Sunday, September 27, 2015

Making the Classroom Risky

Image result for middle school problems

I dread situations like the one Mitch walked in on in the boys bathroom.  I know I react with frustration and annoyance. I don’t want to “deal with behavior.” I just want to be responsible for teaching and learning.

Of course, the graffitied bathroom is all about teaching and learning - just not the stuff that I feel comfortable with. Moments like these make me cringe. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say.

Nakkula and Toshalis (with Smith echoing in the background) remind me, though, that this is a giant opportunity for co-construction of identity, not just something to be “dealt with.”

For starters, I probably would have been surprised to see Julian in such a predicament. It wouldn’t have fit in with my perception of him. Diligent students don’t break the rules, right? I would probably have figured that something else outside of school was distracting him and chalked it up to a one-time mistake. As for Antwon, I hate to admit that I probably would have expected to see him behind the door. Assuming that I knew about his reputation in class, especially with Ms. Peterson, it would have fit right in with my existing schema. Troubled kid, troubled choice. Just another unsuccessful attempt to avoid academics.

Of course, something was distracting Julian and Antwon was avoiding academics. But in my judgment, I would have missed the subtleties of their risk-taking, the implications for their friendship, and the potential to work with Julian through this crisis. As the authors explained, “If Julian’s experiment were to be viewed only as an infraction .  . . And treating Antwon the same as Julian simply because they were involved in the same event also misses a key developmental opportunity. The two of them approached that event from very different perspectives and present unique needs” (24).

If I were in Mitch’s shoes, I think my response would have been missing the understanding that “when risk-taking experiences are undertaken with others, they often function to secure relational bonds” (52). I think one of my biggest challenges is that I take misbehavior so personally. I know how much effort I put into planning and teaching, that I am disappointed and hurt when things don’t go as planned. But I need to remember that it’s not just about me. The students each have their own worlds and their own motivations for engaging in (un)expected behaviors. And one major reason is figuring out where they stand in their peer group.

Hank Green uses The Breakfast Club to frame the adolescent struggle of standing out/fitting in.

My parents sheltered me and I later sheltered myself from situations where my values and beliefs might be questioned by my peers. I didn’t want to try on any other roles or try to fit in any other group. It wasn’t until college that I finally had an adult in my life create a safe space to explore my previously foreclosed identity. This teacher asked me questions like Mitch asked Julian: “What did it feel like to be like that in that setting? or What was it like when you were with those people in that place?” (34). My experiences as a child and adolescent were validated but, for the first time, open to interpretation. This teacher helped me see that my identity was still being constructed and that I had power over its development.

So the next time I walk into a graffitied bathroom, I know that I need to balance accountability with meaning making (37). I need to develop trust by observing and asking questions that help the students see how their choices and analysis of events in their lives shape their life story. And most of all, continue to try to develop engaging challenges that help counter the “high risk” risk taking behaviors with their peers. I need to make my classroom a risky space where they can more safely be creative theoreticians.

Image result for skydiving group

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Online Comic Making!

Here is a link to our blog from our Media Literacy class this summer. If you scroll down and look on the right side under the heading "Digital Toolbox," you will find tutorials (made by the class members!) for a variety of web-based tools. One to check out for comics is Pixton. Another user-friendly comic maker that my kids love is StoryboardThat. Happy creating!

Image result for pixton logo

Image result for storyboard that logo

Monday, September 21, 2015

Co-Constructing Identities: The Big Bang

After the glow wore off the Sunday brunch buffet and the meat that was called chicken became intolerable, my brother and I were pumped to be living off campus in our own house. No longer were we beholden to Donovan (the lovely RIC cafeteria) where you couldn’t get dinner past 7:30 pm. We had our own place with our own stove and microwave and cabinets and spice rack. We were free to make our own food decisions!

And also get under each other’s skin.

You see, we shared responsibility in the kitchen. But other areas of house maintenance lingered without discussion between us. I would complain to a mutual friend about the way he heaped his stinky clothes everywhere but the laundry basket, while he complained the to same mutual friend about the way that I left my hair tools (and maybe a few stray strands) in the bathroom each morning.

We weren’t in tune to each other’s thoughts and both characterized the other as messy, lazy, and inconsiderate. We wasted our energy feeling frustrated instead of just sharing what was on our minds.

Leonard and Sheldon share some pent up roommate frustrations.

