Variations of Myself: Written, Spoken, and Done

NCTE Reflection Part 2

I’ve been blogging for a long time. I’ve been online for a long time. I’ve been in the classroom (as a student) for a long time (only more recently as a teacher). Starting to see these various threads of my life interweave has been fascinating over the past year or two. I started to blog in college during my freshman year. It was completely personal at first (I had to keep up with my high school friends somehow) but it grew slowly into something I didn’t fully understand until much later. I might also add that I was a chemistry, and not an English, major to start out; I didn’t consider myself a “writer” a “blogger” or anything of the sort. I may have admitted to being someone who simply enjoyed words and occasionally took the opportunity to brag about spelling p-n-e-u-m-o-n-o-u-l-t-r-a-m-i-c-r-o-s-c-o-p-i-c-s-i-l-i-c-o-v-o-l-c-a-n-o-k-o-n-i-o-s-i-s when it suited the nerdiness of my audience.

While sharing stories through my blogs on LiveJournal and Xanga was important, I started to notice something emerging: a new version of myself. I started to see patterns first in other people whom I knew in person. I  saw friends whose online versions of themselves were much different than how I considered them to be in “real life.” People whom I viewed as patient, tolerant, and intelligent were being broadcast as vapid, sloppy, and crude. Was schizophrenia going around? Had my friends accounts been hijacked by hackers? My identity theories evaporated quickly as I started to see some of the same confusion in my own writing. What kind of voice was I projecting into this freely available format? During my non-education blog’s tenure I explored this question in a collaborative session with several other bloggers.

Today, my hindsight offers a newly threaded needle with which to seam this question. A voluntary mass-exposure through years of social media has been my own trial by fire. Through every post, tweet, update, ping, or blip of information I’ve been stitching my digital identity. Just recently I’ve started using a photograph of myself on Twitter instead of the comic avatar I had previously.  People have spoken often, in the public forums I frequent, about authenticity of action. What does it mean to be authentic in how you conduct yourself online?

I answer that question by going back to my initial blog conundrum. If you wouldn’t say something in real life to your boss, mom, children, or to complete strangers then don’t write it online. Anywhere.

The NCTE 2009 Convention brought public and private identities from around the country together in one venue for one long weekend of learning. It was a significant opportunity for me to experience the digital identity theories that were floating around in my head. I was planning on meeting people face-to-face from Twitter, the English Companion Ning, and a variety of education blogs. I couldn’t wait to compare my preconceived notions of their voices, demeanors, and attitudes. As excited as I was about meeting so many people, I was felt a little bit of trepidation regarding how others would view me and weigh any disparities in my digital and real selves.

If “variations of the self” is too deep for you to ponder while you speed-read your RSS feed (as I often do) then consider this: How much would a person recognize you in person after only reading you online?

Initial Reflection on NCTE 2009

As a new teacher, I fancy myself an expert at being overwhelmed. I find myself inundated most days with involuntary illusions of industry (if it’s wrong of me to alliterate so copiously, I don’t want to be right). In other words, I make a strong effort to become as busy as possible because I feel obligated to do so in order to meet: deadlines, potential, standards, personal goals and professional contacts. I use the word “illusion” merely to imply that not every inch of ink I intend to write is invaluable to or interned by others, but in an introspective state I might consider their worth infinitely. Okay, I promise to stop alliterating now; the wrong person could do a character count and measure my “Is” and conclude I’m a bit selfish.

As incredible and infuriating as the first eleven weeks of my teaching experience have been, this weekend easily measured up. I am fortunate enough to have a district who will pay for teachers to go to local and national professional conferences. I got to fly to Philadelphia for the National Council of Teachers of English 2009 Annual Convention with several staff members. I was excited to see Julie Andrews and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz more than anything. I ran out and bought The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and immersed myself in its half-page footnotes. A little kid inside of me sang “Spoonful of Sugar” as I became giddy thinking about the celebrity of the events and people at NCTE.

Sadly, the chaos of the flight computer systems on the coast kept us from leaving Chicago O’Hare until hours after our intended departure. We missed Junot Diaz. I was mildly traumatized. I don’t think it’s possible to be jet-lagged from a one hour time-zone delay, but I felt a bit crabby about it. I heard through the grape vine that the only way I was meeting Julie Andrews was if I had a ticket (something I wasn’t aware of how to obtain). Still, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Philadelphia Convention Center as well as my textbook of a program; I started to think maybe I should’ve brought a special backpack just to carry it.

The scope of the workshop topics rivaled the venue’s square-footage easily. It may have been possible to cover every inch of convention floor with every page from every program. Every session and section offered a dizzying display of dialogue to dig into (maybe I should talk to someone about my alliteration problem, I can’t seem to control it). Thankfully, the cooperative learner I’ve been trained to be brings sticky notes everywhere (I think of them like blog comments or social bookmarks). I cracked open the spiral-bound giant and rappelled down into it, armed with my yellow flags. Anyone who knows semaphore would know I was immediately signaling for help!

