Combining Launch Cycle with the Writing Process

The writing process has always been one of the core elements of my classroom instruction. Whether teaching Regents-level classes or International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement or other college-level courses, using the ideas of Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins and the writers the the Bard Institute of Writing and Thinking.

In the past year I’ve read A.J. Juliani’s Launch and Empower. Both books have pushed me to consider the connections between the design-thinking cycle and the writing process.

Both have much in common. They each begin in generating ideas, then developing drafts or prototypes, and moving through revision, before ultimately sharing that work with the public.

As contemporary composition research suggests that we should spend more time with students working with real-world audiences, the design thinking process puts an important focus into its process. It asks us to consider what problems we’ll attempt to solve, who we’re solving them for, and how what is being created will address the needs of that group. It’s for this reason that looking at ways we can bring this into the writing process can ultimately benefit students.

Every year, I start my English 101 class with an introductory lesson on the Writing Process. This lesson will get some tweaks by incorporating design-thinking vocabulary that my students and I will use throughout the year.

Below is my preliminary thinking about where the two processes overlap and what writing activities might be part of each part of these processes.

Social Media & Digital Tools Inventory

Reaching for a sketchnote topic yesterday, I thought about the different digital tools I use, for what purposes, and how they help to connect me to other educators, their ideas and the conversations that are important to my learning:

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It’s important to think about how each tool does a 1 part of the job. As educators we need a range of tools to help us accomplish our goals and enhance our own learning.

I’m interested to know what other tools teachers are using to enhance and to develop their practice.


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.


Pop Culture in Practice

This week’s Edublogs Club asked us to consider the role pop culture and pop culture texts play in our classrooms and in our instructional practices.

The Tedx Talk by Mackenzie Matheson argues that pop culture, found in media such as Disney films, provides valuable insights into our world, with narrative that comment on what gender roles are promoted and which are subverted, as well as how these narratives provide powerful socialization tools.

Thus, the use of pop culture in classrooms can be an excellent tool for student engagement and critical pedagogy in the classroom.

Like what Matheson advocates for in her talk, I’ve used Disney films to discuss how media can deliver powerful messages about gender, race, and class. However, what I’ve often found is disdain from my students in such approaches. It’s as if they’re saying, “How dare you try to despoil something from my childhood that I love.” Students want to accept pop culture at face value, to enjoy it as consumers of entertainment. They don’t want to accept that Cinderella promotes duty to cruel and unjust parents, that the little mermaid suggests that women need to change themselves to please men, or that Aladdin perpetuates stereotypes made by Western society about Arabic culture: “It’s Barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” Most of the messages in Disney films come intermixed on the screen with catchy jingles and smooth whistling from characters.

While I agree with Matheson’s ideas–not just her but with other educators who are pop culture-in-classroom proponents–that pop culture is valuable, but I guess I diverge and think that it’s not the quick fix to student disengagement or faltering motivation.

As an aside, Matheson’s talk provides some great analysis of these films. I wonder how she arrived at it. On her own? Or was that part of a classroom assignment or from someone teaching her about media analysis? Was there any research conducted? What were her sources? I have to think a classroom and teacher were in some way responsible, but we won’t know.

Also, I didn’t think her talk added up. There was analysis of Disney films, but in the end her message is identify with a character, fight your Disney battles. I didn’t seem to come together.

Bringing in media and using it is important, but I’ve also found that students access such a diverse and really fragmented array of media, that finding commonality in their tastes is near impossible.

I play, as many of my students do, video games. For weeks now, I’ve been excited to play the new PS4 game Horizon Zero Dawn; however, when I shared this with my classes, not even the gamers new what I was talking about. When I am able to talk about videogames with my gaming students, I realize that we don’t all play on the PS4. Some play on the xbox, some on PC. We play an astounding array of games and in many styles. I love learning from them and I’m inspired. But, even as gamers, we lack commonality.

It seems that we no longer, as a culture, access the same media narrative. Decades ago, there was a commonality–families sat around a radio and listened to a broadcast. And every family in each house and neighborhood was likely to listen to the same thing. Now, each person carries their own metaphorical radio around, and most have them in their pocket; however, that radio plays such a diverse range of media and programming, and that choice gives us power, but it also divides us.

No longer can we count on the idea that everyone watched the latest episode of MASH, or Friends, or Seinfeld the night before and that we can talk about it while circles around the water cooler or over bad cafeteria lunch in the teacher’s lounge. Instead, the water cooler talk revolves around the individual programming of the watcher, and an argument from each on what should be added to the other’s Netflix queue for watching. I myself have trouble remembering what media services my co-workers subscribe to: “Are you on Netflix? No? Hulu? Prime?”

