Moving is Scary (And Other Reflections)

I have started writing this post about a million times, and stopped each time, trying to figure out how to talk about this mega-huge thing that’s happening in my life in t – 1 month.

Basically, I have some news. I’m moving. To Boston. WITHOUT my husband-person.

(To start a new job with Boston Public Schools as an Online Learning Specialist.)

And this is scary.

This Post: An Explanation

Deciding how to communicate this to whomever might happen upon my website and then happen upon my blog was difficult, because my audience is so varied. I know a few close friends will read it (because I’ll post it on FB) — most of them already know that I’m moving, why I’m moving, etc. It’s also possible that my new boss will happen across this post. I hope she knows it’s the moving that’s scary, not the prospect of working with her (she’s awesome). It’s possible future employers will read it and think “this girl is crazy pants.” It’s possible that audiences I’ve not even imagined will read it. See, since this is a professional space, it really complicates the whole “blogging about my feelings” thing. And I have the feelings, folks. Lots of them.

So I thought about it a little bit, and decided to go ahead and just stinkin’ say it, because I don’t really want to be part of a professional world that isn’t willing to see me as a whole human being, put together messily and with little attention to logic or reason. Being a human is messy. Being an adult human is messier. It’s just that the tiny humans wear their messes on their shirts, and the adult humans squirrel away their messes in their brains. Well, consider this post the unloading of my brain-mess. Because finishing up a PhD has left no room inside my brain for my brain-mess, and because I don’t think squirreling anything away is healthy.

Why I’m Moving to Boston

Ha! I like how the header implies that this is an explainable thing. “I’m moving to Boston, because _____.” Like those sentences you filled in on worksheets when you were learning about compound sentences and conjunctions.

Basically I’m moving to Boston because BPS offered me a super cool job that lets me do a bunch of stuff that I love doing. That “bunch of stuff that I love doing” includes:

  1. Working with teachers to think about how to improve their practice
  2. Working with teachers to help them integrate tech into their practice
  3. Developing professional development resources for teachers
  4. Working on a team of people who care about teachers and teacher learning
  5. Making online things that help people learn
  6. Thinking about online learning and how people learn in hybrid (online/f2f) settings
  7. Thinking about how teachers learn in the midst of being teachers

You know, all that cool stuff. So really, it’s that simple. I accidentally (seriously, it was sort of an accident) landed myself a job doing exactly what I want to do at the oldest school district in the country. I get to acquire PD development experience and urban education experience while honing my skills and knowledge in #edtech. #winning.

See, in my dissertation study, sort of unintentionally, I wound up examining how PD structures impact digital integration. In the process, I discovered that I really, really, REALLY like thinking about PD and about how to improve teachers’ experiences as teachers and lifelong learners. I realized I kind of wanted to help schools design “good PD” (ftr, still deciding what I think that is). I realized I could do this in multiple contexts: either at the university level as a researcher, or at the k-12 level working with a district. I realized that this latter option was actually an option, which had never occurred to me before. And it sounded kinda… awesome.

Why it’s Kinda Weird

I always thought I’d be a professor. I had a PLAN, people — since undergrad. Get degree, be teacher for 3 years, earn master’s, get PhD, be professor, teach methods courses, get tenure, publish lots of things, etc., etc. So when I announced to my friends and family that I was going to move to Boston to work with a school district, some people were a little surprised.

This is because I had told everyone forever that I wanted to work at a R1 institution doing professory-type things. Conducting research with teams of graduate students and undergrads. Applying for grants. Leading future teachers to classroom excellence. Teaching research methods courses. To a large extent, I do still want that. This still sounds like a fantastic future to me.

Why I’m Doing this Anyway

The past few months of writing my dissertation have made me want to run screaming from the academy. I hear this is normal.

But beyond that (because that’s not enough of a reason to leave), I would like to gain some practical experience doing the thing I research. If I eventually choose to go back to academia, I’ll be armed with some experience as a PD professional at the k-12 level. Also, I’m almost done with this beast of a dissertation, and continuing to wallow in it for one more year while I do the academic job market dance makes me want to crawl under a table and cry for a while. A long while.

