I was not a huge reader in school. I liked books and I read what was required, but I was not a bury-your-nose-in-a-book-at-all-times kind of worm. Not like some kids I see in my classes today. That is until my last year in high school, when our student teacher Mr. Schmitt walked into class with a bag full books he had bought with his own money and asked us not to tell anybody what we were about to read.
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”
That was all it took. That opening sentence. I was hooked on books. I’m still not sure what made him feel that reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a group of seventeen year old was a good idea, but thank goodness he did. Because after that I started to devour books. I started by reading everything Thompson ever wrote. Following names and ideas from his pages, I read The Beats, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. I developed an insatiable appetite for books and ideas that I have barely begun to satiate twenty years later. In short, I love books. I have been reading one book after another since I was nineteen. I do not understand people who “do not read.” What does that even mean?
My point? Patience, I am getting there. During my lifelong stint with reading I have only not ever finished two books. (That I admit to, there are a few others Pale Fire and Dante’s Inferno should be on the list too) Not finishing those two books haunts me to this day, because I was three quarters of the way through both before some freak incident made me stop. I was 900+ pages in War and Peace when a move to Angola forced me to abort the book, and I just couldn’t pick up steam again. If I had to read one more fifty page description of a battle or a ball, I would have killed myself. The second book? Again 900+ pages into Don Quixote before a tsunami literary washed it away.
I hated both of those books, but I was determined to finish them. And the fact that they lay half baked in my reading repertoire bothers me to no end. I will, someday, go back and start from the beginning and finish them both. Because I want to be able to say honestly and wholeheartedly that I have never not finished a book. Making this declaration is important to me.
Why you may ask? Who cares? Life is too short, you may say. Why waste time on reading what you don’t like? I hear you ask. Well dear reader, reading what you don’t like and never putting a book down, no matter how boring or difficult is the point of this post.
At the start of summer I began to read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. After nearly two hundred pages I was still not sold. His scattered verbose meta-narrative style just wasn’t doing it for me. I complained on facebook and was told by many friends to stop wasting my time and just move onto something I would like. At that moment, the seed for this post was sown. A few days later I saw the film Liberal Arts in which the two main characters have this great conversation about reading books for fun.
Before I get started let me state that I know there is no one way to read. I am fully aware that my OCD with text is abnormal, and yes I know I too sound a bit like a snob. I can handle that. Here’s the thing– books for me are not entertainment. I have Master Chef and lame Hollywood super hero movies for brain numbing junk food. Books are my sustenance, my protein. They are my exercise. I am a bit nervous about pushing this exercise metaphor as I do not actually exercise, but conceptually I understand the concept– you push your body beyond physical comfort to force your muscles to exert extra energy, which in turn helps them stay fit and grow. This is the same reason I read. Books are dumbbells and elliptical machines for my brain, my heart, and my ideas.
I read books to help keep my intellect and imagination fit. I read books to help me write. I read critically, intensely and with passion. I seldom, if ever, will pick up a random book cause it looks fun or easy. I do research. I choose books that I hope will stimulate me. I choose books that I think will be a good work-out. So when I make a commitment to read a thousand pages of Rushdie over the summer I am not just going to stop because I don’t like it. Liking it has nothing to do with why I chose it. At this point in regime, I am forcing my brain to articulate why I don’t like it. What about it do I like? What is working in terms of craft and style. I read as a writer, not for pleasure. I return page after page, rep after rep like exercise in order to be a better thinker.
My point– as a teacher what do you tell your students who want to give up on books. As I mentioned earlier, I know that an unyielding commitment to books is my style and may not the best way to read for everyone. There are many ways to read. I get that. There are also many kinds of readers, and forcing a struggling reader to finish a book he hates may do more damage than good. I get that.But at what point to we ask our students to get on the bench and pump the weight.
In closing, by no means am I making a judgment on people who stop books or choose to read for fun. I guess I am looking for some well argued reasons why people read for pleasure or feel that it is okay to abandon books when they do not meet our expectations. I want to hear from you about what kind of reader you are and how you talk to your students about books. If you are a student, I would love to hear about your reading routines.
What kind of reader are you? How do you mentor the readers in your class? Am I crazy? Where do you agree? Disagree with what I have said?
For the record, I am now almost half way through the Midnight’s Children and things have changed! There is a bizarre magic realism plot forming (weirdly like the X-Men) and I am finally finding my groove. I am actually enjoying it. Glad I did not give up. Sometimes the best things are the ones that are the hardest to get to.
So I am pretty stoked. Excited. Ecstatic really. A few weeks ago, I tweeted something along the the lines that someday I hope to be able to teach a class on, “The History of Rock and Roll. Film or Digital Storytelling.”
