How & Not What

Part 1: The Request:

The following hit my Outlook in-box yesterday morning from our district Public Relation specialist:


I have a tough ask, but I hope that you can help.

Due to the concerns of our students, staff and community around school safety and security, Jamie [Canandaigua District Superintendent] has authorized me to draft a Digest [Our District Community Newsletter] publication that will focus on the District’s response to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida and the difficult issues brought to the public debate in the wake of that crime. We know this is a very sensitive issue that requires real care from us.

Thus, the theme of the publication is that the Canandaigua City School District’s mission is to “teach kids how to think, not what to think”.

I want to develop a central article entitled “How, not What”, so I’d like to gather your perspectives on what “How, not What” looks like in the classroom. What are your thoughts on how skills such as research, inquiry, argumentation supported by evidence, etc. are taught as they relate to how to think, not what to think?

To help you, maybe you could include some concrete examples around such items as [And you’ll see these in the questions below]:

Part 2: The Q& A:

Andy’s questions gave me a lot to think about, and helped me to reflect on my practice. I’ve put his questions below and my responses to his request in red.

How appropriate research technique is actually taught?

If we are really going to emphasize “How, not What” then classroom spaces need to start with questions. Questions that come from teachers to model what good questions look like and then working with student’s to foster curiosity around topics, and develop questions that they want to seek answers to. This is the foundation of the curriculum in the IB, where all courses are driven by inquiry approaches where students are expected to ask questions, and work together to find answers. It culminates in the capstone project, the Extended Essay, which is supposed to expose the student’s ability to engage in sustained, independent research, and reflect what the student has learned about asking important questions and finding answers.

In English 103, students engage in semester long research projects developed around topics they are passionate about, and perhaps more importantly, we ask that these students take their research and work to make it authentic by sharing through creating informative websites, and then ultimately developing arguments written as, again, authentic texts: blogs, wikis, editorials, op-eds, speeches, problem-solving proposals. In this course, students are guided through research—preliminary phases, information collection, evaluation (more below), synthesis, creation. These students get something very similar in approach to what the IB students get. A course in how to conduct college-level research.

In “Media Maker,” student generation of topics and writing is at the center. There is no “content” in the course other than what the students bring. They are asked to ask questions, and then answer them in their blogs and 20-time projects. All of what students create in the course is driven by their own interests. Thus, they are “researching” all the time—through listening to podcasts, reading others blogs, newspapers, articles, following You-tubers.

Another important part of this, and one that I don’t think we do a good job at, is modeling our own curiosity, learning and research. Teachers need to show their students how they authentically learn.

  • how we have students learn about and develop primary and secondary sources?

I think we do a lot of damage with students when all we focus on is primary and secondary and tertiary.  These distinctions are only somewhat helpful to students when we are trying to get them to think about collecting information. Another damage we do is when we get students to think about sources as objects—when a teacher says I want you to collect 5 sources—an article, a website, a newspaper source—we’re having students think about information only in terms of where the information resides.

We need to get kids to think about sources as PEOPLE. Who is giving us this information? What is the person’s bias or perspective? Who does this person work for? What platform is this person publishing on? Who asked this person to create?

Additionally, we need to get students to think about sources not as primary or secondary or article or database, but in terms of their functionality. How is this source being used? How can I or how should I use this source? What about this source must be included or discarded from my work?

Tomorrow Jamie will be talking to all English 103 classes about his recent encounter with Channel 13. We want our students, who are currently working with evaluation of sources and thinking about fake news, to see what happened between what information he had and how it was portrayed. Their story changed the reality of the situation—they created something that is different from what is actually.

  • what we require in the way of “papers” and where those fall on the developmental scale?

Certainly, for many of our students, the academic essay is an important document to learn how to produce. However, we do a disservice to students when all we ask them to produce is a “paper.” When was the last time you wrote an “academic essay” or a paper. Your writing for Gradudates of Distinction, the article you are producing for the digest move outside of the boundaries of this genre. The pieces that Jeanie writes for the first day of school, the BOE presentations that Matt or Jamie create, the emails that come from Jamie—none of these are academic essays or papers. Many of our students are going to need to write leaving CA, and they’ll make arguments—in editorials, presentations, cover letters, blogs…when we think about the product of research only as a “paper” we’re doing damage.

  • how assignments/projects build to mastery and how that skill is reflected/assessed in subject examinations and short answer essays?
  • How we handle the specifics of the Bill of Rights?
  • How we handle discussion of current events in class?