Furthermore, a career in k-12 education does not mean a career void of research, problem-solving, and publishing. A number of my favorite academic minds aren’t in the academy, but left it to return to the classroom or to work as administrators. These individuals attend the same conferences I attend, write for academic and practitioner journals, and are extremely tapped into the lives of the classroom simply due to the nature of their work. They maintain a foot in both worlds, even though it might not seem like it. In the words of one teacher-PhD:

I often feel like the world looks at this choice we’ve made as some sort of failing condition. Once in a while I get a student asking me, carefully, why I’m not teaching college if I’ve got my doctorate. The assumption often seems that it’s because I couldn’t make it as an academic so now I’m stuck teaching high school.

I do not know where I will end up after this year. Because my partner is still looking for a job and because I’m not yet sure what this new adventure holds in store, I might stay in Boston, I might look for an academic position, or I might seek out administrative certifications. But I do not subscribe to the notion that just because I’m in k-12, I cannot contribute to the scholarly community. That only the life of an academic at an R1 institution will allow me to question, shape, and change education writ large.

NOT Why I’m Moving to Boston

And for clarity’s sake, here are a few reasons that are NOT reasons why I am moving to Boston:

  1. Because I am getting divorced. (Seriously, why is this the first place people’s heads go when I tell them my partner is not joining me? He’s employed here, people. And if you’ve ever met my husband, you can imagine what he would be like unemployed. Not okay. We’re fine, and we’ll be fine. Get over it.)
  2. Because I run. Would I like to qualify for the Boston Marathon? Sure. Am I going to any time in the next 5 years? Hella no. Is Boston a runner’s paradise? Definitely. But no, I don’t base major life decisions on my hobbies.
  3. Because I hate academia. That’s just stupid. I’ve spent 6 years of my 7-year career in academia. I’ve been happy. I’m sure my career, in whatever form it takes, will continue to interact and intersect with post-secondary institutions.
  4. Because of the sports. I really can’t stand the Patriots. I can handle the Red Sox and am indifferent to the Bruins and Celtics.
  5. Because I’ve always wanted to live in the city. I come from the cornfields, and a dream of many cornfield-dwellers is to move to a big city. This actually terrifies me a little bit, I have to be honest. I’ve never done well with big transitions, and this is the biggest yet.
  6. Because I love lobster. Though I do love lobster.
  7. Or clams… or oysters… Though I love those too. Actually if I’m being honest, the food might have been a motivator…

Dang it, now I’m hungry. And on that note, it’s just about dinnertime here in Michigan, and I have one more month at home with my husband and puppy to enjoy our evening dinners and chill time, so I’m going to peace out. I hope this sheds some light on why I’m moving to Boston, and why it’s scary, but also pretty awesome.

 

Resources for WPA 2014

It’s off to WPA 2014, in Bloomington, IL, just a few short miles from my hometown of Mahomet! Looking forward to presenting with my friends Anna Knutson and Aubrey Schiavone on digital pedagogies on Saturday evening. I wanted to provide access here for any attendees — or any of you nice reader people — who might like the transcript or the slides from my talk.

Link to Slides

Transcript of my Talk

Going Gradeless

It’s a sexy thing to do right now, going gradeless.

At least, it is something a number of my colleagues — secondary and post-secondary — are experimenting with. Can we go completely gradeless? No. Something tells me that if I refused to submit grades at the end of the semester, I’d get into some trouble. I don’t think the university would take kindly to me saying “grades ruin my teaching, so I’m not giving them anymore.” But to some extent, that’s what I have decided. When we give grades on every assignment, students learn to associate success with numbers and letters, not with the extensive feedback we spend so much time crafting. When students associate “A” with “amazing” and “D” with “deficient,” teachers lose the power of meaningful evaluation. Furthermore, students often take those letters and their meaning to heart, believing that if they get an “A” it means they are amazing, not their work. And by extension, if they get a “D,” they are deficient. In the composition classroom this seems especially true, as students associate their writing with themselves – who they are, what they believe, what they hold dear. Assigning letters and numbers to that undermines my teaching and my attempts to challenge their ideas and arguments. So I quit.

When I say I’m “going gradeless,” I’m referring to a growing (in my circles) interest in “contract grading,” or grading that makes an agreement with students that meeting a certain set of criteria will earn them a certain grade. Billie Hara breaks it down further in an article on ProfHacker/Chronicle of Higher Ed. Her article outlines some of the history of contract grading, which (I think) was first introduced by Peter Elbow, famous in the composition world for developing institutional work-arounds that, in theory, make writing courses more meaningful. Hara also describes some of the drawbacks of contract grading, namely that it uses vague terminology that makes it difficult for students to understand what will actually get them the A (or B, or C) they so desire:

How can a student define “exceptional” writing? How does the faculty member define it? How can a contract help a student know how to achieve the “exceptional”? Additionally, …how do faculty evaluate “thoughtful peer feedback” or “sustained effort” on draft writing? For me, many of these items are still subjective, and because they are subjective, are open to grade complaints.

