Tag Archives: ideas

De-centering “whiteness”: Part two

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It’s been two months since I wrote part one. CRT continues to be defined and redefined in social spaces, and there is no single consensus on what it actually means. People continue to argue about whether CRT should be taught in schools, but neither side takes two minutes to say exactly what they mean by CRT and what exactly teaching CRT looks like.

It’s amazing to me that our social discourse is so broken that we are quick to argue without agreeing to the terminology of the debate. Having an opinion automatically puts people to one side or the other, without even mentioning the possibility of a space in between. It puts people like me in an awkward position. I see multiple angles to the conversation. Critical Theory is one of many ways to interpret positionality, events, and systems. It is a broad brush that does not discriminate between groups and the individuals within those groups.

It is the broad brush that creates most of the chaos. Generally speaking, conservatives in the US of every racial group focus attention on the individual. Individual rights, individual responsibilities, and individual consequences form the central philosophy of the conservative movement. It is not a movement of callous indifference or lack of empathy. Rather, it is a philosophy of the power of one person to change the self, the situation, and the results. It is a philosophy that says, “I made some mistakes. What can I learn and how can I improve my situation?” It is a philosophy that scorns big government in favor of limited and local politics because it is the local power that has direct influence over the individual.

On the other side, progressives in the US of every racial group focus on the collective. They may direct their actions to promote the common good, even when it means stepping on individual toes. Corporate well-being, collective progress, and group benefit are at the core of the progressive movement. It is not a disregard for individualism per se, but it seeks to merge individuals into groups that can make broad changes by the power of the group. It is a philosophy that says, “One group of people should not be elevated over another group. The structures of oppression must fall so that everyone might enjoy the reward of our common striving.” It is a philosophy that prefers movements of groups to individuals, and the broader the scale of the group, the more power it has to change culture and society.

There is a middle ground that many people adhere too, but do not discuss at length because the rhetoric of the two sides drowns out their voices. Often they are silenced before they complete a single line of thought because the sides assume that “if you aren’t for us, you are against us.” It’s a problematic way of thinking that only exaggerates and amplifies the voices that have chosen sides.

The middle ground philosophically recognizes the role and responsibility of the individual to make personal choices that promote the common good. It recognizes the character of groups as able to move agendas, but also notes that one agenda or another may not be beneficial to other groups or individuals within groups. It is problematic because what might be for the common good of some is not necessarily the common good for others.

Covid19 provided multiple opportunities to see all three philosophies in action. On one side are the conservative individualist recommending vaccines and masks, but avoiding mandates. On the other side are the progressive collectivists who demand masks, vaccines, and closed societies to protect those who can’t or won’t protect themselves. In the middle are the people who recognize that there may be times when mandates are required for certain segments of a population, but that individuals for the most part should be able to weigh the risks and rewards and determine for themselves what they will do. If a business chooses to mandate masks, individuals choose to either mask up or go elsewhere.

How does Critical Theory fit these philosophies? By concentrating the lens of power to either groups or individuals. People in the middle are often ignored or assumed to be on the “other” side. Critical Theory relies on the principle of oppressed and oppressors. It is a false binary, but it resonates with people and people groups who feel unseen, unheard, and underappreciated.

Paulo Freire is one hero of critical theorists. He divides people into two groups: oppressors and oppressed. He does not account for a middle class that is neither oppressed nor oppressor. Perhaps the middle class and working class are absent in Critical Theory, but ignoring the largest percentage of a population makes CT purely theoretical and decidedly impractical. It also means that there can never be resolution because the conversation only includes voices on either extreme of the debate.

Freire (1970) wrote his Pedagogy of the Oppressed dedicated “to the oppressed, and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side.” A noble sentiment- and elitist at its core. I have yet to see academia address the inherent elitism in the text. “Those who suffer with them” is an impossibility. No one can suffer the hardships, oppressions, and sorrows of another. Those who claim to “suffer with” the oppressed in the US don’t often sell what they possess and give to the poor (see Matthew 19:21). And it seems the more people have, the less likely they are to give it all away to become truly co-sufferers with the oppressed. Granted, I paint with broad strokes here, but it doesn’t take long on any search engine to find celebrities and social media influencers who talk a big game, but don’t make themselves equal to the suffering and oppressed. There are those who DO sell everything and go so they can make a different in the lives of others, and those are the few who understand the idea of self-sacrifice for the common good.

Freire’s solution to bridging the gap between oppressors and oppressed does not have a home in out current divisive culture. His solution was education as a mutual process between learners and dialogue or, as he put it “dialogical action and its characteristics: cooperation, unity, organization, and cultural synthesis.”

