This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.
I find it interesting that the National Day on Writing is a Sunday. It seems to me a school day would be more appropriate so more people might participate. But I digress.
I write to think. I write to process information. I write to learn. I write to explore. I write to understand. I write to encourage. I write to teach. I write to implore. I write to celebrate.
I write because I can, because I must, and because I am compelled to do so.
I write because I am a writer.
Before you tune out, let me assure you that I agree with those who argue for more diversity in school literature at all levels. Students need to be able to see themselves in the texts they read so they become fully part of the classroom community. One way to encourage a more diverse classroom community may be by allowing students to freely choose texts from a library that contains books from multiple cultures and points of view. Books suggestions may come from parents, social groups, or the students themselves so that the library is well rounded. Digital libraries may also be a good idea to broaden the reach across cultures. The number of schools adding 1-1 or BYO technology for students makes the digital library accessible to many schools, particularly in urban and suburban districts.
Having said that, there is still a place for much of the Western canon of literature in US schools. The US, for all its multinational communities, was still founded on Western philosophies and ideologies, and it is in the canon that those ideas can be studied from multiple points of view that may turn the traditional Western canon into something wholly American.
What got me thinking along this path was a sermon about the current culture war over Truth v. truth. At some point the pastor made a passing reference to 1984 and my mind took off. I thought about how the current Western culture in which we live really does seem to live in juxtaposition: war is peace, slavery is freedom, ignorance is strength. “Fake” news tells stories driven by site clicks and ratings. Debates become hostile arguments almost as soon as an unpopular point is made–no matter how accurate or reasonable it may be. The only recognized authority is the Self, which is not necessarily Orwellian, but does contribute to the unhappy chaos that fractures communities and fragments society. Fragmentation is just as evil as forced unity. Community requires its members to be welcoming of differences while supporting a foundation of a common understanding.
The Western canon, part of the cultural heritage of the US, is a place to begin to rebuild a common ground. A friend said not long ago that when he was a child, everyone read the same books, watched the same three channels on television, and knew the same stories from history. Kids had ideas and experiences in common, which gave them a place to begin building friendships or at least understand their school yard enemies. In a time where cultures collide, students deserve to have something in common that at least gives them a place to build conversations. Because the US is a western nation, it seems appropriate to use the canon as a place to begin.
This is not to say the canon should not be curated and supplemented. The US culture is changing and the texts read in schools should mirror those changes. Regional authors, women, multi-ethnic, and multicultural writers should add to the American educational experience. There needs to be balance. Too often US education policies position people against each other rather than looking at the US as us, a culture made up of many ideas but united by a common understanding of what it means to be American. Literature can provide the bridge of commonality.
I am in the final stage of my PhD studies. My official study runs August and September, and, Lord willing, I will defend my dissertation in March or April of 2019. The central theory in my studies is what I call transactional semiotics.
Because academic writing has its own rules, I am challenged when trying to explicate my idea because I have to interrupt myself with APA citations (lest I miss one upon revisions). This post is my attempt to share my concept without adhering to the strict rules of academia. For the most part, my ideas reflect a blend of the philosophies of Louise Rosenblatt and Charles S. Peirce.
Rosenblatt developed the concept of reading as a transaction with a text. Taking her lead (and the term) from Dewey, Rosenblatt considered reading more than decoding words on pages. She taught that a readers’ background experiences, personal histories, and internal philosophies inform or affect how they understand texts. Transactionalism, as she called it, meant that readers looked at texts through the lenses of their personalities, and their interpretations of what they read came from their experiences. Additionally, Rosenblatt postulated that reading is a cyclical transaction, made complete when readers create something new based on their interpretations of a given text. The reading transaction triad was made up of three parts: the text, the reader, and the poem (or creation of a new text by the reader.) Part of her philosophy was segregated from its based and labeled the reader-response method of teaching reading. The most important element of reading, according to this view, is the reader.
