The Space Between Disciplines

Today, an author I have deeply admired for a decade challenged a few of us to write, so I’m writing. On the edges, after toddler bedtime, as I must, if writing is to happen.

In retrospect, I’ve never really been much of a disciplinary thinker.

Flashback to elementary school: my 4th grade teacher asks me what my favorite subject is, and I can’t answer her question. Math. No, English. No, Math. Maybe science. Music, actually. Chorus.

Flashback to 11th grade. I’m taking AP US History, it’s somewhere between November and January, and we’re learning about Reconstruction. That abysmal moment in US History where we finally did the right thing, but wrongly, and former slaves could be found throughout our nation drifting somewhere between freedom on paper and chains in practice. In AP English, we’re reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It’s pure coincidence that the units coincide, but I start to put the pieces together, realizing that the narrative of Sethe and her tortured maternal heart is the story of so many of the slaves-turned-not-really-free in the pages of my history textbook.

Flashback to college, as I sit in an Architectural History seminar, completely transfixed as the professor describes the engineering of arches in gothic cathedrals. Artistic beauty meets mathematical genius at the top of each perfect archway, keystones and tympana garnished with stories that guide and rule the collective memories of the people who sit within the building’s protective walls.

When I entered a doctoral joint program that spanned the social sciences and humanities, the fit seemed natural, especially since I couldn’t choose between education and my love for studying how people think, learn, and grow; and English and my love for how people express, argue, and communicate. Why pick? It’s all connected.

It’s all connected. I love finding connections. I love making connections. Between people. Between ideas. It’s my thing.

That’s probably why I studied social connections for four years and wrote a really long book about it that no one will ever read. It’s probably why I ultimately wound up leading technology integration for public schools. What’s powerful about new technologies, and particularly today’s technologies? They connect. People. Ideas. Of course, I dig.

But today, and lately, and sometimes here and there, I struggle to live in the space between disciplines. At times like these, I challenge my own belief, conviction, regularly-argued-assertion, that it’s all connected. Because if it’s all connected, we lose our categories, and it becomes difficult for us to make sense of the world. The human brain loves to create buckets, to organize. But beyond being an evolutionary impulse, we need categories and disciplines in order to think deeply about things. Sometimes we need fewer connections; sometimes, we need boundaries. Limits. Things we are ignoring so that we can focus on this, only this, and not on all of the things “this” connects to.

What are you talking about, Liz?

Let’s back up. Last year, a team of colleagues and I formed a “STEAM Team,” a group of community members (parents, students, teachers, administrators) dedicated to researching, defining, and exploring “STEAM” options for our district. We started by attempting to define “STEAM” education. What did we mean when we said “STEAM?” We read some articles. STEM v STEAM. STEM as a passing trend. Some stuff on design thinking. We discussed the people involved and resources needed to design impactful interdisciplinary learning. We engaged in challenge tasks at every meeting, sometimes building robotic arms out of straws, clips, and string, sometimes creating audiobooks with sound effects. We have crafted recommendations to bring such engaging experiences to our students across all grades, and we have had a lot of fun exploring and uncovering what lies in the space between disciplines.

Then today, a visit to our high school from an author whose most known and popular young adult novel, Speak, is the only book that has somehow made an appearance in every stage of my 10-year career in education. From curriculum development to teaching 9th grade English to tutoring English language learners to leading libraries, this book has followed me. When Laurie Halse Anderson visited today to speak with our high school students, I was just as giddy as the teens. And, I was reminded of the disciplinary roots in English literature that once consumed my attention and passion.

I was taken back to my English classroom, where we – my 9th graders and I – dug in. 

We didn’t think about math (well, we sort of did when we surveyed the school and analyzed our findings).

We didn’t think about history (ok well that’s a lie, most of my ELA classes were half history).

We definitely thought about art and music as a way of giving voice to pain, as Melinda does in the text.

We thought about technology a lot, because we decided to make documentaries on ancient desktops with nowhere near enough storage, using camcorders from 1995.

