Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Target Practice, or, What Many of My Students Feel Like at this Point in the Term

You've seen the cartoons, the unlikely ones, where the duck or the rabbit is in the batting cage or on the tennis court with the machine that spits the balls. Suddenly, the machine starts spewing balls so fast that the athlete crumples under the assault.

It's not fashionable to blog about the icky moments in teaching, the ones where you're suddenly aware that you are not only working without a net, you're not even on the tightrope, and the class time, the semester, is running out.  Think of what happened with Michael Wesch. A colleague comes up to him and says that Wesch's tech-filled lessons have been a dismal failure for him. Wesch writes about it. Suddenly, the headlines blare that Wesch is renouncing technology in his teaching.

You can read a situation in many ways. I read Wesch's situation not as a cautionary tale about using technology in one's teaching, but as recognition of something we've always known: teachers have individual styles and, the more experienced they are, the more established their comfort zones. It is tough to leave the comfort zone, whatever that may be. But teaching through this new time is tough, and this seems like a valuable conversation to have.

So I'm teaching this course, Literacies & Technologies in the Secondary English Classroom, in one of those summer sessions where you do 15 weeks of work in 6. Not optimal for grappling with complex subjects, but you do what you have to do. Some may think that what I'm trying to do is ridiculous. I run the risk of some of those people being my students. I run the risk of creating a situation where the reading and activities come so fast, from so many directions, that it feels like an assault. A big, frustrating blur of ideas, whizzing by. Or, even worse, projectiles screaming through the air, some smacking against into the body before they bounce off, roll away.

True, deep learning is usually uncomfortable. It should rock your ideas to the core, make you roll back on your heels and say, WHOA, I never thought of it like that. Cognitive dissonance, I tell my students. Learn to love it sit through it.

But there are so many layers. Let me try to sketch these out.

It's hard to talk about the profound changes that are rocking our teaching and learning lives as a result of the exponential changes in information & communication technologies, particularly the Web, if the Web isn't woven through people's daily lives. I'm not talking just individual tools here. I'm talking about a different way of seeing, of being, that comes as a result of mindful playing with whatever Web-ness one can grab. So I ask them to go out on the Web and see what's there. To tinker. And I design assignments that push against some of the traditionally basic tenets of our subject area, English, as well as some of the practices that are traditionally considered "best."

Over the semesters I've taught this course, I've seen that even this one layer is challenging in so many ways:
The computers. How do you turn them on? How do you sign in to the College's system? The wiki, the blog, the shared folder of documents-- the passwords. So many passwords. So many pages on the wiki. Which page are we on? How will I get back to it? How do I find something? Tags? What's that? Wait, how will I know my blogging partners have written? Oh, the new blog title is bolded in my Google Reader. Oh, that means I need to check it regularly.

I count at least a dozen balls alone in the paragraph above.

Then we add a new layer. We read. It's not easy reading, either, and the ideas? They are so unsettling. Since when did literacy go plural? What's the difference between Discourse and discourse? (and why should I care?) And what about books, and literature, and.... (So many ideas, so many projectiles, help, I'm dying here.)

Then we start talking about the so what. If we can have class in a virtual space and see each other and talk to each other, what's the purpose of place-- a classroom, a building. If anybody can add a wiki page, write something that challenges what the teacher says, suggest that deadlines or projects or readings be changed, then what's the purpose of a set-in-stone syllabus (curriculum)? What counts as learning? Who decides?

Then there's reality. How can any of this make sense when every site is blocked in my school? When we don't have computers? When we spend the entire year preparing for tests because we're a turn-around school? Why aren't you telling us the answers?

Because we haven't created them yet.

In my head, of course,  loom the fears. The awareness that everything students might be thinking about me as a teacher could be true: I'm disorganized, indecisive, ignorant. That I sound like a nut case. That the course, already on the outer reaches of the department's priorities for teacher preparation, is going to fizzle and die.

Today I'm going in to do the thing I usually do at this point in the semester. More risk. More projectiles.

More opportunities to learn.

