Friday, August 26, 2011

Workshop is Vapid When Standardization is Enforced

The finest teachers of writing and reading I know are ones who actually write, read, and are curious.  Simple, right?

In the perceived absence of actual reading, writing and curiosity, teachers are often sent to workshops with the hope that they will then return to school sites and 'run workshops'.  At best, when the workshop host is actually someone who reads and writes and doesn't have a lot of formulas or 'best practices' and instead engages all in the actual practice of reading and writing--rich rewards can often accompany.  When the participant continues to read and write and is suitably curious, the ideas learned and questioned via their own practice may make for interesting, if not provocative, work inside their own classroom.

There is an organicism in such practice.

In contrast, when the presenter is someone who has also learned 'workshop techniques' at a distance from actual practice and passes along a laundry list of dos and dont's (think chart after chart) that truly make little actual sense, the outcome is rather dubious. Even worse than this however is the 'turnkey' presenter sent to the latter workshop who then returns to tell everyone else how to "do" workshop.  The workshops enacted after such learning are often vapid and usually rely on standardized practices for all.

Some 'workshop' practices I would question:

1.Why must teachers level all of the books in the classroom library?
Why are reading materials in classrooms being organized exclusively by 'levels'?  I keep hearing more and more about this. Given the importance of prior knowledge and interest, it seems that leveling schema fail as readers age and the confluence of knowledge, interest, and motivation take on greater emphasis.  Why would anyone organize a library based on leveling schema that is imposed? Does it even make remote sense that we could ever actually say that a reader is a level T? I have been in classrooms when a teacher will lean in and say in a stage-whisper, "He's a level N." Could we not imagine easily how such a declaration would be faulty?

Underneath the leveling library is the more important question about how one selects a book to read and what prompts the desire to read.  The leveled system in some ways usurps the actual thinking that needs to be done when selecting a text and coming to name the desire to read.

2. Why must teachers refer to their students as readers and/or writers?
It seems a bit insipid to make teachers refer to their students as 'readers' and 'writers'--as if calling them by a name, somehow makes it "more" true.  It bothers me that naming isn't a privileged exchange between teacher and learner.  A former graduate student told me she was 'written up' by a supervisor for failing to address her 5-year-old students as writers. It's not the names that bother me, but rather that someone else determines address in a classroom apart from the teacher and the learners.  It feels like colonization. 

3. What's with all the sticky notes?
I read a lot. I write a fair amount too.  I do both well with nary a sticky in sight. I have been in classrooms where teachers explain that their students (or should I say readers) must used 3 to 5 sticky notes per chapter when reading a novel. When I ask why, I usually get two responses:
a. The reading workshop presenter said so.
b. We were told we must do this by an administrator (who probably attended the reading workshop).
A friend of mine tells the story of her son arriving home from fifth grade one day and declaring he was done with reading. When she inquired as to why he said he hated sticky notes and he wanted to just go back to reading a good story. "Why do they have to ruin it?" he asked his mom.

Underneath the sticky note practice, is the more important question about the needs of a reader and the reasons for reading.  Not all texts require analysis. Not all texts require writing alongside.  It seems important for students to figure out how to tell the difference and to determine some ways they actually wants to read. Forced sticky notes stops that thinking.

4. Why must all students record the title, author, etc. of every book they read?
There are times I like to keep lists of what I am reading or planning to read.  There are times I like to look at other people's lists as well. For example I often enjoy reading the Five Book Interviews. Recently Carol Gilligan offered five books she would recommend about gender and human nature. The offerings fascinated me.  But occasionally choosing to keep a list is quite different than being made to record every thing read for a school year. Why is knowing the total number of books important? Who benefits by having a child keep a list for a year of what s/he read?  When my son was 7 he had to record the title and author in a notebook of texts he read.  He loved to read and did so with great passion. That passion dimmed a bit when he realized how much writing his rather tired little hand would need to do.  Quite quickly he seized on the idea of limiting his book selection to brief titles.  

5. Why do students have to read a book that is classified as a different genre each month?
Let's just say it's hell that last month after students have been through nine genres (BTW I never actually got all the genre distinctions either) and the last one left is often something they never ever wanted to read. What exactly are students learning in such scenarios?  This practice obfuscates the more important work of developing and changing reading preferences and making decisions about what to read and when.  I also think it seems predictable that children will have great affinity for certain types of books and will desire to read these books in great number. Why do we want to disrupt that? Do we fear that a child hooked into Captain Underpants at 8 will find himself at 40 only reading Dav Pilkey's underpants adventures?

