What ‘Zombifies’ You?

This blog was inspired by Matt Miller’s (@mattmiller) #Ditchsummit first session. In this session, Miller explores with Holly Clark (@HollyClarkEdu) the foundations of pedagogy and technology infusion in the classroom.

Clark, co-author with Tanya Avrith (@TanyaAvrith) of The Google Infused Classroom, is another powerful advocate for student voice, student choice to drive technology use. In the summit, Clark says we should ask kids what ‘zombifies’ them. By this, I take her to mean, that in seeking student input for her classroom, she seeks to know what turns kids off, what makes them feel bored, and what disconnects them from feeling a sense of learning.

Certainly, the posing of this question, even the framing of the question around the popular undead cultural icon would appeal to kids immediately.

Still, I think we should ask this question of ourselves as teachers. What is it in our classrooms that makes us feel like zombies?

And, let’s make sure that we have a clear understand of the zombie–what is it make us feel lifeless, thoughtless creatures.

I’m not talking about what enrages us like Hulk, “You won’t like me when I’m angry,” or like Frankenstein’s monster, swinging our arms at the villager’s pitchforks and torches. What are the triggers in our schools and in our classroom that make us mindless. When I worked in day-treatment, students spitting at teachers used to really be a trigger to anger.

For me, zombies are lifeless and mindless. They don’t really make choices. They are just driven by their lust for brains and blood. Likewise, in instruction, we are often driven thoughtlessly by tradition, law, perceived expectation, and ego, to name a few.

My list is also driven by my own actions and decisions. It’s not about what I see students doing in class. For example, it bothers me when students don’t follow directions, or who don’t do their work. It makes me angry, but I’m not mindless in these situations. These are students who need help and perhaps creative assistance on my part to offer an influence to change.

Here are my own personal triggers for sucking the life out of me and that make me a zombie:

  1. Doing things as I’ve always done them.
  2. Test-driven instruction, curriculum planning, and schools.
  3. Controls and restrictions in classrooms and by classroom teachers that continue to perpetuate systems of social inequality of class, race, sex, geography. Today, I’m considering how the following do this:
    1. Restrictive rules around technology
    2. Failure to use technology
    3. Providing only teacher accepted resources, sources, while denying the use of student selected materials.
  4. Having “discussions” in which I (assume I) know the conclusion the students will reach.
  5. Any kind of grading that results in a number being given.
  6. Projects with a single outcome.
  7. Annual presentations in faculty meetings.
  8. Reminder or refresher or update presentations in faculty meetings. Really, any kind of presentation that is disguised as something that could have been read as a handout or memo.
  9. Wordsmith and line editing as a committee.
  10.  Food-driven reward systems as motivations or as a behavior management systems with groups. It’s fine when training dogs and getting packs of animals to cooperate, but I like to think that I work with and for human beings.
  11. Proctoring.

Looking back up at these, I can see the negative vibe in them, and I certainly could revise and re-frame this list as the “practices I would like to embrace. But, it is a recognition of the stuff that turns me into a zombie–resulting in stress, anxiety, and stewing, brooding existential miffery.

It’s a great list for me of the stuff I need to avoid and steer away from. As an instructional leader, technology integrator, and self-proclaimed technology integration coach, it’s the list of stuff that I want to keep away from in my practice.

There are, of course, necessary evils in our schools and classrooms for which we must don the yellow Hazmat suits as the zombie-hordes creep across school fields and play grounds. I’m not going to be able to escape Regents exam grading; I’ve got two proctoring assignments in January so that some teachers can get valuable, formative feedback. But, I can force questions of the people I work with about the rules they establish, or to question existing practices. I can encourage my principal and work with him to create faculty meetings based on choice, and that provide opportunities for unheard teachers to have voice. I can give those who want to present their knowledge and passions to faculty opportunities that don’t involve the PowerPoint circle of the Inferno. I can look really hard at my own practice and demand that I’m better at what I do. And, I can model the kind of instruction that I want to be part of. And, if I do, then I might keep those brain sucking hungers at bay.

I encourage you. Make your own “Top 10 List of Zombie Practices.” Please share with me.

Writer’s note: For some reason, I had to resist putting everything into semi-ironic, air-quotes as I was writing. 

Combining Launch Cycle with the Writing Process

The writing process has always been one of the core elements of my classroom instruction. Whether teaching Regents-level classes or International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement or other college-level courses, using the ideas of Peter Elbow, Lucy Calkins and the writers the the Bard Institute of Writing and Thinking.

In the past year I’ve read A.J. Juliani’s Launch and Empower. Both books have pushed me to consider the connections between the design-thinking cycle and the writing process.

Both have much in common. They each begin in generating ideas, then developing drafts or prototypes, and moving through revision, before ultimately sharing that work with the public.

As contemporary composition research suggests that we should spend more time with students working with real-world audiences, the design thinking process puts an important focus into its process. It asks us to consider what problems we’ll attempt to solve, who we’re solving them for, and how what is being created will address the needs of that group. It’s for this reason that looking at ways we can bring this into the writing process can ultimately benefit students.

Every year, I start my English 101 class with an introductory lesson on the Writing Process. This lesson will get some tweaks by incorporating design-thinking vocabulary that my students and I will use throughout the year.

Below is my preliminary thinking about where the two processes overlap and what writing activities might be part of each part of these processes.

What if schools operated as if we should all be “learners”? Part 2 #IMOOC week 3

Yesterday, our school played host to a first-ever regional workshop of 4 area schools.

About 800 educators came together to spend the day in workshops, presentations, discussions, sharings, connections all in the service of the theme of the day “Connecting for Kids.”

The premise was simple–we have a lot of education talent in the Finger Lakes region. Let’s put it together, share those resources and knowledge, and our kids can benefit.

