Tag Archives: teachers

Emails… and Digital Discourse Communities

I want to start this post with a not-very-brief anecdote on the shifting discourse of email depending on the social context in which an email is being sent. Trust me, it will make sense in a moment.

When I started my PhD program, I spent the first year convinced that my advisor was angry with me for some inexcusable offense I had unwittingly committed before I ever arrived. This was because her emails never started with a salutation, rarely ended with a signature, and usually consisted of one or two short, not always sugary-sweet, and painfully to-the-point sentences.

Granted, I tend to be a little verbose.

(Okay, fine, a lot verbose.)

But her conciseness was downright off-putting. I didn’t know what to do with it, or what to make of it. And it wasn’t just her — emails from professors, grad students, and staff across the university seemed to reflect this “I’m not in this email to craft a lovely letter to you, I’m here to tell you all how it is and get outta here.”

I didn’t understand this until about three years into my program, when my emails started getting shorter, sweeter (not really) and incredibly to the point. 

email-comic1

Basically, I stopped thinking so damn much about emails: whether to send them, how to start them, whether or not it was a good idea to send them, who to cc on them, who to bcc on them, when to reply all, etc. While I definitely kept such important (and often politically-loaded) factors in the back of my mind, I had become fully enculturated into the email structure of the space I occupied, which generally accepted the “just send it” approach to emails. Who has time to think about it?

A quick caveat to everything I just wrote: let no incoming grad student mistake this as an invitation to haphazardly email whatever pops into their minds straight to their advisor in a short, terse message. What you say in an email matters. How you say it matters. End caveat. 

Then I moved back into K-12, but not into a school or classroom — into a district office. And into an entirely new email culture. Suffice it to say that it’s taking me a while to learn the ropes of email etiquette in my new digs: who to cc, who not to cc, when to cc them, when to use a greeting, what kind of greeting to use, when to use a first name, what kind of email signature is acceptable, when NOT to send an email and let someone else send it instead, when to ignore an email, what kind of subject line grabs attention… really, all the rules are different here, it seems.

If any of my coworkers are reading this, I’m sure I’ve screwed it up on an email you’ve been cc’ed on (or were supposed to be and weren’t…), and I’m sorry. 

Why the lengthy anecdote about email? Because this seemingly minor issue I’ve been struggling with illustrates the extent to which digital writing is so deeply tied to the discourses of the communities we occupy in our day-to-day physical and virtual lives. As I was thinking about an email-incident-gone-awry from earlier this week, I reflected on just how entrenched the writing I do for work every single day is wrapped up in the conversations I have with people in my office, the interactions I have with teachers and students in the schools, the climate of the space and the relationships I have with my colleagues, and the history (or, in my case, lack thereof) of those relationships.

Which got me thinking about our students, and the kinds of interactional spaces they will need to navigate when they leave the classroom. Many teachers — within and beyond my district — are experimenting with new ways to communicate with students, but how many of those new modes of communication are also woven into conversations with students in the classroom? When teachers email students, or have students email them, message them, chat them, text them, tweet them, post a Facebook message on the class page, post a video to the Google Classroom feed… how often do teachers stop to talk to students about the discourse communities they are speaking to and within, the norms and expectations of those complex communities, and how to know what’s “okay” and what might offend or silence someone?

An Example: I thought of a moment from my dissertation study when “Mary” (a pseudonym) took an entire class day to discuss an email that a student had sent “on behalf of the entire class.” This particular moment opened up an opportunity for Mary to discuss digital responsibility with her students, to explain the norms of the classroom discourse community, to explore with her students the consequences of speaking for many in a single email. Such conversations, I find, are highly valued by teachers but are, on a day-to-day basis, somewhat rare in today’s classrooms. Lost in the shuffle of too many things, these conversations are sometimes silenced or shoved aside. However, given my own recent struggles with something as simple as email, I wonder if the role of these critical conversations is becoming an imperative.

As an ELA teacher, this is difficult for me to wrap my head around — I would have been incensed if someone suggested my curriculum should value things like email-writing over essay-writing. But when I think about it, I write thousands of emails in my work as a writer, and I write very few essays. Certainly, the academic environment is not all about preparing students for the workplace — it is also about teaching them to be thoughtful and critical human beings who challenge and question the world around them. Therein lies much of the purpose of argumentative writing (I think) — not to teach students how to write effective paragraphs, but to teach students how to develop and articulate a compelling idea.

