Category Archives: digped

David Bowie, “on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying”

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In 1999, David Bowie predicted that the internet would change the ways in which people communicate, create, and consume content. Twenty years later, we are living in the world he imagined.

Bowie said, “the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can really envisage at the moment.” He went on to describe a collaboration between creator and audience that would lead to unimaginable genres of art and thought. And, here we are, or could be.

And then, pandemic

Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, academics, educators, and researchers were clamoring for new ways to assess student learning; the overwhelming evidence of standardized testing’s failure meant seeking out better ways for students to demonstrate learning. Publishers, often heavy-handedly, presented slick brochures of the next perfect solution or program or curricula. Teachers, who often have multiple college degrees and who know the student in their classrooms better than anyone were so often reduced to curriculum proctors and data providers that the profession suffered. New teachers quit. Veteran teachers passed the days to retirement without passion or even interest. Young adults eschewed the idea of becoming teachers altogether. When state mandates replaced teacher agency, the profession became largely unappealing.

When schools closed in March of 2020, suddenly teachers were heroes again. They got creative. They found ways to harness the power of the internet and used it to drive student educational experiences. Standardized tests were canceled, and teachers were able to focus, not on mandates, but on students. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, but the most imaginative teachers made it work the best they could with the resources they had. It was hard. It was also often satisfying for many teachers.

From hero to zero in 120 days.

Fast forward to summer of 2020. The uncertainty of the early Spring gave way to fear of what Fall might bring. Districts and states debated: face-to-face classes in spite of the physical health risks or remote education in spite of the emotional and psychological risks. Teachers’ voices were generally ignored as parents and officials demanded both/and instead of either/or. So teachers, who were hailed as heroes in April, were reduced to pawns in a political game of my-way-or-the-highway. Testing may be stalled another year, but publishers, quick to see an opportunity, started promoting even more prepackaged (and often expensive) programs to schools, districts, and parents. Like in the time before the pandemic, teachers were told, “you must” instead of asked, “what do you think?”

What about Bowie’s vision?

The internet still waits for education structures ot catch up with the possibilities. Many, even most, teens access the internet every day, playing games, mashing up songs, perfecting Instagram posts, and becoming Youtube stars. They are learning. They are curating and creating content unlike anyone could have imagined in 1999 (except, perhaps, David Bowie.) Teachers are taking advantage of a marketplace for their ideas, selling products to supplement a salary that does not represent their expertise or experience in any meaningful way, for the most part. Education is happening on the internet. Audiences and creators are collaborating on remixes, fan fiction, and software designs (or hacks). Teens are specializing in things that interest them – and traditional school is not an area of interest for most.

Education is missing a tremendous opportunity to reinvent itself during this pandemic. Rather than push to return to normal, educators ought to be seeking out new ways for meaningful learning. We have the technology, but seem to lack the vision. We need to look forward, not backward. There are challenges of access and equity that should be addressed, but a school or district that seeks the next-best-program can shift those funds from publisher pockets to resources for the people in their communities. (It’s not like packaged programs meet all the issues of access and equity anyway.)

A 20/20 wake up call

Hindsight is said to be 20/20, but the actions of the current education powers-that-be (from the President of the US to the local school board) seem to have clouded the realities of the recent past. Educators, teachers, and parents need to insist that student needs must be the focus. Student interest can drive learning. Student creativity can show mastery. Clear away what doesn’t work. Step into what 21st century education can be.

What I’m learning: Reflecting on teaching under COVID-19

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I’ve been reflecting on the lessons of this time of shelter-in -place lately, and there are some changes I will make as I teach going forward.

Home workspace. Green screen, table with laptop, camera, pens and pencils, and books.
Workspace

I am well acquainted with online teaching; I’ve done it, or some hybrid version, for years. I even earned an endorsement for online instruction with my Master’s degree. Still this pivot from face-to-face classes to unplanned remote instruction has made me rethink how I can better approach ALL of my teaching practices.

The very first change I will make is to focus on learning for the sake of learning, not for a grade. The primary complaint I hear from my graduate students who are already teaching is that, without the ability to grade work, few of their students are actually doing any kind of work. Students don’t check in, they don’t turn in assignments, and they don’t show up for synchronous meetings. The result is that the teachers are losing steam quickly. Why should they continue to create digital content when the impetus for students to do the work is gone? Why should students do the work when the grades don’t matter?

The lack of participation from students leads to a loss of motivation for their teachers, which means MY students aren’t keeping up with the assignments in their graduate studies. I cut the requirements in half, but the consensus from their Flipgrid check-ins is that they have no motivation to do anything at all.

I know that this crazy quarantine time is part of it. Uncertainty breeds complacency. BUT, several weeks in, I think we all need to find the purpose for learning again. After years of being part of the education system, it’s easy to forget about WHY we choose to follow the call to teach because we are focused on deadlines, due dates, and grades. Why do we learn? Why does learning matter? I have not made a practice of teaching that, so my students may not have really thought about it in years. I need to reinforce early and often that learning is personal, grades are arbitrary. If I model that teaching, then hopefully my students will pass it down to their students and the perception of school as drudgery will change.

