a party for pencils

I've grown to enjoy the Pen Pal Networks and I like the concept of growing my PLN. However, there are moments when I don't feel that I belong in here. By that I mean, I feel that I am a guest who snuck in the back door and people are too polite to tell me that I should probably avoid taboo subjects and limit how often I take a sip of the punch.

If a PLN is a party, though, it begins to feel as if it's a party for pencils. In other words, people are spending their time on the pen pal networks writing about how great paper is and how it will revolutionize the education world. People swap stories of how amazing stationary days have been at school and wonder what it would look like if each child had a stationary in every classroom. One to one pencils.

Subgroups of stamp collectors describe all the newest methods of sending letters and gush about how wonderful our socialized postal service is. People quote Edison on the disappearing role of the teacher in an age of electricity as if enlightenment comes from a filament in a bulb rather than the development of wisdom.

Paul the pre-industrial Poet puts it this way, "It's like throwing a party at my house where the honored guest is my house."

Imagine a coffee shop where the main topic of conversation was coffee or visiting a house where the main conversation was the structural integrity of the tresses or the amazing colors of the adobe. Now imagine that this house had some really dangerous flaws and few people seemed to talk about it - the crowded capacity of the house, the floor boards where people could way too easily slip through or the fact that so many people stayed inside the house that they missed the explosion of blossoms going on outside.

I don't mean this to be a criticism of my PLN. I do the same thing. I write little notes about how slow our telegraph can be at school or how nifty our Kodaks have become in students doing storytelling. But in the process, I miss out on what is really important. My students are telling amazing stories - pictures or not.  People are sending letters from all around the world and one would imagine we'd be tackling global issues of learning.  Maybe hard conversations on race and unity or conflict or motivation.  Perhaps tough talks on the nature of learning.  Instead, much of the conversation seems to be about having conversations . . . which I suppose is what I am doing right now.

Thoreau used paper and pencils. He was a quintessential pencil geek, but he knew the dangers of industry. I wonder what he would post on a pen pal network.

note: I borrowed this concept of a party for technology from Joel Zehring

Should we be anonymous?

A student ran to me this morning and explained, "Mr. Johnson, someone wrote something really mean on our plog."

I looked at the margins and read the long, convoluted, well-educated rhetoric against immigrants.  "Cheaters, border hopers, criminals," next to well-reasoned explanations on the dangers of urbanization and the reduction of wages with the huge influx of cheap labor.  For what it's worth, I don't think they were referring to "hope" in writing "hopers," but I could be wrong.

"We're Irish, yes, but American too.  We're not illegals. Not any more illegal than anyone else who came here to take land from the Indians. We just came here to work." she tells me.

I pulled out my pencil and erased the marks; forever wiping out the anonymous comment from the public memory of the event.  I am the Editor, the Censor who must decipher between mean-spirited attacks and passionate criticism.

So, I asked the students if we should allow anonymous comments.

"People hide when they are anonymous.  They attack, because it is a surprise attack.  It's secret."

"It's like the KKK.  They cover themselves in a white sheet, spout out hate and they don't have to be transparent."  A bit of an extreme metaphor, I admit, but I could see his point.

"I think we should allow people to be anonymous.  At least it's honest when they do that.  So, people hate the Irish.  At least this way we know it.  No one is pretending."

The debate continued for awhile until a student said, "I think it's hypocritical for us to require people to state their first and last name and yet we post our work with just our first names."

"We do that to protect you.  Remember, employers can go back and search public records.  It's all part of your public footprint."

A boy added,"I know that, Mr. Johnson.  But shouldn't that be exactly what we want people to see?  Okay, so imagine someone takes a photograph of me drinking at a party or entering a burlesque theater and I get hired by a member of the Temperance Movement.  That can be real damaging if they find that on the pen pal networks.  So, why not let them see the good side of me?  Why not let them see that since sixth grade I have been doing community service and I have cared about conservation?"

It has me thinking about anonymity.  Perhaps no one should be anonymous in pencil postings.  Perhaps the veil we wear in plogs and pen pal networks can work both ways - hiding the good and allowing us to commit acts of cruelty without facing consequences.

who should be part of the plan?

Minutes after the grant guy leaves, Ms. Jackson pulls me aside in the hallway.  "Hey, I took a look at your proposal and I'm impressed."

"Thanks," I answer awkwardly.

"I corrected the grammar and punctuation - and with a pencil nonetheless."

"I'm impressed. Did you read it?"

"Yeah.  I think you made a mistake, though."

"Which was?"

"You included me as one of the three teachers who will pilot the program."

"Would you be interested?"