But mostly, we thought and talked and wrote about texts and language and reading and revising and composing. We developed theories about the text and its messages and themes. We talked about consent, censorship, silence, trauma, gender politics, and adolescence. We learned how to defend our ideas with evidence from multiple texts, how to frame quotes within a sentence, how to identify patterns in imagery, language, and dialogue. We redefined what it meant to “write” when we tossed out the classic literary analysis essay and created documentaries about things that were hard to “speak up” about. We dug in.

“Digging in” is what disciplinary thinking allows us to do, and something I don’t feel like I get to do as often lately, as I focus on connecting disciplines, on building technology meaningfully into the work of all disciplines. STEAM n’stuff.

I love living in the space between disciplines, because it allows me to see, discover, and attempt to articulate the myriad connections between science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics… and also civics, literacy, politics, sociology, psychology. However, we cannot draw those connections without first developing the categories around which generations of thinkers have thought deeply. We must first categorize and focus in order to later discover the space between, and within that chasm, create new “disciplines.”

 

On (Multi)literacies

The Scene

Sometime in the not-too-distant past, an email came across one of the group lists to which I subscribe. The author of the email was encouraging members of the community – in this case, the school library community of the Commonwealth – to provide feedback on a survey related to possible changes to licensure requirements in the state of Massachusetts.

I completed the survey, but that’s not what this post is about.

One of the proposed changes to current licenses in Massachusetts is in response to the new Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards that were recently developed and passed. The standards, IMHO, are excellent. They require us to consider how we are (or in most cases, are not) developing students’ computational thinking, digital ethics and citizenship, and digital literacy skills. They are also tough – demanding that kindergarteners be able to explain complex human-computer relationships and that 5th graders be able to articulate how technology can create or bridge socioeconomic divides – and I’ve never been one to stand down to a challenge.

The email author, at one point in her message, referenced a shift in possible instructional technology teacher licensure, which requires technology specialists to have some expertise in computer science (at least enough to teach the fundamentals to students). This has implications for teacher preparation programs, and also for other specialists – like library specialists such as herself, who for decades have taught digital literacies right alongside information literacies and “regular old” literacy… which I know one can define in a million different ways, but by which I basically mean reading, understanding, and hopefully enjoying written text.

She wrote something to the effect of “digital literacy is ours.” Ours, meaning librarians’.

This struck me. Enough that I immediately emailed our library lead teacher and #librarybrain extraordinaire to get her thoughts on it. It struck me because it made me think about my definition of digital literacy, which I haven’t questioned in a long while. It made me think about the definition the state of Massachusetts is giving digital literacy by sticking it in a set of standards that includes computer science. And it made me think about “information literacy,” and what that is, and how it is distinct (?) from digital literacy or other literacies.

The Point

This year, our district has been piloting a model that combines “information literacies,” “digital literacies,” and “content literacies” into a single “Research and Digital Learning Block,” which is way too long of a title so it ended up getting shortened to “Research Block” and next year it will be “Integrated Literacy Block” (it has an identity crisis, but I promise it’s awesome). We piloted the model in three schools, but by the end of the school year, all six of our elementary schools had heard about “research block,” and next year, it will expand to all six of our elementary schools.

Integrated Literacy Block is all about multiliteracies. It’s all about layering literacies. The whole point is that “information literacy” can’t be teased apart from “digital literacy” can’t be teased apart from “content literacy.”

Integrated literacy blocks look a little like this: content area teacher, library teacher, and digital learning teacher all find a time, once a week, and block their schedules. At this time, no matter what is happening in the regular literacy curriculum, either information literacies or digital literacies and standards are incorporated into that content. If you’re a visual thinker, here’s a cool diagram:

litblock

I like diagrams like this one. They are neat and clean and indicate conceptual boundaries between things that might not actually have sharp lines separating them. Diagrams like this make a vague world coherent. But what that post to that email list in the not-so-distant past did for me was throw into sharp relief the problematically distinct conceptual line I had drawn between “digital” and “information” literacies as we had conceptualized, and then implemented, our “Integrated Literacy Block.”

As we developed this framework for integrating technology and information literacies, I had to draw lines that would distinguish the roles and expertise of the individuals who were participating: classroom teacher, library teacher, tech teacher. Each of these individuals would essentially “own” a “literacy” in our new instructional model:

Content teacher: content literacies. 