I didn’t answer these questions. I won’t go into that here, but perhaps there’s another blog post in thinking about making some responses as these questions apply to the English classroom. 

Reflection & Resources

With less than two weeks to go until my presentation on “Media Maker” at the New York State Second English Council conference (@nysec_tweets; #nysec), I’m in full revision and presentation making mode. This work has forced me back into the reading, research and inspiration that I drew on when first making the course two years ago.

This reflection and walking back through the history of my own thinking has been really powerful in reconnecting me to the core of what I hoped, and still hope, to accomplish. Mainly, student blogging provides a powerful tool for students to write to real-world audiences, and a student blog is a powerful tool for showcasing student-centered learning.

Since that time, Jennifer Casa-Todd’s (@JCasaToddSociaLeadia has made concrete for me the need to have students create positive digital identities.

As I’m rereading and surfing my digital, cyber ripcurl, several great resources have emerged:

The good folks at Edublogs, namely Ronnie Burt, Sue Waters and Kathleen Morris, put together a great post “100+ Ideas and Prompts for Student Blogging”. I’ve now got this bookmarked and will use it as a reference for when I’m looking for something fresh to throw to my students. It’s also got great tips for educators who are considering starting blogging in the classroom or creating their own blogs.

Another Edublog’s resource comes from Sue Waters, and it’s part of this year’s Student Blogging Challenge. Her post, “Let’s Learn to Comment,” helps students to have the knowledge of the form and the tools to make substantive comments on other’s writing. It got me thinking about the value in blogging for students as a means to teach how to participate in conversations, both on and off-line.

Through reexamining Troy Hick’s wikispace, I came across Bud Hunt’s “Teaching Blogging Not Blogs,” published on October 19, 2010 and found here. Go deep into his article and read the original post from 2005. Doing so will connect you with Will Richard’s comments on the value of blogs for both student and teacher.

Looking forward to sharing this thinking, and discussing these resources further at NYSEC.

Creation Versus Curation: Feeling Good about Remixing

This post was started on Febuary 10, 2017. It’s been sitting in my draft posts since then, but in light of recent readings, I’ve gone back to it, and as I’ve started to understand more about digital literacy, I’ve seen these issues I was considering in February with greater context.  Below is the draft from February, and then my thinking this week.

From February:

When I started my Media Maker class, I had visions of students creating audio and video podcasts, listicles, web pages and all manner of media designed for the web. More specifically, I had visions of them going out and taking their own pictures and videos, using their phones to generate and create their own content. I saw them being creators who were just like me.

As a blogger, I try to generate as much of my own content as I can. Primarily, that’s easy, because for the most part I’m creating text-based media and written blogs. When I want to incorporate images, I typically pull out my iphone and take pictures. For me, part of the pleasure in blogging and designing a blog post, even as simple as they are, comes from the awareness that I’m making all that content myself. As a writer, it’s always been important to me to write my life, to come up with my own stuff. Blogging allows me to make things myself.

As a teacher, I believe it’s important for students to write about their own thinking and to learn how to develop their own ideas. Growing up in public schools and public colleges, the idea of using other people’s material was frowned upon and plagiarism was an ever looming threat. Also, we’re convinced as teachers, that when students are given choice and power to make their own decisions about learning, they are naturally motivated. So, if I let them write about their own interests and passions, my job as a teacher becomes easier, in a sense, because I just have to work on conferring with them about what they are creating and to help them develop to be their best. And, if I give them choice, then wouldn’t they want to create their own content.

That’s not really what I’m finding.

In Media Maker, students are interested in writing about their own ideas and interests, but more often, they are interested in repurposing content they already find on the web. Often, their repurposing and curating material in spite of me. What I’m seeing in their choice of topics, their driving interests has made me reconsider my stance that creating is really always better.  

What brought me here? In a recent project, students were given the choice to focus either on informative or evaluative writing, and that the end goal was to either create web-based texts that might look like Wikipedia style articles, Consumer Reports-based web-pages, Buzzfeed style listicles. One specific direction that I give to students is that they have to generate the content of their projects themselves, or that content that needs to be cited and acknowledged is appropriately attributed to the correct sources.