6. A phrase I hope never to hear again: "I have a self-to-text connection to make."
In the name of comprehension bad things have been done to reading and those who read. As a substitution for ambiguity, conjecture, humor, and not knowing (to name but a few)--the connection gambit (often marked with a post it, see image) is being played. Is there any other kind of connection one might have with a text?  If not connected to the reader, then to whom? Is there a reason such things even need to be anounced?  And what does it suggest when after such proclamation the connection is something like this: "I have a text to self connection. My dog drools." I did hear a child utter this after his teacher read a section from a Henry and Mudge story. He was congratulated for making a connection. A friend reminds me that rendering reading into such small bits of nothing, readies children for a career of testable 'reading' items.  I also wonder about such coding and what is missed as the mind is occupied by searching for already determined categories which in fact might not be well understood.

7. Why are students made to keep a writer's notebook and/or reader's notebook?
While visiting a middle school class, a friend of mine tells the story that at the midpoint in the class all of the students put away their writing notebooks and took out their reading notebooks.  She describes this shift from writing workshop to reading workshop as a strange changing of the guards.  I wondered then as I do now why this would be done.  How is it that a notebook, let alone separate notebooks, are needed? Why is it that everyone needed to attend to their writing and reading in the same manner? Imposing an order may constrain learning and in fact that may be interesting. Imposing an order that all must follow takes what might be thoughtful practices (choosing to keep a notebook) and reduces it to mindlessness.

8. Why is there a reliance on 'seed ideas' as the source of writing topics?
I was once told that students couldn't write if they didn't generate five seed ideas first  (one for each day of the school week) and specifically do so inside their writing notebooks which had all been organized as per their teacher's directions including the unique cover each student had to create.  The seed ideas were prompted: a time when you were happy, a time when you were hurt, a bad haircut, and so on.
To See Takes Time (2009)
Whereas I do understand that beginning ideas that are developed into more sustained work, might well be seeds of a sort, the mechanism of recording daily bits of this and that and then selecting one of these entries to develop into a longer work (especially in  a five day period) seems contrived.  It's hard to write at times.  It's a bit offsetting to not know what I want to say and equally it is rather exhilarating when I realize that I am on to something satisfying.  Learning ways to observe seems more important for many writers than responding to prompts and selecting one to write more about.

Invention is the work of teaching and learning. Remove invention and all that is left is a corpse.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Down and Out: America

A year ago I began this blog. I had hoped to explore intersections between art and learning.  I could not know then that I would come to love composing a blog, nor did I anticipate that I actually might have more than a handful of readers, let alone a readership.  A year later, nearly 16,500 people have visited this blog from 117 countries. I am of course grateful for those who have stopped by and even more so for their comments, links, and references. The learning has been rich, varied, and inspiring.

I gave much thought as to what I wanted to post on this anniversary of sorts. For the last few year I have been making images of people who are down and out in America.  I had hoped that a slide show might help to place those who are largely forgotten in daily lives and certainly forsaken by our politicians (sold out again in debt ceiling deal) more squarely in our view.

The last few years have been particularly harsh for the poor. In the new forward to Nickle and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich writes about the toll the last few years have taken on the working poor.
Media attention has focused, understandably enough, on the “nouveau poor” -- formerly middle and even upper-middle class people who lost their jobs, their homes, and/or their investments in the financial crisis of 2008 and the economic downturn that followed it, but the brunt of the recession has been borne by the blue-collar working class, which had already been sliding downwards since de-industrialization began in the 1980s.
In 2008 and 2009, for example, blue-collar unemployment was increasing three times as fast as white-collar unemployment, and African American and Latino workers were three times as likely to be unemployed as white workers. Low-wage blue-collar workers, like the people I worked with in this book, were especially hard hit for the simple reason that they had so few assets and savings to fall back on as jobs disappeared.
The poor are hardly part of a national discourse.  They seem not to be visible.  I hope the images I composed during the last few years help to recenter them in our consciousness, make it impossible for any of us to simply walk on by.

The images were made in:

Banner, CA
Winterhaven, CA
Deerfield Beach, FL
Pompano Beach, FL
Osseo, MI
Camden, NJ
Hoboken, NJ
Long Branch, NJ
Morristown NJ
Newark, NJ
Paterson, NJ
Wanaque, NJ
West Milford, NJ
Manhattan (NYC)
Warwick, NY
Philadelphia, PA
Winner, SD
San Antonio, TX

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Updated Global 2014 'Back to School' Books

Grades K-2

Ada, Alma Flor. 1993. My Name is María Isabel. Illustrated by K. Dyble Thompson. New York: Aladdin.
María Isabel is the new girl in school and instead of being called by her given name her teacher gives her a substitute name, Mary. A writing assignment provides an opportunity for Maria to express her feelings about her name to her teacher.

