Oct 222014
 

Ever since smart phones and social media have become more predominant, teachers and schools have wrestled with how to handle them in the school and in the classroom. Some just lay down a blanket zero tolerance policy…that virtually none of them could successfully enforce for any length of time. Others try a policy of allowing them during non-class times, but that has mixed results. Some accept the transition, incorporating the new technology and the reality that their students are going to be communicating through social media into their lessons.

That third group has it right. Social media is here, and it’s one of the main ways we now communicate. So it makes sense to teach kids how to accept and use that responsibility. But in teaching that, we also have to teach them that being able to publish their thoughts online, regardless of whether it’s just out to a general public or to a specific audience. comes with consequences. If we publish something positive, we can cause good things to happen. If we post negative things, then we can get into trouble. A number of middle and high schools have experienced this already in the form of having to deal with cyberbullying, some schools even having to deal with the consequences of a parent engaging in cyberbullying a student.

And there’s the problem. When the adults role model that negative behavior, the children around them who may not yet have the ability to decide what’s acceptable or not are influenced by seeing that behavior. And they’re influenced by how other adults handle the adult who has engaged in the misbehavior. If we lightly fine them, that tells the children who see it that adults condone the behavior. If the adult gets jail time, that suggests to the children that maybe using social media to negatively impact another person isn’t the smartest idea.

We’ve recently had a situation, a series of situations, really, where an online blogger decided the appropriate response to a break-up was to use his blog to attempt to ruin his ex-girlfriend’s career and reputation. Even though the record was quickly set straight, the damage was done because the internet is a permanent public forum. And the blogger was asked to resign from his job, but not for what he’d done. Lesson learned here: It’s okay to use the internet to “punish” someone for no longer wanting to date you.

But the situation evolved…or devolved, as the case turned out to be. And now there are a number of people who’ve made death threats toward other people. Confirmed cases. FBI involvement. And these people still have the social media accounts they used to issue the threats. And those who were employed when this began appear to still be employed. What message are we sending to kids with this? If you behaved that way offline, you’d be in jail no questions asked. Why is the internet different?

I think this is an important question, and I think it’s an important one to explore with students. How is the internet different from the world offline? Should you be held accountable for something you say to someone else through social media? It starts with the conversation teens are becoming too familiar with – cyberbullying – but it offers a launchpad to discussing the seams between social media and the offline world.

Maybe if we can start this conversation with kids, we’ll find a way to stitch together those seams a bit more tightly. And then maybe we’ll have less of this to deal with. But it all starts with that teachable moment.

Oct 212014
 

Several years ago, I overheard some people I volunteered with talking about this crazy event where you write a novel (a novella/novelette, really) in a month. I had been writing short stories for years, and thought it sounded like a fun challenge. So that year, I signed up for my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and succeeded. The manuscript was awful, and I have no idea where it ended up. Probably best for all of us. I continued to participate over the next few years, serving as Municipal Liaison my last year in San Antonio and my first two years in Seattle before I realized I just didn’t enjoy writing novels and quit to focus on fan fiction.

At the time, I could have switched over to National Short Story Month (NaShoStoMo), but really wasn’t looking to rejoin anything with that much drama. (NaShoStoMo has since ended, enjoying a very brief revival by Dan Wells before completely fading away.) Last year, I discovered NaNo Rebels, which allows you to work on non-novel forms during NaNoWriMo while contributing to your region’s word count. I considered participating last year, but my life had just gone to hell in a handbasket and I wasn’t fit to make my own bed, let alone an entire writing project.

This year, I’m considering going the NaNo Rebels route more seriously. I certainly have enough projects piling up around here that could use the motivation. But because the pile includes not only personal short story and interactive projects, but also the blog and my social media outlets, I’ve signed up for Digital Writing Month (DigiWriMo), a digital writing program run out the University of Wisconsin. If you start seeing posts tagged #digiwrimo next month, you’ll know why. I may also look into National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo), a long-running program that used to run only in November, but has now been expanded by BlogHer to a year-round program that focuses on themes.

