Sunday, October 27, 2013

Am I Not Riveting? Capturing Students' Attention to Make Learning Meaningful

Michael Wesch's "Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance" and Sherry Turkle's "The Flight from Conversation" point to the increasingly difficult challenge of engaging students in light of depersonalized classrooms and constant technology at our fingertips. 

Wesch talks about the physical layout of the typical classroom or university lecture hall and how it tends to prevent fluid conversation.  He says that the lack of conversation and meaningful questions among students leads to "What do we need to know for the test?" mentality. He shows how students have become accustomed to wanting to fulfill graduation requirements, to simply memorize and regurgitate information, and subsequently, pass a course with as little vested interest as possible.  Teachers are equally culpable of fostering a lack of meaningful learning by simply teaching to the test.   He calls this concept "anti-teaching," and he encourages educators to model inquisitiveness among our students.  Questioning, he argues, is key to effective learning, and as educators, it is incumbent upon us inspire students to ask good questions.

How do we inspire our students?  In order to answer that question, Wesch says that we must reexamine the age-old statement, "some students are just not cut out for school."  Wesch says to remove the word "school" from the above adage and replace it with the word "learning."  He argues that EVERYONE is capable of learning, so therefore, educators must find ways of connecting to every student, or learner.  In his own classroom, Wesch uses the modem of "Spaceship Earth" to provide a classroom community and create a sense of urgency to learning.  Welsh says, "When students recognize their own importance in helping to shape the future of this increasingly global, interconnected society, the significance problem fades away."  He says that social media is a tool for learning, but not enough of a REASON to learn.

Sherry Turkle focuses on social media's role in creating a new norm of being "alone-together."  Turkle argues that in this age of posting "what's on our minds" on venues like Facebook and Twitter, we are presenting ourselves exactly as we want to be presented while still keeping our "friends" at bay.  We have little chance for self-reflection that comes through genuine face-to-face interactions with people.  Young members of society are even losing interpersonal skills, often choosing to look to media for advice and comfort.   Texting and "interpersonal" screen time are not a viable substitute for human interaction, argues Turkle.  Another side effect of constantly available technology is the inability to be alone.  "When people are alone, even for a few minutes, they fidget and reach for a device," says Turkle.

 I literally found myself nodding in agreement throughout Turkle's entire article, it resonated so clearly with me.  It brought me back to a time in my own family's pre-iPod era, when my sons Kevin and Sean were about 5 and 6.  After a little league game one day, our family went out for ice cream at the local Dairy Queen.  A group of high school kids sat at a booth across from us in dead silence as they stared down at their phones.  I remember fighting the urge to walk over to the table and start up a conversation because it seemed so lonely over there.  Even when conversation sparked up from time to time, I noticed the kids made little eye contact with each other. I felt like I was watching a group of aliens.

Now that both of my boys have iPods and my husband and I have a Droid and a Drood (my fake Droid), my own family is falling into the same pattern of the family Turkle describes who "sit together, texting and reading emails."  My husband reads the news on his phone, Kevin and Sean play video games on their iPods, and I am constantly on Twitter.  It is, in a word, DEPRESSING.  We all get sick of it and vow to turn off our devices, but often, we drift back to them without even realizing it.   Our family has changed, and we are more "alone together" than ever.  Honestly, I don't like it, and fortunately, I don't think it's too late to change that. 

Even in school, I feel as though I can model communication without devices.   My students can now text freely in passing between classes, so it is less important to tweet and text 24/7 from class.  There is a time and a place for texting and tweeting, and most of the time (but not always), it is not in the classroom. There are exceptions to every rule.

In September of this year, Clive Thompson argued that the Internet does not in fact "dumb us down" but actually makes us smarter.  In his book, Smarter Than You Think, he says that the Internet provides a platform for students to learn, share, and retain information for longer.  In effect, having a legitimate "platform" such as a blog or a post makes students feel as though they are writing for a greater purpose; that they have an audience of many as opposed to just a teacher. They also have more material to write about within a click of a finger.   As a self proclaimed "computer geek," Thompson uses video games to connect with his own children.  Admittedly, I have Words With Friends going with my own sons all the time!  I also watch my boys communicate with their friends on headsets in my living room as they create virtual worlds and fight virtual enemies on Xbox 360.   I will admit, it's pretty creative, and not entirely antisocial. 

