Category Archives: Writers Writing

What Do We “Let the Page Be”?

Today I came across this recording of the spoken word piece by Bonafide Rojas called “In Front of the Class.” In it, he describes a group of youth who, at first glance, may seem hopeless. He says to the young people:

Let the page be a doctor.
Let the page be a therapist.
Let the page be a lover.

Let the page be your enemy, punch it in the face.
Let the page be your best friend
who will never stab you in the back.
Let the page be your Prozac.

Let the page be your hip hop.
Let the page be your rock and roll.
Let the page be that fancy ride you’re always talking about.

Let the page be that bling, bling on your wrist.
Let the page be the underground beat you’re about to rip.
Let the page be your autobiography.

This week I will be speaking with the NYU’s ELL (English Language Learners) Think Tank, a consortium of teachers from across New York City. One of the first things I am going to do is ask us to (re)think the typical definition of writing that we see at work in our schools, and particularly the limited ways we talk about writing when working with those who are learning English. What do we “let the page be”?

photo (5) 2For the young men I got to know while researching how young men develop as writers, “the page” was all of the things Bonafide Rojas listed, and more. At some point during the two years that I traced their writing practices, each of the young men dealt with particular social tensions like for one young man, trying to make sense of having an abusive father, and for another young man, being considered by some to be “too White” and by others as being “too Latino.” To make sense of these social tensions, each of the young men independently turned these literal issues into figurative literary tropes through writing.

Continue reading What Do We “Let the Page Be”?

Dummy Runs and Schooled Writing

click for readable size

In December I had the pleasure of joining a group of 5th graders in the high desert mountains of Utah. That week, my niece, Alaina, and her classmates had just asked their teacher if they could have time to write to children in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. In a discussion with Alaina about how she decided what to write about, it was clear she (and her classmates) were very attentive to the audiences she hoped would eventually read her note. She was thinking about the children who survived, and how they may be frightened by the thought of going back to school. She also talked about how helpless she imagined the community members must feel. To address these weighty matters, she decided to share a fear of her own that could work as a metaphor for moving forward:

So let’s not look for the rain
Let’s look for the rainbow
Let’s look for new hope
There is always hope

photo 3 (2) Over the next week I had several conversations with Alaina about writing in school. For instance, she was working on an essay comparing and contrasting earthquakes with volcanoes. In class, they had been introduced to the Venn diagram as a way to jot notes. They had lists of transition words for comparison. She was set up for some great content area writing.

Then the time came when Alaina was trying to decide what information to include in her essay. To help her decide, I asked her for whom/to whom she was writing this assignment. I was surprised when she didn’t understand what I was asking–especially considering her attentiveness to audience in her note to the youth in Newtown. She didn’t consider her teacher the audience or her peers who would read it in small groups. There was effectively no audience.

James Britton and others have long ago argued for more attention to audience in school-based writing tasks. In our text Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, Richard Andrews and I reviewed Britton’s studies and contended:

The influence of audience is one of the most well-known findings from this section of the study. Fifty per cent of the 500 written pieces analyzed which were deemed as immature, i.e. with no distinguishable function or audience, were from work completed for English language arts courses. Many of these pieces were considered by the researchers to be ‘dummy runs’ or student products written merely to show a teacher capacity to complete a certain written task (Britton et al., 1976, p. 106). To this day, the importance of creating written assignments with ‘real’ audiences or audiences logically aligned with the purpose of the written task and beyond the teacher as audience is looked upon as instrumental in ensuring student engagement in writing a product, as well as higher quality end products.

Her school district had also begun to use a computerized writing assessment system that has become popular in recent years. In talking to her teacher, her teacher was concerned that Alaina’s scores were not reflecting Alaina’s writing abilities. Determinations about placement and advancement were based on these scores. When I asked Alaina what she took into consideration when writing to the computer program’s prompts and when being assessed by the computer program, she–again–wasn’t sure how writing changed when the rhetorical frame changed. Not only did she not know how to articulate (or have declarative knowledge) about rhetorical frameworks, she wasn’t demonstrating the kind of procedural knowledge she readily applied in writing for her own purposes.

In our digital age, we have more access to distribute written pieces to audiences who previously we could have imagined, but not practically reached. We can compose in varying genres and more easily design with multiple modes to really address topics previously out of reach. In other words, our rhetorical frameworks (form, message, audience) can be realized in the writing we do in schools (and out of school) in ways just a decade ago were far more difficult. However, we’re still seeing “dummy runs” dominate schooled writing, and we are using our digital technologies in ways which essentially distance our students from the “real” audiences they actually have access to. I see many critiques of computer-based writing assessment, but I have yet seen the argument taken up that these programs take writing out of its communicative framework. I think that is an argument we need to make moving forward.