But because I teach middle school and at the moment our school does not offer any of those electives, I felt my dream would be just that– a far fetched fantasy forced to flounder somewhere in the future or worse disappear as yet another ephemeral tweet. That is until, I became creative and active in making my dreams come true.
We have quite a robust after school activity program at UWCSEA. This year I facilitated four terms of Middle School Master Chef. And don’t get me wrong, I loved it. It was so much fun to watch kids take risks and learn new skills in the kitchen, but for next year, I was on the hunt for something new. I almost committed to a High School Mountain Biking club, when it hit me! Why not offer my dream class as an activity? It is not the same as a class, as we only meet for an hour a week, but for the time being it is better than nothing.
Below is the email exchange between the me and the activities director:
I have an idea for an activity that I have had for a while and if you think it is worthwhile and possible I would like to offer it next year.
So my idea is this: The History of Rock and Roll. Open to HS students, it is a chance to get together and study, explore and listen to the most important bands, songs, and albums of rock music from the 1950′-the 2000s. We will explore the historical and social context of the music, while looking at lyrics, musical structure as well as lasting impact on the world and rock music.
I have alway wanted to teach this as a class, so if you think it will work, I can write up a more formal blurb and come up with a pretty comprehensive plan.
Let me know what you think.
Hi Jabiz -
To be honest I’m not sure. History of R&R sounds interesting but as you say, it is a class – not sure that it has the content to be included in the Activity programme. We really need activities to be active learning and interactive, so learning about something doesn’t really hit that does it?
I totally get what you are saying about this being more of a “class” as for the active learning or interactivity of it I have some ideas:
- Perhaps we learn to play a song from each decade and perform at the end of a few weeks.
- Perhaps we create a digital story (exploring tech, film, and media) at the end of each decade.
- Perhaps we can share our work and learning on a blog and/or youtube channel
- Perhaps we create an iBook documenting the learning.
Or maybe we blend all three:
We discuss and learn about music from every decade, learn to play a few songs throughout the term, which we perform and document the learning through film, media and digital storytelling. Finally we consolidate all of it in an iBook helping us learn (interactivity ) how to use iBook author software etc…
As you can see I am really passionate and excited by this possibility. If you tell me what some of the guidelines are I am sure I can make it work and I know there are kids who would be interested. Perhaps, we can chat in person so I can explain further.
Sounds great Jabiz – love the ideas!
Will include it – please check when I send it round.
image by zentrad
And just like that I am teaching my dream class. The basic idea is as descried above, but I am a swirl in a brain storm at the moment. I am open to any suggestions or ideas. It will be for High School stuents, which will be a great way for me to get to know them better and a great way for me to stay in touch with my grade eights moving on next year.
I cannot think of a better way of getting to know and bonding with people than talking about and playing music. I will plan out a rough outline this summer, but in the meantime any ideas, or bands or songs or films or anything you can share would be great.
Just think- This could be me
Hello friends and strangers and readers of all sorts. it has been a while, so I feel a more gentle start is in order. It’s Sunday night and the sky just went from cotton candy, to dolphin belly, to slate. I am feeling….how about a full stop. I am feeling. Weeks have passed since I allowed myself the luxury of tussling with words, and so tonight, feeling at best a tinge of flirtation, but really a more lingering weariness and fatigue, I have decided to take a break and carve a chunk of time from the ongoing present and future to speak to (with) you.
I had a strange morning. One of those days when the randomness of sharing and the thrill of living open and honest online collide, leaving tasty treats in their wake. Fun nuggets of camaraderie and inspiration- reassurance that when we share our thoughts and lives and passions with the world, the world will often talk back, returning our ideas and work back in a myriad of songs and echoes.
It started with this email:
Hi Jabiz,My name is Adriana and I’m an artist. I long time ago I found in one of your blogs this picture I loved.and it spired me to make a series of paintings in my Pop Surrealism Style. here’s a link to my website so you can see the pictures I have of it.The other paintings aren’t up yet.. too much work to do still but I wanted to share it with you and if you want I could link it to the page where the picture is.
That’s it for the moment and thank you for sharing all those beautiful pic!
Does this exchange mean anything? Is it important? I don’t know. Who am I to say, but it does feel right. Something about looking to the world to find inspiration, to make those human artistic connections resonates with me. More importantly, giving of my life in a way that might connect to other passions matters to me.
So many people are terrified of posting and sharing and over doing it, but time after time- for me at least- cool things happen. You can check out Adriana’s website here and the picture from above here. I am looking forward to exploring more of her work and hopefully getting to know her a bit more online. I have already asked if I can buy that print.
The second story, which also happened this morning, which is not usual is as follows:
I just came across your image of the Azadi Freedom stencil on FB and would like permission to use it in a book I am finishing up on street art.
