspiring and providing space for both deep discussion and quickfire resources and soundbites?

I have no answers, obviously. The entire paragraph above consists of questions. And for that, I do apologize. But I wonder if any of you have thoughts… if you do, tweet me ;) @lizhoman

 

Password Literacy and Single Sign-On

The topic of this post has been on my mind for a while, but got pushed to the front of my attentional space recently when two things happened:

  1. In one of the biggest security breaches in history, a Russian gang stole some 1.2 billion usernames and passwords last week.
  2. This article on how a new single sign-on app will make teachers’ lives easier showed up on my Twitter feed yesterday.

Password Literacy: It’s a Thing.

Let’s begin by explaining why these two events are connected in my head. I have a thousand billion gazillion passwords (at least that’s what it feels like). I have so many passwords that whenever I need to sign into my retirement accounts, I have to answer all the security questions (uh, I forget which pet’s name I told you, and also, I’m not sure who I thought my favorite teacher of all time was when I set up this account, but thanks for asking). Sure, I could write these passwords down somewhere, but I’ve had it drilled into my head that that’s a very bad idea. Actually, there are lots of rules about passwords I’ve had drilled into my head. Here are few:

  1. Don’t use your DOB
  2. Don’t use your anniversary
  3. Don’t use any date, really, that’s actually meaningful or traceable back to you or any of your loved ones or any of their loved ones
  4. Include ridiculous characters like *%&!$#€¿ψ∑Þ or @
  5. Include numbers (but again, no meaningful ones)
  6. Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts
  7. Don’t use obvious words (your kid’s name, your husband’s name, your name, your goldfish’s name, your aunt’s name, your street name, your city name, etc.)
  8. Don’t write it down on a piece of paper that says “top secret passwords” at the top.
  9. Don’t write it down at all, actually.
  10. But make sure you remember it.

(John Oliver had a hysterical bit about this exact phenomenon on last Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, but the clip isn’t up on his YouTube channel yet.)

I have so many different incarnations of various passwords, and I actually get excited when I figure out how to take an old password and transform it with one or two changes that will make it more secure. I’ve become strategic about which passwords I use for what, and what security measures I take with passwords for different things. I still don’t do it “right.” The best passwords are randomly-generated and kept secure through a service like KeePass. But I’m developing my savvyness and strategery with passwords as the number of accounts in my life skyrockets. That’s right — password literacy. It’s a thing.

Single Sign-On is also a Thing.

If I’m being honest, this particular consequence of living a highly digital life can get a little exhausting. It’s particularly annoying when different sites have different rules for what must (or must not) be included in a password, and I can’t remember which ridiculous character I did or did not integrate — and where — or which totally non-obvious word I chose for which site. But hey, I’m an adult, I’ve lived with it for a long time, and I know how to deal with it. I’m at least somewhat password-literate.

However, for today’s highly digital teachers who want to use digital technologies in the classroom, with students, this becomes problematic. I’m sure you can imagine the scenario:

You’re in a room full of 13-year-olds, and they all set up Pinterest accounts yesterday to get ready for an activity you’re doing today, where they’ll create boards for the characters in a novel you’re reading. But wait — this kid doesn’t remember his login name, and that one doesn’t remember his password. Five or six hands shoot up just as you’re ready to launch into modeling the day’s task, and you’re forced to stop and give up precious instructional time to make sure everyone’s logged on.

It’s enough to make any teacher want to scratch the tech and do something else.

This happened to me frequently in my classroom, and there are ways of dealing with it. My favorite strategy included developing systematic logins and passwords for each student, so that I could then remember their handles and passwords without needing to look them up. At other times, I would discuss with students how to develop passwords that would be both secure and memorable. But inevitably, Jimmy would forget his password or Anita would spend 15 minutes vainly attempting to login. It was one of the realities of working with digital media with a room full of teenagers.

No need anymore with Instant Login and similar multi-app login sites (some of which you can log into via social media or Google accounts), which allow teachers to sync students’ passwords across platforms so that they can log into everything they need for school once, and not anymore! Sounds great, right? 

Point, Counterpoint

It does sound great. It sounds really great. The former teacher in me (and edtech specialist who really wants teachers to use digital media) is jumping up and down with glee. It’s why schools have signed onto Google Apps for Ed and encouraged teachers use Google Apps before turning to other platforms (like WordPress or Weebly) — because you only need one sign-on and BAM, you’re into Drive, Calendar, the new Google Classroom, Blogger, and so on. Teachers at my research site lamented how frustrating it was to help students keep track of their multiple logins and passwords — what a headache it was to have so many available platforms that students needed to constantly access with multiple logins.

So here’s my counterpoint — something that’s been nagging at me lately. Isn’t this part of digital life as we know it? And if there is such a thing as password literacy, or even password strategies,shouldn’t we be working on these skills with students?

I certainly understand the headache that comes from having 25 kids in a room totally ready to go and 5 who can’t, to save their lives, type their password in correctly or even remember what it is. I remember keeping lists of student passwords in some locked file on the computer that I had to access multiple times a day. But I have to wonder if, with single sign-ons and one-size-fits-all company models like Google’s, we are depriving today’s students of a singularly important digital skill — maintaining ridiculously multiple and annoyingly complex logins and passwords.

Here’s a little more on how Instant Login works, according to the article:

about 25 percent of class time is usually spent on troubleshooting and getting educational program up and running, according to a press release from the company. The survey also revealed that teachers found the sign-on issues a barrier to adopting more digital-learning software.