One think I have done well as a teacher of adult is to open the semester with Ruiz’s Four Agreements. I think the idea that learning is for the self will flow naturally after 1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take things personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions, and 4) Always do your best. I know Ruiz wrote more, but these four are sufficient and I can use them to lead to the understanding that ultimately, learning is for our own edification.

I need to ponder this idea further and decide how to make it the forefront of my classes: face-to-face, hybrid, and online.

On the less philosophical side, I’ve learned some practical things:

  1. If students are required to set up websites for a class (not by me), set specific parameters like most recent post first and dates on everything.
  2. Practice all the technology for the semester early and often and in class: Zoom, Flipgrid, photo/video editing, Hangouts, Twitter and Twitter cats and Tweetdeck, and how to find anything on the web, including YouTube tutorials for all of the above.
  3. Use dates for deadlines, not week numbers! Granted, some of this comes from teaching other people’s classes, so they set it up, but I have learned that abbreviations and numbers are far more confusing than actual words and dates. “WWA #3” – what is that and when was it due again?

I’m sure I will continue to learn more as this semester concludes, but just those three practical things will make a huge difference. I think students will appreciate the reminder that educators do not choose to teach because of grades. Education is a calling as much as a vocation, but it’s so easy to forget that with all the demands of quantitative data, content- driven curriculum, and the need for “rigor.” If we who teach can remember why we learn, perhaps this time of pandemic will have served a useful purpose.

#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

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#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.

Community and Identity

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A ramble.

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DigPed PEI participants contemplate identity collaborations

It is the question of the ages: Who am I?

Every generation struggles with its corporate identity, and within that conflict, individuals find their own places in it. Some generations are shaped by war. Others are shaped by revolution or religion. Economics shape generations, whether during a time of great want or a time of tremendous prosperity. Massive outbreaks of illness or natural disasters frame corporate identity. Generations are sometimes named for whatever shaped them: the Greatest Generation of the 1940s, the Hippies of the 1960s and 70s, the Me Generation of the 1980s, and most recently, the Millenials. These group identities are usually thrust upon the generations by social forces, and not everyone fits neatly into them.

To complicate matters, we now have an entire generation of teenagers searching for multiple identities. People have always had the option to present a public identity while protecting a private one, but the internet brought with it a whole new world of identity creation. Now we not only have to determine who we are in the physical world, but we also need to decide who we will be in the virtual one.

In one sense, the web allows us to take on any persona we desire.  Online groups and games allow teenagers to interact with adults as peers, disrupting the power structures of the physical world.  There is danger there, as there is in any undiscovered country, but just as we all learn to look both ways when crossing the street, we can also learn to protect our vulnerabilities online.

But that’s not the point of this ramble.  Here I want to explore the idea of identity and what it is. How is it constructed? What effect does community have on identity development? And how does technology, especially the affordances of social media, affect our sense of who we are and who we want to be?

In the exercise pictured above, attendees of the Digital Pedagogy Labs Prince Edward Island conference last month engaged in an ice-breaker introduction that centered on self-identity in 140 characters.  Pairs introduced themselves to each other, and then wrote 140 character descriptions about each other, writing the results on the white boards without indicating who belonged to which description. And that was the end of it. Never referred to again, the descriptions were ultimately covered with notes from another session. But the exercise made a point: identity is elusive and morphs based on the community around it.

Or is identity something deep within that we parse out depending on the particular community surrounding us?

Ontologically, I believe that each person is created with a unique identity, one that develops over time, but always around a central core, a golden thread of unique essence.  Always in the process of becoming, the true self finds itself in community, but also in the solitary activity of personal reflection.  When we try to morph that true self into something other, we generally find ourselves frustrated and unhappy. We are at our best when our unique essence is allowed to intersect with the world and people around us without compromise. I think this may be one reason teens and young adults struggle with anxiety. Parents send mixed messages about who they should be:  busy, driven, and ambitious, but at the same time, kind, obedient, and good, whatever that means. Media floods them with information about how they should look. Schools press them to think about college and career at all times. We expect teens and young adults to be malleable into whatever forms we adults think is best for them and then we tell them they can be anything they want to be. We tease them with an idea of self-determination and then tell them what they have to be, how they have to act, and what they should be doing at any given point in time. We talk about identity, but do little to give teens time and space to discover their own.

Even in education, or rather especially in education, we tell students that they can be good writers or artists or readers, but if they want to succeed in the future, they had better be good at math and science and technology. We adults complain that students can’t think for themselves, but we train them to take standardized tests and write predictable five paragraph essays that contain buzzwords, but no originality. Is it any wonder so many young adults enter the marketplace unprepared? How can they prepare for life as an adult if we don’t let them discover their own essential golden thread of identity?

