Category Archives: #becoming3lectric

Community and Identity

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A ramble.

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DigPed PEI participants contemplate identity collaborations

It is the question of the ages: Who am I?

Every generation struggles with its corporate identity, and within that conflict, individuals find their own places in it. Some generations are shaped by war. Others are shaped by revolution or religion. Economics shape generations, whether during a time of great want or a time of tremendous prosperity. Massive outbreaks of illness or natural disasters frame corporate identity. Generations are sometimes named for whatever shaped them: the Greatest Generation of the 1940s, the Hippies of the 1960s and 70s, the Me Generation of the 1980s, and most recently, the Millenials. These group identities are usually thrust upon the generations by social forces, and not everyone fits neatly into them.

To complicate matters, we now have an entire generation of teenagers searching for multiple identities. People have always had the option to present a public identity while protecting a private one, but the internet brought with it a whole new world of identity creation. Now we not only have to determine who we are in the physical world, but we also need to decide who we will be in the virtual one.

In one sense, the web allows us to take on any persona we desire.  Online groups and games allow teenagers to interact with adults as peers, disrupting the power structures of the physical world.  There is danger there, as there is in any undiscovered country, but just as we all learn to look both ways when crossing the street, we can also learn to protect our vulnerabilities online.

But that’s not the point of this ramble.  Here I want to explore the idea of identity and what it is. How is it constructed? What effect does community have on identity development? And how does technology, especially the affordances of social media, affect our sense of who we are and who we want to be?

In the exercise pictured above, attendees of the Digital Pedagogy Labs Prince Edward Island conference last month engaged in an ice-breaker introduction that centered on self-identity in 140 characters.  Pairs introduced themselves to each other, and then wrote 140 character descriptions about each other, writing the results on the white boards without indicating who belonged to which description. And that was the end of it. Never referred to again, the descriptions were ultimately covered with notes from another session. But the exercise made a point: identity is elusive and morphs based on the community around it.

Or is identity something deep within that we parse out depending on the particular community surrounding us?

Ontologically, I believe that each person is created with a unique identity, one that develops over time, but always around a central core, a golden thread of unique essence.  Always in the process of becoming, the true self finds itself in community, but also in the solitary activity of personal reflection.  When we try to morph that true self into something other, we generally find ourselves frustrated and unhappy. We are at our best when our unique essence is allowed to intersect with the world and people around us without compromise. I think this may be one reason teens and young adults struggle with anxiety. Parents send mixed messages about who they should be:  busy, driven, and ambitious, but at the same time, kind, obedient, and good, whatever that means. Media floods them with information about how they should look. Schools press them to think about college and career at all times. We expect teens and young adults to be malleable into whatever forms we adults think is best for them and then we tell them they can be anything they want to be. We tease them with an idea of self-determination and then tell them what they have to be, how they have to act, and what they should be doing at any given point in time. We talk about identity, but do little to give teens time and space to discover their own.

Even in education, or rather especially in education, we tell students that they can be good writers or artists or readers, but if they want to succeed in the future, they had better be good at math and science and technology. We adults complain that students can’t think for themselves, but we train them to take standardized tests and write predictable five paragraph essays that contain buzzwords, but no originality. Is it any wonder so many young adults enter the marketplace unprepared? How can they prepare for life as an adult if we don’t let them discover their own essential golden thread of identity?

In the DigPed exercise, the element of introducing ourselves to strangers was influenced by the fact that it was an education conference. How much of my essential self did I share? Very little. And I am certain most people focused on the superficial elements of life: family, job, maybe a hobby, along with a general connection to education. The context of a particular conference influenced the kind of information shared. A gathering of dog lovers or artist or musicians would likely yield a different kind of information shared. Having to limit that description to 140 characters further influenced the depth of identity revealed. In that sense, the exercise was a failure. No one knew anyone else any better at a substantive level after the exercise. Where the experience succeeded, however, was in recognizing the limits we place on ourselves when it comes to revealing our identities. Perhaps that is why we sometimes think that identity is only a social construct. We are who we need to be given a particular context. And as we engage with more and larger communities online, those limits further constrain us until we don’t recognize ourselves anymore – if we ever knew ourselves in the first place.

