Tag Archives: blog

What Is It About Stories?

I went to a story telling workshop yesterday at the CUNY Graduate Center (GC) with Wendy Luttrell and David Chapin, and it was a lovely departure from business as usual. The gathering was set up with minimal guidance, with a purpose: to see what would evolve. About fifteen (give or take) people came, and we sat around a table for two hours sharing stories, swept up in the tales of other people’s lives. Personal and professional stories alike were shared, and unintentionally, a theme of seeing-but-not-seeing could (loosely) be strung through each of the narratives. One of the facilitators started out by explaining that so often at the GC we pass by one another without seeing each other; I found this to be very powerful, and related to my daily work as a researcher and educator.

The workshop made me want to really think about why story has such important meaning for me. So this post is a brief history to that end.

My grandmother was the queen of story telling in my family — she would string many stories together in one evening, often without taking a breath (or so it seemed). During these sessions I learned about her first love, who died on a U-boat; her journey to America from ‘the other side of the ocean’; how money was always a struggle; and so on. As she was getting sick (about two years ago now), we would spend time on the phone every morning, clucking like hens about the past, present, and future while we knitted. Storytelling and yarn (the wool kind) formed a hybrid language that we shared.

In college, I was required to write a senior thesis, and having lost a close family friend to AIDS in the mid-80s, was determined to do research somehow related to the disease. I ended up spending the summer before my senior year in college in San Francisco, interning at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and their HIV Prevention Program, a needle-exchange program. I interviewed HIV+ intravenous drug users, and spent a lot of time feeling angry about the fact that their voices were rarely heard. This experience would shape my interest in and method of conducting research for years to come.

The summer after my senior year in college, I interned at the New York City AIDS Housing Network. During my time there, the executive director of the organization initiated an oral history project, and part of my work was to interview homeless or formerly homeless, HIV+ individuals about obstacles to housing and health care. During both summer internships, I routinely cried. I couldn’t fathom why a society would so actively silence the voices of people whose needs were so dire.

Then I became a public school teacher in New York City. I was (initially) required to supply my own library; little of what I learned in my masters program was applicable in my classroom; contradiction and inconsistency were the only constants. I found my own voice being silenced, and that of my students and their parents. So I turned to the internet and the emerging blogosphere for hope. And also a megaphone of some kind.

I think that’s why my fascination with blogs is what it is: there is something about blogging that offers a space to be heard and connect. Even if no one reads a post, it’s still there, in a public space, discoverable if you look hard enough. And of course timing is context: I’ve come of age at a time when digital communication has changed everything. I’m sure blogging will take on a different meaning as time marches on, and it will no longer seem so unique. But for now, it is a way to hold stories in a public-yet-private way — something that wasn’t possible before.

For my next post, I’m going to return to my journals from my first years of teaching again. There are many more stories to be told.

Digital Humanities in the Classroom

As I get my feet wet with this public-blogging thing (intentionally public, anyway–this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged publicly, but it’s the first time I’ve done so while trying to capture the attention of a specific audience and string a common thread through my posts), there is a growing pile (digital and otherwise) of things to think and write about. I find that I am accumulating post topics at a much higher frequency than I have time to write about them! This forces me to be judicious with words and space (believe it or not), to critically think through how I might thread several disparate concepts together, and to consider how I’ll use various media to convey the heart of my message.  As informal as blogging can be, the project of maintaining a blog for a specific professional purpose becomes a formalized act that follows a distinct process, much like that of writing a research paper or article manuscript. Which brings me to what inspired this post: last night’s CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative talk with Shannon Mattern and Mark Sample.

Shannon’s presentation in particular, “Beyond the Seminar Paper: Setting New Standards for New Forms of Student Work,” gave me things to think about when it comes to my research.  While I (and many other K-12 public school teachers in NYC) have a knee-jerk reaction against the word “standards,” it was refreshing to hear someone discuss evaluation and assessment in the context of why.  It’s not that I haven’t heard other academics speak about assessment in productive, logical ways; it’s just that so much of my time as a 5th grade teacher was spent producing pretty, neatly formatted assessments because I was forced to, not because it made sense.  One year, using an informal system of notes on a post-it was the accepted form of evaluation; another year, the focus was on rubrics; our heads spun with the rapid changes that seemed episodic and disconnected to the goals of our lessons, and in the interim, the whole purpose of evaluating was lost on many of us. While Shannon has developed a series of evaluative tools along with each project she has developed with her students, it was clear from her presentation that her evaluations were not seemingly random rubrics or checklists like the ones I once compulsorily produced–her evaluations have a specific purpose, and are connected to the larger learning goals of her students’ projects.  I appreciated being a part of this conversation at the higher-ed level–particularly the part that took up questions around support for practitioners.  (And I’d like to see more spaces for conversations like this at the K-12 level.)

