Tag Archives: criticism

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.

Connected and Exclusive?

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Savannah-28WEB

In the #clmooc conversations on Twitter the other night, the idea of inclusivity was tossed around. How do educators ensure that everyone has the ability to participate in online activities? Do we exclude some from participation? Can connected learning be fully realized without complete engagement?

Connected learning by its very definition requires some ability to access the internet. There was a time when this constraint was difficult to overcome, but today, most people, especially those in developed countries, have access via smart phone, tablet, or computer. There are exceptions, of course, particularly in rural areas and in places where a number of circumstances slow the process, but the hardware issue is increasingly resolved, and will continue to improve as costs go down. In that sense, more and more people are able to be included.

The social part of connected learning is possibly the easiest to access. A Pew research study found that in the US, 74% of online adults actively use social media. I suspect those numbers will continue to rise as the next generations reach adulthood, as 95% of US teens are on social networking sites. Educators must learn ways to harness that connectivity for more than social interactions, but the social is a good place to begin. Twitter and Instagram (and SnapChat) seem to be the biggest players in the current teen market (based solely on my observation as a parent and teacher of teens), while Facebook is increasingly relegated to the “old people” (anyone over about 25). SnapChat’s limitations seems to preclude education applications, but there may be a creative way to utilize its popularity. Twitter and Instagram hold more promise.

So, connection is not the primary issue. Engagement is the greater challenge. Of course, that’s true in the face-to-face classroom as well, but distance seems to create a boundary or buffer that is more difficult to break through. While a smile or nod may encourage a reluctant student in a brick-and-mortar classroom, the same cannot be said of the virtual realm. In order to be truly connected, everyone has to fully engage and participate.

So, how do we educators avoid excluding people who are already connected? Some form of exclusion is inevitable: language barriers, time zones, type of media (Twitter? Google+? Instagram?), expectations (real or imagined), and miscommunication. Some exclusive elements can be thwarted with creative thinking and commitment to communication, but some cannot. What does one do with a student who CHOOSES exclusion?  How can we provide a new community atmosphere in a relative void? How do we structure or scaffold this idea of connected learning to students (along with parents, other teachers, and administrators) who are new to the concept?

This is where I believe the “social” part of social media affords an opportunity. Since so many people, both teens and adults, are already using social media to connect their non-academic lives, we who promote connected learning need to begin with a social structure.  Gee’s “affinity spaces” certain offer a place to begin. I think this is why I’m drawn to unique ideas like the “untroductions“. They may reveal personal and social commonalities that can then be built on to create a learning environment that inspires creative production in a collaborative community. I can’t count the number of Doctor Who fans I have met around the world through various Twitter communities and learning events. That bond, as superficial as it may be, can become the foundation for something greater: new stories for the TARDIS, what it means to be “bigger on the inside” or even an exploration of the science involved in space-time travel. (I just read The Martian by Andy Weir – talk about geeky science meeting literary nerd! I loved it.) Finding the element of common interest is a beginning.

A safe place may be the most important. Even in the most free-flowing community there must be boundaries for appropriate behavior, speech, and respect. A good facilitator must be able to quietly minimize both awkwardness and poor judgement. The community must welcome all who choose to participate as long as those participants are willing to maintain mutual respect, edification, and support. These communities must not become places where bullying is permitted on any level. Everyone should be welcomed for whatever they bring to the table. There is no distinction between ages, genders, religion, politics, or whatever else may create a divide. The mission of the community must be clear–and clearly communicated. Within that, however, there must be freedom of expression, creativity, unusual ideas, and multimodal forms. The idea of becoming community means that everyone has something of value to contribute, and everyone can learn. When the educator abandons the role of expert and becomes a member of the community who has much to learn, even the most insecure participant may be encouraged.

Having said that, there will be those who choose to isolate themselves, not for reasons of shyness or inability, but because they truly do not want to participate. They will do the very minimum required, make their hashtags particularly snarky (#required), and avoid dialogue with other members of the community. While is it important to reach out privately to these, we must accept that not everyone is going to see the brilliance in our plan and that inclusion is sometimes a decision. In those cases, it may be beneficial to remember the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

I opened this rambling post with a picture of a bridge. The internet is like that bridge, connecting people and ideas that are otherwise separated by insurmountable challenges of time and place. Most people can get to the bridge one way or another, but unless they begin the journey across, they will never connect to the adventures on the other side. And who wants to miss out on that?