Alarcón, Francisco X. 2005. Para soñar el futuro/Dreaming Up the Future in Poems to Dream Together/Poemas para soñar juntos. Illustrated by Paula Barragán. New York: Lee & Low Books.
Lovely poem that explores what children might become in 20 years. Poem is written in Spanish and English.

Alarcón, Francisco X. 1999. Primer día de clases/First Day of School and Ángel de la Guarda/Guardian Angel. From Angels Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems/Los Ángeles Andan en Bicileta y Otros Poemas de Otoño. Illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. San Francisco: Children's Book Press.
Two poems about the first day of school.

Amado, Elisa. 2011. What Are You Doing? Illustrated by Manuel Monroy. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Before going to school for the first time, Chepito walks about his neighborhood finding all types of people engaged in meaningful reading.

Argueta, Jorge. 2006. Moony Luna: Luna, Lunita, Lunera. Illustrations by Elizabeth Goméz. San Francisco: Children's Book Press.
First day of kindergarten for Luna - a bilingual [Spanish/English] picture book.

Ashley, Bernard. 1991. Cleversticks. Illustrated by Derek Brazell. New York: Dragonfly Boooks.
Ling Sung doesn't like school after the first day. Everyone in his class can do things he cannot. But, during the second day, Ling Sung does something only he can do.

Choi, Yangsook. 2001. The Name Jar. New York: Knopf.
Unhei's first days of school and the tribulations and triumphs of name.

Croza, Laurel. 2010. I Know Here. Illustrated by Matt James. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Although not a first day at school book, the little girl who narrates tells of what she knows about her town in northeastern Saskatchewan in an attempt to name what matters as she and her family ready to move to Toronto. Often think this is a powerful book for our time.

Figueredo, D.H. 2003. When This World Was New. Illustrated by Enrique O. Sanchez. New York: Lee & Low Books.
The story of a child's arrival to the United States, his anxiousness about going to school the next day, and the lovely surprise that awaits him when he wakes up.

Herrera, Juan Felipe. 2000. The Upside Down Boy / El niño de cabeza. Illustrated by Elizabeth Gómez. San Francisco: Children's Book Press.
Jaunito feels everything is upside down when he attends school for the first time. Bilingual [English/Spanish] picture book.

Hole, Stian. 2008. Garmann's Summer. Illustrated by Don Bartlett. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's Books for Young Readers.
At the end of summer, Garmann confronts his worries about change as he readies to go to school.

Kleven, Elisa. 2007. The Apple Doll. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Because she is scared to go to school, Lizzy's mom helps her to make a doll out of an apple she picks from her favorite tree. Great collage work.

Lee, Hyun Young.  2008. Something for School. La Jolla, CA: Kane/Miller Publisher.
Set in South Korea, a young girl's first day at kindergarten and feelings about being a girl.

Ljungkvist, Laura. 2011. Follow the Line to School. New York: Viking.
This is a continuation in a series of books in which the reader follows a line. In this case the line leads from room to room at a school on the first day.

Léonard, Marie. 2001. Tibili: The Little Boy Who Did Not Want to Go to School. Illustrated by Adrée Prigent. La Jolla, CA: Kane/Miller Publisher.
A tale about starting school set on the African savannah.

McNaughton, Colin. 2005. Once Upon an Ordinary School Day. Illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux.
A not-so-ordinary teacher, Mr. Ghee, changes an ordinary school day.

Pak, Soyung. 2003. Sumi's First Day of School. Illustrated by Joung Un Kim. New York: Viking.
First day of school for a Korean child at her new school.

Recorvits, Helen. 2003. My Name is Yoon. Illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
A Korean girl's adjustment to school.

Stock, Catherine. 1993. Where Are You Going, Manyoni? New York: Harper Collins.
A Zimbabwe child walks to school.

Stuve-Bodeen, Stephanie. 2007. Elizabeti's School. Illustrated by
Christy Hale. New York: Lee & Low Books.
Elizabeti's first day of school. While at school she wonders what her family is doing at home. The story is set in Tanzania.

Taulbert, C. L. 2001. Little Cliff's First Day of School. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.
Very reluctant to start school, Little Cliff is helped by his great-grandmother, Mama Pearl.

Young, Cybèle. 2011. A Few Blocks. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Ferdie does not want to go to school. His sister encourages him, bu engaging him in imaginative play, Extraordinary art by visual artists Cybèle Young.

