Category Archives: education

off the road

Like many, I traveled the country this summer.

I visited national parks, like Arches, where the massive sandstone formations which often stand like sentinels have names such as The Three Gossips and Courthouse Towers. Names that reminded me of the very human impulse to examine natural phenomena and make them familiar. To anthropomorphise. To create myths about those rocks. Or stars. Or land formations. To tell a make-believe story.

At the little-traveled Capitol Reef, I saw petroglyphs etched into a canyon wall from a thousand years ago.

I marveled at the self-portraits of the Fremont people. Round-faced figures, some life size. Next to them, big-horn sheep in profile, their horns curving backward. Were these petroglyphs the story of a hunt? A diary entry?

A fictional account? A horror movie? A poem?

Poet Jack Gilbert, in The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart, points out that when ancient Sumerian tablets were first translated they were thought to be business records. But what if they were in fact poems or psalms, he wonders? What if what we think of as ledger entries were really the stanzas of the most tender love sonnet?

At a wedding, in a barn on a nature preserve in Montana, I enjoyed the display of a quilt with squares sewn by family and friends – the guests at the wedding. Sitting near the quilt was a photo collage of everyone present. We were each asked to send a picture of our ourselves with our own partner. There was no need for text – we could make our own meaning from the set of photos, from the individual couples kissing or smiling or looking into the camera from years past.

I drove through a Goblin Valley, a Devil’s Spine, Walla Walla, and the Bitterroot Valley. I saw Joshua Trees in the Mojave Desert, experienced vertigo at Escalante National Monument, saw the black pumice of Craters of the Moon.

The National Council of Teachers of English says “Good writing may be the quintessential 21st century skill.” Who am I to argue? I saw grounds to support NCTE’s claim on my trip. The ability to tell stories can have a lasting impact as evidenced by the awe still inspired by the Fremont petroglyphs. The visual compositions of a wedding quilt. The myth-making of sandstone rocks, whose names and stories were probably echoed thousands of times during summer-trip slideshows all over the world.

Yet, I think NCTE is slightly off. I would say that the quintessential 21st century skill is a precursor to good writing and is actually the same skill that has been the most critical since the moment we achieved self-awareness. And that is the ability to imagine. To look at a canyon wall and see a canvas. To take in a trio of rock spires and hear gossips. To hold disparate cloth pieces and know that what will be constructed is a collaborative work of art.

To see things as they are and wonder what might be.

Of course imagination is not quantifiable. I’m pretty certain, for instance, that the Fremont people did not work from a rubric. A student’s imagination is not part of the value-added data being pushed to measure teacher performance in Los Angeles. In fact, it takes little imagination on the part of a student to be considered a proficient learner in any subject by the standards set by state departments of education today.

All this despite the wise words of one of the most famously imaginative and brilliant thinkers of our time, Albert Einstein, who wrote on his Princeton blackboard: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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family literacy

Laura Bentley tweeted this question to me, Kevin Hodgson and the rest of the world earlier today:

@poh @dogtrax Who Inspired You To Write? http://bit.ly/cHfBol I would love to hear reflections from more of my WP friends & all =) #nwp

Kevin and I, unbeknownst to each other (since we responded almost simultaneously on Laura’s blog), both wrote about the influence our mothers had on us as writers. This from Kevin’s comment:

 I guess my inspiration was my mom, who was not a writer but a reader, and she shared her books and encouraged me to read what I wanted. It was that love of reading that sparked the love of writing in me, and in the back of my teenage mind, I had this idea that I could become a writer.

My friend and colleague Casey Daugherty also mentions her mother in responding to this prompt:

Writing gave me a new insight to its value when I started reading my mother’s daily journal entries a few years ago, (she passed away 25 years earlier) and I noticed my own writing began to change with it. So did my motivation to write.

And Brian Fay, another NWP friend, followed up on Twitter by writing:

@poh My mother inspired me to write by showing me writers to read and then fostering the idea that I could be one of them.

This is what came to me, and what I posted to Laura’s blog:

I don’t believe any one person inspired me to write. But I do have a distinct memory of showing my mom a piece of paper while she was in the bathroom getting ready for work. I must have been 5 or 6. The paper was full of my scribbles – child-like attempts at cursive. Despite her busy-ness, my mom took time to pick out the accidental humps of w’s and m’s and probably a few other unintended letters. I was amazed. I had scribbled something and it actually had meaning for another person. I understood then the power of writing.

The thing I didn’t say, for the sake of brevity, is that my mom is not a native English speaker. She immigrated to this country after the Korean War and still has difficulty mastering the diabolical nuances of English. Both spoken and written. My mom to this day will send me letters she has written so that I can copy-edit, make revisions, help her convey intended meaning.

She would never call herself a writer.

And yet, here I am, profiting intellectually and professionally from this act of scribbling – more digitally these days – and sharing those scribbles with others.

Here’s to you, Mom. And to all the parents and siblings and grandparents and guardians who’ve ushered us down this path towards literacy.

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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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flying together

Driving across the plains of Kansas the other day, I noticed hundreds of geese in V formations flying north from their wintering grounds. A beautiful and amazing sight. Which got me thinking: what is the biological imperative that causes geese to fly in these formations? And what happens during their long trek if one goose can’t keep up?