She gets real shy and sheepish, turns away for awhile and says, "I . . . I don't know.  I know it's silly, but I don't know about cameras and phonographs and pencils and everything.  I'm used to what I'm doing. I guess I'm actually a little scared."

"You're the best sixth grade teacher we have.  I know that I sound like a politician saying this, but it's true.  And I need your help in how to teach well.  Maybe I can help you with the tech stuff."

"Tom, you're a great teacher and I'm up for this plan."

So, she agrees and adds a bunch of awkward self-deprecating humor.  We're not used to encouraging one another - not real encouragement.  Sure, I might say, "You have a really pretty new mustang.  I bet it has a ton of horsepower" or "Nice mutton chops.  They have a real Chester Arthur look to them."  But no one compliments another teacher on anything deeper.

Perhaps it's that we're the first generation of teachers to work in a factory school and on some level, we all still interact as if we are in one-room school houses.  I'm at home with my students.  I can take their compliments and add my own feedback and yet, move into the hallway and hear a compliment from a teacher and it shakes me up a bit.

miscommunication on the idea of story

Sometimes people say, "tell your story," and that's not what they want to hear.  What they want is, "tell us a bulleted point list of your accomplishments."  What they mean is more "tell us your resume" than "tell us your narrative, rife with conflict, character development and confusing paradoxes."

I missed that idea entirely today at a Very Important Meeting.  One of the judges for a large education grant asked me, in the middle of my class, "Would you share your story of pencil integration?"

"I guess it's a bit of a love story," I explained.

He furrowed his eye brows and stroked his handle-bar mustache.  "I'm not seeing your point entirely."

"You know it's a bit trite, I suppose.  I fell in love with pencils.  I mean, I thought I knew pencils.  I could talk about the feel of a pencil in my hands and the moment of excitement when I first scribble some words. But I think I was in love with the idea of pencils.  I mean, it was the notion of writing and editing my words - the idea of it - not the act itself that I loved."

"I'm not sure I'm understanding it one bit," he answered.

"I do this with all technology, I guess.  I fall in love with it before I know it.  Then I see a dark side and I run.  For me, with pencils it was the notion of the temporary side of pencils that scared me.  It was the question about sloppiness.  I love to write, but I was afraid I would be too casual and my writing would decline."

"And .  . . "

"So, I threw away my pencils for a few months.  Then I decided that I love pencils.  I love the writing and editing process, the shading and smudging of pencil art, the feel of a notebook and the marks on my hand.  I love the power of a temporary medium - the notion that all could be erased at any moment.  'Pencil me in' isn't as permanent as 'having ink done.' Seriously, would anyone ever have a pencil tattoo?"

"I'm not sure where you're getting at."

"See, so much of my life is permanent.  And that's good.  Marriage, family, my profession.  I love the permanence of that. But pencils are constantly changing. And I fell in love with them for the very temporary nature of it all. It was the classic boy meets pencil, boy throws all pencils away and then boy comes back to pencils forever narrative."

The grant man just stared at me blankly and said "thank you," though I don't really think he meant it at all.  I could hear him, perhaps in my head, tell his colleague, "I simply wanted to know how he uses pencils in his classroom. I need to know that he'll use our money wisely."

yes origami is cool, but it's not why I have paper

Awhile back, I attended the PIE Conference (Pencils Integrated Education) for the second year in a row.  I'm not against conferences.  They provide a platform for connecting and motivating - though not necessarily for training (which is how they market it).  I have my little quirks, where I get uptight about various issues.  Do we really need to advertise the vendors as if walking through a sea of advertisements are an asset rather than a liability?  Do we really need more notebooks?

Still, I find that most speakers are passionate and interesting - which is more than one can expect from a staff development meeting.  I attend a workshop called "Paper for Creative Thinking."  I assume that the workshop will include some science experiments or perhaps some ideas for problem-based learning.  Or maybe creative writing.

Instead, the speaker jumps out in a samurai costume, which, if a little gimmicky, was at least attention-getting.  He then began teaching us how to make origami cranes.  We had little colored papers at our tables and each of attempted to follow the directions.

It was interactive and the directions were great, but I kept expecting something more.  I kept thinking that this would lead into a deeper conception of creativity in the classroom.  Perhaps a discussion?  Instead, we learned about other animals, other textures and other colors.

I overheard a woman ask him how this connected to learning and he responded, "The Japanese students continue to improve in their test scores.  Some day they will beat us in achievement.  Some say it is their curriculum, I think it has to do with origami and its connection to creativity.  A century from now, they will be creating automobiles that are the most reliable in the world."

I left a positive evaluation, despite feeling disappointed.  The speaker tried really hard, had a great level of passion and dressed like a samurai.

