That week in Chico, California, is forever part of me. Taking part in the National Writing Project’s Tech Matters retreat in Northern California in 2006 truly shaped who I am today as a learner, an educator, and also, as an explorer of digital media. Tech Matters took my world in new and interesting directions: teaching, writing, technology, composing, collaboration, and connections. That week at the home site of the Northern California Writing Project has become one of those touchstones of professional growth that I refer to on a regular basis, even though eight years have since passed.
In truth, when NWP’s Paul Oh (a friend, mentor, and former colleague at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project), encouraged me to apply for the Tech Matters retreat in 2006, I hesitated. I was only in my second year of teaching, coming late into the classroom after ten years as a journalist, and I had just taken over Paul’s position in our local writing project as technology liaison. I had no idea what I was doing. To say my feet were on shifting ground every day would be an understatement.
Still, there was something about the invitation to participate in a week-long technology retreat and the promise that the time there would give us time and space, and inspiration, to dive deep into the emerging ideas of the day. I was intrigued, both from a personal perspective as a writer and from the professional perspective as a teacher. And we all know that invites from the National Writing Project are hard to resist, coupled as they are with the tone of “you are in the right place at the right time” and “we will be there to support you all the way” and “let’s try something new here.” In my ears, messages like those are like a Siren’s call. I couldn’t resist it then. I still can’t now.
So off to Chico I went, and everything was as promised. It was an enriching week-long discovery of technology with experiences built in the ethos of the National Writing Project: dive in, play, and reflect on the experience.
We explored the first flutters of collaborative writing (when Google Docs was first called Writely); the use of multimedia to inform writing (with the old blog platform of Manila that has since disappeared); discussions around hyperlinked texts and connected writing; and much, much more. I even brought with me the first generation of handheld Flip video camera, and with the help of participants, I created a very odd piece of digital poetry called Blink, Blink, Blink that included close-up shots of everyone’s eyeballs and a chorus of “blinks.” I told you we were pushing the envelope.
With NWP leaders such as Peter Kittle, Paul Allison, Karen McComas, Troy Hicks, Christina Cantrill, Paul Oh, and others leading the way for us, the participants at Tech Matters began to glimpse the world just peeking over the horizon—the tenets of Connected Learning just starting to be set in place. What we take for granted now in our lives, the infusion of technology in just about everything we do and how the threads reach out in all sorts of directions, was still the great unknown at the time. We were pushing the boundaries of the possible every day.
Even more important than the tools we were introduced to that summer were the people that I met in Chico. So many of my colleagues from Tech Matters remain important components of my own connected world to this day. I’ve since worked with Troy Hicks and Paul Allison on our book collection, Teaching the New Writing; been a guest many times with Allison on the wonderful Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast; started up the Youth Voices podcasting project with the late and wonderful Betty Collum; stayed in Oh’s orbit for many a venture; started my blog—Kevin’s Meandering Mind—that summer with encouragement from participant Maria Angala, who told me over and over as she sat next to me in the computer lab that I needed to blog and she was going to get me started (she did); talked music and publishing with Chris Sloan, of Utah; been inspired into photography by Mary Meyers, of Prairie Lands; tinkered with stop-motion and claymation movies thanks to the work of Tonya Witherspoon; helped launch the Making Learning Connected Massive Open Online Collaboration with Christina Cantrill and others; and dove into countless collaborative projects with my good friend, Bonnie Kaplan, from Hudson Valley, including the digital storytelling-infused Collaborative ABC Project and the iAnthology writing space that continues to invite writing project teachers to write, share, and connect. I am sure I have left folks out of the mix here, which is a further indication of just how far the roots have gone since that summer in Chico.
Writing this piece for the National Writing Project’s own 40th anniversary celebration reminds me again of an important understanding of the world that NWP continues to foster in all of us: it is not the technology that creates the lasting impact on us as writers and learners and educators. It remains the people whom we meet along the way, and I remain so grateful to have had the experience of attending Tech Matters. That week in Chico continues to reverberate. I see it in projects like the Digital Is website and the Making Learning Connected MOOC and beyond. I returned home that summer a very different learner, with a network of friends that remain as vital today as it did eight years ago.