Tag Archives: writing

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.

Why I’m Not Writing

Scratch that, I am writing: this counts, right?

drawing of person face-down on table with sleep "z's" above their headMy plan for tonight was well-hashed. I was going to leave work around 4 and head straight home, knowing full well I’d beat my spousal unit home by a couple hours. I was going to carve out some time to write. And by write, I mean work on an article that received a revise (handily) and resubmit about a month ago, before conference season blew up my calendar (#NCTE14 and #LRA14 were pretty epically worth it, though).

By the time I had gotten off of the train and sprinted to my bus (I made it… barely), I was ready to fall asleep in the seat. There’s something weirdly calming about looking out a bus window on a cold, dark night that makes me comfortably drowsy. By the time I got home and took the pup out for a walk in the freezing cold wind, I was ready for a pot of chamomile tea. By the time I made the tea and sat in my overstuffed recliner, my phone had alerted me to 13 new emails. By the time I sorted through emails, my tea was half gone and my muscles were becoming one with the chair. I opened up the article, tweaked a few sentences, and tried to wrap my head around a shift in my theoretical framework before I gave up and decided to write about why I simply. can’t. write. right now.

To be clear, I’m not complaining. After a somewhat taxing end to last week, today was optimistically productive. Collaborations are rolling, people are communicating well with one another, and I’m excited about the work that promises to fill every minute I’ll let it. So before I launch into my reflections on how my life simply isn’t allowing me to write right now, let me just say: the choice to work in a K-12 institution post-PhD is not one I regret. 

<aside>

When I was first considering taking a job in K-12, I met with one of my mentors at my university: someone who knows me well and whose opinion I trust. She was, to say the least, a little surprised… until that moment, I had always voiced wanting a job at a research institution. But at the same time, she was not surprised. She knows me well, and knows how much I enjoy working directly with educators.

She provided me with three warnings related to taking a job in K-12, one of which I forgot. Here are the two I remember, because they’ve proven true: (1) Your time will not be as flexible, and (2) It is hard for such institutions to make the space for you to write and research.

The flexible time thing doesn’t bother me, because I thrive on a busy routine. The research and writing time thing, on the other hand, is proving a bit of a struggle. 

</aside>

Why the struggle to write today? To some extent it’s about being tired at the end of a long day, about there never being enough hours for all the things, and about the fact that I should know better than to check email before I sit down to write. However, it also has to do with a number of other things:

  1. I’m still processing the defense. Even though revisions are submitted and accepted and I officially receive my degree on Sunday, I’m still thinking through the comments and conversation that took place in late October as a room full of really smart scholars helped me further complicate and contemplate my work. I need time to think more about their ideas and comments before I can launch meaningfully into the revisions of the article I’m working on.
  2. I’m still in conference mode. “Conference mode” looks like building and fostering collaborations — thinking ahead to the next project, the next study, the next connection. In the past three weeks, I have developed ideas for future conferences, outlined a few new papers in my head, and even planted the seed for a book (it. will. happen. I don’t know when, but it will.) “Conference mode” makes me look forward, which is making this article-derived-from-the-diss a little mind-numbing at the moment.
  3. Writing is hard. This is obvious, right? No. No it’s not. Good writers make it look easy, but for realsies, peeps, writing is hard. Writing articles is really hard. Revision is when writing gets real, which means revising articles is really, really, really hard. And as you can probably tell from my use of super descriptive adverbs like “really,” I’m feeling particularly articulate tonight (*snerk*). Which brings me to my last point:
  4. Forcing it is futile. Sometimes you’re in the mood to think deep theoretical thoughts, to synthesize those thoughts with concrete data, to process the feedback from anonymous reviewer person who wrote you another article’s worth of comments. And sometimes you’re just not. And guess what? It has nothing to do with how awake you are (not very), how much tea you brewed (three cups), how many miles you ran that morning (none), how many busses you rode today (two), or how many inspiring people you talked to today (five)… it just ain’t happenin’. If there’s one thing that writing that book-shaped thing called a dissertation taught me, it’s that forcing it is entirely futile.

