Thursday, October 28, 2010

My love/hate relationship with COLLABORATION

For all the talk our articles had this week about our naturally collaborative, collective meaning-making young people, I sure have had a lot of students who hated group projects.

"Do we HAVE to work on this as a group?"
"I work better independently."
"Am I going to be counted off if _____ doesn't do his part?"
"How are we going to be graded on this?"
"You mean we have to find time to meet OUTSIDE of class?"
"These things always take twice as much time as projects I do on my own!"

And I could never forget the parent (who happened to be a brain surgeon, very short, and a very scary angry person) who publicly accosted me at a charity for the school I was helping work at: "My son got an A- in your class because of a GROUP PROJECT?? That is entirely ridiculous, and I will ensure that you lose your job! If MY son got an A-, I hope that the rest of the class got F's!"

I bring this up, in part, because I relate to these crazy traditionalists. Being the control freak that most of us teachers are, group projects represented, to me, a dangerous zone, with lots of unknowns. The only time they were fun or insight-creating was when I was allowed to choose my other nerd friends to work with in a group. (We then, would create incredible, strange, time-consuming video productions involving lots of props, background music, and laughter.)

So my take-aways here?

-Just because young people are naturally social beings doesn't mean this will directly lead them to LOVE all technology things that are collaborative.
-Teachers have to establish ways of facilitating group work that feel safe and quality to students, parents, and all of the stakeholders.
-As in all things, the less experienced with collaboration the student (due to age or past educational experiences), the more scaffolding that will be required for success in working together.

But the big tension I struggle with, one that is particularly relevant for the K-12 environment?
-How can we best group students? Homogenous? Heterogenous?
-How can we make students of mixed levels, mixed talents, mixed abilities collaborate successfully?
-How can we use technology to make this doable?

And MOST of all, how we can we empower pre-service teachers to navigate the tricky but oh-so-vital land of collaborative work with their students, and avoid passing along the inaccurate belief that "all students LOVE working in groups". . .

Thursday, October 21, 2010

You Do, I Do, We All Turn to You-Tube

It was my husband who first pointed it out, several years ago:

"Have you noticed that everytime our friends come over, at some point in the evening, we all end up crowded around the computer, watching a YouTube? What did we do before YouTube??"

He was right. Sure we have some deep friends, and we had some deep face to face convos as well, but it never failed: at some comic-relief-needing point in the night, someone suggested that we all check out this HILARIOUS You-tube video.

And, being the dutiful English teacher I was, I immediately had the brilliant idea to use a Youtube or two as a hook into a lesson. And, working at the conversative schools I worked, I was immediately shot down and told we didn't use inappropriate YouTube videos; the site was blocked.

Flash forward a few years, and I'm teaching some teacher candidate college kids, and we have this "materials and strategies" project, where they come up with several diverse texts around a theme of their choosing to use with a class. 92% chose a Youtube for one of the texts. Some were songs, some were "how to" videos, some were mini-documentaries about famous people. But NEARLY EVERYONE immediately turned to Youtube a text of great worth for their discipline (art, science, math, English, history, etc). Oh- and a suggestions from a midterm eval in that class: "Since it's a three hour class, I recommend you show a few more Youtubes to break up the time."

What to make of all of this? (Beyond the fact that I'm freaked out that these students will make a ton of lesson plans revolving around Youtube only to find that their school doesn't allow it . . . ) I kind of like what Alexandra Juhasz makes of all of this, during her great experiment of a class ON Youtube ABOUT YouTube. In the course intro video she is clearly skeptical. As Jenkins puts it, "does a participatory platform insure diverse, meaningful, or innovative content?" She asks questions about ownership, the value of popular culture, control, access, losing the value of expertise, and community. And, in the spirit of academic inquiry, she asks these questions on the very platform in question. The class defines four structural limitations to YouTube, including communication, community, research, and idea building, and THIS is the crux of critical education.

What if we thought about ALL meaning-making in this way? What if we looked at both the affordances, but also highlighted the limitations of each medium? And, even more exciting . . what if we empowered our students to do so?

And (gasp) what if we realized that stupid, humorous, short video snippets can also do a lot for our ability to make connections, provide a contect for learning, provide a common experience to discuss, provide an advance organizer for later discussion, and link to an emerging participatory culture (Bonk, 2008).

So is YouTube broccoli or twinkies in the land of nutrition for our brain? My guess . . . it all depends on your reflective/critical capabilities . . .

Friday, October 15, 2010

Empowering our students for CRITICAL engagement with new technologies

Let me be the first to say, critical people get on my nerves.

They are the ones that look at me funny when my toddler sneaks her pacifier (now only reserved for sleeping) out of my purse and snags a few drags on it in the mall when I'm not looking. They are the people in my daycare cooperative who send emails with "friendly reminders and suggestions" about only using filtered water for our baby's to drink and refraining from discussing death when a kid encounters a dead butterfly. And they are the folks who judge me as unscholarly by my wrinkled shirt, my wild curly hair, my juvenile backpack.

But, let me be the first to also say that critical STUDENTS who can critically THINK . . . they get me pumped up. Here's what I love about we technology folks. (I'm unsure if I am a legit member of the group technology folks, but just go with it.) I love how we assume, take for granted, and imagine K-12 students that are naturally thoughtful about their use of technology. Take the short "7 Things You Should Know About Wikipedia" by Educause, for instance. The lovely scenario features Elliot, a graduate student using Wikipedia who is such a reflective, critical user of the site that he checks out the discussion page and ends up editing the source himself. Upon reading about Pat's engagement with Wikipedia, any educator might be pushed to jump up and shout "TECHNOLOGY IS SUPREME!" If only all of our students were empowered to engage in this way . . .