I was reminded of this experience as I read the first chapter of Understanding Youth. One thing Nakkula and Toshalis emphasized was the important responsibility of educators to reach out beyond the curriculum and see teaching as relational. They cited Vygotsky’s conclusion that “children’s cognitive development is shaped by the access they have to the thinking of others” (8). They shared one of the criticisms of student-centered learning, explaining that “it is not enough just to give children books and lessons; development requires providing children with the workings of other people’s minds” (8). Educators must engage in “think alouds” where they “share how they themselves think about or make sense of this content.” But they also warned that this is not as successful if educators do not understand the level or nature of their students’ thinking.

In the case of my brother and I, we hit a roadblock because we were not sharing our frustrations with one another. We didn’t know what was going on in each other’s brains. How could we learn to live with one another peacefully if we didn’t share what we were thinking? (Luckily we had our mutual friend let us in on each other’s complaints and we negotiated various chores and responsibilities.)  

Reading theoretical texts like this can be overwhelming because Nakkula and Toshalis show that there is so much to consider about adolescent development and it can all seem so abstract. Their assertion that “optimal coauthorship can only occur through collaborative mental engagement and the open, transparent negotiation of meaning” (9) is a mouthful, but makes so much more sense when you realize that “collaborative mental engagement” and “open, transparent negotiation of meaning” is really important in any relationship - between teachers and students, siblings, best friends, and especially significant others.

An important difference between the story of my brother and me is that we are essentially equals. I am older, but I am not professionally responsible for him or his development. I found that Nakkula and Toshalis really emphasized the responsibility educators have to create rich experiences that allow students to productively imagine themselves and their worlds (5). There is a lot of power that comes from being in such a position. So what does it look like to “encourage and even join them in their experiments in possibility development?”

Luckily, Ayers included Katie and Mayra’s story (110). Katie recognized that “the full development of each is necessary for the full development of all” (72) and created an experience that would allow Mayra to imagine herself as a valued individual and allowed the other class members to imagine themselves as integral to a supportive community. I think Nakkula, Toshalis, and Graves would agree with Ayers example of Katie as a great teacher because of the way she “engages students, interacts with them, draws energy from them, and offers reason to plunge into classroom life,” (97) rather than leaving kids to invent ways to avoid showing their incompetence (like Antwon).

I strive to be like Katie. I believe that learning happens best when a class is a “close-knit, spirited, and coherent group, brought together by collective interest and enthusiasm” as her class was (110). But I recognize this is a work-in-progress because the community is not dependent on my imagination alone. 

Sheldon trying to create a friendship based on his imagination alone. 

Instead, it is a co-construction with each student and the universe they bring with them. Some days I absolutely feel like Ms. Peterson, aware that something isn’t clicking with a particular student but unsure about how to reconcile with a mind that I can’t read and an identity that seems so different from my own. But I keep going because I can't imagine my world without teaching and learning.

Sheldon struggles to imagine a world without his best friend.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What's up with Quinn?

Like Ms. Asile, I immediately noticed the loud, expressive, active boy named Quinn. My mind quickly compared him to other students I have had in the past who have displayed similar behaviors - some of the students that I struggle the most with. As a teacher, the growing volume of his song and the disaster of peanut butter on the table would have left me embarrassed in front of these visitors to my classroom. For years, I have learned - classically and officially - that students should not act that way in a classroom, especially if the teacher is talking to another important adult.

But Bill has a different perspective. Though his squinted mouth and head scratch in the bottom panel of page 17 reveal some uncertainty, it is clear that he approaches Quinn with an asset-based lens.

Bill names Quinn’s activity as “youthful exuberance” (p. 16) and realizes that “he’s just putting things together in his own way” (p. 17).

So what is Quinn learning?

Depends on who you ask.

Ms. Asile would say that Quinn isn’t learning anything. She even goes so far as to send a note home that says Quinn is “hypoactive disordered” (p. 30), which she believes is already interfering  with his ability to succeed in school. From her perspective, she must help new teachers identify those students who seem to be struggling and give them the help that they need.

On the other hand, Bill would say that Quinn is learning so much. From Bill’s perspective, Quinn has learned that he is an artist (p. 14), that he has an important role in the classroom as plant waterer (p. 27), that he is a leader in fort making (p. 28), and that he has learned the importance of taking responsibility when an accident happens (p. 30). Bill, like Frank Smith, believes that kids are always learning. Rather than seek outside help and alphabet soup labels from Ms. Asile, Bill says, “the answers lie in the students’ hands. We must look unblinkingly at the way children really are and struggle to make sense of everything we see in order to teach them” (p.26). Rather than giving students anything, we need to see what they already have.  