My name is KET and I am an author and graffiti writer. I have been writing books on graffiti, street art, and tattoos and publishing magazines for over 15 years. My books include: Graffiti Planet, Rocking It Suckers, Street Art, Graffiti Tattoo, New York City Blackbook Masters and many more (link here)
I appreciate what you did and would like to include the image and a quote in the book.
Please let me know if you are interested. There is no budget just my desire to share the image to the world thru the book.
There is no budget, just my desire to share. I love it. You can read more about that photo here. It is great to see that project move onto its next incarnation and live in a book. After years of living online and sharing my life with the Internet, I am more often than not pleasantly surprised by what comes back to me. There were but just two examples from this morning.
What do you think? Do things like this happened to you? Am I too naive? Too trusting? Or is this the karmic state of global art we should be striving for?
I am sitting on the floor next to a grade eight student discussing the elasticity between fiction and truth. She wants to know how far she can test “the facts” while writing a feature article about child-soldiers in The Sudan. She is thirteen years old, looking at me in the eye asking if she will lose creditability if she fictionalizes too much of her story. We discuss the gray area between fiction and non-fiction, the possibility of understanding truth, and how text is meant to entertain and inform. The worlds we create as writers, in a sense are all fictional, but our ability to trace our “truths” back to credible corroborated sources is a way to maintain our integrity. Does that make sense I say, doubtfully. “Yes,” She nods her head. “Yes,” she says and with a furrowed brow returns to the sofa and begins to type frantically.
Like a dutiful bee, I move to the next student, this one in a bean bag and we discuss how to maintain an ongoing, moving, linear back story to anchor the raw data and information he wants to convey to his reader. He decides he will begin his article at the beginning of a cattle raid. After his lead, he will share the information he found after weeks of research on the value of cattle for Dinka culture. He tells me that he will return to the cattle raid now in progress- back to more information about the economy of cattle, and end with the aftermath of the raid. This is one of my learning support students who struggles to remain engaged. That sounds great, I say and leave him to wrestle with the words. The room is silent as the entire class stares at their laptops, fingers gingerly dancing on the keys.
You can either think of yourself as thirteen year olds writing for a teacher in English class, or you can think of yourselves as writers who demand to tell a story. There is a difference.
A few of them look up and smile awkwardly to acknowledge what I have just said, but most continue to write. I am not worried about distractions or Skype or Facebook or kids gaming. These guys are busy and engaged. They have assumed the identity of citizen journalists.
Being labeled a tech savvy teacher I sometimes feel pressure to always use technology. I don’t even know what that means any more. I sometimes feel guilty when I notice how “traditional” our curriculum has become. On days like today, however, none of it matters. Technology shouldn’t be a gimmicky lure we use to “engage” kids. We use it when we can, when we must, when it makes sense. Otherwise we talk about writing. We write. We explore. Engagement is about passion and love for what we do. It is about getting on the floor and talking to kids about their ideas and giving them immediate feedback. 1-1 means that we try to spend time with each student discussing their work, not speaking at a class about what they all should be doing. No amount of technology will motivate kids, if the pedagogy and the content and the teachers love for the material is not there.
Our activity this week has little to do with technology. Sure we are using Google Docs to draft our work, giving me access to their on-going work, and yes we used Diigo to annotate and tag all our research, and yes we hope to publish these articles on a blog called Stories from The Sudan and maybe even publish a selected few in an iBook of the same name, but really we have been focused on text and conversations about text and fiction and truth and justice and genocide and stories and voice and empathy and understanding.
I have been incredibly proud of our students. For the last several weeks they have read What is the What by Dave Eggers, a dense 500+page novel about the Sudanese Lost Boys. They have researched a variety of topics for their feature articles. Ranging from The Sudanese diaspora, to gender equality, to child-soldiers, to slavery, to cattle culture, to the socio-political causes of the regional conflict. As their summative assessment they are writing a 1500 word feature article which attempts to entertain and inform, assessed by a rubric they wrote as a class.
Sometimes I cannot believe they are only thirteen years old. So often we underestimate what student are capable of, or worse we set the bar too high, but do not invest enough of our own passion to carry them through. The formula for engagement is simple- Students need high expectations and challenges, but they also need every ounce of energy we have to maintain enthusiasm and love for what we teach. We need to prove to them that we value what we ask them to do. We need to give them enough choice and autonomy to take ownership of what they do, then we need to support their choices with fluid and constant feedback.
How do you maintain engagement? What are your tips or formulas?
As we continue to explore the rich world of authentic student blogging, it is important to stop and listen to feedback and criticism from time to time. It is important to understand the apprehension that some stakeholders may have when it comes to open online publishing.
You can read more about how we have been blogging with our middle school students by reading some of these post, but let me give a very brief synopsis of what our program looks like up to know. (Before I start, let me clarify that when I say we, I am referring to myself and Paula Guinto who is my teaching partner in grade 7 & 8. We both teach English; I blog here with my students and Paula writes at Meta.)
