Saturday, December 31, 2016

Who might earn an LRNG badge? Cris might; a student profile and some thoughts about data privacy

On a recent trip to the snowy wonderlands of East Lansing, MI, I had the chance to meet up with National Writing Project (NWP) educators who are collaborating on the Sandboxes for Learning project under the warm, demanding guidance of Paul Allison. In preparation for a workshop Paul would take us through, we were asked to write a profile of a student who might earn one of the badges that we are designing along with learning "playlists" that will appear on the platform. I arrived in Michigan a little low on sleep, behind on my playlist draft, and strangely worried about the data privacy questions that I have heard in the last few years accompanying badging efforts in public education. The weekend, and a midwest snowstorm that locked me in a hotel room for an extra day, combined to help me catch some Z's, and catch up on my playlist draft. Conversations about data privacy with Paul and Christina Cantrill from NWP helped me solidify my thinking about student data- a complex and hotly contested issue these days.* Upon my return, I shared this profile with the Cris, the 11th grade subject in question. While Paul and Christina helped me untangle my thoughts about data, I wanted Cris's, my student's, feedback on the data narrative-ish profile I had already shared with that small, safe audience of NWP colleagues. After reading the profile below, he gave me the go-ahead to share it with any audience I wanted. That permission matters when we talk about student data.


Cris is a latino boy who loves soccer, which makes him just like a whole lot of other latino boys in Aurora, Colorado. When he made the varsity soccer team at Rangeview High School this year, he became the envy of so many of his peers who wish they could take the field in what they see as big time Colorado high school athletics. He walked our halls with the confidence of a young man whose high school plans were working out just the way he’d drawn up.

What his peers might not know is that Cris travels to Rangeview from the Montbello section of Denver, which has historically been seen by Denverites as a tough part of town, probably the toughest. Nor did his peers see the worry on Cris’ face at the start of the school year when he was arriving late, or not at all, to first period every day because he was charged with getting his younger siblings ready and off to school before he embarked on his commute. For a student open-enrolling in Aurora Public Schools from Montbello, a seat in my classroom is coveted but tenuous spot. Too many absences would put him in violation of the agreement his family signed and he’d be dispatched back to his home school. Such is the bargain we strike in Colorado, where per-pupil funding doesn’t pay for the educational costs of the living, breathing pupils.

“Mr Dillon, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to get to this class on time,” he said. I saw the worry on his face.

I don’t know how his family made other arrangements after we called them and explained the deal, I just know he comes to class every day now and arrives just before the bell, never showing the early morning weariness that afflicts so many of his English 11 classmates. He usually tries to beat me to the punch with a morning greeting by saying something like, “How about I just teach this class today?” or “Look who’s early!” Another observer might see him as cocky, or as a jock who has the high school experience dialed in, but I see his relief.

A look at his transcript shows that he took honors English as a freshman, but takes general English now, probably to accommodate soccer, his part-time job, and his responsibilities caring for his siblings.

When I asked him to reflect on his view of literacy in a personal essay at the outset of the year, he reflected on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, he wrote:

Shamefully I must admit I have stereotyped individuals from places that I knew nothing about, even Mexico. The media only shows the bad things that go on there like violence and poverty... I just took a trip to Juarez, Mexico this past labor day weekend and what I saw was not violence, and not as much poverty as the media makes it out to be. What I saw was my family living in a place where the community knows it’s people and everyone is a very hard worker from the time the sun rises until it sets. Children play outside more there than here in America. It’s a beautiful place to live. I now have more than one story.      

What he wrote about the media portrayal of Juarez could be just as easily be said about the Denver media’s portrayal of Montbello, and Aurora for that matter. As I try to teach him about nuanced claims, marshalling evidence, and college ready writing, he teaches me about the American dream.

In his limited time on this year, he has left comments on youth poetry and posts about healthcare, race, texting and driving, and abortion. He’s suggested articles for youth researchers in Oakland, and the tone and thoughtfulness of his comments display a civility that I aspire to in my own work. Cris gives me hope, not just for this online community, but the future of the web. Just yesterday, I asked him if he’d be willing to provide other writers with feedback on the way he does with his tablemates in my class. “That’s one way I could let you teach,” I explained.

A broad grin spread across his face and he seemed excited at the prospect of having a platform for leadership. As I prepare to think what an LRNG badge might unlock for Cris, his excitement rubs off on me.

*  In brief, Paul asked some variation of "So what?" and "How does that hurt kids?" while I described my paranoia about sharing student data and as I wove data privacy tales from my experience with badging work. His student-centered focus and critical questioning helped me orient my views as a teacher and student advocate. Christina shared with me what she understood about school districts' interests in badging work that she had gathered from conversations about badging in Boston, MA public schools. Essentially, she affirmed for me that schools need assurances about their ownership of, and access to badges and related data.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How is teaching English a political act?

Ernest Morrell, in his address to the NCTE Conference in 2014, argued that teaching English is a political act and I've been kicking around this claim ever since. English teachers, he said, have an important role in creating the literary canon and a responsibility to culturally diverse learners to ensure the canon reflects diverse identities. Having just attended the #ISTE2016 conference where banners larger than my house told me that I am part of some type of revolution, I'm thinking about how the politics of text selection connect with the politics of emerging media channels and media literacy. I'm wanting to make sure I'm clear about what kind of revolution I'm willing to support.