  • Decoding texts
  • Bringing contextual knowledge to texts
  • Comprehending and navigating texts
  • Identifying and navigating many types of texts
  • Synthesizing and connecting content across multiple
  • Creating and writing texts

Library teacher: information literacies. 

  • Generating compelling questions that texts can answer
  • Finding digital and paper-based texts that will address those questions
  • Assessing texts for validity, reliability, and bias
  • Synthesizing information from multiple texts or text types

Digital Learning Teacher: digital literacies.

  • Comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts
  • Comprehending and navigating multimodal texts
  • Creating multimodal texts
  • Accessing appropriate devices and software to engage with digital texts

These distinctions made perfect sense to me as I created the diagram above, but even as I sit and write about these literacies, I struggle to tease them apart cleanly. Certainly, there are discreet skills associated with decoding versus accessing the Internet, navigating a database versus making meaning from a paragraph, creating a podcast versus conducting a keyword search. However, the lines blur in a classroom where students are conducting research about the exploration and conquest of the Americas; creating collaborative Google slideshows that feature maps, images, and information gathered from library databases and print texts; generating questions about explorers; and presenting what they learned to their classmates. Suddenly “assessing texts for validity and reliability” is wrapped into a series of lessons that includes “comprehending and navigating digital hypertexts” and “bringing contextual knowledge to texts.”

But also – that’s the whole point. None of us can “own” these literacies, because they rely on one another; one can’t develop an effective multimodal text without a firm grasp of how various modes (audio, visual) contribute to one another, how audience expectations shape the text, or how information is gathered and conveyed in multimodal texts. Which means, as educators with expertise in various pieces of the literacy puzzle, we (should) rely on one another.

In my dissertation, I defined digital literacies as “socially organized practices one enacts in digital, often online, spaces using digital or non-digital symbol systems to produce or otherwise interact with texts.” That’s a relatively fancy way of saying “literacy: but, now.”  Today’s literacies require us to be comfortable learning about and teaching with texts that are exceedingly complex. 

Today’s texts, in contrast with “yesterday’s texts” are:

  • Coming to us constantly and from all angles. Our phones. Our TVs. Our computers. Our bookshelves.
  • Filled with distractions. Clickbait. Videos. Ads. Links to other texts on the same topic.
  • Personalized, thanks to big data. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
  • Condensed. Think 140 characters (or less).
  • Global and local, all at once. As are our students.

I reject the notion that anyone, regardless of their role in education, can “own” or be solely responsible for any piece of the literacy puzzle, because I struggle to see how the pieces are easily teased apart. Certainly, I make the effort to distinguish the realms of expertise among teachers in our district, if for no other reason because no one person can be responsible for the entire literacy domain in today’s complicated web of text, hypertext, multimodal text, and multiauthored text.

I do not write this to undermine the aforementioned email author’s point of view; to the contrary, I appreciate that her perspective threw into such sharp relief my own beliefs on the matter, forcing me to question the lines and definitions I had drawn around “info/digital/literacy.” Her post has helped me to (re)consider and articulate my own perspective: that to clearly distinguish literacies, and especially to claim any sort of “ownership” over them, is to undermine today’s complex literacy landscape.

Today’s literacies are multi. So must we be.

The Role of Educators in Keeping Digital-Age Kids Safely Connected

Last week, I participated in a Screenagers panel at one of our district’s middle schools. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is an hour-long documentary about the impact of screentime on child and adolescent development: social, behavioral, and cognitive. If I had to sum up the film’s argument in a single sentence, I believe it was telling parents to “beware screentime,” because excessive device use can lead to addictive, antisocial, and academically deleterious outcomes.

The film’s screening for a group of 300 of our parents was well-timed for me, both as an educator and as a new parent. As an educator, I have been thinking a lot about how to embed curriculum that will engage students in critical conversations about their online actions and identities, how they curate and develop those identities, and how they keep their data safe from predators, hackers, and others who might do them harm online — or, frighteningly, in “real life,” as a result of their online actions. As a new parent whose toddler is already intrigued by screens, I wondered how exposure to screens, and especially how my own use (overuse?) of screens might impact my daughter’s development, and I considered ways to set limits on my own device use in order to set a positive example for her.