So what do we do if we want to use a technological tool we don’t know how to use?  What are the resources available to professionally develop your own skills as instructors–at all educational levels?  And how can the growth of our society’s do-it-yourself (DIY) culture support those endeavors?

Shannon’s talk last night touched briefly on what I hear mentioned often in professional talks lately: getting an academic job is no longer a guarantee once you get your PhD.  I feel like I’ve witnessed the development of this phenomenon first-hand over the last decade, and have to wonder at how it has paralleled the development of technology.  At age 26 (eight years ago), with but two years of teaching 5th grade under my belt, I was hired as an adjunct to teach a course called “Assessment and Evaluation” at a local university.  Not only were the students in my course teaching in grades K-12 (I’d only taught elementary school at that point), the course text (which was dictated by the department) was unbelievably dry and disconnected from most of my students’ daily work, and my students were rightfully frustrated by the course content and my teaching of it.  I had not yet developed the wisdom (which would come several years later and is still evolving) to logically develop a purposeful assessment tool that was accessible to my students and made sense for the larger goals of the project or assignment.  At the time, there were few impressive lines on my CV that related to teaching at the Masters level, and other than being an ambitious, personable young woman with lots of energy and a brightly decorated classroom, I didn’t seem qualified.  So why was I hired?  Surely it couldn’t just be because I was cheap at $2,250 per class (or thereabouts), or that I was referred by an advisor through the New York City Teaching Fellows–I still went through an interview! Was something else happening at the time?  Was it the start of what we are witnessing now, with the disappearance of full-time, tenure-track positions? What does it all have to do with the advances of technology?  I realize I’m tangenting, and again, raising threads that I will want to return to, but all of these thoughts were descending upon my brain last night as I sat and listened to Shannon and Mark talk about their work at their respective institutions. (You can read more about my K-12 teaching experience in my previous post if you’re interested.)

Toward the end of the discussion, someone asked a question about the boundary between teaching tech and teaching content–for instance, at what point does teaching how to use a blog platform detract from the content-specific point of the activity?  I appreciated that both speakers had already intimated in their respective talks that the boundary is blurry and increasingly so–that as pedagogues, we will often be required to move our technological knowledge along independently, and make use of the advances available to us whether there is a PD session to support it or not.  I admit I’m out of the loop when it comes to debating the identifiers of “digital humanities.”  It seems that technology and teaching are so inextricably linked at this point that you cannot teach without bumping into technology somewhere along the way, and vice versa.

If I had more hours in the day, I would spend time looking at how developments in letter-writing and the postal service, television, telephones, automobiles, radio, and other technologies have impacted policies and practices around teaching and learning–this tension surely existed before computers, right?  I can’t imagine the development of automobiles having had the same impact on classroom learning as computers and the internet, but I’m curious about how the education system catches up to advances that move quickly around it.

I’m looking forward to continuing this discussion with you and other friends and colleagues involved in the project of education.

From Journal to Blog

So much has been going on, it’s hard to figure out what to write about!  I was back down at Occupy Wall Street this morning, and I am impressed that it’s still going strong.  It makes me hopeful about what is possible.  In the meantime, I got some helpful feedback about digital organization systems for data from my last post, and will report back about my experience soon. Speaking of experience, my dissertation research stems from my experience in the classroom.  While I have been preparing to start my research in earnest, I have been looking back at my journals, from which I initially constructed blog posts when I was a rookie teacher.  My blog authorship as a teacher was not long-lived, because back then, I still didn’t fully understand the internet and was worried about being found out.  But I still have those journals.  This post might feel incomplete, but I’m going to circle back to it eventually.  In the meantime, here’s a look back:

July 24, 2001.  I don’t know my classroom assignment yet, but it’ll either be 3rd or 4th grade.  I might be in an inconclusion class, which means I’d be one of two co-teachers.  The other teacher would be a special education teacher, and I would fulfill the general education portion of the partnership.  I’m equal parts nervous and excited.  My mentor teacher was late this morning, and the class I’ve been student teaching in all summer went wild.  A game of Simon Says erupted into a fight, and once again, I looked like I had no control over a group of students.  And there are only half as many students as I’ll have in September.  No, I’m probably more nervous than excited.

