How Do We Begin to Create a Culture of Reading and Writing?

Boy reading book on the floor of a book store.“Do me a favor,” I say, “and close your eyes. I’m going to ask you to visualize something. If I told you you’re visiting a school with a healthy culture of reading and writing, I want to you visit it in your imagination. Start with the lobby or entryway. Notice everything you see and hear as you walk through.”

The exercise goes on for about thirty seconds. I ask the assembled room of teachers to walk the halls, look in on classrooms, listen in on the conversations in common spaces and between the folks they pass in hallways.

I ask them to pay attention to the adults and to the students equally. “Everyone is responsible for creating and sustaining culture, so make sure to observe and listen in on everyone.”

When each teacher has finished their tour, it’s tie to write. “Take five minutes and put it all out in writing. Capture as much of the detail as possible. If you draw a blank, keep writing, ‘and, and, and, and,’ until your brain fills in the holes. Trust that it will.” And, the room takes five minutes to write.

Next, I ask them to share with someone else in the room, not reading the writing verbatim, but distilling to key ideas. I limit the time to talk because conversations at this point are fully-fed and reproducing like tribbles.

The final step, jumping into a shared and open google doc where they answer one question as many times as they can, “What would it take to create the kind of culture you envisioned in your school?”

Again, the activity is timed. Most of the time, I’m having this conversation as a drop-in to a larger meeting. There are other atomized conversations about literacy on the agenda.

I’ve run this conversation several times in the last few months. As the language arts coordinator, it’s one of my favorites. The creativity and joy it elicits each time can be unfamiliar for your average professional meeting.

All of that said, we need to be having this conversation or some variant thereof as much as possible in schools of every level. From pK to 12, we need a picture of the kind of culture of reading and writing we’re hoping to inspire and establish if we want the people in our care to see themselves as readers and writers who aspire to ask and answer better questions.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed in each iteration of this conversation:

  • No one – no matter their subject area – has ever said, “I don’t know” at any point of the process.
  • No one has argued with the assumption what they’re being asked to envision is not important, worth their time, helpful to students, or a better version of what learning and teaching can be.
  • Once they get started with the writing and the talking and the coming up with ideas of how to make it work, the conversations are difficult to curtail or contain.
  • Almost every single idea these teachers generate for how to shift the culture of their schools is free to implement. When it’s not free, it’s low-cost or an idea any PTO would be thrilled to help realize these ideas.

So, let’s do it. Let us build a context around the atomized skills we’re all-too-clear our students need help building and then make it the norm that every person in our care instinctually knows our schools are places where our implied shared identity is one of curious readers and writers.

The Purpose of Writing

We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed. Frank Bidhart

When I was in university and going through some things, I wrote poetry. Not the poetry you’re thinking of – stream of consciousness poetry. Pages full of word after word poetry. My professor, to her credit, saw that those words and how they poured out of me were about more than whatever assignments she’d been giving. Whatever grades I earned in that class, they were about my ability to analyze the works of others and certainly nothing to do with what I’d created.

Whenever I’ve been in love, I’ve written poetry to the object of my affection. Hours have been spent agonizing over stanzas, couplets, and figurative language. In a few instances, those relationships inspired poetry from others. I got to come to an understanding of what I meant to another person in verse.

Throughout high school, I wrote a regular column for the local paper’s youth section. Some pieces were ridiculous attempts to replicate the humor I’d found in the columns of adult voices. Others worked to build a bridge between my high school experience and that of other students and adults who were reading. The ones I loved most started with a mindset of, “What if I try this?” Having that space and that audience made a huge difference in my sense of identity in high school.

I don’t remember much about college, but I remember working at the paper. I remember starting out as a reporter and scrapping for stories. I remember writing my first column and taking that job as seriously as I’d taken anything. I remember becoming editor-in-chief and feeling the responsibility of informing a campus. I remember telling my editors and reporters, “If every student on this campus can’t see themselves somewhere in each issue, then we’re not doing our job.” Different than my high school writing, this was writing with a responsibility I’d never felt before.

Now, my day gig gives me the opportunity to work with practitioners and experts from across the country to form guidance and material that pushes people to shift their thinking about how they form systems and processes of learning. I am asked on a regular basis to provide content that will inform policy and messaging at levels I’d never imagined being a part of. Getting things right has only mattered this much once before.

Writing project descriptions as a teacher was the most difficult writing I’ve ever done. Several years in, the biggest learning I did was asking students who’d had my classes before to read my plans and tell me where I’d screwed up. That writing wasn’t just to explain a thing to other people, but to help them move toward experiences that built on their understanding of the world. Getting things wrong meant they didn’t get to where I knew they could. Getting things right meant they completed projects beyond my imagining. I was writing for the approval of my students and their advancement. What could matter more?