Such things do not happen easily. A coordinated effort such as this takes time, and it takes resources. Superintendents trusted that it could come together. Such is the culture of innovation.

The vibe for the day was amazing. Everyone that I spoke with felt like they were learning, and felt like the connection between other teachers and educators inspired and re-filled those March-empty teacher tanks.

Such a day makes room for people to return to something fundamental. It allows us to become learners again. We connected for kids, but we also connected for ourselves and our passions.

Continue reading

What if schools operated as if we should all be “learners”? #IMMOOC week 3


Analogy: “Career” vs. “Passion”; “Teacher” vs. “Learner”

It popped into my Twitter feed earlier today. A question that should be added to the list of questions asked when hiring new teachers: “How do you consider yourself a learner?”

A career in education is a long one. Some teachers may spend 20 years, or perhaps 30 or 35 years working in a classroom. Educators may move from a classroom setting, to some support role as  a department chair or leader, or in many cases, move into an administrative position.

If we see our roles only as a adults there to give knowledge, hold students accountable, assign points, it may come to feel pretty static.

And, when students aren’t interested in the class, they resist by not doing work, adults up the stakes with more rules, systems of accountability, and I’ve seen the burned out of imposing the role of the “teacher.”

Integration question: What are the principles of sustainability in ecology and environmental science and how can they be applied to the field of education

I don’t have your answer.

For me, it’s a drive to do new and different things in different ways in my classroom. To not rest on something that’s worked in the past. This means knowing that I have to learn about new techniques, approaches, methodologies and tools to make the new possible and successful.  


Pop Culture in Practice

This week’s Edublogs Club asked us to consider the role pop culture and pop culture texts play in our classrooms and in our instructional practices.

The Tedx Talk by Mackenzie Matheson argues that pop culture, found in media such as Disney films, provides valuable insights into our world, with narrative that comment on what gender roles are promoted and which are subverted, as well as how these narratives provide powerful socialization tools.

Thus, the use of pop culture in classrooms can be an excellent tool for student engagement and critical pedagogy in the classroom.

Like what Matheson advocates for in her talk, I’ve used Disney films to discuss how media can deliver powerful messages about gender, race, and class. However, what I’ve often found is disdain from my students in such approaches. It’s as if they’re saying, “How dare you try to despoil something from my childhood that I love.” Students want to accept pop culture at face value, to enjoy it as consumers of entertainment. They don’t want to accept that Cinderella promotes duty to cruel and unjust parents, that the little mermaid suggests that women need to change themselves to please men, or that Aladdin perpetuates stereotypes made by Western society about Arabic culture: “It’s Barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” Most of the messages in Disney films come intermixed on the screen with catchy jingles and smooth whistling from characters.

While I agree with Matheson’s ideas–not just her but with other educators who are pop culture-in-classroom proponents–that pop culture is valuable, but I guess I diverge and think that it’s not the quick fix to student disengagement or faltering motivation.

As an aside, Matheson’s talk provides some great analysis of these films. I wonder how she arrived at it. On her own? Or was that part of a classroom assignment or from someone teaching her about media analysis? Was there any research conducted? What were her sources? I have to think a classroom and teacher were in some way responsible, but we won’t know.

Also, I didn’t think her talk added up. There was analysis of Disney films, but in the end her message is identify with a character, fight your Disney battles. I didn’t seem to come together.

Bringing in media and using it is important, but I’ve also found that students access such a diverse and really fragmented array of media, that finding commonality in their tastes is near impossible.

I play, as many of my students do, video games. For weeks now, I’ve been excited to play the new PS4 game Horizon Zero Dawn; however, when I shared this with my classes, not even the gamers new what I was talking about. When I am able to talk about videogames with my gaming students, I realize that we don’t all play on the PS4. Some play on the xbox, some on PC. We play an astounding array of games and in many styles. I love learning from them and I’m inspired. But, even as gamers, we lack commonality.

It seems that we no longer, as a culture, access the same media narrative. Decades ago, there was a commonality–families sat around a radio and listened to a broadcast. And every family in each house and neighborhood was likely to listen to the same thing. Now, each person carries their own metaphorical radio around, and most have them in their pocket; however, that radio plays such a diverse range of media and programming, and that choice gives us power, but it also divides us.

No longer can we count on the idea that everyone watched the latest episode of MASH, or Friends, or Seinfeld the night before and that we can talk about it while circles around the water cooler or over bad cafeteria lunch in the teacher’s lounge. Instead, the water cooler talk revolves around the individual programming of the watcher, and an argument from each on what should be added to the other’s Netflix queue for watching. I myself have trouble remembering what media services my co-workers subscribe to: “Are you on Netflix? No? Hulu? Prime?”

The same goes for students. We can’t expect everyone to have watched PLL, or Lost or Grey’s Anatomy. They’re all watching something different. And if it’s not watching, then they’re all listening, reading, streaming, or Youtube-ing something different. If they aren’t Disney freaks, then they’re into video games or rap or ESPN.  

This makes it almost impossible to have a common framework and approach in using popular media in the classroom.

What’s important is not necessarily the media that I bring, the popular culture media, but that students might bring their own favorite kinds of media into the class space to share, and more importantly to work at evaluate, to review, to analyze, to seek out its messages.

When empowered to work with their own media choices, the results can be great for the individual student. I’ve seen great work done in analyzing gender in Orphan Black and genre mash-up in Firefly. I’ve seen them analyze depictions of masculinity in World of Warcraft. Students do great visual analysis of Seventeen magazine covers. I’ve had students create excellent histories of the Mario franchise.

Where I’ve had the most success is not with what I bring to the table, but when I give them the opportunity to select their own media and texts to work with.