If this revelation of identity is complicated for adults, imagine how complex it becomes for a generation of people who were indoctrinated to information overload practically from birth.  This group of individuals has always considered google a verb, can type with two thumbs as efficiently as with ten fingers, and may never set foot in a building called a library. Exploration happens without leaving home, unless, of course, Pokemon awaits capture outside. Even then, the screen dominates vision. The resources readily available to today’s young adults boggle the mind of adults who researched using microfiche and card catalogs.  Young minds are filled with images of worlds once relegated to National Geographic Magazine, and people can connect across oceans in seconds. With so many opportunities to explore the wide world, are we doing enough to reflect and look inward to discover the world within ourselves? We are a pendulum swing away from Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, who eschewed popular society for inward discovery. Our Western culture reaches out and around, seeking experiences to define us. We look for our people, but how can we recognize them if we do not know ourselves? And how can anyone expect depth of young adults whose world has generally been miles wide but only inches deep? How can any of us share an identity we don’t know?

As an educator, I want to give students the tools they need to find their own unique identities but avoid telling them what those identities must be. I find, however, that goal thwarted by demands for accountability through standardized tests, writing samples, administrations looking for money, and the politics of education. These elements are part of teaching in this era, and until some massive paradigm shift tilts the education world off its axis, it is not going away anytime soon. The demand for quantitative data drives funding, and identity is not quantifiable, so it becomes unimportant in the system that wants to turn individuals into bits and bytes that can be neatly categorized into neat little boxes of success or failure, determined by whomever has the money and the power.

I think the affordances of the internet can become useful in the search for identity if students (and frankly, adults) use the tools as places of solitude now and then. Walden Pond may be a misty idea, but journaling doesn’t have to be. If identity and the golden thread of self-essence are best discovered in quietness, then we must make room for contemplation in the midst of the whirlwind of activities that make up our days. Furthermore, if we say we value independent thinking and individual identity, then we must, even in our classrooms, encourage exploration without fear of reprisal or correction. Journals and blogs can become sanctuaries for reflection, while the world we see online serves as inspiration. It is in reflection that we discover ourselves. As we then identify our own unique essences, we can then come to community, not to define us, but to teach us to see how that essence fits with the greater whole and to contribute to that whole.

Teach us to see. That is the key to both identity and community. When we see our true selves, we know what we have to share. Community cannot construct identity. Individuals who know and understand their unique identities work together to construct community. Maybe that’s where the paradigm needs to begin to shift.

O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

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The Leftovers

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At a recent event I had the joy of reintroducing Kindergarten activities to a group of educators. It was a simple project, really. With magazines, calendars, and books (yes, BOOKS) in hand, these very serious adults took on the task of cutting and ripping and tearing pieces in order to create a new piece of artwork. The fancy term, of course, is remix. It is a buzzword of this digital literacy age we’re in, and really an important way of thinking critically and imaginatively. Dr. Donna Alvermann and UGA doctoral candidate Crystal Beach set the stage for this particular presentation two years ago with their Becoming 3lectric project that set out to study remix in the digital space. The three of us collaborated on this event and presented together.

The energy in the room resonated with laughter and chatter – just as it should for a group of adults exploring their inner children. They shared their creations and admired each others’ work and the stories that accompanied them.

At the end of the session one participant struggled with how to connect everything together in her own mind relating to her students, her classes, and her own realities. She enjoyed the project itself because it was a fun release in an information heavy conference, but the rationale for its importance eluded her. In her attempt to make me understand, she pointed to the discarded remnants of the pages she didn’t use and said, “But what about the leftovers?”

The leftovers. I was in the process of cleaning the room for the next session coming in, but her question stopped me cold. Maybe it was the moment, but I suddenly thought, not so much about the leftover materials, but about the leftovers. The materials, after all, were outdated and used things that were already bound for the refuse bin, so the paper scraps and bits were not the actual issue, at least not in my mind.

No, what struck me was that, in my enthusiasm for a hands-on fun learning experience, I neglected to fully engage a whole segment of the audience: those who are uncomfortable with the messiness of learning unless they understand the rational behind it. Most people are game to try new things if they know why it matters. Some people don’t need to know why before they jump in with total abandon. And others, like myself, enjoy the process of constructing meaning from the exercise that makes sense with our own points of view. Most of the people who chose to attend this session fit one of these three categories, but there was a under-represented fourth group that deserved a better answer that I was unprepared to give.Virtureal

So, why do this project and how does it fit into the real world of the English Language Arts classroom?  I think one reason is the connections we make between others who wander the planet with us. When we remix work done by others into something new, we insert our lives into theirs and we become co-constructors of meaning and relationship even though the players may never meet.

