Writing for Change

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world.”

James Baldwin, American novelist, writer, and civil rights activist

One year to set the dream. Fifty-four days to staff and plan. Forty hours of instruction in a two-week summer academy. We changed lives. Through the use of digital media, students discovered their own style, voice, and potential. On the last day, one father—four months new to our country—came up and asked us how he could get a computer for his daughter. “She must have this tool; I can see that now.”

Writing for Change was a concept created by the San Diego Area Writing Project. Margit Boyesen and Janet Ilko, co-directors of Writing For Change, brought teachers, students and technology together to create a writing experience based on the overarching belief that words create and inspire social justice. Twenty-six students and five teachers spent two weeks of their summer writing about important issues in their lives in ways that were accessible and relevant to them. In so doing, we ended up and using a variety of technologies that were accessible to the students (podcasting, video, glogster, etc.) to explore digital storytelling and create other multimedia compositions.

“Teaching for joy and justice also begins with the non-negotiable belief that all students are capable of brilliance.”Linda Christensen, educator, author, and director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark

The work of Linda Christensen has greatly influenced our work with this project. We, too, have the non-negotiable belief that all students are capable of brilliance, and that has driven our work from the inception of the project. Springboarding from some lessons from Christensen’s work, we sought to provide students with a voice, a space, and the support they needed to express their views. Students came to the academy each day eager to express their views about their lives, and their hopes and ambitions for our world. Samples of student work and lesson reflections are found on other pages in this resource.

Rationale for Writing for Change Summer Camp at a School Site

The San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) has hosted a very successful writing camp on the University of California San Diego campus for many years. In searching for ways to diversify the students who could attend, SDAWP attempted many recruitment strategies with limited success. The leadership team studied the issue, and decided that it was time to try something new. We decided to move the summer writing camp off campus and into a school.

This was SDAWP’s first effort to bring that summer writing experience from the college campus to a school site. We wanted to do more than just provide a satellite program; we wanted to create something new and enticing for kids in their own urban neighborhood. We knew that in attracting new students, we would need a new program. What better way to bring a summer writing academy to urban kids than to bring the academy to them? Why couldn’t we use what students know and love to teach them how to write to inspire others and change their world?

When we first came up with the concept of Writing for Change, our focus was on social justice and the empowerment of students to have a voice. We decided that in the camp we would use the technology available in the school itself. The value of using the technology available at the neighborhood school site allowed us to focus on using it in new and meaningful ways, rather than introducing new technology that students wouldn’t have access to in the fall. Our question at the end of this program was, “Would students and teachers continue to use these tools and strategies into the school year, and what form might that take?”

Our decision proved to be right on the mark. Students who attended the summer program reported back that they continue to write and use the technology tools and skills they learned this past summer. Teachers found creative ways to incorporate this work within the constraints of district-mandated pacing guides, assessments and core curriculum. Assessments now provide a variety of options that include the use of technology to demonstrate mastery or respond to a writing prompt. Students now tell their stories digitally, use technology to research facts and create visual maps of their thinking. Departments and teams are feeling the ripple effect of the work, intentionally and exponentially growing across the site.

At Cajon Valley Middle School there is now a “Writing for Change” after school club. There is now a place on campus where students feel a sense of ownership over their work. They truly are allowed to explore topics of interest. Some students are coming to write fiction together, others are teaming up to write about social issues of importance to them, such as animal rights and graffiti in the neighborhood. Students and teachers are working together to continue the creative work from the summer. Three teachers are volunteering their time and talents to come to the lab and work with students on their self-selected projects two to three days per week. The motivation is not remediation or extra credit, but simply the value of the work that students and teachers want to do. Our hope is to find funding to expand the program this coming summer throughout the entire school district, maintaining our ideal to empower students, one page at a time.

Six Word Memoirs

The Six Word Memoir project came from the work of Smith Magazine, an online publishing site. The idea is that everyone has a story to tell, and some of the best stories are told in only six words. Writing for Change students and teachers each wrote about their lives in only six words, and the words and images were put together in a digital movie format by the students. This work continued into the fall with the Writing for Change afterschool program. The entire school wrote six word memoirs, and the editorial team is in the process of selecting the best of the best and creating an iMovie to be shown both on the website and throughout the school. Again, the work of the summer spills into the school year promoting voice and respect for individuality.

About the Writing for Change Academy

The students had an opportunity to talk about what they enjoy about Writing For Change. We took video over a few days during the program to try to get feedback from a variety of kids.

Components of the Academy

Daily Schedule: 9-12noon

Quick Writes: Every day, students began and ended the academy with reflective writing. The opening writing was always student generated. At the end of the day, students were offered prompts to spark ideas for reflection.

Mini-lessons: There were mini-lessons both in writing and technology every day. For example, the writing lesson based on the “Raised By Poem” lent itself to a mini-lesson on image selection as part of iMovie.

Writing Response Groups: Students were broken into 6 groups (4 per teacher) to share their writing process and get feedback from their peers as they developed their project.

Project Collaboration: Although students each completed a project independently, there was constant collaboration among students and staff. Students worked to support each other in learning iMovie, downloading images, the writing, and just about everything.

Publishing: Students published a W4C DVD, and the work was stored on the Writing For Change website. On the last day of the academy, we hosted a Digital Authors’ Share, where parents, community members and district leaders were invited to view student work.


What students and parents said…

“The writing program last summer was very fun and I learned how to make a podcast. By taking the writing program my writing skills really improved…I use to not like writing but now after the program I really like writing. They made me learn to put all of my thoughts on paper and I am doing really well in my classes in middle school.” ~ Student

“Raised By was my favorite because in my poem I am honoring the women that raised me.” ~ Student

“Reflections were my favorite because I got to express myself” ~ Student

“I liked the ‘I Am poem’ because you could write about what you were passionate about.” ~ Student

“He really enjoyed the class and wished it was longer. He is excited about using technology in writing. I believe it was a good experience for him.” ~ Parent

“Dream BIG, Think BIG, Go BIG!” ~ Co-directors: Janet Ilko and Margit Boyesen

“Raised by…”

“Raised By Samoan Women” by Christiana, based on “Raised by Women” by Kelly Norman Ellis

Based on a poem called “Raised by Women,” in Teaching for Joy and Justice by Linda Christensen (p. 17), students were given the opportunity to write about the influences on their lives. Some students wrote about a particular role model or family member. Some students wrote about being raised by social trends like video games. This particular example highlights the concept “It takes a village to raise a child.” In this piece, Christiana is raised by many influential women. After she created this piece in the summer, she was inspired in the fall to perform a traditional Samoan Dance at her school talent show, honoring the women in the audience who came to see her and providing students at the middle school a glimpse into her culture. It was truly an amazing performance, inspired by this one project.

So What Are Implications For The Future?

Our next steps…

It feels like the real work, the type of writing instruction and learning that we value currently needs to occur after the “required and mandated” work is done. Yet, students and teachers seem to be willing to take that extra time and space because they recognize and value the importance of the “real work”—which if you stop by the lab on any afternoon doesn’t seem like work at all.

Writing For Change is flourishing at Cajon Valley School. Students are coming to create, to share and publish their work. We currently publish on the Cajon Valley School website, our school newspaper and various sites. This coming June, students will be creating a Digital Memoir highlighting their best work from the year, and we will be inviting staff and parents to celebrate our first year.

