Category Archives: In the News

My Month as a “Disconnected” Educator–Part II

In Part I, I described Connected Educator Month, and how I have purposefully “disconnected” this month by heading out to the mountain deserts of my youth, and next week off to a sleepy, coastal Mexican village. Like today, I check in every once in a while, which is the only reason I even found out about the Connected Educator Month activities, which inspired these posts.

So, what have I learned from being “disconnected” this month?

For one, I can appreciate the feelings described by some of my #teachread grad students who tried out various social media venues for the first time in our course. Some of them discussed the feeling of disconnection when they limited their engagement online to the occasional required post and response. I have been feeling the same as I glance at updates and posts by colleagues and not really read them, let alone respond and engage in the conversation. Other students talked about feeling like they were lost in a constant, fast-moving stream of words when they were trying to read, write and collaborate online. And yes, I have been so infrequently looking at my Twitter feed this month, I have felt out of sync, which has led to even less interaction on my part. I have learned that it is not about being connected or disconnected; rather, it is being engaged in conversations with others—exchanging, interacting, participating—that has made my personal learning network meaningful.

I have also learned that—like most things—this connection or disconnection thing is not a binary situation. While up at a cabin in the desert mountains of the southwest—disconnected as I can be from the world this month—I have been learning and thinking and…well…connected.

My niece and nephew visited for a night and in the morning my nephew and I sat sipping hot cocoa, listening to the different bird calls from the trees to our right and left, when we noticed an ordinary brown bird lift its wings and rise from the sagebrush in front of us. Suddenly it was no longer brown, but a soft blue, like water flying. We looked at each other and then back to the area to see if we could see any others like that one, and soon enough we saw three more. I asked him if he knew about birding. We didn’t have a bird identification book on hand, but we did have an Internet connection in that corner of the porch. I dug out my laptop. We sat comparing the birds flitting just a few feet in front of us to the pictures and descriptions online. We talked about search terms and categories that would result in a proper identification. And suddenly, we came across the Indigo Bunting. There it was, our deceptively bright blue bird. My nephew, who is starting 2nd grade this week, said, “I need to write this down.” And he went inside to dig out a pad of paper and pencil.

We talked about the genre of field notes, the type of information that goes into them, and how their sentences sound. As he wrote his entries, we talked about letter-sound correspondence and spelling patterns. At some point, he said it would be easier just to write the sentence from the website we had found. This led to a great discussion about attributing source material. We took a picture of his book to send to his parents once we were in cell phone coverage, and then realized that family and friends could be involved faster if we posted the picture to Facebook. In moments we were also responding to comments about our birding activities.

Photo taken with a potential app in mind–capturing petals, stems, leaves and soil.

We took the newly formed field notebook on an adventure walk to a reservoir three miles away, during which we took pictures of birds with my phone and he later drew them in his notebook as we sat next to the reservoir. On the way, my niece and I discussed the need for bird, insect and flower identification apps for the phone, about how apps are developed, and what we thought photos would need to entail for automatic identification through an app. We then started taking the pictures with this in mind, discussing what we would need to include in the frame of the photo.

And then we ran into an entomologist, who was riding along on his bike along the dusty path, and he gave us directions to a place that had books on birds, flowers, and of course, insects of the area. (He also described the red velvet ant he found just feet from us in a failed attempt to turn my nephew from birds to insects.) We had a choice at this time to walk an extra mile in the hot midday sun to go look at the books or we could hitch a ride with a neighbor in an air-conditioned car back to the cabin. It wasn’t even a question to my nephew who wanted to see all the books and hold them in his hands.

I’ve learned that this Connected (or in my case, “Disconnected”) Educator Month (see Part I) isn’t like the “paper or plastic” question. Contemporary composition, like my nephew’s field notebook, isn’t a pad of paper or laptop question either. It isn’t a choice between books or apps for bird and flower identification. It isn’t drawing or taking pictures.It isn’t experts IRL (in real life) or comments on a post. Even if you’re “disconnected,” our world and how we experience it is still (re)shaped by these digital means of connection. Of course we could dicker about the degree of my disconnection, but even when I wasn’t using a digital device, my conversations with my niece and nephew and our expectations were influenced by the possibilities of “connection.”