In his own post-NCTE reflection, Alan Sitomer (whom I didn’t get to see speak) compares the feeling of being overwhelmed by so many “keen minds” like a post-Thanksgiving type of meal. I couldn’t put it any better. Being that it was my first convention I felt like a new member in the most welcoming and exciting family on Earth. I was being given so much all the time, that I had a hard time processing it all. I’m still processing in fact (warning: virtual memory full)! Maybe next year for NCTE 100 I’ll have a new netbook to cart around and I can do some mobile processing. More posts to follow dealing with more specific aspects of the convention, its topics, and their impact on my instruction and planning.

Building Something New

There’s always demolition required.

This post is featured on the Prestwick House Inc. blog

I can hear them now, the collective groans and complaints of our staff are walking zombie-like down the hall in the direction of the office with one motive: braaaains! Teaching is a difficult job, it’s no surprise that we have a lot to complain about in any given day. Administrators have no shortage of rotten opinions spoiling in their inboxes. The staff lunch room reeks at times of foul language, maybe not unsuitable for television, but certainly unpleasant and cringe-worthy. When teachers lose control of things they feel responsible for, it’s easy to become bent out of shape. We want our kids to learn, we want our principals to listen and we want our school boards to argue in our favor.

When we feel cut-off from our community, ignored, shut-down, and unimportant, we all revert to communicating through our innate language of complaint. This is an unavoidable part of the adult world, there are always things to complain about. How negativity is dealt with in your school is one of the most important factors to consider when looking at the broader picture of environment. If you want useful data on your school’s stability, don’t snip a few petals off from the prettiest branch, take a core sample.

Who do your teachers complain to? What stays behind closed doors and what really gets reported? Do people generally shy away from speaking out in favor of generating gossip? Is there a system in place that people feel welcome to participate in? What happens if departments disagree on vital educational tenets? To whom do teachers go when they feel the administration is ignoring them?  When should you worry about going over someone’s head or about cutting in?

Most of us simply want what’s best for our school, not to make our neighbors angry or flood our principals with needless work. The hard part is going about finding what you want without damaging your relationship with others around you at the same time. It’s like demolishing a building in a crowded city block. If you’re a city employee who wants the old abandoned warehouse replaced by a shiny new apartment building, you’ll have to do two things: remove the old one and then put in the new. Making changes in schools is fairly similar: people need to be led away from the old ways and convinced the new is better.

No matter how “right” you are about change needing to take place, you’ve got to be careful and deliberate about communicating your ideas. No matter how much dynamite the construction crew has available to destroy the current structure, they have to take very strict precautions before depressing that plunger. Otherwise, the grocery store a block away, the day care center across the street, and the bank next-door are put in considerable danger. Simply letting loose the explosions would certainly make a mess of what’s there and the casualties would be so costly, you’d never be able to afford the new building.

demolition

If dissent is not welcome and encouraged in a safe and constructive fashion, then any considerable improvements will suffer. Is there something worth changing in your school? If so, then it’s probably worth complaining about to someone. Just consider how and where you place your charges. You may destroy more than you hoped to build.

Note: The Prestwick House Inc. blog has a great zombie picture instead of a building. You should check it out!

Move The World? Don’t Look in the Mirror…

Teachers spend a lot of my time in the minds of others. Maybe you’d call it metacognition, maybe you’d call it reflective curiosity, the title isn’t that important but it’s a habit many of us act out each day. Our students beg it of us and our departments and administrations challenge us to understand what other people are thinking. Have you ever stopped to think about what occupies your own brain?

Teaching requires a great deal of energy, just like any worthwhile task. Consider the image of Archimedes standing on a long board, moving the whole planet on his magical fulcrum. He seems to do an impossible amount of work with almost no effort! Teachers are always searching for the next fulcrum and moving their boards to stand on. We search out the possible motives of every student and their actions constantly, trying to take in and dump out as much information as possible while somehow holding onto a few meaningful motes to process and act upon. Often, we end up jumping up and down on our boards angrily, shouting obscenities at the world when all we need to do is move our focus to the fulcrum.

lever_sm

Motivation can be a tricky thing to track down, but if you can harness and understand what truly moves you, the Earth will move for you.  You know there are a myriad other tasks you could be doing at any given time as a teacher, but how do you balance them? How  do you find the energy to keep going after five hours of sleep, a twenty-minute lunch break, and screaming children terrorizing your classroom? Hopefully this is not a situation you  find yourself in daily, but if it is even close to that you’re most likely wishing someone would drop a magic fulcrum in front of you already and shove you on!

I’ll tell you a secret: the magic fulcrum is in your hand.

All around you there are other teachers, administrators, and most prevalently: students. I hesitate to say, “now go forth and stand on them, they are your fulcrum!” That’s taking the metaphor a bit too far, but you can probably understand where I am taking this. The community of people you engage every day are your motivation. They can move you forward better than anyone else. Have you ever tried shoving yourself? Throwing yourself? Unless you’re Jackie Chan, most likely you’d look pretty silly if you tried. Motivation is the same way; other people hold the most potential energy, they can help you move the world.

If you want to see some great responses on what staying motivated, check out the Educator’s PLN forum on the topic.