Looking toward the future, these questions will guide our next steps…

  • How can we as teacher leaders move our school systems to provide the autonomy to create these creative and socially responsible environments that allow both teachers and students to create freely on their own time?
  • How can we secure financial support for this work so all students can participate and materials and tech support can be provided for this type of work?

Isn’t that what we want for the future of education?

Hacking Toys and Sparking Revolutions: #CLMOOC as a catalyst for creative and critical thinking

I have created this resource as a way to document and share our participation in #clmooc during last summer’s (2013) Rhode Island Writing Project’s Summer Institute on Teaching Writing. The NWP’s Invitational Summer Institute is rooted in a 30+ year tradition of bringing K-12 teachers onto college campuses in the summer to reflect on their writing lives, to bolster their teaching practice, to connect with scholarship, and to research new developments and effective trends in teaching and learning. At our site this past summer, we combined the efforts of our SI with those of #clmooc, and we had a truly transformative experience.

Last spring, I agreed to be the CLMOOC Tech Liaison for our site, knowing that it would force me to “up” my tech game. And, it did. I came into this experience as a tentative tech teacher and user in the writing classroom. Sure, I jumped on Twitter every night after dinner, but what did that have to do with teaching? Bolstered and motivated by the energy of the eager tech folks around me, I experimented and played around and figured out a way to make swimming in the sea of tech tools not so scary anymore. So, I am eager to share with you our transformation in the wake of CLMOOC.

[Interesting aside: One of my favorite parts of CLMOOC was (no secret!) hacking toys and plain old messing around with toys in repurposeful ways. I am a self-identified Toy Hacker who, fittingly, lives in Providence, RI, home to Hasbro Toys, founded by Henry and Helal Hassenfeld in 1923, maker of Mr. Potato Head, the original toy hack created in 1952. So, these Rhode Island hacking roots run deep.]

I have posted samples of work completed last summer during the SI: our maker projects (digital intros, toy hacks, hack jams) and plenty of teacher-made vids (using Voicethread, Sparkol, YouTube). I have also included here a few essential handouts that helped frame our practice in terms of digitial citizenship and hacking/systems thinking. Finally, I have included, in my conclusion, some description and analysis of the impact that CLMOOC and the “magic triumverate” of hacking, connected learning, and making has had on our site in Rhode Island.

Digital Intros and Digital Footprints

Our first assignment at the 2013 SI (our entre into Troy Hicks’ Crafting Digital Writing!):

Create a digital introduction to yourself for us, using Animoto, YouTube, Voicethread or Sparkol.

After viewing one another’s vids and discussing the process of introducing ourselves via digital composition, many of us went back to school and used a similar assignment with our students at the beginning of the term. (Pro Tip: anyone can sign up for Animoto and make free 30-second videos)

We tried out other, simpler forms for digital introductions, borrowing from The Daily Create folks at DS106, another CMOOC that welcomes anyone, any time (like the NWP’s #CLMOOC). I highly recommend finding a way to incorporate DS106 into your daily life! Find tons of cool digital composing and storytelling ideas here:

What we noticed about digitally composing an introduction to ourselves (compared to, say, reading a piece out of our Writer’s Notebook) is that it offered lots more room for individuality and creativity. From the tech tool options the teachers had (Sparkol, Voicethread, YouTube, Vine) to the many forms that the content could take (what should we know about you?), each of the 9 teachers in our Institute approached the same exact assignment from different angles and perspectives. This diversity made the “screening” of these introductions feel like a film festival. We loved it so much we watched them all twice.

Following our initial “makes,” we discussed the ethos of digital citizenship and followed the worn paths made by our digital footprints. A good resource for considering Digital Footprint is George Couros: Also see the handout that I’ve attached to this page, one I used in the Summer Institute to get a conversation started about online presence, social networking, and the extent to which each teacher felt comfortable with these tools and systems.

Hack Jams and Systems Thinking

During Week One of our 2013 SI, we introduced the concepts of hacking and systems thinking through an individual Toy Hack, through making paper journals (our Writer’s Notebooks!) out of recycled trash, and then a group Hack Jam with boardgames. We also watched an Ignite talk about Culture Hacking (above) and read some essays on systems thinking in educational settings (links below). These exercises helped us “get inside” the type of thinking and practice we believe is necessary for teachers to thrive and succeed in classrooms that are becoming increasingly structured and scripted. We wanted to graduate teachers who felt empowered as innovators, tinkerers, makers, and thinkers.

The assignment (below) for the Toy Hack, which got us started, was taken from #clmooc:


“Grab an old toy─maybe something that you played with as a kid, or something from the bottom of your kid’s toy box, or perhaps a something that you rescued from abandon in a thrift shop or a yard sale. Study it, consider what it is, think about what it can be. Gather the things necessary to hack it, remix it, or remediate it─your analogue and/or digital tools. Take it apart, put it back together in a different configuration. Add something. Take something away. Make it sparkle. Make it move. Make it light up. Create a digital story, a fan-fiction mash-up, or film a stop-motion animation.”

Figuring out how to transform a toy you know very well into something else purposeful and useful requires divergent thinking, something grownups get out of practice with, in my humble opinion. So, we knew the concept of hacking wouldn’t take hold as long as it only applied to toys and games. How do we hack school? Like Seb Paquet asks in his Ignite talk: How do we find the cracks? How do we fill those cracks with something new, something original?

Our desire to apply the principle of hacking to ineffective school systems led us to an examination of systems thinking, which, in turn, led us to ecological ways of thinking about schools, and then writing, which led us to ecoliteracy and ecocomposition. This is to say that a lot of good can come from a li’l old Toy Hack.

Systems thinking for teachers:

Intro to Systems Thinking (from 1995!!!):

Intro to Ecoliteracy:

Some more on toy hacking from Chad Sansing:

Hacking frees thinking. Hacking gives you permission to break rules and look for alternatives. Hacking challenges the “way it’s always been.”


As we moved into Weeks Two and Three of the SI, this template for our thinking–hacking, repurposing, considering systems–laid a firm foundation for the questioning of school cultures and practices that would arise in our subsequent writing and discussions and, ultimately, in our action and work back in our classrooms.

Digital Stories and Takeaways

At the conclusion of our 3-week SI in 2013, we asked participants to craft a digital composition that captured how their thinking was changed and how they foresee their new digital and connected learning knowledge impacting practice in the 2013-14 school year.

A Constructivist MOOC’s Impact on our Site

I began participating in CLMOOC in June 2013, and soon, my Summer Institute co-facilitator joined me there. By the time we were ready to begin our Summer Institute in July, we were so engaged in CLMOOC that we decided to incorporate the principles and the assignments into our Institute. There were nine teacher participants and two facilitators, and we took parts of the CLMOOC and mixed them together in a way that made sense to us for a three week Institute: Digital Intros and Tools, Hacking and Repurposing, Systems Thinking and Connected Learning.

We were happy to discover that quite a few of the teachers in the SI had savvy tech skills: a library media specialist, in particular, and a handful of younger teachers who were all over cool apps and embed codes and ways to edit video and link Vines. Everyone got on board the digital express right away, even though a couple teachers were vocal about not having any prior knowledge to put to use. The HIVE effect took hold every day during the SI, though, a busy buzzing table, alive with power cords and screeching delight because “It worked!” and “Come look at this!” We helped each other; it was a digital workshop (see photo above). We were witness to the fact that the digital world brings a whole new kind of wonder into the classroom. It also brings all the secret tech experts out of the woodwork! Who knew?