What do we know based on this interaction? Maybe knowing is in the experience of mingling our thoughts with the ideas of others. Dewey wrote about the experimental practice of knowing and certainly remix is active experiment. What do we learn about ourselves, our identities, and maybe our insecurities through a process of remix? Are we making a statement that perhaps our version of other people’s work is superior? Or do we unveil our own uncertainties about our own contributions to the dialogue around us?

This is a discussion worth having, particularly as paradigms about education and knowing shift under our feet. Once education focused on survival skills and community support. It was practical, ensuring students could read and write enough to be considered literate, and to be able to function sufficiently in mathematics to be a contributor to a local economy. More recently the standardized multiple choice test became the dominant measure of knowing something.  This policy, long criticized by classroom teachers, now faces refinement and no one is quite sure yet what the next step will look like. But educators still hold to the heart of their passion: teaching students, not to take tests, but to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world. Remix may not change the world, but it can change a child in a classroom who is given the freedom and opportunity to explore him/herself by interacting with the words and art of those who have gone before.

And that’s why it matters. Not just because it’s fun, but because the opportunity for reflection and connection creates meaning between generations and people and cultures. Because, while there may be students who know who they are and don’t mind messy exploration, there are others who identify more with the leftover scraps than the whole pieces. I created this piece with the same scraps that had so bewildered our participant.  The purpose may not always be obvious, but it is present.

There are no leftovers; only beauty waiting to be discovered.

There are no leftovers; only beauty waiting to be discovered.

 

 

 

 

 

References

Dewey, J. (1984). The play of ideas. In J.A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey, the later works. Volume 4: 1929,  The quest for certainty. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Ganzel, B. (2007).  Education in rural America. Retrieved from http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe50s/life_12.html

 

 

 

 

 

Wasteland

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This image has been sitting in this draft for months, so long that I don’t remember the original purpose. I think it had to do with a #clmooc challenge over the summer, but I can’t be sure. Still, it is a powerful image that I can’t bring myself to delete, so it must be something to explore.

Fig.1 Drawing by Belgian artist Yslaire

I titled this post Wasteland when I put the image in place; perhaps it is the title of the piece, perhaps just my impression, but when I look at it my mind goes to the cruellest month  underscored by the organ and guitars of Baba O’Riley. The image, I am certain, refers to neither of these, but in my mind they are inexorably connected.

Wasteland is a place beyond hope. A place where there is no escape from monotony and tedium. In this image, the television screen acts as hypnotist, so mesmerizing the viewer that he forgets he is a winged creature, made to soar.

 

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,

http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html

We too often allow life to put blinders on us. Even if we resist the allure of the screen (be it television, computer, or smart phone), we manage to stay in the parched shadow of the red rock, afraid to venture out into the unfamiliar until we, too, forget we have wings to fly on the fresh winds  of the exodus from the wasteland to the promised land.

On Rhizomatic Learning, Virtual Connections, and Sherwood Anderson

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For several weeks I have been immersed in a digital world. Coming back into a face-to-face reality has given me pause to reflect on the contrast between what is “virtual” and what is “real.”

It’s really Simon Ensor’s fault. In a Google Hangout during a conference, Simon asked someone to define “virtual buddy.”  He asked the question again on Twitter. He followed that with a blog post. And then he wrote a poem about belonging.  And so I started thinking.

