Category Archives: Teaching

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.

Processing DigPed PEI

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Content is people. Context is people. Life is complicated and complex and messy.

Celebrate that.


My sweet greyhound, Dolce, went to the Rainbow Bridge while I was at Prince Edward Island. What does this have to do with #DigPed? Nothing and everything all at once.

I knew when I left Atlanta on Tuesday that my 12 year old brindle girl was not well, and I had a gut feeling that it would be a rough week for her. By Thursday, it was clear that she was done fighting and ready to be free from whatever it was that caused kidney and vascular failure. On Friday morning, my sweet husband, who had been traveling himself earlier in the week, held our girl as she breathed her last. Brian let me know that she was gone. And my heart tore into fragments.

My heart was in fragments, but I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by a community of compassion and passion and empathy — none of whom I had met in the flesh until that week. I cried in their arms, we shared stories of beloved pets, and we connected. Life at its messiest, most vulnerable, and most authentic.

Authenticity should be at the heart of learning. As educators, we need to remember that our classes, whether face to face or in online spaces, are made up of people. Our content is not the curriculum; our content is the lives of the people who inhabit our classes, and it in is the contexts of their lives that we can make the connection of relationship building that undergirds the most memorable learning experiences.

Most of us who pursue education were inspired by one teacher who stands in our memories as the one who pushed us the hardest, believed in us the most fiercely, and motivated us to reach farther than we ever thought possible. In the exhausting midst of standards and curriculum and politics, teachers sometimes forget that the curriculum in a tool, not an end unto itself. DigPed expands the notion of tools and how they can benefit the entire education community, but the real lesson is found in building relationships. The warm compassion with which I was enveloped at the loss of my sweet greyhound is essential for all of us who call ourselves teachers to offer to the students in our classes. Learning is about developing people. Education is how we discover things together in the world. Curriculum is a tool. Life is messy and complicated. This is the stuff of education. Content is not subject matter.

Content is people.

*first published on Medium

Identity formation and Walking

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I wrote this on Medium and thought I’d share here as well.

We live in a connected world. That said, we seem to be more isolated than ever before. There are coffee shops that promote face to face conversation by eliminating wifi and informal games that require groups in restaurants to put down their mobile devices (because the handheld technologies are far more than phones these days) or foot the bill for the entire party. Ray Bradbury saw it coming and wrote about it (remember Mildred’s “seashells” from Fahrenheit 451?)

The challenge for those of us who choose to embrace the digital spaces is to create authentic connections with people across time, distance, and cultural differences. For me, it’s one of the most exciting things about #walkmyworld. Because it is designed to be a fun collaboration of identities around learning events, the stress level for perfection is reduced. Even though the learning events include content instruction that is easily augmented in particular classrooms, the tone is light and engaging, so the threat level is low. People from around the world come to play, and it becomes a true multi-cultural experience among like minded people of all ages. There are elementary and secondary students, graduate students, pre-service teachers, and professors all involved, but no one is an expert. Instead, all participants are learning and sharing together in a virtual community of equals.

Since this is my third year as part of Walk My World, I think I have a sense of what to expect: expect the unexpected. Unexpected learning, unexpected friendships, and unexpected glimpses into a digital identity still in formation and ever evolving. This is how a connected world can work: people being authentic, sharing an experience, and learning how to walk together.

Walk My World

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It’s here! It’s time!

Walk My World begins its third iteration this week. I have helped craft the learning events and I think this will be the best year ever.

Join the fun here! The first week is all about getting set, so jump right in!

 

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.

Whistling: A #DiGiWriMo Collaborative Mystery

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DiGiWriMo gave me a great excuse to try something new with my students. Because I teach three very distinct classes, I was intrigued by the idea of a collaborate project across all three. One class is all online. One is face-to-face, and the third is a hybrid of the two. I intend to write up the process and how it worked, but for now, here is the story they wrote, as they left it:

 

“A fish can’t whistle, and neither can I.” Sharon said that to me a million times, and now I can’t believe she’s gone. It’s funny how little things can turn into the things you remember the most. It isn’t the cases we solved together. It’s the inside stories, like her silly quotes, that nobody understands except for me. People don’t know why I’m smiling at when I look at her picture. They think I’m crazy but they don’t understand our little private jokes about pretty much everything under the sun. Like how she used to make fun of me when I ordered the Double Sumo meal at our regular Tao Min lunches. “Know your limits,” she would say. And I’d laugh and order it anyway. And take half of it home.

