Read. Write. Coffee. Repeat.

After a hiatus, I’ve started a new blog: Read. Write. Coffee. Repeat.  Hope you’ll consider a visit. And, thanks for reading!





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On Hiatus


Proposal-ing & Dissertating– back before too long.

I hope.





Image:  Little Pencil by D. Sharon Pruitt  CC BY 2.0


Thackery in a Bunker?

NCTE 2011 may have ended on Sunday, November 20, but it’s been tumbling in my head since then. Rather than offer a blow-by-blow description of events, I want to pull together some thoughts that continue some from the post that came before this, “Missing Thackery.”

I was lucky to have been invited to present on a panel with Jen Roberts and Sarah Fidelibus and coordinated by Jen. In our presentation, “Fly Me to the Moon: Rocketing Our Way to Digital Pedagogies” we aimed to provide a slightly different look at digital tools by talking about experiences with specific tools in the high school and college English classroom. What was a little different was that we framed the discussion of tools within the broader context of the revolutionary social and cultural shifts the World Wide Web has catalyzed.

There are shifts that seem most relevant to English folk, especially those of us who teach writing. The digitization of information, the sheer volume of information that digitization makes possible, the speed with which it’s conveyed, the potential access that all people have to the information as well as to the channels for publishing their own content, well, it changes everything.

  • We can communicate, create, and publish without being constrained by time or space.
  • We can represent our ideas, the information we want to create and convey, in words, but also in sounds, images and any combinations of these we can think of.
  • We don’t need permission from anyone to publish. We are our own publishing houses.
  • We get to consciously choose and create the face(s) we present to the world.

What can result is a sense of personal agency, a sense of being connected to others in the world in new ways, opportunities to embark on creating content with others– I could go on and on. But please understand– I’m not a cheerleader for the World Wide Web, I’m a cheerleader for what the Web makes possible, in our own personal and professional lives, the lives of our students, and in the world around us. But the Web makes it possible only if we take charge. So, how do we weave a personal Web?

To put it simply: we try out tools that could add new dimensions (and new efficiencies) to our own lives. Here’s the slideshow I created.

I’m accustomed to teachers being unfamiliar with Web-based tools. But, and it’s a big but, something more seems to be happening. Yes, I heard uncertainty about how and where to begin weaving a personal Web.  But I sensed more than wariness or polite equivocations about the “technology thing,” as it is sometimes called. There were sessions affirming (asserting?) the primacy of literature in the English curriculum and in the lives of “educated” people. There were strident claims. For example, “English teachers are the last bastion against barbarity.”

I don’t want to get into discussions of the history & values of English. I just wonder who ever said literature wasn’t important? More specifically, who implied that technology should muscle out literature from the English classroom?

I am earnestly hoping that we’re not moving into the land of either/or. I hope we’re not drifting into the assumptions that if you’re for technology, you’re against literature and the richness of literary traditions. That if you’re for technology then you’re against writing, opposed to developing the critical thinking that comes with crafting an argument, a paragraph, a beautiful sentence.

We may face a pretty steep curve as people learn to make their place on the Web; we may have to have lots of conversations about how to approach teaching within the new cultures the Web seems to afford. It’s probably all going to feel messy and confused.

But barbarity? I have a image of English teachers standing watch over a bunker where Thackery and Woolf and zillions of others have been stashed. For their own good, of course.

How about a different perspective?  Here’s a representation of the World Wide Web in 2003. A computer programmer figured out how to do the complex math it took to produce this; it can be remade every day to reflect that day’s activity. (He did it on a bet made over a beer, on his own time. One of the images hangs in the Museum of Modern Art. That’s some kind of talent, eh?)

1st Full Internet Map, 11.22.2003. The Opte Project CC BY-NC-SA 1.0

Look closely. There aren’t any bunkers in this Web. There are only a gazillion connections, people linked to one another, creating new content, sharing information, making new understandings.

Thackery’s in there. And Shakespeare and Browning and everybody else.

We all are.  O.K.?



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Missing Thackery

I had a rare evening out with a dear friend recently: dinner, followed by a concert.  As we walked from the parking lot toward the auditorium, she was bemoaning the omnipresence of YA (Young Adult) literature in the reading diets of a number of college-age students she knows. (My friend,

Thackery's best-known work

an educator at an independent school, is often visited by former students.) It’s not that she has anything against YA lit, she said, but one of the most glorious times in her freshman year in college was falling in love with Thackery. She spent hours reading in her dorm room, and she feels badly that her bright, talented college students are so focused on YA lit that they won’t have the same experience.

