Tag Archives: Identity

Thriving Eco-System of Ideas

Some stuff has been happening. Oh boy has some stuff been happen’n. Every few days after I come up for air and try to stop myself from drowning in the sea of life at my new school, I notice that something magical is happening with my students. Not all of them, of course, but why do teachers always judge achievement by whether or not everyone succeeds? More importantly why do we spend so much energy on words like achievement and success, when really we might be better served to look for the little things that blossom and bloom around us everyday. Lately, I’ve begun to take comfort from the turning of corners, the shedding of inhibitions, the sharing of stories and selves and ideas and dreams.

I often use plant analogies when I write. I am comfortable with the seed cycle. Reaping and sowing. Tending and pruning. These actions are just as applicable to teaching and learning as to botany. In this post, I want to share my excitement about the things I’ve found sprouting in my garden (student blogs). Every night before I sleep I take a stroll through the garden (read my RSS feed) to see if there are any new buds.

Let’s take a quick look of what I have found recently. Shall we?

A student who has been struggling this year because he is a boarding student wrote a post about missing his parents. This tender and vulnerable post came off the heels of an equally thoughtful poem which is still in draft form and not yet ready for publishing. It was so nice to see this sapling break through the dry soil. So often we assume that an empty garden bed means there is no life, but if we are patient and we tend the soil, we will surprised by what may be quietly germinating beneath the surface.

Another girl who has been quiet and shy in class- an observer-  a lurker you might say– poured her heart out in a beautiful poem, another one not yet ready for sharing, but just two days later she shared this quirky and brilliant video about a failed art project. In the clip she demonstrates her fantastic ability to manipulate a camera while telling her story. Behind the lens she is an expert, but the beauty of this video is her self-conscious and self-deprecating honesty in front of the camera at the end.

A few weeks ago, Michele shared her thoughts on Introverts and about the awkwardness of adolescence. Perhaps her posts were what inspired Solal to write his Edublog Award nominated post Being a Social Outcast which has to date over one hundred comments from people all over the world who relate to his plight.

Over and over these kids are saying that they want to be heard, even when they don’t know why or how. These kids want to tackle complex issues. They want a place to find and share their voice. Maybe they are great poets, or perhaps they want to publicly and socially contemplate happiness. They are understanding that their spaces can be used to promote their projects, or share their moments of peace and excitement during school trips. They want to change the world and understand themselves. They write novels, make cup music and just play around. They are learning about voice and online etiquette in conversations like this one.

Not a bad harvest right? I could go on and on. Every week, more and more students begin to break ground and grow. Obviously blogging has been a big deal for me this year. I have been exploring the art of blogging since August. Writing about it here and talking about it here. And so I think it is a good time, as the mid-year break is upon us, to take a look at why and how we are still talking about.

Too often I feel like I need to defend why I value blogging. There is this nagging need to constantly justify the purpose of these spaces. This post is meant to share the fruits of our work, but I also wanted to try and clearly articulate the value of student blogging.

As is clear from the example above, teenagers grapple with several issues: identity, expression and community. These three concepts drive my pedagogy. People sometimes criticize the value of teenagers exposing themselves so publicly.  Claiming that perhaps I only share the most vulnerable examples. The purpose of blogging is not to bare your soul in some kind of open diary journal. The purpose of blogging is to share your voice with a community. My job as I see it is to help student understand how to navigate, understand and employ identity, expression and community. I use these spaces and the conversations that happen on them as key teaching spaces. I offer formative feedback, I guide, I mentor. I teach. When people ask me why I spend so much time on these spaces, I want to point them to this post and this simple manifesto:

I want my students to feel confident about who they are through critical and artistic exploration of their identity. I want them to learn how to clearly articulate this voice in a variety of media in order to find a network of like-minded people in order to create a community of learners that will help them learn during and beyond school.

Blogging is just the soil to achieve these goals. Take a look at our learner profile. How many of these qualities are obvious in the examples I have shared?

  • Critical Thinker, Problem Solver, Inquiry, Questioning, Connection, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation 
  • Concerned, Committed, Stewardship, Caring, Empathy, Compassion, Open-minded, Service, Sustainability
  • Creative and Innovative, Originality, Imagination, Curiosity, Adaptability, Connection, Persistence Risk-taking
  • Principled, Integrity, Honesty, Responsibility, Respect, Fairness
  • Collaborative, Cooperation, Participation, Leadership, Flexibility, Adaptability, Responsibility, Trust 
  • Resilient, Optimistism, Confidence, Courage, Diligence, Perseverance
  • Communicator, Communication, Interpretation, Perspective, Intent 
  • Self Aware, Self-discipline, Self-esteem, Self-confidence, Reflection 
  • Self Manager, Metacognition, Independence, Perseverance, Diligence, Organisation, Responsibility

Nearly everyone quality can be traced back to a the examples I shared above. Blogging is a way that my students are negotiating and understanding the learner profile in an authentic and discrete manner. They are practicing the skills and exemplifying the qualities although they might not be aware of it. The next job is to help them become metacognitively aware enough to see where and when they are demonstrating these skills and qualities. Another garden ripe for exploration.