CLMOOC also brought back to our site the idea of teachers as artists, as creators, designers, players, laughers, makers, builders, thinkers, problemsolvers. It reminded us, like MIT’s famous Lifelong Kindergarten, to see our teaching “in the spirit of the blocks and fingerpaint of kindergarten.” There is just simply not enough play in schooling and formal education, so we seek alternative spaces where learning can interface with laughter and silliness.

Since our Summer 2013 CLMOOC experience, we have had several events at our site that have featured the principles of connected learning. We held our Summer Institute Renewal Meeting, for the first time in over two decades, somewhere besides our college campus. In a city rich with art outlets, we decided to visit the “Locally Made” exhibit at the RISD Museum in Noveber for a full-day fieldtrip excursion. In addition, Digital Composition and Hacking/Tinkering were proposal categories on our Call for Proposals for our annual Spring Conference in March, which this year features 4 digital sessions and 3 sessions on creative hacking/repurposing in the classroom. Finally, we are in the beginning stages of planning a partnership with our local National Parks Service Memorial here in Providence, the Roger Williams Memorial, which feels like an extension of CLMOOC simply because it is rooted in and local community and an urban green space and it is connected to local and national history and story. Additionally, we look forward to our 2014 Summer Institute and more MOOCs from the NWP. I feel a shift at our site. We are looking outward more; CLMOOC helped us reimagine, redefine our community and our resources. It has also infused our site’s culture with something new, exciting, limitless, and malleable.

Karen Fasimpaur, in her excellent post about CLMOOC,, describes it as this: “Wanting to emphasize this effort as a connectivist peer learning experience, they called it a massive open online “collaboration” rather than a “course. Designed for educators, #clmooc was focused on the ideas of creating things and the do-it-yourself ethos of the Maker Movement. It was open to anyone interested in making and creativity and learning, and the entire experience was grounded in Connected Learning principles.” Connect. Collaborate. Create. Make. I can feel how these principles and practices introduced to us by last year’s #clmooc have transformed our site. We were waiting for the right kind of inspiration to come along, and I think this is it.

Composing 5-Image Stories: Reflections and Connections from #clmooc

On behalf of the Hudson Valley Writing Project, we want to thank you all for inviting us to share in this wonderful experience of making 5-Image Stories. We were blown away by how everyone took our simple idea and truly made it their own in such creative and touching ways. Our goal was to plant a seed in everyone’s mind about a way to inspire students while fostering creativity through looking at composing in a fresh way. By looking at the various ways that stories were told, we think you got the idea.

Though we did not really know what we were getting ourselves into, it was definitely an enjoyable and enlightening experience. The power of a connected community of learners is always something that continues to be impressive. The posts to Google+, additions to the Make Bank and the conversations in the Hangout and in the Twitter Chat pushed our thinking not only around the idea of the 5-Image Story and what it means to compose and communicate with images, but also what it might mean for teachers in real classrooms around the world.

We started this week with an idea that was not original. The work of the 5-Image Story stands on the shoulders of many people that have experimented with the concept both in and out of the classroom. From past experiences with both teachers and students, we at the HVWP felt that it would be an interesting approach to bring to the CLMOOC and we were anxious to see how the community would push the idea and shape it into new directions. Of course, the conversations and participation this week were beyond our wildest dreams.

Early on in the week Kevin Hodgson, suggested the 5-Emoji Story which, in his words, was “Harder than you would think.” This type of composing, seemingly simple but in fact complex, no doubt left many a CLMOOCer puzzling over the funky smileys built into the alternative keyboards of their various devices. Definitely check out #clmooc on Twitter and the G+ community for some of the work Kevin inspired.

Along with the thriving posts on G+, the Make Bank, and thoughtful reflections in the Blog Hub, we were thrilled to be able to share some of the work with 5-Image Stories that we have been doing here at HVWP during the Tuesday night Make with Me. It was encouraging to see how open teachers were to bring this not just to an ELA classroom, but across many different content areas.

Monica Tienda joined us fresh from a math conference and discussed how she saw 5-Image Stories integrating with the “deep math” work she had been doing over the past three weeks. The content area connections were fast and furious as Andrea Tejedor and Bonnie Kaplan shared with us how a variety of content teachers in her school had used 5-Image Stories in both Science in Social Studies. The Make with Me really got us thinking about the 5-Image Story as being capable of so much more than just a pre-writing tool. In another great conversation, participants discussed how technology would not be a breaking point and how this work could easily represent itself in analog form (and, in some cases, maybe it should).

As with any group of smart, motivated people, the CLMOOC continued to push our thinking during the Twitter Chat on Thursday as participants debated whether it was better to introduce the 5-Image Story by giving students images or to have them create their own. We also explored the various timings of how to include this work in the curriculum. For some people it was clear that this strategy would work well early in a unit or content area of study to give students an easy entry point into new content. For others, it made sense to apply the 5-Image Story as a processing tool later on in the area of study.  We think the group as a whole would agree that as with any powerful strategy, the implementation is up to the teacher to find where and how it would work best for a given curriculum with a particular set of students.

The week was a barrage of images, apps, websites, tools, ideas, mixing, making and remaking that offers not a final idea but a place to start to explore a practice that could take many different directions and look very different in various contexts.

This week’s theme got us to explore what it means to compose visually within constraints that help us examine our work critically, as well as what it means to be creative through necessity. It caused us to plan, compose, rethink, and use ingenuity. It opened us up to a variety of tools like Tapestry (though sadly we will have to find a replacement), Steller, Storehouse, Storybird, and Google Slides and in a pinch, good ole Microsoft Word.

It was exciting to have the educators in our current summer institute benefit from this work as they got messy with the same 5-Image Stories in a workshop, working first collaboratively and then on their own digital pieces. Probably the greatest challenge for the group was finding the right tool to use, given the fact that “free” apps often have strings attached. But that messiness of this work is an essential part of the process. Ultimately everyone created something and thought deeply about how this strategy might be used in their classrooms.

Many of the collaborators in the CLMOOC community played around with how to tell their story from Mary Ellen B’s beautiful collage to Larry Hewett’s powerful personal narrative told through slides. Kevin Hodgson and Michelle Stein showed us how we might have a collaborative effort in making a storybook by each contributing a connected five images.

However, the idea of using images and thinking about their relationship to composition and communication is a lens that feels like it will be useful in many different ways as we prepare to return to our classrooms and other teaching/learning contexts in the coming weeks. Our hope is that we will all feel a bit more confident when working with images, composition and writing with their students having walked the walk ourselves.

For reflecting further on Make Cycle #6 we invite you to elaborate on your experiences with the 5-Image Story in longer form. Consider a blog post to explore the idea about the power of images and how that can inspire writing.  We would love to hear about your experiences this week with the 5-Image Story and how you do or might use this great strategy in your classrooms, your Connected Learning context, and/or in your role as an instructional leader.

What’s Ahead

Keep making and sharing your stories and elaborations! The final cycle—the Connected Learning Reflections and Connections week—will kick off on Monday. We will reflect upon and celebrate all the connections, community and meaning we’ve been making together here at CLMOOC while asking ourselves how we will take the summer goodness forward into our other learning contexts. So stay tuned!

Thank you for having us this week and with that we leave you with 5 Images of Thanks from the HVWP!

Jack, Bonnie, Marc & Andrea

Storytelling with Light: Reflections and Illuminations from #clmooc

There were a lot of fantastic projects on the G+ community! Here are a few that struck our fancy and inspired our making:

Kevin Hodgson’s constellation charts that kickstarted so many fantastic stories! We loved how this became a collaborative project, with all of the stories creating individual chapters, building on each other. The stories were wonderful, almost poetry. Also, check out the Flickr pool Kevin started, “Painting with Light.”