Yet, I see that as a trend in the paper world.  I hear it constantly, "In an industrial age, we need developers and thinkers.  We need creative problem solvers."  Yet, I'm not so sure that the best way to become a creative problem-solver is through origami or free time with crayons.  I see this often in the PIE Conference - speakers who want us to abandon the basics in favor of origami or sand box time.

I could be wrong, but here's what I notice with my students:

Creativity happens when people analyze problems, see things from multiple perspectives and develop a solution.  Creativity happens when a student inquires about the world, develops a hypothesis and presents a solution.  Creativity occurs when a student conjures up a story or a poem or takes an unusual stance on a social issue.

In other words, creativity doesn't have to look flashy.  Creativity will happen when students have freedom and autonomy, when they find purpose in what they are doing and when they are not stuck in a system of rewards and punishments.

why did you block my pen pal network?

"Hey, I double-checked everything ahead of time for the professional development and you know what I saw?" I ask the district Administrator of Safety and Security.

"Clearly I do not.  I have no psychic powers," he responds.   

"The pen pal networks are all blocked," I explain.   

"Thank you for describing what I already know."  

"But we need them for my professional development today."  

"I assure you that it has nothing to do with your professional development. It is an issue of student safety.  We decided to block all the pen pal networks."  

"But a pen pal network is a valuable tool for teacher collaboration.  It's part of growing a PLN."  

"I don't doubt that one bit.  Indeed, there is great collaboration that occurs over a pint, but I have no intention of allowing alcohol in school, either."

"Yes, but alcohol guarantees impairment.  We have more control over our use of pen pal networks."

"Look, it's my job to keep kids safe.  There might be sketchy people on pen pal networks. Unless every person has a background check, I'm blocking it."

"True, but there might be sketchy people who attend a band rehersal or a baseball game.  Do we background check these people?"

"No, but we create gates to prevent the outside influences from harming our students. Consider this another wall for student safety."

"Look, I don't deny your intentions are good, but walls and gates designed to keep people safe end up creating a prison.  Every time you lock people inside of an area, you create a ghetto.  The very thing you are designing to keep people safe is what makes them feel unsafe. I say this knowing that I do the same thing with my own students."

I expect a confrontation, but instead he explains, "I'll tell you what.  What you said about extracurricular activities is true.  Your professional development is during your shared meeting time after school, right.  So, why don't I allow access to the pen pal networks after school?" It doesn't seem like a big deal, but I realize that he is taking a risk here.

Sometimes I get into a place where I rail against system administrators and I miss the deeper reality that they have various values and demands on them as well.  What often seems like illogical politics is simply a clash in values.  And what I tend to forget is that I am dealing with humans who are as complicated and broken as myself and the amazing part is that the very broken people are capable of selfless acts that require sacrifice on their behalf.

changing professional development

Paul the Pre-industrial Poet warns me at the beginning of my pencil journey, "Once people reallize that you you are able to use pencils for learning, they will latch onto you.  They will want you to teach workshops."

"Workshops, ooh, that sounds fun.  Is it something where each person creates something."  

"No, it's basically a time when people sit around an Edison Projector and watch people read PowerSlides.  It can be painful, Tom."  

"Well, that doesn't seem too bad."  

"No, but if you're not careful, too many people start defining your job.  You do trainings and workshops and write a few articles and you lose sight of your own students.  It happened to me. Finally, one teacher came to me and said, 'I think I'm all developed now. I'm overdeveloped. Like a flash that's too bright, I'm a picture that is losing any kind of contour and texture.' And he was right. We didn't need more development or training.  We needed wisdom."  

He's right.  I typically use professional development time to draw pictures, play Buzzword Bingo and make snide remarks to Mr. Brown.   

So, we talk about an organic approach to professional development.  What would it mean to find a more natural method of acquiring wisdom?  What do teachers really need?  More importantly, what do students really need?  

I'm beginning a new professional development series at my school and 
  • From assessing teachers to assessing student learning.  I want to see how the students are using pencils (as opposed to a teacher standing before an Edison Projector and talking to the class)
  • From viewing educational theory and pencil use in two different contexts to seeing the overlap between the two
  • From pre-planning the training sessions in advance to empowering the teachers to make their own decisions
  • From a focus on motivation to a focus on self-efficacy.  What I've found is that teachers want to use pencils, but they believe that they cannot do it. 
  • From viewing pencils in a neutral framework to viewing it in light of the political and social reality we experience with William McKinley's Caravan to the Top initiative.
  • From viewing pencil literacy as a skillset to viewing it as the ability to analyze, assess and apply pencil to complex problems
  • From an authoritative, hierarchical approach to shared roles with each of us using our own expertise
  • From isolated workshops to a semester-long journey
  • From one-size-fits-all to differentiation - We will begin with a small group and then these teachers will help with the future training (I hate that term) sessions in the future
  • From passively learning to actively creating - We will work together to create something shared (a unit) and each teacher will have their own reflective piece (perhaps a plog?) 
What this means is that I will work with a group of six other teachers on a shared pencil integrated unit.  I began with a survey to help create the initial framework.  It's been difficult to avoid over-planning, but I'm thinking it will work well. 