So that’s why I’m not writing. Er, why I’m writing about why I’m not writing. I will need to find ways to work this whole writing thing into my new normal one way or another — even on days when it’s a struggle. Advice, anyone? Tweet me (@lizhoman): how do you make writing happen when, in the words of one of my mentors at #LRA14, “your time is not yours?”

Connections

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

First, Conceptual Connections

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

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

my current "key linkage" chart

my current “key linkage” chart

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

Also, New People

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

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

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

And I Can’t Forget my Existing Connections

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

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

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

 

 

Going Gradeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s what I’m learning:

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

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

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

The Weirdest First Day Ever

Fall has arrived in Ann Arbor. And for those of you who live in the academic world, you know that I don’t just mean the season. After a sweltering week of high humidity (our windows fogged over one night thanks to the hot, steamy air), the heat broke last night, giving way to chilly football weather. I’m sitting in my office chair next to a breezy open window, warming my rear with a heating pad and drinking steamy coffee in an effort to both ease the pain in my rebellious running hips and warm myself through.

But when I say fall has arrived, I’m not referring to the chill in the air. It’s the first day of everything here in Ann Arbor. First day of school for my tutoring kiddos and all public school children aged 5-18 in the greater Detroit area. First day of classes, teaching, and semester chaos for my friends and colleagues at the University of Michigan. For my entire life, the beginning of fall has been filled with excitement. That first day of classes is always thrilling, whether you’re meeting a classroom full of future teachers or walking into your first graduate course. You’re anticipatory. nervous. excited. terrified.

For me? Today is the first day of nothing. Which is WEIRD.

Well, it’s the first day of my fall fellowship, I suppose. The same fellowship I’ve been on all summer. The fellowship that requires me to get my damn work done, and that’s pretty much it.

Don’t misunderstand me, please — I am so very grateful that I attend a university and am part of a program that affords me the luxury to sit at home today in front of my computer, reading and re-reading and re-reading my interview and observation data, thinking deeply and writing reflectively about teaching and technology. Few graduate students are afforded this opportunity, and I thank my lucky stars every day for the support and encouragement I am given — both funding and academic — to pursue this PhD at UM.

However, none of that takes the edge off of the weirdness that is today. For the past 25 years of my life, the beginning of fall has meant the beginning of something new and exciting. 100+ new students filtering into my freshman English classes. The start of my master’s work. My first college class. My first day of high school.

But today, as classes start at UM and everyone on campus feels the electric charge of a new semester, I sit in my home office. Feeling weird. Like I need to be somewhere. But I don’t. I’ve checked my calendar like twenty times.

And I realize that if I’m to make this fall a successful one, I need to create my own beginnings, my own goals for the semester. So here they are: publicized, to hold me accountable. And to make me feel as though something is beginning, even if today looks a heck of a lot like last Tuesday, and like the Tuesday before that.

This is the start of a semester when I will (in this order. maybe.):

  1. define major themes in my dissertation data
  2. decide which major themes will become chapters in my dissertation
  3. code data based on major thematic findings
  4. check my interpretations of themes with my participants
  5. write my methods chapter
  6. begin revisions of my literature review and theoretical framework chapter(s?)

And because all academic goals need to be balanced with non-academic goals, I will also (not in this order):

  1. run a marathon
  2. train the dog to put away her toys
  3. throw an Oktoberfest party
  4. throw a Halloween party
  5. celebrate with family (not my place to say who yet, but someone’s getting married)
  6. sleep a lot and eat well (see #1)
  7. write four awesome posts for GradHacker
  8. write two awesome posts for Rackham
  9. keep up with my other two blogs

I know there are more non-academic goals, but the academic ones are scary, and I know each one will take significantly longer than, say, “throw a party.” Though training the dog to put away her toys might take me the better part of a month…

Despite the fact that I feel extremely weird today, I’m going to embrace the beginning of a new semester and get down to work. I hope everyone enjoys their own first days, in all their excitement, anticipation, and terror. As sad as many of you may be to see summer go, know that days like today are precious in their own strange way. They’re easier to miss than you might think.