However, in an increasingly digital world, developing and articulating a compelling idea sometimes happens in an email. It sometimes happens in a meme. Or even in a Facebook post. Furthermore, the social and rhetorical ramifications of “screwing up” in an email or a Facebook post are more severe than in an essay — such texts are directed specifically at certain people, at defined audiences.

What I’m noting here is nothing new. Teaching Channel has video resources related to talking about email etiquette with young students and an entire video playlist on teaching digital citizenship. If you’re a classroom teacher and you haven’t checked out Common Sense Media’s digital citizenship curriculum, you should! And bloggers on DigitalIs have been sharing their approaches to thinking about and teaching digital citizenship, which includes responsible interactions with others in online spaces, for years now.

My recent struggles with email only highlight that this kind of learning — figuring out how to navigate a digital discourse community and all of the types of writing that occur within it — never ceases. Despite considering myself a good writer, a social scientist, and someone who is (usually) pretty good at interacting with others, I am continually learning and re-learning how best to interact with my colleagues and others in my district over email (and Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and this blog, and the list goes on). As we interact with our colleagues and students, how often do we take a moment to make transparent the expectations and norms of the discourse communities we occupy? Conversely, how often do we take for granted that those norms will be understood or agreed upon by everyone in the community?

Questions I will continue to chew on… but will not put in an email. Because that would be obnoxious. (See? I’m learning!)

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.”

<aside>

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.

</aside>

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.

NCTE 2014: Integrative and Innovative Pedagogies, E-05

Hello from Washington, DC! I’ll be presenting with my amazing colleagues and National Writing Project geniuses Troy Hicks (@hickstro), Dawn Reed (@dawnreed), Jeremy Hyler (@jeremybballer), and Aram Kabodian (@AramKabodian) today at #NCTE14 in session E-05 in Maryland 5-6 — come find us!

Our session is entitled “Integrated and Innovative: Five Stories of Technology-Rich Instructional Partnerships.” It focuses on how practitioners in K-12 with partners in higher education have integrated technologies in meaningful and innovative ways with their students. Specifically, we’ll showcase the practices of teachers and provide frameworks for thinking about what innovative practice might “look like.” We’ll also share how our partnerships within and beyond our institutions brought us together, shaping our thinking and practice.

Session Resources

I wanted to share a few resources here for people to access during and after the session. My section will be short, because I want to hand it over to Dawn, who is the real star of the show. I’ll describe a few frameworks for thinking about innovative practice, along with a framework I developed out of my dissertation work with Dawn, which argues that teacher practice with technology can either facilitate classroom tasks or fully integrate technology with content and pedagogy.

Here are our slides:

We will also be tweeting throughout our session (#ncte14) and hosting a backchannel on TodaysMeet. Hope you can join us — digitally or physically!

Update: here’s a PDF of the TodaysMeet Backchannel (link below!) It was a great session, thanks to all who attended!

Integrated&InnovativeTodaysMeet

Online PD: (Im)Possibilities

The more I work in this system, the less convinced I am that I like it.

Those were the words that came across the office at me a few days ago, as I worked with Ed — the other BPS Digital Learning Specialist — to build a course in BPSLearns, our online teaching and learning system. I echoed his sentiment. The more I tried to design in our Moodle-based platform, the less enamored with it I became.

I’ve since decided that the tension we were feeling in this moment had little to do with the system itself, and more to do with our own conceptual struggles about what “online PD” actually is. What it should look like. What’s possible in online PD, and what’s not. In this post, I hope to explore some of these tensions, using this as a space to engage in some reflection, and to invite ideas and reflections from others.

Meta-PD: A Bit of Context

The learning series we were working on at the moment was a self-paced, fully online series for BPS folks who might want to facilitate their own online PD using BPSLearns (our learning management system, or LMS). We wanted to design the series such that future facilitators would come away with a sense of how to “do online PD well.” In other words, we didn’t want to just hand someone an online course and say “GO!” without also providing some sense of how to “GO!… with purpose.”