In the DigPed exercise, the element of introducing ourselves to strangers was influenced by the fact that it was an education conference. How much of my essential self did I share? Very little. And I am certain most people focused on the superficial elements of life: family, job, maybe a hobby, along with a general connection to education. The context of a particular conference influenced the kind of information shared. A gathering of dog lovers or artist or musicians would likely yield a different kind of information shared. Having to limit that description to 140 characters further influenced the depth of identity revealed. In that sense, the exercise was a failure. No one knew anyone else any better at a substantive level after the exercise. Where the experience succeeded, however, was in recognizing the limits we place on ourselves when it comes to revealing our identities. Perhaps that is why we sometimes think that identity is only a social construct. We are who we need to be given a particular context. And as we engage with more and larger communities online, those limits further constrain us until we don’t recognize ourselves anymore – if we ever knew ourselves in the first place.

If this revelation of identity is complicated for adults, imagine how complex it becomes for a generation of people who were indoctrinated to information overload practically from birth.  This group of individuals has always considered google a verb, can type with two thumbs as efficiently as with ten fingers, and may never set foot in a building called a library. Exploration happens without leaving home, unless, of course, Pokemon awaits capture outside. Even then, the screen dominates vision. The resources readily available to today’s young adults boggle the mind of adults who researched using microfiche and card catalogs.  Young minds are filled with images of worlds once relegated to National Geographic Magazine, and people can connect across oceans in seconds. With so many opportunities to explore the wide world, are we doing enough to reflect and look inward to discover the world within ourselves? We are a pendulum swing away from Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, who eschewed popular society for inward discovery. Our Western culture reaches out and around, seeking experiences to define us. We look for our people, but how can we recognize them if we do not know ourselves? And how can anyone expect depth of young adults whose world has generally been miles wide but only inches deep? How can any of us share an identity we don’t know?

As an educator, I want to give students the tools they need to find their own unique identities but avoid telling them what those identities must be. I find, however, that goal thwarted by demands for accountability through standardized tests, writing samples, administrations looking for money, and the politics of education. These elements are part of teaching in this era, and until some massive paradigm shift tilts the education world off its axis, it is not going away anytime soon. The demand for quantitative data drives funding, and identity is not quantifiable, so it becomes unimportant in the system that wants to turn individuals into bits and bytes that can be neatly categorized into neat little boxes of success or failure, determined by whomever has the money and the power.

I think the affordances of the internet can become useful in the search for identity if students (and frankly, adults) use the tools as places of solitude now and then. Walden Pond may be a misty idea, but journaling doesn’t have to be. If identity and the golden thread of self-essence are best discovered in quietness, then we must make room for contemplation in the midst of the whirlwind of activities that make up our days. Furthermore, if we say we value independent thinking and individual identity, then we must, even in our classrooms, encourage exploration without fear of reprisal or correction. Journals and blogs can become sanctuaries for reflection, while the world we see online serves as inspiration. It is in reflection that we discover ourselves. As we then identify our own unique essences, we can then come to community, not to define us, but to teach us to see how that essence fits with the greater whole and to contribute to that whole.

Teach us to see. That is the key to both identity and community. When we see our true selves, we know what we have to share. Community cannot construct identity. Individuals who know and understand their unique identities work together to construct community. Maybe that’s where the paradigm needs to begin to shift.

O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Processing DigPed PEI

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Content is people. Context is people. Life is complicated and complex and messy.

Celebrate that.


My sweet greyhound, Dolce, went to the Rainbow Bridge while I was at Prince Edward Island. What does this have to do with #DigPed? Nothing and everything all at once.

I knew when I left Atlanta on Tuesday that my 12 year old brindle girl was not well, and I had a gut feeling that it would be a rough week for her. By Thursday, it was clear that she was done fighting and ready to be free from whatever it was that caused kidney and vascular failure. On Friday morning, my sweet husband, who had been traveling himself earlier in the week, held our girl as she breathed her last. Brian let me know that she was gone. And my heart tore into fragments.

My heart was in fragments, but I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by a community of compassion and passion and empathy — none of whom I had met in the flesh until that week. I cried in their arms, we shared stories of beloved pets, and we connected. Life at its messiest, most vulnerable, and most authentic.

Authenticity should be at the heart of learning. As educators, we need to remember that our classes, whether face to face or in online spaces, are made up of people. Our content is not the curriculum; our content is the lives of the people who inhabit our classes, and it in is the contexts of their lives that we can make the connection of relationship building that undergirds the most memorable learning experiences.

Most of us who pursue education were inspired by one teacher who stands in our memories as the one who pushed us the hardest, believed in us the most fiercely, and motivated us to reach farther than we ever thought possible. In the exhausting midst of standards and curriculum and politics, teachers sometimes forget that the curriculum in a tool, not an end unto itself. DigPed expands the notion of tools and how they can benefit the entire education community, but the real lesson is found in building relationships. The warm compassion with which I was enveloped at the loss of my sweet greyhound is essential for all of us who call ourselves teachers to offer to the students in our classes. Learning is about developing people. Education is how we discover things together in the world. Curriculum is a tool. Life is messy and complicated. This is the stuff of education. Content is not subject matter.

Content is people.

*first published on Medium