Twitter as a Tool: My Capstone Presentation

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I much prefer written words and live audiences to recordings, but this is good practice! I also used a new-to-me-tool to record, so be gentle in your critique. One thing is sure, I will continue to research and study and practice Twitter in the English/Language Arts classroom.

Twitter_logo_wordPart One

Part Two

#walkmyworld: Hero

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Heroes among us

This week’s learning event caused me a little angst.  I understand the hero’s journey in a literary sense, but we live in an age where true heroes come in unique forms. 

One of the distinctions between the heroes of myth and the heroes of the modern era is perception. Mythological heroes are revered, recognized, and celebrated by the people, and while they revel in the adoration, there is still a humility about them. Today, people recognized and revere celebrity, which is a false form of heroism. Celebrities generally do not serve the people, as a true hero does.  They may rise above difficult circumstances and accomplished great things, but for the most part, they keep the rewards of their ascent, which is antithetical to the true hero of old. True heroes may find wealth and prestige, but they are quick to share in order that the people benefit.
This fact requires a new view of the hero. Modern fictional heroes, like Batman and Superman, maintain a sense of anonymity when they do their good works, and there is a magnified dark side to each of them. On the other hand, the common man is able to become a hero without having great power over the masses, but rather be heroic on individual levels.
This is where teachers can be heroes. In this world, teachers do not have great wealth or power. Nor do they have widespread influence. They do not direct policy, curriculum, or even the standards by which they and their students are judged. Even still, teachers do take that hero’s journey from the call to adventure (and make no mistake, teaching is a calling), to the obstacles and abyss of preparation (grad school is often a desolate experience), to the gift to the people from that experience. Students in the classrooms of teachers who are called through difficulty to that role find they learn, not because there is a test at the end of the material, but because learning is a wonderful and exciting and even magical thing.
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#walkmyworld: Identity Non-Crisis

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As a teacher of young adults, I am intensely aware of the search for identity and significance most young people face. My texts are often selected partly because they afford an opportunity to discuss and reflect about how one transforms from a child whose parents must be right to teens who are certain their parents know nothing to young adults who take the best of what they were taught and blend it with what they learn to become independent adult thinkers. However, the more I consider the concept of identity, I recognize the transitory nature of knowing the self.

This particular learning event coordinates with my focus word for 2015, chosen because my own life is in  a transition not unlike the one from child to adult. This is the year I turn 50, an age once upon a time I considered old (and I am certain most high schools students think of 50 as one step from the grave). This is the year I complete my M.Ed., officially become an empty-nester, and embark on a career path still uncertain. So, I reflect: Who am I? Am I the sum of my beliefs? My experiences? My surroundings? All of these? None of these?

This week #walkmyworld encouraged my to consider my own identity, apart from the roles I play as woman of faith, wife, mother, daughter, educator, artist, writer, runner, coach, musician, photographer, student, blogger, and friend. I have always considered myself a modern Renaissance woman because my interests and skills are diverse. On the worst of days, I call myself a “Jill of all trades, mistress of none.” On the best days, I manage to do some pondering, some crafting, some writing, and some exercise, feeling very accomplished in the process. Either way, these are things I DO, not necessarily who I AM.

Pardon me for a moment while I consider the importance of understanding the changing nature of identity as taught by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth in the mid 50s CE: 11 “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”  Paul here sets up his argument that identity as a believer requires change over time. He uses familiar language to make his point, comparing physical change to spiritual change. The fluidity of identity must be addressed periodically throughout life in order to truly know the self beyond the activities of life.

This is the reason I chose “identity” as my word for the year. And this is what makes this particular learning event important for both students and educators. We are ever evolving as we learn and think. Projects like #walkmyworld expand our horizons and expose the participants to cultures and ideas that may not be otherwise known. For teachers, it can form an unexpected Professional Learning Network (PLN) wherein ideas from one side of the world can find a place in the other. Students who participate may develop friendships in unexpected ways. In sharing bits of our worlds, we begin to see our individual identities as they stand at the moment. When we open our worlds to others, we also enter the worlds of others, and this new information may well alter our identity, affording us the opportunity to change and grow and morph into the next “version” of self.

