Category Archives: digital literacies

the summer (institute) of twitter

As Chance the Gardner from Being There was often fond of saying, “I like to watch.”

And watch I have as NWP colleagues from around the country have taken to tweeting their experiences. Most are currently in some stage of beginning or ending their summer institutes, an event that gathers local teachers together to share practice, engage in a look at current research, write and enjoy the bonding that occurs when you put 20 or so teachers together in a room for 4 weeks.

When I went through my Summer Institute back in the late 90’s, I had very little sense of the national infrastructure of the writing project. I knew only my own Western Massachusetts Writing Project and had a vague notion that we were part of something bigger. It wasn’t until I attended the first NWP Annual Meeting a few years later that I realized the true scope of this teacher professional development organization.

So it’s with astonishment and admiration that I see April Estep in West Virginia sharing her morning writing prompts with Thomas Maerke, who himself is recording video of conversations in Missouri. Steve Moore in Kansas City posts one of the most moving readings I’ve ever heard, right from his phone, and that reading by one of the facilitators of his institute gets retweeted in moments. Cynthia Younger, also in Kansas City, is encouraged to develop her first blog by Steve Moore and then goes on Twitter to seek blogging advice. All the while, Paul Hankins and Donalyn Miller and Bud Hunt and Andrea Zellner and Kevin Hodgson, among a myriad of others, shout out encouragement from their corners of the country.

I could go on and on – from Philadelphia to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Monterrey Bay in California, summer institute teachers are providing a window into their daily work and play.

As I said, I’m astonished. Not because I thought these teachers were incapable of connecting with each other and sharing in this way. I realize that this is what has been happening on Twitter for many educators over the past few years.

It’s more that I didn’t fully understand the power of what would be unleashed when summer institutes connected. As Carl Whithaus so aptly put it in his tweet which I pasted above, it is the “dual sense of community” that has emerged and that has now been – and I’d bet money that this is true – cemented. The way in which, dialectically, a face-to-face experience has supported the use of social media, and social media has in turn amplified the face-to-face moment.

It is the summer (institute) of Twitter.

I like to watch.

And listen.

And, as it turns out, even participate.

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oakland state of mind

This is one of the most inspiring youth digital compositions I’ve ever encountered. By Oakland Leaf Youth Roots, shown tonight at the 10th Anniversary All Oakland Youth Talent Showcase. The youth call themselves artivists – using art for social change.

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the commons

Continuing the New England theme from my last post

Many communities in Massachusetts have a town common, a central green area that’s open and accessible to the public. Verdant, idyllic, what you might think of when you think of New England. Probably the most famous is the Boston Common, which even had a TV show named after it.

You might then think that a common is a kind of park. The City of Boston refers to it that way.

But the town common as a concept signifies much more than a place to throw a frisbee or walk your dog. In Western Massachusetts, for instance, the common – which was a carryover from England – originated as a publicly held green where all farmers could bring their livestock to graze. In other words, regardless of how much or how little pasture you owned, you had the right to bring your animals to the town-held common (also known as the town green).

I also associate the common with a town’s meeting house, which was usually close by, if not right on that central open space. The meeting house, if you recall from your fourth grade American history, was a structure used as a place for social and political discourse as well as for religious services.

Old South Meeting House in Boston says about itself:

Old South Meeting House has been an active gathering place for discussion and celebration and a haven for free speech in the heart of downtown Boston.

The common, then, and its associated meeting house was a place held open for the public good of all, as well as a venue for the free exchange of ideas – a civic space, a forum.

The town commons I’m familiar with in Western Massachusetts, where I lived for many years, are what I think of – physically and conceptually – when I hear the term “commons” used today, as in Creative Commons, the open license organization, or  the website On The Commons.

According to On the Commons:

The commons is a new way to express a very old idea—that some forms of wealth belong to all of us, and that these community resources must be actively protected and managed for the good of all.

The commons are the things that we inherit and create jointly, and that will (hopefully) last for generations to come. The commons consists of gifts of nature such as air, oceans and wildlife as well as shared social creations such as libraries, public spaces, scientific research and creative works.

I would have said that this notion of a “commons” is actually an old way to express an old idea … in a new arena: the online domain. Despite the efforts of organizations such as Creative Commons and On the Commons, we see our digital commons under constant threat. Net neutrality is attacked by the telecoms. Facebook banks on the fact that you will view its space as a digital commons even as it erodes your control over your own words. The list is endless.

But this struggle is not new. Commons have since their origin in England faced the threat of enclosure, or the process of ending traditional rights. Here’s a protest poem from the 17th century in opposition to the enclosure of a village commons:

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

The idea of a commons is as fundamental to our nation’s history, culture and ethos as, well, Boston’s Freedom Trail. Which by the way has as its starting point – you guessed it – the Boston Common.

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social networks are so NOT post-racial

A friend who is Asian-American and a moderate user of Facebook mentioned the other day that she didn’t participate in Doppelganger week. Why not? She pointed out that there are barely any mainstream Asian-American female celebrities, let alone one she resembles.

What’s the big deal, you may be wondering. After all, this was simply a fun exercise in the viral, democratic nature of the web. Posting your celebrity doppelganger on FB was only interesting and relevant as long as a critical mass of people found it to be so. In the end, my friend missed out on at most a few days of hardcore activity.

Framed that way, as an isolated event, it probably wasn’t a big deal.