I think you mean, “What are the purposes of writing?” No teacher could have anticipated the things that lead me to write so far in life, and I’ve learned I shouldn’t assume to know what will inspire me to put words to screen or page down the road.

What is the purpose of writing? All of them.


This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

How Hyperlinks Have Changed Me as a Reader and Writer

An Image of 20 open tabs on my web browser

When I was in college, learning as an English Studies major, we were just beginning to have conversations about “hypertextuality” and what it’s implications might be for reading and writing. If everything could be connected to everything else to which it was referring, how might that change the load for readers?

Decades into the transformation, I’ve got my initial findings ready to report. It means a ton.

First, the reader’s perspective. Reading hyperlinked texts has created a continuous cavalcade of texts populating my browser windows across devices, apps, and windows. It hasn’t made reading more difficult, but it has made the act of learning from my reading more complex. I recently finished reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It was a rare work of fiction to make it into my reading diet these days. Then, yesterday, I dove into Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as SoulcraftI should say that I’m reading both of these books through the Kindle app on my tablet. When I’m traveling, this lightens the load of my carry-on.

It took me a while to realize the experiential difference between the two texts. For Station Eleven, I got to read all the way through without any need of clicking. Mandel didn’t embed a single hyperlink in the book. I read it linearly as I do most works of fiction or when I’m reading a printed book. The cognitive demand was focusing on the story, the characters and how things were progressing as I moved through the book. If you haven’t read the book, it’s important to know Mandel packs the structure of the story with a great deal of complexity. Readers need to track multiple storylines across diverse geographies while also keeping track of a non-linear chronology. From a teacherly perspective, it’s advanced stuff.

Still, moving to Soulcraft was jarring. Crawford’s book is rife with endnotes and references to studies and other works that support the thesis he proposes. Because I was reading digitally, those endnotes were lit in blue on my screen, asking (daring me?) to click through and read those endnotes.

This exemplifies the biggest change I’ve experienced as a reader in a hypertextual world. I have to be active in my choices of how I navigate through what I’m reading while also actively engaging with the content of what I’m reading. My brain must do more if I’m to take advantage of the full experience.

Admittedly, the most clicking through I do when reading in the Kindle app or any of its brethren is using the dictionary function or highlighting a passage to keep or share. In online reading, though, it’s a different story. The image above is a screenshot of the window in which I’ve been writing this post. That’s twenty tabs. Some of them have been waiting for my attention for more than a month.

Hypertextuality hasn’t meant I’m reading more. I’ve always been hungry for words. It’s meant that I’ve more reading anxiously waiting for my attention. The ease of “Open Link in New Tab” driven by the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) on important thinking means I’m never at a loss for material and often overcome by choices when it’s time to read. This is why those tabs have been left open so long.

The hyperlink has given me immediate access to more information and diversions, required me to think about what I want to read while I’m thinking about what I am reading. Basically, the Internet is a choose your own adventure book.

Now, as a writer. Hyperlinks have simplified the words I feel like I need to put on a page or a screen. I just did it in the previous paragraph. I wanted to make a choose your own adventure reference and realized not everyone would know what I was talking about. Rather than using the space to explain it, I got link to the Wikipedia entry and move on. Fewer words.

Plus, using tools like citebite and the highly extension, I’m able to pull in text I want to reference or share it out to posts I want to make on social media. I start to write alongside an author. I’m changing a text as I read it. I’m co-authoring. Sure, I write here on the blog. And I am a writer on other people’s blogs. I’m commenting in-line on Medium posts (which I just realized I could do here on my WordPress install). Basically, the hyperlink has made everything I type a web.

From a design perspective, it’s also allowed me to hide that web by embedding links within text. Whenever possible in email, because I want them to look clean and reduce the amount of text on a page, I embed my links. More often than I’d expect, this results in people responding with something like, “Looks like you forgot to include the link you mentioned. Could you send it?” Then, I do. I paste the ugly, naked URL in a reply email and mention nothing about the fact they missed it in my initial missive, because of all the cognitive demands I know they are experiencing just keeping up with reading in a hypertextual society.

So, where does that leave me? As a writer, I’m clearly seeing more of a benefit from living in a hypertextual society. There’s less of a demand on what I need to explain as I’m writing, and I’m able to make references to lesser known cultural touchstones or academic works while suggesting my readers do the work of building background knowledge. As a reader, I’m learning to manage my experience and make active choices about which rabbit holes I choose to jump into. I’m raising my awareness of the fact that being exhausted with something I’m reading doesn’t necessarily mean I’m exhausted with the content, but perhaps with the process. Luckily, I can always choose to walk away from a text. Even better, my writer self can empathize with my reader self and try to create an experience that’s respectful to you.