Image: boles grounge by Miquel Bohigas Costabella via Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.0


  1. 15 weeks of work in 6.

    As a teacher, student, artist, person I have always responded well to structure. When I have boundaries, whether physical or psychological, the space in between is my room to dance. My reaction, resistance, or embrace of those "rules" makes the choreography much more dynamic. The structure becomes fodder for the content.

    15 weeks in 6 is our metronome. It is a gift if we choose to see it as such. Otherwise we can let our frustration become the excuse for why we did not try such-and-such or why we "could not do the reading". I elected to be a summer student knowing the challenges of the collapsed time. In fact, it was my job to reflect on my personal obligations and learning habits and then select the appropriate number of classes for me to take. As a teacher, you clearly believe that listening to the feedback of your students is not a one-time, end of course, activity but an ongoing dialogue. Nevertheless, trying to be flexible for the class does not mean the teacher bears the responsibility of managing individual responses to work assigned. The teacher sets the standard and, like it or not, it is the student contract - the choice we made to approach a subject that might mean having to learn many new skills very quickly - to achieve the objectives of the class.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response Alexis. I've been pondering it for a while.

    The deeper I go into the potential for transformation that certain aspects of technologies offer us, the more aware I become of the challenges. It's hard to know the sources of some of the challenges, or how influenced these are by educational beliefs undergirding the high-stakes testing frenzy.

    I wrote this post for a couple of reasons, one of which was not to proffer an apology. One reason was that I wanted to play with the idea of 'openness' that is such a buzzword in the discourse of certain Web arenas. I've long believed that being as transparent as possible is a requirement of teaching pre- and inservice teachers; this was one way to extend that, to see how I felt about it.

    Another was because I fear that a lot of the 'openness' floating around may be a touch misleading. It's not easy to do this work. Technologies won't make deep change easier; using technologies to do the same old thing only more efficiently is just not good enough. To read some blogs is to come away with a false impression, I fear. So, what the heck. I decided to write.

    Finally, I've never been a fan of whining. My intention is not to condone, but to model the power of dialog between teacher & student. To model what it might be like to not be driven by the constrictions of external, increasingly rigid, and often small-minded educational structures. Risky business, that. Messy in a big way. And, I hope, unsettling.


  3. I always love reading what you write, Karen.

    I remember one of my professors in my teaching program telling me that the reason most people go into teaching is because they are control freaks; I think she meant this in a good way;) But she encouraged us to take risks; to be willing to fail greatly (and often).

    Asking our students (and ourselves) to let go--to really push their/our thinking into uncharted territory where there aren't any clear answers (yet) is bound to be, as you put it "messy" and "risky." I admit to feeling very apprehensive about the course I'm about to teach. Nothing is set in stone, and I'm worried that I haven't provided enough structure, direction, etc. I guess this is all to say that I'm right there with you--and very happy to be along for the ride.

    1. Lindy, thanks so much for your kind words. Even more important, thanks for sharing the journey....

  4. There's something that I've observed among more experienced teachers and teachers of teachers: the ability to recognize when to really push back against a student, and when draw back. I really appreciate that for the class, you recognize the need to continue pushing on, going back to the theory, and more recently, challenging us to recognize the assumptions not so far beneath our comments and questions. This insistence on identifying assumptions seemed like a break-through moment for the class. It's not contradicting; it's not replacing one statement for another. It's a way to look critically, a way to challenge us to think about why we have any particular opinion.

  5. The thing is, no matter how much experience you have, each break-through moment with a class or an individual student is always new, unique, and completely unpredictable. I have never been as relentless about the theory of all of this until...well, now. This has surprised me. And yet, how else can we start to push at our own thinking unless we use Big New Ideas? The move from BNI (Big New Ideas) to assumptions seems like a logical next step. I think it was James Gee who said that we're each born into a Discourse, and when we go to school we learn another. Once you have a new place to stand and you figure out how to move back & forth, everything looks different. Importantly, though, is that you-I-we have a new way to see....Thanks for your good words.


    (I think I was reading your most recent blog post as you were commenting here. Love your idea.)