Let’s not be the cows of online information

A few days ago, a colleague stopped by my desk for one reason and stayed to understand what she saw on one of my monitors.

“You’re like a day trader,” she said, noting the stream of information that was scrolling by.

It was my twitter feed. More to the point, it was many twitter feeds, burning through multiple columns of TweetDeck.

“Are you reading all of those?” she asked.

No, I explained, they were segmented pieces of the whole, and I’d broken them apart so I could look at the information in a way that made sense to me.

Selecting one of the more depressing columns via which I follow the hashtag #phled, I explained how I controlled and decided what went where and why.

Picture your feeds, whatever they may be, as gallery spaces. And the art, rather than a hodgepodge of what’s been bequeathed, is rotating collection of the latest works by those you consider to be masters.

After a few minutes, I think she still thought me addicted, but she walked away a little more informed, so that’s something. It took me back to this Wall Street Journal piece I’d bookmarked years ago via Will Richardson’s blog on the neurological effects of information grazing.

It struck me as a better metaphor then, and I’ve used it since when talking with schools and organizations all over the world. Still, it is imperfect.

What I do on twitter, what I look for on Feedly isn’t exactly grazing in the sense of what is conjured up by the word.

I don’t know about you, but this Illinois son sees cows meandering through a pasture, glutting themselves on whatever they’ve stopped in front of.

This is also what likely scares newbs away from social media and connected learning – visions of the human equivalent of those cows with pastures replaced by the digital fields of the InterWebz.

So, let’s think of it differently.

Picture your feeds, whatever they may be, as gallery spaces. And the art, rather than a hodgepodge of what’s been bequeathed, is rotating collection of the latest works by those you consider to be masters.

From time to time, often by way of vouching from one of those whose work you appreciate, a guest artist’s work is invited in for a probationary period, and you decide whether or not to make that artist a resident.

And the thing about this gallery – and really it’s more like a collection of galleries spread across the geography of your network – is that it’s there, rotating, waiting for you in your pocket or whatever screen is handy.

You visit it like you’d visit any other cultural institution – whenever you like, for as long as you like. Sometimes, it may go days or weeks between visits. Other times, you may lose whole days to wandering its virtual halls. Depending on the requirements of your time either or both of these is exactly the perfect approach for appreciating information.

One other piece, one of the best pieces, (written about in much greater detail by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green) is the ability to share pieces and artists with other galleries.

This is where the grazing metaphor is most fallacious. When we graze, we consume. We take in and negate access for others. When we curate galleries of information, we put on display those creators and works we appreciate and want to share with others. It’s not about transparency as much as it’s about publicity. Of all the information we curate, not everything is worthy of sharing. The pieces that are, though, are easy to spread.

Dana Boyd proves ‘It’s Complicated’

Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated has been on my Kindle for longer than a book of its quality should have to wait in digital limbo before a person gets around to reading it.

Complicated is Boyd’s distilling and examination of years of exploration of the online lives of the American teen. Making the title apt, the text shows that teens’ relationship to online spaces is complicated and best summed up for me in the closing pages:

As teens work through the various issues that emerge around networked publics, they must struggle with what it means both to be public and to be in public.

I tried, as I made my way through the book, to figure out where I was agreeing with Boyd because she was making points I’ve made in public before and where I was agreeing with her because she’d masterfully unveiled a new line of thinking. In the end, I tipped my hat to Boyd because she’d made points that had never occurred to me and woven them together with what I realized were my own simple ways of thinking.

Explaining Complicated to a friend the other day, I explained, were I designing a syllabus that included the book, I’d follow it quickly with Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American City.

Because that’s what Boyd does here, she pounds the digital concrete of modern American cities and attempts to understand how teens are hanging out there the way they used to do on stoops and in malls across the country.

Additionally, she works to understand adults’ fears that have driven teens to these spaces and adults’ fears now that they’re there. Boyd writes, “[S]ocial media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults.”

I read the book with a constant refrain in my mind, “What kind of adults are we forcing these teens to become?”

For adults to make their way through that fear, Boyd later adds, “For adults to hear the voices of youth, they must let go of their nostalgia and suspend their fears.”

Perhaps this idea is where Complicated hits its highest note. In helping readers to pull apart the fear from the fact, Boyd sets the stage for a measured, informed conversation of how we create and monitor online and physical spaces for our teens.

I read the book with a constant refrain in my mind, “What kind of adults are we forcing these teens to become?”

If you’re looking for something more informed to say than, “Kids these days!” then it’s time to pick up Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated.


You can find a full list of Kindle notes and highlights from the book here.

