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.

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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.

A New High School Course

A recent post in my Facebook feed suggested that high schools should focus on teaching basic skills such as figuring out a mortgage payment, how to fill out a check, and writing in cursive.

I felt a tug of disdain. This kind of discussion about what should be happening in schools bothers me because the public often believe two incorrect things about public schools. First, they know what happens in schools, what is taught there, and what the curriculum is. Second, schools are default place where knowledge and skills are taught that can’t be taught in other places.

My response was to say that schools are not the dumping ground or location to fix what people perceive as the ills of society–kids not being able to write in cursive.  I was pressed to then explain where, if not schools, these things should be learned. While I don’t feel pressed to provide a solution, when I think about it, maybe a bank could teach its clients how to calculate a mortgage or write a check. And, really, when was the last time in a professional setting where you were asked to hand-write a document in cursive.  

However, my second, and hopefully more thoughtful reaction, is to ask people to recognize that our world–and particularly how knowledge is learned, constructed, found, owned, transferred–has fundamentally changed. When everyone carries a computer in his or her pocket and YouTube and Wikipedia are the largest libraries we have ever seen, knowledge has become decentralized. Self-teaching and self-instruction is new way to learn (Here’s a link to a search in YouTube on how to calculate a mortgage payment; here’s a link to videos on writing in cursive).

Accept that creativity, entrepreneurship, design-thinking, flexibility and innovation are the new skills that people entering the workforce need. If we accept the predictions that those entering the workforce may change jobs three or four times in their work-span and that the jobs they may participate in have not been created yet, then our schools, classrooms and teachers need to change from the models of education created coming out of the industrial revolution, and an 1950s, Eisenhower-ian, white, male, middle-class establishment.

However, schools and teachers are important. They are places where  students prepare for the challenges of life. Teachers are important, because they understand how to structure learning, and give people the skills to be auto-didactic. 

Here are 10 exercises and learning experiences that, I think, that 12th graders should have. The list is in no particular order. Perhaps this would be the foundation for a 1 semester class:

  1. Conduct an interview with an adult, someone they don’t know.
  2. Create and conduct a survey using online tools.
  3. Write the following: a resume, a cover letter for college application or job, a “This I Believe” essay, a letter to a state or national representative, an application for a federally funded grant or the paperwork for a small business loan and the tax forms to setup a personal business.
  4. Maintain a social media account or blog.
  5. Work, volunteer, job-shadow or complete a project for 20% of the student’s outside of class time.
  6. Learn a new skill to proficiency. Perhaps this skill should be one of student choice, and perhaps it should be a skill that they are told they need to learn. Maybe both.
  7. Teach someone a skill so that the learner is then proficient in it. As above, the learner here should, maybe, be disinterested.
  8. Be given one of the following situations and develop a protocol for solution/action: your house has burned down or a natural disaster has occurred and you must relocate, you or a family member are given a life-threatening medical diagnosis, you’ve been fired from your job.
  9. Build a family tree.
  10. Learn to code.

I work to provide many of these experiences for my students. I’m sure this list will change. I would love to hear your ideas.  

Trashing the High School English Classroom

In the traditional High School English classroom, there two ways that essays come to be assigned and written. First, the class is reading of a novel, and at the end of the unit of study, it’s time to write an essay. Second, there is a unit of study–Argument Unit, Persuasive Unit, Research Unit, Personal Narrative Unit, Comparison Contrast Unit–and the students work to produce a product towards one of these modes.

I’m going to suggest 2 different approaches to writing and re-imaginings of these traditional approaches, one I’ve tried, and the other, not.

Re-Imagining #1

My first re-imagining, and one that’s probably not a re-imagining, but just a spin on writing workshop models, is the idea that students generate their own topics and ideas for writing. However, I’m going to go much simpler. Student need just one idea or topic to write about. From there, the teacher asks the student to use that idea again and again in different genres, modes, and media forms.

While I didn’t consciously take such an approach, it happened naturally for many of my students in the second half of my English 101 class in the past semester. We started by writing information-based essays on closely related topics such as industrialized process of food production, what makes food organic, the barriers to local food economies. From there, students revised and re-purposed essays into arguments, blog posts, podcasts, infographics. They moved from information-based essays to persuasive pieces, academic research to personal letters. They took eight-page essays and cut them into 30 second Public Service announcements. They created reflective essays on their processes and used their own work as models and templates for others, students in my future classes, to follow.

A student’s struggle, often with writing, is two-fold. The first struggle is to read and to master the content of what he or she is writing about. A second struggle is then to write about it coherently.

The single topic approach may cut away with the first struggle. After a while, there comes to be an intimacy with a topic, the conversations around it, a fluency with the conversations in progress, a knowledge of the details. They develop familiarity and comfort.

Thus, they can focus on the moves of the coherent communication.

Re-Imagining #2

In this idea, the English teacher has no responsibility to create writing assignments, to figure out what students should write about, or to do any of the other traditional approaches to writing instruction as I’ve described in the introduction above.

Instead, the other High School subject area teachers are required to assign reading, and set writing tasks associated with the reading.

In the English classroom, then, the teacher works with students on these assignments. Time is provided, perhaps, to write these assignments, to process, to conference, to revise and to rewrite and to edit. As a person trained in the writing instruction, something that High School teachers in other subject areas are not and a significant stumbling block to cross-curricular writing instruction and the idea with the Common Core that “All teachers are teachers of writing,”these teachers now provide instruction on writing in particular disciplines, towards different purposes, focuses lessons targeted to student needs.

At the same time, it also solves the “All teachers are teacher of writing” conundrum in High School, because it forces math, science, history, business and art teacher to think of assessment in terms of written products.