Focusing intently on the reader was part of Rosenblatt’s perspective, but she didn’t believe the context of the text or the message of an author was unimportant. It was along this line that reader-response theory cracked and fell into disfavor. As a writer myself, I want readers to understand what I am trying to convey before they begin to reinterpret it according to their experiences. Rosenblatt did not intend for readers to divorce the text from the author, but rather wanted readers to expand how they understood a text by adding their voices and the voices of others to its meaning. Hers was a broad view of interpretation, one wherein the author and readers engage in a conversation through the creation and recreation of texts.
Rosenblatt looked, not only to Dewey, but also to Peirce. Peirce was an American philosopher and scientist with a broad scope of interests, but his primary focus was logic and a theory of sign that he called semiotics. (He later changed the spelling to semeiotics because his original theory was misunderstood and connected to a language theory by Saussure, but that is another conversation.) For Peirce, understanding required three elements of equal importance: an object, an interpretant, and a sign. The object is the easiest part to explain–the object is, well, an object. A person, place, thing, feeling, idea, or text. The interpretant is the person who recognizes the object. The sign is the way the person describes the object and the way he/she communicates it to others. There are a lot more elements, but in its simplest form, the essence of semiotics is the system of how a person assigns identifying symbols to an object.
Sign systems vary by context and culture. Letters are a form of signs. In Language Arts, words, particularly written words, are the most common sign for giving meaning to things. But the culture and context matter. The letters F,A,C,E means one thing to to musicians (namely the named spaces on the treble clef in a sheet of music), but more commonly put together as a reference to the part of the body containing nose, eyes, and mouth. Face also describes part of clocks and watches, along with other objects I can’t name at the moment. The object and the signs exist independently of one another; only the person (the interpretant) makes the connection between them.
As in Rosenblatt’s theory, Peircean semiotics relies on the experiences and prior knowledge to make meaning of the object. Like Rosenblatt assumes the importance of works to convey meaning, Peirce assumes a knowledge of a particular sign system. For both, a person (reader or interpretant) sees a thing (text or object) and makes meaning of it using personal experience, prior knowledge, and language/signs. The meaning is conveyed by connecting the person and the thing through a newly created assignation (text or signs).
The concept of transactional semiotics in English Language Arts (ELA) is a mix of the two ideas applied to meaning making and composition. Because I am focused on teachers in ELA classrooms, my application is specific to how transactional semiotics works in educational settings. Broadly I think it applies to any kind of study. Peirce was not an educator (although he wanted to teach at university), and he applied his semiotic theory to science and mathematics more than to the humanities. Literature and composition may fall under the auspices of the arts, but only in a world that has segregated studies into subject areas. The living world and the experiences of it are holistic, and therefore, logic matters in all realms of observation and knowing.
When students enter a classroom, they bring with them a rich diversity of prior knowledge and experiences. To require all students to read, think, and write the same way is to validate only one part of the complexity of human life. Literature is a reflection of life, and so will resonate differently with students based on their experiences and prior knowledge. Students in high schools are developing unique world views based on their experiences in their families, communities, and instruction. Transactional semiotics as a theory values burgeoning world views by offering students a platform on which to build texts that reflect both an author’s intent (and context) and their own experiences, prior knowledge, and sign systems.
The idea is to begin with a text. Using one required by the school or district is always a good place to begin. As students read, they should look for similarities to people or situations they have experienced. Let them talk about their experiences and how what they’re reading connects to it. So far, this is standard procedure for many teachers. This is the beginning of transacting with the text. The semiotic piece comes next.
Ask (assign) students to create something that represents the life experience and/or connection to the literature. I’ve used altered books, photography, painting, music, and remix as suggestions to begin, but students sometimes have their own ideas. Let them run with it. As they create, they will begin to create a semiotic system that allows them to put their creative work with the text, although they won’t likely recognized it. Teachers will recognize some of the parallels to essay writing, still part of standardized assessments. Students choose a point of view, locate their evidence (materials), consider how to assemble their creations (outlines), and put it all together (writing). When students present their creations–and presentation is important, they explain what they did, how they did it, and why they made the artistic choices they did. Their signs will have come from their experiences and past knowledge.