Concluding Thoughts
(in which I connect my experiences and mix my metaphors)

This has led me to think about something I heard in a tweet or a blog post (link me if you know the source) as a possible new literacy strategy for my “disconnected” and “lost” grad students, who were just dipping their toes into the swift stream of digital reading, writing and collaboration available nowadays. Someone advised followers to treat online collaboration and connection as if it were the radio. You tune in and immediately have to contextualize the conversation in order to make sense of it. By merely listening in and making inferential leaps about the genre and the references people are making, you can eventually grasp it. I like this analogy. I think it works.

I’d also say that unlike the radio—and even unlike radio call-in shows—this particular swift-moving stream is even more meaningful if you jump in or—like my niece from a slippery stone she was standing on next to the reservoir—slip in. (Her feet got quite slimy, but she reported that the cool water made it all worth it.) It isn’t just about the information that’s out there that our current devices and apps allow us to get, nor is it the kind of the messages we can now send; rather, it’s the possible conversations and ideas that ignite between people that makes “connecting” worth it. The possibilities surround us.

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The Texas GOP’s Real Mistake: Thinking? Misunderstanding? Fearing?

I thoroughly enjoyed Colbert’s skewering of the Texas GOP 2012 Platform, which involves a rejection of “critical thinking skills.” The Washington Post quoted the statement as such:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Taking into consideration that the platform also mentions that multicultural education is “divisive,” and that they support “objective teaching” and “school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles,” I am wondering if what they meant was critical as in critical literacies or critical race theory and the like. I can just imagine a particularly conservative person in the educational field making a case against critical theories or critical literacies, and someone outside of education thinking that these fit under the more generally-known concept “critical thinking skills” and then thought that these were also the same as “higher order thinking skills.”

Has anyone heard if that is the case?

In a statement from the Texas GOP they indicated that they did not intend to include critical thinking skills in their list (even though it was voted on and approved by the general assembly—after, as Colbert pointed out, it was said, written, read, and perhaps even discussed(?)—and cannot be edited out now). However, I think a misunderstanding of the concepts themselves is more likely the mistake they made.

(If you asked me, the real mistake is being afraid of youth practicing critical theories and literacies. But that’s just me. Is it you, too?)

Forget Defining Literacies. What’s ‘Writing’?

I’d like to talk to you about the 468th episode of This American Life. Specifically, I want to hone in to 23 and 1/2 minutes that makes up Act Two: Forgive Us Our Press Passes. I don’t recommend many things, as a habit, but this is worth your time.

In producer Sarah Koenig’s story about a company called Journatic, which outsources local newspaper stories, be whisked away into deep contemplation about what constitutes journalism, authorship and attribution, news, consumerism, the local/the global, human rights, and the list goes on.

Screen shot of Journatic’s homepage.

As I understand it, Journatic focuses on amassing large amounts of data from small towns across the United States—birth and death records, budgets, police blotters—and then outsources the writing of articles based on this data to people in other places—according to this story, a few in the US, and many in other countries such as the Philippines. Journatic sells these stories to newspaper outlets across the US and the stories are often printed with fake bylines or none at all. (Makes you take a second look at Jenny Smith’s article on last week’s town budget meeting. Do you know Jenny Smith?)

For this post, I am only going to focus on one aspect touched on in this episode, but it is the combination of these topics in one story that makes this worth a listen. So, even though this post will be focused on ‘writing,’ I am more than happy to discuss any and all of these other aspects in the comments below.

Let’s get to it. I encourage you to listen before reading on. In the embedded sound file below, Act Two begins at exactly 26 minutes. Here is a link to the episode on the This American Life website in case you want to go to the source for a listen.

(This American Life has posted two articles from Poynter.org that have more detail and an update after the airing of this episode.)  

What’s ‘Writing’?

