Tag Archives: writing

A Reflection on Access to Academic Research

I’m writing this quickly, my fingers flying across the keyboard in a quiet room on a Sunday afternoon. I hope my daughter doesn’t wake up from her nap before I finish, and I know that my time is limited. I’m excited to have a few stolen moments to write here, in this recreational writing space I so rarely visit these days. Today’s topic: a reflection on a most privileged kind of access: access to academic research.

I’m doing research this afternoon on reading and writing in digital environments. I’m doing this research so that I can discuss plans for introducing more digital reading and writing tasks into middle school curriculum with our district’s ELA director. This is research I’ve conducted before, both within and outside of my doctoral program, and I am thanking my former self for saving few PDFs in the archive.

I’m glad I saved PDFs because as I conduct my search, I am reminded that I lack the privileges once granted by my affiliation with a major research institution. The University of Michigan, Purdue University, and The University of Illinois boasted library collections and databases that gave me access to… well, anything I wanted. If I didn’t have access through my university, I had access through the robust Big Ten Interlibrary Loan network, and when that failed me, I could ask my trusty School/College of Ed librarian to consider adding a journal or database to the collection (which they often would).

When I was associated with a major research institution as a graduate student, the research process was pretty simple. I searched library databases. I found excellent articles in prestigious or lesser-known research journals. I downloaded a PDF and saved the citation. The end.

Today, my process looks a little more like this:

  1. Search of old stuff from my own archive, because let’s face it, start with what you’ve already done. But most of this stuff is from 2013 or earlier, so…
  2. Google Scholar Search, editing parameters for only those articles that include an openly available full-text version.
  3. Google Scholar Search v.2, eliminating the extremely limiting PDF parameters, and archiving citations using Zotero for future search in our High School databases.
  4. Extremely frustrated break for lunch.
  5. Remember the Directory of Open Access Journals and comb it for education journals that are open access. Bookmark these journals for later searching.
  6. Academic OneFile Search (we subscribe to this database for our high school students) for articles for which I already pulled citations, in hopes the journals are included in that database. Very few of them are. Note to self to check public library databases later.
  7. Regular Old Google Search, which turns up an article from Scientific American (okay yes, it’s a media outlet, but it often does a pretty good job offering up “digested research,” IMO). Archive a few citations from this article, repeat steps 5 and 6.

I can navigate this process in part because I know how to navigate our district and public library resources. I know how to do this in no small part because of my background in research and my former affiliation with large research institutions, and because I am pretty good at navigating the Interwebs and conducting strategic keyword searches. So it’s fine that I need to do all of this, if a little frustrating, because I have the information literacy skills needed to find the 345 workarounds I need to gain access to rigorous academic research.

But I will not walk away with all of the articles that I want, and I will spend a long time finding the ones that I do finally gain access to.

Access. We ask teachers to engage in research-based best practices, but they (and sometimes we — leaders of these teachers) do not always have the access we need to the research that helps us understand, study, and develop these practices.

Access. Even when we do have access, we sometimes need to understand how to use that access — we need the information and digital literacy skills to navigate online databases and search engines.

Access. I never realized how much access I had to the brightest minds in the world until I suddenly had extremely limited access.

My time runs low, so I’ll end my reflection here. I know many newer journals are open access, embracing the call of many in the academic community to embrace the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, and I hope I more scholars will support this movement by submitting to these journals too… not always the journals that make a lot of money because of their high impact ratings (which also get professors tenure, and grants, etc.). I understand why some journals are proprietary, but I can’t help but find myself, a k12 educator and teacher leader in search of excellent literacy research, a little disheartened and disappointed by today’s search.

 

Thank You, FaceFriends (or, Why I Love Social Media)

First, a bit of catch-up… I’ve been off the blog for a while. A few things have happened in my life since the last time I blogged here:

  • I started a new job as Administrator of Educational Technology in Waltham, MA
  • I bought a house in Newton, MA, and moved into it
  • I had a baby girl

Needless to say, life has been a little distracting, but one of my many goals for the new year is to make time for one of the most important things in my life — my writing — which has taken a backseat to work, family, and running over the past year and a half or so. With a few papers that need to be revised, a book on digital PD that’s been slowly creating itself in my imagination, and a grant project that’s practically begging for some collaborative writing, I need to get my act together. So here’s a promise: I’ll be here more often this year.