What are you teaching the next Darren Wilson?

It was on the third page of the front section of the Sunday paper today. If Michael Brown’s parents hadn’t been in D.C. over the weekend, I wonder how much deeper an update on the events in Ferguson would have sunk into the news cycle.

This aligns with my concerns about what I imagine to be happening in classrooms around the country. In the first weeks of school, teacher friends around the country shifted their lessons to include some investigation and conversation around the shooting of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO.

I can’t blame the newspapers for their reduced coverage. Until something happens worthy of an update, there is no new news.

In our classrooms, though, yesterday’s story must inform today’s lesson plans so that we can help to prevent tomorrow’s Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.

When tragedy strikes, we seek counselors, we make safe spaces for conversation, we hold vigils, we let out a collective, “This happened again” and utter the statement as either a shocked question or a saddened, unsurprised declaration.

Saturday will mark 8 weeks since Michael Brown was shot. Whatever units or lesson plans teachers developed so that they were “doing something” in response to the death of yet another child of color have likely run their course.

They were not enough.

Saturday will mark 8 weeks since Michael Brown was shot. Whatever units or lesson plans teachers developed so that they were “doing something” in response to the death of yet another child of color have likely run their course.

They were not enough.

However meaningful the classroom conversations, however poignant the reflective essays, however moving the student-produced PSAs and podcasts – they were not enough.

Because there will be another Michael Brown, another Eric Garner, another Kimani Gray, and another, and another, and another.

In the small town high school I attended, any conversation about race had to do with the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and possibly the March on Washington.

I should say any formal academic conversation about race included those topics. The informal conversations were fraught with the ugly contents of unexamined privilege, the exocticizing of the other, and the cultural appropriation of music relatable on an emotional level yet far removed where content was concerned.

My guess would be that Darren Wilson grew up in a similar system.

Cultural sensitivity trainings and body cams will make the difference they can make for the police officers attending them and wearing them, but that difference is nothing compared to the potential power of on-going mindfulness and conversations about race, class and privilege in our schools, classrooms, and hallways.

As much as we should worry about the next Michael Brown sitting in our algebra classes, we must worry about the next Darren Wilson being there as well.

We should feel guilt and shame that we were too weighed down by our own insecurities around these topics, that we dismissed them as too difficult or thorny to broach with students.

Perhaps we let ourselves off the hook by arguing students are discussing these topics at home with their families. That is laughable, dangerous, and irresponsible. And, were it even true, it would be no excuse to avoid adding a layer of complexity to helping our students inquire into the role they want to play in this country’s on-going identity crisis around race.

A lesson or a unit will not change the conversation. Hoping your colleagues in history and English classes are reading books with people of color as main characters will not change the conversation. Engaging in the conversation, again and again, will help to change the conversation.

The next Michael Brown and Darren Wilson are already sitting in our classrooms. What are we doing to make sure their story ends differently?


The following are a sampling of resources for teaching about the events in Ferguson and race in your classrooms. If you have other helpful materials, please add them to the comments:

My Commute to Work Has Changed a Bit

If, for some strange reason, you’re connected to me via social media, you may have noticed I’ve started checking in and posting pictures from Washington, D.C.

That is because I’ve moved. And, I’ve moved because I’ve accepted a ConnectED Fellowship in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.

If this seems a bit sudden, it’s because it has been. I wanted to post something more specific sooner than this, but I couln’t until everything was official today and I took the oath that I would defend the Constitution. If you think that wasn’t heavy, you’ve underestimated my belief in the Constitution.

This is a chance to do what I wanted to do when I left the classroom three years ago. I said I wanted to help make sure that folks with a spectrum of classroom experience were invloved in helping to craft the policies that shape public education, and I didn’t want to be a teacher who grew frustrated with policies he disagreed with without trying to help.

It is an exciting and humbling experience. It will require me to remember who I am and where I come from as well as to seek the counsel of those in whom I trust. Thank you, in advance, for that.

5 Links Friday: DIY Summer Camp Edition

It’s time for 5 Links Friday where I give you 5 links that have been burning a hole in my browser over the last week. As we barge into July, it seems pretty apparent that, like buying books, groceries, and therapy, you can get a pretty decent summer camp experience sitting in front of your screen. The five links below give varied and creative ways to stave off the summer whatdowedos and maybe learn something in the process.

As always, if you’ve got a link to share for some online edugoodness, post it in the comments.