Michelle Stein’s paper punch-outs were the natural progression of this project, moving from the computer to the physical world. It was gorgeous and simple, and we liked how it was the perfect mix of playfulness with materials and form. We can only imagine the trial-and-error of lighting, materials, and photography it took to get that video. It also reminded us of the opening lines of Insomniac by Sylvia Plath:

The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole —

Craig Russell’s shadow math was absolutely mesmerising. We’ve never seen someone suggest a story about math through shadows before. This is a great example of showing something abstract through a visual representation, translating one discipline into a form that may be more understandable for certain types of learners.

Another great storytelling using light project was told with some simple materials—a flashlight, tissue paper, and a camera. Babes told the story of the experience of life as seen from the perspective of a baby in the womb. In particular, we liked Susan Watson’s sense of play with materials, and how she let her perceptions and instinct guide the story. She tinkered!

“I wanted to try using a small light source in a dark room. So, I waited until night, got my tiny flashlight, and closed my bedroom door. Once inside what felt like a cave, I turned on the flashlight and began to play with light and effects.  In the midst of this, I realized that I felt like I was seeing everything, perhaps, as a baby in utero might see it – small orbs of light surrounded by darkness.”

Larry Hewett’s Lightning Bug story that he created with his students is beautiful, and exactly what we’re all about! We’re glad he brought the prompt, and the spirit of experimentation and collaboration to his classroom.

In the Make With Me hangout we got a great opportunity to talk about physical making and how we lead these types of workshops at libraries across Philadelphia. Some interesting questions were raised about the long, often under-acknowledged history of tinkering, and how it’s come full circle with the maker movement, and with new resources, most notably the Internet as a purchasing, sharing, and knowledge-building resource. We also talked about weaving together maker activities and literacy/storytelling (it’s possible!) and how that often gives youth the chance to personalize and give meaning to the object they’re creating in production-centered ways.

Something we didn’t discuss much during the hangout was the learning theory Constructionism, coined by MIT professor Seymour Papert. Papert claimed that people construct new knowledge when they’re creating something personally meaningful, and sharing that within their community. A special kind of Connected Learning happens when you’re engaged in the making process, that doesn’t happen when you’re in a traditional lecture-style classroom. It enables the learner to be creative, and to follow the germ of an idea, something that doesn’t happen in many no-frills schools where students are tested solely on their ability to answer a question correctly.

We enjoyed the Twitter chat quite a bit, and got a good chance to see what projects people liked best and felt most engaged with. One tangent of the conversation resonated with several people in the chat, specifically the question “What is a story?” It was interesting and completely unexpected for us to see this conversation unfold. Our intention of the Make Cycle and Twitter chat was explore making materials and storytelling processes, rather than focus on the inherent “story-ness” of a story, but thus it is in an open learning environment, and we welcome it. In fact, the group decided they wanted to continue on this avenue, and next week, Tuesday, July 22nd at 5PM EST will be a special Hangout all about making and storytelling.

Reflections on Making: Being Okay with Being a N00b

So much of our dive into making depends on our own creativity and willingness to loosen the reins on what we think we’re capable of learning and doing. This is a lesson that everyone on the Maker Jawn team has had to face (several times)—putting ourselves into the uncomfortable position of being a novice and a learner. What happens when we have to be the one asking questions? What happens when we have to play with new materials that we haven’t mastered? What happens when we try to create something, and it doesn’t “work” or have our intended result? We have often found that it’s frustrating, and sometimes panic-inducing.

Our advice? Give ourselves the time, safety, comfort, and freedom to play. We are not going to get whatever we are aiming to do “right” the first time, so we work to accept that now. And if we are open to failing repeatedly, we are going to be more more open to discovering something that interests us as we tinker. Our Maker Jawn model of community/library-embedded making is to create a socially safe environment where failure is accepted as part of the design and connected learning process.

We think that by opening up psychological space and possibilities, we increase access to maker, STEM, STEAM, etc, to more  people—the kinds of people who aren’t going to be the first in line to sign up for a robotics class. We want to attract the youth and the adults who are intimidated by technology. Often, they tend to be the ones who create the most interesting things, and can be taught to see technology as a tool, rather than as an end in itself. How can you use technology and how can you use something like an LED to construct meaning out of the world? How can you use it to tell a story? Can you put yourself in the role of a learner, and let a youth teach you? Maybe even discover new tools and pathways together?

What’s Ahead

Continue making! Please experiment with new tools (glowdoodle is a great place to start! or the long-exposure photography app!) and keep posting on the G+ community! The sixth Make Cycle led by the Hudson Valley Writing Project begins on Monday.

We look forward to seeing more projects, and if you have any questions for us throw them out on the G+ community! We’d love to keep the conversation going.

All our CLMOOC love,
The Maker Jawn Initiative (as represented by K-Fai Steele, Sari Widman, Goda Trakumaite, Coco Shin, and BK)

Hack Your Writing: Reflections and Connections from #clmooc

In addition to inspirational make posts and blog reflections, this week was chock-full of fun events, including a Tuesday night “Make with Me,” the celebration of Hack Your Notebook Day on Wednesday, July 10, an additional special Live Hangout on Air with Meenoo Rami Thursday morning, and a “Special Make with Me” Thursday afternoon, featuring participants from the Kean University Writing Project. Shoutouts to our fabulous panel of guests: Meenoo Rami, Kim Kiefer, Dana Cansian, MaryEllen Banfield, and Christina Cantrill (from behind the scenes).

While Hack Your Notebook Day was celebrated internationally on July 9, the Kean University Writing Project lit up with the creative possibilities awaiting us in our Paper Circuitry workshop (click on the photo to the left to see more).

We’re still giddy with excitement over our visit with Thrive author Meenoo Rami, who also participated in the day’s paper circuitry hack events. While she had fun making and learning with us on Wednesday, we learned from an insightful discussion with her about the power of teacher and student agency in the classroom. Creating a network of thoughtful, driven, like-minded folks in your school, district, social media communities, and beyond, learning from “the classroom teacher across the hall, or across the U.S.” is an extraordinary gift of reciprocity. Meenoo’s chat with our TCs dovetailed so nicely with the paper circuitry work the day before, and the conversation invariably continued to flow into our afternoon “Make with Me” Google Hangout. We hope that some of the inspiration we have experienced this week was also felt in our network beyond campus.

Many thanks to Ian O’Byrne, Michael Wellner, and company for the “playful” Twitter chat we had on Thursday evening. There were a lot of LOLs. It is clear that the overall hacking theme seemed to draw out a little fun in us. We discussed the notion of hacking as remix with an element of ownership. We also agreed that hacking-as-revoicing text is acceptable for the purposes of innovative remix so long as attribution is taken into account.


On some level, hacking has emerged as a form of mischief making. To hack is to discover ideological agendas, to revoice a text, to “mess” with an original perceived intent. And hacking can indeed be messy and even convoluted at times. But what is broken and twisted can also beautiful. Hacking can be a bearer of new knowledge.