It’s a mind-expanding idea: identity is fluid, changed by time, experience, relationship, and ideas. Understanding that, however, eliminates the identity-confused “mid-life crisis,” because instead of fearing great life change, one may anticipate with excitement whatever is next. Who I was at 18 is certainly not who I am at (nearly) 50. The things that I do influence the way that I think. The relationships I form in person or via digital means add to the depth of how I understand the world. Every day that I learn, I grow up a little bit more. Growing up, but never getting old.

Renaissance Woman

Renaissance Woman

References

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Principal: school doesn’t work for most kids

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School doesn’t work for most kids, which is why some schools are starting to be more flexible in their teaching and learning. Shutterstock

“Secondary school, at least, only really works for about a third of students,” according to Templestowe College principal Peter Hutton. Speaking in Melbourne last week, he also asked how “we made learning, something that in younger years was so innately pleasurable, get so bad”.

Hutton used the metaphor of schools as a bus, where 30 kids get on the bus, the teacher sits at the front and, no matter how much the view is of interest to the child sitting on the bus, we can’t stop. Instead, we say, “I’m sorry, son, we can’t stop to look at that, we have a schedule to keep.”

But at Templestowe College in Melbourne, Peter Hutton is doing something different. Not only are students able to take classes outside their year level, they are actively engaged in the school in hiring and firing staff, in offering specialised courses based on their own areas of expertise and in challenging expectations around school days. But why and how?

Students take responsibility for their learning

At this school, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning. They are able to make decisions about what they study, in what year level and in what order. This approach, which mirrors what is done at many democratic schools, is known as student-directed learning.

This style of learning is popular at universities and in schools. However, it may be vastly different from many of our experiences at school. This approach involves allowing students to direct the topics of study, the length of time they study a topic and the way they are assessed. At Templestowe, the school has partnered with La Trobe University to meet students’ interest in studying computer gaming.

Students whose subject choices are not offered by the school complete what is known as a Personalised Learning Project (PLP). They set the objectives of the project, choose a staff mentor and then complete the project.

Students who are given the ability to plan their own learning are said to improve their achievement and build on their capacity to learn. They work in partnership with their teachers to encourage independence and take charge of their own learning.

Hutton gives the example of a student who was in Year 7, but wanted to sit in on a Year 12 Physics class. The student was able to do so, but only if he didn’t interrupt the learning of the Year 12 students. They found that the student was not only surviving, he was thriving.

When asked about this, his classmates said:

Well it’s a bit weird actually … because he sometimes knows more than we do.

Much like in democratic schools, the school offers students the chance to control their learning to meet their needs. This chance to control learning is in line with school improvement practices that empower students to shape and direct the education they experience and the management of the school.

Research has shown that students who are engaged in active inquiry investigations of different concepts enjoy greater learning gains than students who are not. They are also more likely to learn more about how they learn, to meet their learning goals and to experience school as more pleasurable.

Students’ learning plans are individualised and flexible

One of the more controversial aspects of Templestowe is its flexibility. Start times for students vary according to what the principal describes as research around sleep patterns for adolescents. They received media coverage for their staggered start times of 7.15am, 9am and 10.15am with finish times of 1.15pm, 3.30pm and 5.15pm.

There is a good deal of research that indicates that adolescents should be able to start later if they feel the need. Some research has said that teenage moodiness and poor school behaviour could be mitigated by better sleep patterns, including later sleep and later rising, with schools factoring that in to their starts. Similarly, a 2010 study concluded that even modest delays in start times improved adolescent moodiness, health, alertness and achievement.

Students choose when they go to and from school. Shutterstock
Click to enlarge

What are the problems with this flexibility?

Some of the problems will stem from epistemological differences between this school’s approach and the established expectations of parents and education commentators. For example, some parents may not trust their child to take responsibility for their own learning, believing that curriculum experts and teachers are better placed to make those decisions.

Further, they may find it difficult to understand students taking control of the hiring and firing of staff. Some may struggle with the idea that it is a students’ role to mentor and tutor other students, or to offer courses and activities to other students. It may be seen as a conflict of interest to have students working for the school as receptionists and maintenance staff.

Or it might be difficult to understand why a student of Year 7 age might want to enrol in Year 12 Physics. Or why, for that matter, the Year 12 students wouldn’t roundly object to that child being in their class.

Similarly, when it comes to start times, the idea that children can choose when they start might be shocking or horrifying for some parents. If only because they may not like the idea of having to make multiple student drop-offs!

Original article found here.