The basic manifesto as it stands, looks something like this:
I want my students to feel confident about who they are through critical and artistic exploration of their identity. I want them to learn how to clearly articulate this voice in a variety of media in order to find a network of like-minded people in order to create a community of learners that will help them learn during and beyond school.
We hope that blogging will help our students achieve this goal. The system we have set up is pretty simple: We coached every student in our class to set up a blog through blogger, explained basic etiquette and gave them freedom to own the space. We are not formally assessing anything that goes on the blog, and there is no obligation to blog at all. We are hoping to see what kids write when they are given a space and freedom to write.
Like any process at a school, there have been mixed feelings from students, teachers and parents. There have been some accurate criticism and others based on misunderstandings. As a community, we are in the process of figuring out what blogging looks like for us. We are looking to make sure that there is a clear understanding of the what and the why and the how by all the stakeholders involved.
As part of this process, I asked my students to write a short paragraph agreeing or disagreeing with this statement:
Blogging is an important part of an English classroom.
I was floored by the results. You can read all of the answers here, but let me give you some highlights:
The freedom to express ourselves is important; providing a medium and nurturing the usage of that medium improves our skills as writers and removes some of our inhibitions of writing.
Blogging is a fun way to write. It can be used for educational purposes and it also helps the student to think when they are writing “who is my audience.” Sometimes having students writing on a blog will increase a students motivation to write.
Blogging is useful. No scratch that out, Blogging is necessary. With teenagers [us] being young minds full of innovative ideas, thoughts and views, our generation needs to share them to audience and blogging enables us to do that.
It wasn’t all positive, many students had valid concerns:
Some people don’t like having their personal thoughts online because it is a public space.
The notion of writing online to a worldwide audience was not quite thrilling.
Expecting a bunch of insecure teenagers who aren’t quite sure who they can trust in the constantly moving sands of social media to write about whatever comes to their mind is asking for a lot.
Sometimes people are not able to get the time to read the blog posts with all the homework we are currently getting.
I hope you get a chance to read all of the response and maybe add some thoughts in the comments on our class page. But what does this all mean? What did I learn?
The fact that we have chosen not to force students to blog has been invaluable, however, there is still a pressure to share and this is making some kids uncomfortable. There is a lot involved in this process: from self-esteem, to trust, to community. The notion of sharing publicly is still a major hurdle for many students and their parents. What is the point? What are the benefits? What are the problems and the issues? I am not sure if this post is designed to answer questions. I was hoping to ask some and have you, dear reader, answer a them. What are the benefits of public sharing for students? Why go global?
I also noticed that many of the students might be blogging more if there was more structure. The total freedom, seems to have frozen some kids into inaction. They simply don’t know what to write, when they are told they can write about anything. This has me thinking of designing lessons or activities that guide students to come up with ideas. Which is interesting, because one of the questions that comes up repeatedly during reading conferences is, “How does the writer come up with ideas for his/her stories.” It is clear that middle school kids need a pool of ideas and/or prompts to get them started. Sites like this and this are great, but perhaps kids need more of a push toward them. How do you help students find things to write about? How can we foster creativity and imagination?
Ironically, many of the students who are not blogging, said they are not writing because it is not graded or part of school, so they don’t have time to waste on it. Which makes me wonder if they would write more if I forced them and graded it, which leads us back to square one that school writing is not always authentic. Or is it? How do we find this balance of what is expected and graded and what is free of choice? Still struggling with that one. How much of this is explicitly for school and how much is bigger than school? Hoping to have a good conversation about this idea of academic relevance in the comments. It is a major talking point at our school at the moment? How do we assess this stuff? Should we?
It was great to see so many students make the connections between Voice, Trust, Writing and Community, because these themes are at the heart of what we do. This is the culture we are trying to create; one where students feel comfortable and safe enough with their peers to be able to share their ideas regardless of their writing “level.”
We have a long way to go, but I feel pretty good about where we are after only six months. Cultures take time to build, and we need to be cognizant of the people they affect. We have to stop and ask stakeholders what they are thinking, how they are feeling.
Next step for us, is to ask parents to articulate what they know about blogging. Ask them what they value and what they fear. It is an intimidating conversation to have, but an important one. Perhaps, showing them what their kids are saying would be a good first step.
Fancy yourself a storyteller, a writer, a creator, a tinkerer, an artist, a child at heart? You like to play and sculpt and shape and remix and mashup? You like photos and stories and music and art and never ending searches for meaning and beauty and things that give you pause and gratitude and feelings bordering authentic? You feel connected, disconnected, isolated, surrounded, loved, ignored or necessary?
Wanna make some art?
