Category Archives: Teaching

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

Art to Writing System: #clmooc Make 4

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I tried to create an image that reflects my concept of reading to art to writing. I have one unit in my World Lit course that covers Eastern philosophy based on a book, Watching the Tree by Adeleine Yen Mah. I tend to stay true to Socratic dialogue in my classes, so my lessons are based on questions. This particular book lends itself to an art project, and I introduced students to the art of altered books. I cover the first chapters, but then I set students free to explore the rest. They choose a chapter and take themselves on a systematic journey to discover and share the lessons they learn. The final projects are often brilliant and imaginative, even from students who didn’t consider themselves at all artistic before the project began. Although they complain, at the end of the year, most students consider this their favorite unit of the year.

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As a mixed media artist, I was able to participate in Reversing Vandalisma project with the San Francisco Public Library after a number of books were vandalized. Instead of throwing the books away, the library chose to send the destroyed property to artists around the world who transformed the books into art for display. That experience inspired me to incorporate altered books into my teaching of high school students.

A couple of helpful websites about Altered Books: Altered Book, The Art of Happiness, Go Make Something, Lisa Vollrath, and Tim Holtz

All Kinds of Systems: #clmooc Make 4

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Systems. What exactly are they, how do they work, and how do they affect learning? This week’s #clmooc make revolves around systems from behavior to mechanics, and to transit. Any kind of “regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole” qualifies.  As I scrolled through my Feedly links, I came across this article: How Learning Artistic Skills Alters the Brain. Being an educator who strongly believes in the connection between creativity and cognition, I made a point to flag this one for further reading. The article describes the findings of a study published in NeuroImagea science journal dedicated to studying brain function. Leaving the article behind, I went directly to the paper to see just how studying art can transform cognitive systems even for those who do not consider themselves innately artistic.

The authors recognize that the mental systems used by artists to create differ from other modes of communication. A complicating factor is the very nature of art’s definition: there are as many motivations and techniques and genres as there are artists. The researchers limited themselves to “representational, two-dimensional visual depictions created from observation” (Schlegal, Folgelson, Li, Lu, Kohler, Riley, Tse, Meng, 2014).  They also focused on three primary areas: creative cognition, visual perception, and perception-to-action.

I thought I would find the section on creative cognition interesting, and I did, but in a way that mostly validated what I had already learned or figured out. My favorite line actually made me grin, “…the many emerging findings about both artists and creative cognition more generally have shown that creativity is a complex rather than monolithic process…” (Schelgal, et al, 441). I suppose some people who aren’t artistic assumed that creativity comes naturally, and artistic expression is as easy as breathing. Not so much. One of the reasons I stress creativity and art projects in my ELA classrooms it that, in my experience, having to approach a text from an abstract point of view requires students to analyze differently. I’ve noticed in my 20+ years in the classroom that writing clarity improves after an art project, possibly because thinking as an artist forces students to articulate precisely what they mean, rather than throw words on a page and assume everyone “gets” it because of the jargon employed. That may be something worth studying further.

What really fascinated me about this study was the MRIs taken before, during,and after the exercises undertaken by the subjects. The final results suggested that the brains of those subjects who had previous art training actually reorganized neural activity. “Interestingly, the art students in our study also improved in measures of creative thinking, specifically in their ability to think divergently, model systems and processes, and use imagery” (Schegal, et al 448). The primary location in the brain affected was the pre-frontal cortex, which also controls long term goals, planning, imagining potential outcomes, behavioral planning, short term memory, and volitional action (Tanji & Hoshi, 2008). What the researchers determined was that the human brain is flexible and able to change or reorganize through training in art. In as short a time span of three months, art training can improve cognition and the ability to think creatively, and not just learn the techniques involved (Schlegal, et al 449).

So, as systems go, it appears that art, and the systems employed to create it, may, in fact, benefit all kinds of learning. The practice of line and shape may actually influence learning at a cognitive level, affording students the ability to “think outside the box” in a variety of subjects and make connections between texts, content, and “real” life. That’s pretty exciting stuff!


References

Schlegal, A., Alexander, P., Fogelson, S.V., Li, X., Lu, Z., Kohler, P.J., Riley, E., Tse, P.U., Meng, M. (2014, November 15). The artist emerges: Visual art learning alters neural structure and function. NeuroImage,  105 (2015), 440-451. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811914009318#. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.11.014.

Tanji, J., Hoshi, E. (2008, January 1). Role of the lateral prefontal cortex in executive behavior control. Physiological Reviews, 88 (1) 37-57.  Retrieved from:http://physrev.physiology.org/content/88/1/37.  doi: 10.1152/physrev.00014.2007.

RE(MEDIA)TE clmooc Make 2

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hydrangea-photoI love hydrangeas. When I visited Savannah at the beginning of June, I took dozens of pictures from every angle and of every color I could find. It made sense to begin this project, RE(MEDIA)TE, with a personal photo of something I love.

