The Book into Blog Project, Day 2

In my second day of setting up Journally, I made it to 30 prompt postings, and I added some pages. They need a lot more work. I also need to add some external links, and I want to add a WordPress plug-in that will generate a sidebar widget for showing random posts. Somewhere in there I need to go back through and make sure all of my posts are tagged and add a sidebar widget for a tag cloud. I may have to wrap presents and bake cookies first.

I’m in good shape to meet my goal of have 50 prompt postings on there by the time school starts back. I want to get up to about 200 fairly quickly after that. In my mind 200 is a nice hefty number where the blog can be left alone to stand as a product on its own rather than a process.

That’s my thinking. I’ll put a lot of work into this up front and then mostly leave it be for people to use. Maybe a few times a year I’ll add new prompts and do general maintenance updates on the site. During poetry month, for example, I might add new prompts for people trying to do poem-a-days.

This is one example of when a blog doesn’t have to be a blog. Journally is a blog, but it’s also a resource that will not have to be updated as a blog once it reaches a certain level of completion. Categories, tags, pages, parent/child designations for pages and categories all make it so much easier to use a blogging platform to create a digitally navigable book as opposed to the kind of blog that once included “frequently updated” in its definition. I believe I’ve written about this before. Now I’m working on doing it.

On Getting Journally

I’ve devoted a good chunk of the day, when I wasn’t doing laundry or last-minute shopping, to setting up a new blog. Meet Journally. It’s a blog of journal prompts for students in composition and creative writing classes, or for anyone I suppose who wants to keep a personal journal.

I still have quite a bit to do to shape it up, but I hope before the holiday break is over to have a fairly robust collection of prompts built up. Okay, my goal is to have at least 50 prompts posted before I start back to school in January. Judge for yourself whether you’d call that robust. It’s a start anyway.

I hope people will send their students to this blog, not only to find journaling ideas, but also to post pieces of their work in the comments. We’ll see if that ever takes off.

I’ve dreamed for years of putting together a creative writing exercise book, and at one time I had hundreds of those one-liner writing prompts saved. I don’t even know if I still have them. If I do, they are on my office computer. Everything posted to the Journally blog so far, I wrote last night. On a whim.

I’m basically building my book online, or at least the journal prompt part of it. That hit me as the thing to do last night when I was too buzzed to sleep from too much Diet Coke. The thought had barely brushed through my mind before I was setting up a new WordPress installation.

In other words, this is absolutely a whim. To justify deciding on the spot to blog instead of putting together a book, I’ll just say this:

(1) Books are too expensive for students. They can’t afford to buy a supplementary exercise book. They need to spend their money on the books about craft and the anthologies of writers worth emulating.
(2) I’m too inconsistent (Haphazard as it were) on writing projects to actually finish a book in a timely fashion. I start projects all the time, but reality always sets in before I can finish, and I remember I’m teaching seven sections of students who want their papers graded and returned.

I could go on and on, though thank goodness I do have enough impulse control left to spare you that. Essentially, I’m thinking that more and more “textbooks” are going to show up online in open formats. Why not make mine one of them? At least this way I’ll find out whether I’m writing anything people can use.

**Cross-posted to Writerly Haphazardry.

Topics for Visual Thinking

One of the realities of the digital world we live in is that much of the reading we do is actually taken from visual cues rather than straight text. We do our reading in digital environs which are inherently multimedia environs. Thus, the visual must be addressed as essential to the literacies we expect of students.

With that in mind, I’ve been gathering and developing visually-oriented writing assignments.

Interview Based Assignments

1. Find an older class yearbook (preferably from at least 20 years before you were born). Look through the yearbook and interview the person it belongs to. You might just sit down and flip through it together, discussing aspects of the yearbook and the memories it represents as you go. After the interview, write about what you’ve learned.
2. Study the work of a visual artist and interview that artist about his/her work. This might include painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design, or even cake decorating if the cakes are truly works of art. Write about what you learn from the artist and the art. With the artist’s permission, include photographs of the work discussed with your writing.
3. The WPA and the FSA collected many photographs of American life during the Great Depression. Study the work of one of those photographers–Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott, Eudora Welty, or others–and find someone who lived during the Depression to talk to about the photographs. Encourage the person you interview to share memories of that time. Write about what you learn.

Scavenger-Style Assignments

1. Go around town taking pictures of the most interesting signs and billboards you can find. Make a digital photo album or movie out of your collection, and write about any patterns, themes, or issues you observe in the collection.
2. Think of a social issue you believe is important to your own town. Take pictures that you believe tell the story of the issue. You might also video scenes that illustrate your issue. Put together a multimedia project with your finds. Write a self-reflection on the process of creating your project.
3. Go on a visual scavenger hunt of your own life looking for images that represent who you are in your home, your vehicle, your workspace, your closet, your backpack, purse, etc. Write an essay with photographs inserted about what you find out about yourself and what you think this does say to others.


