Alphabetic Text as the Only Text

Page from a French ABC picture book for the letter A, showing asparagus and an ostrichI’m befuddled by this MLA call for proposals for a volume on the Changing Role of Writing in Composition.

Everything I understand about multimodal texts tells me that any alphabetic text is not tapping the linguistic mode alone; but from reading this CFP, you’d think that spatial and visual modes (for say a paperback book) weren’t a thing until this “turn toward multimodality.”

I’ve read and reread the call, trying to figure it out. I thought maybe I was just not getting something (blame imposter syndrome). For the life of me though, I can’t figure out how to respond to that while talking ONLY about alphabetic text (which is culturally limiting in addition to not making sense in a multimodal context). I’d really love to submit something to the call; but I can’t figure out how to work within such a limited vision of what it is to be multimodal.

Image: abc album p1 by patricia m, on Flickr, used under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Faking Social Media Updates

One of my favorite projects has students creating social media updates from someone else’s point of view. Students choose fictional or nonfictional characters and then create Tweets, Facebook status updates, and Instagram posts.

Three Little Pigs Tweet

The challenge is that I don’t want to encourage students to litter the Information Superhighway with dozens of throw-away accounts, used for maybe a dozen posts and then abandoned. For me, a collection of tools that let students fake social media updates has been the answer. I’ve listed my favorites in a post on my Bedford Bits blog.

[Photo: Fake Tweet created by tengrrl with Three Pigs profile photo by sarahemcc, on Flickr.]


my #clmooc journey so far

Our project for the third week of #clmooc was to make a map of some kind. I took the first option and created this map of my journey in this course so far. If the text size is too small, click on the Prezi logo to see the full-width version.

Audience, Peer Review, and the MOOC

More empty classroom stuff, UMBCI failed at #WEXMOOC this week. Though admittedly, I feel a little tricked by the nature of the MOOC (defined generally) as well. Our second assignment asked us to reflect on our identities as writers in relationship to three other writers. The assignment gave these instructions:

[W]rite 800-1000 words where you explore connections between your identity as a writer and other people’s identities as writers. Your audience is other writers in this class. 

The assignment seems like the usual stuff of the composition classroom. The audience is quite often other students enrolled in the course. I hadn’t thought through how literally this fact was true however nor how different my audience is in the context of this particular course.

Audience analysis is, of course, my job in a writing project, and I blew it this time. The assignment tells us that we are writing to the “other writers in this class.” Unfortunately, I didn’t think enough about the people who make up WEXMOOC. I imagined the group as somewhere between a typical first-year composition class and what we called a trailing section (that is, students who either took a remediation course or had failed FYC the first time through, so they were off sequence, taking a first semester course during second semester). Some of the students in WEXMOOC are that sort of typical first-year comp student, but there are a lot more international students focusing on Global Englishes than is the norm. Many of the students in WEXMOOC mention other languages that they use. Writing what I think is a good piece or what I believe a typical FYC student would think met expectations fails to connect with these readers. I needed to pitch everything to a global reader and to avoid any moves that did not follow clearly from the assignment. I didn’t think about my audience thoroughly enough to realize that my approach was completely off.

The MOOC is an empty classroom. I can’t see the audience. I do not know them, and because of the huge number of students involved, I probably never will know them. I have to guess at their demographics. I’m not sure where to do research to find out the composition of this particular MOOC. The success of WEXMOOC relies on understanding your readers, but that information is hard to find. I wish the course included more discussion of the audience itself. I would never give an assignment like this without spending time analyzing the audience as a class as well as analyzing several other audiences for comparison. Given that we have limited ability to learn about the members who make up this course, we could benefit from a deeper exploration of this particular audience.

Audience analysis is only part of the problem however. The members of this course need significantly more training in peer review, especially given the structure of this MOOC. Peer review is actually the part of this course that matters. My writing doesn’t need to be what I would call good. It needs to be something that this group of students will peer review as good. Completion in the course relies not just on completing the writing and doing peer reviews, but also on earning a specific average on a 5-point scale from peer readers.