Grades 3-5

Brand, Dionne. 2006. "Skipping Rope Song" in Earth Magic. Illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes. Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Books.
Two poems in this lovely and powerful collection of twenty poems, speak about childhood and school.

Campbell, Nicola I. 2008. Shin-chi's Canoe. Illustrated by Kim LaFave. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
This sequel to Shi-shi-etko, tells the story of brother and sister who are forced to attend a residential school in Canada.

-----------------------. 2005. Shi-shi-etko. Illustrated by Kim LaFave. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
The last four days prior to a young Canadian girl's removal from her family to attend a residential school in order to learn English language and culture. This is a challenging book to read aloud emotionally.

Grimes, Nikki. 2005. Danitra Brown, Class Clown. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis. New york: Harper Collins.
Danitra and her best friend, Zuri Jackson react to the start of school differently.  Told through poems.

Hughes, Langston. 2006. "To You" in Daphne Muse (compiler) The Entrance Place of Wonders: Poems of the Harlem Renaissance. Illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc.

Jiménez, Francisco. 1998. La mariposa. Illustrated by Simón Silva. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
A son of migrant workers who has difficulty adjusting to a new school.

Khan, Rukhsana. 2009. A New Life. Illustrated by Nasrin Khosravi. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
A novella about an eight year old girl's experience emigrating from Pakistan to Canada, her first days at school, and adjusting to a new home.

Maher, Ramona. 2003. "September" in Alice Yazzie's Year. Illustrated by Shonto Begay. Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.
An 11-year-old Navajo girl prepares to go to school.

McBier, Page. 2001. Beatrice's Goat. Illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter. New York: Aladdin.
A true story about a nine-year-old Uganda girl who is able to go to school.

Median, Tony. "My Princess Story" From DeShawn Days. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. New York: Lee & Low Books.
Told in verse, this poem about 10-year-old DeShawn tells how he would be the hero helping a neighborhood princess get to school safely through the streets.

Moss, Marissa. 2011. The Name Game! New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Daphne doodles, draws, and documents in her diary the disasters (just got braces, teacher forgets her name) from her first two days of fourth grade.

Nikola-Lisa, W. 2006. How We Are Smart. Illustrated by Sean Qualls. NY: Lee & Low.
Although not book about starting school it may provide a complementary way of thinking about how we are smart by reading aloud these brief biographical sketches.

Perez, L. King. 2002. First Day in the Grapes. Illustrated by Robert Casilla. NY: Lee & Low.
Chico, a 3rd grader's first day in a new school.

Roberts-Davis, Tanya. 2003. We Need to Go to School: Voices of the Rugmark Children. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
Writing and drawings by Nepalese children who now attend school instead of being forced workers in carpet factories.

Ruurs, Margaret. 2009. My School in the Rain Forest: How Children Attend School Around the World. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mill Press.
Informational text about 14 different school experiences in the world.

Schertle, Alice. 2007. We. Illustrated by Kenneth Addison. New York: Lee and Low.
A striking book-length poem that examines human evolution. An interesting way perhaps of seeing interconnections.

Grades 6 - 8

Burg, Ann E. 2013. Serafina's Promise. New York: Scholastic
Serafina, a Haitian child, wants to go to school to become a doctor. Stunning novel told in verse. Set in Haiti.

Gansworth, Eir. 2013. If I Ever Get Out of Here. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books.
In this novel, Lewis, a young boy from Tuscarora Indian Reservation begins his second year at a mostly white junior high school. A new arrival to the school becomes his friend and helps him to cope with bullies and loneliness.  Takes place in 1975, upper New York state.

Loyie, Larry. 2005. As Long as the River Flows. Illustrated by Heather D. Holmlund, Contributed to by Constance Brissenden. Toronto: Groundwood Books.
First person account of the summer prior to being taken away from his family and forced to attend a residential school.

Walker, Alice. 1998. "Women." From Catherine Clinton (Ed.) I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry. Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn, (p. 122). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Poem that explores lineage.

Wynne-Jones, Tim. 2013.  Rex Zero, the Great Pretender. New York: Farrar.
Un this novel, Rex pretends to go to his new school but instead goes to his former school. Takes place in 1963. Funny.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

An Open Letter to Each Researcher Cited by PARCC in their Support of Close Reading

This is a copy of the email I sent to each researcher cited by PARCC as supporting close reading. I am interested in seeing their replies and will post accordingly with permission.