1. Watch a movie with the sound turned off. Write a review of it based on visual content alone. Read about framing and filming techniques before you begin.
2. Review a website for its visual design. What visual messages are being sent? What design flaws do you see? How could a redesign clarify or enhance the content?
3. Find a collection of photographs on a particular topic, perhaps a photoessay published by a newspaper or news magazine. Write about your emotional and intellectual reactions to the photographs. Analyze and comment on the photographer’s techniques.

These are just a few to get us started. I hope others will contribute ideas.

Topics for People Born After 1990

You know those mindset lists that tell you things like to your current students Harry Potter has always been the most popular book in the universe, M&Ms have always been pink during breast cancer awareness month, whenever the heck that is, and Jetson’s-style video phone calls have always been real–except that they don’t know who the Jetson’s are? You know the ones that make you feel old as the hills and the white elephants combined? I love/hate them. I read them every year with a macabre sense of my own mortality. I read them and laugh/weep.

They drive home the fact that I’m not a teenager. People quit believing I was still having my 29th birthday every year some time back. My students and I are from different generations. It gets harder and harder every year for me to think of writing prompts that appeal to them or even make sense to them. Still, I must try. They write better when they write about things that are meaningful to them. Alas, writing about things that are meaningful to me doesn’t help them nearly as much, aside from the fact, of course, that it helps me get through their papers. Never make them write about things you don’t want to read. That’s a disaster for everyone.

Thus, I’ve made an effort to come up with writing prompts that we can all care about as well as topics that help us think through issues we face in the world we live in now, as opposed to the one I lived in 20 years ago before many of my students were born.

I’ll just suggest a few now. I hope to come back to this topic later. I hope others will help me brainstorm my way through it.

(1) What’s in your iPod? What do your playlists say about you as a person?
(2) What are the rights and wrongs of text messaging during class?
(3) Should you friend your teachers, employers, or other authority figures on social networking sites?
(4) What are the worst Facebook/MySpace faux pas your friends should be warned against?
(5) What was the most significant TV show (or video game or pop star or other media presence) of your childhood? How did it influence your life?

These are light-hearted topics. The students do have to think a little to put them together, though, and the topics tend to inspire some creative thinking. Of course, we want our students to be writing about “more serious” social issues and ideas as well, but the job for me is to teach writing, and the challenge for me is to at least begin to teach them wherever I find them. Walk through the computer lab one day and count the earbuds if you have any doubt that you’ll find them with their heads in their iPods.

Daniel Pink on Motivation

Daniel Pink has a new book coming out soon, which he previews in the Ted Lecture shown above.

Maybe this is a bad time for me to bring up the fact that money may not be the biggest motivating factor in the world. At my own job we’ve all been told we’re getting pay cuts. That’s a pretty big morale buster. It makes you wonder how you can ask people to do anything that falls outside of the checklist of minimal requirements for the job. It certainly calls into question what kind of professional development and innovative programs are even possible in the current economic climate.

On the other hand, I tend to agree with Dan Pink. Innovations happen when people have an intrinsic drive to succeed, to solve problems, to contribute something to world around them apart from financial motivations. That kind of drive needs a certain amount of free rein in order to thrive.

Yet…I’m not sure everyone has inner motivation even if given the right conditions. Some people would really do nothing in an environment that allowed it. Others would do far more than expected.

But here’s the catch. Those doing more are going to overshoot the balance if they are given a chance to be creative and self-motivated on the job. They’re going to make up for the dead weight and more. This is where schools, businesses, and so forth make mistakes. They create rules to control the behavior of the least productive people, and in doing so, they stifle the enthusiasm for the job of the most productive people. In the end, everyone loses.

All that aside, the question of how you can ask people to show any sort of self-motivation when they are being given more work for less pay is a tough one. The only answer I know is that you can’t make new teacher training initiatives into extra work in this case. You have to make the teacher training part of your stress management program. You have to make it play. Somehow.

It also helps if, as Pink suggests, you give over a whole lot of choice and autonomy to the teachers being trained. But then, no one actually asked me.

Writing as Play

In a previous post, I talked about the need for more playtime in tech training for teachers. I think that goes for students as well. I was interested then to see this article about schoolchildren improving literacy through social networking. I found the article through @newsfromtengrrl on Twitter. I then ran across Alex Reid’s blog post responding to the same study. He says, “I don’t know that we are going down a good path if we really try to tie enjoyment to writing.”

I don’t even know what to say. On the one hand, I do appreciate his point. When I wrote my own teaching philosophy last spring, I said that writing and learning to write are constant struggles. So if we see it as all play and no work, we aren’t going to get very far. If we’re too easily satisfied with our writing, or indeed if we’re satisfied at all, we probably aren’t doing it right.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun and productive at the same time. It doesn’t mean we’re off the tracks if we try to make it fun for students. It doesn’t even mean enjoyment on the part of our students shouldn’t be one of our primary concerns.