And even Thompson is quick to admit that there that technology has its downfalls, particularly in distracting us.  "What I concluded was that technology can allow you to teach kids in remarkable new ways, but you should never use it to replace something you are already doing perfectly well with pencils, paper, and chalk," says Thompson, and I absolutely agree.  As with all things, we need to find a balance.  In my opinion, the balance of technology and interpersonal relationships needs to be fostered both in and out of the classroom.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Checking in to say hello and fill you in on daytime television

Well, it has been 11 days since my knee surgery and I am finally up and about (a little) and feeling human again!!!  Thank you, Dr. Bogad, for posting the notes!  I'm planning on being back in class next Wednesday night, now that I am of sound mind and shaky body!!!  Anyway, I have been thinking of all of you while spending so much time as a couch potato.  I have watched the ENTIRE Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" and have loved it!   Brittany was right; it highlights a lot of societal assumptions and stereotypes in the setting of a women's federal prison.  I also saw the following interesting segment on the Today Show about home visits, or "Teacher House Calls", (except I can't seem to insert the video at the moment) and immediately thought of Mary's school.  It's hard to tell, but take a look because it appears to me as though they're mistaken; Rhode Island is not highlighted as one of the few states where teachers are conducting home visits.  I noticed that Massachusetts is highlighted.   I have changed my opinion; I'm all for them!  
I can't wait to start this week's reading now that I'm done with the heavy duty pain medication, and stay tuned... I may even be co-facilitating our next class with Brittany.  Thanks for all of your well wishes!  I decided to dedicate my new ACL to Tom Brady, since we share the same doctor.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change

In "Empowering Education:  Critical Thinking for Social Change," Ira Shor argues that students are empowered in the classroom when provided with opportunities to participate, argue, question, and negotiate information.  Traditional teacher-centric classrooms exclude many students from learning and by their nature, diminish the neutrality of a classroom setting, according to Shor.  Citing several educational theorists, Shor writes, "The contents included and excluded in a curriculum are political choices while the unequal outcomes of education are not neutral either."  Shor argues that teachers should keep their student population in mind when designing and administering a curriculum and encourage open discussion throughout the learning process.

Unlike the previous authors, Shor provides a how-to for teaching from the students' point of view.  Shor challenges the leader to look at the point of view from which any content is delivered:  does the curriculum reflect only one point of view?  Is it "balanced and multicultural" or is it "traditionally male-oriented and Eurocentric?"  Other questions posed by Shor are: "How much open discussion is there in class?... Is there mutual dialogue between teacher and students or one-way transfer of information from teachers to students? ... Do students feel free to disagree with the teacher? ...  Do students respond to each other's remarks?"   In other words, are our students being heard?  Do we take into account our own biases, or in the words of Delpit and Johnson, our own cultural capital versus that of some of our students, when presenting information to our students?

Shor reminds educators that action, or participation, is essential to gaining and maintaining knowledge.  Sadly, classroom discipline and learning erode when students feel excluded; when their own cultures and interests are cast aside by teachers.  How many times have we looked out at a sea of bored faces because our own students have "checked out"?  How can we engage students and encourage them to own the information with which we are presenting them?

Shor's how-to guide as modeled by the article shows how a democratic classroom looks and functions.  Shor begins by asking his college-level literature students to write their reasons for taking the class, their expectations, and their ideas as to how it should be run.  In one instance, he encouraged rich discussion around the idea of mandatory class attendance without offering up his own opinion.  He listened to students' arguments and posed a series of follow-up questions without ever overtly stating, "You must attend class."   After a rich debate, students accepted Shor's proposal for required attendance but built in guidelines for absences and tardiness.   Throughout the semester, students argued their points and occasionally stopped dialogue and discussion that bored them.  They engaged in after-class suggestions and complaints, and the author re-evaluated his own delivery of instruction.   This democratic give-and-take of information, according to Shor, is what helps to shape a lively, inclusive, non-neutral classroom.  It is much easier said than done.

To me, teaching is a fluid process in which we are constantly gauging students' level of interest and as needed, making changes.   It's almost instinctive when you're a teacher to want to stand in the front of the class, to run the show.  I used to think of myself as a sort of magician with a bag of tricks that I would pull out when introducing different grammatical concepts.   Now, after having taken several graduate courses and having some years behind me, I look to the students to guide me in curriculum choices; their voices are what shapes my teaching.  There are times, however, when I need to step back and take Shor's advice:  empower the students; listen to the students; let the students speak and internalize and process and agree and disagree.  More and more, I need to stop and check for their understanding.   It is always a work in process, but in an open and democratic classroom environment, the teacher benefits as much as the students.  As Shor points out, disciplinary issues tend to dissipate when every student feels engaged and valued.