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Fandom, Ownership, and Improvisation: A Triptych on Improvisation


Last night Ally and I made the trek to Boulder to see the Brad Mehldau trio perform. I’d seen Mehldau a couple of times back in LA (he’s even released an album titled after my favorite venue). I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that the show was Mehldau performing as part of a trio (with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard on bass and drums respectively). I’d expected something closer to this (akin to the direction of his most recent album MehlianaTaming the Dragon):

Aside from beginning with an original song, the entire show was a set of covers. From the Beatles to Gillian Welch to Radiohead, Mehldau’s work weaves familiarity with the unexpected. It’s interesting to listen to the audience reactions during jazz performances (something Paul F. Tompkins lampoons here). There is usually laughter in two places in jazz shows. First, the audience will quietly laugh when they know a song. The excitement of familiarity when Mehldau launched into “And I Love Her,” for instance signaled that the audience knew this song. Conversely, the audience laughs when a line or solo goes in the complete opposite direction of where they expected. A mid-tempo solo that flies into high gear, a series of notes outside of the song’s key, a start-stop drum solo. We find pleasure, surprise, and laughter in the familiar and the unknown. It is the mixture of these two that builds pleasure in the consumer here.


Saturday, a day before the Mehldau show, I presented at the Colorado Teen Lit Conference. In my session, I mainly facilitated conversations around how participatory media can act as a tool of empowerment for YA readers. In one example (and as described in my book) I highlighted how Cassandra Clare practiced and developed her YA-oriented writing through engagement with fan fiction communities. At the heart of this discussion are a bunch of complex issues revolving ownership, plagiarism, marketing and capitalism. Several in the room (myself included) discussed how we have successfully gotten kids to write powerful stories through adapting fan fiction models for the classroom. The number of NaNoWriMo submissions I got from my students who inserted themselves in their favorite Cirque Du Freak or Vladamir Tod settings was a powerful testament to how fandom can initiate and sustain writing.

Writing is hard. Getting published even harder. Keynote speaker, A.S. King described the arduous process of getting her first novel in print:


Teachers steal all the time. Musicians cover as a staple of their own repetoires. Without consciously building on successful models (and remixing what makes them successful), how can young writers develop a personal voice?


Like Mehldau, last year when my colleague Leif and I saw Jason Moran in concert, his set was primarily a series of covers (including briefly schooling the attendees about the “Negro National Anthem”). Perhaps more striking is that Moran would begin many of his songs by scrolling through his iPod, playing a song through the house speakers and slowly begin playing along with the canonized recording. Eventually he would fade out the recorded song and he and his band mates would seamlessly move the song into a new, unexpected direction. Like Mehldau, this was a master of his craft playing along with canonical recordings. Thinking about this from a literacies perspective, I think there are (at least) two important reasons covers are so important in musical performance:

  • First: it is a signal to the audience familiarity. Audience members muttered and harrumphed when the first recognizable melodic lines of “And I Love Her” were played by Mehldau. Minutes later, the song was an unrecognizable, rejuvenating­–and highly original–samba.
  • Second: it grounds the artist in a political, historical, cultural, social, place. Just as the audience can understand and recognize the familiar tropes of a cover, a musician can adhere to, respond to, or redefine the emotional voice from which a cover comes from. By starting with something pre-established, a cover song can create pathways and constraints for new work to emerge.

When an audience member requested Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” at last night’s Mehldau show, it wasn’t because he thought he was getting  the ‘90s rock song version. It was because the piece was both familiar and utterly transformed. Likewise, when Moran launches into “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa it isn’t because they are expecting to hear a hip-hop classic.

All compositions are grounded in complex matrices. The social, historical, cultural, and political intersect in the words we write, the notes we play, the lessons we teach. A cover of a standard, or a Beatles song, or a Radiohead hit, or a Harry Potter setting is a more blatant signal for readers and a powerful starting place in tone or message for the composer. This is what we need to consider (and teach) within a literacy context. Even when we compose new work, our words and ideas are influenced by the world around us. We experience in ways that are shaped by the past.

Presenting at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference

Just a quick note to let you know I will be presenting at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference this Saturday. (Yes, I am missing AERA this year.)

I believe the conference registration is already full. However, if you’re going, here’s a sneak peek of my presentation:

Teen Literature as Empowerment: Learning from Participatory Culture and Critical Literacy

This workshop explores the opportunities and challenges that libraries face in an era of participatory culture. Teen literature is a powerful space for critical learning and this session will look at how to adapt to what new teen literature can teach. Through collaboration, participants will build a framework of participatory learning and culture to help libraries and librarians conceptualize multiple, diverse points of access to meaningful literacy experiences.