I could wax poetic on the reflections this has sparked for me as a parent, but for this post, I want to focus mostly on the role of educators when it comes to keeping digital-age kids safe online.

First, I think it’s important to understand that kids like screens because screens provide social connection. As contradictory as this may seem to adults who have watched groups of teens sit in a circle staring at their phones, it rests at the core of why teens and pre-teens love tech. The film, and the panel of teenagers that I had the honor of sitting alongside after the film, made the point that digital devices help them feel connected. To their friends. To the lives and experiences of others. Even to their far-flung families. When today’s 3rd and 4th graders begin asking their parents for phones, it is so they can feel connected.

In this effort to feel connected, kids sign up for Instagram or Snapchat accounts. They follow celebrities on Twitter. They snap selfies and post pictures of themselves all over the Internet. They harass and bully one another. They naturally, and concerningly, use things like “likes” and “follows” as tangible evidence that their social circle of peers approves of them. Natural, because other types of social interaction provide no such concrete data. Concerning, because one’s self-worth should not be measured by a tally of “likes” on Instagram.

Enter every parent’s and educator’s fear about today’s kids and students: they will turn to these ephemeral spaces for validation (or devastation), and because the spaces are in so many ways hidden from our view, we will not be able to step in to protect, intervene, or educate before something terrible happens.

I have firmly believed, since my first day of teaching, that one of the major roles of education in our society is to develop decent citizens. Quality humans. As simply as I can put it: Education Exists to Make Good People. People who can invent, build, create, salvage, save, scrutinize, analyze, and interrogate. People who can collaborate, inspire, and innovate.

And today’s good people have to do all of that in work, academic, and social worlds that are both-and: 

  • Both on a screen and face-to-face.
  • Both global and local.
  • Both digital and analog.
  • Both connected and disconnected.

A parent asked me an excellent question at the end of the film. She apologized for “putting me on the spot” later, but she shouldn’t have, because it’s one of those questions I wish people asked me more often. She asked:

In light of all this research about the negative impact of screens and screentime on kids, why the push in the schools for more access to things like laptops and 1:1 devices?

My inadequate response, since I had very little time to respond:

It’s incredibly difficult to teach students how to make smart decisions with digital devices if they don’t have access to digital devices in school.

The better response I would have provided, given more time: It’s also difficult to teach them how to be safe online, how to protect their data and privacy, if they do not have dedicated time in the curriculum and dedicated teachers who can help them understand things like:

How the Internet works (and what, exactly, the Internet is).

What a digital footprint is, and how to manage yours. This seems like an easy enough thing to teach, but it’s not. Could you explain to a child:

  1. How companies work with the Internet to provide services to consumers, and the data they collect in order to provide those services (have you ever signed up for a Snapchat account? They stop just short of asking for your third cousin’s middle name)?
  2. How “third-party companies” gain access to data you’ve shared with other companies, and how they are able and allowed to use that information about you?
  3. How Amazon knows you’d like to buy a bike?
  4. How Google knows you’re in Massachusetts?
  5. How Twitter knows who you might know and want to follow?
  6. The role of big data in developing and maintaining your digital footprint?

What cloud computing is. Do you know?

What computers and machines can do. What they can’t do. And how humans can use them to do things we can’t do.

When to use a device to talk to someone. When not to. How to use a device to talk to someone. How you talk to someone differently on a device than you do in “real life.” How to be kind to someone when you talk to them with a device. How to use a device to talk to someone in order to get something done (digital collaboration). How to combine devices with analog strategies to get things done. This list only gets longer.

What it is safe and ethical to (not) do on a computer. Again, one of those “easy things to teach,” right? You just make sure kids know the “never” list:

  1. Never give anyone your address
  2. Never give anyone your phone number
  3. Never give anyone your full name
  4. Never agree to meet up with someone
  5. Never talk to strangers
  6. Never open an email from someone you don’t know

…but have you noticed that this list of “nevers” is similar to the nevers we heard as kids in the 80s? #5 basically covers it, right? Wrong. Because in this day and age, “knowing” someone is not cut-and-dry. Running into strangers online is easier than running into them in a crowded shopping mall. And  address, phone number, and name aren’t the only data points someone can use to hack into your accounts or local devices and run amok. Furthermore, this list of nevers doesn’t even touch ethical computing: fair use, copyright, and intellectual property is a different game in the digital age.