The Hangout that began the process was a “between” space during the annual conference for the Association for Learning Technology, this year in Manchester, England. A number of presenters were from a virtually connected associates discussing a project called #Rhizo14. I had followed along with #Rhizo15 in connection while actively participating in #clmooc (another virtually connected community focused on learning), so I had an interest in the conference, even though I could not attend. I was introduced to the “between” Hangouts during yet another conference about hybrid pedagogy (#digped) when I was invited to participate by colleagues I met on Twitter through #clmooc. *

These “between” spaces were supposed to be a sort of “third space” for collaborative discussion about the keynote speakers at the conference. As they evolved they became a sort of debriefing for participants while the online participants (from all over the world) became sort of eavesdroppers who gleaned whatever information came through the on site players. It made me feel both connected and disconnected at the same time. When the on site players shared a single computer their conversation was often between themselves as they developed tactile relationships while the rest of us watched. When they returned to conference activities, those of us left in the Hangout tried to make sense of the information and even found ways to create our own “mini-sessions” of informal collaboration.  While I had connected with many of the participants (both on site and online) before this conference, Simon’s question made me consider the reality of those relationships beyond the words shared on the screen.

In a reflective post about Rhizo15, Dave Cormier discusses the challenges of creating a structured community in an unstructured idea (rhizomatic learning is by nature without formal structure). How can individuals belong to a community without creating a division between “we” and “them”; in this case those who had been around since the first experiment (Rhizo14) and the newbies who were just figuring out the concept? Dave writes far more eloquently than I about the conflict between Instructivism and Constructivism, but it all goes back to Simon’s original query: What exactly is a virtual buddy?

I have playing on the digital playground long enough that I no longer consciously differentiate between local acquaintances and those whom I have only met online. In many ways, I often feel MORE connected to those virtual friends because we have to make an effort to connect across time zones, geography, and cultural barriers. Underneath that, however is a common interest in how to harness the power of the internet to make education both accessible and relevant to as many people as want it. Along the way we discover other common interests: knitting, photography, Doctor Who, and other facets of life that have nothing whatever to do with education.

So are these friends “real”? And if they are, why is there a disconnect when some of them are together in a place while others of us connect from our own individual spaces? This whole new world of digital relationships and collaborations is messy. But then, new things are often messy. And not always “right”, especially at the beginning.

This idea of messy newness is a reflection of something Sherwood Anderson said to William Faulkner in June, 1953:

…America ain’t cemented and plastered yet. They’re still building it. That’s why a man with ink in his veins not only still can but sometimes has still got to keep on moving around in it, keeping moving around and listening and looking and learning. That’s why ignorant unschooled fellows like you and me not only have a chance to write, they must write…it won’t ever be quite right, but there is always next time; there’s always more ink and paper and something else to try to understand and tell. And that probably wont be exactly right either, but then there is a next time to that one , too. Because tomorrow’s America is going to be something different, something more and new to watch and listen to and try to understand; and, even if you can’t understand, believe.

(as cited in Meriwether, 2004, p. 8)

And there is the answer. Online relationships won’t ever feel “quite right”, but we must keep trying new ways to connect and eventually we will see something “different…more and new” that, even if we don’t fully understand, we can believe. In its imperfections, there is still connection. Perhaps the best part of being “virtual buddies” is the journey we are taking together into something unexpected.

 

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*All the acronyms are confusing, but much of the hybrid pedagogy/virtual connections take place on Twitter with extensions to Facebook and/or Google Plus. All of the things in which I participated were forms of MOOCs (massive open online courses) geared toward educators who wanted to explore and promote the idea of open learning. Rhizo  is based on the idea of the rhizome plant, one that sends out new growth from its roots so that the visible growth is supported by an underground structure that is interconnected. Dave Cormier is probably the leading expert in the current iteration and his ideas on the purpose of education need more thought that I intend for this particular post. DigPed is attached to the Hybrid Pedagogy journal. The Connected Learning MOOC (#clmooc) was a six-week course for educators organized mostly by professionals connected to Youth Voices. All of the hashtags are still active on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

References

Meriwether, J. B. ed. (2004), William Faulkner: Essays, speeches, & public letters. New York, NY: Modern Library. Random House, Inc.

You can go your own way, but…

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There is always one.

One student who pushes back against anything new. Another one who just wants to “do school” and get it over with.  Still another one who has no interest in my beloved ELA content.

Short of calling in my friend’s herding dog, how can I engage those students who want to go their own ways?

I believe the best way to engage students in through story. Not necessarily writing fiction, but living and sharing their own personal stories through the literature we read, the current events we address, and the multiple modes we employ.