a post about seeds

I ask my brother-in-law about the vocational education program he is running.  "I hate the word program.  It's a word for machines, like we're programming kids.  I'm not sure what's better.  Venture sounds like a business word and project isn't much better than program.  What we have is a co-op, but use that term and people will thing you're some kind of Tolstoy in the classroom."

"I bet Tolstoy will someday be forced reading.  They'll make him less dangerous and inaccessible to kids."

"Speaking of accessibility, that is our major issue we're running into.  It sounds simple, but our hands our tied regarding what kids of seeds are accessible to our students.  If I'm going to run a farming program, I need decent seeds."

"What do they want you to use?"

"Well, the first group of people want me using apple seeds.  Yeah, they think macintosh apples are beautiful and the packaging on the product is great."

"Plus, kids are used to apples.  I mean, our elementary kids first learn vocational farming from growing apple trees.  Makes sense."

"But shouldn't kids be challenged to do something different?  Besides, it seems that the big draw of apples are that they are trendy right now.  Perhaps it's the whole naturalist Johnny Appleseed story or maybe it's the whole forbidden fruit concept.  I don't know."  For what it's worth, I don't know why apples symbolize both the fall of man and the teaching profession.

"How about the window variety."

"People want us to adopt those as well.  They point out that it's what true greenhouse agribusiness companies use.  And it's true that the students will use window seeds in the real world, but it's not about the seed.  It's about the learning.  A gardener can honestly use any seed inside or outside.  The fact that one company markets itself as the 'business farming' company doesn't mean it is a reality."

"So, what do you want to see?"

"I'd like to adopt the free seeds.  There's a non-profit seed company started by this guy Linus. Unlike the apple seeds, there is a variety.  You can choose all kinds of types.  Unlike the window seeds, these are not prone to viruses.  You just load what you need and you use it.  The process is very organic."

"But what about help?  I mean, you get window seeds and there are long directions on every package and you can send a letter to a support center."

"There is a whole support network of volunteer farmers who can help you out.  But still, I want my students to problem solve farming issues on their own.  Isn't that a part of the learning process as well?"

"So what's the hang-up then?"

"Well, the free seeds have no real marketing and our district assumes that free means lower quality.  So Linus' seeds aren't even an option with our program.  Which is too bad.  We'd save a ton of money, have a flexible seed system and the students would still learn every important farming skill in the process."  

It has me thinking about our district's love of the iParchment and the fact that we ignore any free alternatives.  It's as if those who are governed by social norms have less of a voice than those governed purely by market norms.

*     *     *

Incidentally, I like growing Mint.  It started with a little kernel and it's growing into something beautiful.

I'm not a fan

"Hey, I need you to sharpen thirty pencils," a specialist asks me.  Okay, she doesn't ask, but that's the terms she'll use later when she explains the situation to the principal.

"Can't you sharpen them yourself.  It's a simple hand crank."  

"I'm not a fan of pencils," she explains. 

"Well, I'm not a fan of binders, but I don't run to a binder geek every time I need to open one.  I even take the time to keep all my papers in the school-mandated lesson binder."


Meet Ed Helper

The principal pulls me aside and says, "Hey Techno-Tommy, we have this new aid who will be going to your class.  He's an excellent resource.  His name is Ed Helper.  Nice guy. You'll enjoy working with him."

He's nice and he's pleasant and I don't doubt that he makes my job easier.  For a half an hour, he passes out various worksheets (emphasis on the word "work" rather than "learn").  The students do not particularly like him, despite his little school bus badge he wears and his generally happy demeanor.  He's nice, perhaps too nice.  A man of many cardigans.  A decent chap who I wouldn't mind meeting at a cocktail party.

I just don't think the kids are learning from his intervention.  Sure, they read a worksheet and yes, they use a pencil.  But it's not real.  It's not relevant.  It's not provocative and thus, it's not thought-provoking.  It's imitation meat, like calling SPAM a steak (and while canned meat is all the rage in this early industrial era, I have a hunch we'll someday use it as a pejorative term for unwanted information).