Dear Professor XXX,

I have been reading the Common Core Standards, PARCCs testing frameworks, as well as the cited research that these two groups list as support for close reading as the "guiding principle of the standards" and central focus of assessment for 60 million children. Frankly I am hoping you can explain how a single way of reading represents the whole of such an embodied act.  I'm a mom with a 12 year old son and the narrowness of this approach (imagine this is it for 13 years) makes more than a bit wary.

This is the paragraph that PARCC provides:

Close Reading of Texts

As noted above, the close reading model is a central guiding principle of the standards and as a result will be a central focus of the PARCC Assessment System. The Model Content Frameworks provide guidance for focusing on the close, sustained reading of complex text. Close reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining its meaning thoroughly and methodically. It emphasizes using texts of grade-level-appropriate complexity and focusing student reading on the particular words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of the author, encouraging students to read and re-read deliberately. By directing student attention on the text itself, close reading empowers students to reflect on the meanings of individual words, the order in which sentences unfold, and the development of ideas over the course of the text — to ultimately arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. A significant body of research links the close reading of complex text—regardless if the student is a struggling reader or advanced—to significant gains in reading proficiency, and finds close reading to be a key component of college and career readiness.5

And this is the 'research' (not sure all of this actually is research) cited:
  1. Ericcson, K. A., and W. Kintsch. 1993. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review 100(3):363–406; 
  2. Plant, E. A., et al. 2005. Why study time does not predict grade point average across college students: Implications of deliberate practice for academic performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology 30; 
  3. Ericcson, K. A., and W. Kintsch. 1999. The Role of Long Term Working Memory in Text Comprehension. Psychologia;  
  4. Kintsch, W. 2009. Learning and constructivism. Constructivist Instruction: Success or failure? eds. Tobias and Duffy. New York: Routledge; 
  5. Hampton, S., and E. Kintsch. 2009. Supporting Cumulative Knowledge Building Through Reading. In Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested: Effective Solutions for Every Classroom, eds. Parris, Fisher, and Headley. International Reading Association; 
  6. Heller, R., and C. Greenleaf. 2007. Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education; 
  7. The Education Trust. 2006. Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground: How Some High Schools Accelerate Learning for Struggling Students; ACT. 2006. Reading Between the Lines. 
Which text that you've written from this cited list would you recommend that I read that might explain why close reading should be the only approach an entire country adopts for all of its public school children? I am thinking about this as quite recently my husband and I were talking about Seamus Heaney's wonderful book, The Spirit Level.  You may have read it. Heaney closes the book with the poem, Postscript.


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

I was telling my husband that the closing lines of the poem stopped my breath and did what I suspect the poet might have wanted, caught my heart off guard and blew it open. My husband said how when he read the poem--read it aloud, he recalled a rather cool morning in Ireland when the two of us, much younger than we are now, were motoring about, newly in love, and had stopped in at a pub for a bit of hot tea. He was recalling how soothing that morning had been.

I'm pretty sure we weren't having a 'close reading' lesson when we read The Spirit Level. In some ways we might have been following cummings' adage about feelings being first. I worry that this 'read like a detective' (David Coleman's phrase, not mine) dictum will harm my child, narrow his understanding of the many reasons we read, and above all else will dim his pleasure of the text.

I am curious as to what you have to say as it is your work that is cited in support of such a single method of reading to be exclusively used for all children beginning at age 8 until they exit the system at 17 or 18. I await your response.

Mary Ann Reilly

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How Ready Are You for the Connected Child at Your School? In the Classroom?

During the next few weeks, millions of students will return to school. In this post I want to provide a quick glimpse into the at-home world of a connected child in order to ask how teachers and adminsitrators have gotten ready to teach this type of learner. What pedagogical, content, and policy changes are you making at the classroom, school, and district levels to accommodate the connected child?

For the connected child, the world is no longer defined by local geography alone. Instead, the connected child interacts with others from across the globe. For example, one 'news source' of the London riots in our home were three children my son skypes with daily from London who shared impressions they had while living in the city and listening to and learning from their families, friends and through direct observations. These first person accounts occurred as a result of sustained online relationships. How will teachers and administrators continue these relationships at school? Is there a mechanism, a process put into play that even seeks to find out how the connected child interacts in the world? Will school boards permit children, not just high school teenagers, to be connected at school to others they may not at first know? How will you help the connected child to not experience a forced claustrophobia of the 20th century classroom?

For the connected child digital use is on demand, not in a lab or when some more powerful other says it's okay to use technology. Outfitted with a smartphone, s/he thinks through that phone, problem solves, plays, communicates through a variety of forms, and interacts with others. How will smartphone technologies and other Internet-ready devices be employed at your school and in your district? The biggest question: who will control the use of these devices? The connected child has and/or is learning how to responsibly use technology at home. How will this learning be augmented at school?