Now, for today’s topic: a thank you to my Facebook Friends and a bit of reflection on the role of social media in my (and our) lives. I recently celebrated my 31st birthday. It was a special birthday, in that it was my first birthday as Mommy. It was a completely unspecial birthday, in that nobody really cares that much about the number 31, nothing particularly exciting happened, and I was really too exhausted to celebrate in any way other than getting a few more hours of sleep.

But something struck me on that 6th day of February as I nursed my daughter, talked to my husband, and dinked around on my smartphone: I know the most incredible and amazing people. As they chimed in to wish me a happy birthday on my Facebook wall — a social media tradition I’ve never thought about much — I couldn’t help but notice the diversity of these people and reflect on the experiences that brought them into my lives. My FaceFriends live all over the country — no, all over the world — and I am able to continue knowing them because of social media. This makes my life richer, fuller, and more exciting. This makes me an empathetic human who understands many different walks of life, in different places, through different lenses.

My partner and I are now living in our fourth state since we started dating back in 2002. At each step of my career, I have met incredible people. I have tailgated on muddy, grassy fields at 7am with them. I have established conference traditions that involve 5am runs in new places with them. I have seen some of them only once every other year, others I haven’t seen in nearly a decade, but their lives and experiences are important to me. We swap war stories, we share career wins, and we celebrate life’s milestones together. Sure, we post and comment, but we also message, text, and playdate with our puppies and, now that I have one, our babies.

Many have argued that social media renders relationships “meaningless,” or worse, that social media actually undermines human relationships. See here. Or here. Or here! Or here. Research from my alma mater has even shown that social media can make us “unhappy” (there is also research to counter this argument). These narratives posit that because of social media, we have fewer and less personal face-to-face interactions, we empathize less, and we become obsessed with a “perfect” version of life based on others’ curated social media personas. I’m not here to argue that these perspectives, some of them based on solid research, are false. I’m here to offer an counter-narrative.

Those of you who know my research know that I am particularly obsessed with social ties, what they represent, and how they influence our actions. My dissertation focused on how teachers’ colleagues, friends, and social learning impacted their teaching. As part of this research, I statistically examined not only teachers’ face-to-face relationships, but also their digital ones. This research and my personal experiences have led me to believe that social media, though certainly fraught with problematic issues related to cyberbullying (especially for today’s youth), can be a force of good in this world. Technological deterministic views would have us believe that social media is making us less empathetic and more detached. I take a more constructivist view, believing technology is what we make it (especially considering we made it to begin with).

As I have moved from state to state juggling work, school, and social, I have sometimes struggled to make and keep human connections. We live in such a mobile society, and my life with my partner is an excellent example of just how mobile, and in some cases “uprooted,” we have become. We have never lived in one place for more than four years. We have never really felt “settled.” We’re hoping to stay put this time, but who knows where life will take us? We have followed our careers across state lines and, ultimately, across the country. My social media life has allowed many of my connections to remain stable, and has even fostered new face-to-face connections. Here are just a few examples of people with whom I have digital/face-to-face relationships that social media has either started or kept intact:

  • The woman who taught me to love English
  • The woman who taught me to teach English
  • The new mom down the street
  • A bunch of new moms in my town
  • My running friend from north shore
  • My running friends from Indiana
  • My teacher friends in Michigan
  • My teacher friends in Indiana
  • My college friends
  • My former high school students, who are now doing things like getting married and having kids (what?!)
  • My professor friends in Ohio, Arkansas, Indiana… really all over the place
  • My family in Illinois, Connecticut, California, Ireland, Michigan… really all over the place

…you get the idea.

Many of these relationships would have fizzled, or never existed, without social media. The people I know and keep in touch with online hail from Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Florida, and Ohio. They are teachers, professors, students, parents, researchers, and administrators. Some of them, I have only met once — some of them are my best friends in the world. Some of them went to high school with me, and some of them I met last week. Some are coworkers, some are cothinkers, some are cowriters, and some fill many of these roles.

