Category Archives: Food for Thought

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.

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.

You can go your own way, but…

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There is always one.

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

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

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

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

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

The story shall unfold.

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

Stories of Spaces: #clmooc Make 5

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boat-on-chattahoochie6WEBThis week’s make left me reeling with possibilities. I struggled with games and systems, but spaces and stories are where I breathe freely.The problem is not a lack of ideas, but rather, choosing which one to follow.

My first instinct was to keep the space simple and literal. There is so much beauty in the natural world that it is difficult to imagine my world without access to the river and trails along the Chattahoochee River as it winds its way through Georgia. I am grateful for a cell phone with a good camera so I can capture moments like this one. The outdoor space reminds me that my life is more than classrooms and grades and lesson plans. I am an educator, but I am made up of more than that. I am part of the world around me, something I keenly feel as I run through misty mornings.

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Growing up in California I was never more than three hours from the Pacific ocean.  The is a power in the crashing of the waves across the jagged rocks that cannot be duplicated. For me, the ocean is a metaphor for God: strong, unending, ever present, soothing, and unsafe.WEBGulfShores2015-467

Since moving across country, I have missed that easy connection to the Eternal. The sea is where my soul finds rest. I am grateful for friends who, several years ago, introduced me to a little blue house in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where we now spend a week of every summer. The Gulf of Mexico is a far cry from the wild Pacific, but the waves still beat a soothing rhythm that slows the frenetic pace of my mind. I breathe deeply, taking in the warm air and expelling the stresses and struggles that I always seem to carry with me. Gulf Shores has become my happy place, where there are no expectations, no demands, and no need to accomplish anything more than a few watercolors, some photography, and some light reading – and then only if I want to. I have the blissful freedom there to sit for hours and just watch the water and the gulls if that is my heart’s desire.

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But spaces are not always real, physical places. And there are times when the natural world is beyond reach. At those moments, the most important space is the mind. Imagination is available to everyone, no matter the circumstance. There is no constraint on what the mind can create. Imagination turns ballerinas into fairies, mirrors into passageways to strange lands, and ordinary men to superheroes. Imagination is free, accessible, and user friendly. It is imagination that creates artists and poets and inventors and explorers. It is imagination that makes good teachers great. Connected learning requires imagination.  Imagination allows current events to mix freely with classical literature and mid-century music. Imagination connects art to books, allowing students who struggle to write to find a voice. Imagination looks beyond standards to the individual students and finds ways for each to succeed.

Related to imagination is another space called reflection. This space is more challenging to access than pure imagination, but it affords an opportunity to analyze reality through an imaginative lens. Reflection requires brutal honesty, a willingness to admit wrong, and a commitment to changing course when it it necessary.

As educators, reflection is important, both in personal practice and pedagogy. When we practice reflection, we envision improved ways to connect with our students and make the content relevant to their lives. When we teach reflection, we empower our students to really own their work rather than do what they think we expect from them.  It is in reflection that we remember why we became educators in the first place: to expose teens and young adults to the beauty and satisfaction of critical thinking, creative analysis, and a world beyond the textbook or standardized test. And it is in reflection that we reaffirm our commitment to pushing back against the status quo and reaching for what is best for our students and ourselves.GulfShores2015-57WEB