My reminiscent thoughts are interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. “Already miss her?” says the deep voice behind me. As I turn away from her picture, I see Lieutenant Sam Marshall, the lead detective on Sharon’s murder case. He hands me an envelope. “This is for later. Not today. But later, when you’re ready.” I peek inside and see photos, presumably from the scene where Sharon died in a bizarre head-on collision with the wall near the restaurant we spent most of our shift lunches. “Thanks,” I mutter. And I tuck the envelope in my jacket pocket.

After the funeral, I walk into my bedroom and watch my coat fall limp on the bed frame. I grudgingly gather the will to open the thin envelope and dump the contents on the bed. Pictures scatter. A car, a deployed and shriveled airbag, trunk slightly ajar, the concrete wall scarred from the drag of the driver’s side door, damage that indicated how my partner died. There are other random marks on the wall, but that’s not unusual in this part of town. Graffiti is pretty common. I’m relieved to see no pictures of Sharon’s body.

 

Ring. Ring. I wake up and realize I’ve slept in the clothes I wore to the memorial. “Dispatch. Code 187. Officer Castillo. Report to PB gas station on Main and Truman. Officers already on scene. Suspected homicide.” I report back, “I need a shower and my body calls for a cup of coffee before I head out. If there are officers already there, they can wait another ten minutes.”

As I pull up the yellow crime scene tape over my head, I scan the scene. I see a body hanging down from the rafters with a pool of blood on floor beneath his feet. At the moment the medical examiner’s team is preparing to take the body down. I look around. The place is a mess, there was obviously a struggle. “Eddie,” I hear a solemn voice. “Come look at this.” I walk over to Detective Marshall, who is holding a camera and pointing at a paper near the cash register. I look at the counter and see a sheet of paper with blots of red. “What in the world. What do you think this is?” I say. Marshall replies, “I don’t know. It reminds me of the blood stains on the wall where Sharon… uh…” What blood stains? I don’t remember anything but graffitti on the wall at Sharon’s crime scene. I shake my head and turn my attention back to the case at hand.

Detective Marshall snaps more pictures, so I make my way around to the corpse, now on the floor. He looks familiar – like I should know who it is. The medical team extracts an SD card from his mouth and places it in an evidence bag. “Take a look at this.” I’m handed the plastic bag and figure this needs to be brought to the station to find out what is on it.

I start the engine of my car and begin heading to the station. How did I miss the blood with the graffitti? I must have been more tired than I thought. I resolve to look again when I get home. First things first: what is on this card and why was it forced between the victim’s back molars?

 

The data comes back from the lab. All this information looks familiar. I remember this case. It was one that Sharon and I worked together on a few years back. The dead guy was Luis Sanchez.He had strangled one of our best coder/analysts just as we were about to break open a drug ring in town. We had Sanchez, dead to rights, until some careless idiot in the clerk’s office misfiled some pertinent paperwork. The judge had to let Sanchez off. We were furious.

As I am waiting for the pictures to come back from the PB station, another call comes in over the scanner. “Dispatch. Code 187. Officer Castillo. Report to Motel 23 on 23rd Street and Holyoke. Officers already on scene. Suspected homicide.” Again? Two homicides in one day? Our town is pretty quiet, so this is weird. Once again, I head to my car.

This hotel is old. Not exactly a place I’d want to call home, but it’s a roof and a bed if you’re desperate. The first thing I cast my eyes on is a beat up truck, resting on the chock block that’s supposed to stop a car before it does any damage to the building. Nice thought. I look in the window and see the usual mess of a laborer, complete with empty bottle of Mountain Dew…healthy.