I hope to see you there!

New Article in Educational Policy

I have a new co-authored article in Educational Policy titled “Schooling Mobile Phones: Assumptions About Proximal Benefits, the Challenges of Shifting Meanings, and the Politics of Teaching.” The article can be viewed at this link. Here’s the abstract:

Mobile devices are increasingly upheld as powerful tools for learning and school reform. In this article, we prioritize youth voices to critically examine assumptions about student interest in mobile devices that often drive the incorporation of new technologies into schools. By demonstrating how the very meaning of mobile phones shift as they are institutionalized and by highlighting the divergences between adult and youth assumptions about these devices, we make a significant contribution to policy debates about the role of new digital technologies in the classroom. In addition, we explore challenges such as privacy, freedom, and resource-use that emerge when scaling-upthe use of mobile technologies in the classroom.

I want to thank my co-author, Thomas M. Philip, for working on this with me. Thomas has been an invaluable mentor and collaborator and he is the recent winner of the AERA Division G Early Career Award. To hear Thomas talk about findings from this article and other avenues of work he’s done, check this out.

Catching up with the Connected Learning Classroom

A few updates regarding the recently released report/ebook Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom:

Most timely, tomorrow–and every tuesday in April–I’ll be participating in the ConnectedLearning.TV webinar series focused on the major principles highlighted in the book. Tomorrow’s event is titled “Networked Classrooms: Providing Equitable Access to Connected Learning” and I encourage you to check out the  hashtag #wherewelearn in preparation for the webinar.

We have some amazing guests scheduled throughout the month. Our final webinar in April is an unHangout where you can more directly join in on the conversation. Be sure to join us! (A special shout out to Nicole Mirra who has been doing the brunt of the organizing for this series. She also wrote this post about the series. If you aren’t reading her blog, Revise and Resubmit, do so now.)

Two weeks ago we hosted a related webinar about the report for Educator Innovator. You can rewatch the discussion here:

A few reviews of the book have been trickling in here, here, and here. (If you are interested in reviewing it, please pass along the link!)

Finally, the ebook is now available for the Kindle here. While that’s great and all, the file costs $.99, which is exactly $.99 more than the pdf version of the same material. Full disclosure: I don’t have any control over this cost (and none of the authors or curators of the book–myself included–gain from this).

It’s been thrilling hearing the many ways educators have been engaging with this work – I hope you have had a chance to dive in!

Revisiting Divergent and Female Sexuality in YA

Did you watch Divergent this weekend? I’ll admit I think it was a stronger film adaptation than many other YA-related films lately.

In any case, I’d like to point you back to an excerpt from my book that focuses on Divergent and female sexuality originally posted here. The film adaptation readjusts this scene to be more about sexual violence than about the sexuality of a scared, uncertain girl. Being afraid of sexual assault is an entirely warranted fear for young people (particularly women) to feel. The ways this fear was different within the book, however, are more problematic. I am curious how the film version will cast aside past readings as this book becomes more entrenched in its film vision (when you think of Harry Potter do you conjure an image of a young Daniel Radcliffe or a non-Hollywood image of the-boy-who-lived?). Again, check out the excerpt from my book – I plan to share another one soon!

Related, I think the Maze Runner film adaptation looks strong, too. A shame that the two other books (and prequel) absolutely fall apart… (you should probably read my book’s chapter focused on the perils of serialization while you’re at it!).

Patrick Camangian’s Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life Presentation

On Tuesday, as part of the CSU Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life series, Dr. Patrick Camangian, offered his insight in a talk titled “From Coping to Hoping: Teaching a New Ending.” The entire discussion can be viewed below and I hope you will take a look.


Dr. Camangian’s work can be accessed via his page. Additionally, Patrick mentions that his work builds on the scholarship of Jeff Duncan-Andrade and I would point readers to his “Note to Educators,” which offers a necessary look at “critical hope.”

As Patrick mentions at the beginning of his talk, he and I have been in similar circles for nearly a decade. My first teacher education class (taught by Dr. Duncan-Andrade) met in Patrick’s classroom. The picture of Tupac above his clock, mentioned in his talk, was my first look at what a caring, urban classroom could look like.