Lessons Learned While Shadowing Students

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Original article found here.
I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching my own classes; I am the High School Learning Coach, a new position for the school this year. My job is to work with teachers and admins. to improve student learning outcomes.

As part of getting my feet wet, my principal suggested I “be” a student for two days: I was to shadow and complete all the work of a 10th grade student on one day and to do the same for a 12th grade student on another day. My task was to do everything the student was supposed to do: if there was lecture or notes on the board, I copied them as fast I could into my notebook. If there was a Chemistry lab, I did it with my host student. If there was a test, I took it (I passed the Spanish one, but I am certain I failed the business one).

My class schedules for the day
(Note: we have a block schedule; not all classes meet each day):

The schedule that day for the 10th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Geometry

9:30 – 10:55: Spanish II

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: World History

1:25 – 2:45: Integrated Science

The schedule that day for the 12th grade student:

7:45 – 9:15: Math

9:30 – 10:55: Chemistry

10:55 – 11:40: Lunch

11:45 – 1:10: English

1:25 – 2:45: Business

Key Takeaway #1

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.

But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately change the following three things:

mandatory stretch halfway through the class
put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class
build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.
Key Takeaway #2

High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.

Obviously I was only shadowing for two days, but in follow-up interviews with both of my host students, they assured me that the classes I experienced were fairly typical.

In eight periods of high school classes, my host students rarely spoke. Sometimes it was because the teacher was lecturing; sometimes it was because another student was presenting; sometimes it was because another student was called to the board to solve a difficult equation; and sometimes it was because the period was spent taking a test. So, I don’t mean to imply critically that only the teachers droned on while students just sat and took notes. But still, hand in hand with takeaway #1 is this idea that most of the students’ day was spent passively absorbing information.

It was not just the sitting that was draining but that so much of the day was spent absorbing information but not often grappling with it.

I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.

I was struck by this takeaway in particular because it made me realize how little autonomy students have, how little of their learning they are directing or choosing. I felt especially bad about opportunities I had missed in the past in this regard.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.
Key takeaway #3

You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

I lost count of how many times we were told be quiet and pay attention. It’s normal to do so – teachers have a set amount of time and we need to use it wisely. But in shadowing, throughout the day, you start to feel sorry for the students who are told over and over again to pay attention because you understand part of what they are reacting to is sitting and listening all day. It’s really hard to do, and not something we ask adults to do day in and out. Think back to a multi-day conference or long PD day you had and remember that feeling by the end of the day – that need to just disconnect, break free, go for a run, chat with a friend, or surf the web and catch up on emails. That is how students often feel in our classes, not because we are boring per se but because they have been sitting and listening most of the day already. They have had enough.

In addition, there was a good deal of sarcasm and snark directed at students and I recognized, uncomfortably, how much I myself have engaged in this kind of communication. I would become near apoplectic last year whenever a very challenging class of mine would take a test, and without fail, several students in a row would ask the same question about the test. Each time I would stop the class and address it so everyone could hear it. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a student who had clearly been working his way through the test and not attentive to my announcement would ask the same question again. A few students would laugh along as I made a big show of rolling my eyes and drily stating, “OK, once again, let me explain…”

Of course it feels ridiculous to have to explain the same thing five times, but suddenly, when I was the one taking the tests, I was stressed. I was anxious. I had questions. And if the person teaching answered those questions by rolling their eyes at me, I would never want to ask another question again. I feel a great deal more empathy for students after shadowing, and I realize that sarcasm, impatience, and annoyance are a way of creating a barrier between me and them. They do not help learning.

If I could go back and change my classes now, I would immediately:

Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder. I worry about the messages we send them as they go to our classes and home to do our assigned work, and my hope is that more teachers who are able will try this shadowing and share their findings with each other and their administrations. This could lead to better “backwards design” from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes.

Unorthodox Living and Teaching in a Standardized World: part three

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Context matters. Without context, facts are points on a graph without any lines. But the context needs to be relevant. When studying for the GRE math section, I came across a question that so illustrated my issues with standardized tests that I actually remembered most of it. It was a math question, one of the dreaded word problems. I hated them in elementary school, and I still hate them. I hate them because most of the time they’re too stupid to matter. This particular one was about people sitting in an HR group, and some other mundane information. The outcome of the question was to determine the proportion of women to men and older to younger. All I could do was say, “Who CARES about the ratio of women to men? Do they do their work well? Are they beneficial to the company? Can they work together? I had real world issues wrapped up in this standardized test scenario and I frankly did not CARE about the answer!  Give me a reason to care about the answer and I’m more inclined to work toward it—and I doubt I am alone.