From what I can tell from the two peer responses that I have gotten so far, my readers expected a clear, optimistic conclusion in this assignment. I compared my own background to three others, reflecting with some pessimism on the unfairness of literacy acquisition. It was not an especially brilliant conclusion, but it did follow from what I had discussed. My readers, however, weren’t prepared for anything but an obvious, optimistic conclusion. They wanted me to end with some plan to fix the unfairness that I discussed. They want me to be a better person, not a better writer. One even suggested that I should take some classes in a foreign language so I could relate to the writers I used for my comparison. That is life advice, not how peer review advice. My readers wanted a pretty fable, tied up with a life lesson.

Completion in the course relies entirely on successful peer review. The WEX Training Guide is a good document, but I don’t think it’s enough. It includes only one example review, and that paper was written by a graduate student. That sample isn’t close to the reality of the four papers I gave peer feedback on. Students need more example papers and feedback, including some examples that deal with issues that reflect those students in the course face. An FAQ might even help if it addressed questions like “What if the text doesn’t match the assignment?” , and “Should I mention grammar problems?” As a teacher, I know how to deal with those issues, but I’m not sure that the average student in this MOOC does. Leveling a group of readers for a fair assessment takes time, but when peer feedback matters as it does in this course, you have to take that time.

I opened by mentioning that I feel a little tricked by MOOCs. The pedagogical necessities of MOOCs have created a writing classroom unlike any I have encountered before. This week, WEXMOOC reminded me that the teachers in a MOOC only supervise what is going on. Work is not assessed from a teacher’s perspective, but from the students’ point of view. Writing to peer reviewers is quite different from writing for an objective teacher. Everything relies on those peer reviewers in this course. The size of the course and the range of student writing abilities mean that the staff of a MOOC can never respond adequately to all the writing that students do. If peer reviews matter to the success of a MOOC however, students need more scaffolding to do the work effectively and need a better understanding of one another if they are to meet the expectations of MOOC students as an audience.


[Photo: More empty classroom stuff, UMBC by sidewalk flying, on Flickr]


The Tiresome Insistence of the MOOC

Say "MOOC"... I covet beta site access. I download and install the newest tools. I try out and review apps before they catch on. I enjoy crash testing systems (even if their developers wish I wouldn’t). But MOOCs haven’t tempted me.

Every week, as I browse the higher ed news and the TechRhet Facebook group, I find at least one new article on MOOCs, but I rarely read more than the first paragraph. When my colleagues merrily enrolled in Duke MOOC and the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, I not only refused to play along but also questioned the worth of the entire endeavor.

MOOCs looked like nothing more than jazzy distance education to me. All I saw was oversized distance ed courses that employed as many digital bells and whistles as possible. Now to be clear, I have no problem with distance education. I don’t even have an issue with online distance ed. I taught Virginia Tech’s first online distance business writing course back in 1994. I have no complaints about using the digital tools to teach writing. I’ve been using digital tools for teaching for decades. I don’t see anything particularly revolutionary in the basic capabilities of a MOOC.

In fact, when I see the world of higher ed so titillated over something we’ve been doing in the computers and writing classroom for years, I’m mainly ticked off. What about a MOOC makes teaching with discussion forums, videos, and online peer review suddenly seem amazing? Seriously, world, I’m asking. Why is this approach exciting and revolutionary? As a writing teacher, I just don’t get it.

No matter how hard I try, what I see in MOOCs is pedagogy that just doesn’t fit with what I know about the best ways to teach composition and rhetoric. There’s a reliance on “sage on stage”-style video presentations. The courses are ridiculously oversized, with thousands of times more students than is recommended. From what I have seen, the students have widely differing levels of ability and need, making it difficult to make sure they get the support they need. It’s hard enough to reach every student when you only have a class of 20 or 25 students. How can you possibly reach every student when there are anywhere from 25,000 to 250,000?