When I pointed out that my free reading choices these days run to murder mysteries and that her student friends might be seeking a similar kind of respite, she went on with barely a breath. “I know things are different for them; this is a different time altogether. But it’s just sad that there isn’t the time, or maybe it’s that there isn’t the inclination, for that kind of reading.”

She had said something similar over dinner, recounting an NPR interview with an author that she’d heard on her drive to the restaurant. “He wrote the thing on paper,” she said, “real paper, with a real pen.” The experience of writing on a computer was just a qualitatively different experience for him.

Her comment segued into a discussion of all the digital tools she is aware of but doesn’t use, how aware she is that her professional background needs updating in the area of new technologies, and, at the same time,  how intensely she is avoiding it. How her students do all this stuff– including plaigiarizing– because they just don’t have time to do the assigned work. “‘Repurposing’” she sniffed. “Nope. Plaigiarizing”

“So what responsibility does that teacher have in this?” I asked. I wasn’t talking about the volume of work kids were dealing with. “The world is

William Makepeace Thackery 1811-1863

different. There’s been an explosion in options for learning, for showing what we know or that have thought about. In what ways does the teacher’s assignment reflect that? If the nature of the assignment is such that a bright, conscientious, overwhelmed student can root around on the Web and piece together a paper, it seems fair to suggest that the teacher may be complicit in this plagiarizing. And if the teacher can’t tell a patchwork paper is different than other writing the kid has done during the year….”

My friend got it; she agreed.

My friend is bright, highly educated, and knows her way around all kinds of high-tech gadgetry. It struck me that she wasn’t railing against technology, at least not completely, in the way that many people– especially those who don’t use computers for even word processing. She was sad that a way of being, with a book, with one’s thoughts, might be passing. She’s just missing Thackery.

Later that evening, when I checked into Twitter, many of the tech-related education conversations were there– decrying teachers who won’t learn, who think social media has no place in learning. The cry is that these teachers are hanging on to the past, teaching our children for the past, the industrial age. I don’t disagree.

But technology is not the answer to all that ails schooling in the U.S. And since my chat with my friend, I’ve realized that sometimes, the people who are saying NO to tech may just be missing Thackery.

The Web makes things possible that never were, but it also makes things (that may have had real value) impossible. Literacy researcher Donald Leu & his research team talk about the need to help kids develop dispositions for living in the age of the global information tsunami.

Rather than stay stuck in the discussion model of “tech is good!” vs. “tech is bad!,” we need a different discussion, framed around questions like what dispositions go along with a love affair with the novels of Thackery (or anyone else)? How does the Web disrupt these? In what ways are these disruptions problematic? Useful? How might we weave these into ways of thinking about learning and teaching in a global, information-rich world?

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“Writing Across the Disciplines” in the Common Core Standards: No Catchy Title Can Capture My Dismay


Our tenuous post-storm electric and internet connectivity kept me from being able to express some of my concerns and questions in our P2PUsession Tuesday night, so I am bringing them here.

Ode to Jack Kerouac

To so many people, the idea of every school striving toward the same objectives sounds like such a good one. To many, the idea that every student, every teacher, is working toward the same standards, will Solve Everything. I’m one of the many who remain deeply troubled by the standards movement and the impact it is having on ideas about what constitutes good teaching, what learning is.

With the onset of NCLB, “standards” slowly moved from being words on a page to being shackles around teachers’ autonomy and creativity. They stopped representing our best hopes for all kids’ learning and began to dictate what all kids had better be able to do or else.

The or else has broken the heart and soul of our schools. It’s broken the spirit of our teachers, shrunk kids’ views of themselves into single dimensions. “I’m a two,” I heard a 6th grader say to a friend, matter-of-factly, as though that digit were as immutable as her genes.

So it’s not the words of these new standards that trouble me, as much as it is what will be done with them. Because of them.

To summarize dozens and dozens of pages, the CCS on writing across the content areas focus on persuasive and analytic writing. In other words, teaching kids to create strong arguments, and to describe and analyze content-specific information. There is emphasis on the mechanics of writing and the  strategies of developing and organizing ideas in ways appropriate to the content area. Here’s some of what’s got me scared.

People, including teachers– even English teachers–are afraid of writing. They don’t think they’re good at it, they think it’s hard (well, it is), that it takes too much time. What kinds of support are content area teachers going to get in developing positive ideas about writing? In extending these ideas into positive classroom environments that foster the desire to write and write well?

We’ve known for decades the kinds of approaches that create classroom environments where kids want to write, and the kinds of instruction that helps writing improve. The National Writing Project has been at the forefront of helping teachers develop deep understanding of the research-based  approaches and how to implement these. Their federal funding was eliminated in the recent budget processes. So, what ideas about teaching writing are receiving budget-based endorsement?