The problem? We’re still learning how to “GO!… with purpose” ourselves. As we begin moving our own department’s PD into online and blended spaces (defining blended, btw, opens up a whole new can of worms for us), we’re still figuring out what we think “looks good” and “works well” when it comes to online learning. My PhD research had much to do with integrating technology into classroom work with students, with what good “blended” or “digitally enhanced” classroom practice might look like, and with how best to prepare teachers to integrate technology meaningfully into their classroom practice, but it really had nothing to do with online teacher learning.

Faced with the very “meta” task of designing online PD on how to design online PD, we were stuck and stymied, and a little frustrated. It was sort of like when you have to teach a concept that you’re not sure you have a firm grasp on yourself (English teacher friends, think of when you had to teach your now-favorite incredibly difficult literature text for the first time, or that grammar concept you’re still not sure you have a firm handle on).

The Tension: Can Good PD even be Entirely “Online?”

I don’t have an answer to that question, and I don’t think I ever will. However, this question is serving (at the moment) as a very productive one for me as I watch myself and our team learn how to work within an online system to create online learning experiences that are interactive and collaborative. We want our online courses to move beyond “resource repositories” and into digital learning experiences that harness the power of Web 2.0 technologies.

These technologies, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (along with many others) remind us, have created a “new ethos” of engagement and learning, promoting sharing and co-authorship over simple consumption and dissemination of content. Taken alongside what I have learned about “good PD” — that it is collaborative, it is connective, and it seeks to build communities of shared practice — it makes sense that digital technologies could extend the reach and capacity of such learning experiences for teachers.

In fact, that was the very premise of Chapter 4 of my dissertation: that those teachers whose practice was most innovative and connected were the same teachers who maintained extensive digital and face-to-face connections with educators beyond the walls of their schools. They blogged. They tweeted. They created web content. They composed and shared digital stories. But they also took master’s classes. Attended conferences. Laughed in the halls with their colleagues. Attended summer institutes. Had coffee with friends at other schools and institutions.

See, part of what makes the connectivity and collaboration in Web 2.0 spaces so powerful are those very human connections that are fostered within, through, and beyond them.

<Storytime>

It is the end of the day, and I have just arrived home. Gertrude (my weimaraner) greets me at the door, so excited about my return that she does the four-paw hop in circles around me. I drop my bag, feel the relief that comes with shedding the weight of my laptop at the end of the day, and strap the pup into her harness for her evening walk.

I make sure I have my phone with me, and as we walk, I turn to my Spotify app to see if anyone has shared any good new music with me. I follow my friend Aubrey, who can always be trusted to post good music.

The tunes ring out, and I check Facebook. My sister has posted a triumph from her first year as a first grade teacher. My best friend from high school has posted a picture of her new baby girl. My feed is littered with posts from teachers from Illinois to Michigan to Colorado and of course Boston, posting about their children, their trials, their joys.

The song changes, and I turn to Pinterest. My friend Erin has sent me a hysterical pin about graduate school. Some of the boards I follow include infographics related to digital citizenship, so I pin a few to my “digital learning” board for later reference. As Gertrude and I round the corner and trudge up the hill to my favorite spot, I shove my phone in my pocket just in time to look up and over the trees at the harbor.

</Storytime>

Social media is a major part of my life. Because my professional and personal networks are so intertwined online, I often learn and reflect in social media as I reconnect with old friends. I look forward to these moments in my day, catching up with my teacher friends as they post resources, interesting articles, or stories from their classrooms. I reflect on these moments when I ask myself, does meaningful professional learning — professional development, as loaded as that term may be — happen online? Of course it does.

A(n) (im?)Possible Task

I have been thinking for the past few weeks that I just need to figure out how to harness the power of these technologies in the online and blended PD we create, leveraging them to connect  teachers and enable collaboration, to create communities of teacher learners within online environments. But I’m starting to think I had it backwards. I think I need to harness the power of the communities that already exist, the connections that already exist, and use the technology to enrich these communities, to make them stronger, to allow teachers to share/create/compose/collaborate beyond the walls of their schools and the city limits of Boston.

I’m not sure what that looks like. Or how to help others do it. Or what this means for me, now, in a new job that seeks to move so much of that very human interaction into very unhuman spaces. Is this an impossible task? I don’t think so, mostly because I don’t believe in impossibility. But it is certainly a difficult one.