Now the fun part begins for the teacher. Sometimes students will be first to see the parallels between their creations and written composition. Sometimes they need a little prodding through questions. Ask other students to identify the object, interpretant,and signs. Allow for discussion about student answers. As a reflection writing project, ask each student to revisit how they constructed their creations and assigned meaning to each element. Then ask them to look at the original text again, looking for clues about how the author did the same.
At this point, students have done the thinking, creating, questioning, and journaling that makes up a transaction with a text. They have also created something, devising a semiotic system that afforded them a mode of expression that is more comfortable than the five-paragraph-essay or the free-response questions (FRQ) on mamy of the high stakes exams. The final step of ELA transactional semiotic practice is to have students take the PROCESS they used to construct their creations and repeat it using ELA semiotics: words, paragraphs, evidence.
Employing transactional semiotics in a high school ELA classroom can be challenging. It means teachers relinquish control of the learning products. It means trusting students to use their skills responsibly. It may mean learning from and with students about culture, technology, and what makes literature relevant. It also may mean convincing administrators and parents that the skills developed through the process will translate to whatever standards are expected. In my experience, it is worth the challenges. When reluctant students get enthusiastic about creating something, the atmosphere in the classroom becomes one of anticipation instead of anxiety.
This practice is the heart of my dissertation study. I’ve done this kind of teaching with good results; now to learn how it may work for other teachers. I will know more in the next nine months.
In my last post, I wrote about the silence from the gubernatorial candidates when I wrote about my education concerns. That changed today.
A savvy representative from the Brian Kemp campaign responded to me and pointed me to Kemp’s position statement on education. We then engaged in a series of emails discussing the professional nature of teaching and the need to honor that expertise. While I don’t agree with everything Kemp says about his plans for education, two of his priorities set him apart from others I have read about or heard in advertising.
- Reduce the state’s role in education and empower parents, teachers, local school boards, and administrators;
- Craft a student-based QBE Formula that expands local control;
- Respect teachers’ time by reducing paperwork, unpaid duties, micromanagement so teachers can actually teach;
- Reduce standardized testing so that our children will have more time to learn.
- Set high standards, especially in civics and encourage school boards to customize curriculums to meet the workforce needs of tomorrow (cyber, agriculture, technology, etc.)
- Support school choice while strengthening the public school system;
- Double SSO Tax Credits;
- Promote Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) starting with a pilot for military families
I can quibble with Kemp’s school choice position, but if he can accomplish 3 and 4, more parents may not need or want to leave their neighborhood schools. I like those two because they are measurable and specific tasks, not goals or promises that sound nice. I’ve done enough research to understand that the flight of exceptional teachers from public schools is dominated by a lack of autonomy and an increasingly rigid script by which teachers must adhere. In a job interview several years ago a principal actually told me that my creative and innovative ideas were fine, but “we have to pass the test.” I didn’t get the job–but I didn’t want it after hearing that. There are still lots of exceptional teachers in Georgia public schools. Many of them have advanced degrees and years of experience that would put them at the top of any corporation. But their calling and commitment are to teach the next generation. Respecting their time, reducing the non-teaching duties, and returning the profession to them is a place to begin.
I also like what Kemp has to say about expanding high-speed internet to rural areas. If all Georgia teachers are to have the same access to the wealth of materials and ideas that exist in open educational resources (OER), they all need the same bandwidth, speed, and hardware. It’s time to recognize that quality education should be available beyond the suburbs. More than that, it’s time to take action and make technology accessible to teachers and students from the urban to the rural parts of our state.
In my day-long conversation with Ryan Mahoney, Kemp’s communications director, I felt like my voice was heard. He asked for more information from my research, which I happily supplied. He took me seriously when I suggested Kemp focus less on the emotionally charged second amendment issue and more on the unifying aspects of teacher support and excellent education for all. Will our dialog ultimately make a difference in the campaign? I don’t know. What I do know is that the other top contenders are still letting the crickets chirp. Kemp’s campaign took time to fill the silence with a meaningful conversation.
