Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Renewal 2013: Going Back to the Start

Fueled by our #clmooc and Connected Educator-inspired Summer Institute, and spurred on by the engagement our TCs have shown in shifting our site from a paper-based place to a digital place, we decided that this would be the perfect year to hack the Renewal Meeting, a tradition of continuity at our site for the past 25 years.

The Renewal Meeting is a reconvening of the Summer Institute on Teaching Writing, a Friday in early November for the TCs and co-facilitators to come together on campus to reflect on their summer work and to discuss applications (and implications) of that work in the current school year.

At the RIWP these days, we have granted ourselves permission to hack and repurpose systems that no longer work for us, a privilege that many of us are not afforded in our schools or classrooms.

And, here are the facts: We love the home of the RIWP, Alumni House, an old farmhouse that was on the campus long before Rhode Island College moved there from its former downtown Providence location. Our house has eight nonworking fireplaces, a kitchen, and two sometimes working bathrooms. It possesses a funky mildew smell, like a Cape Cod cottage with damp sea air permanently sealed in the walls, and contains outdated computers and a now-defunct copy machine. But, as our federal funding for the RIWP has shrunk down to nothing, our offices are becoming less and less attractive places to write and create and meet. And, having sat around the conference table in Alumni House, in front of a blasting air conditioner, circa 1978, all summer, we were eager to bust out of our routine for the Renewal.

So, I went ahead and planned a fully hacked day of learning events in our local Providence, RI community. It seems that serendipity was smiling on me because when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design's website to investigate what sort of exhibit they were hosting (maybe something relevant to our SI themes of "making and hacking"), I discovered that the RISD Museum was in its final week of an exhibit called "Locally Made." Amazing synchronicity!

When I investigated the schedule of events for the exhibit, I saw that on Friday, November 1, the day of our Renewal Meeting, the museum was hosting a local fiber artist, who'd be displaying her work and talking to visitors about it from 10-12, and then a queer performance artist was moving into the same space to stage her just-written performance piece about a break-up. Two local artists sharing their work and talking about process! Plus, an entire gallery of locally made art. Plus, an entire museum of amazing pieces and installations.

So, I planned the day (a director's task): We would meet at Cafe Choklad in downtown Providence at 8:30. At 10:00, we'd head over to the RISD Museum (where we all got in for free because we are teachers!). At 1:30, we'd leave the Museum and head across the street to grab lunch together and to reflect on the day's "takeaways."

I felt good about the plan, and after I emailed it to the group, I suddenly felt self-concious about my assumption that this group of TCs would want to "be bothered" with all of this: parking in downtown Providence, spending money out of pocket, having a loose plan for the day, not knowing what would happen at the gallery, seeing a queer performance artist (what's that?!), etc. But, I was wrong. The teachers immediately responded with emails like "YAY! I am in!" and "Count me in!" and "Yes! A fieldtrip!" It was clear to me, in about five minutes after sending out this email, that folks needed a change of pace, and that this repurposing of the renewal meeting was just what the doctor (Cook) ordered.

It was a great day. We laughed and smiled and learned and got ideas for teaching and making and writing with our students. We learned a little more about one another, and we got to process the school year so far. We stood and stared at art. We heard working artists talking about their process and their revisions and their failures. We saw a powerful performance piece that brought tears to some of our eyes. We met new friends at our local art museum and formed a relationship with a local artist, Ruth, who invited us all to her studio on the East Side to watch her work. We were living the life of connected educators that day, and it felt so good...a true renewal, and a demonstration of some of the ideas we want to carry forward through our entire year of work at the RIWP.

Hack what doesn't work anymore.
Repurpose old ideas to fit new aspirations and dreams.
Do not hang on to methods and systems that drain us.
Connect to our local community in both obvious and surprising ways.
Honor the capacity in teachers to take risks, to go on adventures, to bust out of our comfort zone.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Repurposing the RIWP

Repurpose: To use or convert for use in another format or product. 

At our opening Executive Board meeting at the RIWP on October 7, we began by repurposing a pile of recycled cardboard, pom-poms, popsicle sticks, shoeboxes and packaging. I had spent the night before roaming around my house, collecting scraps from our recycle bin, our basement (the land of empty boxes), and our kitchen (where I found a bag full of wine corks). I hauled all of this "junk" into the RIWP on Monday afternoon, piled it invitingly in the middle of the conference table, then waited for folks to arrive at 4:30pm.