A few weeks ago, after another fascinating #literacies chat on Twitter, I posed a follow-up tweet about the use of the word “literacy.” Kevin Hodgson (or @dogtrax on Twitter) posted a reply that I couldn’t get out of my head while I listened to this episode. Here’s our exchange:

We continued to exchange tweets, and in doing so took this idea forward, considering terms like composing and designing to capture the multiple modes with which we find ourselves composing in a digital age. In this episode of This American Life, however, I found myself thinking backward, reductionist, in fact. What can we strip away and still call the act writing?

In the following section of the episode, Sarah Koenig had interviewed the Brad Moore of The Chicago Sun-Times who had hired Journatic to fill the local sections of their papers with local news, and Brian Timpone who was a champion of Journatic as a company. Each of these gentlemen claimed that all local news stories—though they were not written locally—were ‘at least’ written in the United States. Sarah Koenig was pushing to find out what exactly was outsourced, specifically to the Philippines. (All added emphasis is mine.)

Brad Moore: Just to be clear, all of the writing and editing of everything that Journatic is doing is happening by professional journalists here in the US.

Sarah Koenig: I went around and around about this with both Brad Moore and Brian Timpone who insisted that Filipinos were not writing stories. They were more like typing information, assembling it in paragraph form, which sounds to me a lot like writing. Brian Timpone told me this was a semantic confusion I was having.

Brian TimponeReally what they’re doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there’s a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It’s like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it’s written in the Philippines– I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.

Sarah Koenig: Timpone declined to put me in touch with any of his Filipino employees. But I reached out to half a dozen of them on my own.

Sarah Koenig: You yourself are writing those stories, right? You’re not just gathering the information and sending it along to an American writer or editor. You yourself are writing those.

Man: Yeah.

Sarah Koenig: That one word is all you’re going to hear from this particular worker at his request. He’s got a full time professional job. But he told me his Journatic work pays better. And he needs the money to help pay his family’s expenses. Plus he likes the work. Back in April when the Tribune announced that Journatic would be providing stories for TribLocal, some readers and media watchers instantly began to grumble about the job losses but also about the product. It was canned, they said, barely rewritten press releases and daily stories under the news section about top DVD rentals in town or where to find the cheapest gas according to gasbuddy.com. No context, no analysis.  © 2012 Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass

As I write this blog post, I keep questioning: Am I writing? typing? copying and pasting? assembling? copy editing? drafting? developing context? adding analysis? I’d love to chat about these and other questions I am left pondering:

  • As we now have more user-friendly ways to remix media and content, are we ‘writing’ less often and ‘assembling and copy editing’ more often?
  • What does ‘context and analysis’ look like in a product that is not all words, but mostly image, sound, and quoted text?
  • When does ‘typing out’ something end and ‘writing’ begin?

Please add your thoughts in the comments below!

Social Media and Language Democratization in Egypt

The following is a Guest Post from my good friend and a great scholar, Janine Jones, a doctoral student in modern Middle East intellectual history at The University of Texas at Austin. It stems from conversations we have had sharing the interests that cross our disciplines—language, literacies, equity, education.

Among linguists, Arabic is commonly classified as a diglossic language*. In other words, written Arabic, the language of novels and newspapers, is distinct from the dialects spoken on the streets. The formalized, proper Arabic that constitutes the official language of print throughout the Arabic-speaking world is only spoken aloud in certain contexts: by news anchors like the hosts of Al Jazeera; by politicians giving formal speeches; by lecturers in university; and in other formal contexts.

This formal Arabic, called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or fuṣḥā, is rooted in the grammar and vocabulary of the Qur’an, and, like many written languages, is standardized through orthographic and grammatical conventions. MSA is taught in schools and requires a certain amount of training since it is spoken so little and differs so much from the language of everyday conversation. In fact, MSA is so distinct from Arabic dialects that some researchers have even suggested Arabic speakers process it in the brain as a second language.

To put this into perspective, a rough analogy would be if American English speakers only read books and heard the news in a Chaucerian-style Middle English, while still speaking current American English in our homes and day-to-day interactions. Imagine this as your nightly news:

Arabic dialects—of which Egyptian Arabic or Masry is the most widely spoken–are quite different from MSA as languages. They are fluid and changing, and have lacked orthographic, lexical, and grammatical standardization because they are quite literally never written down. That is, with the exception of a handful of avant-garde novels published at the end of the twentieth century, they have not been written down with any degree of consistency until now with the rise of social media platforms.