A few times, people have asked me why I display so much of my life on social media. Certainly, I understand why many people keep quiet. There is evidence that posting about your vacation on social media increases your risk of being robbed, for example. Others simply believe that one’s family life should be very private, not for the eyes of friends who wouldn’t otherwise participate in your day-to-day life. I not only understand these perspectives, I agree with them. The “me” that’s on Facebook is only “part” of me, not the whole me. I even curate for particular audiences: some only see the “professional me,” others see the “family me.” The pictures I do post of my family show our joyous moments, because I believe in spreading joy. They show our raw moments, because I also believe in #keepinitreal. They document our story, but only a shred of it. In and of themselves, my posts about my life and my interactions with friends in comment threads, while representations of relationships, rarely constitute the entirety of my social ties with an individual. These posts and comments are glimmers of relationships that have history, that mean more to me than a passing comment on social media or a photo of my dog. My social media self keeps up with my not-so-little-anymore cousins in Illinois, shares pictures of my daughter with her grandparents in a single click, and engages in academic discussions with my friends from graduate school.

Certainly, my anecdotal account is just that. It fails to represent the very tragic things that happen on social media. Teens and adults alike, and increasingly younger children, struggle with being tormented and sometimes are, unwittingly or knowingly, tormenters of others in spaces that feel falsely “anonymous” or safe. Social media can be used to harm one’s self-esteem, one’s public image, even one’s entire life. I won’t rehash these stories here — many of my readers are educators, and could tell ten of their own stories. Others of you have undoubtedly heard more than your fair share of these narratives on the news.

I offer my counter-narrative because I believe it shows how purposeful use of social media — use that spreads positive messages, that shares carefully-chosen moments with curated audiences, and that uses social digital spaces to bolster, not replace, “real” relationships, can be powerful (even beneficial) to our lives and the development of our social intelligence. I also believe this narrative has implications for today’s youth, who rarely hear such narratives. Instead, they hear horror stories about how social media sharing can harm, hurt, or humiliate them. They hear much about how not to use social media, and little about how to use it as productive members of a digital and global society.

So what if we changed the narrative?

Thanks, FaceFriends, for shaping mine.

(Don’t) Give it Away for Free: A Teacher’s Conundrum

I’ve been struggling with something lately, and have been meaning to find the time to write about it here. It all began with a friend’s blog post, followed by a bar conversation, followed by a 23-message email chain with a teacher in my district, but before I get to all that, I want to rewind a little further.

Crafting lessons, assignments, and units has always been fun for me. I get to be creative, to design an experience for my students around the goals I’ve set for their learning, to imagine my plans in action — it’s downright fun. So naturally, it is also fun for me to share these plans with my colleagues, whether in the teacher’s lounge or in the form of a fully-developed unit plan carefully organized in a binder full of a unit’s scope-and-sequence, assignment sheets, lesson plan calendar, assessments, and examples of student work (I have a lot of these). I was always proud of the “stuff” of teaching that I had created, from that clever lesson on poetic rhythm using Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat to my favorite portfolio unit on gender and social justice for my 9th grade classroom. If someone wanted to use my materials, I handed them over, thrilled that someone wanted to adapt or share something I had crafted.

I always hoped and expected, of course, that anyone who used my materials would credit me, as I had been taught to do whenever I borrowed someone else’s lesson plans or unit concepts. But I have never hesitated to share curriculum that I developed and designed. Case in point: this very website showcases all of the college syllabi I developed during my time at Michigan, including assignments and examples of student work.

Then, about two weeks ago, a few things made me pause and wonder…

Should I Stop Giving it Away for Free?

First, an article, published my a close friend of mine on her blog, entitled “Teachers: Stop Giving it Away for Free.”  As you might expect from the title, she makes the argument that teachers have developed significant stores of knowledge based in experience, have crafted well-designed lessons, units, and other resources with inherent value, and they should not simply hand over these resources for no compensation. She writes:

We need to stop underselling ourselves. It’s not a matter of modesty: we’ve all seen too many bad instructional materials, known that we can do it better. Thus, we should. And we should attach some sort of value to what we do because if we don’t, people will keep taking it until we have nothing left. Know your worth.

And dammit, I agree with her. We’ve all read article after article about how the teaching profession is being perpetually devalued, arguably de-professionalized. Do teachers contribute to this deprofessionalization by handing over their materials and expertise for free? In the corporate world, this doesn’t happen — if you want someone’s professional expertise, their intellectual property, you have to pay them for it, right? My friend makes exactly this argument, saying:

The biggest oversight is that administrators and even other teachers don’t seem to realize that these experts are either next door to them or within their buildings. We sit through PDs that these folks could teach effectively and responsively, yet, they are never asked. On the off chance that they are finally asked to do something, there is often no compensation for the time invested for preparing an excellent PD.

