That Which Gets Attention

Dr. danah boyd has posted a video of her Webstock keynote, which reflects on fear and the attention economy. The three key assertions of danah’s talk are:

1. We live in a culture of fear.
2. The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear.
3. Social media is amping up the attention economy.

While the talk is most specifically directed at designers and technologists, there’s ample material in the talk of interest to educators. danah’s discussion of the role of (unwarranted) fear in cyberbullying conversations is especially of interest.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, you can read a crib of a version of the talk given at SxSW.

Evidence of Struggle

Yesterday, Jim Burke began his presentation at NCTE with this slide.

I thought- Thanks, Jim. That’s exactly what I need, more pressure when it comes to writing. If writing is a public performance of my intelligence, then what does it say for all the times that the page is filled with garbage, or even worse, blank? 

It didn’t matter that Jim then followed that slide with a hilarious story about burning his own poems in his backyard when he was in high school or acknowledging that we are always at risk of feeling stupid when we’re writing. I still had that first slide burned into my head.

But then Jim said, “If the page is blank, that’s evidence of struggle.”

Evidence of struggle. Not evidence of stupidity. Not evidence of failure. It was such a useful characterization for me. I’ve always heard the blank page characterized as a place possibility and opportunity. But the idea of the blank page as a place of struggle seems to helpfully reinforce the idea that the work of writing starts even before the pencil hits the page or the fingers hit the keys.

For the writing to happen, there do eventually have to be words on the page if the writer is to win the struggle, and so I was also grateful for Penny Kittle’s reminder of Tom Romano’s entreaty to, “Write in faith and fearlessness.”

Terrified and Closer to Joy

On the plane from Boston to Philadelphia this weekend, I had a conversation with an educator seated next to me. At one point, he said he thought many teachers didn’t care about their students. The statement came across as less of an attack than a sort of sad commentary. I volunteered that I thought the vast majority of teachers cared deeply, or at least wanted to care, but that something like fear or insecurity kept them from being able to convey that effectively.

I was reminded of that conversation while listening to Zac Chase’s TEDxPhillyEd talk. (Zac’s written about caring on his blog, but it was great to hear him address the subject in the TED talk format.) He suggested that true caring has to be reciprocal. It’s possible to think that one is caring for one’s students, but for students not to experience it as care. Zac didn’t say this, but I think it’s also possible to want to care, but to step back from the caring ledge.

TEDxPhillyEd 2011

The pic Kevin took turned out better than mine

During his talk, Zac showed a picture of his younger brother. (I think the picture was taken while he was jumping on a trampoline.) On his brother’s face was a captivating mix of fear and joy. If you choose to care as an educator, Zac said, “you will be both terrified and closer to joy.”

I’d like to have the joy without the fear. I think one of the challenges of being a teacher is seeing kids that you care about leave your classroom year after year. Caring opens up the possibility for hurt and disappointment. But then there’s the joy. And the promise of being closer to joy is sometimes enough to overcome the fear.

What are the hurdles to caring in the classroom? How do we overcome them and help others do the same?

Work Freedom

“One of the deepest horrors of modern man is to recognize to which which degree that inner fear, to which he doesn’t know how to relate, makes a sham out of freedom.” -Ivan Illich, The Rivers North of the Future

Last October, John Palfrey, former Executive Director of the Berkman Center and one of the BC’s current faculty co-directors, spoke at the school where I used to teach. I’d followed the work of the BC for awhile and was intrigued by the cool research and projects they were producing. After the presentation, I told John that I’d love to work with the BC to consider how they might expand and enhance the resources they offer for educators. (This felt a bit presumptuous, but it never hurts to ask, right?) John suggested that I write a proposal, which he would pass on to Urs Gassner, the Executive Director of the BC. The proposal was approved, so last Friday I took a flight to Boston, and, after a ridiculous shuttle ride, arrived in Cambridge. Zac and I spent some time on Saturday exploring the city and checking out his housing options for next year.


On Monday, I showed up for my first day at Berkman. I realized it was the first time I’d ever been given such latitude in terms of the work I was going to do. Of course, I’m working within the scope of the proposal and the mission of the Berkman Center, but more than once I’ve heard, “If that direction feels right/interesting/good to you, go with it, and let us know how we can support it. Think about talking with these people if you want feedback.” That kind of freedom can be a double-edged sword.  Freedom can be confusing or scary or overwhelming, instead of liberating. I was feeling a bit of that on Monday. By the end of the week, some cool possibilities are taking shape, and that day or two of fumbling/mucking seems useful.

Because I have perpetual teacher brain, I’m thinking about how my experience mirrors that of my students when they are presented with school work that gives them a significant degree of input/control as to what their final product will look like. I’m always a little surprised by the number of them that react, not with joy or excitement, but fear (which sometimes takes the form of whining). They have so often been told exactly what to do (200 words beginning with these sentences starters and including a picture from this website) that the freedom feels overwhelming. So I can say- What are you excited about? How can I support you? Talk to these students if you want feedback.

A postscript

I’ve also really enjoyed hanging out with the Youth and Media folks in the charmingly cramped 🙂 space on the third floor of 23 Everett Street. Unlike some internships, where making coffee and relatively passive learning about the organization seem to comprise the bulk of the work, the Berkterns are doing cool work.

The Light of Words

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”
— Yann Martel (Life of Pi)

Light Painting