As Facebook, text messages, IMing and blogs have proliferated throughout the Arabic-speaking world, colloquial Arabic has begun a rapid transition to a written language. In 2008, a new Wikipedia was launched in Masry. The 2011 Egyptian uprisings, called in some corners the “Facebook Revolution” were facilitated through the use of social media and written and organized in Egyptian Arabic, as much as in MSA.

screen shot of Wikipedia in Masry

And, as more and more people gain access to the Internet, social media platforms are shifting communication across political and social barriers. Many Palestinian families, who have been unable to visit ancestral homes or see relatives because of the political imbroglio with Israel, are finally able to communicate regularly. Unmarried young men and women who previously would not be able to communicate outside of properly chaperoned outings are chatting online, leading to new questions about the parameters and extent of religious and cultural sanction for various uses of social media.

These types of political and social democratization receive a lot of press. Rarely, though, do we have such stark, clear examples of social media as democratizing mechanism at the level of language. And it is the language democratization that is further collapsing class-based barriers to communication that come part and parcel with diglossic languages*.

Janine is happy to entertain your questions or comments below. And as always, I’d love to have you join us in this conversation.

 
* Diglossic languages like Arabic are typically maintained through social hierarchies; usually there’s a “high” language (in this case MSA) that is culturally prestigious, and a “low” language of the common people. In Arabic, MSA is held in high esteem specifically because it is held to be modeled on Qur’anic grammar, though it is worth noting here that MSA is grammatically simpler than the language of the Qur’an, called Classical Arabic. Since Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains the literal words of God—that He actually spoke the Arabic language—there are many cultural and religious reasons to wish to keep the language static. But, of course, as any linguist would tell you, languages do change by nature. Still, there is nothing like L’Académie française or the Real Academía Española for Arabic. It’s the limited, educated, and upper crust nature of MSA, and its relationship to religious textual tradition, that keeps its progression relatively stagnant.

Welcome to the United States, Developing Writers!

Although only the hardback version (a.k.a. expensive collectors’ item) of our new book, Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, shows up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the Buy Now and Desk Copy buttons at Open University Press, U.S.A. are now functional! (Amazon does have a Kindle version.)

With Richard Andrews, Dean of Faculty and Professor of English at the Institute of Education, University of London, I argue that although existing theories of writing development have provided insights into the teaching and learning of writing, we need to bring such theories up to date in the digital age—an age in which, among other things, writing needs to be re-conceived as one crucial component of communication among other modes.

In the book, we review and compare existing models of writing pedagogy, and invite readers to discover for themselves their working theories for how writing and development happen. The theories with which we make pedagogical decisions are the driving force behind why we do what we do; however, they are often tacit, working in our lives unnoticed and unarticulated—making them very hard to be reflective about. In the book, we offer a new theory and model for understanding writing development in the multimodal and digital age. The last few chapters are all about how this model would work in teaching practice and policy.

I can’t wait to be able to discuss it with teachers, teacher educators, literacy researchers, digital scholars, policy makers and writers of all ages!

A Digital Phenom: Increased Presence of the Past in our Lives

In the Music section of The New York Times, music critic Simon Reynolds explored how and why The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then. Right in the middle of this column, Reynolds takes a stab at the larger vintage chic pop culture phenomenon and its relation to the digital age. Just something that made me go hmmmmm….

The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying. But in the last couple of years a concept has emerged that at least identifies the syndrome, even if it doesn’t completely explain it. Coined by the co-founders of cyberpunk fiction William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “atemporality” is a term for the disconcerting absence of contemporaneity from so much current pop culture. This curious quality can be detected not just in pop music but in everything from fashion to graphic design to vintage chic.

A prime example of atemporality is the fad for photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which digitally simulate the period atmosphere of pictures taken in the ’70s or ’80s, using the cameras and film stock of the time. Instant-nostalgia snapshots are part of a culture-wide fascination with outmoded technology and “dead media” (Mr. Sterling’s term) that encompasses everything from the cults for manual typewriters and cassettes to the steampunk movement’s fetish for Victoriana to the recent movie “Super 8.”

