What if schools operated as if we should all be “learners”? Part 2 #IMOOC week 3

Yesterday, our school played host to a first-ever regional workshop of 4 area schools.

About 800 educators came together to spend the day in workshops, presentations, discussions, sharings, connections all in the service of the theme of the day “Connecting for Kids.”

The premise was simple–we have a lot of education talent in the Finger Lakes region. Let’s put it together, share those resources and knowledge, and our kids can benefit.

Such things do not happen easily. A coordinated effort such as this takes time, and it takes resources. Superintendents trusted that it could come together. Such is the culture of innovation.

The vibe for the day was amazing. Everyone that I spoke with felt like they were learning, and felt like the connection between other teachers and educators inspired and re-filled those March-empty teacher tanks.

Such a day makes room for people to return to something fundamental. It allows us to become learners again. We connected for kids, but we also connected for ourselves and our passions.

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What if schools operated as if we should all be “learners”? #IMMOOC week 3


Analogy: “Career” vs. “Passion”; “Teacher” vs. “Learner”

It popped into my Twitter feed earlier today. A question that should be added to the list of questions asked when hiring new teachers: “How do you consider yourself a learner?”

A career in education is a long one. Some teachers may spend 20 years, or perhaps 30 or 35 years working in a classroom. Educators may move from a classroom setting, to some support role as  a department chair or leader, or in many cases, move into an administrative position.

If we see our roles only as a adults there to give knowledge, hold students accountable, assign points, it may come to feel pretty static.

And, when students aren’t interested in the class, they resist by not doing work, adults up the stakes with more rules, systems of accountability, and I’ve seen the burned out of imposing the role of the “teacher.”

Integration question: What are the principles of sustainability in ecology and environmental science and how can they be applied to the field of education

I don’t have your answer.

For me, it’s a drive to do new and different things in different ways in my classroom. To not rest on something that’s worked in the past. This means knowing that I have to learn about new techniques, approaches, methodologies and tools to make the new possible and successful.  


Pop Culture in Practice

This week’s Edublogs Club asked us to consider the role pop culture and pop culture texts play in our classrooms and in our instructional practices.

The Tedx Talk by Mackenzie Matheson argues that pop culture, found in media such as Disney films, provides valuable insights into our world, with narrative that comment on what gender roles are promoted and which are subverted, as well as how these narratives provide powerful socialization tools.

Thus, the use of pop culture in classrooms can be an excellent tool for student engagement and critical pedagogy in the classroom.

Like what Matheson advocates for in her talk, I’ve used Disney films to discuss how media can deliver powerful messages about gender, race, and class. However, what I’ve often found is disdain from my students in such approaches. It’s as if they’re saying, “How dare you try to despoil something from my childhood that I love.” Students want to accept pop culture at face value, to enjoy it as consumers of entertainment. They don’t want to accept that Cinderella promotes duty to cruel and unjust parents, that the little mermaid suggests that women need to change themselves to please men, or that Aladdin perpetuates stereotypes made by Western society about Arabic culture: “It’s Barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” Most of the messages in Disney films come intermixed on the screen with catchy jingles and smooth whistling from characters.

While I agree with Matheson’s ideas–not just her but with other educators who are pop culture-in-classroom proponents–that pop culture is valuable, but I guess I diverge and think that it’s not the quick fix to student disengagement or faltering motivation.

As an aside, Matheson’s talk provides some great analysis of these films. I wonder how she arrived at it. On her own? Or was that part of a classroom assignment or from someone teaching her about media analysis? Was there any research conducted? What were her sources? I have to think a classroom and teacher were in some way responsible, but we won’t know.

Also, I didn’t think her talk added up. There was analysis of Disney films, but in the end her message is identify with a character, fight your Disney battles. I didn’t seem to come together.

Bringing in media and using it is important, but I’ve also found that students access such a diverse and really fragmented array of media, that finding commonality in their tastes is near impossible.

I play, as many of my students do, video games. For weeks now, I’ve been excited to play the new PS4 game Horizon Zero Dawn; however, when I shared this with my classes, not even the gamers new what I was talking about. When I am able to talk about videogames with my gaming students, I realize that we don’t all play on the PS4. Some play on the xbox, some on PC. We play an astounding array of games and in many styles. I love learning from them and I’m inspired. But, even as gamers, we lack commonality.

It seems that we no longer, as a culture, access the same media narrative. Decades ago, there was a commonality–families sat around a radio and listened to a broadcast. And every family in each house and neighborhood was likely to listen to the same thing. Now, each person carries their own metaphorical radio around, and most have them in their pocket; however, that radio plays such a diverse range of media and programming, and that choice gives us power, but it also divides us.