There are so many questions that have emerged collectively as we have explored writing-as-hacking together this week. When do we know when a “hack” is a successful one? Does a “hack” need to move beyond structural remix and simple translation to an identifiable new level of meaning-production in order for it to be successful? The inherent question of plagiarism, cheating, (even of plagiarizing oneself) have come up, prompting us all to think about the ethics of imitation. Is it possible to conceive of an “ethics” of hacking practices when applied to writing? In the end, “remix is conversation” (to quote Chris Lawrence from Mozilla.) The highly participatory nature of the cultural moment we live in demands a new kind of critical literacy. As educators we want to empower our students to become engaged complex thinkers. Meenoo Rami stated “I want my students to code, decode, make, break things. I want them to shape an argument, to engage civically, to be critical thinkers.” Perhaps hacking (as a methodology applied to writing) might help us get there.

In this Make Cycle we have discovered together that hacking might expand an entry point for writing and writing/making for our students. For reflecting further on Make Cycle #4, we invite you to elaborate on your experiences with Hacking Your Writing this week in longer form. You can always add your thoughts on this topic in this Vialogue. Consider a blog post to explore the idea that writing is indeed a kind of making. Or perhaps you might further reflect on the hacking-as-writing concept a bit more by trying a “Make a Case” exercise? Regardless of form, we would appreciate hearing about your making processes (i.e. your successes, failures, iterations, ah-ha moments, stuck places, and everything in between). Record and share out to the community your insights about “hacking as writing”. What are your perceptions of the possible ties to Connected Learning? What ways might hacking be incorporated in your classrooms? And what influence might “hacking” play in your role as an educational leader?

What’s Ahead

We look forward to what you continue to share in Make Cycle #5. (Nor is it too late to share a “How To Guide”, continue making “Memes”, tinker with “Games”, or “Hack Your Writing”). The fifth Make Cycle begins on Monday and facilitators from Maker Jawn in Philadelphia of the YOUMedia Network who will bring storytelling and further illuminations into our Connected Learning space. We’re excited to continue the call to make, learn, and play next week. Until then, keep hacking and reflecting!

Our most sincere thanks for an enlightening and empowering engagement this week,

Erica Holan Lucci & Mia Zamora,
Kean University Writing Project

Making, Playing, and Hacking Games: Reflections and Connections from #clmoooc

The most important thing to know about this game is that if you are reflecting, you’re winning. This larger game is about making sense of what we do in CLMOOC, signing on to think together in shifting ways usually for no credentials, no certificates. We just ante in and learn together in open collaboration—to make and play, share and learn; to write and see what response comes back, what bread comes back on the waters.

“Box” Contents

1087 people subscribed to the blog and receiving the newsletters, 1595 in the G+ Community (which includes folks from last year), 54 blogs in the hub as of today … and um, this much activity via twitter: Tweet Archivist=#clmooc

The parts keep evolving and the rules, too. Will you?

How to Set Up

Take out the old card table or kneel down next to that circle of string and marbles. If no one brings their Connected Learning principles, this game will be over before it starts. Will you bring yours just to be safe? Here’s one set up, but there are more and better—yours.


The game begins when you start to make meaning of what you have experienced in this distributed digital space that has drawn us all together, and in the spaces you’ve taken your play and learning during the week. You never have to wait your turn but if you draw a blank you can choose to skip a turn. You can pass until you’re sparked by what someone else reflects or decides. Someone like…well, you know the usual suspects, but there are others as well, some lurking, some undiscovered, some just waiting to be invoked like a blank tile in Scrabble.


If you reflected, you won. Any players with any points at the end of this reflection game win. (Maybe this is too many winners, but we don’t think so.) After all our game rewards the Connected Learning core values of Equity, Social Connection and Full Participation.


In CLMOOC you score yourself and do with that score whatever you need to as an educator and a learner. As players ante up their reflections, give CLMOOC one point every time we articulate our shared purpose as educators committed to games, play and learning. Give yourself 10 points every time you make a commitment to stretch yourself and your practice as a result of game week. Lurkers win, too. Lurkers get 10 points by observing and quietly practicing. (Only you know who you are.) Ten more points if you join in the play with the community. Give yourself 10 points every time you share that commitment with those around you in digital spaces… and in all those spaces constructed of bricks, mortar, drywall and carpet; spaces like classrooms, libraries, museums and parks. Give yourself a point every time you laugh while you reflect.

What’s ahead

Beginning on Monday, Mia Zamora and Erica Holan Lucci from the Kean University Writing Project will invite us to hack our writing. It promises to be a creative week. We’re looking forward to making with Mia, Erica, and everyone in our broadening community. We always look forward to seeing contributions related to How-to guides and memes. We also hope this exploration of games helps us continue to weave play into our learning.

Memes Madness! Reflections and Connections from #clmooc

Beyond the makes themselves, many participants shared compelling blog posts focused on complicating and extending our thinking about memes. Shyam Sharma’s thoughtful considering of the variations of meaning attributed to owls led to an inquiry into the memes of writing across cultural bounds. Shyam’s post inspired Maha Bali to write about the complications of using even seemingly “natural” animal symbols like dogs, cows, and pigs, finally leading to some thoughts about rhizomatic learning. Chris Campbell took the concept of the meme and applied it to the ways that references work in films, and by extension invited us to think about what the rich knowledge of cultural memes, broadly considered, provides for us.

In our Twitter chat Thursday, we were struck by the connections being made between writing memes and writing in more familiar genres: even when we’re composing with images, we’re still considering purpose, context, audience, and the affordances (and limitations) of form. These writing practices—with their focus on context, audience, and purpose—may be “the basics” we can work with as we support students. Perhaps we can move from our “old” memes—the five paragraph essay comes to mind—and toward  “new memes” for education such as participation and collaboration. How do we turn the principles of Connected Learning into memes that spread in educational settings? How do we condense complex ideas—openly networked, peer supported, and production centered learning—down to a morsel? As Peter Kittle’s Ignite talk reminds us: “Education needs better memes.”

Reflecting on Memes and Meme-Making

Memes in their most-common online form are the very incarnation of brevity. For reflecting on Make Cycle #2, we invite you to elaborate on your experiences with memes this week in a longer form. Maybe you’d like to reflect using one of the tools people used in their Make Cycle #1 How To projects (a ThingLink? a Hackpad? a Canva? a HaikuDeck?) to create a “How to think about memes and education” project. Perhaps a blog post would better suit your purposes (see Mindy Early’s “Mentorship and Writing Economically” post, or Peter Kittle’s NWP 40th blog post to see how memes and blogging can work together). Regardless of form, we would appreciate hearing about your making processes (successes, failures, iterations, ah-ha moments, stuck places, and everything in between), your insights about memes, your perceptions of ties to Connected Learning, and your thinking about the roles memes could play in your classrooms, and in your roles as educational leaders.

What’s Ahead

We look forward to what you continue to share in Make Cycle #3. (Nor is it too late to share a How To Guide from Make Cycle #1, or to continue making memes). The third Make Cycle begins on Monday and facilitators Terry Elliot from the Western Kentucky Writing Project and Joe Dillon from the Denver Writing Project will bring games and gaming into our Connected Learning space. We’re excited to make, learn, and play next week. Until then, keep meming and reflecting!

Making How-to Guides: Reflections and Connections from #clmooc

What people made and shared during this cycle illustrated their fascinations and expertise. We connected this to the Connected Learning principle of being Interest-Powered. We wanted people to share something that interests them and, in turn, share something about who they are. You could share something simple but inspiring from your daily life, like Dana Cansian did when she shared how to create a handy budget at your fingertips. You can also try making something no-tech and new to you, like Lauren Goldberg’s first cartoon ever. You can even make multiple makes, like JoLynne Martinez who jumped in the first day with how to be a novice teacher, and then was inspired by all the other makes to also make with How to Go Dancing When You’re Lesson Planning Late at Night. Or, if you feel so inclined, you can take on a complicated tool that inspires people to try it out, like Michael Buist’s fascinating revelation about a new use for Koolaid, which inspired Suzanne Linder and many others to try out ThingLink. These are just a few examples of how people’s interests expanded as they shared and connected.