Alex Reid refers to students with an excess of self-esteem. Honestly, I don’t get too many of those at the open admissions two-year-college. I get a whole lot more who are struggling for even basic literacy and who have all but lost hope in their own capacity to learn.

I see other students who have talent and some belief in their own talent but who lack direction, focus, drive, or whatever it takes to believe their abilities matter enough to make something useful out of them and of their lives.

I see all kinds really, and with every kind of student I see that finding pleasure in writing does lead to better writing. I see that being socially engaged as writers leads to better writing.

The study that says Facebook improves literacy skills in kids doesn’t surprise me at all, and that is who it targets. It’s about kids. If we don’t make writing fun for them, we’ve lost them already. We’ve lost the chance to teach them when they’re at their most teachable.

Universities, especially graduate programs, operate under different assumptions. A grad program is preparing people to be part of a profession. A two-year college is more about preparing people to be productive members of a community, to live their lives the best way they can. A grad program weeds people out. A two-year college brings everyone in.

We have to have different philosophies. But I never got anywhere much by taking myself or what I do too seriously. Practicality humbles theory every time. It humbled Einstein. It humbles me.

I write this because I care about teachers and students. I write this because I believe I have something to say. I write this because I believe that writing for an audience makes me a better writer, and I want to always be in a process of improving. I write this because it is a way for me to have a voice in a profession from the perspective of the place and situation that is my own particular reality. I write this because I bore easily, and I feel bad about myself if I’m not reading, thinking, learning, writing. I write this because I want other people to care about issues in education as much as I do.

Most likely I don’t know or understand every motivation I have, but I do know this much. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t enjoyable to me. I have too many other things I could be doing.

I think about that when I think about student writing. Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,000 hours of practice is required to become expert at any skill resonates with my own experience and observations as a writer and a teacher. I may not be a virtuoso, but what I do have is the confidence to try, which has stood me well time and again. I wasn’t born with that. I didn’t have it when I first when to college or even to graduate school. But in the last twenty years I’ve spent well more than 10,000 hours writing when I was just goofing around, just playing, just amusing myself and my friends.

That’s worth something.

Research Project Sites

It’s that time of year when most eyes are on Santa, but mine are on next semester’s handouts. I’m working on practicing what I’ve been preaching. We need more web writing in writing classes, I told you. We need more multimedia. We need more variety. We need more creativity. All that need requires a whole lot of work and thought. And a lot of popcorn for supper too if you happen to live at my house and you aren’t a cat on a special diet.

My biggest concern is in reworking ENG 1123, or Comp 2. At my school, this is a research class. You know, the one people who don’t like to write and don’t feel confident about documentation put off until the last possible semester due to the sheer dread of it. Making a class where they know they have to write an academic research paper interesting and innovative is a challenge. Honestly, I find bibliographies tedious. I don’t know how to make them anything else for students. That’s why I just send them to EasyBib for the quick path to success with MLA.

The past few years I’ve had sequences of related assignments and a semester theme for that class. The theme gives us something to talk about in class (or on the discussion board for online classes) other than where to put the parenthetical citation and where to put the punctuation on the works cited page. The sequenced assignments give the students time to develop their ideas over time and to understand aspects of research in steps rather than having to take it all on at once. That just makes everyone’s life better.

Still, it’s the class people dread. They already have to do more hands on work than in that class than in most others at the same level. How could I ask them to do even more work by adding multimedia/web assignments to an already full load? I couldn’t. They’d all drop, leaving me with an easy grading load and shaky job security. This isn’t the time for that kind of risk.

What I can do, however, is to transform some of what they are already doing into web-based forms.

This is the thinking that lead me to my Google Sites Project idea. Essentially, I’m having them create a website out of all of their research assignments, nearly all of which they are already doing in my class.

I have added one thing to the web assignment–the creative work. The addition of that assignment makes the number of pages on the website add up to eleven. This is a number that sounds like bonus points are involved to me. English teachers are not mathematicians. They need nice even numbers to work with. Thus my plan is to divvy out ten points per page to add up to a possible 110 points.

I might prefer a more holistic approach to grading, but I need those points so that I can go ahead and award some grades while the site is still a work-in-progress. That’s my compromise. I want the whole research portfolio to receive one grade, and I want the students to have nearly the whole semester to work on it. At a two-year college with open admissions, I can’t assume they understand whether they are on track or not with a semester-long project without giving out some grades along the way. Thus, I’ll have periodic check-points at which I’ll award “as-is” grades to individual pages.

I’m still working out the details. I’m sure I’ll share more ideas along the way, and I would certainly welcome feedback.