The same goes for students. We can’t expect everyone to have watched PLL, or Lost or Grey’s Anatomy. They’re all watching something different. And if it’s not watching, then they’re all listening, reading, streaming, or Youtube-ing something different. If they aren’t Disney freaks, then they’re into video games or rap or ESPN.  

This makes it almost impossible to have a common framework and approach in using popular media in the classroom.

What’s important is not necessarily the media that I bring, the popular culture media, but that students might bring their own favorite kinds of media into the class space to share, and more importantly to work at evaluate, to review, to analyze, to seek out its messages.

When empowered to work with their own media choices, the results can be great for the individual student. I’ve seen great work done in analyzing gender in Orphan Black and genre mash-up in Firefly. I’ve seen them analyze depictions of masculinity in World of Warcraft. Students do great visual analysis of Seventeen magazine covers. I’ve had students create excellent histories of the Mario franchise.

Where I’ve had the most success is not with what I bring to the table, but when I give them the opportunity to select their own media and texts to work with.

My First 10 Weeks into Edublogs

In my new course Media Maker, using a Pro account, students have each established their own blogs, blog on a weekly basis. These blogs are a combination of responses to class tasks and writing of their own choice. For example, in the last module we completed, students worked on information bases writing projects: they created articles styled after wikipedia entries and Buzzfeed style listicles. So, weekly blogs included reflections on research, summarizing sources and linking reading to the projects they were working to create. Additionally, optional assignment are given to the students where they write product reviews, create photo essays, or conduct and document interviews. All of this writing is put onto the student’s blog.

I’d like to take some time to discuss some of the habits I’ve developed as teacher to manage the use of Edublogs and evaluate some of the strengths and weaknesses I see in Edublogs as a teacher.

Before getting into that, I’ll take a minute to outline my decision to use Edublogs as the primary platform for this class. First, I was looking for something secure and that I had control over as a teacher. Edublogs provides the security to create logins and passwords for those seeking to access these blogs. Thus, it’s easy for parents and peers to be given access, but there’s a layer of difficulty for anyone else. Second, as a teacher with students linked to my class, and the Pro accounts, I have backstage access for control of what students are working on. Here are some examples of where I’ve had to put a degree of influence and control over student work:

  1. Connotation. One student overlooked the directions around blog names provided at the outset, and used the title “How to Make Life Lit.” Because of the connotations around “lit” for students these days, I was able to edit the title, and then send a note to the student on Schoology about my rationale.
  2. Awareness of audience. This second example really brings together a range of blogs and posts from students around the inability of many students to shift language to appropriate contexts. Thus, many students struggle to edit, proofread and shift language so that it’s appropriate to being read by a wide range of audiences on the web. It’s typical for students to write with a lack of using capital letters, to forget apostrophes, to use the lowercase for the first person pronoun.  In some cases, this lack of awareness and ability to apply the rules is so bad, I can just go into the student blog and pull the post. In the best cases, I’ve been able to sit with the student and edit work together to remind and reinforce the rules.
  3. Acceptable and Fair Use. Students are encourage, and really required to use their blogs as a platform for web-based writing. Thus the use of hyperlinks, images, and curated content from the web becomes part of the texts that they must create. However, students often nab photos or other images, but then fail to adequately cite these images. Again, I’m able to get onto a student dashboard, and change the status of posts and pages to draft status until these issues are resolved.

Over the past year, I spent time looking at a variety of other blogging platforms: Medium, Blogger, WordPress. At one point, I considered giving students a choice of platforms, but ultimately decided against such a move. Edublogs gives me something central. And, as I said above, Edublogs provided security that many other platforms cannot give. As part of this, our school internet filters block out WordPress and other blogging sites, often because these platforms contain pornographic content. Because my school has become an Enterprise level Schoology user, I did look at the simplified blog tool that it provides. But, it is highly simplified. For a course where students are blogging as a part of the curriculum, students should have more power and have to grapple with the rich tools that are provided by Edublogs. Still, those looking for an entry platform into student blogging, and who are also using Schoology, would be rewarded by looking into this feature.

Like its parent WordPress, Edublogs has a great deal of control for its users, perhaps too much. And, while I don’t know all nuances, there’s enough that’s super easy to use for teachers and students.

To manage all of this, I’ve developed a few habits. On average, students make a post once a week. It’s easy enough when a post is due, to start to work through the list of students, read their blogs and leave feedback. Blogs are assessed and graded, and I’m able to spot check for student comments, and be on alert for any issues that I discussed above. Students are required to double-post their writing. They post to Edublogs so that their work can be read, but they also post the same assignment to Schoology so that I can mark, edit and comment. This cumbersome for both me and the students.