When I teach, I try to reach individual students. Naturally, there is general advice that I share—show, rather than tell; meet the needs of your audience; and so forth. When I talk about these concepts however, I try to fit them to the students with specific examples that they will understand. Education is rarely a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Different students require different examples and approaches. As a teacher who prizes communication and values connecting with her audience, I struggle to understand how MOOCs can teach as well as the much less massive and less open writing instruction that I am used to.

It’s not the OC part of the MOOC that worries me. I champion online courses. It’s the MO I am trying to figure out. I want to understand how to make writing instruction work in a massive, open classroom. There are parts of my heart that really want this kind of global educational outreach to work. I would love being able to help anyone, anywhere increase their literacy skills. But are MOOCs the way to do it?

I see a tiresome insistence on pedagogy that doesn’t match with what I know about teaching reading and writing. Yet, a lot of teachers I respect see potential—and that’s why I’ve signed up for The Ohio State University’s Writing II: Rhetorical Composing (#WEXMOOC). If Susan Delagrange, Cynthia Selfe, Kay Halasek, Ben McCorkle, and Scott Lloyd DeWitt are devoting their time to this strategy, there has to be something there.

The more I have looked at what they are doing and the more I read about MOOCs this past week, the more questions I have:

  • Is my error comparing MOOCs to the classrooms I know? Are MOOCs a new kind of classrooms where the rules have changed?
  • How is the college campus norm of course credit confusing my understanding?
  • In what ways have the relatively even level of literacy skills on a college campus spoiled me? Has my experience with evenly matched students blocked my ability to imagine how to teach dramatically uneven classroom populations?
  • Why is the completion rate for MOOCs so low? If they are a revolutionary way to reach this population of learners, why aren’t they working? Do we need to change our definitions of success and completion?
  • What more do students need to succeed? Can we figure out why students who flourish in MOOCs do so, and then use that knowledge to identify students who needs additional support or preparation and give it to them? How can we provide personal guides to help students navigate this massively open landscape?
  • How do issues of digital access come into play in the success or failure of a student?
  • In what ways does successful participation in a MOOC relate to environmental and cultural parameters that have nothing to do with teaching and the MOOC?
  • How do my own questions of labor, workload, and job security color my understanding of the MOOC? How much of my dissatisfaction with this strategy relates to my fear that it is an attempt to balance the budget by computerizing instruction and removing the teachers?
  • How can a MOOC accommodate a range of student needs without exhausting those who design and teach in it?
  • How can we focus on the benefits of collaboration on such a large scale? How can we help students make personal connections? What do we need to do to ensure that there we build a community of learners that benefits everyone?
  • Are there ways to give credit for the informal or at least non-traditional learning of a MOOC in the more formal systems of higher ed?
  • How can the MOOC fit into the future of higher ed? Do they fit? Do they change the conversation about education and public outreach?
  • What do we need to do to ensure that the best pedagogy drives the future of the MOOC and other online education, rather than the budgetary needs of the university or the business decisions of companies like Coursera and Udacity? Where are we willing to make compromises, and what is non-negotiable?

That’s a lot of questions. Over the next few weeks, maybe I can find some of the answers.

[Photo: Say "MOOC"… by audreywatters, on Flickr]

How Online Professional Development Changed My Life

This post originally appeared on the NCTE Inbox blog. I happened upon it today and found myself reminiscing on the paths that I’ve traveled to get to who I am. I thought I’d copy it over to my site to make sure I didn’t lose it. I edited it to remove dated references

Chances are high that you wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t for online professional development. I don’t mean that in the clichéd “If you can read this thank a teacher” way. What I mean is that I would never, ever have had the connections that led to writing these blog entries if it hadn’t been for the online professional development opportunities that came my way.