The connected child has learned to problem solve via peer to peer relationships and online resources. Sharing gaming spaces via multiple player games, the connected child frames and negotiates problems alongside others, sharing control of screens, supporting the world building of self and other, and situating problem solving not in a pass-fail framework more typically found in the testing culture of schools. One doesn't 'fail' in gaming worlds in the same deterministic manner one fails at school. In gaming worlds, 'failing' is a viable option that leads forward. It is not an end. For example, my son asked one of his coplayers to 'kill' him because he needed to be respawned in order to be in better health to enter a cave and engage monsters. He explained that had he entered the cave with the quality of health he had at that moment in the game, he would not have been able to defeat the monsters. Failing in the gaming world may be a strategic step. There's often little to no 'respawning' in the classroom where the plethora of teacher generated quizzes, checks, and tests are one way roads built on the belief that the learner must be able to show what s/he knows at the moment. I have even heard teachers and administrator explain that it would be 'unfair' to allow students the occasion to retake assessments. Further tests and testing environments are to a large degree self determined. Trial and error are an expected method for the connected child. How do you reconcile the connected child who thinks strategically with the monologic classroom?

Further, the connected child uses online resources to solve problems and build important requisite knowledge. Whereas I may still need to remember to use Yelp as opposed to waiting to find a phonebook, my son's reference-finding process has largely been online and he gravitates first to solving problems using online sources, such as YouTube, apps, or skype. It is not unusual on a car trip to hear my son say, "I can skype with X and let you know." How will you facilitate this type of learner in the classroom and the school? How will you react when there is a skype signal for an incoming connection?

The connected child is one who learns via passions. Affinity spaces represent passionate learning spaces of a child, connected or not. According to Wikipedia:

An affinity space is a place where informal learning takes place. According to James Paul Gee, affinity spaces are locations (physical or virtual) where groups of people are drawn together because they share a particular common, strong interest or are engaged in a common activity.[1] Often but not always occurring online, affinity spaces encourage the sharing knowledge or participating in a specific area, but informal learning is another outcome.

The connected child participates in affinity spaces as a regular and reoccurring practice. passionate affinity spaces differ from traditional schooling in some very important ways. According to Gee (2011):

1. People chose to associate with passionate affinity spaces. They can achieve expert status regardless of credentials, age, role, race, gender, ethnicity, sociology-economic status.
2. Usually at least 20% of the people will have a deep passion, not just a passing interest in the learning being composed int he affinity space.
3. People can produce (knowledge, create things, do things), not only consume, in these spaces.
4. People sometimes lead, sometimes follow.
5. Knowledge is distributed: different people know different things and can share their knowledge as they need, when they need.
6. Affinity spaces are open, newcomers are welcome to join at will, not just at prescribed times.
7. Affinity spaces are about people sharing a common endeavor and learning things.

There is deep learning that happens in passionate affinity spaces, not just surface know-how. As a result, the connected child is experienced with learning deeply via sustained playing/participation. For example, as the child of two English teachers we have wanted our son to appreciate and practice accuracy and precision in published work. We have watched as he has learned that accuracy matters as he writes code associated with gaming. "One small error and it won't run," he tells us. "It has to be accurate." Another friend of his has said he is learning about multiplication via the buildings and worlds he is designing and creating. This connected child knows when his designs work--when he has gotten the math right. How will the classroom, school, and district facilitate such choice and depth and inspire precision, accuracy, and self reflection? How will you reconcile the disconnect between mandated standards and passion-based learning?

The connected child is engaged in solving world problems. For example, my son recently asked me to to take a look at something he had designed and built in Minecraft. He showed me a building he designed that rebuilds itself when damaged and a bridge that also is self- repairing. He designed these in order to safeguard his world from those who might want to blow up one of more of his buildings. Through play though he was also to make a connection to social need not located in a game, but in life. My son tells me his designs would be much more complicated in actual life but could be a big help with urban renewal and places where there is war. If I can put all the electric work beneath ground then it could help the poor, he tells me. They wouldn't be dependent on others. They could have places to live that were reliable, self-repairing. In what ways will the connected child's classroom based learning allow him/her to solve real world problems in age appropriate manners?

The connected child expects to communicate with others s/he knows and has yet to meet. After watching hours and hours of video, my son decided to make his own videos about specific aspects of gaming. This is not unique as many others are doing similar self initiated work. This work though requires the learner to know how to make the film using software and or an app, format the film, and upload it to a site where it can be seen. Equally important are all the decisions about what content and processes will be delineated in the film.