So, there are a number of options. If you’re so inclined, you should jump in on whichever suits your writing needs. If your form is not present, it might be covered in another month. (Poetry challenges, for example, are often undertaken during National Poetry Month in April.)

 

I will also throw out this one, just because it’s been around for a while and I think it’s completely insane and kind of cool for those so inclined. There is a National Solo Album Month (NaSoAlMo), for those who want to commiserate with their writing buddies, but prefer to do their talking through music. As the name suggests, it is writing and recording an album in a single month…that has the Thanksgiving holdiays tucked into it. No pressure. Heh.

At any rate, there’s a little something for a number of writers. Just search out your tribe and have fun.

Oct 152014
 

This fall, American children are being treated to something never before seen: Saturday mornings without a single cartoon not bearing the e/i rating. In 1998, the FCC ruled that basic stations had to serve at least three hours of educational content a week, and so stations decided the easiest way to do that was to dedicate a programming block already targeting children to that cause. The e/i rating is given to children’s programming that meets certain criteria, both education and marketing related. (I used to have a really good resource on e/i, but the site appears to have been taken down. Sorry.) They’ve commonly been isolated to PBS, although other stations have woven them into their line-ups.

At first, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney all offer Saturday morning blocks. But while nearly every home in America has a television, just under half of those homes has some sort of cable service. That means kids in just over half of these homes don’t have access to cartoons that aren’t trying to shove some sort of learning down their throat. I know what  you’re thinking: Isn’t that a good thing? How can we make the cable companies come around and stop making our children stupid? And that’s not a healthy way to think.

We can’t process a lot of information coming at us constantly. This is part of the research-based thinking in how daily class schedules are designed in schools. The brain needs time to process what it’s just been exposed to. This is actually one of the keys to learning. If the brain doesn’t get that time, the material bounces off like a skipped stone on the water. This isn’t just true at school, but everywhere in life. We’re nearly always in situations that expose us to new information, to new skills. Without down time, our brains just can’t handle it and burn out. Kids are the same way; and for just over half the kids in this country, they’re now limited in how they can choose to spend that necessary down time. (I’ll just let you think on the ramifications of that.)

It’s almost like we’ve been led to believe that if we aren’t laying out very obvious teaching moments 24/7, kids can’t possibly learn. But just because a kid isn’t being told by a big fuzzy creature that two and two together equals four (as happened in Magi Nation, a cartoon from a few years ago aimed at tweens), it doesn’t mean the child isn’t gaining something useful from watching a cartoon that has no deliberately educational elements. Children’s play has long been inspired by the characters and worlds they meet through cartoons. They become inspired to draw, to write, to incorporate their favorite cartoons into their imaginative play. And sometimes, the skills inspired by watching cartoons as a child become a career path. That’s not insignificant.

This isn’t to say all cartoons bearing the e/i label are painful mini-lessons. A handful of cartoons, such as the much beloved PBS cartoon Arthur and the perpetually re-launched Winx Club (although it’s only the mid-2000’s series that achieved this distinction), focus more on character building skills that have formed the basis for so many social-emotional curricula…without taking the preschool show tack (where it is needed because this may be the first time those very young children actually hear any of this. Preschool shows really are their own class.) of being very literal about what is going on.

It took well over a decade from the initial ruling to reach this point, but I think we’re going to see a pushback. Whether it comes in the form of relaxing restrictions on what all children can be exposed to or higher quality educational cartoons remains to be seen. It should prove interesting, though.

Oct 062014
 

Once upon a time, drawing and sketching used to be part of the curriculum. Students were expected to be able to model through drawings for art’s sake and for subjects that benefited from sketching skills. As being able to draw or sketch recognizable images and models is a skill useful to so many fields, it made sense that it was a required subject.

But somewhere along the way, long before I was in school, drawing and sketching were reduced to units in a prescribed general arts course, and then that general arts course became an option. Today’s children are lucky if they even get that option because the arts are being squeezed out by the testing culture.

