Every English teacher should read this post by my friend, Deanna Mascle:
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As a mixed media artist, I was able to participate in Reversing Vandalism, a 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.
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 NeuroImage, a 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!
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.
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:
And I’m stuck.
I may be onto something here.
So what does this shattering identity reveal?
You tell me.
In the #clmooc conversations on Twitter the other night, the idea of inclusivity was tossed around. How do educators ensure that everyone has the ability to participate in online activities? Do we exclude some from participation? Can connected learning be fully realized without complete engagement?
Connected learning by its very definition requires some ability to access the internet. There was a time when this constraint was difficult to overcome, but today, most people, especially those in developed countries, have access via smart phone, tablet, or computer. There are exceptions, of course, particularly in rural areas and in places where a number of circumstances slow the process, but the hardware issue is increasingly resolved, and will continue to improve as costs go down. In that sense, more and more people are able to be included.
The social part of connected learning is possibly the easiest to access. A Pew research study found that in the US, 74% of online adults actively use social media. I suspect those numbers will continue to rise as the next generations reach adulthood, as 95% of US teens are on social networking sites. Educators must learn ways to harness that connectivity for more than social interactions, but the social is a good place to begin. Twitter and Instagram (and SnapChat) seem to be the biggest players in the current teen market (based solely on my observation as a parent and teacher of teens), while Facebook is increasingly relegated to the “old people” (anyone over about 25). SnapChat’s limitations seems to preclude education applications, but there may be a creative way to utilize its popularity. Twitter and Instagram hold more promise.
So, connection is not the primary issue. Engagement is the greater challenge. Of course, that’s true in the face-to-face classroom as well, but distance seems to create a boundary or buffer that is more difficult to break through. While a smile or nod may encourage a reluctant student in a brick-and-mortar classroom, the same cannot be said of the virtual realm. In order to be truly connected, everyone has to fully engage and participate.
So, how do we educators avoid excluding people who are already connected? Some form of exclusion is inevitable: language barriers, time zones, type of media (Twitter? Google+? Instagram?), expectations (real or imagined), and miscommunication. Some exclusive elements can be thwarted with creative thinking and commitment to communication, but some cannot. What does one do with a student who CHOOSES exclusion? How can we provide a new community atmosphere in a relative void? How do we structure or scaffold this idea of connected learning to students (along with parents, other teachers, and administrators) who are new to the concept?
This is where I believe the “social” part of social media affords an opportunity. Since so many people, both teens and adults, are already using social media to connect their non-academic lives, we who promote connected learning need to begin with a social structure. Gee’s “affinity spaces” certain offer a place to begin. I think this is why I’m drawn to unique ideas like the “untroductions“. They may reveal personal and social commonalities that can then be built on to create a learning environment that inspires creative production in a collaborative community. I can’t count the number of Doctor Who fans I have met around the world through various Twitter communities and learning events. That bond, as superficial as it may be, can become the foundation for something greater: new stories for the TARDIS, what it means to be “bigger on the inside” or even an exploration of the science involved in space-time travel. (I just read The Martian by Andy Weir – talk about geeky science meeting literary nerd! I loved it.) Finding the element of common interest is a beginning.
A safe place may be the most important. Even in the most free-flowing community there must be boundaries for appropriate behavior, speech, and respect. A good facilitator must be able to quietly minimize both awkwardness and poor judgement. The community must welcome all who choose to participate as long as those participants are willing to maintain mutual respect, edification, and support. These communities must not become places where bullying is permitted on any level. Everyone should be welcomed for whatever they bring to the table. There is no distinction between ages, genders, religion, politics, or whatever else may create a divide. The mission of the community must be clear–and clearly communicated. Within that, however, there must be freedom of expression, creativity, unusual ideas, and multimodal forms. The idea of becoming community means that everyone has something of value to contribute, and everyone can learn. When the educator abandons the role of expert and becomes a member of the community who has much to learn, even the most insecure participant may be encouraged.
Having said that, there will be those who choose to isolate themselves, not for reasons of shyness or inability, but because they truly do not want to participate. They will do the very minimum required, make their hashtags particularly snarky (#required), and avoid dialogue with other members of the community. While is it important to reach out privately to these, we must accept that not everyone is going to see the brilliance in our plan and that inclusion is sometimes a decision. In those cases, it may be beneficial to remember the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
I opened this rambling post with a picture of a bridge. The internet is like that bridge, connecting people and ideas that are otherwise separated by insurmountable challenges of time and place. Most people can get to the bridge one way or another, but unless they begin the journey across, they will never connect to the adventures on the other side. And who wants to miss out on that?
Along the lines of the #clmooc “untroduction”, KQED posited a unique way for students to self-identify through a #donow project. Not only does it deal with identity, but it can also introduce the ideas of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism.
Select an everyday object or material as your personal symbol. What object or material did you choose, and what might it signify about you?
I had to give this some thought. I am not easily classified (which I like). Many objects have a singular purpose, so that character trait eliminates a fair number of objects. So I thought, “What one thing best summarizes my multiple interests and abilities?” Because I’m always on the go in a multitude of directions, I settled on the wheel as the object that best serves as a personal symbol.
Why the wheel? It is always in motion, often productive, useful in multiple situations, and able to cover vast distances, revealing new vistas at every turn.
I admit it. I get bored easily. I like new adventures and new challenges. What more evidence is needed when I join #clmooc when I should be enjoying a short respite from school between M.Ed. completion and Ph.D commencement? Learning new things keeps my mind busy and gives me new ideas for being even more unorthodox in my pedagogy than I was a year or five or ten years ago. That keeps me fresh and relevant and frankly, effective. No stale lesson plans for me; every corner I turn reveals new ideas to test and tweak.
Always spinning, always thinking, always looking for the next adventure. What better personal symbol than the wheel?