Link 1 – Make, Play, Connect (Repeat)

The Mozilla and the National Writing Project, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, bring you the Summer to Make, Play & Connect. Driven by the principles of connected learning. this is a great platform with activities and a calendar of events. To help you find ways to, well, make, play & connect over the summer. To better understand the principles, check out the Connected Learning Alliance homepage.

Link 2 – A Code, Code Summer

Making the push for greater access to STEM learning more about practice than pomp, #YesWeCode brings this site for urban youth to connect with local coding organizations, coding mentors, and other top-notch resources for learning to code.

Link 3 – Learn to Lead for Learning

While edX has much more than education courses, I’m signed up for Richard Elmore’s Leading for Learning course, as I wrote earlier this week. The course is in its first week, and promises to be illuminating and challenging to what I think and why I think it. Come join in or take a look at the other edX offerings this summer.

Link 4 – DIY with a little Instructable help

If you’re looking for less guidance and more exploration, then you’ve got to bookmark the Instructables page. In the past, I’ve stopped by with some very pointed how-to questions, and that doesn’t stop me from browsing every once in a while for a what-now question.

Link 5 – Tell some stories…digitally

I love ds106 more than words can say. Around since 2010, the course is open, public and massive. The video above tells the story. As you think about building your summer, try here first, and be warned – it’s awesome.

Let’s honor the questions in the room

Finger face with a question

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” 
― Thomas PynchonGravity’s Rainbow

I called a store today to ask for a thing. It quickly became clear that this was the wrong store for the thing I was looking for. Usually, this would be the end of the conversation. It turned out not to be in this case.

“Well, what kind are you looking for?” the salesman on the other end of the line asked.

I explained in greater detail the doodad I was looking for, which, remember, we’d already established his store DID NOT HAVE.

“Hold on,” he said, “Let me take a look online.”

I waited a moment while he followed up on some leads. “Okay, here’s where you need to look,” he told me and then sent me on to a site with which he and his store were wholly unaffiliated with.

I thanked him for his time and attention to detail. Before we ended the conversation he told me to call back if those leads proved fruitless and he’d see what else he could do.

You, as I did, are probably flashing back to Macy’s and Gimbel’s. I want to take it a step further, because it’s been jangling around in my head as an important point to remember as we lead classrooms and professional learning.

The questions we’re there to answer may not be the questions those with whom we are working show up excited to ask.

It happened all the time for me as a student (at all levels). The teacher would introduce a topic of study and my brain would immediately begin generating questions sometimes ancillary, sometimes tertiary related to the topic. I would raise my hand, ask my question, and be greeted with a reply that told me I asked an interesting question, but that wasn’t the business of the day.

Eventually, I learned how to play school a little better. When a subject was introduced, I stifled the questions brewing from my own perspective and started to try to ask the question I thought the teacher or professor wanted me to ask. Sometimes, I knew the answers, but I’d learned that wasn’t so important to the teaching the teacher was there to do.

What the man on the phone reminded me today, and the lesson I hope to take with me the next time I work with a group, is that I’m there to help whomever I’m working with find answers to the questions that walk into the room. If we do that in our classrooms and staff meetings, then the other folks in the room – the ones walking in with the questions – might see our time together as that much more valuable.

To pass or to succeed?

The video above is part of the introduction to Leaders of Learning an edX course I started yesterday. I like Richard Elmore and was privileged enough to learn with him while I was completing my master’s.

I’m taking the course as a pause to refine my practice and thinking about leading in learning spaces and to better learn from those also in the course leading learning around the world.

I’ll likely talk more about the course in the weeks to come. I post about it today because of what Elmore says at the top of this video. It is a distinction between passing and succeeding, and it’s one I appreciate.

Amid trying to understand my thinking and feeling about grades in the classroom, I would start the year telling students they would earn a B in the course by completing the work before them. “Do that,” I’d say, “and the B is yours. If you want to earn an A, though, do it all and then a little bit more because you’re curious or because you’re proud of something you’ve created.”

It was a primative attempt at encouraging deeper inquiry using the only blunt instrument I could think of at the time – grades.

Elmore’s distinction asks those in the course to pause and consider what they want from the learning. If it’s a certificate, go for it. If it’s learning, go deeper.

I wonder how such a distinction might translate to a course that isn’t something students have entered by choice, but by compulsion. Would simply making the distinction regularly between passing and succeeding change students’ outlook on the work they were completing? Would wanting to encourage success lead teachers to shift their practices toward things with more inherent relevance to students?

I suppose it’s one of the questions with which I’ll wrestle over the next few weeks of the course.

Remembering ‘The Good Stuff’


Facebook Reading

Sometimes I think of all the times in this sweet life when I must have missed the affection I was being given. A friend calls this “standing knee-deep in the river and dying of thirst.”