I don’t know about you, but I use my artistic skills far more often than I use my ability to fill in tiny bubbles with a number 2 pencil. And I’m not even good at drawing. Just ask my former math students. ;)

Maybe it’s because it’s not as easily quantifiable as reading, math, science, and social studies that any art is so easily shoved out of the curriculum, but it really shouldn’t be. Anyone who has ever had to grade writing will tell you that it is based in part on demonstrated technique, and in part on the subjective taste and opinion of the grader. Art is the same way. We can score it on the demonstrated technique; we can score it on some subjective measure like we do writing.

But I’m really focusing on one art in particular here: drawing. Drawing at basic levels can really be boiled down to two roles: expressing and illustrating. That’s not entirely different from boiling writing down at the schooling level to creative and business or technical writing. We teach writing to give students a tool to communicate their knowledge, ideas and opinions. We should also be teaching drawing for the same reason: to give students another tool to communicate their knowledge, ideas, and opinions.

That’s what drawing really is. It’s not strictly the purview of artists. It’s a means of communicating and modeling ideas that are better expressed visually rather than textually. And as such, it needs to be a skill we teach to all children.

 

Some great additional reading on making drawing part of the curriculum:

Oct 022014
 

A while back, I was working through some notes that included margin notes I’d made in books, and it got me thinking. When we’re in school, English teachers have us engage in close reading, or text analysis, to more closely consider the text. They often then follow up with that dreaded question, “What was the author trying to say? Why did the author choose this word, this element, this shade of green?” Sometimes, the author is trying to make some sort of metaphorical statement. Sometimes, they just really liked that shade of green.

But being asked to find meaning where it may or may not be kind of leaves you with this feeling that text analysis is a torture device invented by English teachers. (Sadly, we math teachers don’t get to have all the fun.)

What I think English teachers are really asking us to do, mainly because I’ve heard so many writers explain how they use close reading in their own work, is to learn to question the text. Sometimes, that question is, “What was the author really trying to say here? What does this foreshadow? How does this reflect the author’s time and life?”

Sometimes, though, that question is, “What does this mean to me? Why did this catch my attention?” And then the text analysis becomes a personal conversation with the book, giving it a deeper personal meaning and giving it permission to inspire and influence you. When you talk about a book that has stayed with you for years, that’s deeply affected you, what you’re then really saying is, “This is a book I had a great conversation with.”

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Do you feel that you converse with books through your highlights, your margin notes, your clippings? What books have you conversed with?

Sep 302014
 

If you’ve been writing for any period of time, you know that tropes are Bad. If you’re new to writing, you may have been told your work relies too much on tropes and you need to be more original. The problem with tropes is that they’re proven story mechanics, and as a result, they get used. A lot. Sometimes too much. As a result, writers are often encouraged to edit them completely out of a story. But occasionally, we’re encouraged to find a way to use them purposefully…and the purpose can’t be, “I couldn’t think of another way to do this.” Just so we’re all clear on that.

Finding a different way to use a trope is actually where I was headed last fall when I was working on my (still in progress) short story “Empowered”. I was, for the first time in my life, watching a lot of superhero movies in addition to my normal action movies, and I was trying to figure out why there are so few stories centered around girls (I know. I’m not the only one wondering this.) and why I’m so reluctant to watch those that do.

I thought about it, and I journaled about it, and what I finally realized was that what I most hated about these stories could be boiled down to a handful of questions. As I started to explore the questions and my feelings about them, I realized I was railing against the tropes so often utilized in these stories. Using my own questions and what I was learning about these tropes, I started shaping a story to both look at and challenge my own perception of those tropes. It’s such a deep experience that I’m still working on the story a year later, taking long breaks in between rounds to just process.

That’s the thing with tropes. They’re routine, expected. But they have the ability to get us thinking about what makes them so routine and expected, and in that find a way to make them into something interesting. We can use them to explore our own reactions to the trope, to explore how the trope came to be, maybe even to look at the historical contexts where the trope really seemed to gain ground (as many of these tropes date back to the days of oral tradition).