Educator Innovator Webinar – Thursday March 13, 5:30 EST

This Thursday the other Teaching in the Connected Learning editors and I will be engaging in a conversation about the book as part of the Educator Innovator webinar series. In some ways this can be seen as the first of an ongoing series of conversations that will continue on (dates to be announced soon!). We’ll be talking from 5:30-6:30 EST this Thursday. The link to our hangout will be posted here. Below is the description of the webinar and I hope you will join us!

With today’s new modes of learning and engagement, the opportunities to craft ever more personalized and meaningful experiences for students grow daily. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is the title of this webinar as well as a forthcoming ebook published by the MacArthur Foundation and edited by National Writing Project educators. Drawing from work colleagues have shared at NWP’s Digital Is, an Educator Innovator partner, the editors have curated examples of practice into a collection that is unique in its focus on in-school examples of connected learning. Join us for this Educator Innovator webinar where we’ll hear from the editors and consider the implications for teaching and learning, in school and out.

Preparing for Dr. Patrick Camangian’s Visit This Tuesday

As the fourth event in the Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life speaker series, Dr. Patrick Camangian has requested that all attendees please complete the survey found here (enter PIN# 7193). I’m not familiar with this resource and I found the interface engaging and I’m curious how it will be woven into Dr. Camangian’s presentation. I hope you will take a few minutes to complete it and I hope you will join us! As usual we will be in Clark A205 at 5:30 and the event is free. Here is a bit of info about Dr. Camangian’s presentation:

Moving Left of Center: Teaching a New Ending

If teachers truly want to make their classrooms more culturally empowering, we need the type of learning, an ability to read the world, as Paulo Freire says, that leads to social transformation in students’ actual lives. This presentation honors this by discussing the importance of tapping into the humanity that young people bring into classrooms, treating their most pressing concerns as worthy of intellectual interrogation and important starting points for all learning. Toward this end, this presentation will draw on work done in urban schools throughout California as a context to understand the socio-educational experiences of different cultural groups in urban communities and, more importantly, consider ways in which classroom teachers can more effectively remedy the problems facing urban communities.

Last week, Dr. Haddix mentioned that she always has her students read one of Dr. Camangian’s articles in her class. The article in question is Starting with Self: Teaching Autoethnography to Foster Critically Caring Literacies. It comes from a stellar issue of Research in the Teaching of English and I’d encourage you to peruse the rest of the issue here.

See you Tuesday!

Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom

The DML Research Hub released Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom  last week. This is a report I spent much of 2013 editing and co-writing with a stellar team of National Writing Project members. The report is free to download and read and I hope you will spend time with the powerful document.

Today, I published a blog post at DMLcentral that describes the reason this book exists. The original post and its comments can be accessed here. However, as a text that helps contextualize the need for Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom in 2014, I am also pasting the post below.

Last week saw the release of Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom, a free Connected Learning report I edited. I’m hoping you’ll spend some time reading it — it features a plethora of powerful contributions by members of the National Writing Project. When you riffle throughTeaching in the Connected Learning Classroom, what you’ll see is a series of narratives from educators from across the country sharing how they are already exemplifying connected learning principles in practice in schools.

As educators and researchers, we often talk about the possibilities of advances in learning sciences and pedagogy.

I think we need to move beyond the rhetoric of possibilities.

As you look through this report, please do so with a recognition not of what educators can do in classrooms but rather of what teachers today are doing in regards to connected learning. These are incredible examples of teachers already transforming school life from within. We, as the DML (digital media and learning) community, must begin to visualize how we support the more-than-possibilities of in-school connected learning.

Briefly, I want to describe how this book came together.

On Aspiring to Be More Than a Broken Record

Since the first DML conference, five years ago, I’ve felt like something of a broken record. Each year I ask:

  • Where are the teachers?
  • What about kids in schools?
  • How are our conversations impacting the learning for kids during the hours of 8-3 Monday-Friday?

In Twitter backchannels, in presentations, and in conversations with attendees my questions haven’t changed over the past, formative years for Digital Media and Learning or in regards to connected learning.

It was with these constantly circulating questions around what connected learning means for classrooms and schools that I approached the work that ultimately turned into Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom.

In observing the powerful examples of connected learning shared online and at DML conferences, I am often left with a sense that many may believe that connected learning is a phenomenon that happens outside of schools and that educational reform like the Common Core State Standards automatically impede any attempts at connected learning-like innovation in classrooms. This isn’t the case.