I am greeted by Detective Marshall, camera in hand. “You might want to look at this. It’s kinda creepy.” For Marshall to call something creepy is creepy itself. It must be bad. I walk into the room and see a trail of blood drops running around the bed that leads to the contorted body of Steve Lorne.  I turn to Marshall, “What the heck?” Marshall shrugs and points to the television, illuminated by static. There I see it. More blood. I take a closer look and flash back to the earlier scene with the red marked paper. The marks seem to be similar – and definitely intentional.

“Do you have any pictures from this morning?” I say. Marshall and I walk to his car and open his laptop. He loads the pictures from his camera and we both look at the images. There is no doubt. The marks are exactly the same. “The one this morning turned out to be Sanchez’s blood,” Marshall tells me. “I’m betting this one is this guy’s. I’ll let you know the minute the labs come back.” Marshall prints out copies of both blood stains and hands them to me. “See if you can figure out what these mean” he says. I nod and head back to the station, pictures in hand, and my head spinning.

 

This dead guy is too familiar. It hits me then. Sharon and I worked this case a year ago when Lorne killed the owner of a Japanese restaurant across town. The restaurant was famous for its Fugu – and only the most daring diners would attempt to eat it because of its reputation as a killer dish. The place never recovered from the owner’s death and closed.

I decide to take a second look at that case. Number 10020023. 23. Same number as the motel. I figure it’s a coincidence and turn back to the photos.

I’m interrupted by a call from the lab. Evidently, the Mountain Dew bottle tested positive for tetrodotoxin, a neurotoxin found in Fugu. Lorne must have been feeling the burn in his mouth and the confusion and muscle weakness that precedes death when he crashed. How he made it to his room, I’m not sure, but he couldn’t have lasted long once he got there. Gruesome way to die, if you ask me.

I pull up both case files to see what could link them together besides the fact that they were our – Sharon’s and mine – cases. And both killers got off scot-free. It hits me. The way they were killed–strangulation and Fugu poison. Some weird connection to the cases in front of me. And then the blood. Something in the back of my mind tells me I’m missing something huge. The killer has to know what cases Sharon and I have worked as well as have access to those case files. The only people who would have access to that information and who have been around long enough to know what cases Sharon and I have worked are Sharon and Detective Marshall. But Sharon is dead….

 

Two days later, I get a call informing me of another murder. On top of the three crime scenes the station is already overwhelmed with, the death of Frank Kelly is added to the list. Kelly’s case is one we all know too well because Kelly was the reason Sharon became a cop to begin with. He killed her cousin – the whole family, actually. Kelly left the house burning, all bodies inside except for Sharon’s cousin, Barbara whose body was never found. He had stabbed the rest of the family before burning the house. I was a new cop, then, so I only know the story from the reports I read and from what Sharon told me. Sharon was always driven to get a conviction for Kelly, but he managed to keep delaying trial. Good lawyers for him, but Sharon was angry at the system for letting Kelly go on with his life while her family suffered. Her primary motivation in law enforcement was to find justice for families of victims by good police work. She may have been a jokester about my eating habits, but she was dead serious about her job.

It only takes ten minutes to get to the apartment building in this case. A quick glance tells me that this is much more violent than the other two this week. Hanging from a fifth floor window is a guy – obviously dead based on the fact that it’s only his foot keeping his body from falling to the ground. I can see from the parking lot that there is something on the window.

I run up the stairs and by the time I get there, the medics have pulled the dead guy in. Sure enough, it’s Frank Kelly. I’d recognize his ugly face anywhere – even bloodied and swollen in death. I let the medics do their thing while I look around the room. I see Marshall with his camera and he waves me over.

“It’s another one,” he says, pointing at the window. Plain as day, I see the image and I suddenly feel nauseous.

“Marshall!” I say. “When did Sharon and I take that Psych course with all the Rorschach ink blot studies? Wasn’t that just a month or so ago?”