(Final open tab count at posting, 25 26.)


This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Write your way into the day, lesson, meeting, keynote…

journal pic

It’s the part of any workshop, presentation, keynote, etc. that starts teachers hesitating. I usually say something like, “Before we begin our work together, let’s make sure we’re here together.”

Then, we do something many of them haven’t been asked to do since, maybe high school – we journal. We write our way in to the work.

Whether it takes place here in the states or with a group of teachers in Capetown, South Africa or Lahore, Pakistan, there is always a moment of hesitation as they settle in.

“Really?” their faces say, “This is how we’re learning about X?”

The answer is yes, it is. Writing and reflecting at the moment of commencement centers participants on where they are, where they’er coming from and where they want to be.

In a recent week-long workshop on project-based learning and educational technologies, I asked participants to journal at the top of each day. The hesitation was there one moment, and a few sentences later, it was gone.

I used the same format I used with high school and middle school students. Projected on the screen at the front of the room were three options: Free write, respond to a given quotation, respond to a given image.

Some days I asked if they’d like to share, other days I did not. While there’s value in the sharing of what teachers write, it’s not the point. They are their own audience in the composition of these reflections. This is a practice meant to help them center.

At the end of the week in Pakistan, teachers of all levels and disciplines approached me on breaks telling me they’d enjoyed the journaling and would be taking it back with them to their own classrooms. A few days after I returned to the States, the photo above appeared in my Facebook timeline. Somewhere in the string of 30+ comments, someone asked of the writing, “You don’t teach English do you?”

It was a gentle jibe at the teacher, commenting on the syntactical and grammatical errors in the writing, the postin teacher’s response was perfect, “No, I’m teaching them social studies. I purposely did not do correction as this was journaling for the felf and I committed to students that it’s their piece of writing.”

And there’s the key. With the championing of failure, we must also champion reflective thought. Failure is only worth as much as you learn from it. And, you’re not likely to learn much without pausing to reflect.

Aside from the professing of their own thinking, this type of reflection also frames writing as a different activity than teachers and students might find familiar. Much, if not all, of the writing both teachers and students are asked to do is meant for evaluation, consideration, and judgement of others. A teacher’s lesson or unit plan, a proposal for a field trip, a book report – they are all meant for someone else to read and evaluate the thinking and learning of the write.

Journaling in this way asks the writer, “What makes the most sense for you to be putting down on the page or the screen in this moment? What have you brought with you into this process?” and then gives space for that creation and reflection.

This is all to say, stop, write, reflect, move on.

From Theory to Practice:

  • The next time you lead a meeting of other folks (children or adults) ask everyone in the room to write their ways into the day. Take 5-10 minutes and ask people to write about where they’re coming from and what they hope out of their time together.
  • Build it as a practice around any major work. For students, ask them to write a reflection on their learning at the end of a lesson, unit, class period, etc. For teachers, take 5 minutes at the beginning or end of the day to reflect on the learning that’s happened and that you hope will happen.
  • Respect the privacy of reflection and allow for the choice of taking it to the public forum. If I know you won’t make me share what I write, I’m likely to write more openly and truthfully. I’m also more likely to write something I’m proud of and want to share.

110/365 I had great Fun ‘Discussing Diabetes with Owls’

The first time I read anything by David Sedaris was over a weekend when a friend and I had taken the train up from Central Illinois to housesit for my aunt and uncle. I was in high school, and this was my first major “solo” adult outing.

I picked up Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day at the Borders on Michigan Ave. and felt pretty extravagant because of it.

We didn’t have a Borders. Not coincidentally, the now-defunct chain therefore held a cosmopolitan mystique.

I share this to help communicate the position of Sedaris in the formation of my adult identity.

I bought those books at a grown-up store, in a grown-up city, during a weekend stretch of independence.

I read Naked first and laughed aloud throughout the book.

Thinking, “Adults get to read all the cool stuff,” I didn’t occur to me that Sedaris’ stories were connecting adult content with adolescent humor. What made them funny to adults was that he was dealing with adult content, but thinking about it in a way adults weren’t supposed to. What made it funny to me was that he was writing for my sensibilities.

Having completed Sedaris’ latest effort, Let’s Discuss Diabetes with Owls, I’m glad to know we’re progressing apace of one another.

The book presents a more mature Sedaris. Throughout each essay and story there was a feel of trying to understand things, of peering through his narrative telescope to find fodder in his life and realizing things look different from farther away.