Our Executive Board this year looks quite different! We have welcomed lots of new members to the Board and have said "goodbye" to some long-standing members who needed a break. Two of our new Executive Board members were drawn from our pool of newly-minted Fellows from the Summer Institute, and another five new members from our federally-funded SEED teacher leadership group from 2012-13. With such a new group, it was time for a new beginning.

As sixteen people starting piling in to Alumni House and gathering around the conference table, some initially wondered what the pile of materials was all about while others grabbed their favorite pieces and began making. I had written this message on the easel, to welcome folks as they arrived:

"Welcome! Your first assignment as an Executive Board member of the RIWP this year is to repurpose some of this junk to make yourself a hacked Executive Nameplate. Grab some materials and start repurposing them! We will spend our first 30 minutes together tinkering, making, and creating."

After reassuring the skeptical folks that we were indeed playing with glue sticks, popsicle sticks and sneaker boxes, and after reiterating that our objective was to hack an Executive Nameplate (that is, making it look as un-Executive as it possibly can!), everybody was on their way. The table was soon aflutter with activity, and our meeting space soon looked and sounded like a third grade art room, cardboard detritus scattered everywhere, the joyful sound of people happily building things with their hands.

Repurposing is our new middle name at the RIWP; it's our new way of thinking, our new way of being, our new way of envisioning professional development that feeds our intellect, our creative souls, and our need for community. As the photo above demonstrates, what emerged from this 30 minutes of human energy, creativity, vision and junk were masterpieces, each one individually crafted and made with intention. Artisan nameplates. Made from junk that was going to get thrown out.

Later, as we went around the table and presented our nameplates, and as each person described their making process and their thinking process, what came to light is that each of us had approached that table of junk through the same door, on the same day, in the same room. But, each of us saw something different in the junk. Each of us was able to look at a pile of cardboard and see the raw materials for creation. Then, we were able to gather those materials, some tools and build. For folks who didn't have a vision right away, who looked into the pile of junk and saw junk, what worked for them was to grab some materials and just begin...gluing, piling, cutting, folding. Once their hands began working, they said, a form and an idea began to take shape. Both Dina and Cynthia said that they didn't know what they were making at first, but, as they started building, a creation emerged: a little book nameplate and a pom-pom purse nameplate, each representing something significant about its maker. This, I think, is in itself an important lesson for teachers of writing. Some kids have the idea right away. Others need to tinker first and find their idea while their hands are busy.

So, what was the point of beginning our first board meeting of the year this way, you ask? Our new Executive Board now has a shared experience in repurposing materials and ideas. We can reference this mini-activity as a sort of tether for other (more ambitious) ideas for repurposing systems that do not work for teachers (or students) and that are not effective in promoting fluent readers and writers. This kind of thinking and doing, for teachers, is especially revolutionary, I believe, because it combines the idea of being subversive with transparency. It's a way of saying, "We've come up with a better way to do this, a more affordable way to do this, a more effective way to do this, and we are sharing our idea with you." This, to me, is what happens when you bring subversive teaching into the Writing Project model: we have a community behind us, a body of knowledge and research behind us, and a national network behind us. We make our work public, we share it across boundaries and disciplines, and we encourage and teach others to do the same.

As we move forward this year at the RIWP, we hope to maintain this momentum in our thinking and practice: repurposing old tools and methods, reworking former beliefs, hacking systems that aren't working, renewing ideas that have grown stagnant. We hope you will consider joining us! If you'd like to learn more about Hacking and Repurposing and how they are relevant to teaching and learning and literacy, here are some excellent places to get started:

Ben Chun’s Ignite Talk about Teaching students to be comfortable with trial and error/tinkering:

Chris Lawrence’s Ignite Talk on creating learning networks/builder communities/design hack jams:
A Learning Party!

Jackie Gerstein’s "The Education I Wish I Had: a challenge to educators"

“Move fast and break things:” Hacking as a way to think about problems, from a Facebook design engineer:  http://www.facebook-studio.com/education/video/55

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Teachers and Students as Makers

This summer at the RIWP, in the Summer Institute on Teaching Writing, we have been exploring what it means to use digital tools in teaching and learning and how to use those tools with intention and purpose. We have come together to re-learn what it means to MAKE stuff in school. We want to instill in our teacher participants the transformative notion of students as producers--as MAKERS--of digital texts.