Why hydrangeas? I think it is because they can change with the acidity (or aluminum) in the soil. High pH leads to pink blossoms, while a lower pH produces blue blooms.  The whole range of color, from rich red to deep purple is all dependent on the acid in the soil. The plant adapts to the changes in the soil, and a plant that is naturally pink can be made blue by manipulating the circumstances of the growing environment.

People have a harder time adapting to change. Many shrivel up when things get hard,  while others refuse to bloom at all unless conditions are just right. What if we, as educators, can teach our students how to “remediate” their responses to the challenges they face in life, whether or not it is academic.  Certainly no one can predict how the future will unfold, and it is rare to live very long without some unexpected change. What if we can use our classrooms as adaptive spaces, where students can find their identities and understand that flexibility will keep them moving forward when the hard times come? In fact, it is the challenges that make us more beautiful, even though the outcome is nothing we could have anticipated. Like hydrangeas, the acid/alkaline balance of life’s circumstantial soil does change us. If we can anticipate that change, perhaps we can welcome it and appreciate its loveliness. And if we can pass that message to our students, perhaps we reach beyond our content area to real-world learning.
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My re(media)tion began with a photo. Good photos require an attention to aperture and shutter speed, light and shadow, as well as composition. As I changed media and took to colored pencils, I had to consider shape and color in different ways. Shapes were something that photography captured for me. The image as colored pencil drawing is not realistic. That is a decision I made as a creator, based largely on my skill set.

There are other artists whose techniques create drawings that rival photography in detail and accuracy. Neither is better than the other; it’s a decision each artist makes in order to capture the image in his/her mind. Or it is a decision based on constraints of technical ability or available tools.

Once I was satisfied with my drawing, I scanned it in order to re(media)ate to a form I am comfortable with and that I enjoy tremendously. I find digital art such a freeing form. I am a pretty good photographer and a mediocre sketch artist, but Photoshop Elements lets my imagination run free without the hindrances of a lack of ability or training.hydrangea-pencil 004

This is an important consideration for our students. Some will be gifted writers. Other will excel in various art forms or physical accomplishments. When we consider re(media)tion, we must consider that each student will come with his own set of abilities and challenges. When we meet students at their comfort levels first, we are then able to guide them to new ideas, new experiences, and walk them through the art of becoming. They may only identify as athletes or an artists or a mathematicians, but we can teach them to embrace new ways of expression and in the process, help them develop a new skill.

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I used a variety of digital techniques to manipulate my original image. I started by scanning the colored pencil drawing so I could pull it into Photoshop Elements (PSE). Someday I’d like to move up to the whole Creative Suite, but for now, PSE does everything I need. And what it doesn’t do, I can usually figure out a way around it. That’s another good life lesson for our students. Sometimes the way you think you’re going to accomplish something requires a change of plans and some creative rigging.  Back to techniques. I used several art filters: high pass, watercolor, darken image, and a few others. I changed blending modes and ended up with a nice foundation. Then I added some textures, mostly my own creations, but one from a company call Design Cuts that has some really fun effects, textures, and overlays.

hydrangea-remix007WEBThat was artistic enough, but fantasy/imagination is an important part of remix. I have a former student who is a ballerina and my favorite model. I had wanted to do a fairy themed set of digital art pieces, and I knew she would be game to play along. We ended up doing a whole series of photos that I am currently turning into Elemental Sprites: Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. It’s great fun for me, and she loves the end result.

I remembered one of the photos from the shoot taken in an outdoor location that allowed me to easily extract her. I added some wings from Deviant Art (once I changed the colors to work with my theme.) Then it was a matter of placing her in a place that made sense. And isn’t that also true of life? If we are haphazard with where we place our trust or our skills, we may find ourselves in precarious places. We must think through life’s decisions, and the sooner we can help our students see that, the better prepared they will be for a world where they are in control of all their decisions.

I finally added a quote to finish the piece. I looked for the source, but couldn’t find it. Still, it fit the scheme of the artwork, so different from the original photo, yet still totally me. I think that’s one message of re(media)tion: freedom in creation expands the mind and allows the self to continue on a journey of becoming.

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Six Shattering Words

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So #clmooc is making my brain spin – and I love it. The first week was about shattering identity and creating “untroductions.” I like the idea of shattering our personal identities in order to rebuild them with purpose and intent. Sherri Edwards (@grammasheri) developed a Google Slide Share that asks the following:

As we consider who we are, our identities in the spaces and places of the neighborhoods in our lives — what essence is there in all of them?

Challenge: Consider your beliefs. Using six words, arrange them as phrases read horizontally and vertically to express an essence of your identity.

Now, I am no poet, but I love this idea as a way to engage students from the very first day of class. Of course, I would never ask my students to do anything I wouldn’t do myself, so, here is my attempt:

six words:

faith             move

family            learn

art             teach

And I’m stuck.

faith             move(s)

family            learn(s)

art             teach(es)

I may be onto something here.

Teach faith

So what does this shattering identity reveal?

You tell me.