This one struck a chord with me, because as a district-level non-administrator (I am a member of the teacher’s union, and I professionally identify as a teacher, even though I often need to remind people of this), I make a habit of asking teachers to share their expertise in the PD I create. I invite teachers as panelists in online PD to share examples of their practice, and I am actively working to increase my connections across the district so that I have more teacher expertise to draw from. I lean and rely on practicing teachers to develop PD, because they are the best resources.

The Sticky Wicket: Compensation

Here’s where I run into trouble: I can’t financially compensate every teacher expert we have on one of our panels or every teacher who submits a curricular resource to our archive.

Which brings me to the bar conversation. I have been back and forth with my counterpart in my department about how we can attain a budget to compensate teachers for contributing to our professional development, whether that be an example of student work, an hour of their time to talk about their practice, or a sample unit or lesson plan resource. The conversation circled around questions like: “are lesson plans intellectual property?” “if so, whose? the teacher’s or the district’s?” “should teachers be compensated for their intellectual property?” Long story short: we’re still talking about it.

The morning after the bar conversation, one of the digital rock stars in our district, who also happens to be friends with the above-quoted blogger and a blogger herself, called me on this compensation issue in response to an email asking a number of our teachers to contribute resources or ideas to our digital archive so that we could share them in an online library showcasing examples from our teachers’ classrooms.

My inability to compensate teachers for things like this is in part because I work in a broken system that doesn’t recognize teachers as the curricular experts of their profession, so money isn’t automatically allocated for this purpose. It is also partially because of my position within my department (I don’t have control over a budget) and partially because I’m still learning how to do things like write grants to get money so that I have the cash to compensate teachers every time they contribute their expertise. So I do what I can do: I thank teachers profusely, I CITE THEM to give them credit for their work, and I offer up my time to their schools for professional development.

But I don’t necessarily think teachers need to be compensated for their expertise every time they contribute a resource, lesson plan, or unit, or every time they serve on a panel.

There. I said it.

We live in a corporatized culture, and schooling becomes increasingly corporatized by the day. Ask just about any educator about it, and you’ll get a long diatribe about how textbook companies like Pearson are making fortunes on the backs of today’s overtested, undervalued students and teachers. It’s really quite disgusting.

A counterculture to this corporatization of American schooling exists in the Web 2.0 world: a culture characterized by free and open (and attributed) sharing of author-licensed content. A culture that values open-source software maintained by communities of developers who care about the programs that make our lives easier, and don’t code for profit. A culture that values makerspaces, hacking for the sake of knowledge and experimentation, and above all — free and open sharing of socially-developed expertise. This culture actively challenges copyright law, arguing for a change in the way we understand ideas as property while still upholding the rights of the individual creator.

This is a culture today’s adolescents have helped to shape and create, from teen FanFic sites to the videos students make, edit, and post on their blogs to game hackers, today’s teens live in a world where remixing, creating, and sharing (for free) are everyday activities.

How Does this Apply to Teachers?

Maybe it doesn’t. After all, teachers are professionals — unlike adolescents, they have worked hard and earned multiple degrees to gain the expertise that they are asked to share, often without extra compensation. Fundamentally, I agree that teachers should not be asked to give up significant time — an extremely valuable resource for any teacher — without being compensated in some way. Too many teachers sacrifice time with family for a stack of ungraded papers on a Sunday. Let’s not contribute to that nonsense.

However, I think if we are to challenge the corporate culture of American schooling in the 21st century, we also need to think about how and where we share our resources “for free,” when we do. And we do need to share our expertise “for free.” We need to publish in practitioner journals, attend conferences, and write about our practice on blogs and in newspapers. We need to make visible the work of teaching.

On those occasions when we are asked to showcase our work for little or no compensation, we should license it using Creative Commons attributions. We should post and publish it in webspaces created by people we trust and who we know will honor the knowledge and expertise of teachers as professionals. We should not always demand that the time we take to share our craft be compensated — instead, we should demand that the time we take to share our craft be respected and valued by society. I don’t think we should combat the deprofessionalization of teaching by keeping our professional resources under lock and key: we should combat it by making our craft easier to see and understand. It’s why teacher bloggers are some of my favorite writers — they open up the craft of teaching for the world to see, taking time out of their busy lives to share what they know.

So for now, I will leave my syllabi, class calendars, lesson plans, and assignments on my website for others to take, adapt, and attribute.

What say you, teachers? What should(n’t) we give away for free?

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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