While his essay “Loggerheads” evoked moments of wincing and laughing, the piece concluded with me turning to my friend Abby and saying, with a slight lump in my throat, “Dammit, I don’t expect him to be poignant.”

Where one of Naked’s concluding essays skirted around issues of the sexual and hilariously profain, Sedaris presents several entries in Owls that speak more directly to his sexuality in terms of the love he feels for his boyfriend Hugh. One takes on the issue of gay marriage in a logically political way that I found myself thinking a younger Sedaris wouldn’t have attempted.

“States vote to take away my marriage rights, and even though I don’t want to get married,” he writes in “Obama!!!!!, “it tends to hurt my feelings. I guess what bugs me is that it was put to a vote in the first place. If you don’t want to marry a homosexual, then don’t. But what gives you the right to weigh in on your neighbor’s options? It’s like voting on whether or not redheads should be allowed to celebrate Christmas.”

Whereas this struck me an evolution in Sedaris’ voice, readers will also find the biting comedy they remember from earlier works like Barrel Fever. In “I Break for Traditional Marriage,” Sedaris writes as a married man who finds justification of his killing spree following his local legislature’s legalization of same-sex marriage. It was an essay that had me laughing in the blend of hilarity and discomfort I’ve come to hope for from Sedaris. At the same time, the awkwardness was made more important, more personal because of the content of earlier non-fiction essays.

I was content upon concluding Let’s Discuss Diabetes with Owls because it had given me the experience I was hoping for as a long-time fan and because it offered assurance that Sedaris and I are both growing up nicely.

Class blogs should be open spaces

http://www.flickr.com/photos/66109304@N00/402465159/

The walled discussion board almost feels normal at this point. As a tool, I can understand the use of a discussion board as a community builder and idea incubator. I’m a fan of those concepts.

I’m still calling wangdoodles when discussion boards are utilized for awkward or inauthentic purposes, but I can see their usefulness as an archive of correspondences for an online community. On SLA’s MOODLE install, all community members have access to a discussion forum that’s been live since the first year – SLA Talk. New freshmen are part of the fold, and their thoughts intermingle with those of the first graduating class when they were freshmen. It’s readable, documented institutional memory. An observer is just as likely to find a thread discussing student language use in the hallways as they are to find a debate about the latest movie release. It is a simple artifact of community online.

This semester, I’ve two courses implementing blogs as assignments.

For one course, a few students are assigned each week to post their thoughts on the reading leading up to that week’s class. Each other student is required to reply to one post per week with the option of passing on one week during the semester.

The posts have yet to be mentioned in class discussion.

In the other course, each person is encouraged to post weekly. The posts’ content might be related to the readings or simply to the topic for the week. No replies are required, and the posts are weekly referenced by the professor in discussion.

If blogging is to be required for a course, the latter instance comes closest to ideal practice – not required, but preferred; not for nothing, but tied to class.

In both instances, our class blogs live within the walled garden. The thoughts with which my classmates and I play will never find footing in a feed reader or enjoy comments from those who have reading lists contrary those chosen for us on our syllabi.

They should be public. Comments from anyone around the globe should be invited and commented. Our thoughts should mingle in the cyberether.

This is true for two reasons.

One, the refinement of thinking benefits from a plurality of opinions, and the Internet offers a cacophony that would challenge us to sculpt our thinking in ways we could not imagine.

Two, an open class blog asks participants to clear their throats and use their public voices while connected to a class setting in which they can find support when their voices are challenged. More than once, I’ve felt pushback when posting in this space. Early on, it was difficult to take. Sure, I wanted people to read what I posted, but how could they disagree with me?

Opening our blogs would give my classmates and I the chance to write with the training wheels of a cohort of support while enriching the experience by exposing us to the democracy of thinking on the web.

Walling a class blog runs the definite risk of students taking their opinions into the world untested and unprepared for criticism. It also robs them of the practice microphone a class blog could become.

Things I Know 345 of 365: ‘We Bought a Zoo’ reminded me of what Crow can do

Cameron Crow and Tom Robbins live in the same condo in my brain. Crow is the well-meaning nice neighbor while Robbins is perpetually ready for a casting call for Pineapple Express II. That said, they both put words together in ways that make my brain sit up and take notice.

My family went to see Crow’s latest concoction,, tonight. It was uneven, but not unsatisfying. Crow’s power exists in his ability to create a world and narrative arc in which he can pour wonderful lines to be spoken by capable actors.

Tonight featured Matt Damon’s character saying to his teenage son, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

They are words that only happen in literature and which I carry around with me in the emergency kit of my brain.

