Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time I was a first year Language Arts teacher in Coventry. I taught seventh grade and really tried my best, but struggled to find the joy that I had been cultivating through college. Like Elsa hidden away in a castle, I felt isolated in my classroom and needed to be saved.
But not by a knight in shining armor.
Unless by “knight in shining armor” you mean a new job and enrollment in the Advanced Studies in Teaching and Learning program at RIC.
With a cohort of professors to push me and critically-minded classmates to support me, I transitioned more smoothly to life as a sixth grade Language Arts teacher in Jamestown. Rather than feeling isolated in my castle, I felt free to roam with my new colleagues in the luscious gardens of social justice teaching and action research.
Now that the year has ended - and I will remain in Jamestown as the sixth grade Language Arts teacher with the same curriculum - I have a list of ideas as long as Rapunzel’s hair about what I want to keep, throw away, and revise.
Not A Princess, Not Quite a Techno-Constructivist
I came into this class rather unlike a princess, no longer feeling isolated in my own castle or feeling in need of saving by a prince. Instead, like Merida, I was armed with a bow and arrow to sling my social justice pedagogy. Unlike my first year in Coventry, this year in Jamestown I felt more confident in pushing back at the traditional texts and assessments demanded by the curriculum. This year I was really able to take action on my belief that everything is political. I infused a study of critical lenses, stereotypes, and power hierarchies based on traits like race, class, gender, sexuality, and social class. At my end of year survey, countless students said that our “Media Busters” unit ruined Disney movies and that because of Photovoice, they will never see the world the same again.
I also came in with greater technology proficiency than most princesses. Whereas all Cinderella can do is sew and all Snow White can do is clean up after the dwarves, I have wide variety of exposure to other tools and tasks as an assimilated digital immigrant. Before this class I had already explored TED Ed, Animoto, Storybird, and Glogster and even used some like Blogger, Google Docs/Slides/Forms, Screencastify, StoryboardThat, and Prezi with my students. They’ve appreciated the chance to “play” online when I incorporate these tools into instruction.
So part of my struggle through the class has been to ensure that I am making conscious choices about using technology and also pushing myself further. Where have I and where should I take a techno-traditionalist approach, using technology to simplify/enhance traditional classroom tasks? Where have I and where should I take a techno-constructivist approach to completely change the content and process of students’ learning?
Rapunzel’s Strand #1: Youth and New Media
As I said, my list of curriculum revisions was about about long as Rapunzel’s hair - so I began by just playing around with some new tools I found on my own - specifically BiblioNasium. All year I felt that my Independent Reading program was missing something. Having students log book titles, author names, and page numbers in a file folder in a rickety cabinet screams old-school. I noticed some students reading similar books and some students stuck with no clue about what to read next. In my own personal life, Goodreads has been a godsend for this. However, I am not comfortable having my eleven-year-olds on such a vast social network. A quick Google search with the terms “Goodreads for kids” led to some reviews for BiblioNasium - which the creators say is a space for kids to “flex their reading muscles.” I watched a video overview, signed up for a teacher account, explored a student account, and created accounts for all of my incoming students. I added a BiblioNasium page to my blog, wrote an introductory note for parents and students explaining the purpose, and even used Screencastify to make my own tutorial.
This part of my project positions me somewhere between techo-traditionalist and techno-
constructivist. While initially BiblioNasium is a digital platform that brings my paper-and-pencil reading logs into the 21st century, it also goes beyond that. The ability for students to write reviews that the whole class can see, make recommendations to individuals, and explore other students’ bookshelves changes the nature of the task. I’m not sure I can still call it “Independent Reading.” Of course, the students must still read on their own, but BiblioNasium acknowledges the way that “many of today’s teens are deeply engaged with social media and are active participants in networked publics”(Boyd, 2014, p. 176). My hope is that my students will see the way in which online connections can be used productively and to enhance their learning. As Boyd (2014) continues, “Familiarity with the latest gadgets or services is often less important than possessing the critical knowledge to engage productively with networked situations, including the ability to control how personal information flows and how to look for and interpret accessible information” (p.180). As a teacher, it is my job to expose students to tools that will help them learn and be more digitally savvy citizens.
Rapunzel’s Strand #2: Critical Pedagogy and Educational Reform
As great as BiblioNasium might be, I knew it wasn’t enough. So, I turned to the syllabus for the course anchors and guiding assumptions to see how those fit in with the remaining items on my Rapunzel-length list. As I read #2 about critical pedagogy and educational reform, I was reminded of the fun and inspiration that came from our afternoon with Kelly Reed. I believe that students need space be creative and innovative to overcome the regulation and routine of audit culture that has seeped into our schools (Hall, 2015).
Since most of my units are already designed with critical pedagogy principles in mind, I wanted add something new the my beginning of the year routine. I designed a curation-inspired project, which I am calling the Brown Bag Bio, as a get-to-know-you activity. While this project does not use technology, we have agreed that it is not even about the technology, it’s about the principles behind it.
The goal of this Pintrest-in-real-life activity is for students to curate objects (from the massive pile of stuff - trinkets, toys, game pieces, clothing items, accessories, memorabilia, etc.) that will be available on various counters and tables in my classroom) that represent who they are. They will then have an opportunity to share their brown bag full of objects and their related explanations with their classmates so that they can get to know one another. They will answer reflection questions based on their classmates’ presentations like, “Who do you think you’d work well with?” “Who do you want to get to know more?” and “Who do you have a question for?” And of course, then go talk to these new classmates. As Turkle (2012) explains, “We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.” This worries both her and me. I see this activity as a way to teach patience, provide real-life listeners, look up, start a conversation, and build a community of learners.
Media as Ideology
To complete my climb up Rapunzel’s braid, I wanted to use what I have learned about media as ideology. Though I didn’t name it as such, this assumption grounds my “Media Busters” unit where students learn to use critical lenses to analyze the messages about race, class, and gender being sent to them via commercials, movies, toys, and other media. Both during and after that unit students emailed me randomly about sexist messages they saw in commercials or (on a more positive note) provide links to spoken word poems about changing the world, one word at a time. I would try to share this information with the rest of my students either by mentioning it or screening it in class, but didn’t always have the time. These cultural artifacts were some of the best proof that they were wearing the critical lenses we tried on in class; they were the best proof of their learning. However, I felt like some of these learnings remained locked in the dungeon of my overflowing inbox. Because of this, I knew that some component of my final project for this class would be creating a space to share these connections more widely and easily.
To do this, I have created a second blog with a separate email address that the students can email their IRL (In Real Life) examples to and they will automatically be posted to the home page. This blog feed will also appear on my current blog so that everything is essentially housed in one place. I wouldn’t have thought of such a possibility before this class.
Censoring all negative and potentially dangerous content from children is not the answer. As Christensen (2011) says, if we want students to “unlearn the myths that bind us,” then we must give space - especially digital space - for students to unveil the “secret education” that “colonizes their minds” (p. 189). Like Wesch and his World Simulation, I’m still not sure of all of the possibility that this collection of IRL moments has in store. But this is the joy of a techno-constructivist. The technology is sure to change the content and process of learning and I am excited to see where the students will take me.
Happily Ever After
So what does happily ever after mean anyway? No, it’s not about lip locking with a gorgeously muscled prince. Like Merida, it’s about standing up for what you believe in. Like Anna and Elsa, it’s about developing relationships of trust and love. It’s knowing that kids today experience the world differently than I did or my parents did or their parents did. It’s about making s p a c e for students to explore, reflect, create, share, and take action in order to make the world a more equitable place.