The Power of the list

“The list is the origin of the culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does a culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order—not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.” Umberto Eco

One means of reflection we want to suggest this week is to write list(s).

This idea is derived from the Make a Case portion of CLMOOC and mentioned by Anna Smith at the tailend of our Make With Me Google Hangout. We invite you to check it out and remind you that this example is one iteration of endless possibilities. Do not feel like you need to stick to our script. In fact here are some other ones: Clarissa’s Make Log, Peter’s list of tools, and Kevin’s Flipboard about the How To Make Cycle.

Chris’s List

What I’ve Made So Far:

What I’m Working On:

  • How To Enjoy Boise Remix – Zeega
  • Curation of How To’s – Flipboard
  • Wrapping up #F5F

What I Want to Work On in the Future:

  • Curate a Twitter Chat for a Future Make Cycle – Storify
  • Co-Making something with someone like Michael Buist? – Padlet?
  • My Very Own Blog/Webspace – WordPress
  • ???? – Canva

It’s as simple as that. Three lists. I’ll admit it’s a little scary to share it with everyone. While I wrote it I kept thinking: What if I don’t get to the things I want to work on? What if I don’t finish the things I started? What if people make way more awesome stuff than me or they think what I made is lame? What will people think!?! Each doubt had the same reply: There are no scorekeepers or judges in CLMOOC. It’s about making, connecting, and learning. Like Mary Ellen B sharing the finer points of repurposing fishing rods or an exchange about how to address audience members that are hearing impaired.

You don’t have to share your list(s) with everyone or compare with mine, but we invite you to write and reflect on where you’re at in the CLMOOC universe at this particular moment in time and space. Whether you’re looking back, like Mrs. Shroeder, or onto the next Make Cycle, like Kim Douillard, we encourage you to share your musings by including your blog in the Blog Hub. Reflection is another means to apply the Connected Learning principles of being Interest-Powered and Production Centered by considering what you’re making and interests are now, and what your orientation is for the immediate future.


The list is a powerful tool that also prompted some reflection questions. The Maker’s Notes document has some strong reflection questions as well. Questions are at the heart of reflection and embody the academically oriented part of Connected Learning, naming what’s taking place and why.

What did you learn from what you’ve already made?

Making with the help of others is so much easier! (Make: How to Be a Dad) Thanks Michael and Sheri for your help in the Hangout and sharing makes that inspired me to use ThingLink in the first place. Makes don’t occur in vacuums. Hypothesis: There is a positive correlation between collaboration and creation. Creation leads to learning. Therefore more collaboration will lead to more learning. Seems so obvious when it’s on the screen, but learning it through my make is that reminder I need when I hesitate to post a question. Looks like the power of being Peer Supported in action. We saw many people who were inspired by others, like Ann Chen who was inspired to use Piktochart to introduce herself. What makes inspired you to try a new tool or to explore a topic you hadn’t thought of?

What do you see as the purpose of making this week?

One thing that was at the center of our planning was sharing our Funds of Knowledge. How Tos right out of the gate showcased that we all have expertise, and through our open network that expertise is shared, making everyone smarter and more capable. It also gently showed me where I want to invest (couldn’t resist) my time and energy in the future, projects like Flipboard, Zeega, and Storify. More importantly, I want to continue connecting with the people that inspired me to use them in the first place: Kevin, Terry, and Karen respectively. Now I know who to turn to for Peer Support, and conversely maybe some people will turn to me in the future. What were your purposes did you have in mind for making and sharing at the beginning of the week? How have they changed or remained constant?

This is just a snippet of our reflections on the week along with a smattering of what others in this community are up to. We invite you to write some lists, respond to some questions, and share them…if you dare.

What’s Ahead

We look forward to what you continue to share in Make Cycle #2. (Nor is it too late to share a How To Guide from Make Cycle #1, if that’s what has you occupied). The second Make Cycle begins on Monday and facilitators Kim Jaxon, Jarret Krone, and Peter Kittle from the Northern California Writing Project will help us “make” our way through the Connected Learning values: production, shared, open. We’re anxious to make and learn with you some more.

Crossing Mediums, Backwards: from Essay to Video

Note: While composing this resource, I discovered a very similar resource from Leslie Moitoza — Rethinking Composition in a Multimodal WorldHer piece addresses how do to video writing from the ground up, where in my class we came to it backwards.

As I wrote previously, at my school – Science Leadership Academy – we sometimes worry that our multimedia-rich education is a stark contrast to what our students will be facing when they graduate and enter more traditional college environments.

I would not say that we’re doing them a disservice — indeed, many of our recent graduates report that they appreciate the digital literacy they have going into their college years. They can spot your poorly-designed powerpoint from a mile away, and they’ll have a Prezi done in no time flat which looks much better.

Still, a cornerstone of the junior English curriculum is spent on the 2Fers, a pretty traditional analytical essay format. You can write about whatever you want, but it’d best have a clear thesis and sources properly cited. So there.

It was partway into the year when one of my students lamented that one of his papers just wasn’t fit to be argued in a written format. It was about video games.

I’ve read plenty of great essays on video games, I told him. (It’s true.) But explained that he wanted to do a thorough analysis of how certain video games had become more cinematic in both their production and narrative threads. He found it cumbersome to describe both the games and the films in sufficient detail.

He had a point. Why not just show it? For visual media in particular, we don’t need it translated into print so we can read it in our Sunday newspaper anymore. Even The New York Times, protectress of the written work, produces short videos to accompany movie reviews (and plenty of other topics).

So in the middle of the year, I decided to do a little reverse engineering, and go from written work to video. Enter the Visual 2Fer.

Introduction and Examples

The official write-up for the Visual 2Fer went like this:

Your task is to create a multimedia version of any of your 2Fers written so far this year. Here are the requirements:

1. The final product must be visual and play no longer than one minute. (You will probably have sound, too, but I’m not requiring it.)

2. You must faithfully represent one of your thesis arguments — you can’t change your thesis. Your examples might change a bit though, depending on what kind of visuals you find or create.

3. Any content that is not created by you MUST be cited, but you do not need to follow MLA format — just include the link either on that slide/section, or all listed at the end.

The rest is up to you! These will be posted on our public blog for consumption by the general public, so make sure your work is professional.

If you make a video file, you will have to convert it into an .flv — you have a program called “flash video encoder” than can do this for you. Slide shows and prezis can be embedded, but they have to play on their own!

There are countless videos that can be used for inspiration here (and many more that show what not to do). After some quick searching the night before, I showed two in class. The first was from the “One Minute Physics” channel on YouTube. The second was YouTube’s own ad for its education features, which I discovered when it constantly appeared as a featured video during my own searches.

Students were naturally attracted to the polish of the professional advertisement; at first they actually thought it was a student work, which brought us to the key point that you can make money doing this stuff. They also appreciated the conciseness and clarity of the science video (they were all in Physics at the time.)

 We replayed the videos and counted how many discreet ideas were shared in each video. Students then turned to their own essay collections and had to do their own distillation: how do I boil this work down to six, eight, or maybe ten ideas? We then spent time in class with some printed storyboards — students weren’t required to turn in this draft work, but many of them spent time sketching out what image would accompany each idea.