Every student has a unique story, and the ELA classroom is the ideal laboratory for exploring identity as it is revealed by story and how that connects to the greater world, both present and past. It’s why I love teaching Frankenstein. The opportunity to connect science, ethics, and philosophy captures almost every student. Their opinions come from their own backgrounds, and the deeper we get into the book, the more they begin to see that literature has teeth and allows multiple interpretations. (I’m thinking I may put Waiting for Barbarians with Frankenstein for my AP class. Ask the question: who are the real barbarians and who is the true monster? That could be fun.)

Over the next few months I intend to ponder the power of story and how to tell each one. Language and story are inter-related, but how does one influence the other? What is the best way to herd wayward students into the fold of critical thinking and effective communication?

The story shall unfold.

(Thanks for Simon Ensor and Steve Wheeler for the #blimage challenge.)

National Parks #clmooc Make 6

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National-Park_haikuWEB

The fiWEB20150730_122355_20138025332_onal project for the Connected Learning MOOC (#clmooc) took us to explore the National Park system as an open public space. Georgia has a plethora of National and State parks along with Heritage sites, Historical sites, National Monuments, and National Recreation Areas. I chose to explore a new-to-me park in Lithonia, Georgia. Arabia Mountain is an exposed granite monadnock still relatively unaltered by humanity. There was once a quarry there, but it is long shut down and the machinery removed. Because it is not heavily promoted and the signage is less than obvious, few people walked the mountain while I was there. (Granted, it was midday in July, and the 95 degree temperature may have had something to do with the solitude.) Still, it was easy to imagine early settlers and Native Americans hunting and living here. It is vast and rugged, but upon inspection, harbors all sorts of microscopic life and plants that manage to thrive without much soil. The views from the summit are beautiful, even on a hot and hazy afternoon. Buildings and roads are invisible, so it feels remote and isolated.

WEBArabiaMtn-38 WEBArabiaMtn-43 While I enjoyed my trek, I had to consider how I could incorporate this Make into a classroom scenario.WEBArabiaMtn-49

 Science and math might be natural fits: micro-biology and ecology are obvious, and geometry students could calculate the pitch of the mountain or determine the weight of granite slabs. Literature requires a little more creative stretch to incorporate. However, upon reflection, I see a number of ways to justify a National Park field trip for an English classroom. There is the historical value of oral storytelling, which was the tradition of the first inhabitants of this land. The area was also home to a community of freed slaves (the area bordered three different plantations) that became a prosperous town through the mid 20th century. NPR did a story about the Flat Rock community in 2008. Blending the Park with this history affords students the opportunity to write a historic retelling of the community or of fictional residents. This allows the students to research life in a specific era, a particular setting, and a historic climate about which little is known. Story is a key element of preservation, although it requires careful study blended with critical and creative thinking. As research, this is far more difficult than the “encyclopedia report”  many students do, but the benefits of learning curation from multiple sources ultimately proves practical well beyond the high school years.

WEBArabiaMtn-53 Research fulfills a number of standards in the Common Core requirements, but there are opportunities to use a visit to the Parks as impetus for creative writing. Many American authors wrote about nature (Jack London comes immediately to mind), and short stories featuring the land may inspire students to dig a little deeper into their own psyche or philosophies. Poetry may also emerge as a way to capture the vast beauty of the Parks.  A haiku or tanka (even a sonnet) poem embedded into a photograph blends creative thinking, art, and a structured form that touches the highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy.

WEBArabiaMtn-80-Edit2In any education, National Parks are a treasure to consider, and many of them are accessible enough to encourage all students to visit, even if a school field trip is not allowed. Arabia Mountain is off the Path system of DeKalb County, a free to use paved greenway designed for pedestrians and cyclists. The Arabia Mountain website offers a number of ways to see the park.

A Tanka Poem about My Daydream

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Tanka-Sea-Hammock

Deanna DeBrine Mascle introduced me to e new form of poetry: Tanka. It is a Japanese tradition, much like Haiku, but slightly longer. Instead of Haiku’s 5,7,5 syllable pattern Tanka contains 5,7,5,7,7 syllable lines. Thematically, Tanka is like Haiku: nature, emotion, and love. I’ve always struggled with Haiku, but this form seems more approachable to me, perhaps because it is longer. I don’t  know for sure, but my Intro to Comp students will play with this form during our poetry unit next Spring.

May I go back to the beach, now?