In short, the key element of reconciliation is lacking in today’s society: communication. Cultural synthesis, where all cultures are honored and shared only comes through cooperation made possible by conversation. De-centering “whiteness” should actually be de-centering self, from the elites through the middle and working classes, to the poorest among us. When each person celebrates both the similarities that make us human (individualism) and the differences that make us beautiful (group identifications) then there may be hope for something resembling equity.

Whether enough individuals are willing to set aside their differences for a short time to promote unity is another thing altogether.

The Doctor is in.

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Office sign with name, title, and job description
The sign by my office door made everything real.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I took this picture. Moving across the country (temporarily), doing all the new faculty events, composing syllabi for four classes, and the first week of teaching kept me busy. After next week, I think I’ll begin to find a new routine for this exciting time of my life.

One thing I already know for sure. This is the kind of job I was born to do. I love surprising students with the unorthodox kinds of classes I like to teach.

I opened each class with a song from Queen (Don’t Stop Me Now) or The Who (Who are you). I borrowed and tweaked a couple of ideas from Aaron Levy. I read aloud from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I used slideshows heavy with images and light on text (the way slideshows are supposed to be used). I asked questions. I left the syllabus off the agenda until the closing moments of the first class–with a quiz to make sure everyone at least opened it. Having a quiz meant I could hold them accountable to the material in it without having to take class time for it. These are teachers; they should know how to find and read a syllabus.

I borrowed another element from Dr. Levy’s class: the feather circle. I changed it up and made it the red pen circle. Full disclosure: a red pen was the only prop at my disposal, but I made it work by talking about how red pens were associated with poor work, disappointment, and a restriction of personal voice. I gave writers the power back by giving the holder of the red pen the uninterrupted power of the floor until it was passed to the next person. I’ll expand the whole concept in another post, but it was a great first day exercise.

I also introduced don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements to two classes and asked them to collaborate on posters for their classrooms that represented each one. Again, not the usual way to begin a semester, but I think everyone enjoyed something a little unorthodox.

By the end of the week I was absolutely spent. And absolutely content. It’s going to be a fantastic year.

R3mixing English Language Arts NCTE 2018

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I spent my time dreaming in dictionaries, but opening the book in the middle. I can not start with the beginning of a story. From A to Z, for me it’s impossible. This order is an idea of ​​life and death that terrifies me. When I write, I do not start at the beginning. When I draw no more. I mix everything. Bernard Yslaire

I as INTUITION: It’s the only thing that matters, it’s the only thing left. With the years, with fashion, the beautiful theories fly away. Intuitions help us make choices, direct us and allow us to tell the difference between a promise and a future.
http://www.64page.com/2018/03/08/yslaire-de-a-a-z/

“When [teachers] organize the tasks students address so that students learn to connect what they have learned in school to the world beyond it they are developing their students’ ability to extend and apply what they have learned to other domains” (Eisner, 2002, p. 13)

When students connected printed text to their image definitions, the abstract notion of alienation became concrete. The concept became real enough that they could wrap their minds around the idea and begin to apply the new term to other scenarios.

The Western canon is not dead (yet)

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The Western canon is not dead (yet)

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.

 

 

Transactional semiwhatics?

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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.

Update on the crickets

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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.

  1. Reduce the state’s role in education and empower parents, teachers, local school boards, and administrators;
  2. Craft a student-based QBE Formula that expands local control;
  3. Respect teachers’ time by reducing paperwork, unpaid duties, micromanagement so teachers can actually teach;
  4. Reduce standardized testing so that our children will have more time to learn.
  5. Set high standards, especially in civics and encourage school boards to customize curriculums to meet the workforce needs of tomorrow (cyber, agriculture, technology, etc.)
  6. Support school choice while strengthening the public school system;
  7. Double SSO Tax Credits;
  8. 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.

What do we want schools in the US to be?

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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.

Whitman Wednesday

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whitmanwed

Feel free to play!!!  Most of the images I use are taken with my phone and edited in an app called Pixlr.  Upload to Twitter and/or Instagram with the hashtag #whitmanwednesday.

Use the project in your classroom to show your students how to connect words and images in meaningful ways. Talk about why the images they choose work with the words they’ve selected. Talk about color and line and vision. There is always room for art in English Language Arts (or any other subject, for that matter).

Community and Identity

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A ramble.

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DigPed PEI participants contemplate identity collaborations

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!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Processing DigPed PEI

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Content is people. Context is people. Life is complicated and complex and messy.

Celebrate that.


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