I much prefer written words and live audiences to recordings, but this is good practice! I also used a new-to-me-tool to record, so be gentle in your critique. One thing is sure, I will continue to research and study and practice Twitter in the English/Language Arts classroom.
“To sleep, perchance to dream…” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1)
How do dreams reflect identity? How does the unconscious mind become the conscious decisions of daily life or long term plans? Who am I in my dreams and can that become reality if I so desire?
This week’s learning event afforded an opportunity to consider the power of dreams, but also reflect on which dreams are worthy of pursuit.
Dreams release us from all limitations, but also bring our fears to life. Patrick Ness’ book, A Monster Calls, brings to life an old yew tree in the dreams of a boy who must find a way to cope with his dying mother. The fear of monsters parallels the fear of the disease and how it has and will continue to affect his life. As the protagonist faces the dual monsters (the tree and the cancer), he finds himself able to do things he never imagined.
Of course, it is a work of fiction, but in many ways, dreams can help us discern new ways to manage life’s stress because in dreams we are not limited to what is practical. As a teacher, some of the best lessons I’ve ever written have come either in dreams or in that twilight between waking and sleeping. Once the idea is discovered, the analytical daytime mind can begin to work out the logistics of overcoming the limitations of practicality.
Some dreams can take on a real life, as Ryan Neil demonstrates as an American Shokunin. His artistic dreams manifest in Bonsai, where he has learned to balance life and design to create living sculptures that will live for hundreds of years. This is the beauty of art, no matter what the medium. I have some skills with photography and digital manipulation, and if I were to describe an impossible dream, it would include being discovered as an artist and making a living with this kind of creativity. My logical mind, however, sees the limitations (including my inability in sales and marketing), and puts my art into the category of hobbyist.
Still, the creativity of my dreams does find its way into the classroom. I never teach the same lesson twice–even on the same day. Every class has its own personality and requires a unique approach, a certain kind of humor, and a personal touch. I use the analysis to create goals and objectives and outlines, but once class begins, I shape my lessons in much the same way Neil shapes his Bonsai art.
One element of pursuing dreams is the freedom to do so. The arts offer that kind of freedom. Today’s educational system does not. The current obsession with standardized tests, single stream learning, and strict analysis places nearly insurmountable limits on teachers. The standards themselves are not the issue, for the most part. The application of those standards, however, puts many teachers in a bureaucratic maze with only one escape route. This devalues the creative passions of the teacher as well as minimizes the students’ ability to innovate, create, and think beyond multiple choice. What will happen to the dreamers and the visionaries if they are forced to conform to a false norm? Is there a place for the Einsteins and Edisons in our elementary schools today?
Teachers must dream bigger than ever in this day of sameness. We must find new ways to talk about literature and culture and society. We must create new ways to connect content with life in relevant ways all while ensuring our students are able to perform on state test day. It is a challenge that for me has inspired a new dream. While I once dreamed of leaving a legacy in the world of visual art, I now dream of leaving a legacy in adults who, having walked into my world classroom, are not afraid to push back, who value creative problem solving, and who are able to meet ridiculous regulations with style, panache, and enough humor to know that in the long run, life is a better teacher than textbooks anyway.
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.
“Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos, we see despite all the chaos.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
I’ve been participating in a grand experiment on Twitter called #WalkMyWorld. It is part of my English class for graduate school. but my class is a small part of a much larger project. For several weeks, people from all over have posted pictures on Twitter with the hashtag Walk My World. We did this not knowing exactly what we would do with these pictures, but played along because grand experiments can be fun. (And because it is a class requirement, but I think I would have played along anyway.)
The experiment took a poetic turn in the fourth week. Using the poetry of Robert Hass, participants were instructed to consider one poem and describe how Hass uses everyday objects as poetic inspiration. My first thought was of William Carlos Williams and his poems about sweet plums and white chickens. As it turns out, Hass won the William Carlos Williams award in 1979, so I was accurate in my reaction. Hass considers naming things a way to establish identity through one’s surroundings. Forrest Gander, in his critique of Hass’ Praise (1979) wrote, “Can the act of naming the world separate us from the world?”
Because I am currently reading and re-reading Madeleine L’Engle these days, that question captured me. How does giving something a name separate it from other things? And how does that separation identify us? L’Engle was a strong believer in the idea of Naming. The idea shows up in her work, both fiction and non-fiction. Naming something gives it a self, a life. It is part of what makes us, as humans, both unique and whole.
When we do the naming, then yes, we do separate ourselves from the world. Hass encounters a mockingbird, one distinct from all the others because it has interacted with him in his world by being seen. But it is still one of many mockingbirds. He describes a family, their activity, their look, and their language. They are distinct from other families by being in his world, but unnamed, they blend in to the general observations of Hass. And then, Hass NAMES someone. John. A friend in crisis whom Hass is helpless to comfort. In naming his friend, Hass separates himself from the world in his immediate vision and transports himself wholly, if not physically, to join his friend in grief. Relationship is revealed in the Naming. Naming organizes the chaos of all we see so that we can focus on those things that matter most: the people in our lives with whom we share friendship, affection, sorrow, grief, and joy.
To be Named is a gift.
McVerry, Greg. http://jgregorymcverry.com/walkmyworld-update/
Williams, William Carlos http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/119
Hass, Robert. “Letter to a Poet”. http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Robert-hass-letter-to-a-poet-annotated
Context matters. Without context, facts are points on a graph without any lines. But the context needs to be relevant. When studying for the GRE math section, I came across a question that so illustrated my issues with standardized tests that I actually remembered most of it. It was a math question, one of the dreaded word problems. I hated them in elementary school, and I still hate them. I hate them because most of the time they’re too stupid to matter. This particular one was about people sitting in an HR group, and some other mundane information. The outcome of the question was to determine the proportion of women to men and older to younger. All I could do was say, “Who CARES about the ratio of women to men? Do they do their work well? Are they beneficial to the company? Can they work together? I had real world issues wrapped up in this standardized test scenario and I frankly did not CARE about the answer! Give me a reason to care about the answer and I’m more inclined to work toward it—and I doubt I am alone.