This is just one possible way to go about using Google Sites for research projects. In another class, I’d be more likely to assign group projects with GS. It is, after all, a tool designed for collaboration.

I chose Google Sites because my campus went to Gmail for all faculty and students. My students already have access to this without having to register on their own. It is a free tool, though, and easy enough to set up even if everyone has to register for a new email account.

Had the opportunity not been so readily at hand for me, I might not have gone to Google Sites first (I’m more of a WordPress girl), but I think I’m going to be very happy with it. The sites are very easy to work with, and they are more versatile than I’d realized with features like blogs and file storage as optional pages.

So here we go. It seems like a good idea right now. I’ll let you know around next April how I feel about it then.

Living Story = Living Research?

How will this change the way students research current topics? How will this change the way you receive the news?

I just ran across this through a tweet from @davidmcraney, a former student who now works as a journalist. At first glance, it seems similar to the bundled news topics that students can choose from in Newsbank. You don’t have to log in to Newsbank to get to this, though. Maybe I should be asking what this does to library subscription services for newspapers.

The Importance of Play

I don’t have all (or most or many) of the answers, but I do recognize many of the problems, and I believe we find solutions by examining, discussing, and generally tackling problems head on. One of those problems frequently on my mind of late is teacher training for technology. I think probably more schools get it wrong than right, and as a result teachers often feel impossibly behind, impossibly underprepared, and impossibly under-confident.

This isn’t entirely a teacher problem. Largely, it’s an adult problem. Those of us who grew up in less tech saturated times just don’t have the innate confidence of the young in experimenting with new tech tools. Last night I let my 4-year-old nephew play with my iPhone. He played games, downloaded video, and experimented to find out if he could trick the phone by touching multiple places on the screen at once. He tried to get the adults around him to play as well, but they all said, “I don’t want to mess up the phone.” They trusted the 4-year-old to get it right more than they trusted themselves.

You, as a teacher, a parent, a person of adult years, aren’t going to do anything to a gadget, application, or process that can’t be fixed. You just don’t trust that intuitively the way a child does. You aren’t native to this digital world. But you do have to live in it. You do have to use the language and the tools of it to get by. And if you want to thrive in the digital world, you have to learn to play with technology in the same way a child does in order to understand it.

A comment left on my previous post mentioned play, and it reminded me that play is part of what’s missing in teacher training. We do anything but. We’re put under pressure. We put ourselves under more pressure through our own lack of confidence. We start to resent being asked to make so many changes, and we shut down for a time, putting us even further behind…a truly vicious cycle. Much of it does go back to the lack of playfulness in our introduction to technology. We’re told steps. 1, 2, 3, do this. Next. 1, 2, 3, do this.

We don’t take enough time to play around. We don’t take enough time (if any) to discuss lesson ideas, formulate best practices, or research pedagogical theories. Often we’re shown how something works by someone in IT coming at it from an IT perspective rather than from a fellow teacher coming at it from a classroom perspective. We’re told its functionality, and we may not have a clue what that really implies for us and our students. So we don’t follow through because nothing particularly inspired us about the functionality of the thing, and we’re busier than we can handle taking care of stuff we do understand.

But consider this video on “Fun Theory.”

People will do what’s good for them if it’s presented as the more entertaining path. Even students. Even teachers.

Instead of more training sessions with more 1, 2, 3 steps for technology, maybe what the teachers need are some play dates.

Participate if you can’t orchestrate

Participate even if you could orchestrate. Participating in classroom activities means you are experiencing issues and trials along with your students. It means you’re experimenting with them and feeling the joy and pride with them when problems are overcome. Participate, participate, participate.

I don’t remember who said this because I’m not the best note-taker when I’m tired, and I didn’t know names at NWP, but someone at the National Writing Project conference did say that the way to bring more digital and more creative assignments into the classroom is for the teacher to come to the projects as a participant, as a learner and experimenter along with the students.

That’s such a Writing Project mentality, which is why it works for me.

In his book Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, Stuart Selber mentions that one of the biggest deterrents to digital literacies is teacher training. That’s true. It’s also true that one of the biggest reasons more teachers don’t do more to just work with what resources and what training they have is lack of confidence.

If you’re used to being the voice of authority in the room, it’s tough to let your ignorance show. But you’ve got to let go of that if you want to move forward. Accept that mistakes will happen, and just sit down with your students to figure out how to make technology work for you. They’ll teach you a lot, and in doing so, they’ll learn more than they would have if you’d done all the “educating.”

As I heard at the CFTTC conference last spring, we all have to “begin to begin” keeping up with the times. If there’s something you’ve seen another class do, and you wish your own students could accomplish the same, just go for it. Assign it whether you fully understand it or not. You’ve got the whole semester to figure it out with your students.

**Cross-posted to Writerly Haphazardry.