I’ll answer that question with another one. What writing receives top scores on standardized tests? The longest. What’s the emphasis in classroom instruction? In schools I visit and in conversation with teachers, the  five-paragraph essay (5PE) has returned full force as the basic unit of academic trade. While this may be a useful template for beginners, it is woefully inadequate. The format teaches kids that writing about ideas can be reduced to a formula; it rewards shallow thinking. And yet, all too often, the 5PE is where kids’ instruction starts and ends.

When I  scanned the Common Core Standards for writing across the disciplines, my first thought was “Oh goodie, now we’ve got the opportunity to have five-paragraph essays in all the content areas.”

In a time when teachers in the same department are too pressed to talk even to each other about how they’re approaching writing, what provisions will be made for dialog across disciplines?  What kind of support will all teachers be afforded so that writing in all the content areas isn’t reduced to the 5PE, a common denominator of ‘good enough’?

What opportunities will content area teachers receive to unpack and address the assumptions that underlie these standards? Take standard WHST.9-10.2, for example. The standard itself seems innocuous: “Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.”

But, in the process of doing this writing, these standards specify that students must “Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.” Formal? Objective? According to whose norms? Which conventions? Who decides?

The unspoken assumption seems to be that traditional academic perspectives provide the Golden (only) Standard for success in college and life. And yet, in a global information economy where digital communication is evolving exponentially, 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.

According to former Secretary of Education, Richard Riley, the top in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004 . Our youth will enter institutions of higher education where traditional notions and models of learning are being challenged and re-imagined.  What opportunities will secondary school teachers have to re-envision their content areas in the light of these new perspectives?

I am afraid I have more questions than answers. Maybe I’m just afraid.



Ode to Jack Kerouac © Oliver Hammond, Used via Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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Writing My Life

What with the recent National Day of Writing and my participation in the P2PU learning lab in Writing & the Common Core, there’s been a lot of urging for folks to write, publicly and often. I started musing about writing in my life and thought I’d take my musing here.

I feel like I write constantly: hours a day on my dissertation proposal, email, tweets, sometimes on The English Companion Ning, sometimes even here on my blog. I’ve got a pro account at Penzu so that I can access the space on my iPad, even when I’m offline. I studied writing for three years (I know, I know– school junkie) and was in a weekly writing group until doctoral life took over.

My relationship with writing has changed over the years. Right now, my challenge is to do academic writing. More accurately, to write about ideas within a larger tradition of writing. In many ways, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My natural inclinations run more toward creative nonfiction; much earlier in my life, it was poetry. (I like to say I’ve had some nice publishing experiences and an even lovelier collection of rejections.)

The challenge in so-called academic writing is dual. First is the thinking. My thoughts get going and, I swear, they are like fireflies, and I’m just a girl with a jar in a big dark field. Then there’s the sorting, the detective work: so much of my thinking is based in metaphor and mental image that I seem to spend most of my time figuring out how the pieces, those illusive flashes of light, are connected. Because they always are. The work of my academic training seems to be in tracing the connections, making the whole, crafting it in such a way that others can be with me in the journey.  I suspect this is why Mark Strand’s poem, Keeping Things Whole, is my all-time favorite. I suspect, too, know that this has always been the most challenging aspect of writing for me.

It seems that trust is a big factor in my writing process. I am always awed at how this force moves through me — isn’t that what writing ultimately is– and leaves me chunks that I know are important, essential to the whole. I spent a long time last year writing my second qualifying paper. When I look back at my original freewriting, all the chunks that I ended up using were there. I just didn’t know it. That’s been true for every kind of writing I’ve done (even the stupidness that was advertising/sales promotion). I guess I needed to learn that so-called academic writing is no different. If I think of it as idea writing, I don’t feel like a stranger, an interloper.

I’m really, really lucky to be working with a dissertation advisor who believes dissertations must not be bound by academic convention. My qualifying paper had screen shots of videos and the annotations section was a Google site. One of her students represented his data in the form of a novel. Citations were footnotes, his study participant was the main character. My proposal, my current obsession, has become for me just another writing project. By “just”, I am not minimizing the challenge of of it. Instead, I mean a project no different in process than anything else I’ve worked on long-term. I know how to sit done and work for long stretches. I know the fear-pits that always capture me, the procrastination I can so easily give in to. The demons are always there.

But I can see where I’m going. I’m excited. (OMG– excited about a dissertation proposal?) I am a writer, after all. This is what I do.