“Yeah, why?” Marshall looks confused, but smirks at the memory of all the complaining I did about having to do the stupid course.

I pull the pictures out of my pocket – when did I put them there? I sort through until I find the two blood marks and compare them to the one painted on the window. They’re all the same. I point this out to Marshall who tells me I’m seeing too much into it and that my mind’s playing tricks on me.

 

I looked back at Kelly’s body which the medics weren’t finished with yet. He looked like he took a beating and he was stabbed multiple times before he was hung out to dry. I thought back to the cases from a few days ago and Sharon’s case; they all had the blood blots to connect them, so they had to have the same killer. But either Kelly fought his murderer to his death or his murderer had some grudge against him and took it out on his body. Who could know these specific cases? No witnesses. No accomplices. I look over at Marshall again. Sharon and Marshall are the only ones who could have known about these specific cases and Sharon is dead, so that just leaves…

 

“Marshall,” I say, “I need to clear my head. I’m headed back to the station. Let me know if…” As I’m crossing the room my eye falls on the couch which is strangely normal-looking. On it is a book, open to reveal a highlighted sentence on page 43, “A fish can’t whistle, and neither can I.” The Tao of Pooh. I pick up the book by the corner and put it into an evidence bag and put it in my pocket. I have to think.

Once I got back to the station I make my way back to my office, stopping for a cup of coffee. Jack, one of our techs comes up and says, “Weird about the missing bodies.”  I just look at him.

“What missing bodies?”

“Well, isn’t this the guy who killed Sharon’s relatives? I remember that the cousin’s body was never found in that case. And then, of course, no one ever found Sharon’s body..er…um…right?” Apparently my face gave me away. They never found Sharon’s body? And never thought to mention that to me?

 

In my office, I take a deep breath and pull out the pictures from Sharon’s case. I glance through them looking for anything that might have been missed. When I get to the last one, I look more closely at the graffiti on the wall. And then I see it. A red Rorschach blot in the middle of the crazy mural of spray paint. How had I missed that before?  Upon noticing this I pull up the case (noticing that the case ends in 43 – another weird coincidence) on my computer. There is nothing about a body in the report.  “Jack was right!” I say it aloud, even though no one is in the office but me. I call Marshall and demand to know why he never told me that Sharon’s body was missing.

Marshall replies with “you never asked”. I could punch him, but know he probably wanted to keep me out of the loop because she was my partner. Evidence was one thing, but a missing body was another, I guess. In any case, now I have four Rorschach blots in blood, three cases Sharon and I worked together, and two missing bodies. Something doesn’t add up.

I keep staring at the four pictures until my eyes blur. I hear Sharon’s voice in my head laughing during the course we took. Being cops, we had a hard time taking it seriously, and we joked around a lot. The best joke was the day we were “analyzed” and Sharon came back with a “diagnosis” of “borderline psychotic with violent tendencies”. We laughed about that for days.

 

I shake the memory from my head and look out the window. I see a shadow passing by and I hear someone whistling, badly.  I could swear it is Sharon. I know her walk and her attitude better than anyone else. And Sharon’s fish-whistle quote was partly funny because she couldn’t whistle herself out of a paper bag. But it can’t be her – I’m seeing ghosts. I figure I need to get out of the office.

I decide to walk a little. There’s a park by the restaurant where we used to have lunch. I’m not hungry enough for a Double Sumo meal, but I figure the air will do me good, even though it’s getting dark. I look in the restaurant window at our old table, wondering how all these cases intersect. It’s obviously got to be the same killer, but why are all the bodies there except Sharon’s and her cousin’s? Why are the dead killers’ murders so obviously connected to their crimes?

My phone rings, but the number is “restricted”. When I click answer, the voice on the end stops me in my tracks.

“Hello Eddie.”

 

Contributing Authors:

Sawyer Stromwall, Lisa Kawamura, Connor Horne, Anna Laarhoven, Hudson Stromwall, Ted Ingram, Danny Glenos, Bri McGhee, Laney Hall, and Charity Campbell.

