Hopefully all the links are intact!
Totems are not things I generally consider often. I associate them with trips to Seattle and thoughts about Alaska, but as a general rule, they’re just not on my personal radar. And then came learning event 5: http://bit.ly/walk2015le5.
By definition, a totem is a sacred object that represents a group of people connected by lineage, family, or tribe. When families are fractured, however, the ideal symbol is elusive. One side of my family may be best symbolized by wheels: trucks, race cars, go carts, and gears. The other side is less connected, some sharing a similar faith, some a love for words or music, and others deeply patriotic. There isn’t a real shared tradition or history; in fact, it is difficult to trace back even names more than two generations removed.
So the idea of a totem has to be rethought. My last 30 years have been spent creating a family with the guy I married at 22. On our 25th wedding anniversary I created a book that contained some of the best memories. It’s certainly not sacred, but it is a symbol of our life together.
“Maybe it comes and goes. Maybe it’s always there.” Jonathan Levitt
Feelings often do come and go, but the commitment represented by any totemic symbolism is always present as underscore and foundation upon which the rest is built. The challenges of mortgages, moves, career changes, and loss are balanced with the satisfaction of raising three independent young women and still actually liking each other at the end of each day.
And so, more than 30 years since our first date, our totem rises higher and higher, represented in thousands of photographs, lived out by the real people who make up our family.
For the full book, click here.
Preliminary research seems to indicate that social media in general, and Twitter in specific, can be used successfully in the classroom as a pedagogical tool. The first order of business, therefore, is to convince administrations and boards that there is a valid use for Twitter in the classroom. Like any new educational approach, it will take the boldest and most innovative to begin the trend of acceptance, but the same can be said of other educational devices. Chalkboards gave way to whiteboards and then to Smart Boards with a side trip to overhead projectors along the way. Filmstrip projectors fell away when reel-to-reel projectors became school standards. Since the dawn of video, however, those projectors are generally covered in dust in a warehouse, or perhaps, if fortunate, housed in a museum. Of course, the television and VCR on a cart have long been replaced in many schools by in-room screens and DVDs or streaming video. Computers in the classroom were unheard of even 20 years ago, and schools lucky enough to have computer labs required floppy disks for memory storage.
Technology is evolving faster every year, and each generation of students has access to newer and better ways to communicate. The smart school board will search out ways to utilize the technologies already in the hands of their students. There is no extra cost to the school district, and students would lose yet another set of excuses for not knowing assignments and deadlines. Research at the college level is indicating that Twitter offers a positive change in student engagement when it is offered with specific scaffolding, explicit rules and expectations, and instructor modeling. Students required to use Twitter in the classroom ultimately had better grades than those for whom it was optional. Student community can be enhanced with particular hashtags and attention to privacy by employing school-specific accounts. Students can learn citizenship skills by participating in civil discourse with classmates or other students in other schools.
There is potential for Twitter to allow students to reach beyond the classroom and interact with the world beyond through use of specific hashtags. Communication skills may be enhanced by the 140 character limit, and tweeting may level the playing field between dominant classroom speakers and more reserved students who may never raise their hands in class. Teachers using Twitter have the ability to track backchannel discourse and make adjustments to teaching methods, even as the conversation is occurring. Teachers can personalize the learning environment, thus providing greater enrichment for students who need it as well as quietly remediate weaknesses for students who need bolstering. With appropriate boundaries for usage and intent, Twitter offers a modern element for improved student engagement, which may, over time, lead to greater student achievement. At the very least, Twitter should be considered as a beneficial addition to the pedagogical toolbox.
Innovation requires out-of-the-box vision. We respect and revere men like Steve Jobs for their vision and for their ability to see the potential in ideas. Yet we don’t teach our teenagers to think for themselves. Teachers in the humanities need to encourage students to find their OWN insights into literature along with learning what other scholars think. History should be a captivating story of society and cultures, how it rises and falls, evolves, changes, succeeds, and fails. We learned early on that “in fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” but why? What motivated him? How is he like Neil Armstrong or Walt Disney or Bill Gates? The connections are what make history come to life. But the connections don’t matter on a standardized test so we don’t ask. But, why NOT? Teachers are supposed to train learners, aren’t they? Doesn’t it follow that a kid who finds relevant connections to history and literature and economics is going to do just fine on the standardized tests?