Some may argue that parents can have these conversations with their kids, but I think that relying on this serves to widen the digital divide and to perpetuate issues that have risen to the surface in recent years as kids are handed cell phones as early as 3rd grade.

Some parents — the ones who majored in computer science — are tech-savvy enough to have regular conversations about all of these things with their kids. But most are not. This is not a commentary on today’s parents, it’s just the reality of a world in which technology changes faster than we can blink. We grew up playing with Legos and VTech “computers.” Handheld Nintendo Gameboys. Atari. CD players. Dial-up. Our kids’ world is different. Teaching them how to be safe, aware, and strategic in it is difficult.

Most (but again, not all) parents ARE able to set boundaries that the film discussed: have a device curfew. Require access to your child’s accounts. Keep technology in a common space, and require that it be used in common spaces, not in isolated areas like bedrooms. Talk to kids about the concerns you have about their technology use, and about how they think it impacts them socially or academically. Here are a few other ideas. However, implementation of these strategies requires parental presence, which is not always a given depending upon work schedules.

All parents can ask their child’s school what they are doing to educate students about computing, the Internet, keeping information safe online, engaging in ethical online practices, and connecting with others positively, in ways that don’t disconnect them from the “real world.”

#WhyIMarch

Maybe you’ve heard — there’s a Women’s March on Washington scheduled for the day after tomorrow. And if you know me at all, you know I voted for Clinton, and you know I was extremely disappointed by the outcome of the election, and you know I’m a democrat, and you know I believe in funded public schools, racial justice, socioeconomic reform and awareness, cultural acceptance, sexual identity awareness, gender identity awareness, and just about any type of “liberal” or “progressive” reform you can imagine.

So it might not be a surprise that I’m planning to spend two nights on a bus so that I can march in Washington, DC on the 21st. In fact, people who know me might assume that the list above are the reasons why I’m marching, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. My sociopolitical beliefs are certainly a major motivator.

But to assume my political leanings are the only thing driving me to spend precious weekend family time away from my one-year-old girl and supportive husband would ignore the many, many other reasons why I am participating. Among them, these five:

Because my daughter is watching me. Posting memes and articles on social media to a crowd of individuals who mostly agree with me doesn’t count as “standing up for what I believe in.” The week of the election, my husband challenged me as I struggled to drag myself out of a deep depressive state. It wasn’t about my candidate not winning — it was a moral, emotional, ethical, deeply personal and also deeply professional loss when the citizens of our country voted for a leader I feel is the embodiment of anti-intellectualism, misogyny, intolerance, and hatred. “What are you going to do about it?” he asked me. Well, I have a long-term plan that I’m sure I’ll share here later, but for now: this. I am going to do this.

Because I am able. I have the means to pay for the bus ticket. I have a husband who supports my decision to participate and will watch our daughter during the 36-hour trip. I have the means to pay for food along the way. I am in good physical shape. I have friends and colleagues who share my cause and passion, and we can stick together in DC on Saturday. I am well-off and able, and many who might want to participate may not be.

Because rhetoric can be harmful. While some journalists are claiming that the march lacks purpose, march leaders have made the case that the march is in resistance to hateful rhetoric (among other things):

“The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized, and threatened many of us–women, immigrants of all statuses, those with diverse religious faiths particularly Muslim, people who identify as LGBTQIA, Native and Indigenous people, Black and Brown people, people with disabilities, the economically impoverished and survivors of sexual assault.”

This may not seem like a clear purpose to some, but is very clear to me. If studying language, linguistics, texts of all types, and rhetorical theory as my life’s work has taught me anything, it is that rhetoric has power. Protesting the vile rhetoric our new president and his supporters have launched against women, disabled individuals, and minorities is therefore, for me, a perfectly substantial purpose.

Because I know people who are genuinely afraid about their family’s future safety in this country. My daughter’s teachers at her daycare. Some of the students in the schools for which I work, and their families. Teens who have been bullied or ridiculed in the days since the election because of their racial or gender identities. Because our nation was built on the shoulders of immigrants, and yet has hypocritically thrown hatred and intolerance at minority groups throughout our history. Because that needs to stop.