On the other hand, the whole doppelganger exercise could be viewed as just one of many examples of how social networking – unless we’re careful – replicates the inequities that exist in society as a whole. And the reification of these inequities is potentially more insidious in social networks because it’s easy to believe that the opposite is true: that this life online, enmeshed in free platforms, where everyone is able to contribute, is as post-racial as it gets.

In fact, the reality could not be more different. A recent study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University found that you could reliably predict which social network – Facebook or MySpace – a college student used most often based on that student’s race, ethnicity and parents’ education. The author of the study, Eszter Hargittai, goes on to state:

Everyone points to that wonderful New Yorker cartoon of the dog at the computer telling a canine friend by his side that ‘on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.’ In reality, however, it appears that online actions and interactions should not be viewed as independent of one’s offline identity.”

In researcher danah boyd’s draft of her soon-to-be published article, “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook,” she discusses her work examining the social media practices of teens, and the fact that more affluent white students tended to flock to Facebook while less affluent Latino students tended to prefer MySpace. Race, class and ethnicity were intertwined in students’ motivations in making the social networking choices they did, boyd writes.

Neither social media nor its users are colorblind simply because technology is present. The internet mirrors and magnifies everyday life, making visible many of the issues we hoped would disappear, including race and class-­‐based social divisions in American society.

Just to be clear, I myself as an Asian-American, college-educated man, definitely demonstrate my own biases. I joined Facebook, for instance, soon after it was opened to the public. I never even remotely considered having a MySpace account. I should be compelled to examine and re-examine these choices which, I’m sure, were the result of what boyd says is an intermingling of class, race and design preferences. Examine them not for the sake of hand-wringing, but because to be aware is to be able to effect change.

We’re at a critical juncture. As social networking matures and becomes the established norm in our lives, we need to be ever more vigilant – not less – that what we are doing is creating new opportunities to participate for those who have been otherwise marginalized. Rather than simply replicating the offline practices that, consciously or not, ultimately lead our students to segregate along class and racial and ethnic divisions. We need to push ourselves and our students to consider who is part of our social networks, who isn’t, and how we can use the potential of online communities to truly transform our society.

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slow-cial networks

During a run through Riverside Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan yesterday, I noticed a community garden.

An older man tended flowers hanging on until the first freeze. Two women – sisters? mother-daughter? – shot pictures of each other among the fading blooms.

This particular community garden is a slice of green in a sliver of a park in one of the busiest cities in the world. A city that purportedly never sleeps. An information nexus.

The tableaux represents what I wish I had been able to accomplish as a teacher and what I fear is becoming even more challenging in classrooms: providing students with opportunities to become digitally literate and engaged citizens of the 21st century – to navigate busy crowded spaces – while also elevating the importance of smelling the roses. Of knowing where to find roses to smell. Of knowing how to grow roses. Of growing roses.

My friend Allan Hoffman talks about “distracted living” – the inability to focus on enjoying the moment and understanding the critical importance of our human, social networks, as we embrace the power of our online versions.

I feel lucky in that many of the teachers I follow on twitter: Bud Hunt, Troy Hicks, Peter Kittle, and many many other colleagues also live this duality. I see pictures of them with their children at the playground or after anti-hunger road races and am reminded to force myself to become unwired, too.

In fact, I would argue that they’re successful as disseminators of information about social media because they’re willing and able to engage with a wide range of people. Because they appreciate the offline moments.

Robert D. Putnam wrote the seminal book, “Bowling Alone,” about the ways in which our current cultural state can atomize and isolate us.

The health of a community’s bowling leagues, he argued, was a good indicator of its social capital. I’m sure community gardens are also a signal of healthy social capital.

If we can incorporate bowling leagues, community gardens, front porches, with our online communities, so that both not only co-exist peacefully but share an exalted place in our lives, then I’ll know that we’ve succeeded in constructing what I call “slow-cial networks.”

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teachers teaching teachers

I was involved with a terrific webcast of teachers engaged in a far-ranging conversation about their new media classroom work and new literacy learning generally. The webcast is in advance of the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia next week.

The program was started by Paul Allison, a high school teacher in New York City (Flushing, in fact, where I was born) and a member of the New York City Writing Project. (Eventually, the webcast will be available online at the Teachers Teaching Teachers website.) Paul acts as host – the Charlie Rose, if you will.

I love the program because like most things constructed by resourceful teachers, the webcast is put together in McGyver-like fashion, seemingly with two twigs and some chewing gum, and yet it runs and functions beautifully. TTT, as it’s affectionately known, uses Skype and an educator-centered online space and the wits and talents of Paul and teacher Susan Ettenheim.

I’ve known Paul for many many years and have seen him do some pretty far-out stuff – my favorite, authoring videocasts while going for long runs. You had to have seen them, believe me. He’s an amazing thinker and a true believer in a democratic classroom. Paul wants kids to push the boundaries and to make school interesting and relevant for them again. His latest project – to have his students call in book reviews from their cellphones to a number that will aggregate their work.

I’m enamored of Paul and his work, though, not because it is experimental, though I do appreciate the courage it takes to experiment in this day and age. Rather, it’s because he can provide sound pedagogical reasons for  why he does what he does. And because he thinks very deeply about the art and craft of teaching with and in new media and is always apt to say something that makes you rethink your assumptions.

It was exciting to hear the work presented by the teachers on the broadcast – two elementary and one middle school, all from different states. Despite the pressures exerted on them to prepare their students for standardized tests, these educators – Robert River-Amezola in Philadelphia, Joe Conroy in New Jersey, and Chuck Jurich in Arizona – find the time to give their students the opportunity to become engaged, digital citizens.

So inspiring, really.

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