I was pleased to be invited to join Alaina’s class to teach during their next hour dedicated to writing. In my next post, I will share the mini-lesson and guided practice we completed together on the topic of audience. We then extended that discussion into considering what writing for audience means in contemporary times. The young people in that class shared great advice for the demands on writing in a digital, networked age. I can’t wait to share those with you!

photo 2 (1)

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Dangers of the Single Story and Teju Cole’s Small Fates Series

“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.”

“All of these stories make me who I am, but to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me.”

“Stories matter. Many stories matter.”

(Again, I have nothing to add. She’s said it all. And said it beautifully. I happened to watch this while working on my syllabus for the Literature and the Adolescent Experience course next semester. It was perfect timing for me. I hope it is perfect timing for you, too.)

Edit: I do have something to add…

Continue reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Dangers of the Single Story and Teju Cole’s Small Fates Series

Neil Gaiman on Demythologizing the Creative Process and Point of View

I don’t have much to add. I just particularly enjoyed his comments on “demythologizing the creative process.”

Also, in his response to the question from the young woman, I heard anew the kinship of point of view and agency within our otherwise socially-structured lives. (Think Bourdieuian thoughts here.) They may sound like statements you’ve heard before, but I suggest we consider them as commentary on agency:

Nobody gets to bring to the world what you get to bring to the world…No one is going to change people, and change the world in the way you will change it.

You Say Hello & I Say Goodbye

This is a post.

This is a post about how easy it is to write words.

This is a post about how easy it is to write words just in case I forget in the next 29 days.

Read on. You’ll see why.

It’s November, and that means it’s Get That Writing Done Month.

Of biggest fare is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and though I am registered on the site, it is mostly for their awesome progress widgets and community write-in sessions. I am not writing a novel. Oh, no.

It is also #digiwrimo (Digital Writing Month), which is the month I wish I was having. In a part-essay part-poemSean Michael Morris shared a vision of digital writing that I want to be.

So let me do Mr. Morris’ piece justice and rather than just quoting him, I am going to make it full-blown poem:

This is Third-Order Thinking,
a found poem from an essay by Sean Michael Morris

this writing right here
cannot know except as it is made useful
excerpted | repurposed | discovered | reimagined | plagiarized | undone |
made poetic by an accident (our always already ironic)

if what we say is made valuable
by what readers say with what we say
({re}constructed, not just interpreted
{re}built, {re}fabricated, {re}purposed)
we must write accordingly

thoughts of the writers
(corrupted)
lie between the words
({re}corrupted)
and the way
they’ve been assembled
like archaeologists we detect
meaning
lying below
meaning
our texts, the many layers of Troy

but the real {novelty} of digital writing comes
when words are reflown

no longer responders to History
no longer makers of Literature
we are the writers of partially-realized ideas

and their rewriters.

[btw, to me this “third-order thinking” echoes the kind of the self-reflexive and hospitable stances we (my co-author Glynda Hull and I) noticed in our work with youth who were composing…actually…I should say, that chapter has now been realized in print in Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis: Intersections and Challenges. It’s totally worth checking out, imho.]

But no, although I am going to dip my toes in #digiwrimo whenever I can, my month is going to be more of the #acwrimo (Academic Writing Month) variety. In #acwrimo, instead of a cray-cray 50,000 word goal, you come up with your own daily achievement. My plan was to get going under the radar, see how successful I was and eventually add my goals and amazing progress to the Accountability Spreadsheet. But last night, in a midnight stupor, I outed myself. And I might as well let you know I am row 189 on the spreadsheet and you can also watch my “progress” on the calendar widget above and on the bottom of every page: green = I’m truckin’ | yellow = meh | red = kick me

Poster by James Provost

So here goes. 30 days to done. You won’t see me here very often, unless I need to remind myself that 500 words is cake, a simple early-to-rise hour, a great #digiwrimo prompt, a get-er-done moment.

How about you? You taking the plunge?

To DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) or to DREAM (DRop Everything And Make)

20120914-131047.jpgLast weekend, as I was walking to my weekend office (my favorite cafe in El Barrio, East Harlem Cafe), I passed the corner of 105th and Lexington, which had been under construction for the last months. Suddenly, I heard someone calling my name from inside the building. Sure enough it was Manny Vega, visual artist and mosaicist extraordinaire, who is well-known for his restoration of the Spanish Harlem mural on 104th and Lexington and the mosaics in the NYC subway station at 110th street.