People who know me may not believe it, but I kept to myself as a teacher before I found opportunities to connect with other educators online. I read a lot about teaching, but I rarely discussed teaching strategies with others. I had some connections in the department where I taught, and I was a fellow of Writing Project site that no longer exists.

And then I got an email address and found that other college composition teachers were out there discussing what they do in the classroom online. I signed up Megabyte University, an email discussion list that was active from 1990 to 1997. There, I connected with other teachers who were interested in using computers in writing instruction, and I eventually found my voice and began participating—asking questions, sharing strategies, and planning projects. I found that the people who were names on the articles I read in College English and College Composition and Communication were kind, friendly folks who were willing to chat with a relatively inexperienced person like me.

To my conversations on email discussion lists, I added real-time chats on MOOs and IRC. I attended online conferences related to the face-to-face Computers and Writing Conference. Before I knew it, I had connections with colleagues in all corners of the country, and I had actually chatted with CCCC presidents and NCTE Committee Chairs. I even got up the gumption to send a personal email message to Peter Elbow to tell him how much I loved Writing with Power.

Without any reservation, I can say that I ended up writing this blog because of those first connections that I made online in the early 1990s. Online discussion led to new jobs, new teaching opportunities, and new ways to support other teachers using online tools.

None of the resources I tapped when I got started still exist in the same form today. Computer resources have evolved, and we teachers have developed new ways to connect and keep in touch today. Today we have new ways of keeping in touch, like discussion lists, Twitter Chats, and Facebook Groups. You’ll find wonderful teachers who will share their ideas, listen to your strategies, and, if you’re just lucky, bring you opportunities that will invigorate your teaching every day.

Twitter Resources Round-up

Amazing Blue Mountain Bird photo from Feast by Brad Hill @beatymuseum 2012-05-20-4463I’ve been using Twitter for years for everything from keeping in touch with colleagues to sharing professional development and curriculum materials with other teachers. In the years since I’ve joined, I often first learn about current events from Twitter (@BreakingNews is my favorite).

Since I’ve been doing this for a while, I have some links I can share, from blogs that I’ve written for NCTE, Bedford/St. Martins, and my own site. They were written over the past few years, so forgive any links that are broken please.

If you’re interested in collecting Twitter links in a simple way for students, can be a useful option. The tool gathers Tweets from your feed that include URLs and lays them out in a newspaper-style format. I’ve written several pieces about using

Most recently, I’ve written a series of posts on using Twitter Chats, which are real-time, online conversations that use specific hashtags to help organize the discussion. Twitter Chats can be a powerful tool for students and colleagues. You can read more about them in these posts:

Also, if you’re even slightly interested in how you might use Twitter in the classroom, take a look at William M. Ferriter’s essay “Why Teachers Should Try Twitter” from Educational Leadership. The article explains, “For educators who use this tool to build a network of people whose Twitter messages connect to their work, Twitter becomes a constant source of new ideas to explore.” It includes some tips and how-to’s as well as a personal story on how the experience affected the author’s understanding of differentiated instruction.

Hope that helps any readers who are interested in expanding how they use Twitter. I’m willing to share whatever advice and experience I have, so contact me if you need more or have a question I might be able to answer.

Best Educational Apps from Thinkfinity

It’s the gift-giving time of year, and if you’re giving someone an iPad, you can start getting it ready with these great apps for children, teens, and teachers.

Download Reading and Writing Apps

Word Mover App
Word Mover AppTake poetry on the road with this ReadWriteThink app. Kids and teens can create “found poetry” by choosing from word banks and existing famous works like “America the Beautiful” and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” Kids can pull up a famous work or the word bank, find words that inspire them, and arrange them into an original poem!

Trading Cards App
Trading Cards AppWith this ReadWriteThink app, kids and teens can create trading cards for fictional people and places, real people and places, objects, and Events. Imagine the fun of having kids create trading cards for favorite holiday characters and places. How about making trading cards as place cards for a holiday dinner—one card for each family member! Going on a family trip? Make a card for each place you stop. The possibilities are endless!