This reading was a reminder that what we see depends on how we look at things. Our assessment of a student is colored by the lens that we use. Does Quinn fit the diagnosis of someone with ADD? Probably. In fact, Ms. Asile is probably really good at identifying kids who would be labeled as having learning disorders. That’s the lens she is using. That’s the perspective she is coming from. However, as Frank Smith and Bill would point out, that’s not the only way of looking at students. Bill says that “while working together, we need to learn to see each other as fully as possible” (p. 27)

My immediate reaction to Quinn shows that I need to continue to be aware of the way my perspective and experience affect my approach to a situation. I grew up as a much more reserved kid. I sat quietly at my desk, raised my hand if I had a question, and always did what I was told. I have a hard time working with those students who are/were most unlike me - the ones push back against “doing school.” While I don’t think that description quite fits Quinn, I do know I would have to work hard to figure out what works for him. I know I would have to find ways to use his energy for good and ensure that I was not (unintentionally) punishing his creative spirit. I'm excited for this case study as a way to see what the students are learning rather than what they are not, and seeing each one as fully as possible.

And here is an quick, interesting video by Derek Sivers, reminding us about some of the assumptions we fail to realize we have...

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Keep Calm and Enjoy Classic Learning

Image result for learning enjoy

When we were asked to make a list of “learnings we enjoyed” last Thursday, I wasn’t sure that I completed the task correctly. As the instructions were being given, I figured my list would contain concepts and facts and ideas learned in school. What I ended up with was a more personal list of skills I have developed and understandings I have come to about myself and the world (for example, how to do research, how to plan and execute a fun camping trip, and realizing I don’t have to agree with and follow everything my parents do).

As I read this brief section of The Book of Knowing and Forgetting by Frank Smith, I realized that what I had listed were all examples of classic learning. The skills and understandings fit the criteria on page 5, in that they are continual (for example, I am continually learning how to be a better researcher), inconspicuous (after all my years of camping as a kid, I didn’t realize how much I had picked up about what supplies are necessary and what makes the best site), and associated with growth (for example, I have a much more critical view toward the institution of religion my parents raised me in). And Smith’s idea that “we learn from people around us with whom we identify” was made obvious by the names listed in the margin of Wednesday’s notebook entry. The names are all of people that I would quickly identify as having a major positive influence on my life.

Absent from my list were things that I have learned “officially” - all 50 states and capitals, how to multiply fractions, and the chemical formula for sugar. Discrete knowledge and skills like these were not really enjoyable (aside from the reward of getting a good grade on a test). As official learning theory says, these learnings were hard work, intentional, individualistic, assured by testing, and intellectual activities that required memorization. And aside from multiplying fractions, which I do when I cook or bake, it takes great effort to recall all those states, capitals, and elements from the periodic table.

Image result for lisa delpit

While reading, I was curious about what Lisa Delpit might say in conversation with Smith, considering her belief in the importance of intentional teaching about the culture of power and code-switching. (From the lists on page 5, intentionality is associated with official learning.) But with further thought, realized just how much her philosophy aligns with Smith. They both recognize that learning is taking place all the time - especially “things that we might be better off not learning, such as the fact that there are certain things we should expect to be able to learn, or that we have certain (usually fictitious) learning deficiencies or disabilities” (3). Delpit would say that in the case of students of color or students with diverse linguistic backgrounds, every time a teacher punishes a student for their word choice or bleeds red ink correcting every punctuation and grammar mistake on an essay, those students are learning that they are not normal, wrong, and inferior (when it is not actually a matter or "right" or "wrong," just "different). So although certain intentional teaching about the codes of power must exist, Delpit and Smith would agree that it must be done in the context of learning from the people around them. Students cannot memorize a formula for code switching. Traditional pen and paper testing will not prove their understanding of the way power is enacted in the world around them. See Delpit's Rethinking Schools article "The Real Ebonics Debate" for even more about how teachers might approach classic and official learning of language.

Image result for language learner comics
Though my students are not very racially or linguistically diverse, they do vary in gender identity, socioeconomic status, family structure, learning style, academic readiness, and extra-curricular interests. I need to keep in mind that these students are always learning something - and it may or may not be the academic content or skills that are listed in my objectives on the board. Whether it is the texts I use, the attitude I take toward certain topics, the way I interact with different students, the time I give to particular conversations, or the order in which I explain the requirements and grading of an assignment, the students are learning something about what is “normal,” what is valued, and whether or not they fit in with that. I will continue to incorporate open-ended reflection questions at the end of individual lessons and longer units of study as a way to check what else I am teaching and the (not so) hidden curriculum that is being learned.