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Goldilocks and the 3 MOOCs

Right now, I’m participating on various levels in three MOOCs: #Change 11, facilitated by Siemens, Cormier & Downes, Alec Couros’ EC&I 831, and Bud Hunt’s Writing & the Common Core on P2PU. This experience is a little like being Goldilocks in the MOOC version of the fairy tale. There’s the Daddy-size MOOC (#Change 11), a Mama-size MOOC  (EC&I 831), and a Baby MOOC (P2PU) and I’m wandering through them, trying to find the one that’s just right.

Let’s agree that “just right” nicely furthers the metaphor. More accurately, though, each MOOC offers great stuff. At the same time, each MOOC raises questions, all of which are valuable to me as I think about “English” and learning in this digital age.

A little comparison/contrast is in order here. Each MOOC is facilitated; each has a structure and a schedule. The kind & amount of facilitation & structure varies. Each offers synchronous and asynchronous sessions/activities. There’s an active backchannel in each. There’s an online hub in each, plus supplemental places (hub-ettes?).

I like all three. But I get excited about the one with the smallest number of participants and the direct conversations we have in the backchannel. We’re not just posting comments into the sea (like bottles with messages), we’re writing to each other. I get excited about having shared tasks that we work on together. I get excited about what these people are calling my attention to, making me think about.

Why is my excitement level different among these 3 MOOCs? Yes, I am a person who likes to actively engage with others, so the smaller one (P2P U) may afford me more of that opportunity. More accurately, more of a structured opportunity: there is a stated expectation that course participants will interact, write, comment. The backchannel is a conversation with other participants about the topic at hand and it also affects the direction of the talk/presentation. Also, participants do things together, simultaneously. Tonight was writing together in a GDoc.

The credit/noncredit MOOC offers lots of chances for interaction as well, in the form of commenting on for-credit student blogs, participating in the backchannel, blogging & using the course tag. The backchannel has involved commenting on the speaker, with some interacting between participants, but these tend not to be conversations that are folded into or extend the presentation. The shared synchronous activity seems to involve singing at the end of the sessions? I haven’t figured that one out yet. I feel like much more of an audience member in that MOOC, partially because of of size, but also because it is basically a lecture format. I think the fact that students are earning academic credit as well as venturing into new (for many of them) territory in social media and open education might tend to skew the atmosphere of the MOOC toward more traditional student expectations, including interactions between teacher & students.

The #Change11 MOOC…what can I say. The facilitators made it clear that participants who were proactive, assertive, reached out, made connections with others would derive the greatest value from the course. I found myself unsure of how, where, and why to connect, and not sure of how to navigate the organizational structures. I’ve written some about that already, so I won’t repeat myself.

Some of the differences between the MOOCs: different kinds of sponsoring organizations, different acknowledgements of participation, from the tangible (graduate school credit) to the more amorphous (personal satisfaction), different roles and actions among participants during the synchronous sessions.

I’ll acknowledge that my own learning preferences come into play as I think about what makes a MOOC just right for this Goldilocks in this time & place. The biggest factors though, include the subject of the MOOC and my purposes for participating. E&CI 831 is giving me lots of insights into and ideas  about a course I teach in the literacies & technologies of secondary English. I enjoy observing the students via their blogs. But I went into the experience in self-determined capacity, as an observer, which limits what I gain.

On the other hand, the subject of the P2PU– writing– is one of my Things. I need and want to learn about the Common Core Standards as they relate to writing and my work as a teacher educator. Plus, the size & structure make for a good feel. These make some pretty compelling arguments for just right.

But I also think there are some bigger  principles I’m puzzling over.  The #Change11 MOOC is based very much on George Siemen’s Connectivism as a theory of learning. I need to read and think more, but this MOOC experience has me thinking that rather than a theory of learning, Connectivism is more accurately seen as a theory of course design.

Why? I would argue that learning doesn’t happen just because people connect. I’m thinking here about the difference between parallel play and genuine interactive play in young children. The #Change 11 MOOC felt to me like very large-scale parallel play.

In the brief reading about Connectivism that I have done, I have found myself wondering what it means to “learn” in Connectivism. Looking through a connectivist lens, what do we see when learning has occurred or is occurring in others? In ourselves? Is it about the production of new information? What is the difference between information and knowledge within this theory? I don’t see myself as a node in a network. I don’t see learning to be about a simple exchange of information.

I do see a role in learning for a more experienced or knowledgeable or skilled or older individual in bringing another person along. (Let’s pause for a moment of Vygotsky here.)

But I don’t find much about people in Connectivism. I don’t find much about the kind of connecting people do that inspires or comforts or motivates or affirms. Maybe that is what made the whole MOOC seem too…big.



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