The connected child expects to pull an audience, not simply perform in front of a ready made one, such as classmates. I have seen my son advertised his server on Planet Minecraft and Minecraft Forum in order to pull audiences in. He wants other Minecraft players to select his server to play. He thinks about ways to upgrade and manage his server.

At home my husband and I have been wondering about the often 'smallness' of school based learning and the more worldly experience our child enjoys via his connection to others. We wonder if his teachers and principal even are aware of such learning. We wonder how they have been preparing themselves for the connected child and 'readying' the school of the last century for the child of this century. We wonder if the rather rote and increasingly dull exercises that have framed our son's school based learning to date will drive him from a place we know as school as he ages and how we will support such leaving. We worry that the benefits of school will be lost, obfuscated beneath the narrowness of test-based curricula, national standards, and the lost of teacher autonomy.

Instead of issuing readiness tests to students to see if they are 'ready' for school, I wonder if we don't need to test ourselves and see how ready we are for the students.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Role of Teacher in Passion-Based Learning

I have been considering the role of teacher as we explore the idea of personalization and passion-based learning. I understand the value and necessity of passion-based learning and want to suggest that it does not exist as some absolute and certainly is not simply about a learner and his/her interest.  Instead, imagine passion-based learning as dialogue that occurs among learners, teachers, mentors, and community-based others.  Passion-based learning isn't about our interests, but rather about the ideas, curiosities, mysteries, and possibilities that are engendered in juxtaposition with one another. At the center of such engagements are the learner and the teacher.

The definition of teacher is important to name as we wade into less anchored times where the idea of teacher is being challenged as being necessary. Consider for example, Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) who offer this vision of learning:
In the new culture of learning, people learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunity. In this environment, the participants all stand on equal ground—no one is assigned to the traditional role of teacher or student. Instead, anyone who has particular knowledge of, or experience with, a given subject may take on the role of mentor at any time. Mentors provide a sense of structure to guide learning, which they may do by listening empathically and by reinforcing intrinsic motivation to help the student discover a voice, a calling, or a passion. Once a particular passion or interest is unleashed, constant interaction among group members, with their varying skills and talents, functions as a kind of peer amplifier, providing numerous outlets, resources, and aids to further an individual’s learning (Kindle Location 587-593).
I appreciate the bold ideas Thomas and Brown offer in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, but think their vision does not capture well the idea of teacher.  I believe that much will be lost if we abandon the role of teacher in lieu of peer to peer learning or community-based mentorship. Now to be clear, I believe both peer-based learning and community mentors are very important correlates to learning and are under used in our current realization of school.

When I think about teacher, I think of Madeline Grumet's (1995) definition. She writes: 
When we say that we are educating someone, we are introducing that person, young or old, to ways of being and acting in the world that are new to his or her experience (p. 17).
To introduce learners to ways of being and acting in a world new to the learner's experience requires the teacher to act as bricoleur: one who cobbles together materials at hand to serve new uses. The teacher as bricoleur (I've written about this here) is the master teacher as s/he is able to anticipate, occasion, deepen, and complicate learning. Teaching well isn't singularly following a learner's passion and supporting it, however worthy such art and craft might be. Teaching well also means leading the learner into ways of being and acting that are foreign to their experience and as such not yet a passion.  Teaching well means occasioning a learner's intellectual frustration and scaffolding such experiences so that learners come to know the power of ambiguity, uncertainty, loss, and joy.

I have been thinking about this for several reasons: I have been taught by such teachers, have worked alongside such teachers, have married such a teacher, and have friends who are such teachers.  I know via these relationships what it means to be in the company of teachers and would not want that denied to learners regardless of how personalized an education we might be able to offer students. There is something to be said for the unimagined, impossible to plan, and random learning that happens in the company of fine teachers.

So what does this all mean?  Teachers matter. Their brilliance, tentativeness, failures, kindness and courage matter.  I want to say, America, we would be fools to abandon such importance.

A point of illustration: Earlier today I was reading Michael Doyle's (@BHS_Doyle) latest post, Natural World. He's a teacher who teaches high school biology in NJ. He writes:
My goal is for kids to know less by June than they knew in September, a whole lot less. Good science can be as tenuous as the wisp of a shrew's breath.

Until they know this, and it's easier to grasp when entropy takes its toll over the years, as knowledge of your inevitable path creeps into cerebral shadows, I fear I am wasting their time.