That speaks volumes.
Today was the Taste of East Cobb, a foodies paradise organized by the Walton High School Band. Usually, it features food from dozens of restaurants, a few crafters, direct sales, and local companies. And chiropractors. I’m not sure why, but there are always at least a half dozen chiropractors there.
This year is the mid-year elections along with the election of a new governor. At least seven candidates for various state offices bought booth space. Both the Republican and Democrat parties also bought places, with various candidates rotating through. It was a good opportunity to listen to people and their platforms face to face rather than through slick mailers, yard signs, and commercials. I talked to people in every booth, trying to learn which candidates were actually interested in a conversation about education and giving teachers a voice in their classrooms.
Full disclosure. I am a Libertarian with a pretty consistently conservative voting record. I believe the Constitution grants States an amount of sovereignty that allows the local population to choose how it is governed. I do not believe it wise to water down the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. I think business owners should be granted the freedom to run their businesses according to their personal convictions, especially if their services are not unique or do not affect life or health. This means if a baker turns away business for religious reasons, that’s fine; there are plenty of other bakers who will provide that service and pocket the profit. Police officers, on the other hand, are required by law and ethics to provide the exact same protection to every citizen, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or social status. No exceptions, no excuses.
Having said that, I want to share my experience with the politicians who attended Taste of East Cobb. I assume they were there to share their platforms, engage their potential constituents, and put faces to the mailers, yard signs, and commercials. To be honest, I was mostly disappointed in the responses when I asked where they stood on education. For the most part, Democrats said “no guns in schools” and Republicans said, “Common Core needs to be replaced.” Ugh.
To be completely honest, the guns in schools rhetoric is ridiculous. First of all, the number of instances of gun crime in schools during school days is minuscule. Yes, any crime that takes the life of school children and staff is unacceptable. No question. But arming teachers is a silly idea. Most people recognize that the problems that lead to violence of any kind cannot be addressed by arming teachers or by infringing on the Second Amendment. It’s a talking point. It’s emotional. It’s hot air, and nothing more. Tell me something else. Talk to me about teacher voice, assessment, preparing students for life beyond school. Crickets.
Common Core? First of all, I’ve actually read the standards, whereas most politicians have not. The standards are not the problem. They are broad and reasonably generic. Additionally, CCSS (Common Core State Standards) are being replaced. So there’s that. Talk to me about empowering teachers to be creative in their pedagogy or about upholding the value of public schools. Again, mostly crickets. Chirp. Chirp.
I had one nominally encouraging conversation with a volunteer in the Republican booth who was horrified when I told her I have written to the gubernatorial candidates about education and have received nothing in return–from any of them in any party. She took my name and email and said she would talk to the candidate she supports personally. They also invited me to a luncheon next month where I might be able to address candidates myself.
The highlight, however, was a delightful dialogue with Karín Sandiford, a moderate Democrat running for House District 46. I’m not even in her district, but she was genuinely interested in what I had to say as an expert in teaching. She asked questions, followed up with enthusiasm, and asked for more information. She has four children in public schools and has seen first hand how testing affected her children. Her background is in computers, so when I talked about the quantification of education she knew exactly what I meant. When I shared with her the frustrations of teachers, professionals who are often not permitted to teach according to their strengths or their students’ needs, she was taken aback. In her own family, she has a child who overthinks the multiple choice tests (like I do) and she recognizes there is a need for multiple avenues of assessment, both qualitative and quantitative.
Karín is open to dialogue and compromise because she understands that is it through relationship building and collaboration that solutions to problems are built. She is the kind of candidate for whom I could vote and with whom I could work. Would we agree on everything? Absolutely not. As I said before, I am more conservative than not. I prefer a small, local government, low taxes, and individual freedom to practice business according to one’s convictions. However, from what I could see today, of all the candidates and their representatives I saw today, Karín is someone I could support as a representative who understands the importance of listening, the value of genuine concern, and the need for people to work together.