Mr. Sterling sees the time-out-of-joint nature of today’s pop as a side effect of digiculture. One of the curiosities of the futuristic-seeming information technology that we now enjoy is that it has dramatically increased the presence of the past in our lives. From YouTube to iTunes, from file-sharing blogs to Netflix, the sheer volume and range of back catalogue music, film, TV and so forth that is available for consumption is astounding.

We can access all this stuff with incredible speed and convenience, share it and store it with minimal effort.

Speaking of access to music of the past with incredible speed and shared with minimal effort…

From Positive/Negative to Affordances/Constraints

Yesterday, the International Business Times reported on a couple of studies regarding the relationship between memory and the Internet. Like many titles, the purposefully evocative title of this article, “Google Effect: Changes to our Brains,” was misleading. Instead of “changes to the brain,” the article reported some of the new ways people use their memory capacity and use digital devices as external memory. One of the studies conducted by a team at Columbia University found that people remembered where they saved things rather than the items themselves. The researchers dramatically described the ways the Internet is being used currently:

We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers — and lose if they are out of touch.

Again, the use of the digital devices hasn’t changed our brain; rather, we use computers much like our friends and coworkers with whom we chat, the notes we jot, the diaries we fill. We have another external memory device, and since we load so much on these devices, we often refer to them when thinking.

Regarding this article, Carol Jago, past-president of the National Council of Teachers of English, recently quipped in a tweet:

I like Carol’s response. Yes, all the tools we use and all activities in which we often engage definitely affect how we think and approach our lives. Recently, my friend and colleague Tim purchased a 1938 manual typewriter. Not only did it look stylish, it worked. I demanded that he help me find my own. On a bright Saturday afternoon he and I went to a flea market in Brooklyn, we made our way to a booth that specializes in reviving the classic composition tool. I walked away with my very own ROYAL Signet portable manual machine–complete with a carrying case lid.

Tim’s 1938 ROYAL Model O Series and Anna’s 1960s ROYAL Portable Signet

Like riding a bike, it didn’t take me long to remember how to press the keys with intention, if I wanted a letter to be left on the page. I tried, first, to revise a piece I have been working on in my writing group, Harlem Writers’ Circle, and immediately I found that I could not compose as I had. If I wanted to change a word, I backspaced several times and XXXXX-ed out the previous word, and then I continued. [Sidenote: The piece soon looked like the cards my grandmother used to send typed each birthday.] In the time it took between XXXXXX-ing the offending word and typing the new one, I often considered new directions for the story. If I went in one of those directions, I found myself typing the entire piece from the beginning, and in that act, found myself–again–entertaining new directions. Neither with a computer nor with pen and paper did I do either of these acts. Because of the speed with which I could change direction with these composition tools, I would have never considered the options for the piece that I found myself considering when using a manual typewriter. The typewriter was changing my brain.

Obviously, it didn’t actually change my brain. I just have another tool for composing that affords and constrains different composing practices. Most technological changes (i.e. from ink to pencil, and typewriter to computer, and now to digital networked communication) have been framed as a issue of the “ruin” of previous forms of communication. Rarely, if ever, has the new compositional tool completely supplanted previous forms and ways of composing. Instead it has been a “both/and” experience—old practices remain, are influenced by new forms of composing. Instead of positive and negative effects to existing ways of thinking, I’ve found it generative to frame the question as affordances and constraints. Instead of worrying about the effects of new tools, what if we asked questions such as:

  • What kinds of compositional decisions, practices and challenges do digital, networked communication afford a developing writer?
  • What are the constraints of composing with networked and/or digital devices (not necessarily the same thing)?
  • At the same time, what are the affordances/constraints of composing with a pen and paper?

Each of these affordances and constraints has implications for the rhetorical, compositional and framing decisions we make as we compose. Conversations about the affordances and constraints, as well as conversations about the implications for compositional decisions are generative for both teachers and their students to investigate.

What affordances and constraints have you noticed when using particular digital tools? How have you found these to relate to your compositional practices?