Until they know this, maybe pushing them outside, a copy of Seamus Heany's Human Chain in one hand, a cheap plastic magnifying glass in the other, is enough science for a period, for a lifetime.

The path outside with poem book and magnifying glass in hand may not and likely will not be a route learners would claim via their passion.  All the better then to make that road. Know this: Alongside finding one's passion(s) as learning method, we also need to embrace the ambiguity of not knowing & walk that road too.  And yes there will and can be lots of guides.

Nonetheless, the guide I'd most want to walk alongside is a teacher.

Works Cited:
Grumet, Madeline. 1995. The curriculum: What are the basics and are we teaching them? In J.L. Kinchoe & S.R. Steinberg. Thirteen questions: Reframing education's conversation. 2nd edition (pp. 15-21). New York: Peter Lang.

Thomas, Douglas (2011). A New Culture of Learning:  Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (Kindle Locations 587-593). CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Not Your Father's PLN

I. Calling London

At first it was a bit disconcerting. My husband, son and I were driving from northern New Jersey to Washington D.C. to participate in the SOS March. From the back of the car I could hear my son talking. I turned and saw him hunkered down in the seat, wearing headphones and holding his phone. He was clearly chatting, not talking to himself.

Who are you talking to?



Yeah, Tom from London.

Tom from London is a 13 year old boy who plays Minecraft on my son's server. My son is 12. He and a half dozen boys, ranging from 9-years-old to 13-years-old, are avid players of Minecraft. The boys are from London, New Jersey, Russia, and Pennsylvania. In some important ways these boys are a PLN (Personal Learning Network), not that any of them would define themselves in such a manner. But they do learn from one another and do so based on a shared passion.

A few things my son says he has learned a lot about during the last few weeks his server has been up and running include: how to work with others, how to run a good server, how to explain installation process of mods, how to build together, how to give and take ideas, how to build from someone's idea, how to script, how to model, and how to resolve problems when they arise. During this learning, the boys are also learning about one another: siblings, where they live, currency, geography, and all things Minecraft. My son is adamant that this playing is not learning.
It's not like school, he tells me repeatedly.
Sadly, I think he's right.

II. Marking Time

I imagined my mom, deceased these last 11 years, along for the ride to DC and what she might have to say about the technology that allows a 12 year old while in a moving car in the United States to talk with a boy he has never met who is in London.

I can imagine her saying:

But Mary Ann, think of the cost. This must be quite dear.

Not really mom. He's skyping and it is free.

I mark time by death. My mother's passing in 2000 in many ways marks the ushering in of a world she would have delighted in, marveled at, and have been puzzled by--perhaps in the same breath. We live at a time when Internet technologies alter how we live--alter our very definitions of friendship and intimacy. My mom's friends were all people she knew. She would have had no trouble picking out a friend in a crowd. For me such definition no longer works. There are people I have "met" via Twitter who I have shared intimacies with and yet we have never physically met.  Alongside this new knowledge, I also recognize that there is a niggling distrust I carry with me of naming people I have met on line as friends.  This is a fear-based conditioning I am relinquishing as the conversations I have with these new friends morph, take on weight, allow me to adjust my schema.

For my son, the lines between physically meeting and meeting on line are inconsequential, not even a line to traverse. His idea of friend is not based on a singular reality. My son tells me he has no interest in limiting by definition what a friend is.  I push a bit and he says, A friend is someone who isn't mean, shares interests, and makes sense.   Age oddly isn't that important.

III. Seeing in the Dark

Last Tuesday during #EDCHAT, the idea of PLNs were discussed.

I wanted to suggest that the task may be for us, as educators, to recognize students' PLNs as being meaningful and to lean in and try to learn, especially from those learning networks based on student-determined passions and ones that may well reside outside of school. An important task is for us to relinquish definitions we have about learning and school. We need to look at things as they are. 

Wallace Stevens in "The Man with the Blue Guitar," tells us:
Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.
Rotted names.  I think about this, about our trip to Save Our Schools March, and wonder if the one reform we must do is one that is more personal, less institutional.  What rotted names do we repeat that keep us stuck in a time long gone? How do we allow ourselves to peer in the dark and say what we see?

Surely some of the language we use at schools has rotted. Just as my definition of friendship needs to be updated, stretched, made more inclusive--so too do we need to acknowledge that our students' learning sources will most likely be beyond the purview of school. Internet-based technologies allow for personal learning in ways most of us could not imagine a decade ago. It is simply foolish to shut the door on these actual learning networks simply because they aren't institutionalized.

Our conversation about engendering student-based PLNs, must begin with us acknowledging that alternative learning networks our students already name as their own need to be privileged.