Student Products

We set a “rough cut” deadline for the project — just like with their essays, students were expected to have a complete draft at the beginning of class, and then gave each other feedback at the beginning, with time to add and revise at the end. Some students produced works that were closely inspired by what we had watched in class, including one whiteboard drawing video about the influence of technology on daily modern life. Another video borrowed YouTube’s headline-style commentary and toe-tapping soundtrack — only this time the topic was government regulation of video games.

Considering the strength of these works, I regret not showing more videos in class, to give kids even more ideas to play with–or, alternately, set up a dedicated browsing activity. Never mind that YouTube is blocked in my school district. It was fascinating to see what images, sounds, and organization methods students selected. As the subjective teacher, I would say there was a loose-but-noticable correlation between good writers and capable video producers. A student who had written a crystal-clear essay analyzing the pentatonic scale produced a similarly well-organized video:

One challenge during grading, however, was separating my personal aesthetic taste from my assessment of the overall quality of the product. Did it convey the thesis clearly, with logical support? When considering that question while reading essays, I expect a pretty traditional, college-level writing style. But the whole point of this assignment was to broaden our methods, and the samples I showed were pretty pop-minded. In the video below, I didn’t love the look of it — but by the stated criteria it was very successful:

And besides, I was only one viewer of many, since these were posted to our public blog and the whole class had time to watch.

Final Thoughts

After so many months emphasizing the writing skills students need for college, this assignment was a pleasant reminder that fluency in other mediums is also useful. After four years of term papers, these kids may find themselves in any number of careers and/or creative pursuits that have them presenting ideas in this way.

The assignment was also a nice warm-up for our Public Information Campaign project, where students created campaigns around issues relevant to Philadelphia. In that project, students had complete freedom in choosing the medium(s) for their work, but had to complete an annotated bibliography first — another reminder that every quality product requires good research and planning.

One lingering concern I have is that I didn’t encounter many (or any) students who did significantly better work with the video than the original essay. Would it be appropriate for me to conclude that you need to be able to organize an argument in a written format before you can present it anywhere else? Or did the fact that the assignment was tethered to already-produced essays hinder some students, who might have done wonders if they had started with a clean slate?

This line of inquiry eventually brings me back to the question of how structured the assignment needs to be in the first place. In theory, I am comfortable with students producing work in any medium, of any length, as long as it presents insightful analytical thought in a way that is easy to understand. The realities of my teaching load and my environment, however, require at least some boundaries. Not that it always works out. The student who inspired this project did not react well when I introduced it — he complained bitterly that a one minute cap (which many students appreciated) prevented him from achieving what he would want. In the end, he never completed the project.

Should I have waived that restriction from him? TV commercials have to be a certain length, I rationalized; professional pursuits can often be just as restrictive. Now that the school year is over, though, I lament not having a product from him to review. Digital formats give us so much freedom and autonomy, the kind the even the most progressively-reminded teacher can hit their head against. I hope I can remember to be more flexible next time.

How do I teach what I do not know?

It’s funny how many times this question has come up in my career. When I first started teaching, I knew nothing about my students, their worlds, their learning styles. I was pretty much the exact opposite of my urban, mostly Hispanic, low socioeconomic, English-learning, at-risk students of North Dallas High School. How would I, someone who attended private school and college, teach students who were so very different?

Despite our differences, I quickly realized my students and I share common goals. They want a better future. Most of my English Language Learners came to this country for more opportunities and a good education that they didn’t have in their home country. I respect this, and it motivates me. I have learned to see our differences as chances to discover new ways to teach. What do my students bring to the classroom? How can I connect to this in my lessons? This allows us to work together to achieve what we both want: an education that prepares them for their present and their future.

Still, even after eleven years of teaching, I have the question of ‘how to teach what I do not know’ on my mind. For each class, for each student, this means trying different strategies and approaches. I continue to search for what works best for them, what reaches them, what keeps them coming back for more. The longer I teach, the more committed I am to serve a group of students who may not come from a similar background as myself but certainly deserve the same types of high-interest, relevant educational experiences I had. Slowly but surely, they are teaching me what works best for them.

At the National Writing Project Annual Meeting in November, 2010, I found a type of learning that just might fit the bill. I attended a fantastic session entitled, Taking Gaming to the Next Level, facilitated by Paul Allison and Grace Raffaele from the New York City Writing Project as well as Barry Joseph from Global Kids. They are working on creating game-based curriculum. During the workshop, we discussed our gaming habits, discussed how people have used games in their classrooms, and created games. Everyone was engaged–to the point that groups were becoming quite competitive. They wanted their design to be the best, the most fun, the most clever. Within that short time, people were taking real ownership of their work, identifying with their groups, and investing in the content.

It got me so excited. It made so much sense. I wanted to know more. I knew nothing about this other than games kept us as participants engaged, competitive, and thinking. I knew my students played video games for hours. I had to learn why games worked and what that might look like in my own urban classroom.

I was not the only one interested in this. Upon my return to campus, I had an exciting discussion of gaming in the classroom with my principal. It was clear that the potential for gaming curriculum had energized me. After my spewing of enthusiasm, my principal shared our campus’ very low PSAT writing scores. We talked about the new writing assessment on the horizon for next year’s freshmen. We wondered, “Could gaming in the classroom help support our students’ growth in academic writing?” I didn’t know, but I did know it was a strong possibility.

So with these questions in mind and the opportunity to create game-based learning curriculum for our incoming freshman, I had some work to do. I needed to become more comfortable with the concepts of game-based learning. It would boost my confidence. It would inform my practice. The following pages are lessons vital in helping me respond to that daunting question: How do I teach what I do not know?

Lesson 1: Learn all you can

Seek out the information you need to make sense of it all. If you don’t understand the pedagogy, you can’t make sense of what it could do in your classroom.

I began my journey of an ongoing inquiry into why video games engage players and what they learn while playing. I needed to know what was happening.

Ask anyone about gaming theory and where to get started, and you will probably hear the name James Paul Gee. I figured a good starting point would be What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy.

Knowing how I learn and that I needed to wrap my mind around these concepts, I knew I needed to document my understanding. I knew gaming worked, but I just didn’t know why. Without knowing the why, there was no way I could use game-based learning in my own classroom. That just didn’t make sense. And so arises my digital reflections.

One of the most intriguing elements of gaming to me is the multiple identities players adopt. It’s just a system gamers learn and accept as a necessity in order to progress to the reward of the game. Players adopt a persona and feel accountable to their identity in the game. One of the reasons people continue to play is because they do not want their identities to fail. They do not want to let their identities down.

This note demonstrates my learning on this concept and seeds of ideas of what this means for my students. It had me wondering about my students’ identities. Do they know how to navigate their various identities? In short, are they literate in their own identities? Do they know how to access the one that will lead to academic success? Do they want to? How could I set conditions that would encourage them to value their roles as members of a cultural group that valued academic rigor? How can I encourage accountability to that identity that excels in the midst of this context? What does that look like in the classroom?

Still more questions than answers, but these are essential. They help me focus my work. I still didn’t know very much, but knowing what I needed to know was a step in the right direction.

Lesson 2: Power in Numbers

Open your inquiry to others. If you make your wonderings transparent and accessible, your thinking just may be clarified.