I hope the examples I shared prove that students are not afraid to explore themselves and their peers publicly. Contrary to what most adults think, these kids if made comfortable, will use their public spaces to find their voice. As I mentioned earlier, of course this is not true of every kid, and I am not here to push every kid to open up. Some seeds need time. And perhaps the soil does not have the right nutrients for every child. But I am seeing that blogging is contagious. As the plants begin to grow, they shield and guide and support the younger saplings. Suddenly we find ourselves in a thriving eco-system of ideas. So I will till the soil, add fertilizer when needed, consider the amount of water every seed will need. I will find sunlight or shade as needed for every fragile sapling. I will wait patiently and stare at what appears to be barren soil. But like every successful gardener I have faith and I have patience. I will wait for every seed to grow.


For Attention

I got blogs on the mind. Yes, more so than usual. I’m swimming in streams of whys and hows, and yes, even a few whats. Next Monday, I will be part of a school-wide TV show style panel discussing this very topic. Set up by Jeff Plaman, Clay Burell and I will share our ideas on the subject. I am honored to share the stage him, and curious to hear what the master of Unschooliness and one of the earliest blogging influences on me, has to say on the subject five years since we first crossed paths on the web. This will be the first time I will meet him in person. Hi Clay looking forward to our chat. (I will share this with him, so maybe we can start the discussion right here in blog format. Imagine that!)

Later this month I will presenting a webinar with the great folks at The Digital Media & Learning. The topic is wide open, so I thought I would further explore the topic of Blogging with Students. Is blogging still relevant, important, or  necessary in 2012? I hope this post will help me gather ideas, so please take part in the comments below. I know that Bud Hunt has done extensive work on the subject. (Side note: I have been asked to invite a few people to the Google Hangout which will be moderated by none other than Howard Reingold. Please let me know if you are interested.)

This post is meant to help me refocus my attention and attempt to come up with a simple explanation on what a blog can be (I do not like defining blogs in one way), and why I still find blogging with students worthwhile. I will focus mainly on the role of blogs for middle school students as this is the group with which I have the most experience.

What is a Blog?

We have been having some great discussions at the table. Contrary to their perceived “nativeness” most middle school  kids have no idea what a blog is. Yes, they understand the act of re-blogging an animated .gif of (insert random image here) or of sharing photos of  friends on Instagram, or Facebook updates or even Twitter, but when asked if they know what a blog is, most have no idea or think that it is a very personal diary where people confess their every thought to the world.

The fact that blogs can be spaces for critical thought and analysis of ideas, a place to share understanding or a place to reflect with a wider audience is foreign to most teenagers. But since they get social sharing that is where I have been directing the conversation,

“Why do you share photos, updates, tweets?”
“Why do you share anything with anybody? Everybody?”

We had some very interesting answers: to bond, to connect, build friendships, to find like-minded people, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, perhaps the most honest answer, “We share for attention.”

My first reaction was to think “Wow how petty.” I felt a sudden sense of sadness to think that these kids need to share to be noticed. After my initial feelings of pity, I turned the critical reflective mirror on myself and realized that I share for attention too. We all do in a sense no? I am writing this post because I want you to notice, to listen, to hear. To understand.

The true revelation came, however, when I noticed that wanting, needing attention is need not be a sad state reserved for lonely teenagers and sad adults trapped in a purgatorial state of arrested development. Wanting attention is perhaps one of the simplest of human emotions. Is not craving attention, the need to be noticed the base of  love? Do not our children crave our attention from the day they are born? Is not their happiness contingent on the quantity and quality of said attention?

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by dino_olivieri

If sharing is the need for attention and kids share to be noticed, I see the blog as an extension of the classroom, where their other social sites are the playground. Kids will do the craziest things to be noticed, for attention on the playground when no one is looking, but isn’t the classroom a place where teachers help guide and mentor kids? A place where we help them find healthy ways to seek attention?

When people ask me what a blog is, I say,

“A blog is a place where I help students find depth in what they share, in order to gain attention for what they feel and think. It is the place where students can build a confident public voice.”