 July 30, 2001.  We had a guest speaker today in class, who said some of the following things:

  • Never show your emotions.
  • You are not a counselor.  We are here to triage.
  • Do not raise your voice—it’s entertainment to your students.
  • Feel your adultness.
  • If you structure your days with love, your students pick up on that.
  • The contract says you don’t have to break up a fight.
  • After you admonish a child for behavior, call on them next to build them back up.

September 16, 2001.  We still haven’t had a full week of school, and the country is still reeling from September 11th.  I’m not sure I’ve processed what happened.  I’m exhausted, and everything hurts.  I have to write more later.

October 5, 2001.  One 3rd-grade class was split, because the class sizes on the grade were too small.  My 3rd-grade class has only 16 students, and I wonder what will happen.  And why are the classes so small?  I thought overcrowding was a problem in New York City.   When I was in the main office today, I overheard that they are splitting another class.  I just keep thinking that it’s going to be mid-October, and a whole class of students has no idea who their teacher will be for the year.  How are they supposed to feel comfortable in their classrooms? It doesn’t seem fair.

This was all happening almost exactly ten years ago. I can’t believe that someone said, in a class, that “we are here to triage.” What does that even mean?  There was so much talk of not smiling or showing emotions, and it was literally impossible for me to abide by those guidelines.  And what about “feel your adultness”? Thinking back, we were a group of people who spanned twenty-something to fifty-something, but I guess there was a majority of young people—I had just turned 24 at the start of the school year. And why were we talking about breaking up fights when we hadn’t yet learned the fundamentals of teaching children to read?

I have lots more to say on this, and want to tie it back to something I read recently regarding technology in classrooms today, but I think I’ll wait to continue until my next post.

To be continued…

Digital Dissertations

Since I decided that the focus of my research would be online, I’ve had a growing symbiotic relationship with the internet.  I spend most of my time in front of my computer, having a conversation with someone or Google.  I’m always searching for the answer to a question, and the conversation only ceases when I sleep.  I spent about ten days in Costa Rica a year and a half ago, and kept thinking that bug sounds coming from the jungle were text notifications–like many of us these days, I’m almost always on the grid.

So okay.  I’m not saying anything any of us aren’t experiencing at some level right now.  Even if you still have a cell phone that doesn’t connect to the internet, you’re saturated by discussion, information, and images from the internet all day long.  Everywhere you look, people are mid-conversation.  I saw this ad on the subway in March 2010, and took a quick shot of it on my phone because it struck me as meaningful and timely.  I’m not completely sure what the point of the ad is, and it doesn’t make me want to buy the camera, but I note an implication of unity–that we’re all in this together.  (There is also an assumption about equal access to new technologies.)

So the point is: we can’t deny that the way we communicate is changing, and every day brings more digital correspondences than the day before.  I want to know, given this onward march of technology, is it possible that dissertations will start looking like blogs?  Please??

As I started talking with more of my classmates, colleagues, and professors about my ideas for research involving blogs, it often came up in conversation if I would also be blogging as I gathered data.  I knew I would, but I didn’t know if I’d be making it public.  Well, here I am blogging about my ideas as I immerse myself in the digital world of what teachers have to say, and I’m not hiding.  A conversation with an old friend yields the following suggestion: that my blog becomes my dissertation.  I got to thinking about this idea, and chatted with another friend/colleague earlier this evening about it.  It turns out he’s already set his dissertation up as a blog!  It’s divided into an organized set of dropdown menus and categories for easy navigation, and is an evolving work that will culminate in an online publication of sorts.  Seeing his blueprint made me want to pursue the idea of using what I write in Mediated as part of my dissertation.  After all, I did start it to sort out the thoughts cycling through my head every day about teaching, policy, technology, and so on.  I know that writing these posts will be crucial in the actual writing of my dissertation narrative; however, it can’t be as simple as being the dissertation itself.

But I’m thinking about the concept of digital dissertations in earnest now…

In the meantime, I promised my friend I’d find out if anyone had actually submitted a dissertation digitally.  And I’m not talking about uploading a PDF of the tome you’ll deposit at the library in order to graduate, but rather a dynamic web page that is built more like a moveable non-fiction book than something you read cover-to-cover.  We decided we’d both like to know if any exist.

I didn’t find much in a cursory search on Google and Google Scholar, but I imagine something’s out there.  If you know of anyone who’s presented their dissertation online, please forward a link.