I got some great projects:

Best New Cars for Teen Drivers

10 Vacations Before You Die

5 Best Conspiracy Theory Photographs

Best Albums of 2016

20 Best New Video Games of 2016

Evolution of the Mario Bros. Franchise

5 Best Boxed, Instant Macaroni and Cheeses

The topics of each of these projects was completely student driven. They did research and used sources to drive the writing, and integrated the research into their own topics, the commentary, discussion or evaluation necessary to develop each of these topics, and for most, used pictures, images, gifs they found on the web already. In only one of these projects, the one of the macaroni and cheese, did the the student actually take pictures and incorporate them into her project. She went and bought five different kinds of mac-n-cheese, cooked them and then took pictures of the bowls of pasta and the boxes. In all the other projects, students found images, cited them, or in revision of a draft of their project went about citing them. Students know that I pull projects from their blogs or that projects will not be marked “At Standard” if they are not cited properly. As part of our mentor text study, I had students examine and identify how professionally generated web-texts acknowledge both text-based sources and non-text based sources.

As students developed their projects, I quickly realized that the idea of generating their own media for these projects was absurd. Of course, the student who was looking at conspiracy theory photographs of the JFK assassination wouldn’t be able to take his own pictures. The kid making a best albums of the year wouldn’t be able to take pictures. What would the kids writing video game reviews take pictures of? These kids were making the kinds of texts that I wanted them to create, and the kinds of authentic texts found on the web.

I also found myself learning about such texts. For example, when studying Buzzfeed alongside of my students, I realized that much of their media is taken from other places on the web and acknowledged with URLs, only.

If anything, I started to see that repurposing content from the web to your own ends is a relevant skills.

The student ISTE standard 1, Creativity and Innovation, states that students “Create original works as a means of personal or group expression,” and standard 3 states that students “select information sources and digital tools appropriate to the task.” While I don’t know if my student consciously made decisions about these tools, and perhaps grabbed and nabbed digital images from the web because it was the easiest thing to do, I’d like to think that they used what came naturally.

And, that’s where I ended in February. Some thoughts from this week:

If you’ve been following the first week of my 30 day sketchnote challenge, you’ll see that early last week, I read Doug Belshaw’s “Essential Elements of Digital Literacy,” and made an early attempt at sketchnoting. One of these elements is creativity, but his definition of creativity is that in being creative, we make something new and of value, but that something is not necessarily original. For Belshaw the remixing of media, and re-purposing of media is an important part of becoming digitally literate. Use this link to see Belshaw’s Tedx talk.

After reading this, I thought of this draft, decided to brush off the metaphorical dust and get it out there. Belshaw gave me some support for my lines of thinking, and as I start to go back into planning Media Maker for the fall, I can know that students remixing and doing re-genre work on their writing and in their blog creations are worthwhile.


What We Did? First Full Week

Here’s some of the cool stuff we did in the first full week.

One of my favorite lessons of the year comes when I introduce the writing process to my English 101 students by creating with Playdoh. Here are some pics from the pencil holders they create with the stuff.

I first came across this lesson almost 20 years ago, and I did it for a while. When I started teaching freshman composition to high school upper classmen, I knew that I had to bring it back. In a over-tested culture where students learn to write for examinations, I knew I needed a way to have students engage in the steps to the writing process, and pull in diverse learners while doing it. This is a lesson that works.

Taking a quick tangent here, I have a tentative plan to do a 1/2 day design thinking workshop for all of my students in the fall to teach them the design thinking process over the course of the afternoon and then to build aspects of the process into the course content.

In Media Maker, students have begun to create their blogs and are starting to write about topics that they’ll be following in the first five weeks of the semester. A few students have already started to write beyond the requirements of the class and are starting review of favorite games and systems. Using help from Eric Bateman, the librarian, we took pictures of students and are getting ready to use the pictures to create a school wide bulletin board of our work, and QR codes to link pictures with the work were doing. Tomorrow, we’re learning some photoshop basics to get those pictures ready for publication.

As I’ve written about in the past, IB is going to be focused on satire in the first five weeks. I’ve flipped a satire lesson–around the techniques of satire. This was paired with Margaret Atwood’s short story “Rape Fantasies,” and were starting their own blogs to share developing thinking on the Atwood’s novel A Handmaid’s Tale.

Given that it was the first full week of school, the Friday after a late night at Open House, I was dreading the last two periods of the day. However, with the IB students having blogged before class, and having read each other’s blogs, students came fired-up for discussion.

Moving to online writing with two class, and approximately 30 students, I’ve been challenged to see how to follow student work. Certainly Edublogs is a great platform to use to have students publish writing and media to the web, but it is also a cumbersome tool for use as a teacher in attempting to follow, moderate, comment, and look at what students are producing. When we were analog, it was picking up a notebook and turning to the right page. Now we have to find the content, follow links. I’d love suggestions from fellow educators on work flow management when students are blogging.