But that issue of vague language — “engaging,” “effective,” “exceptional” — is an inescapable one for writing teachers, is it not? Because what we teach is messy. Is vague. Changes based on rhetorical situation, goals of the writer, medium of composition… but I digress.

When I first decided to try contract grading with my 229 class this semester, I had a number of conversations with colleagues of mine who had tried the approach. One said “I simply can’t make this work.” She’s not sure if it’s the institution (Michigan students are particularly grade-motivated) or the way in which she’s implementing contract grading, but she has yet to be convinced that it’s the “way to go” for her students. Another colleague said it has its drawbacks, but can work well in Professional Writing (what I’m teaching now), because how does one “grade a resume?” I decided to give it a go.

We’re now working on our final assignment of the semester in my Professional Writing course. Students have analyzed genres from various professions and developed professional web portfolios and social media profiles on LinkedIn. They have explored the role of Twitter and Facebook in the professional world, and we are currently working on writing effective proposals and designing pitches. They have had crash courses on visual and textual composition in Photoshop, Illustrator, WordPress, Wix, Weebly, and a few other digital spaces. And I have yet to give anyone a grade — on anything.

And here’s what I’m learning:

  1. Students like it, in theory. On the first day, everyone was like “yeah ok. sounds good.” Signed the contract, walked out of the room. Peachy.
  2. I’m sort of “grading anyway.” I set up the contract such that students, instead of being given a grade, would either be “meeting, exceeding, or not meeting” (B, A, and C respectively) the standards for an assignment. For each assignment, I give them a set of criteria (usually three or four key things I’ll be looking for). For the first assignment, I told them whether they met/exceeded/didn’t meet each criteria. If they didn’t meet any of the criteria (i.e. “got a C”), I invited them to revise. So basically, I graded them anyway.
  3. If I don’t “grade anyway,” I get asked questions.  When I realized I was sort of grading anyway on the first assignment, I changed my approach for the second assignment and just gave narrative feedback in response to their reflections. This prompted some questions about whether or not they were supposed to get a grade, and whether or not they had succeeded at the assignment (regardless of whether or not I indicated in words that they had done well and/or had other things to think about). These questions are understandable. None of my students had encountered contract grading before my class, so I get it. But the contract grader should be ready to explain — multiple times — the reason and logic behind his or her approach to grading.
  4. Students forget to look back at the contract. I got the sneaking suspicion a few days ago that no one has really looked back at the contract since the start of the semester. Which means I think few of them still realize that the “bare minimum” only gets them a B. I got this feeling when a few students verified the number of blog entries they needed to complete. I will need to remind them in the next week or so to revisit the contract, reminding themselves what’s required of them for the grade they seek to earn.
  5. I’m no longer the primary audience (sort of). This is why I actually went gradeless, so I’m glad this aspect of my experiment is going well. Students are paying attention to my feedback, but they are also adjusting their compositional decisions to reflect their classmates’ input (not just mine), and generally asking more questions about how to make their writing more effective for their target audiences (not just me). Certainly, they are still submitting assignments to me, but I see them paying a lot more attention to those external audiences they hope to target in their future professional writing, which (I believe) is making the writing process more meaningful and motivating for them.

I’ll come back to recap at the end of the semester, but for now, I think I like my approach to contract grading. However, I can also see how in other settings and for different courses, my approach could backfire. In many ways, though we might like to shed the expectations of the institutions of which we are part and parcel, doing so is futile. Would I love to teach a class for which I never had to give a single grade? Definitely, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

And one last thing that’s been gnawing at me lately — I have begun to wonder whether or not it’s entirely fair for us to expect our students to be okay with not receiving grades. They are, after all, seeking their educations at institutions with high expectations, and the expectations of their future employers and graduate schools are that they do well in their classes. The way they’ve come to understand what it means to “do well” is through the evaluations — which include grades — that they receive on their work. As the semester has worn on, I have therefore undergone something of a crisis of conscience. I want my students to be compositionists who care about their work because it’s theirs, because they are writers who write for audiences and purposes of their choosing, who seek to make a difference in their world through the things they make and the causes to which they contribute. But my students are also students, and they crave concrete feedback and evaluation from me, their teacher. Academia has “concretized” feedback, and teacher/student roles, by creating grades. Unfortunate, perhaps. Biased, incredibly. But the rule of academia, nonetheless. Who am I to challenge it, even in my smallest of ways? And how fair is it for me to do so with these students?

