Work in Progress
The grease of work has a distinctive smell. My brother and I found respite from a tough home in the grease and grime of the garage. Here we would wile away hours tinkering and adjusting making the “perfect” cars out of junk. We could never fully achieve what we wanted, new is what we wanted, but we always had the idea of what that perfect hum would be. How the cleanest exhaust fumes would add to horsepower, and what our tinkering could make better.
I have recalled this very special experience from my childhood many times during my work with the National Writing Project. In a multi-year project entitled Assignments Matter I had the opportunity to perform work along side fabulous educators from around the country in designing better writing tasks for classroom use. Work that required building new pathways through virtual tools, online presences, and invented strategies. The process of creating tasks with purpose and rigor grew in teachers across the country who rarely sat across a table from one another, but somehow were able to assemble this new learning. With the virtual professional development offering new and interesting challenges and successes I began to see a lot of my childhood in the endeavor.
After all, when we went into the garage we started with a singular goal. Often, it would be using what parts we could scrounge, what tools we had, and collecting community “know how” to assemble the car of our dreams. We could visualize this product, often tearing pages out of magazines and other print sources and hanging them on the walls around where we worked. Though we were in the midst of chaos at times, we would look to the photos and images and visualize where we were going and this guided the work we did.
In this team virtual professional development was building the car while driving it, and this project took on many new and different twists. We were not given the luxury of bringing everyone into a room and hashing out norms we were many members across the country coming together for one purpose virtually by necessity. The general first steps were taken by the leadership team to establish online meetings through Zoom once a month. These first meetings were integral to the planning where we discussed important features of the work. They also came with new approaches to old tools. Agendas were now growing Google docs we could all edit in real time. They were also places where links to resources, important reminders, and essential information could be collected.
In these documents and online meeting spaces were connectivity tools that took participation beyond the traditional meeting. Chats could be established for private discussions, Zooms could be recorded for those who were absent or otherwise distracted, and one-on-one aid could be delivered by teachers to teachers without travel or complicated meeting parameters. When delivering teacher to teacher training the virtual world offered a myriad of new and industrious ways to relay information.
Powtoons, Flipgrid, Hangouts, appeared and reappeared throughout the network working on the project. Each met a particular need for one team member, but could then be repurposed for another leader or attendee. The sharing of information was tremendous and the project grew leaps and bounds.
Every project has a need to be reciprocal and address both challenges and successes. But when looking back on the work it is important to pull out those challenges in reference to how we succeeded one at a time. The virtual nature was encouraging when the project would stall or we would experience a set back. As with any large project you try and fail so often. But within the virtual sphere we could take multiple runs, tweak something, and deliver it back within that sphere of influence making trouble shooting and problem solving happen with rapidity. One particular instance a teacher leader felt unsure of how well they were executing their part. They mentioned this in the general Zoom meeting and I was able to arrange to meet up later in the week one-on-one. This enabled us to have a real discussion around what was perceived as a failure and find new approaches to reattempt. The rapidity we were able to confront, brainstorm, and reattempt was greatly accelerated using the tools at our disposal.
Virtual work is complicated at times, but in many fashions way simpler than traditional pd. A member of the team could review past notes, look through multiple tools at their leisure, even work ahead on agenda items and planning. The spaces we inhabited were mobile (I attended a meeting on my phone once) easily referential, and often times inspiring.
Like the cars I built, my individual knowledge situated around the work we were doing began to take shape and form in multiple ways. I adopted tools with new found security that could enhance my own practice. Many of the teachers working with me grew as well and though we shared locality very few times we grew into a strong cohort whom I know will inform my future practice.
Virtual work sounds easier, but it’s not. It is at times trying, times dirty, and times disheartening but so is the physical work we do. I found that the virtual of this project allowed the work to grow despite the hindrances and hurdles and working through unique problems it did present will aid me in my future practice. However, I look forward to participating and forwarding this work model in the future allowing me to work on projects I might be excluded from do to my locale.
When I was a teen none of the cars we built came out like the pictures. They always went in wild and different directions, creating wild and unexpected products, but in the end they all drove and I take great pride in that.