We began our first week with Digital Introductions, a fantastic creative free-for-all in which we were all to create a digital means of introducing ourselves to the group. Nearly everyone chose a different media and application, and we were thoroughly wow-ed by the results of letting teachers tinker with digital tools. During our first week together, back in the middle of July, we gave ourselves permission to try and fail, to screw up and to make stupid stuff. We also gave ourselves permission to make awesome things, to experiment with tools we had previously been afraid of, to remix and repurpose ideas so that they could live new lives in a digital world.

Here, Emmanuel introduces himself to us using a Six Word Memoir:

In an amazing feat of looping Vines to make a much longer montage, Anne introduces herself to us here:

And, as a third example, here is Kelly's introduction, using a digital tool called Sparkol:

As you sail into August with thoughts of the school year starting to sprout up, think about ways you can MAKE STUFF, both concretely and digitally, with your students this year. Think about ways you can, yourself, as their teacher, make stuff and tinker and show them it's okay. Trust me when I tell you: Making, tinkering, and playing--with digital tools or not--will bring your teaching back to life again. We are all trying to reconstruct what it's like to be a child, someone who learns by engaging and doing and not by obligation, fear or duty.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Renewal at Just the Right Time: The Summer Institute

The Rhode Island Writing Project's Summer Institute begins this morning, and for the first time since arriving at the RIWP in 2004, I will be co-facilitating the SI. In the world of the Writing Project, this is an assignment unlike any other, a coveted post within a network of exceptional teacher leaders, a chance to practice, practice, practice what we preach.

Our first day looks like most Writing Project first days. It will begin with some low-stakes writing and talking, icebreakers and a community-building activity: a partner interviewing activity adapted from an idea in Linda Rief's Seeking Diversity. After that, we will take a break to mingle and talk over muffins, croissants, danish and coffee. Then, we will break into groups and visit stations around the room, responding to these three questions: What does it mean to teach powerfully? What does digital literacy mean to you? What does a writing-centered classroom look like? After examining, writing about, and discussing the results of this activity, we will Introduce Writer's Notebooks (a la Ralph Fletcher's Breathing In, Breathing Out) and do some writing and sharing to close out our first day together: What is your earliest memory as a writer? Of writing?

I look forward to meeting our ten teacher participants in a couple hours. I feel grateful to have this opportunity to work with teachers who are eager to dive in, to learn with their peers and to write with their peers. Stay tuned to see what happens!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hanging on to the Hangout

Today I was scheduled to participate in a webinar hosted by Troy Hicks, Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. Our plan was to discuss, with others from across the country, how we will be using his new book, Crafting Digital Writing, in our Summer Institute on Teaching Writing this year. When I agreed to participate, folks said to me, "We'll be using Google Hangout, okay?" I agreed. Of course it was okay! I'd figure it out!

At the beginning of the week, I went to check out an iPad at User Support Services on my college campus, as my own MacBook has a much-too-old operating system to handle Google Hangout. iPad in hand, I brought it home, charged it up, and proceeded to download the Google Plus and Google Hangout apps in preparation for my big 4:00pm curtain call today. I checked in with folks at NWP and confirmed we were ready to go.

As I sat at the RIWP with my Summer Institute co-facilitator, Madonna, and we watched the clock turn to 4:00, we waited. We checked our email and our text messages as faces and voices began appearing on our screen, the others invited to the Hangout. "How am I supposed to get in on this thing?" I wondered out loud. Madonna wasn't sure. So, she went on her Mac Airbook, and I went on my iPad. We were both frantically trying to find a link or a number or something to help us "dial in" to the Hangout, but no matter which page we visited, from the Educator Innovator page to the NWP website, we couldn't figure out how to connect.

So, the webinar was happening without me. There was Troy and the others, talking at us through the laptop but unable to see or hear me in order to know that I was ready to participate. Here he was, talking about writing digitally with teachers in the SI, and I couldn't figure out how to digitally write my way into this webinar. Minutes seemed like hours, and I heard every word of the ongoing conversation as a missed opportunity. "I feel like I'm standing outside of a nightclub and no one's letting me in," I said to Madonna, ready, after 30 minutes, to quit trying. "Should I just forget it? Are they going to think I blew them off?"

But, technology leaves a trail, thank goodness, and before long, I could hear Troy's voice through the screen, saying to his audience, "Well, it looks like Jenn in Rhode Island is having some technical difficulties," which provided a moment or two of relief, as though the principal had just realized I hadn't skipped school but in fact had gone home sick. But, still, we weren't connected. As a last resort, I logged into my college email account, found a recent email from Paul Oh containing a link and clicked the link. This one act magically transported me into Hangout, where I was instantly beamed onto the bottom of the screen with the others who had gathered at 4:00. Just as my face appeared on the screen, though, we had no audio...