One amazing teacher in Bloomington recently did a unit on Wikipedia with her students, and explicitly enabled them to participate in this way. They looked at various wikipedia pages, spent time checking the sources, made some revisions, and ended up getting their well-thought-out-revisions erased by someone else a week later. (Ouch!) They also started their own page on their school. This was not a one hour lesson, or even a one week lesson. For us to make space for critical reflection about technology, we have to make space for technology in our curriculum. IT CAN NOT BE AN ADD ON. Adding it on as an afterthought (as I've been known to do) is a recipe for noncritical engagement.

So let's get real about technology and let's get real about the students we teach. We're all somewhere on this spectrum of critical participation, and none of us have fully arrived. And let's not make the mistake to avoid technology because of a noted lack of reflectiveness in our students. We could all use reminding: we teach to the needs, not to the strengths.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Ito and Carr Face Off

You know how, sometimes, rarely, when you read an article or watch a speech given by an academic, you feel this strange, ineffable affinity with the person? You think: "I would have said that (much less articulately) if someone had given ME a microphone!" You think, "if I just ran into this person in a coffee shop, I am 99% sure we would sip our drinks and become instant friends." And sometimes you even wonder: "Is this person my soul mate?"

This phenomenon is strange enough as it is, but it's even stranger when you experience it on the SAME DAY (today, to be exact) with two very different scholars (Mimi Ito and Nicholas Carr), with two very distinct vantage points on the same issue.

Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid" (in a nutshell): Technologies impact how we read, write, and think. They disable our ability to closely focus, to deeply read, and replace it with a constant drive for fast, efficient, convenient, greedy knowledge-gulping. The more we use computers, the more we think human brains should be MORE like computers. Sure, people always "expect the worst of every new tool or machine" (aka the development of writing or the printing press), but, come on, silent reflection is the essence of understanding.

Mimi Ito's Keynote at the Summer 2010 New Media Consortium (in another, very differently shaped nutshell): New technologies always inspire polarization, one side over-the-top with rosy hopes, and the other raging with fears and panic. Who is right? Both sides, if you subscribe to both simultaneously, that is. We've got all of these ridiculous, limiting boundaries in our heads separating school and entertainment, socializing/hanging out and learning, adult culture and kid culture. But these lines are getting blurred quickly, and it seems the way to enhance the good out of technology-based-learning is by surrounding it with a social wrapper of peer-based-sharing-community. Peer community feedback, then, can serve as these fundamental mechanisms of filter and focus.

Despite my the inarguably schizophrenic nauture of my two academic-crushes, I have to say, these two work pretty well together. Ito acknowledges that Carr has something to his argument, and Carr acknowledges that he's not all that sure he's right. Ito points out that whether or not technology is great or technology is terrible depends, in large part, upon how we choose to use this social wrapper to draw us out of the individualized brain-frying "I've been searching on Google on day by myself in my isolated room" image that Carr presents as technology-based-learning. In fact, I'm beginning to see that it may be a lot more realistic to imagine Carr and Ito meeting up in a coffee shop and becoming fast friends over some biscotti and caffeine.

Ah well . . . at least a girl can dream . . .

Friday, October 1, 2010

Open Educational Resources (and other ways I survived my first year of teaching . . . )

As I read all one hundred and forty nine pages of Geser's edited report on "Open Educational Practices and Resources", my mind kept wandering back to my first year of teaching . . . 2004. . .

Elated to get a job my first summer of interviewing, I paid little attention to the fact that I would be the ONLY English teacher for ALL 6th-8th graders at the small Catholic school, and didn't even know enough to realize that having SIX preps each day (one involving US History) wasn't so much the norm for a teacher work load. But it only took a few days for me to realize . . . I CAN'T DO THIS ALONE!!

Despite their best intentions, the burnt out math and science middle school teachers on my team had few curricular-pedagogical ideas to share with me, and my "mentor" teacher in the building visited me once, saying "they weren't too noisy, so I think you've got things under control."

Being the tech-savvy barely-twenty-something I was, I immediately turned to the Internet to fill my looming void of teaching experience, and found that, with a few key types and a click, I could access idea after idea after idea. Sure, I found (and ignorantly used) some bad teaching worksheets/ideas/tests I discovered online, but I was reflective enough as a teacher to realize after a few minutes that they WERE crappy. And, with the help of some idea-packed-quality sites (such as the Read, Write, Think lesson plans on NCTE's site), I managed to impress (or anger) pretty much everyone with my "wildly creative" teaching methods. The open educational resources I implemented those first few years were an invaluable source of teacher education for me. I tried things. I discarded things. I adapted things. I discovered things. All of this, thanks to the OER movement.

Just one minor problem . . . I never contributed ideas myself. I never made blog comments about how I adapted things to fit my context, and I never reflected publicly about what worked and what didn't. In one sense, I was in survival mode, and taking time to do such gratuitous work would have been ridiculous. In another sense, I was incredibly selfish . . . taking, taking, taking, but never adding to the body of knowledge. Perhaps this is why I've returned to grad school . . . now I have TIME (the time real practicing teachers DON'T have) to contribute.

This is what worries me when authors wax on and on about the importance of "bottom-up" models that involve K-12 "teacher participation and reflection". Yes- practicing educators are our best sources of information, expertise, and can be powerful reality-checks. BUT-- the current teaching climate disempowers teachers from engaging in most "professional" activities outside of their duties with their day to day students. To be a great teacher means investing time in assessment, planning, searching, and facilitating. This simply leaves very little room for posting reflections or ideas or comments online.

How to solve this? Cut class sizes in half. Hire twice as many teachers. Give teachers real time to think and prepare during the school day. Pay teachers more. The answers are many, but the payback could very well be enormous . . .