Connections and the Twist

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One of the great things about the connected learning community is the vastness of subject matter about which to write and think and create and share. I know I need to be creating and thinking constantly, and sometimes I just need to break free and do something because I WANT to do it. I enjoy learning, so my PhD studies interest me and keep me busy writing. I love teaching, so my time spent creating lessons that teach composition and critical thinking is time well spent. But then I read some of my favorite blogs or tweets by some of my online colleagues and I feel like I’m missing out on something fun.

My friend, Sarah Honeychurch, wrote about a creative challenge she was participating in about twisted pairings. Following her blog to the original source, I found Steve Wheeler, the learning technology blogger behind #twistedpair challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to put together two unlikely people (real or fiction) and explain their connection to teaching and learning. It’s similar to his #blimage challenge from last summer. (My attempt at that challenge is here.)

I relish these kinds of challenges and fully intend to steal…er…borrow this concept for use in my writing classes. Making connections – between individuals, groups, and ideas – is a critical skill in a 21st century world. For this challenge, Steve shared a list of possibilities, but none really resonated with me until I saw

Doctor Who and Snoopy

     An immortal Time Lord from Gallifrey and a wisecracking beagle from the USA couldn’t possibly have anything in common, could they? Nor could there be lessons to be learned from the pair, right? Well, perhaps. Deeper inspection may reveal connections that unite pop culture lovers from two distinct cultures and two very different points of view.

     The most obvious connection is in the imagination of the writers. Charles Schultz gave Snoopy a character all his own, and whether he was Joe Cool or the Ace fighter Pilot, underneath he was still Snoopy the beagle. Similarly, the Doctor has undergone 11 or 12 regenerations (depending on how one counts), but underneath each unique visage and eccentricity, the Doctor is the same: finding truth, fighting evil, and making friends along the way.

     Friendship is another common theme. Snoopy has Woodstock as his primary chum, but he has other friends too, including his brother, Spike, and his “owner”,Charlie Brown. The Doctor, for all his clamoring about his independence almost always has a sidekick: from Susan in 1963 to Clara in 2015. In between is a crew of men, women, and even an android dog. As Donne says, “No man is an island”, and both the Doctor and Snoopy manage to surround themselves with the companions they need to persevere. Often students, especially the introverts, try to exude a countenance of confidence when they really could use a buddy. It’s one of the reason I am so pro-technology. Twitter, Google docs, even discussion boards can give voice to the shy or struggling while giving opportunity for the more outgoing students to listen. Collaboration makes student writing and comprehension stronger.

     The real connection, however, is not in Snoopy and the Doctor per se. It is in their dwellings. Snoopy’s doghouse is fighter jet or study, depending on his need. The interior must be enormous based on the sheer number of things he keeps stored there. For the Doctor, his TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space) is known for being “bigger of the inside.” This concept is the connection between Doctor Who, Snoopy, and teaching practices. So much time is spent preparing for standardized tests (and now even teacher preparation programs are moving from innovation to EdTPA standardized assessment) that the imagination is too often left behind. But the human mind is “bigger on the inside” because imagination and innovation dwell there. It may be that we are instructed to educate creativity out of our children (thank you Sir Ken), but those of us who teach from a place of passion must find ways to connect that vast space of potential to real and concrete ideas and projects.

     Creating relevant scenarios is a key element to engaging imagination. Doctor Who has his conflicts thrusts upon him by Daleks, Weeping Angels, and Cybermen, among a dozen or more others. Snoopy should have a life of ease, but he creates problems for himself by engaging in flight battles or Christmas light competitions (which he inevitably wins). Teachers need to teach students to look at assignments (even the dreaded close reading multiple choice assessments)as problems or challenges or scenarios that can be outwitted with creative thinking and “smarts” rather than tolerated until over.  But how do we do that when admins breathe down our necks about test scores and even universities cry out for universality? How do we prevail against a system that strives to create a generation of Nestean Autons instead of independent thinkers? These are the challenges facing educators today. The paradigm is shifting; teachers need to regenerate into a new form with the same underlying passions and take on the Red Baron of politics in education with Snoopy-esque panache.