And, then we had double audio, as we had somehow recorded the webinar and then were playing it back, mistakenly, as Troy welcomed me. Here was my chance, with only a few minutes remaining, but I couldn't chime in because for some reason, audio of Troy's voice, and his words from only moments before, were playing in the background on the laptop I was using, preventing him or the others from hearing me as I spoke. The scene at the RIWP during this hour was carnivalesque; we were closing every open window on the laptop, eventually closing out Troy and the Hangout only to have to open it again. We finally shut off the recording/feedback with 4 minutes to go and there I was, finally "on the air." I think I said, "Hi" and maybe one other thing before it was time to sign off. I contributed nothing but I learned a lot. I am sure I will never screw up a Google Hangout again.

My contribution to the brain trust today is that technology is hard. It takes patience, extreme attention to detail (is that a backslash or a frontslash?), repetition, failure, and public humiliation (sometimes) to figure out how technological tools work. I was either brave enough or stupid enough to agree to participate in a webinar in a format I had never even heard of, let alone used or mastered. And, in a sense, that is what I am inviting my teacher participants to do this summer in our SI: to play with technology, to use it and abuse it, to screw it up, to fail at it, to laugh at how hard it is, and to laugh at ourselves and to marvel at how easily it comes to our students.

Despite how frustrating this hour was for me today, and despite the fact that I feel a teensy bit like a technological failure at the moment, Troy's webinar invitation was, in a sense, my own little Professional Development session for the day. I tried it, I wasn't very good at it, and now I know lots more than I did at 3:00pm. Thanks again to the NWP for giving me a little disequilibrium to keep it real.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dr. Cook Finds Allies in Washington

I spent most of last week in DC, attending the National Writing Project's Spring Meeting and meeting with each of the four Rhode Island legislators and their staff--Ciccilline, Langevin, Reed, and Whitehouse--on behalf of teacher professional development, SEED grants, and the Rhode Island Writing Project. I've come away from this experience (my third year lobbying Congress) feeling more hopeful about the way in which the tides may be turning.

Information, especially information about legislation in education, is trickled down to us from the top echelons of government like a slow IV morphine drip: enough to dull the pain, but not enough to overdose. Just look at how slowly word about Common Core and PARCC assessments has been rationed to us; I have known for two years what some teachers are only now finding out (that the PARCC assessments are real, and they're coming, and they're going to drive everything until we put an end to it). This past week, I've had the equivalent of a legislative overdose that was intense yet also eye-opening and surprisingly positive. Unlike the past two years, where the voices of the Tea Party drowned out all others, it seemed, I've returned to Rhode Island feeling that the world of education may not be doomed after all. We have allies in the highest places, and I can't wait to tell you about who they are:

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA)--Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee (wherein lies all the power) and a fan of education appropriations and SEED (Supporting Effective Educator Development) grants (the lifeline of the NWP these days). Though earmarks have been eliminated completely in the House, many members of the Senate still favor the notion of an "appropriation," or money that is directed to a specific purpose as part of a larger bill. The NWP likes appropriations! Our funding was cut the day that the House of Reps eliminated earmarks. Part of the lobbying work of the NWP is to restore the notion of an earmark--or an appropriation (or, even better, guaranteed funding) to the legislative process.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)--He is passionate about middle level education and any efforts to improve middle school students' engagement in learning both in and out of school. By default, a fan of NWP and RIWP, especially vis a vis digital literacies and connected learning.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)--Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies and a big fan of the National Writing Project. Harkin wants to rewrite and reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which could be a legacy move for him, as he's retiring at the end of his current term. There is a slim chance that part of the reauthorization of ESEA could include guaranteed funding for national PD organizations like the NWP. Stay tuned...

I also found allies in our other RI legislators, who were eager to hear about the work we are doing around teacher leadership with our SEED grant, which we were awarded last year, as well as about our successful Spring Conference, Writing Camps for Youth, and work with novice teachers and adjunct writing instructors at Rhode Island College. Our work at the RIWP has grown richer in these lean days, a paradox of sorts that also points to the resourcefulness of teachers and the strong bonds of our Writing Project network.