For the last year, I have been taking photographs. For each day of the 365 I have chosen one photo to be the photo of that day. The photos can be found here. Or I suppose if you want, you could flip through them here:
But I want you to do more than just view dear reader. I want you to absorb and internalize, synthesize and make your own–the emotions and ideas that consume you when you find a photo or photos that speak to you. Look for themes or colors or people and — Write a poem. Scribe a song. Create a short film. Write a short story. A newspaper article. Blend the media and tell the story digitally.
Whatever you do, please link back to this post with a URL of where your creation lives online. Please also add the link to the Flickr photo itself. Perhaps you can also scribble some lines in the comments of the photo, where someone else can take the lines and move them forward or backward to wherever they needs to go.
You can also share this set with your students, your peers, your administrators, your grandmas and grandpas. But, if, however you do not feel artistically up to the challenge, then send me some ideas and I will do it for you. Fill out this form to give me some direction:
If you have any other ideas, please share. I am curious to see where these photos will go, who they will come. I am giddy to see my life told back to me by you, with you through you. Last time we did something like this, we ended up in some interesting places.
So come on…the least you can do is write the first thing that comes to mind on a photo that grabs your attention. Your random dribble thoughts, could ignite a fire some place else.
I remeber being nervous and stingy and naive when I first joined Flickr nearly five years ago on February 3rd 2007. I knew little about networks or online sharing or photography or copy right or Creative Commons, or much of anything. I was, believe it or not, more self-obsessed than I am even now, and I felt that my ideas and my work and my photos were more valuable than they were. I had at the time sold a few photos at some coffee shop, and I remeber thinking, if I post them online then anyone can take them and do whatever they want with them. I contemplated watermarks and other such silly things.
I am not sure what changed my thinking, but the shift was simple: I understood that the photos, like much of my work would be more valuable, would reach a wider audience, would have a richer life if they did not belong to me, and were set free–so to speak–to roam the Internet. Perhaps, through osmosis or early contact I began to understand and appreciate the concept of the commons.
I don’t think my work is anything special. I do not want to own it. I am not interested in commercial gains from what I share online. I have a salary. I am a teacher. Everything else is who I am online. I share my work, because it brings me in contact with amazing human beings and ideas. So since that day in 2007, I have posted nearly 2000 photos on Flickr. I have since learned about Creative Commons and licensing. It’s pretty straight forward:
You are free:
to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work
to Remix — to adapt the work
Under the following conditions:
Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor
Noncommercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes.
Share Alike — If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.
In short, it’s yours. Use it, do what you like with it, just don’t make money off of it, and please let people know where it came from. As simple as that sounds, Facebook and Instagram’s new terms of service are quite different. Sounds more like this:
We will use what we want, in order to make money for our selves and we won’t tell anyone where the images come from especially now you.
I have had a love/hate relationship (haven’t we all) for years now. I have written at length about the many times I have deleted my account. If reading pages and pages of ripes and excuses about Facebook is not your thing, here it is in short form:
I don’t like how sneaky Facebook is about the content I produce or what they might do with it. I don’t trust them. Who cares? You might be asking. Didn’t I just say that I am no longer attached to my work? The issue here is not the content per se, but the comodification of our communities, of our lives, of our experiences beyond our control.
I thought I had solved my Facebook problem. I decided to simply post updates to stay in touch with friends and family and never post any content. This was great especially when a young start-up names Instagram came to the neighborhood. Sure she was vague about ownership and licensing too, but she was sleek and sexy and look at all those filters! I could post my pics on Instagram and cross post to Facebook, without FB getting their hands on my content. Or so it seemed.
What was even better was the dynamic and organic community that was forming around photos on Instagram. It was perfect. I loved it. Until Facebook bought up my “favorite place online.” Like most people, I knew they would ruin it, and it was only a matter of time. There are already countless articles about What Instagram’s New Terms of Service Mean for You and Facebook’s Extensive Network of Worldwide Affiliates, but here is the heart of the matter:
You agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.
We will use what we want, in order to make money for our selves and we won’t tell anyone where the images come from especially now you.
Now that doesn’t sound very nice. That doesn’t sound at all like the things I was saying at the top of this post. So… I am deleting my Instagram account, not because I am afraid the pictures I take of clouds and my dinner will end up in some commercial, but because I just don’t like how Facebook does business. I don’t want people doing business with what I love, with what I create and share openly. I invest a lot of time and energy and love into these communities. They are valuable to me and I hope to others, but it is clear that our communities are also valuable to companies like Facebook. They want to know where we eat, what we do, what we like etc… I for one am choosing not to give it to them for free.