Actually, now that I think about it, I am not alone. I have a daughter who is all math and science.  Philosophy, symbolism, rhetoric—all the things that make me giddy—are, in her mind, a waste of time. And without context, for her they are a waste of time. She is the product of a school system that works into her natural strengths: math and science are more important than literature, history, and art. But philosophies do matter in life. A well read doctor can connect to his or her patients in a relational way, and research does seem to indicate that the human element is a critical factor in healing. A scientist without a carefully thought out world view may well end up in a Frankenstein scenario—and that what makes that particular piece of literature so current and relevant. When Shelley wrote the book, the technology of creating human life was unthinkable. Now it is almost possible. It is philosophy that feeds ethical decisions: just because we can, should we? If mathematical possibility and scientific probability are the sole measures for technological advancement, what ultimately happens to our humanity?

“Your Class is Working”

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Those are words to delight any teacher, especially one who loves to test new ideas. This comment was from a student in my Through the Lens American Literature class. A glutton for punishment, he is taking a traditional American Lit class as well as my experimental class, but he said he finds himself constantly creating images in his head for the books he reads in the other class. I love that; it validates my approach using the visual to analyze the written word.

I’ve had similar comments in the past. I have ruined movies, pop music, formula fiction, and bad art for multiple students because I teach them to think, analyze, and decide whether what they choose to see, hear, and purchase is worthwhile.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German philosopher/scientist/literary genius (1749-1832), is my hero for providing all thinkers with three simple questions for determining the value of any art:

  • What is artist trying to do?
  • How well does he do it?
  • Is it worth doing?

I have used those questions in theater appreciation classes, literary discussions, composition workshops, and now in my experimental class. Without fail, students who internalize those three questions find themselves unwilling to spend time and/or money on things they decide don’t meet the standard of value. The beauty of the questions is in the fact that the first two are generally objective, but the third is completely subject to a personal paradigm. This requires students to identify and define their owns world views, and decide their own priorities. This requires high level critical thinking and introspection that many adults believe is out of the intellectual grasp of most teenagers. I disagree. There are those who cannot think for themselves, but there are plenty of adults who want to be told what to believe, too. I prefer to err on the side of higher expectations for my students, and I am generally justified.

What is the artist trying to do?

This the the theme/message/purpose of the artwork.  It’s often a challenge to find this concept without a sense of context, so history becomes important. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a great book, but it becomes powerful when put in the context of the Cold War, and prophetic when brought into the 21st century. Even without a historical context, great literature (and music and art and dance) always presents some universal message that can be identified and understood.

How well does he do it?

This second question is about technique. Does the artist follow the rules of his form? Are the rules he bends beneficial to the form? Is the language clear? Does shape and color and pitch and tone promote the message? Does each element work together to support the whole?

Is it worth doing?

This third question is the one that separates the artist who has a message to communicate from the one who just wants to sell something. Even the Absurdists wanted to shock and stun audiences into some new understanding. This question requires considerable time and thought. At first glance my students are disgusted by Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but once they dig into the message, the context, the powerful symbols, and the brilliant technique, they come to appreciate it. Some even come to like it. It may not be a favorite genre, but it becomes valuable because its message and the method of presenting it create enlightenment.  Other art pieces (literary, visual, or performance) may not be deemed worthy because either the technique or the message is lacking.

Worthiness is also highly subjective.  Students in high school are beginning to discover who they are, what they believe, and how they want to approach life. It is the time of life when they begin to separate themselves from parents, looking for their own answers to life’s great questions. As they begin to form their own world views, worthiness becomes a variable, not a constant.  It may be disturbing to hovering parents, but it is exciting for this teacher to watch teens find value in something for themselves.  I love to hear, “I love this book” from the students whose parents say, “They’re reading what?”  It’s even more fun when parents tell me about lively dinner table conversations about whatever book is currently under scrutiny.

Being unorthodox as a teacher means taking risks, and teaching high schoolers to think for themselves is certainly that. I am convinced, however, that students benefit immediately from coming to their own conclusions, and society benefits ultimately as these same students become adults who work, vote, and lead the next generation.