- Robert Fulghum

I started packing for a move today. I hate packing, and I hate moving, so it’s a special kind of day when I get to be thinking about both.

The nice moment, though, is the special kind of reflection I forget is part of moving from one home to another. It’s the process of deciding what piece of the past, what belongings in the old house need to make the transition to the new house so that it might be the new home as well.

For me, in every move since I first became a classroom teacher, there is a manilla folder that gives me pause. It is similar to the memory boxes my mom kept for my sister and me as we were growing up.

It’s not labeled, and it’s outgrown what’s inside long ago. Still, a manilla folder is the right container.

If it had a label, it would simply be “The Good Stuff.”

This is a folder that holds the notes and fragments of teaching. There are letters from parents, drawings from students, notes passed in class. These aren’t all the piece of teaching.

The folder doesn’t hold any perfunctory Christmas cards clearly scribbled at the behest of a doting parent.

Instead, there’s the note from Kyle, whom I got to teach when he was in 8th grade. Toward the end of the year, Kyle and I had a handful of talks about how his group of friends was changing. He talked in the most nascent of ways about who he wanted to be in high school and beyond, and I held my tongue as much as I could because I knew he had to learn these lessons for himself.

Kyle’s note, scribbled in the scratch that belied the haste in which it was written is a simple, heartfelt thank you for simply being there and listening. I knew what it meant to me that Kyle was willing to work through his thinking aloud to me. It was this note, though, that let me know Kyle was also grateful for those conversations.

One card is written out in the experienced hand of a mother. I’d been able to teach her son three of his four years in high school. They had not been uneventful. His graduation was of the sort where those faculty in his orbit had looked at one another as he crossed the stage and traded a glance that said, “We made it.”

This mother’s note simply said she knew things had been trying and she was forever grateful for the time and care I’d shown her son.

The thing I remember most when I leaf through my file is that these notes arrived on my desk or in my mailbox as a result of no superhuman effort, no extraordinary circumstances. These came as a result of me doing my job and those most affected by that work taking the time to let me know they took notice and were grateful.

As much as these notes were a place of support at the end of days of teaching where the temptation was to give it all up to be a turnip farmer, they mean something else now. In my work supporting teachers, leaders, and learners, these notes and the things that led them to being are a reminder of the importance of taking time (just a few moments) to thank the people around me for the time and dedication they show when they do the work we do.

I love my file of good stuff. Even more, I love the idea that something I jot down might make its way into someone else’s good stuff.

Stocking our libraries with students

Brooklyn Art Library

“Harry — I think I’ve just understood something! I’ve got to go to the library!”
And she sprinted away, up the stairs.
What does she understand?” said Harry distractedly, still looking around, trying to tell where the voice had come from.
“Loads more than I do,” said Ron, shaking his head.
“But why’s she got to go to the library?”
“Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.” 
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

If we are to truly have conversations about students as publishers and have them consider copyright and what rights they want on the works they create, then there are other questions of infrastructure.

The main question, where can we put these things so that they will live on? Sometimes we think that they will be okay if they are put “online” as though the world is standing at their browsers waiting for a new student-produced video to watch.

It is not that we do not value student-produced content on the whole, but that we do not go seeking the fifth-grade research report about bees from four states or two districts away.

We have places for these things and the chance to imbue them with greater worth and an audience relevant to the places in which they were created – libraries.

One of the first questions I ask of potential digital content management systems is, “Can we catalog and feature student work in your system?” If not, move along.

As teachers increase the number of authentic learning experiences to which they introduce students, it’s going to be important that we not only capture that learning and reflection, but that we have a way of sharing it and cataloging it as well.

I work with middle and elementary schools where the younger students feed directly from the lower school to the upper school. As I work with teachers, I ask how their students are building resources and content for those who will come next.

This is obvious in Language Arts classrooms where students can write stories and create picture books for their elementary counterparts to be logged in the catalog systems of each school and accessible to students.

Less obvious might be the science report, the biography of locally-relevant historical figures, histories of businesses or farms within the city or town.

One of my favorite components of Howard Gardner’s definition of intelligence is the ability to create something of use or value to the culture to which a person belongs. Imagine a library with limited budget that can be stocked by the creations of students. Imagine the one student who has been tinkering on a novel or novella secretly who is given the chance to showcase his work across his school or an entire district.

If, as I’ve argued we ask students to consider how they want to copyright work they’ve released into the wild, then we should also create wild spaces where those works can graze and circulate widely.