Luckily, I am part of a network that nurtures collaboration. National Writing Project (NWP) is a network of educators constantly seeking ways to best facilitate literacy instruction. Many NWP teacher consultants are innovative leaders in using digital media and literacy in education. I paid close attention to the tweets of folks like Paul Allison, Kevin Hodgson, Digital Media and Learning, Their tweets were like nonstop professional development about gaming amongst other topics. I also explored Digital Is for more resources and ideas.

Just as I sought resources from my digital heroes, I also continued to be very open with my thinking. I pondered and reflected on helpful articles in my blog Persistent Pondering. To make my thinking more accessible, I autoposted to other outlets like Twitter, Facebook, andTumblr. I figured the more people who knew about my inquiry, the more information I could gain that may help in my pursuit. I also welcomed clarifications, explanations, illuminations from anyone willing to offer. It was good to know I wasn’t alone on this journey, and every person I encountered respected my candid admission of just not knowing the answers. I was able to collaborate with others to either gain information to respond to my inquiry or hear another questions that refueled my quest.

One collaboration that really shaped my thinking was Teachers Teaching Teachers (TTT) onEdTech Talk. It’s an NWP-produced webcast where, teachers “meet here to talk about education, technology, our practice and the contexts we work in. You can come too.”I listened in on episode #244 Juan Rubio and David Gagnon on Geo-Locative Gaming, the ARIS Project. Also: Why Games?” This is where I was first introduced to the idea of students designing games. It made sense. If students are creating a game, they are forced to become masters of the content that drives the game’s narrative. If not, the result is an unrealistic game that may have gaps in its narrative. If a strong sense of narrative is absent in a game, a player will be less motivated to continue and progress. Plus, while creating a game, the designer still needs to exhibit attributes of a gamer: persistence, risk-taking, willingness to adapt to new situations, pattern-seeking, and problem-solving. Oh, how I wanted these qualities to be demonstrated in my students in an academic context. Could game design give me the answer?

Game design both intrigued and scared me. I knew nothing about it. I had never designed a game. Again, that question loomed over my head: How do I teach what I do not know?

Lesson 3: Take Risks

Step out of your comfort zone.

In that same TTT episode, this thought of teaching what we do not know was discussed. The conclusion was we just have to do it. We may not feel 100% confident or comfortable with something like game design, but if you know and believe in the power of games, you know sometimes, you have to take a risk and do it.

This is what happens to gamers. They don’t know what’s around the corner, but they know they have passed certain levels of tasks that would prepare them for the next stage of challenge. A gamer would stop playing if they felt completely confident they would succeed in the next challenge of the game. It would be boring. They would feel less invested in that world because there would be no rigor. Their identity as a particular game character would stop developing because there was nothing else to learn.

I need to take a risk in my own learning. I can do what I can to prepare myself by getting acquainted with Scratch or Game Star Mechanic, but I don’t have to be the expert. In fact, my students who are very collaborative in nature would probably thrive in a situation where they could teach me for a change. It’s a paradigm shift, but it’s one my students demonstrate whenever they play a game. If that’s the behavior I seek, I need to model it.

So it’s okay to teach something even if I don’t know everything about it. I’m reminded of graduate classes and discussing the expert in his field who could not teach. It didn’t matter how much this person knew because he couldn’t get it across to the students. If I can reach my students, that could mitigate the gaps in my own knowledge.

Lesson 4: Teacher as Gamer

Newb it up! Put yourself in your students shoes.

I was able to participate in another TTT episode entitled, Gaming Questions from Texas, Minecraft, and the “2011 Horizon Report K12 Edition”. This one was to support the gaming work for our North Star of Texas Writing Project . I was asked to prepare some questions for teachers who have experience in using game-based learning in their classrooms. I had that some old question on my mind, and I tailored it for the audience, “How did you get started with gaming in the classroom? What does it look like in your classroom?”

There were so many great responses. The classrooms have very little structure. The students play or design games as needed to reach a certain level or determine they had progressed enough. It wasn’t games all the time. The students determined what they needed within the parameters set by that community.

Sounds ideal, but working on a campus designated “academically unacceptable” by the state and feds limits the free-form structure from these classrooms mentioned in the webcast. Plus, no one had a classroom like mine: urban, high-poverty, English language-learning, labelled a failure by the state and government. I’m sure my students would love the freedom and self-reliance these other students were afforded, but the district would not allow that to happen.

Still, I was enlightened to perhaps one of the most important lessons in figuring out how gaming might work in my classroom. If I was going to support game theory in my classroom, I needed to deeply understand it, and if I was going to have a profound knowledge of it, I needed to be a gamer. As my fellow webcasters suggested, I needed to “Newb it up!” Why? It’s one thing to talk about it, analyze it, wonder about it. It’s quite a different story to experience it. The experience would give me that level of comfort I was seeking, the confidence to push me to action instead of just reflection. I would be encountering firsthand the behaviors I was wanting to see in my students. I would have empathy for them as learners.

So which game would it be? I depend heavily on Twitter for introducing me to new ideas and concepts. On June 25, 2011, Antero Garcia tweeted about The Curfew, winner of Best Educational Game from Games for Change. Here’s the teaser: “Set in 2027 in the heart of an authoritarian security state, The Curfew could be described as a miniature Canterbury Tales set in a not-so-distant future, where citizens must abide by government security measures and ‘sub citizens’ are placed under curfew at night. The player must navigate this complex political world and engage with the characters they meet along the way to work out who they should trust in order to gain freedom. Choose wisely and you could change the course of history. Choose poorly, and it’ll be changed for you. The Curfew: Worth Staying In For.” Too good to pass up, right?

That’s what I thought. It is amazing. I found myself wanting to play it late at night. I wondered how this might work in the classroom. Certainly, my students would find the theme of civil liberties intriguing. As I play, I jot down my thoughts, reactions, and connections to the classroom to this Prezi. It’s a work in progress, but I feel like it captures what it means to be a gamer.

Newbing it Up: Exploring the Online Game The Curfew and Its Implications in the Classroom on Prezi

It’s difficult. Some of the tasks require some hand-eye coordination skills that I need to strengthen. It takes me so much time to progress, but guess what. I keep going back for more. I will continue to do so not only to sustain the empathy for my students as learners but also to keep my perspective as a gamer, as a learner, alive and well.

It All Makes Sense

How will I teach my students what I don’t know in the context of my classroom? A more accurate question would be, “How do I teach what I know little about?” I say, “little” because if there’s anything I’ve discovered with gaming and learning, it’s that there is always a new ah-ha just around the corner if I am willing to put myself in that position.

I wanted to know why game-based learning works. I feel like some questions have been answered, but there is still the detail of figuring out how it will fit in my particular context. If I consider my students’ cultural wealth and build upon it, that’s a solid start. If I understand the pedagogy of a lesson, I don’t need to know every detail about the logistics. Sometimes, that just is not possible, and some of the best learning I have done is just by jumping in. We all bring something to the classroom. What we do with that knowledge will affect the outcome of any learning venture.

The question remains, “How can I blend the ideas of gaming theory with teaching the population that I serve?”

I believe the answer lies within the lessons I have learned through this inquiry. It’s not about knowing everything about my kids. It’s not about knowing everything about gaming in the classroom. It is about constantly searching for ways to best serve my students. It is about making the most of the many resources that are available and sharing my ideas to gain more. It is about taking risks. It is about putting myself in the position of my students.

For me, learning how to teach what I do not know means modeling the behaviors I want to see in my students. It’s about being okay with not knowing everything, letting those who do know take some control to teach me, and always reminding myself this a journey. A journey well worth the effort. A game well worth the reward.