They also have the ability to help us get unstuck in our writing: Am I leaning on a trope? How am I using it? How could I change it or move away from it? Surfing TV Tropes (do not click unless you have the next few days free) is a great way to find a spark that you can then twist and weave into your story. (The real challenge is not twisting it into something else that already exists.) You can take two or more tropes and mash them together, looking for unusual ways to put them together. You can pick a trope (be sure to study it carefully) and write its opposite, or write in the space between the trope and its opposite trope. It doesn’t matter why you hit up tropes; they can be powerful prompts that gets you thinking.

If you’re between projects or just completely stuck and need to walk away, trope surfing can make for an excellent writing practice. Write the trope. Write a satire of the trope. Write an essay on how the trope appears through books, movies, and television shows you enjoy watching, on how other writers have utilized the trope. It’s a valuable learning experience.

Sep 242014
 

I’m starting this monthly wrap-up with a call to action. I know…I’m doing it backwards, but if I want you to take anything away from this month, it’s to not be afraid to share your work with someone. It can be your best friend. It can be your club. It can be the entire internet. You’re doing something. If it isn’t utterly, completely, mind-blowingly awesome, that’s fine. There are going to be elements of awesome in it, and someone else might be able to spot it and help you bring it out. That’s why we gather into communities of practice, to help each other.

So, that’s what I want. I want you to show to an audience size you’re comfortable with what you’ve been working on. (You can even share it with me if you choose. I like seeing what people are working on, but I feel I should warn you that I have a very difficult time shutting up either my inner teacher or my inner editor and the feedback might be a bit more thorough, questioning, or direct than you might be expecting.)

All right. Let’s wrap up this month correctly. We haven’t covered a whole lot of ground here, simply because so much of it has been covered in other ways on this blog and because so much of it is advice that can be applied at many levels of experience. When you put in the time doing research, doing work, bringing something into existence, then you should put it somewhere where the right people will see it and help you improve it or will look at it and think, Holy taco! This person has an amazing grasp of this idea or skill. I should tell them, or hire them, or approach them to collaborate.

When we share our projects, we’re telling our audience, “This is what I can do. This is what I’ve learned. This is what I think. I’m choosing to share this with you.” And that’s pretty awesome.

So, as we wrap up this yearlong study of the personal learning environment, I’m challenging you to show off your awesome.

 

As I said last month, I am shifting away from the monthly theme format after this month, so thank you for indulging me this year while I experimented with the format. I’m still not sure how I’m going to proceed from here, but so much in my life has changed over the last year and it’s time to align my blog to my new life. Hopefully, you’ll stick around and keep reading. If not, I understand and appreciate your reading this far.

Sep 222014
 

So…we’re about to run into the same problem we had back in the Processing Phase: Different industries have different means of doing things. That makes it difficult to really explore on a general level the best tools to demonstrate knowledge.

So, we’re just going to avoid the problem by looking at general ways to show off…so to speak.

Thanks to advances in all sorts of technology, we actually have a collection of tools that can benefit most industries when it comes time to say, “This is what I can do. This is what I know.” Many of us either have, or have access to a friend who has, some sort of image capturing device, be it a still photo or a video. We have ways to record ourselves talking about things. We have tools that allow us to write about what we’ve done and to journal about how we did it.

In all fairness, we’ve had these abilities for quite a long time. (Well…maybe not for audio capture. That seems to be the slowpoke in the pack.) What’s changed is the means available to display what we’ve captured. We now have this tool, for better or worse, called the Internet. Maybe you’ve heard of it…

What makes the Internet such a game changer for us is that it allows us to share all those textual, image, video, and audio captures we’ve made of our work easily and on a grander scale. If you make a beautiful wood-turned rocker, you can take a picture of it and post it online. You can make a video of yourself working on a section of it and share it as part of sharing your process, or even to teach that technique to others by video. You can blog about your process, where the wood came from, where you learned your skills. You can create a podcast about the non-visual elements of your craft for people to learn from. You can even choose your favorite social media platform and curate a publicly available set of resources on your craft.

So, when we talk about tools meant to help demonstrate our skills and knowledge, we’re talking about capturing key details of not only the end product but also the process that allowed us to create that end product. You can demonstrate your knowledge by writing about your craft and curating images, videos, and links on it. There are so many options. You just have to find the one (or ones) that best suit your style, your industry’s style, and your visitors’ style, and then make it work for you.