 

Reflect with me. Do you have good examples of online PD or stories about your own online learning as a teacher? Twitter: @lizhoman. Email: ehoman@bostonpublicschools.org.

 

 

 

Becoming Digitally Organized

I really like things in my life to be organized. This has only become more true with time. As a kid, I was moderately organized. I loved things like trapper-keepers and page dividers and binders, and I was a little obsessed with labeling things. However, my backpack was usually an unmitigated disaster and the desk in my bedroom was a repository for stacks of papers, books, old homework assignments, etc.

As I have gotten older, I have come to detest clutter. With the possible exception of books (which I hoard), I have become more likely to throw out something important than to keep something unimportant. I therefore (predictably) love how most of my work has moved onto digital platforms, because this has eliminated much of the clutter from my life.

Or has it?

Digital Clutter

While my life is certainly dominated by far fewer stacks of paper, binders, and bills thanks to the remarkable capacities of my digital devices, my world is no less cluttered. The clutter is just harder to see. How many hundreds of websites do I visit every single day? How many logins and passwords do I keep stored in the back of my memory? How many digital tasks await me at any given moment, cluttering up my browser window with more tabs than I can possibly keep under control?

The clutter became even more visible recently, when the number of Google accounts in my life increased from two (one for grad school, one personal account) to three (another for work!). I have always kept my inbox carefully filtered and foldered, and have never let it get out of control. With the addition of the third account, I (temporarily) lost my ability to keep up.

I am on a constant quest to become a more effective digital curator of my online content, and this is more true for me now that I’m a digital learning specialist than it ever has been. While I have enjoyed keeping track of my favorite blogs and websites using feedly and have done well organizing my emails, I only recently figured out a system for archiving and organizing the ever-growing pile of web content that I refer to on a regular basis for both work and personal use.

The Importance of Curation for Connected Educators

In the first #bpsplnchat on Twitter for this year, many of our participants voiced interest in learning more about digital curation (which is good, because my colleague and I are hosting a webinar on the topic tomorrow — feel free to join us!). This is no surprise, because educators are constantly being bombarded by the “next great thing.” The next web app, tool, resource, site, software, device — you name it. Educators are sharing the resources they find in social media, in ed-focused Twitter chats that only continue to grow in number and participant rates. Educators are excited, overwhelmed, and stretched thin by the multitude of resources that fly through their feeds and emails on a daily basis.

The problem? It’s hard to know what to keep, what to let pass you by, what to share, and how to organize that which you want to remember or archive for later. Enter digital curation and the skills and literacies associated with keeping up with, and decluttering, your favorite online content.

Curation Literacies

One major digital skill for the web 2.0 world is tagging, which enables you to assign labels to articles, links, pictures, videos — any online content you want to keep and access later. You can tag just about anything online these days, from hashtagging on Twitter to tagging photos on Flickr or videos on YouTube. But most people fly right by the tag section as they upload content, not aware of the incredible power of tagging for curating content. Don’t bypass the tags! You never know when they’ll come in handy later!

Another skill is getting all of the stuff you want to read to go to a single place, taking advantage of your favorite sites’ RSS feeds. Maintaining and organizing your favorite feeds is sort of like having your own newspaper — you tell your feed management tool (as I noted, my favorite is Feedly) what content you want it to go grab, and it generates a constantly-updated list of articles from your favorite websites.

Finally, bookmarking is being transformed by web apps that store your bookmarks in the cloud and turn bookmarking into a social activity. Because it wasn’t enough that we now have social media sites for everything from professional networking to personal cat-photo sharing, video sharing, and music sharing — we also need to share our bookmarks sometimes! My favorite tool for this is Diigo, which we’ll talk about in the webinar on Tuesday. However, Delicious has been around for a long time, and new web apps for social bookmarking continue to crop up. This video from Common Craft explains social bookmarking.

The key is to be strategic about how you curate and which tools you use. Having a thousand new accounts to help you keep track of all of your existing online resources and links is only going to make your digital life feel more cluttered — not less. So ask yourself, where does your digital life need a little re-org? And what housekeeping tools will help you turn your digital life into a well-organized, well-oiled machine?