Robbins’s works are similar.

I first read Still Life With Woodpecker my junior year of high school as a way to offset the drudgery of hearing yet another book review of Red Badge of Courage.

I was amazed. I didn’t know what I had. I knew it was complex, poetic prose that used story as canvas and sentences as paint. I also knew it was a little dirty and a little beyond my understanding.

Still, there are moments in any Robbins book where I think he’s lost me and wonder if this might not be the book I decide to walk away from. Then passages like this from Still Life remind me why I keep reading:

Who knows how to make love stay?

1. Tell love you are going to Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if loves stays, it can have half. It will stay.

2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a moustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.

3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning.

Robbins is not for everyone. He is an acquired taste. If you can acquire it, though, it is well worth the reading.

I was at a similar point when the credits rolled on Zoo tonight. Not everyone will love it (as reviews are showing), but those who love beautiful words and hang on will be happy they did.

Things I Know 316 of 365: It’s best to teach two types of writing

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

– Benjamin Franklin

Yesterday, I was listening to and interview of one of my favorite television writers, Steven Moffat. He’s the head writer and executive producer of Dr. Who and Sherlock and one of the screenwriters of The Adventures of Tintin.

Moffat has been a fan of Dr. Who since he was a boy and was asked when he wrote his first script for the show.

I expected mid-20s.

Moffat answered 10 or 12. He and a friend scripted a 4-part series of the show on their own, in their free time.

My mind immediately went to how that interest could have been leveraged in school. The voice in my head sounded something like, “I’m sure they didn’t, but Moffat’s school should have had a program for script writing. He could have latched on to his passion much earlier.”

Thinking it over, I’m glad they didn’t. We might have ruined him. This was a boy so enamored and passionate about writing – this kind of writing – that he spent his free time playing with the form and structure.

While school could certainly have been the place for the development of his talent, it seems unlikely they would have given it room to breathe and time to develop.

I’m so tempted to argue that we should be teaching more forms and genres of writing in school aside from the expository and persuasive essays required by standardized tests. In the current curricular climate, though, we would teach those things in pieces with restrictions and a tone of teaching that says, “This is the way you do it.”

What I love about Moffat’s writing is how far he strays from the expected and how often he breaks the rules. It makes for interesting storytelling.

When I started my students on story slams, my guidelines were purposefully vague – tell a story, make it interesting. The judges in the audience were given two measures – content and presentation. We never stopped to define what a top score in either of those categories would look like. Rather than looking for certain characteristics, I relied on the idea they would know quality when they saw it.

If we could teach writing like this – if we could say, “Work until you think you’ve gotten to quality” – then I’d say we should carve out space in classrooms for our future-Moffat’s. Until then, their curation of their passions is safer in their free time.

Things I Know 251 of 365: Writing differently lets the words say more

Our research suggests that the lack of education related to literacy is problematic, and the situation is exacerbated in the field of education.

– Barbara R. Jones-Kavalier and Suzanne L. Flannigan

My last post was a bit of an experiment.

I had an idea of what I wanted to say. When I’d written out the text, though, it didn’t say enough.

I tried adding more words, but that turned out making the text say less.

I tried changing the words, but it turned out they were working pretty hard to say what I wanted them to say.

It occurred to me that pictures might help. From time to time, images have helped communicate what I’m trying to say in a post.

I looked around Creative Commons, but couldn’t quite find what I needed.

This led me to the drawing option in Google Apps. I was able to create rudimentary versions of the images my words couldn’t stretch themselves to cover.

When I tried to embed the images, they didn’t quite fit. The post still seemed flat. I wanted it to say more.

I needed to write in video. I needed image, sound and words to work together to say more than what I was able to say in text alone.

This has me thinking about the kind of message creation called for in classrooms. The as I’ve been thinking about recently, the essay is the coin of the realm. Should it be?

In attempting to make images, texts and audio work together, I needed to pull together understandings of message and meaning well beyond putting sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into some sort of cogent narrative.

What’s more, I still needed that narrative to make it all work. I still wrote the post. Even more importantly, what I put together wasn’t very good. It did what I asked it to do, but it could be so much better. The room for revision in fifty different directions makes me want to jump back in and try. When I was in my online program last year, I couldn’t figure out why this kind of composition wasn’t a part of the courses. We were people learning together who would never be in the same physical space. The easiest thing to do would be to construct an environment that allowed us to be people with each other and build learning artifacts that actually spoke to who we were.

This is the type of writing we should be teaching. Not forsaking traditional texts, but folding them, extending them, and reconnoitering them into what they can be.

Students’ writings want to say more. We should let them.