The Internet and the communities we build on? In? Through it, belong to us, and we should be able to choose how and where they are shared and on what terms. For me, at this time Flickr and Creative Commons are the best choice. They have both been around, relatively unchanged for a while. I like that I pay for Flickr. When services are “free” they are most likely bleeding you dry from some place you might not see. I will pay my yearly $24.95 and I will use the beautiful new Flickr App to try and rebuild my community where I started.
As a tool it is not perfect. It is a bit slow and not as comfortable as Instgram, but isn’t change why we are all in this game? To be adaptable and fluid?
I know that it is scary to leave a community you have built and in which you feel comfortable. That is what Facebook is banking on. That you won’t leave, but if a community is valuable and truly connected, it should be connected beyond a single app or tool. Thee more time I spend online, the more I see that we cannot, should not invest too many of our eggs in single baskets. Especially the one basket that seems to be buying all the other baskets.
I know I will miss certain people and events and expereinces being away from Instagram, but hopefully the people I care about will find me and who knows I may meet someone new. What are you waiting for? Are you leaving too? Do you have similar reasons? Better ones? Are you staying? Am I over reacting? Let’s turn the comments into a dynamic conversation about community, content and commodity.
Some stuff has been happening. Oh boy has some stuff been happen’n. Every few days after I come up for air and try to stop myself from drowning in the sea of life at my new school, I notice that something magical is happening with my students. Not all of them, of course, but why do teachers always judge achievement by whether or not everyone succeeds? More importantly why do we spend so much energy on words like achievement and success, when really we might be better served to look for the little things that blossom and bloom around us everyday. Lately, I’ve begun to take comfort from the turning of corners, the shedding of inhibitions, the sharing of stories and selves and ideas and dreams.
I often use plant analogies when I write. I am comfortable with the seed cycle. Reaping and sowing. Tending and pruning. These actions are just as applicable to teaching and learning as to botany. In this post, I want to share my excitement about the things I’ve found sprouting in my garden (student blogs). Every night before I sleep I take a stroll through the garden (read my RSS feed) to see if there are any new buds.
Let’s take a quick look of what I have found recently. Shall we?
A student who has been struggling this year because he is a boarding student wrote a post about missing his parents. This tender and vulnerable post came off the heels of an equally thoughtful poem which is still in draft form and not yet ready for publishing. It was so nice to see this sapling break through the dry soil. So often we assume that an empty garden bed means there is no life, but if we are patient and we tend the soil, we will surprised by what may be quietly germinating beneath the surface.
Another girl who has been quiet and shy in class- an observer- a lurker you might say– poured her heart out in a beautiful poem, another one not yet ready for sharing, but just two days later she shared this quirky and brilliant video about a failed art project. In the clip she demonstrates her fantastic ability to manipulate a camera while telling her story. Behind the lens she is an expert, but the beauty of this video is her self-conscious and self-deprecating honesty in front of the camera at the end.
A few weeks ago, Michele shared her thoughts on Introverts and about the awkwardness of adolescence. Perhaps her posts were what inspired Solal to write his Edublog Award nominated post Being a Social Outcast which has to date over one hundred comments from people all over the world who relate to his plight.
Over and over these kids are saying that they want to be heard, even when they don’t know why or how. These kids want to tackle complex issues. They want a place to find and share their voice. Maybe they are great poets, or perhaps they want to publicly and socially contemplate happiness. They are understanding that their spaces can be used to promote their projects, or share their moments of peace and excitement during school trips. They want to change the world and understand themselves. They write novels, make cup music and just play around. They are learning about voice and online etiquette in conversations like this one.
Not a bad harvest right? I could go on and on. Every week, more and more students begin to break ground and grow. Obviously blogging has been a big deal for me this year. I have been exploring the art of blogging since August. Writing about it here and talking about it here. And so I think it is a good time, as the mid-year break is upon us, to take a look at why and how we are still talking about.
Too often I feel like I need to defend why I value blogging. There is this nagging need to constantly justify the purpose of these spaces. This post is meant to share the fruits of our work, but I also wanted to try and clearly articulate the value of student blogging.
As is clear from the example above, teenagers grapple with several issues: identity, expression and community. These three concepts drive my pedagogy. People sometimes criticize the value of teenagers exposing themselves so publicly. Claiming that perhaps I only share the most vulnerable examples. The purpose of blogging is not to bare your soul in some kind of open diary journal. The purpose of blogging is to share your voice with a community. My job as I see it is to help student understand how to navigate, understand and employ identity, expression and community. I use these spaces and the conversations that happen on them as key teaching spaces. I offer formative feedback, I guide, I mentor. I teach. When people ask me why I spend so much time on these spaces, I want to point them to this post and this simple manifesto:
I want my students to feel confident about who they are through critical and artistic exploration of their identity. I want them to learn how to clearly articulate this voice in a variety of media in order to find a network of like-minded people in order to create a community of learners that will help them learn during and beyond school.