I’m a big fan of asking questions. First of all, I don’t have all of the answers. And if you’re honest, you don’t either. Secondly, as compelling as I think I am, no one wants to listen to me tell facts about this or that. Facts matter, yes, but only as a foundation for discourse. The interesting stuff starts to happen when students make connections between facts and themselves. Students recognize this, too, even though they may not know it yet. When I teach F451, most students intuitively like Clarisse and dislike Mildred. Why is that? Mildred represents everything we seem to value: she has material goods, friends who make her feel good about herself, and a place in a society that is a perfect fit for her. She may not be in the A-list group, but she isn’t the bottom of the heap, either. Clarisse, on the other hand, is a loner, ostracized by her peer group, ridiculed in school, unconventional in her interests, habits, and appearance. Clarisse is, in her society, weird. Mildred is normal. It never fails, though. Every reader sees Clarisse as the more appealing character. Clarisse thinks deeply. Clarisse questions authority. Clarisse wonders and reads and talks. Students want to do the same, but too often we tell them the answer we want to hear and expect them to parrot it back to us. This is counter-productive. Is Clarisse a symbol? Perhaps, but more importantly to this generation, Clarisse gives teenagers permission to be unorthodox enough to find wisdom. Our job as teachers should be to show students the joy of imagination and wonder and discovery.
Frankenstein is just one of the most fun books to teach, particularly for me. As we finished the book this year, I decided that we would do two fun projects that would make the Gothic study a lasting memory for the students. It also gave the students time to complete their essays before launching into the next book.
The first project was to create an image of any scene, event, character, or quote from the book. Since they had to use the book for essay quotes, they were already looking at specific areas, so it was a natural extension. Most chose to draw a scene, and to their credit, they opted for obscure selections or unusual perspective rather than try to imitate an actual word picture. Then I showed them my picture, with the quote, ” I shall be with you on your wedding night” from chapter 20.
Macabre? Yes. Out of the box? Naturally? Effective? Absolutely. Students saw that an image can be as simple as paint on wallpaper to create an emotion, especially in context with the reading. It’s a fresh way to look at artistic representation of classic literature. It fit the gothic genre by appealing to emotion rather than reason, and referencing the “otherworldliness” of Shelley’s book.
The second project was a poetry unit in disguise. Teaching poetry as a unit make no more sense to me than vocabulary lists. Context gives both meaning that lasts long after the class is over. I prefer to slip poetry (and vocab) into literature as I teach. For this particular class, I gave each student a poem that met the standard for Romantic/Gothic poetry. Each student had 15 minutes to analyze the poem before reading it to the class and explain what elements made it Romantic/Gothic. In one class period students heard a number of poems and reinforced the definitions of the genre.
Students then had until the next class period (our school has classes two days a week) to learn the poem in order to present it as a campfire “ghost story.” Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge to tell the best ghost story in a small group during a stormy night in Vienna. If it was good enough for Shelley, it is certainly good enough for me.
On class day, I brought in tealight candles, skewers, miniature marshmallows, jumbo chocolate chips, and animal crackers. I had a tin with water prepared for our “campfire.” After all, what is a campfire without s’mores? As we toasted marshmallows over tealights (with the overhead lights off, of course), students told their poems, with as much drama as they could muster.
My class is small, so we finished the day with a serial ghost story. I began the story and we took turns adding bits until time was up. The only stipulations were that the story had to make some kind of sense and each person had to use the word “foul.” (I used the word “fowl” at one point, just for fun.) The class was memorable, and one student posted on his Facebook status that it was the best literature class ever.
Literature never has to be boring. I have some advantages in having a small (okay, tiny) class, but the ideas are easily adapted for larger groups. It just takes the willingness to be a little unorthodox.
And teachers around the world cringe in horror.
But think about it. What better way do educators have to teach one-on-one AND the whole class all at once?
Let me explain. Facebook is the current all-encompassing, all-unifying,and all-pervasive force that connects people. Most of my students come to class hooked into Facebook, FB Mobile, Chat, and anything else that the media offers. I can insist that my students find the school website to and e-mail me or form study groups, but why not use what they already access?
To that end, I set up a closed Facebook group for each subject. Even though I may have multiple sections of a particular class, I combine them all into one larger group. I act as administrator, adding members, facilitating discussion, and walking individuals through various quandaries. The benefit is multi-leveled: a student who asks a question may represent others with the same question, students can help each other, and I can see what needs to be reviewed in class.
For example, some students are better prepared to write cohesive thesis statements than others. I could spend more class time reviewing general concepts, or I can walk a student through the process one step at a time the the wall of our class group. By working with one student in a forum like this, everyone benefits, but I can use class time for critical thinking and discussion.
Over the course of the year, my help becomes less critical, as students begin helping each other. This sets up the habit of forming study groups outside of class, a habit that help me tremendously in college. Plus, those students who help others learn the material, techniques, and strategies better for themselves.
A benefit I didn’t anticipate is an alternative for inclement weather. In January 2011, my part of the country was shut down for a week because of snow. (It doesn’t usually snow too much in Georgia.) School was cancelled for a week, but since everyone had power, my classes met–on Facebook. I sent a message to all members with the time, and everyone showed up. In one hour we had 187 RELEVANT posts about the literature. We were able to pick up when school resumed without missing a beat. It is also beneficial when students are absent, as they can interact with others on the class page between class meetings.
Social media has a place in the classroom. If the technology exists, use it!
Oh, and one final benefit? My “cool” factor is magnified when I am in tune with students both in and out of the classroom.