Readers of my blog, know I am a bit obsessive about identity, expression and community. I see student blogging as a homebase for the exploration of this idea:

Blogging gives students a voice (expression) to help them build a better understanding of self (identity) in the search for like-minded peers. (Community)

The big questions is how can we do this authentically? How can we create an environment that allows risk-taking? A place that is safe, but still real. I think that the how may be another blog post.

What do you think? Is student blogging still relevant? Is blogging dead? Did we fail with too many Homework Assignment blogs? Or are there authentic student bloggers out there? Before you go all cynical, let me tell you that I have some pretty jazzed kids already who are sharing quality and quantity without any assignment from me. We are just getting started... Do or do not do. There is no try.


Identify The Boundaries

People who know me, the ones who I have met, the ones who follow my tweets, the ones who read this blog, know that I am obsessed with identity. I have written on the subject extensively on this blog, and I have explored the subject in depth on my personal blog. While on the surface it may appear that I am being a narcissistic ego-maniac, I assure you my intentions are good. For the last seven years, I have been conducting an experiment of sorts.

What do we feel comfortable sharing online? What is or should be private? What can we gain by over-sharing? How does this theory of openness help us connect to others? How does it affect community? What is everyone so afraid of? Should I be?

There are countless other questions, but you get the point. I have tried to share as much as I can, to see if by sharing every aspect of my life, I can build an authentic “brand.” One that will help me gather a tribe of like-minded people who will not only help me learn, but who will also become close friends. I am hoping that by revealing as much as I can, you will help me identify the gaps and help complete me. See this stuff is deep.

None of what I have written so far is new, so why write this post again? Firstly, I wanted to share my second online stalking! A few years ago, Clarence Fisher’s English class, investigated my online footprint and discovered some interesting things. No surprises. They got a superficial, yet accurate, image of who I was in 2010.

I am happy to announce that I have been stalked a second time. This time as a part of UMW Digital Identity course taught by Martha Burtis. One of her students was assigned to dig up all she could about who I am now. You can read her complete reflection here, but there is not much out of the ordinary this time around either. Beyond being impressed that she was able to identify my daughter’s addiction to Nutella, there was little in what she found beyond my blog About Me page.

She asked me to answer some questions in a recorded interview, which I do at the end of this video. Her introduction is hilarious, despite the poor sound. The interview questions at the end of clip, however,  sound fine. The worst kind of criminal–an educator…

One of the biggest criticism of social media and online sharing is that it is somehow inherently false and duplicitous. Because we can choose what we share, the thinking goes, we only share the best of who we are. We somehow build these better alter-egos of ourselves. We never shed light on our faults, show ourselves being ugly, or delve too deep into the darkness.

I am sure there is truth to this. This is what I want to challenge. I am not sure where the boundaries are, but I am very curious. I have tried to be as open as possible, but I am sure even I have held back. I know there are some definite no-nos. Never talk about sexuality. I will promote gay rights and gender equality, because I feel they are human rights, but personal thoughts on sexuality is a no go for me.

I have begun to share less about religion these days. I am openly atheist, but I hope that as I get older, I am becoming more tolerant and focusing on my own slow Zen practice. It’ a process, a journey. I am on it. Enough said.

Politics? I used to be more outspoken, but even my energy in that field has been subdued. I am trying to sort myself out first. I will speak up about injustice and criticize system I find unfair, but I seldom get into heated debates these days.

What is the next step of this experiment? How else can I dance on the edge of private vs public, personal vs professional? This is where you come in. I need your help. I am going to ask you a few questions.  I do not expect you to answer them. I would just like you to think about where your boundaries are? What would you never share online? What kinds of questions are just too much? Then I want you to ask me those questions. Leave them in the comments below.

I am not asking you to ask me these questions, because I will necessarily answer them; I just want to see how they affect my comfort zone. I want to sketch out my no-fly zone. Identify the boundaries. I am also curious what you feel is out of bounds. I want to test the waters. I am expecting that based on your culture and personality we will have a wide range of ideas in regards to privacy.

What is too much?
What do you feel is too private to share?
What would make you feel uncomfortable?

Thanks for playing along.


Static Smiling Avatar

Sitting here as the clouds begin to roll in for their daily rain dump, and the post-lunch procrastination fog is thick. (Did you hear that thunder?) I have a three-hour workshop to plan for this Saturday, but there is a blog post tangled in my brain that is keeping me from getting to my work. Pardon me while I detangle it now.

I recently changed my avatar across the webz. I have written about my obsession with avatars and identity before. So why bring it up again now? Let’s back up. Actually let’s take a look at the image first:

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Intrepid Flame

Not minutes after it was posted, I received a few responses:

What’s with the new avatar pic? Looks dangerous …

Your new avatar looks like some kind of stalker killer from a nasty video game nightmare.