Working with five other co-editors of each chapter of this project — Danielle Filipiak, Bud Hunt, Clifford Lee, Nicole Mirra, and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen — I decided to organize the book around six key connected learning components:

  • Interest-driven learning
  • Peer-supported learning
  • Academically-oriented teaching
  • Production-centered classrooms
  • Openly networked
  • Shared purpose

Within each of these chapters, you’ll encounter three different teacher-authored vignettes that highlight ways educators are exemplifying principles of connected learning.

A Book of Theory-Building

This is not an instruction manual. My co-editors and the nearly thirty contributors to this project did not sit down to give educators step-by-step instructions on implementing connected learning principles in classrooms. Instead, I organized this book around these examples for two reasons:

  1. Demonstrate the work that’s already being done by teachers
  2. Invite a larger conversation around reshaping what we expect from schools in the U.S. on a daily basis.

Teachers in this book should be duly recognized as theoreticians. The examples here are a mere drop in the bucket in terms of work happening around the country. Instead of dictating a single way educators must demonstrate, for instance, peer-supported learning in classrooms, this project highlights the multitudinous ways classrooms can be transformed. I sincerely hope more teachers are emboldened to flex connected learning principles in their classrooms. And, I sincerely hope non-teachers seek out ways to collaborate and support these efforts.

Marching Orders

My advisor in graduate school, Ernest Morrell, always tells the high school students we work with not to let anyone leave a presentation without their “marching orders.” In other words, if the students had just shared their research findings at a national conference (as they did at DML in 2013), people in the audience need direct instructions on how to move forward and their role in doing so.

In the spirit of these students’ marching orders, I have a question for the non-teachers reading this: how will you support the powerful work and enthusiasm emanating from classrooms near you? (I hope you’ll share in the comments below.)

For the teachers reading this: How can you demand more from your students, your administrators, and your school’s community? How is your classroom reflecting the connected learning principles, as you understand them?

The National Writing Project — instrumental in making this project a reality — continues to highlight the power of leveraging the expertise of thousands of enthusiastic teachers from around the country. Think of what we can do as a DML community if we turn our collective knowledge onto the “problem” of public education. I want to thank the members of NWP who have helped push my thinking and the many of you who helped illuminate in-school connected learning as contributors, editors, and supporters of this report.

I hope you will read Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom, obviously. But I hope that your reading isn’t a passive activity. I tell my pre-service teachers at Colorado State University, when they struggle with the theoretical readings in my classroom that they need to read harder. We cannot afford to disregard the needs of America’s posterity just because improving education is difficult. Our children are too important. I hope you will read Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom as a step toward a transformational dialogue.

Marcelle Haddix’s Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life Presentation

Marcelle Haddix’s presentation as part of the ongoing Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life series was thrilling. A recent graduate, currently teaching in a local school told me this was the talk she “needed” to hear. Likewise, many attendees (both in-person and via email afterwards) shared that they were invigorated and renewed by Dr. Haddix’s frank discussion of the needs of preservice teachers of color, the challenges with wanting to “help” a community, and the possibilities that unfold (to lift a phrase from one of her research participants) when we shift our stances as teachers and teacher educators. I hope you watch Dr. Haddix’s talk below.

“Are You Still Helping That Community?”: Toward a Publicly Engaged Teacher Education and a Focus on Community/ies


Next week will be an equally great presentation from Dr. Patrick Camangian of the University of San Francisco. As usual we will be in Clark A205 at 5:30 and the event is free. Here is a bit of info about Dr. Camangian’s presentation:

Moving Left of Center: Teaching a New Ending

If teachers truly want to make their classrooms more culturally empowering, we need the type of learning, an ability to read the world, as Paulo Freire says, that leads to social transformation in students’ actual lives. This presentation honors this by discussing the importance of tapping into the humanity that young people bring into classrooms, treating their most pressing concerns as worthy of intellectual interrogation and important starting points for all learning. Toward this end, this presentation will draw on work done in urban schools throughout California as a context to understand the socio-educational experiences of different cultural groups in urban communities and, more importantly, consider ways in which classroom teachers can more effectively remedy the problems facing urban communities.

This series has developed into a powerful, necessary dialogue and I am thrilled to imagine how next week will only further add to this more-than-conversation. Please join us!


Finally, as Marcelle mentioned, she and I met through the NCTE Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color fellowship program – there is still time to apply to join the next cohort of committed literacy scholars. (And shoot me an email if you are interested and have any questions.)