Screenshot of this tweet by @karenacantrell

The politics of text selection

Part of the politics of teaching English is about the composition of the syllabus or the classroom library. Teachers have an opportunity to select readings from authors with diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, interests and identities. By creating text sets that look like the real world in 2016, an English teacher can establish an increasingly equitable learning experience for young developing readers and writers.

A look at recent events through the always-evolving and always interesting prism of social media shows some of the ways text selection is a political issue. The hashtag #slaverywithasmile tied together a protest and a conversation about "A Birthday Cake for George Washington," a children's book that depicted slavery in a positive light. Public outcry occurred on Twitter, in the comment boxes of Amazon reviews, and then echoed into the traditional media's 24-hour news cycle, all of which led Scholastic to take the rare action of recalling the book.

The recent story of Marley Dias offers another example of how the bookshelf can be a political space. Dia, an 11-year-old from Philadelphia, gained media attention and notoriety for her search for 1000 "black girl books." Her one-girl social action project was spurred by her frustration over being assigned books about white boys and their dogs.

The politics of emerging media channels

Speaking with the Philly Voice, she expressed her goals this way:
"I want to be a magazine editor for my own magazine," she explained, without hesitation. "And I’d also like to continue social action. For the rest of my life.”
English teachers, bibliophiles all, might miss the digital media component of Dias' story if we're too entranced by the story of a young black girl who wants to find books about black girls. We might mistakenly rewrite this story to just be about a girl who looked critically at a bookshelf and demanded better. In the case of #1000blackgirlbooks, it is instructive that Dias named her project with a hashtag. In doing so, she made an instant media channel and initiated an action campaign that moved beyond the bookshelf and into the modern world of agentive activism. We shouldn't gloss over the way this girl saw an injustice and created a media channel to lobby for support.  When she says social action is part of her life's work, that's a far cry from saying she just wants to go read her thousand books.

When CNN reported the story they wrote, "Through word of mouth, the campaign has grown into a global phenomenon." It strikes me that the campaign never would have grown to be a global phenomenon if Dias had relied on the word of mouth.

The story of #1000blackbooks shows how the evolution of texts and communication channels is a political issue that requires teachers- especially English teachers- to look beyond the bookshelf and think about the development of community-ready youth who can leverage emerging communication channels.

The politics of media literacy

It is always possible, and maybe even likely, that a journalist, or a teacher, might not understand how a young girl's creation of a hashtag creates a channel. The use of social media channels for civic action is still niche use.

At the same time our culture is seeing the emergence of the #blacklivesmatter movement, our schools are struggling to make sense of the complexities of Internet access. Until now, people unfamiliar with Twitter could be forgiven (or perhaps applauded) for not using the social platform but educators need to take note when young people who have historically been seen and not heard find their voices and carve out community leadership roles in online spaces. We surely are reaching a tipping point where educators need to understand the web's potential as a civic platform. What schools have seen up until now as an access gap they must now understand as a participation gap in which some students engage with the world beyond the classroom about issues that are relevant to them, while other students might be asked to tackle perceived skill gaps in texts that don't help them understand their place and their power in the modern world.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Since last I met with the DWP's CRWP team

Since last we met, I've continued to incorporate Literacy Design Collaborative module structures in my class. The tasks I've put in front of students have led to different results with the scoring tools we use in this work.

Here are the two we've worked on:
1. After reading Cell One by Adichie, write an essay in which you argue whether Nnamabia is truly innocent in this story. Evaluate how the author uses character development and narrative perspective to complicate his innocence. Use evidence from the text to support your discussion.  
2. What is feminism in 2016? After reading informational texts on feminism and women’s roles in society, write an essay (or podcast) in which you define contemporary feminism and explain how your definition updates or corrects historical connotations of the word. Support your discussion with evidence from the texts you’ve read.

Here's just some of what I've learned:

Reading papers written in response to the first, I noticed that my students made nuanced claims because of their familiarity with the story and the way their comprehension helped them access the task.

With the second task, I noticed that students understood the concept of feminism but struggled to address the part of the question dealing with connotation. As a result, my students wrote simpler claims that showed little nuance.

What I've demo-ed: 

I've demonstrated for my students how signal phrasing can help them present evidence so that a reader can understand that evidence better contextually.

I'm pressing them to describe their sources very specifically to aid in their discussion of the reliability of sources.

What I got excited about AND what I'm grappling with:*

Abby’s share out was a learning experience for me. She talked about a humanities class that she co-teaches. In social studies, her partner is asking students to study a weapon from WW1 and answer how technology impacts the human experience. In her ELA class, she is asking them to read poems that soldiers wrote in the trenches.

Her comments reminded me that the organizer we used last time - skills|noticings|next steps -  might be used best by students in peer conferencing. Her reflection left me thinking how our using sources tool might bridge collaborative opportunities between ELA and SS teachers at Rangeview High.

On the other hand I'm struggling with incorporating daily argument writing right now. I can see the connection between notebook work and argument construction, but I don't think my students can.

*On a more personal but tangential note, I'm still excited about the role of technology in education. Specifically, I'm excited about my ability to chase my children (and my colleagues) with my new Blade Inductrix FPV drone but I struggle to fly it without looking at the aircraft. I wish I could fly it fully FPV.