The service works by using a school system’s class roster and connecting it with web-based educational-software packages, eliminating the need for multiple logins for each student.

The software can connect with over 20 of the “most popular apps” used in schools, and students will be automatically signed in if they sign into just one of the apps, negating the need for them (or their teachers) to remember multiple passwords or to strategically design and use their passwords and logins, certainly streamlining things for teachers. And I’m all for just about anythingthat gets more edtech into the hands of teachers and their students.

I just can’t help but worry that we might be missing a bit of the point of engaging students with digital technologies when we take one of the fundamental elements of online engagement — managing logins and passwords — and omit it from the conversation and the learning environment.

That list of password “rules?” I learned that in my years as a college student, teacher, grad student, and lover of all things digital. I’ve learned to become a strategic manager of passwords and logins over years of digital learning, and I’m pretty lucky my identity was never stolen and my accounts never hacked (that I know of), because my practices used to be pretty horrible. This is one element of “digital citizenship” that doesn’t often get addressed or even acknowledged, but it’s important — if today’s students are going to be digitally savvy and smart adults, or responsible digital citizens, don’t they need to know how to manage their accounts in smart and strategic ways? And more to the point — isn’t it better that they experiment with this, fail at it, and learn from it in the safe context of the classroom, where it doesn’t matter so much that Anita’s classroom Pinterest account got hacked?

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, and would welcome my wonderful readers’ thoughts on this! In what contexts might it be best to streamline student login/password processes, and in what contexts must we teach students how to be savvy with their digital security?

 

Connections

This month, my life is all about making connections. From my dissertation to my graduate life to my upcoming job, I’m making connections between concepts, old friends, and new coworkers. Some of these connections are more difficult to make, others exciting, but all of them carry their own challenges, and together, they’re doing their darnedest to run me a little ragged.

First, Conceptual Connections

When feedback on the first full draft of my dissertation came back in July, my co-chairs were in agreement: it’s all there, I just needed to “build connections.” It wasn’t clear how my three findings chapters connected to one another and the rest of the dissertation to form an overarching argument. To some extent, I thought I knew what said argument was, but it was kind of obvious (like, no one would have really found it interesting or surprising). I knew there was something else there… but it was hiding right beneath the surface.

After working my way through more than half of the thing making whatever connections I thought I could between chapters, I met with one of my co-chairs, who asked all the right questions and helped me tease apart my actual argument. We sat and stared at this graphic (the fancy name for it is a “key linkage chart”) for a while, trying to figure out how the top led to the bottom… how all the pieces went together.

my current "key linkage" chart

my current “key linkage” chart

I’m sure this thing will continue to change — it’s more or less in a perpetual state of flux right now, but I’m currently in the process of re-(re-re-re-)revising in an effort to make more of the connections between concepts clear. I don’t really leave my house besides to eat and/or walk the dog, because this needs to be done before I leave for Boston at the end of August.

Also, New People

Speaking of which, I’m moving to Boston in August. Actually, I’m moving to Boston in exactly 19 days. Yikes — I hadn’t actually done that math until just now.

This move means I’m working with a whole new set of people — the ed tech team for Boston Public Schools — and (from a distance) I’m getting e-troduced to many of my new co-workers via email and hangout. So far, I’m thrilled to find that the people I’ll be working with are like-minded when it comes to ed tech, that they have found many of the same things in Boston schools that I found in my research with teachers who are trying to integrate tech, and that this job feels like a really good fit. However, it doesn’t mean making new connections from a distance is easy (heck, it’s hard enough when it’s face-to-face).

Part of the challenge here lies in the fact that I don’t yet know or completely understand this community, not having worked in a central office… um… ever. I’m not sure what matters most to this community when it comes to supporting teachers, because I haven’t been in it long enough to figure that out. I don’t know ANY of the district-specific acronyms (that’s already become a bit of a joke between me and my new coworkers — everyone is going to need to spell things out for me for a while). I have done a bit of work in urban education, but only in the context of TFA, not actually working for a district. Plus, all of these interactions are online, where it’s harder to read nonverbal and tonal cues that usually help me with these sorts of things. So needless to say, I’m a bit of a fish out of water. I imagine I’ll be doing a lot of listening for the first few weeks.

And I Can’t Forget my Existing Connections

Part of moving is making sure you connect with everyone before you move — this means my time is suddenly in high demand. Whereas it used to be okay for me to disappear for a couple of months and get my work done, many of my friends want to grab a drink, grab a meal, or otherwise get together before I move. This, in the realm of problems to have, is actually a pretty damn good one.  It makes me feel pretty loved.

That said, even these connections are at times difficult to make. To begin with, I have to say no to many of them, because the dissertation needs to take a front-row seat right now, and I can’t give up too much time to my social life. Also, I’m reserving much of my weekend time to hanging out with my partner, from whom I’ll be separated for an indeterminate amount of time. But more than that– it’s sad. These people have seen me through some of the darkest, ugliest moments of the PhD process. They are some of my favorite people and best friends, and I’m leaving a full year earlier than I originally thought I would be. At the moment, as I prepare to leave half of my heart behind in Ann Arbor while the dog and I move across the country, my emotional sensibilities can only take so much of a beating.

All this connecting has left me pretty drained these last few days (or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been getting up at 5:30 to reset my internal clock from gradschool time to realworkingperson time, or the fact that I’ve been running a lot, who knows). All of these connections are exciting — watching my dissertation come together (FINALLY), meeting my incredible new colleagues, and reconnecting with some of the best and smartest friends a woman could ask for. But… I need a nap.