This is a great time to experiment, to be transparent in your work, to really show off yourself and your abilities.

Sep 172014
 

While we’re on the topic of sharing what you create, let me ask the question: Why do you create? What was the point of all that work you’ve done? What is your goal?

I’ve spent a lot of my free time over the last several years hanging out around various writing and video production communities, where there’s a healthy mix of those who are looking to share what they’ve made and those who pale at the thought of having another person see their work. I grew up in the performing arts, which is attention seeking by nature (although I know, and have been, people who are perfectly content never having an audience). I’ve seen creatives have a vision and execute it. I’ve seen them have a vision, and then alter it with audience feedback. I’ve even seen them threaten to not make anything else until they get a specific form of validation.

And it got me thinking. I wondered how I truly view the relationship between what I do and what other people think of it. As I’ve noted, I’ve been known to give in to my introvert tendencies and keep work to myself, preferring to be comfortable with the knowledge I was making something. But I’ve also had a vision and worked it all the way through, sharing the results. I’ve started projects intended to explore a specific skill, technique, or topic, and just smiled politely at feedback that insisted I had to do things their way. I’ve started projects with no clear destination, and let feedback inspire development. I haven’t threatened to take my ball and go home yet, and I don’t think that’s likely to happen based on how I respond to analytics data.

I look at those who create according to audience feedback, and I’ll admit it – I pale at the thought of working like that. Yes, I do periodically ask for suggestions or prompts, but if I’m asking, you can bet I’m experiencing some kind of creative block. People who can go with the feedback flow, though, are interesting. From what I’ve observed, they create a skeleton or spine and a starting point for their project, and then develop along that spine according to what the audience suggests or how they react to what’s come before. If the audience offers a better idea, the creative breaks the spine to explore that idea. There’s a flexibility there that’s downright admirable (even if it completely scares me).

There are even creatives who put something out there, and then say, “Tell me what happens next”, to the audience. Those people are truly crazy. ;) But the results can be spectacular when done well.

As for me, I create to get things out of my system, or to play with ideas, or to learn and practice a new skill. I don’t necessarily need an audience for that, but it’s nice when one shows up. That’s my answer to the above questions. How about you? How would you answer those questions?

Sep 152014
 

The average person spends right around seventeen years or so of their life in a formal classroom. That really shouldn’t come as much surprise, but it often ends up being the hang-up as we talk about sharing and putting ourselves into a position to receive feedback. Of course, when you think about performance evaluations in a corporate setting, we really do put ourselves in a position to receive feedback throughout more of our life than we realize.

Beyond the classroom, projects come from one of a handful of places: our boss/workplace, our friends and family, and ourselves. Work needs a solution to a problem, so you create something and you’re given a pass/fail rating on it once your solution is implemented. Friends and family say, “OMG, you’d be great at this,” and so you do the thing…again to a pass/fail rating, and maybe some deriding if you fail. You pick up a side interest or a pet project, and you work on it until it’s where you want it. Then you display it in your home, in your workspace, or maybe you wear it around. And again, you get feedback that tends to be of a pass/fail variety.

The point here is that in both our professional and personal lives, we’re constantly doing things, bringing things into existence. And when we choose to put them somewhere they can be seen (be it offline in our professional and personal spaces or online in our professional and personal spaces), we’re saying, “This is something I did. These are skills I can use to do something productive (or destructive, depending on what you’ve created).”

When we style our living room, we know it will be presented to visitors to our home. When we make a wearable object, we know it will be presented to those who pass us in real space. When we write, be it a blog post or a book of some format, we may expect it to be seen by someone, even if it’s just a close friend. (I am excluding here those who create with no desire to show their work. Seriously, people, let us see your awesomeness!) We’re leaving ourselves open to feedback.

We live in a time where what we do is constantly on display, with or without our being able to provide some context. Professionals and amateurs can show off their work side by side, and connect through seeing each other’s work. Fans and fellow producers comment on the same work. We never really stop being in a position to receive feedback.

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