When Time Stopped

“Turn to page 90 in your books,” I instructed my class of seniors. It was 2009, and we were reading the scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby knocks the clock off the mantlepiece at Nick’s house, effectively stopping time. I surveyed the scene; everyone but David was in the process of lifting their books from their backpacks. David was looking at me.

“Did you leave your book at home?” I asked him.

He turned red. “I don’t have the book.”

“Do you need me to lend you a copy?” I asked, moving toward the bookshelf in my classroom.

David turned redder. “Um, I read a summary online. I also downloaded the ebook to follow along in class but it doesn’t have page numbers so….” his voice trailed off.

The other students were looking at page 90 with sudden intensity, and I felt a wave of panic ripple across my chest. This wasn’t a matter of respect or compliance; David was a great and engaged student. This was something else. David had done something different from what I had asked and expected him to do. Why? What was I missing?

Canary in the Coal Mine

I didn’t understand what was happening and I don’t think he did either, but it’s clear to me now – David was the canary in the coal mine of my classroom. His song sparked a shift in my thinking, my practice, and my beliefs about what students – and people – need, and how learning works in different spaces, places and times.

My journey from technophobe to technophile wasn’t pretty. I stumbled a lot. I resisted the idea that my students could understand what they were reading if they weren’t holding the actual book in their hands and annotating as they read. I wanted them to experience Fitzgerald’s words the same way I had – seated at a desk, pen in hand, silence all around as they made their notes in the margins. I thought that if my students experienced the text differently from how I had, they were likely to miss the meaning.

What I didn’t realize then is that no matter how David accessed The Great Gatsby, his experience of it would be different from mine, and if I was going to be successful with students like David, I was going to have to not only allow that, but design around it.

It’s Complicated

I made some progress, but not a lot, by 2013, when my Head of School asked me to focus my graduate work on designing a digital citizenship program for our school. I didn’t know what digital citizenship was and suggested some other topics that I felt more comfortable with. But my Head of School was certain that the project would be good for the school and for me, so I dove in.

One book that helped me to get more comfortable with the topic of technology, learning, and learning communities was Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (2014). With young children at home and distracted students at school, I was anxious about the impact of social media on their learning and development. Stories about cyber bullying and embarrassing online episodes were proliferating, and it seemed like the internet in general, and social media in particular, was fast becoming a “place” where people could be very unkind and do real harm to one another.  

But it was more complicated than that, Boyd argued. “Social media plays a crucial role in the lives of networked teens,” she wrote. “Teens are looking for a place of their own to make sense of the world beyond their bedrooms. Social media has enabled them to participate in and help create networked publics.”

Right away, I was intrigued by Boyd’s networked publics. As I read on, I opened myself to the possibility that “networked publics allow people to see themselves as a part of a broader community.” With her positive and empathic framework for understanding why students were so drawn to technology and social media both, she provided a way for me to not only feel good about how I was slowly changing my teaching practice to make room for technology, but also to actually participate in the digital world while modeling responsible use and behavior.

My Networked Publics

I dipped my toe into the water of “networked publics” in 2014 when I decided, like many others around me, to start a blog. I wanted to focus my writing around the fact that to live is to learn, regardless of where and how. I wrote the phrase, because no matter where it happens, school is always in session, on a sticky note, remembering David, the first to really teach me that paper books and classroom walls, while important, are not required for learning. I figured out how to buy a domain and used the simplest template on wordpress to start. My skin prickled with anticipation when I clicked “publish” for the first time. Who was out there? Who would respond? What would it be like to join this so-called networked community?

In 2018 I plunged into these questions more deeply when I revived a book review site, Great New Books, that I had written for. The site’s creator decided to stop managing the blog, and I wanted to keep it alive and make it new. I thought about why people write book reviews in the first place, and who reads them. I then designed bookclique to be a 2.0 version of Great New Books – a quick, original, weekly download on a great new title. I wanted this networked public space to be a virtual playground for me and my teachers, colleagues and students to promote the thing that brought us together in the real world and gave us the community we depend on to this day for belonging and purpose: books and reading. 

Through our shared experience, I have come to appreciate the necessity of giving every participant in real and networked spaces both voice and choice. And my interest in networked public spaces has only grown as Ann, Ari and I collaborated for the last year – digitally and by phone, mostly – to bring Well-Schooled to life with the purpose of connecting educators through sharing first-person stories about teaching and learning.