We need more like her on both sides of the aisle.
Vitriol. Division. Self. Tribalism. Hate.
This world can be so ugly.
This weekend I had the honor and the joy to sing with a marvelous group of musicians of all ethnicities, ages, religions, and political affiliations in a concert of unity, healing, and overcoming. I am emotionally spent in the best possible way. There is still hope for this human race.
I came to work today exhausted, but happy. I usually work from home on Mondays, but I switched days this week. I’m glad I did. I’ve been working as a prospective student advisor for three years now. I have counseled more people than I can count, but there are a few who stand out. One such standout was M, a medical doctor from Romania who could find no work in the U.S. wherein she could use her considerable skills to do good in her community. She came in frustrated and discouraged, wondering whether she had any opportunities left. Our program prove to be a perfect fit for her, and I was able to encourage her to apply for both the master’s degree and for a grant that would pay her tuition. She was accepted to both. I saw her periodically over the next months. GSU’s certification and master’s degree is a grueling program. As a result, our graduates are prepared for the classroom and our five-year retention rate is nearly double the national average. I watched M struggle with the load, but I knew she would finish what she started. Today she celebrated completion of the program and has her choice of job opportunities.
Many students I counseled have completed the degree, but M came to my office with a sweet bouquet of flowers and a few words of thanks.
She talked about how she had grown through the program and how her confidence was restored and how she looked forward to her future with hope. She thanked me for seeing past her frustration and disappointment and helping her get started on the journey to teaching. It was a ten minute chat and a few flowers that showed me again that there is always hope.
Yes, I was just doing my job 16 months ago when M first stepped into my office. And as jobs in academia go, this graduate assistantship is not one that requires special skills or an advanced degree. I am grateful that this position covers my tuition and allows me to pursue my PhD without accruing additional debt. But I am not special in this job. I have very little authority and I make no decisions about enrollment, curriculum, admissions, or programs of study. What I can do, and what I strive to do, is to do my job here with excellence. I want potential students to feel welcomed, supported, and valued. When M came to visit today, I saw that my attitude toward my work made a difference in her life. Her visit also demonstrated that I am in this work for a reason, and that how I approach the seemingly insignificant days affects people in ways I may never know.
In the last three days I have seen hope for humanity in big ways and small. Large gestures that include groups of people promoting unity and healing illustrate hopefulness. A little bouquet of flowers in thanks also validates my hopefulness. In both cases, I feel like a very small actor in the play of life. I am here for such a time as this.
Facebook is an interesting space for thinkers. My Facebook use is primarily for connecting to family, mindless entertainment, and, if I’m honest, procrastination. Yesterday morning, however, two stories appeared together that both intrigued and startled me.
The first story was a short video from ATTN: Life. It decried a generation of adults who can’t boil an egg (30%), change a tire (52%), or sew on a button (70%). The proposed solution? “Bring back cooking classes.” I never figured out how cooking classes ever gave instruction on changing a tire, but that became a minor thought after reading some of the more than 3000 comments. Two themes divided commenters: these skills should be taught at home and parents don’t have time, so these skills should be taught at school. One commenter even said that the school system is outdated and that schools should change to meet “needs in the modern day.” I’m reasonably certain that home economics, secretarial skills, and vocational education are products of the past abandoned in the 1980s in favor of higher cognitive skills that can be measured on high stakes, multiple choice exams. Or, as another commentator said, “A lot of young people don’t know how to fill out basic paperwork at a doctor’s office, file taxes, and cook, but god forbid we don’t know the Pythagorean theorem.”
The second story was a psychological look at the emotional fragility of college students. Seemingly unrelated to the first, it actually illustrated exactly why secondary schools no longer include the life skills classes that will evidently solve all the #adulting problems of the first story. Additionally, it describes the challenges many young adults face, challenges that far exceed the inability to boil an egg. In this article, the author, Dr. Peter Gray, interviewed teachers, professors, employers, parents, and students, trying to discern the source of what he called, “the declining emotional resilience of college students.”