Your avatar makes me think you’re gonna eat my brains.

These comments were all shared in good humor, and I was not upset by them. I get it. The picture looks odd, sinister, maybe even a bit scary. You must be asking yourself, does something so petty warrant a blog post? Bear with me. As we work with students and talk about the idea of identity creation and online communities and interactions, we often mention the importance of honesty and authenticity. We talk about being ourselves and the distrust of strangers we meet online–the importance of visual cues about who we are become more and more important. So why did I, inadvertently, choose an image that makes me look scary? Why aren’t I changing it any time soon?

Because this image, the look in the eye, the beard, the lighting, the mood, the tone is how I felt yesterday. It is a part of who I am at this time in my life. I have spent lots of energy creating authentic flashes of who I am to build my online persona. I am not a photoshopped head-shot, all smiles and professional looking. (No offense to those of you who use professional head-shots) Sometimes I am a silly dad, sometimes I am who you see above. I love seeing the various phases of who I have been, who I am, and who I might become, everytime I see images of myself reflected back from the interwebz

This may not be the most profound blog post,  I will be the first to admit, but as we model behavior for our students I can’t help but insist that being yourself, even when that is not the best face forward is a valuable act. One of the most common criticism of online life is that, because participants can choose what they share, we only share positive images and tell happy stories from our lives, thus creating false images of who we really are. This image, and the others I share are my way of proving those critics wrong. What you see if what you get? But be careful, because that person is always changing and has more depth than a static smiling avatar.


Be Sparks

“You can’t go into work like that. It is not professional. That is not a teacher’s haircut.”

Those were the first three sentences out of my wife’s mouth as soon as soon as I got home from my haircut this last week. I shrugged off her professional prudery as paranoia, thinking to myself, I can do whatever the hell I want, but deep down I was a bit worried. Was the mohawk a bit much? Was I pushing too hard?

After a week, I am convinced that not only is the mohawk good for me, but I am here to say that it is good for our school. Hear me out:

Everywhere I go, all week, people smile, pump their fists, and light up when they see me.

“Man, I love that haircut.”

“Really suits you”

“That is just awesome!”

Teachers, principals, students- it doesn’t matter. It is as if everyone is tapping into the sense of freedom one can only feel when one shuns the shroud of conformity and tip-toes along the edge of the preverbal box. You know, the one everyone tells you to think outside of, but choose to sit in comfortably themselves. Schools like all institutions can become stuffy dens of routine. How can they not? With so many procedures, programs, time-tables, curricula, it is almost as if they are designed to bore people to death. Is it any wonder that students and teachers sleepwalk their way through lessons and grumble because they have to write essays, lab reports or report card comments. I can only imagine hospitals, banks, and prisons as places that are more dreary.

But not this week at our school, not for me. Walking through campus with a mohawk seems to have awaken people. It has reminded them that schools were never met to be factories of the status quo. The hair-do is screaming to us all that schools are meant to challenge and excite. There have been times this week that I have been talking seriously about character development with my grade tens and they start cracking up. I mean how absurd right? A 37 year old man with a mohawk spouting off intensely about some ancient novel.

I love the lightness that comes from not taking oneself too seriously. I thrive on the silliness of authenticity and vulnerability. So often we ask students to take risks and express themselves, while we teachers sit behind our walls of adulthood professionalism. If I wanted to be a suit I would have been a banker. I am in the teaching business to be myself, in hopes that kids will see that being yourself, in the face of societal pressure is not that hard to do. We can all be sparks when we are not afraid to get burned. Tell a kid to take a risk…well try it yourself first.

I want my students to realize that adulthood is not some mono-chromatic path to death and professionalism. We are not all mind-numb zombies stressed and chasing bills. We are alive and filled with creativity and passion. I want them to understand that adults come in all shapes and sizes, and our diversity is what makes us such great role models. The way we look, the way we dress, the ink on our arms, the hair on our head is not the only indication of who we are or what we believe. I want my students as well as other teachers, administrators and parents to understand there is no one way teachers should look or act.

It has been a great week. I never thought a haircut would give me such a sense of empowerment. A Swagger. A purpose. Every institution needs a mohawk to remind it not to take itself too seriously. To remind it that life is fun and exciting and that sometimes we need to stand tall and be noticed. I have a challenge for you- what can you do to help ignite a little fire at your school? What can you do to rock the boat a bit; shake things up? Share your ideas below, better yet take some pics of you doing whatever it is you think will enliven your school and add links to the comments below.