NCTE Assembly for Research Materials

Headed to Elmhurst College for the NCTE-AR Midwinter conference — looking forward to it! This is actually the second time I will have been to a conference at Elmhurst College; I attended CEE 2009 there as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to the same place twice for a conference. This career first goes to Elmhurst!

I wanted to provide conference participants with my talk materials in case they find them helpful. I also link to these materials in my CV. I made a Prezi for the first time for this conference — don’t judge my Prezi skills. The non-linear presentation is one digital literacy I am definitely still working on.

And here is a link to my talk transcript, as well.

26.2 Reasons Why

I ran a marathon on Saturday. Never thought I’d do that.

at the finish line

at the finish line

I know some people in my life think I am more than a little bit crazy. That there are better ways for me to have spent hours of my life this fall. That I’m even more crazy for spending a good part of today signing up for new races. That just because I can doesn’t mean I should.

And that’s fine. They can think that. I did this for me, but just in case it’s important for me to have other reasons to do incredible things like run marathons, here are 26.2 other reasons why I spent 4 hours, 32 minutes, and 11 seconds putting one foot in front of the other.

Wanna know why I ran a marathon?

I ran a marathon because:

  1. Of the free T-shirt. Ha, ok, not really. The shirt is pretty nice, though.
  2. I signed up for the damn thing. Early, so I couldn’t duck out.
  3. My mom taught me to stick to my commitments. Like I said, I was stuck.
  4. My hip was not broken. I thought it was for a couple weeks there.
  5. That first 5k was awesome. August, 2011. Big House, Big Heart. I’ll never forget it.
  6. Of Boston. The attacks last year left some racers incapable of ever racing again, and shattered a community of people who, despite being perfect strangers, love and support one another.
  7. My first year exam pushed me out the front door. One day in May, I just couldn’t stand it any more. I needed to get the hell outta the house and away from that exam.
  8. My sister looks up to me. Sorta. She’s taller than me, but you get the point.
  9. Of graduate school. ‘Nuf said.
  10. I like jelly beans. And I bring them with me as fuel. And it’s the only time I don’t feel guilty about shoving candy down my gullet.
  11. Of the silence. Those 5:30am runs, when all I can hear is my shoes on the pavement.
  12. I needed a break from taking care of the puppy. Imagine if I had kids?
  13. In middle school I dropped out of track because I was a wimp. And a whiner. And that’s not ok.
  14. Of PT. My physical therapist spent a lot of time fixing me when I broke myself last year.
  15. In one night, 175 perfect strangers supported me. No, “likes” to my Facebook page about my running shouldn’t matter. But dammit, they do, especially two days away from the starting line.
  16. I like to run. Seriously.
  17. Lots of people can’t. I’m not talking about people who won’t. I’m talking about people who wish they could, but because of crippling injuries and disabilities, actually can’t.
  18. Of all the shoes. They need replaced every 500 miles. And I love shoe shopping.
  19. It was for a good cause. Indianapolis public schools, to be specific.
  20. Of the dude in mile 25 handing out water. He looked me in the eye when I looked like death and told me I looked like a million bucks and I could do this.
  21. My dissertation is not allowed to take over my life. It just isn’t.
  22. My friend Melody supported me. Early, often, and with a smile, even when I was slowing her down. She sent me a link to the registration for that first race.
  23. My friend Tonya inspired me. We started running around the same time. When I could barely go six miles, she was running half marathons.
  24. I love to eat. A lot.
  25. Of my husband. He inspires me. He pushes me. He amazes me.
  26. I didn’t think I could. Multiple times in the past few months, I have doubted my ability to go the distance.

And reason number 26.2: BECAUSE I CAN. And as it turns out, that IS a reason to do this particular thing. As a blogger/runner friend of mine points out, the marathon journey isn’t at all about the race, it’s about what you have overcome and what you have promised to yourself:

Completing a marathon is not about the race itself, but what the training has come to represent.  The race is simply a culmination and a celebration of that individual’s responsibility to themselves.

So yeah, I’m probably a little crazy. And sure, there are plenty of reasons NOT to run a marathon. These are just a few reasons why I big fat did it anyway.