Edublogs is primarily a blogging tool that has some features that make it useful for a teacher. It’s not a teaching tool and learning management systems that provides high-end blogging features. Trying to manage the blogs for thirty some students is cumbersome and tedious. There’s not a great way to see student blogs. Edublogs could improve its delivery by creating a way to manage individual sections, and within those sections create alphabetical ordering of students. Even better–provide a way to grade those blogs with rubrics and feedback tool that allowed discussion between teacher and student. It would be super nice if there was a level of connectivity between an LMS like Schoology and Edublogs, but what that would look like, I really couldn’t say. At Canandaigua, many in our English department like the way that Schoology and Turnitin connect. Anything to enhance the one-stop-shopping experience.

I’m not going to write about the benefits of blogging with students. There’s a ton of material, resources, groups and others who have written on this topic. One cool thing that’s happen, and actually happened almost immediately when we turned on the blogs was the power it gave to students in the room. Right away, a bunch of my students–mostly gamers–started blogging about games that they were playing, writing reviews of these games, and posting follow-up comments on each other’s blogs. They continue, even now, 10 weeks into the course, to go beyond regular assignments (sometimes in place of them) to keep up these habits. This spoke to me about the power of student blogging to give students a voice and entryway into the discourse communities they want to be part of engaging in conversations with.

Still, there are some places I still need to explore. I realize that in describing the issues that I’ve been working with in this classroom over the past ten weeks, I’ve also stumbled across several issues of the politics of the classroom: Should a teacher be able to exercise control over student blogs and remove content from what they’ve created? What is the value of students creating texts in which they are essentially curating content of the web.


Inspired this week by Katie McFarland’s (@Katiemc827) #slc2016 Maker Challenge, and reading George Couros’ (@gcourcos) The Innovator’s Mindset, I arrived at a major brainstorm, which I’m calling #edmakercamp.

As 21st century educators, we read educational books, create Professional Learning Networks through social media such as Twitter and Pinterest, we attend workshops, we read blogs by other educators who reflect on their practice, we attend edcamps. We spend a great deal of time collecting data and information on educational practice, it becomes and kind of research where we hope that one day we can put it into practice.

Sometimes we do actually find the time to integrate that stuff into our classrooms. We write curriculum in the summer. We spend August creating a new unit. Often, we find ourselves saying, “When I have time.” We spend a Saturdays and evenings writing new lessons or making activities that evolve from our research. But, it’s not easy.

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I’m making a call for “#edmakercamp,” and here’s the idea. Pull together a group of your educational besties–those teachers who you work well with, but who will also hold all members of the group accountable for actually doing work and creating. Then, go find a work space–perhaps some classrooms, a computer lab. However, try to get away from it all and find a place for a retreat, a place where everyone can work without interruption. Fill it with laptops, cameras, paper, markers, scanners. Fill it with maker items. Stock it with everything teachers need to create for a day.

Then, fill it with teachers and administrators who are looking to make.

At #edmakercamp, the purpose is to take all the stuff you’ve been reading and learning about with education, and do the stuff you’ve been looking to do.

If you’re in need of time to think about your practice and want to grow through self-reflection, spend time writing and then blogging. Been wanting to make some Schoology resource pages for your department, do it. Looking to retool that unit on “Revolutions” in your Global class. Looking to implement the PBL in the first semester of your IB Biology class, use #edmakercamp to do it.

It’s not a research and learn time. It’s a time to put those thinkings and ideas, and to create the stuff to implement, so in the next day, weeks, months, next school year, you can pull it out and use it.

Use the group. In bringing people together, spend the first part of your edmakercamp to share, discuss. Get ideas out. What are people going to work on. What will be each campers outcome at the end of the day. Use the first part of your time to get the gears primed for work.

But then, stop the talk, and move into work time, and work as a group to be focused. Commit to quiet work time. If you’re working in groups, great, but be focused and assign someone to keep the group on task. You may need to create quiet spaces and semi-quiet spaces. Have all participants decide on a how long this block of time will be, say “We’re going to make for the next two hours.” Set a timer. Then, at the end of the block, come out of it, grab some snacks, share and discuss. Talk about what you made. After a brief rest, back into work time. 

Bring to your #edmakercamp some people who aren’t making. Bring some helpers. Some people who can scan items, take pictures. If you need a video file converted, that person can do it. This role could be played by a couple of tech-savy students, or a media specialist who sacrifices his or her work time for the benefit of the campers.

We need time as educators to not only read about innovation, but also time to prepare for those innovations and to create the materials that will be put into practice. We need to give ourselves time to reflect through our blogs and share those innovations with our networks.