So much of my energy as Director of the RIWP has been spent trying to create moments of and spaces for good things to happen for teachers, and so much of that work happens in the equivalent of a dimly lit back room, a private space where no one can hear us. Last week, it was great to bring our work at the RIWP into the light of day, to hold it up against the work of other sites, and to present it to those who represent us in the lawmaking chambers. Much like writing this blog post, making our work public, more and more and more and more, is a necessity to survival, as a community, as a profession, as intellectuals. We can no longer afford to stay put in our dimly lit back rooms.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Found Poem Composed While Basking in the Glow of Ernest Morrell’s Keynote Address

 In the 1950s, the average student spoke seven minutes in an entire school year.
Kids are going to be at the peak of their career in 2050, not 1940.
Helping people become better versions of themselves,
To give a young woman the power of her voice for a lifetime.
We need to get over this idea that any change in education in a threat.
Confidence. Relevance. Love.

“I wanted to retire a dreamer, and I did.”
How do we teach?
Who are we teaching?
Why do we teach?
When are we teaching?
Confidence. Relevance. Love.

How can we get kids excited about learning?
To believe in themselves?
They know education is valuable.
They need to know that they are valuable.
We don’t have an ability crisis.
We have an identity crisis.
Confidence. Relevance. Love.

What kind of education will they need?
Teachers have to keep reinventing themselves.
What kids need from you is not necessarily what you were prepared to do.
We have to understand the logic of student disinvestment:
“What you’re doing is completely self-destructive but it’s logical.
Let’s change the logic so it’s not so self-destructive.”
Confidence. Relevance. Love.

If we take out the social dimension of literacy,
We are not really teaching about the power of their literacy.
Why don’t we ask students to write plays?
Why don’t we ask students to write in these powerful genres?
We make films in English class.
Students’ ability to deconstruct media images is a matter of life and death.
How curiosity turns into knowledge.
Confidence. Relevance. Love.

Power concedes nothing without a demand.
A fervent love for the potential of young people.
Our culpability in the explosion of students’ dreams.
It’s not cool to be a nihilist in this profession.
Those who are excellent teachers are guided by love and passion.
Confidence. Relevance. Love.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Peer Review

The concept of peer review is one that gets a lot of press in higher education but not so much in K-12 schooling. I was thinking about peer review tonight, as the RI Writing Project's Spring Conference Committee has just completed its process of reviewing proposals and forming the 2013 conference program. Reviewing conference proposals is a great form of peer review: reading other educators' work and ideas for conference sessions, seeing what others are doing in their classrooms, what other schools/districts/states are doing and thinking around Common Core, literacy, and writing instruction.

Our conference proposal review was a deliberate and thoughtful face-to-face meeting at Old Alumni House last Tuesday evening.  There were eight of us around the table--all Executive Board members and volunteers on the Spring Conference Committee--and we came to the meeting having read "blind" copies of the proposals (contact info/identifying info was taken out). We are:

1. English professor, CCRI
2. middle school teacher
3. middle school teacher (retired)
4. high school English teacher
5. high school English teacher
6. English & secondary education professor, RIC
7. elementary school teacher (retired)
8. curriculum coordinator/literacy coach, K-5 school

We had agreed to a loose scoring rubric to guide our reading, and the 4 items on the rubric were also the four criteria listed in the call for proposals: goals & objectives, content, method of presentation/workshop, and research base. The rubric guided our discussion in that we held each proposal to the same criteria, but our discussion also carefully took into account several "lenses" that we had agreed to beforehand, "lenses" through which we might see each proposal vis a vis this conference, this year, in this context.

Prior to the discussion of proposals, we had put on the easel at the front of the room a few key words and phrases to guide us, those "lenses" to remind us to see each proposal on its own and in the context of the conference. Those key words were:

Audience (who?)
Audience engagement
Purpose (what?)
Keynote (critical pedagogy)
Climate (of education in RI)
Writing Project identity

Once we agreed on this list, we got to work, discussing each proposal's merits and areas in need of improvement and assigning a person to write a response letter, using the notes from our group discussion to guide the letter writing. After a couple hours together, we had worked our way through the pile and had handed out follow-up assignments.

Now, less than a week later, we have a good looking conference program with diverse, smart sessions that are bound to engage writing project teachers. As I organized some data tonight and sat back to take a look at the big picture, I felt proud of this peer review process, proud of those teachers from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and England (!) who sent in proposals and put their work out there for others to see. I'm so proud of the RI Writing Project teachers--the Spring Conference Committee-who have been giving their time and expertise to pull this conference together with resourcefulness, intellect, and charm. I'm proud of our organization, our little ocean state writing project, for weathering the storm so far and for continuing to offer teachers shelter in the storm. Thank goodness for the peer review process, for reminding me of all this, for helping me see what we are good at, what is working.