Download Apps for Other Content Areas

For other content areas, try these apps and reviews to find tools that will encourage kids and teens to learn while exploring their new iPads:

Build an App!

If you’re working with teens, also look at The Verizon Innovative App Challenge, which provides the opportunity for middle school and high school students, working with a faculty advisor, to use their STEM knowledge, their ingenuity, and their creativity to come up with an original mobile app concept that incorporates STEM and addresses a need or problem in their school or community.

Connecting with Connected Learning

Kids Fishing Day at Hensley LakeI’ve had about four hours so far to wrap my head around the buzz about Connected Learning. That’s how long it’s been since the Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast I attended this evening. (I’ll add a link to the archived show when it’s available.)

I’ll admit that I came to the discussion with some misconceptions. Perhaps the most incorrect misstep was my belief that when people talked about “connected,” they meant using technology to reach pedagogical goals. I thought it was going to be yet another way of describing what I’ve known by names such as computer and writing, techrhet, and (most recently) digital humanities.

I was wrong, and I’m still trying to come up with my short explanation of what connected learning is. Elyse Eidman-Aadahl opened up the discussion with a description of the concept, but I admit I was just trying to keep up. When your definition is so far away from what’s correct, it takes a little time to catch up. (I think we can officially say I was mired in cognitive dissonance.)

Elyse mentioned Mimi Ito, and it was on Ito’s post on “Connected Learning” that I found a video and some additional details about what the term connected learning means. If you’re as new to this as I am, go read Ito’s post and watch the video. Here’s how Ito summarized what connected learning is:

In a nutshell, connected learning is learning that is socially connected, interest-driven, and oriented towards educational and economic opportunity. Connected learning is when you’re pursuing knowledge and expertise around something you care deeply about, and you’re supported by friends and institutions who share and recognize this common passion or purpose. (Mimi Ito, “Connected Learning” )

The key buzzwords mentioned during the webchat included engagement, out of school opportunities, breaking down batch thinking, and passionate learning. And there was HOMAGO (Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out).

Don’t quote me on this, but from what I can tell so far, connected learning is what I’ve always thought learning is supposed to be. It’s about building, and supporting a learning community that lets kids engage with education according to their own interests, building their own knowledge, and reaching out to (yes) connect with other learners. If I understand, the notion of connected learning is really the same notion I had in mind when I dropped out of the elementary education major and went on another path (but I’m going to save that story for later).

I know that I’m still having a hard time putting what connected learning is into words, but I realized that I do think that I know what it looks like. It’s those kids trying to find out what that fish is like in the picture at the top of this post. And I think it’s all these kids:

Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge connecting with giant pandas connecting kids Kids enjoy birdwatching at Ankeny NWR

And I’m pretty sure, it’s none of these kids:

SJSA Grade Six -  The Year I Rebelled Exam Taking a Test.

And this kid…. well he is desperately trying to connect. I hope the connected learning pedagogy spreads quickly enough to reach him.

When my son takes standardized tests


[Photo: All images are creative commons from Flickr. Click on each image for the original and more information. This post has been cross-posted on the Digital Is website.]

Activities for Interactive Whiteboards

Patrick at 2Touch IWBInteractive whiteboard redefine hands-on activity in the classroom, as students manipulate information on a giant digital display. They also bring teachers a new challenge: what activities can you use to make the most of this new technology?

Teachers on the Thinkfinity Community have been busy collecting answers. Theresa Gibbon suggests trying ReadWriteThink’s interactive Word Mover for “I Have a Dream” and Word Mover for Holes and asking students to rearrange the words on the whiteboard as a class experience. Find dozens of additional ideas on the Thinkfinity Community discussion board.

This post is the introduction from “August 10 to 16 on ReadWriteThink.” Read the rest of the post in the Thinkfinity Community site.