Resources:

Robinson, K. (2006). Do schools kill creativity? [Webcast]. TED2006. Retrieved from          https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en

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.

Labor Day, Teaching, and Vocational Education

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Once upon a time, Labor Day meant the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. That, I believe, is what the Almighty intended. Of course, with schools today starting at the beginning of August and summer not really over until the end of September, Labor Day is fast becoming just another holiday without meaning or purpose.

Perhaps it would be wise for educators to spend a few hours sharing with students the plight of the American worker at the beginning of the Industrial Age. We are horrified at the “sweat shops” we read about, but this was the common practice in this country for many years. By the late 1880s, conditions were so poor that workers, backed by the then necessary Labor Unions, staged revolts and strikes, one of which led to a clash between federal troops and protesters. Attempting to reconcile with the workers, Congress made Labor Day a national observation of the contribution of America’s working class (History.com).

In the last several years I have had numerous conversations with colleagues regarding the current push to send every student to college. I suspect this may be partly in reaction to the continuing struggle between politicians, educators, and unions. The student voice seems to get lost in the debate.  There are students who are not college bound and who should not be pushed that direction. There are some for whom vocational education is more important and more practical than college-readiness. Reasons vary by circumstance, but may include career goals in areas that do not require a college degree, a family business, or a distaste for school in general and a willingness to work up from the lowest position.  Coming from a working class family myself, I see a need for a resurgence in vocational education.

Living in the suburbs, my position is not popular. The mindset of that particular demographic is that value only comes with a college education. This thinking is wrong, and must be addressed both in the classroom and in society. In an article published on Edutopia and reprinted in the Washington Post, Mark Phillips wrote,

“We live in a society that places a high value on the professions and white-collar jobs, and that still considers blue-collar work lower status. It’s no surprise that parents want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. This is even more evident in high socio-economic communities. And for most teachers, if the student is academically successful, this will be seen as a ‘waste of talent’ ” (Phillips, 2012).

I could not agree more.

How may students feel stigmatized because they prefer working with their hands to sitting in classrooms? How many homeowners would be completely lost without well-trained electricians or plumbers? And why do we assume that mechanics are not well-read or welders cannot write? I know a certain truck driver who writes beautiful poetry without an advanced degree. Artistry is hard to teach, but the best nail technicians and hairdressers are skilled artisans. Why must our culture belittle these choices? I was horrified to hear of a former student who chose to pursue work as a dental hygienist and was told by a school administrator that she was aiming too low. What that administrator refused to see was the passion this young lady had for improving people’s smiles and how she planned to take her skills to under-developed countries where she could help people in a tangible way. If students have dreams of practical work, then we, as educators, must both prepare them for that work and encourage them to follow their hearts no matter what the culture around them says.

This is where vocational education comes in. If students are afforded a choice between practical academics and apprenticeships or college preparatory work, they can better prepare for the futures they choose. Just because we as educators believe that higher education must be accessible to all does not imply that we should mandate it for everyone. If education is truly about the students, then they must be given the tools and the choices to dictate their own futures. All students must become literate in language arts, practical mathematics, history, and science, there is no question of that. Those skill can readily be addressed by tenth grade. Advanced studies in vocation or academics can them specialize in the fields that profit the student most.

We as educators must lead the way to de-stigmatizing vocational education. College is not for everyone; nor is vocational education. Both ensure students have goals and the tools to achieve them according to their individual skills, talents, and desires. It is time to elevate vocational education as an equally viable option to college preparation. Then we can focus on teaching students to learn for the love of learning alone, rather than crushing them all under a load of school work some neither want nor need. In becoming adaptable to student needs, we become better teachers, focused on students and whom they will become in time.

References

History.com Staff (2010). Labor Day. A&E Entertainment. [Weblog] Retrieved from  http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/labor-day.

Phillips, M. (2012, May 29). Why should we care about vocational education? Edutopia. [Weblog]. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/vocational-education-benefits-mark-phillips.