Blogging is just the soil to achieve these goals. Take a look at our learner profile. How many of these qualities are obvious in the examples I have shared?
- Critical Thinker, Problem Solver, Inquiry, Questioning, Connection, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation
- Concerned, Committed, Stewardship, Caring, Empathy, Compassion, Open-minded, Service, Sustainability
- Creative and Innovative, Originality, Imagination, Curiosity, Adaptability, Connection, Persistence Risk-taking,
- Principled, Integrity, Honesty, Responsibility, Respect, Fairness,
- Collaborative, Cooperation, Participation, Leadership, Flexibility, Adaptability, Responsibility, Trust
- Resilient, Optimistism, Confidence, Courage, Diligence, Perseverance
- Communicator, Communication, Interpretation, Perspective, Intent
- Self Aware, Self-discipline, Self-esteem, Self-confidence, Reflection
- Self Manager, Metacognition, Independence, Perseverance, Diligence, Organisation, Responsibility
Nearly everyone quality can be traced back to a the examples I shared above. Blogging is a way that my students are negotiating and understanding the learner profile in an authentic and discrete manner. They are practicing the skills and exemplifying the qualities although they might not be aware of it. The next job is to help them become metacognitively aware enough to see where and when they are demonstrating these skills and qualities. Another garden ripe for exploration.
I hope the examples I shared prove that students are not afraid to explore themselves and their peers publicly. Contrary to what most adults think, these kids if made comfortable, will use their public spaces to find their voice. As I mentioned earlier, of course this is not true of every kid, and I am not here to push every kid to open up. Some seeds need time. And perhaps the soil does not have the right nutrients for every child. But I am seeing that blogging is contagious. As the plants begin to grow, they shield and guide and support the younger saplings. Suddenly we find ourselves in a thriving eco-system of ideas. So I will till the soil, add fertilizer when needed, consider the amount of water every seed will need. I will find sunlight or shade as needed for every fragile sapling. I will wait patiently and stare at what appears to be barren soil. But like every successful gardener I have faith and I have patience. I will wait for every seed to grow.
Some days you walk out of your classroom feeling that nothing spectacular happened that day. Nothing was learned and even less taught. A lingering cold, wrapped in exhaustion, wrapped in lethargy, wrapped in an overwhelming sense of banging your head against so many walls that you’re not sure where you are or how you got in. Forget about any notion of getting out.
The room is dark and empty, but still heavy and slipping away from you. The classes came and went, their opaque faces drab and reflecting your frustration. You ever try to teach a group of thirteen year old boys the power of metaphor? The subtle beauty of poetry, the understanding that beneath their carefully constructed shell of angst and machismo, there may just be a tinny furry animal waiting to sing. Might be whimpering now, beneath the dirge of braggadocio and false self-esteem, but if you can convince them, they may perhaps hear a more authentic Yawp, but on days like these there are few rooftops, and what little plateaus may glimmer in the fog are tame and totally translatable into words like defeat and failure.
They didn’t learn today. Words were exchanged, ideas shuffled, you sang tired song and danced a sad dance, but they saw right through you. They saw through the mask and realized that the clown was only human and the lessons he was selling were false and trite and unnecessary. You could see the words dribble from your lips, as your convoluted ideas grew higher and higher drowning you both in wasted effort. Thesis statements, understandings, abstractions, imagery, truth. What do you know of such things to have the gall to teach? Each child struggling with his or her own inability to comprehend or grow or learn. Your teaching rather than act as a life preserver, awkwardly transforms into anvils of confusion, which you carefully tie around each ankle and watch them sink.
Sure there was the literal kid, confessing his in ability to see what could be. Trapped in a world of what is. His young brain, trained by rulers and numbers packed so snuggling into his perfect little box. His eyes looking into yours, cold, “I don’t know why the world is beautiful.” Even after the claim of the worlds beauty was one of his professed truths. “Let’s make a list of things you find beautiful,” you reassure him. “Mountains okay! That is good. What do mountains tend to represent?” Blank stare. Quiet. “If mountains were people, how would they act, how would they look?” Whispering. Unsure. “Yes good– strong, wise, old! What else is beautiful?” We are getting somewhere. This is scaffolding. This is teaching. “Rivers. Yes! Sure they are fast and flow and change. What do they do to mountains? Shape them! Perfect.” High fives. “Have you ever been to a mountain? Swam in a river? No? Oh….” The high is low. Poetry without experience is nothing more than empty words. You both stare at dead letters blinking on the page. You google a few images of mountains and rivers and ask him to write a poem about a little boy who sees the beauty in the world, but has never felt it. You hope for the best. How do you teach what could be, when we live in a world of what is?