Well, according to the Library of Congress, the V is extremely efficient, allowing geese to expend less energy. Because each bird flies slightly higher than the bird in front, they benefit aerodynamically, beat their wings less often, and in fact exhibit lower heart rates than birds flying alone.

But wait, there’s more.

When the bird in the front of the V tires – because flying in front means assuming the least advantageous position aerodynamically – that bird will move to the back and another bird will take its place. The birds each take a turn at leading, with birds in back honking encouragement. (That’s right, they honk encouragement to one another.)

As for my second question, about those unable to keep up, I found this pdf which includes an answer, written by Anne Muller, president of Wildlife Watch:

when a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, a few other geese will drop out of the V-formation to follow the bird down. They help and protect the injured bird. They stay with the goose until he or she dies or is able to fly again. Then, they take off with another V-formation or catch up with their own flock.

I thought about migrating geese, and their practices, coming on the heels of the wholesale firing of an entire staff of teachers at Central Falls High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Along with Race To the Top funding decisions expected to be announced soon, funding that will target only a select few states.

You can probably guess that I, as author of this piece, believe we should fly together. That we should take turns leading. That we should support those unable to keep up until they can rejoin, or until they’re able to form another group. With all of us heading toward a common destination.

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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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quiet is ok

I’m having a hard time understanding how anyone can defend Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women, a blog post that’s receiving a tremendous amount of attention in the blogosphere and on Twitter.

Basically, Shirky says he knows what success looks like among academics – and in our society generally – and he knows how it’s achieved. It’s a formula that women don’t currently have a handle on but better master otherwise they’ll be overlooked, passed by, doomed to obscurity. And what is that formula? According to Shirky:

… women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

I’m an Asian-American. And I’ve heard similar arguments made about Asians – that we are quiet, unassuming, unwilling to draw attention to ourselves. Though it’s impossible to generalize with any kind of accuracy about the various cultures that fall under the umbrella term “Asian,” it’s true that in some Asian societies self-aggrandizement is frowned upon. So, would Shirky have then felt comfortable writing a post titled “A Rant About Asians”? Would you have felt comfortable reading a post with that title? Would you have felt Shirky’s was a defensible position if you had read the exact same piece by him but everywhere you find “women” now you found instead the word “Asians”? If your response to any of these questions is “no,” then you can probably understand why I’m dumbfounded that anyone sees Shirky’s generalizations – and, understand, I have great respect for much of his work and in fact have held up his thoughts as dead-on elsewhere in this blog – as shedding light on the plight of women writ large.

So, in essence, Shirky believes that the solution to the problem of women not receiving their fair share is to have them take on the mannerisms of the dominant group. Shirky writes:

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what?

He goes on to explain that we as a society have essentially conditioned men to act more like women recently, so where’s the concern? But Shirky misses the point. We shouldn’t ask women to act like men in order to succeed. Just like we shouldn’t ask Asian-Americans to act like white male academics in order to succeed. Instead, we should ask ourselves: What is it about the landscape that unfairly dictates who will succeed and who won’t and what can we do to change that inequity?

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blurred lines

I listened to a fantastic discussion this week on the webcast, Teachers Teaching Teachers. Paul Allison, who through sheer determination and, frankly, stubbornness, has kept this program going has hosted conversations with influential educators from around the world. This past week was no exception.

Folks from Global Kids, along with NYC teachers and educators from Oregon discussed games and gaming.

I plugged into the iTunes feed, participated in a chat that included students and tweeted some of the salient sound-bite-able portions.

I loved listening to the discussion surrounding the educational potential of games and game creation – the promotion of systems thinking, for instance – and how the teachers on the program implement gaming in their classrooms.

As someone who grew up playing games, analog (Risk, Monopoly, Life, Battling Tops – you name it) and digital (I went to college with the Ms. Pacman champ of Connecticut), and as a teacher who used game-playing as a teaching strategy in math with 2nd graders, I was deeply engaged by the topic.

Afterward, as I tried to synthesize the rich conversation, my mind touched on the obvious idea that introducing games and gaming in school is one step towards the blurring of the line between in-school and out-of-school. I thought back to the seminal Pew Internet and American Life study from 2002, “The Digital Disconnect: The widening gap between Internet-savvy students and their Schools.” Nearly 10 years ago, we were facing the dilemma of students arriving in school aware that the ways in which they acquired knowledge outside the classroom wouldn’t be open to them inside the classroom. At the time, my response as a technology professional development specialist was to help teachers bring the Internet into the classroom, and therefore put the Internet into the hands of students.

But what I’m thinking today, right at this moment, influenced by the blurring of lines for me professionally and personally as I engage more with Twitter and read the book “Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out” is that I need to have greater nuance in my understanding. That my framework of the issue – in-school/out-of-school – may be wrongheaded. That instead, what I need to do is honor our students’ already-existing personal learning communities, which have lives in school and out of school and sometimes in and out of school, and, additionally, help them figure out how to foster new ones so that they can access more and different kinds of knowledge.

It’s a different type of blurring of the lines between in-school and out-of-school, one that is holistic rather than linear. It is a Venn diagram of multiple overlapping circles, circles that represent a student’s many learning communities – sports, music, TV, books – rather than a flowchart of back-and-forth arrows between home and school.

(As an aside, who knew there was a LOTR version of Risk? I may need to buy a game tonight …)

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