And the biggest reason is that Ed Helper doesn't know my students as well as I do.  Ultimately, that's what it's about.  Teaching is a relational gig and as long as people outsource it to guys like Ed, the students will suffer.

a Trojan Horse?

It's no secret that William McKinley wants to "civilize and Christianize" the Phillipinnes.  I have a hunch that it has to do with stategic military positions and imperialism, but then again I'm a bit of a cynic.  In my own class, I have a decent number of immigrants who supposedly pose a threat to our nation if they do not experience quick assimilation.  While we have no official language in our country, it is absolutely essential to people that my students learn English and abandon their own language.

So what does all of that have in common?  Social engineering.

Man vs. the machine is now man is the machine turning man into the machine.  It has a real zombie quality to it. For all the talk of life-long learning, my school is designed to be a factory-meets-prison.  Some say it is a necessary evil.  If one considers evil to be necessary, then there is probably a flaw in one's world view.  Still, we have large numbers and we "have to" move them through the curriculum effeciently and so with the desire for effeciency and measurable results, the school shifts into an unspoken factory metaphor.

I mention all of this, because I am up for a grant.  My class might be receiving phonographs, a telegraph (to be used school-wide) and cameras for photographs.  Very twentieth century.  Life on the graph.  On the grid.  In the box.  On the assembly line.

It's sponsored by the robber baron Andrew Carnegie, who wants to impose his idea of education on our school.  Last time I checked, schools were social institutions belonging to the public.  The goal is to help raise critical thinkers for a thriving democracy. Carnegie's goal is increasing market share.  Don't confuse free markets with free thinkers.

My uncle died in one of Carnegie's factories.  No amount of free libraries will bring him back.

If Carnegie essentially buys my classroom, does that mean I have sold my students' minds to the highest bidder?  Is that simply a more refined form of child prostitution? Moreover, is this the beginning of education moving toward privatization?  Will corporations create a monopoly on our schools the way they have monopolized steel and petroleum?  Will we some day have large corporations creating the materials, the curriculum, the assessments and eventually the standards of what we teach? They could easily manufacture an edu-crisis and then create the snake-oil solutions every time.

So, I wrestle with this gift.  Is it simply a Trojan Horse?  Is it Pandora's box?  Is it Prometheus stealing fire from the gods only to let us lose our insides?  Is it the same "gift" of our military presence in the Phillipines?  Just another area to colonize and gain market share?

I could leave it there and it would be a great political rant.  Except it has me thinking of my own classroom.  Technology (even pencils) are never neutral.  They have layers of social and cultural meaning.  Each tool becomes not simply a means of creating, but a means of socialization and potentially indoctrinating.  If I have students follow a format, a program of binders, for example, I have imposed my own layer of social engineering and if I'm not careful, I can end up like McKinley and Carnegie.

growing a PLN

I'm at the PIE Conference (Pencil Integration Technology) and someone presents a plan regarding how to build a Personal Learning Network.  He mentions a step-by-step procedure:
  1. Join the pen pal networks.  Follow people and let them follow you. It's vital to the exchange of information.
  2. Join a Social Address Booking Club and share information about your favorite places to go an learn.
  3. Subscribe to at least one scholarly journal. 
  4. Write a pencil log (plog) and subscribe to other pencil logs, too.  Jump in and start writing comments on the margins of their journals. 
  5. Find a few experts and go have a pint with them.  If you are a member of the Temperance Movement, have a cup of coffee instead.
  6. Go to various conferences and connect in person
  7. Go to the public chat rooms.  Sometimes they get big and crowded, but most towns have a place where educators can go and mingle and talk about specific education-related issues - sort of the opposite of a staff lounge. 
I ask Paul the Pre-industrial Poet about this and he says, "I'm not sure I agree.  I mean, don't get me wrong.  I think the list is great, but I can't imagine someone has to follow each of those.  I know you well enough to know that you hate Social Address Booking and I could never write a plog as often as you.  I know you are a wallflower and would shrivel up in a public chat room, but you could handle scholarly journals well."  

"I wonder if PLN's are not something someone builds, but rather an organic process.  Maybe they have to evolve individually." 

"Maybe.  I mean, maybe it's more like gardening.  You have to set up the infrastructure and organize things.  You don't just toss seeds out.  But it grows slowly." 

"I like your growth metaphor."  

"There is a danger in it, though.  I once got caught up in growing my PLN, thinking that bigger was better.  I finally realized that unsustainable growth is what caused the Panic of 1893.  Unsustainable growth is what causes our city to become a giant pollution house."

Note: the impetus of this blog post was a conversation with Philip Cummings on Twitter.  I enjoyed his thoughts on a PLN.