Because sometimes, #thestruggleisreal. And I mean that in a less sarcastic way than usual. I have always worked in a field dominated by women — education. literacy. reading. Until recently, when my career path somehow landed me in the male-dominated tech field and in a leadership position right as our family welcomed a tiny new member. While I am still in education, surrounded by strong and inspiring female leaders, a few of whom will be on my bus tomorrow night, there are days when I can feel that glass ceiling pressing down. Days when I can’t attend an evening work function because of the baby’s bedtime.  Weekends when family trumps (heh) imperative paperwork, rendering me farther behind and scrambling to find the available hours to catch up. Mornings when getting out of bed after a rough night of wakeups is the closest thing to torture I’ve ever experienced. And while I am fortunate to work among men who value the input of female leaders and understand the demands of family, some interactions highlight the very real struggle of women who strive to “have it all;” respect and integrity in their work, love and comfort in their homes.

These are just a few of the not-so-obvious reasons #whyimarch this weekend. To my sisters marching all over the world, stay alert, stay safe, stay strong, stay peaceful, and stay positive.

A Letter to my Daughter on the Eve of her First Birthday

I usually reserve this space for posts dedicated to professional reflection, sometimes with a touch of the personal. But today, I am out of my office, home with my daughter as she fights off an ear infection, and I’m not thinking much about digital learning, professional development, software, hardware, or 1:1 initiatives. Instead, I’m spending time with my daughter, who turns one year old tomorrow. This post is for her.

Dear Josephine,

A year ago today, I knew you were about to arrive, but I didn’t know anything about you besides that you were most active at night, waking me with kicks and somersaults, a nightowl from the very beginning. I knew my life was about to change, but I didn’t know exactly how — or how much. Your Daddy and I were excited to meet you, to find out who you were, to learn how to do this parenting gig together, to hope you would forgive us our inevitable mistakes.

A year ago, Tomorrow.

A year ago, Tomorrow

A year ago tomorrow, on December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day, you arrived at 3:33 pm, after a grueling 36-ish hours of labor. I vividly remember the moment they placed your squirmy, slippery self on my chest. You were finally here, and you had the lungs to prove it.

I have learned so many things from you, and you aren’t even one yet. You have taught me how to find joy in every moment. You smile big, with your whole face, with your whole body. You have done this since you were four weeks old. You smile at everything. At everyone. For you, life is exciting, beautiful, and most importantly, full of joy. Your smile is contagious, your joy infectious.

20160106_062126

Your four-week-old smile

I have also learned that I only need about three consecutive hours of sleep to function, but I need about five to participate; a lesson I could have done without, but useful information nonetheless. I have learned that hugs and kisses should be given liberally. I have learned that meatballs are the best food in the world. I have learned that socks are overrated, that one doesn’t need toys in a world full of kitchen utensils, and that an open window with a light breeze is the best way to induce a state of pure zen.

Your first year, my love, has been a challenging one in so many ways. Your Daddy and I moved across the country before you arrived, and it’s difficult not to have the helping hands of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as we teach you about the world. We started new jobs before you arrived, jobs that challenge our minds and our time. 2016 has also been a difficult year for the humans of Earth for a number of social and political reasons, which I imagine (or hope) will be a distant memory for me, and something you’ll read about in history books.

You make any challenge life throws my way easier to face. You greet every single day with a smile and a giggle, sweetening my morning coffee with your still relatively toothless grin. You recently started walking, and whenever you lose your balance, you plop down on your butt and just keep trying. You pick up new skills, preferences, and words at a breakneck pace that astounds me daily. You don’t give up in the face of a challenge: why should we? You never let a day go by witho20160504_182224ut learning something new: why should we?

It’s your first birthday tomorrow, and we will celebrate with presents shipped from the Midwest, with cake your Daddy will bake tonight, with a celebratory supper that you probably will eat some of before you throw the rest on the floor for the dog. It’s a celebration of your first year, but it’s also a celebration of our first year — with you. A year that has looked nothing like the well-organized, schedule-conscious, on-top-of-things life we had come to know before you, and has been perfect and beautiful in its blonde-haired, blue-eyed chaos.

Happy birthday, boop. You are my best thing.

<3 Mommy