Actually, now that I think about it, I am not alone. I have a daughter who is all math and science. Philosophy, symbolism, rhetoric—all the things that make me giddy—are, in her mind, a waste of time. And without context, for her they are a waste of time. She is the product of a school system that works into her natural strengths: math and science are more important than literature, history, and art. But philosophies do matter in life. A well read doctor can connect to his or her patients in a relational way, and research does seem to indicate that the human element is a critical factor in healing. A scientist without a carefully thought out world view may well end up in a Frankenstein scenario—and that what makes that particular piece of literature so current and relevant. When Shelley wrote the book, the technology of creating human life was unthinkable. Now it is almost possible. It is philosophy that feeds ethical decisions: just because we can, should we? If mathematical possibility and scientific probability are the sole measures for technological advancement, what ultimately happens to our humanity?
This is a work in progress…mostly a rant, but eventually something more.
I am a teacher. I can’t help it. It’s how I am wired. I don’t need a classroom; in fact I am probably better outside the traditional classroom because I hate busywork, irrelevant information, and standardized tests.
I teach because I love to learn and I want everyone around me to get excited about learning with me. In this country’s value system however, I am unorthodox. I don’t believe in standardized tests. I think they are the single greatest waste of time, resources, and energy ever created by government to ensure that no one thinks critically. Every question in education can be sufficiently posed and answered on a bubble form sent through a machine that marks the answers as either right or wrong. And they call that education.
NO! (I’d add a few choice words for emphasis, but you can add them in your heads on my behalf.) It is the most ridiculous thing in the world to limit answers to A, B, C, D, or E (with E being “all of the above”). Yes, there are right and wrong answers in education. 2+2 does in fact equal four and nothing else. The air we breathe is indeed a particular combination of oxygen, nitrogen, and a touch of argon. There are facts that are right or wrong, but knowing facts is not education. Recitation is boring. And yes, there are things that must be memorized in order for understanding to evolve, but our current education system has focused so much on right answers that we neglect to teach WHY the answers matter and HOW the answers affect us.
The unorthodox teacher, no matter what his or her classroom, is one who challenges students to understand why and how along with teaching the who, what, and where. And a standardized test can’t measure that.
Why not both?
One of the unorthodox ideas I tested in the last school year was a “Through the Lens” concept. The idea was to read literature, write a short essay, create a digital art piece (based on student photography), and give a presentation that incorporated both the essay and the art. For 2011-2012, the theme was American Literature. It was an easy place to begin for me, as I had already put together a curriculum for a thematic approach to American Literature with a fellow teacher several years ago. American literature also lends itself to images that are approachable by most teenagers who have some interest in visual arts.
I began with the Transcendentalists. Who better to photograph than Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson? The nature element alone makes for good images. All I asked the students to do was to connect the photo to some quote or poem from the readings.
Opening with such obvious connections allowed me to also discuss photography as storytelling and somehow reaching all five senses with imagery. I used PowerPoint to let me illustrate each point, and I encourage the students to learn PowerPoint for their own presentations. The first semester I allowed them just just share their images and discuss them, but by the end of the each all students were adept at full presentations with multiple slides.
I will teach a similar course for the 2012-2013 school year, this time centered around the work of C.S. Lewis. If that isn’t unorthodox, I don’t know what is!
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.
Years ago a principal wrote “Her teaching style is unorthodox, but effective.” I took that as a tremendous compliment and I’ve made it my teaching mantra.
Why unorthodox? Well, I have some unusual philosophies about teaching literature and composition. I don’t believe in tests. I use tests only as a consequence of non-participation by a class on any given day. The test covers the material that the Socratic discussion should have done more effectively (and interestingly.) Generally, if I give a test, the passing rate is low: students who came to class prepared pass, those who hoped to ride on the backs of their prepared classmates, fail. As a result, I rarely have to give a test to any given class–and if I do, it’s only once.
I encourage students to use the study tools available to them. Those tools are always insufficient for class discussion, but many students find that reading the material, reading the notes, and re-reading the material is an effective method for them. I also encourage audio book use for my auditory learners.
I don’t teach grammar or vocabulary. By the time a teen is a sophomore in high school he should understand the basics of mechanics. If he doesn’t, there are plenty of on-line sources and tutors available. I also use peer editing to strengthen those skills for both writers and editors. Vocabulary is best learned by reading good literature, not by matching unrelated words to definitions. I expect my students to look up words they don’t know. By the second month of school, they usually do. Students will rise to elevated expectations.
My primary form of evaluation is the essay. My students read and write a lot. They are required to keep a daily journal (ten minutes per day) and I walk them through the essay writing process from thesis to works cited. By the end of sophomore year, my students write a highly developed, well-researched 10-12 page paper with confidence.
I also integrate art into literary analysis regularly. Too much of school is relegated to left brain activities: lists, memorization, numbers, facts, etc. Good thinkers use the creative right brain to formulate ideas before engaging the left brain to organize them. Altered books, altered puzzles, photography, digital art, paintings—all of these have a place in my classroom.
Effective? Yes. In 20+ years as an educator, my students have consistently outperformed their peers in college courses that include writing. A number of my students have determined to pursue writing and communication in their careers, based partly on strategies learned in my class.
This blog will be my place to share these strategies and to share a new approach to literature I am currently developing. Test these ideas in your own schools (whether large private school or home school) and see whether or not unorthodox can be effective.