He found that secondary and primary teachers often pointed to the interference of parents who demanded to know all the details of assignments and rubric, expecting their children to excel regardless of aptitude. Teachers also held administrators who pressure teachers to pass students no matter the amount of work accomplished in order to maintain the reputation of the school. Teachers, then, feel they are held hostage to unrealistic expectations of both parents and administrators. They feel compelled to award grades based on those negotiations, rather than the progress of the student. Those grades, then, set the student up for discouragement when they go to college, believing their efforts sufficient for high grades.
Professors also blame unearned high grades for student underachievement and subsequent frustration with the reality of merit-based grading systems. Professors explained that students expected unlimited opportunities to retake exams, rewrite papers, request explicit instructions and detailed rubrics, along with extra credit opportunities. The end result, according to these professors, is a group of students who can spout facts but cannot think for themselves or accept constructive feedback. One college counselor said, ” [T] oo many students had never had a job, needed to balance a checkbook, or any of that until college or even after college. Their parents did it all…You can’t teach life skills in a class.”
Employers complained of young adults who believed they did not need constructive criticism or that their degrees automatically meant they deserved promotions and higher pay. Poor evaluations were often blamed on employers not giving adequate instruction, a reflection of the need for a detailed rubric. An HR director said, “It appears the handholding by helicopter parents and our educational system has made it problematic for our youth to ‘attempt’ to hold onto jobs. Most believe all they have to do is ‘Get the job.'” Employers tell of young employees so resistant to mentoring or coaching that they file HR complaints about constructive criticisms they take as personal attacks.
Parents and students both blamed social pressure and the economy for the lack of emotional resilience. Parents cite the increasing cost of college, the competitive requirements of extracurricular activities in high school (taken in order to gain scholarships to college), and a perceived requirement of employers for perfect transcripts. Students, in general, pointed to all adults as sharing responsibility for their inadequacies in #adulting.
In a sense, I think each point in both articles has merit. The vicious cycle of blame, however, will not resolve any of the problems, real or perceived. As I see it, we as a society need to decide what we want schools to do. Is it reasonable to expect all teens to gravitate toward college and the white-collar employment that follows it? Are colleges so competitive that only grade point averages and test scores matter for entrance? If that is the case, then secondary schools must push for academic achievement for all. The question about how to do that better is for another time. However, is college and business right for every student? Is there a place for honoring the trades as vital parts of our economy? Have we, as a society, fallen into the trap of believing only office jobs in corporate America or positions in a STEM field are worthy pursuits? If we have, then who will boil the eggs, change the tires, or sew on missing buttons?
I think, and I suspect research would back me up, that students should be encouraged to pursue, not college, but their interests from early in their secondary education. There will be those whose aptitudes will be for the STEM fields or business models or careers that require extended years of study. Those are the students colleges should be courting. There are also students whose talents lead them in vocational directions, where trade schools or apprenticeships would be both more appropriate and more enjoyable. We need fewer tests of Pythagoras and more opportunities to explore creative or mechanical or exploratory options. As a culture, we are all part of the problem because we value showy achievements instead of joy. When was the last time a parent or a teacher proclaimed pride in a teen’s ability to rebuild a car or replace a faucet or wire a lamp? How often do we adults brag on the student who spends hours not playing online games, but building them? Until teens feel validated for pursuing their passions, they will continue to succumb to the pressure of a society that rewards data points, high salaries, and prestige. In the process, they will not have time, energy, or interest in #adulting. Why should they? If being an adult means kowtowing to the will of a competitive culture, why try?
So, the question remains: what do we want schools in the US to be? We can continue down the path that looks to data to determine what success looks like or we can fundamentally alter our expectations, allowing students to become adults who do what they love with the exact training they choose. But first, the US culture must learn to value all work, blue-collar, white-collar, artistic, exploratory, technological, and creative.
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!
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Content is people. Context is people. Life is complicated and complex and messy.
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