People criticize teachers, bloggers, writers who only promote and share their success stories. Claiming that by sharing what works we set the bar too high. Perhaps they are right. Maybe we do need more posts sharing the days where it just didn’t feel right. We tell our students that they cannot hope to achieve at the highest level all the time, but we hold ourselves at this high standard. We are so afraid to admit that some days we just don’t have it. It feels good to admit that. Because after all, we have been doing this long enough to know that these days come and go. We know we will head back into the classroom, we will look back into those eyes, we will sing the song, we will dance the dance and we will teach kids poetry god damn it, because if we don’t who will?
I just finished another round of parent teacher conferences. For two days and approximately 13 hours, I met with the parents of nearly one hundred students. They came in one after another every seven minutes. After the fortieth or fiftieth conference, I had fallen into a routine. I was working with a manageable and effective script:
Rather than tell you a bunch of information you may not read or want to hear, I would love if you would tell me a little about your child in these three fields:
- Have you heard anything from him/her that would be cause for celebration? How are they feeling overall about our class and his/her progress?
- Are there any concerns or questions you have about his/her attainment or skills?
- Is there anything about the curriculum which you might need more clarity?
While our model was far from ideal, it worked. Most parents found an area on which they wanted to focus, and I tailored my comments based on what they wanted to hear. Some parents were excited by the work we are doing at The Table. Some were proud of their kids for publicly sharing their voices on their blogs. Some parents were concerned that we weren’t reading enough classics. Some were concerned that we weren’t reading enough. Full stop. Some where concerned with our approach to teaching English. Overall, I felt very positive about our conversations. I felt that most parents were happy with our progress as a class, most parents were happy with their child’s progress and grades. Most parents were satisfied.
Later that night, on Twitter, I bemoaned the stress of grades and skills and attainment when it comes to schooling and wished that I had had different conversations. I was having the wrong conversations. What made it worse was that I realized that I had framed the conversations myself, because that is what I felt parents wanted.
After the conferences, we sat as a department for a quick debrief, and I excitedly shared my script, mentioned the positive feedback, while we absorbed the negative feedback. I felt quite pleased with myself. I had had great conferences, even though they may not have been the ones I wanted.
Then Ian, our Fearless Leader, mentioned a conversation he had with a mother who had not been concerned about grades at all, or skills or classics, but wanted to ask Ian about his values. She was a former UWC graduate, and for her the most important thing was whether or not her child’s teacher had values that matched the UWC ethos. She wanted to know what kind of person was sitting in front of her child and what types of qualities and understanding he valued.
I got to thinking–So many parents asked me what their child can do to improve. No matter how they were doing, no matter the grade, no matter the comments– nearly everyone asked me how their child could improve. Where does this need to achieve and compete and become perfect come from. Is improvement the same as growth, do either correlate with learning? Does improvement in a skill lead to understanding? Does improvement in skills lead to values? Do attainment and grades, skills and improvement always indicate learning in terms of values. What is the purpose of school? Skills or values? Both? How do we balance the two? When do we talk about how or when students are being concerned or committed, principled, resilient, self-aware? Communicators? Collaborators? Thinkers, Problem Solvers, Creative or Self-Mangers? Do their attainment grades in single subjects reflect their learning in terms of Service, Outdoor Ed, Activities, Personal and Social Education? What I am trying to say is that we all tend to focus on the Academic?
I framed my entire conversation around the things I value least in hopes that I would satisfy what parents wanted, but is that really what they wanted? I hope parents who are reading this will contribute in the comments below, so we can extend the conversation. I hope we can find better ways to talk about what is happening at school in regards to their kids. The conversations can be, should be much deeper, than a seven minute discourse on why he/she received a number or whether or not they can use a comma.
I am purposely being a tad flippant, of course I understand that each conference is based on what happens in that single subject. I also realize that teachers are ultimately responsible for conveying a set of understandings and developing a skill set. We are accountable for a set of standards and benchmarks and our assessments should reflect improvement in these skills. I also know that parents want to be informed and included on talks about choices we make about curriculum, but like Jeff Plaman said, can’t these conversations happen as a group, in public, on blogs like this one?
My qualm is the amount of focus, time and energy we spend solely on attainment and academic grades. Skills and grades are a reality. They are based on rubrics, but no matter how we try to justify how they come to be, they can often be arbitrary and subjective. A grade tends to a very ineffective method to share student learning.
So what is the answer? What are the conversations we could be having? How do you do parent conferences at your school? (Before you say Student Led conference, yes that is option, but I know of few schools who have perfected that model either. They still tend to be parents looking over the shoulders, looking for the teacher to talk about that pesky math grade. We will have SLC at the end of the year, but most schools still feel a need to have parent conferences in addition to SLC) As a parent, what are your thoughts? What would you like to see? How do you feel after a talk with teachers? What is important to you?
I hope this post generates some fruitful conversations and possible ideas for future conferences.