20120914-131059.jpgHe was working on his newest project, a mosaic realization of the appliquéd series of public art that runs along the businesses from 104th to 105th in East Harlem (featured in the NY Times). In the renovation of the building at 105th and Lexington, the art there had been removed in pieces, and the folks at 7173 Associates, LLC, and the owner of the long-standing neighborhood perfumerie, Exotic Fragrances, had decided this was not a loss they would let the neighborhood feel. Expected to run 20 feet long and 7 feet high, Espiritu: A Visual Prayer in Glass and Stone for the Here and Now, is Vega’s gift for the streets of East Harlem. It will be unveiled October 6th at 3:00 p.m.

The theme is a celebration of moments in my life where spirit has been the vehicle for living. It has been an amazing experience to share these images with everyone as folks have provided even more meaning to this project with their own association with my art and the realm of the spirit. -Manny Vega

And if I wasn’t already lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with such a vibrant art community, Manny Vega has been kind enough to take me on as an unofficial, part-time mosaic apprentice. We had met at East Harlem Cafe, where a commissioned piece hangs announcing their name. We began to talk technique and tools, and pretty soon, I had my first assignments. I studied, up close and personal, the mosaics throughout the subways stations in NYC (and got a more than a few weird looks as I stood nose to tile) and then on a trip to Russia, the Byzantine style that Vega practices. With pieces of construction paper and scissors, I drew then places tiles in channels, a Byzantine-style technique that creates the movement, depth and life seen in Vega’s creations.

It was a Saturday, and I had a long to-do list awaiting me, but I did what any sane person would do with your mosaic mentor working on a landmark piece. I dropped everything and went to get my pieces and tools. I returned and we worked alongside each other with a stereo blasting the local flavor for hours. Manny showed me a new fastening technique, and let me use a new clipper tool to practice making curved pieces that “fastened” into the next stone. (You can see magnified sections of some of his work here by running the mouse over the image. Watch for the channels and how pieces are cut to fasten into each other.) He told me that as tile and glass becomes malleable and the pieces begin to run as you intend in the channels, the therapy sets in. The mind and body and the creation become one. And, as usual, he was right. I was transfixed and healed. I tweeted and an old student of mine responded brilliantly:

This got me thinking. Just a few nights before during #literacies chat, we had been discussing contemporary digital literacies while listening in to the National Writing Project’s bi-monthly radio program. We had this little exchange:

20120914-131124.jpg Part of Manny Vega’s mosaic mural Espiritu will be a piece that features The Trickster, a mythical creature that shows up across time and cultures. As a mosaic, Vega is afforded the ability to insert actual dominos and dice in his rendition of a modern-day Trickster, who gets around via skateboard. The dominos and dice are physical manifestations of the hustle, of the gamble, of the games today’s Trickster uses to entrap us. This physically-realized aesthetic and referent would not be possible in any other medium.

I think this is the approach we need to take when thinking about digital literacies. What are the affordances of the medium that—if we took advantage of—would result in compositions that could do and be things otherwise not possible? A few of my grad students took to defining contemporary literacies last semester. Some of the results are here. Doug Belshaw, of the Mozilla Foundation, is writing a white paper on web literacies right now, and he is looking for input. What do you think these affordances are that we should be attending to in schools today?

One of the changes I see as necessary, is to stop saying literacy when we mean reading. Literacies in contemporary times (and perhaps always) are equal measure reading and writing/interpreting and composing. In a forthcoming chapter in Critical Digital Literacies as Social Praxis: Intersections and Challenges, I explain (with co-author Glynda Hull):

Via digital means we are now easily able to compose in multiple modes and, with access to the Internet, to do so in response to and in collaboration with international others. Such practices are, in fact, increasingly viewed as central rather than peripheral to literacy (Andrews & Smith, 2011). Critical reading implies a reader’s active response, as Rosenblatt (1938/1995, 1978/1994) long ago taught us. The interpretation of written language and image resides at the intersection of text, the reader’s personal experiences with other texts, and the social world. In a digital age, a reader’s response can become manifest materially (cf. Coiro & Dobler, 2007). When readers engage with a blog, for instance, they are able, indeed expected, to click on links, add comments, and reblog or remix content. Such response is a customary, expected part of the reading experience. Thus, the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing becomes tighter in the digital sphere, making authorship more obviously tantamount to readership, and vice versa.

One way we could do this is change the DEAR program (Drop Everything and Read) and institute a DREAM program (DRop Everything and Make). As my old student Emily implied, this would include making meaning from existing texts, along with making new ones. I know from my Saturday afternoon with Manny, making is not just critical and creative, it can be healing.

(The #literacies chat also led us into another fascinating discussion of the boundaries of writing when considering contemporary digital composition. I’d love to continue the conversation on that topic that started here.)

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.