No longer can we count on the idea that everyone watched the latest episode of MASH, or Friends, or Seinfeld the night before and that we can talk about it while circles around the water cooler or over bad cafeteria lunch in the teacher’s lounge. Instead, the water cooler talk revolves around the individual programming of the watcher, and an argument from each on what should be added to the other’s Netflix queue for watching. I myself have trouble remembering what media services my co-workers subscribe to: “Are you on Netflix? No? Hulu? Prime?”

The same goes for students. We can’t expect everyone to have watched PLL, or Lost or Grey’s Anatomy. They’re all watching something different. And if it’s not watching, then they’re all listening, reading, streaming, or Youtube-ing something different. If they aren’t Disney freaks, then they’re into video games or rap or ESPN.  

This makes it almost impossible to have a common framework and approach in using popular media in the classroom.

What’s important is not necessarily the media that I bring, the popular culture media, but that students might bring their own favorite kinds of media into the class space to share, and more importantly to work at evaluate, to review, to analyze, to seek out its messages.

When empowered to work with their own media choices, the results can be great for the individual student. I’ve seen great work done in analyzing gender in Orphan Black and genre mash-up in Firefly. I’ve seen them analyze depictions of masculinity in World of Warcraft. Students do great visual analysis of Seventeen magazine covers. I’ve had students create excellent histories of the Mario franchise.

Where I’ve had the most success is not with what I bring to the table, but when I give them the opportunity to select their own media and texts to work with.

Education Carnivals and Curriculum Hucksters

Almost two weeks ago now, I wrote about a dangerous trend in thinking about our schools and what can transpire inside of classrooms. This thinking is seen from educational policy wonks to researchers to educational leaders to educational technologists. There’s this crazy belief that education can happen magically with the help of computers and that most learning can occur when student, properly motivated, seek out their own learning. I’m motivated today to write further about this after reading Pamela Paul’s March 17th dispatch in the New York Times entitled “Reading, Writing and Video Games.”

The central question of Paul’s writing, “Do children need videos, dancing farm animals and digital gadgetry to learn?” is answered at the conclusion of her piece: “Let children play games that are not educational in their free time…Then, once they’re in the classroom, they can challenge themselves. Deliberate practice of less-than-exhilarating rote work isn’t necessarily fun but they need to get used to it—and learn to derive from it meaningful reward, a pleasure far greater than the record high score.”

Paul reminds us that games and fun often have their place, but perhaps the classroom isn’t it. Like Paul, I agree. One slippery slope we might imagine is classrooms filled with Wii consoles and students playing first person shooters blasting their way through sentence fragments, misspelled words and dangling modifiers. Sounds like fun, no? Maybe we could Dance Dance Revolution through our times tables.

In my time as an educator from the late 1990s, the perception that learning and education must be fun has blossomed full into a giant canker for us to deal with as teachers. When we think that learning must be fun, we devalue teachers as educators developing critical and civic intellectual capacities and make them more carnival hucksters and Las Vegas dancers. The true stuff of learning is often difficult. There are skills and concepts that are tough to master, and at the same time, important. In English, writing is a central skill. It’s hard to do, hard to teach, and hard to master. But, in every profession, necessary. In History, concepts of the Enlightenment may feel abstract, and yet, they are fundamental to our society and the rule of law by which we live. In math…In science…are examples from each discipline necessary to see the point?

There are studies that look at teacher believe that students are less focused and that new technologies have been a contributing factor. However, I remember some of what I was like as a high school student. I don’t remember being very focused, but I do remember my teachers calling me out for it. I also remember spending a lot of time listening to my yellow, SONY sport Walkman blasting REM, U2, and The Cure through those tiny ear buds. I also remember my teachers saying those Walkmen would be the death of civilization. I think I turned out okay. We need to be careful of such research based in teacher perception.

There’s a different slippery slope that we’re on that’s far more concerning that I’d like to take a moment to bring to light. Some of you may say, Keith, your argument is a slippery slope; however, just because it is doesn’t mean that we’re not sliding.

Educational publishers, educational technology companies and computer salespeople love the argument that education needs to be driven by entertainment and fun. It fuels their sales pitch—that their products will keep students entertained and learning. In New York state, modules are being developed K-12 to provide districts with packaged content that meets Common Core. Nervous administrators, district-level Boards of Education under public pressure, and wrote teachers love this stuff. Everyone gets to say that they’re meeting new standards. Happy? You betcha! In one way, all of these new educational materials seem to be the latest, cutting-edge trends. It’s hard not to see the cool factor in digital technologies in the classroom, and to feel comforted by prepackaged materials from a state education department.

However, don’t drink your Kool-Aid just yet! Anyone would be a fool to think that you could take something prepackaged and just shove it at kids and have it work. Those modules will need to be set to classrooms. They’ll need to be style and adjustment to them to have them work for the personalities in the room.

Put together, all this stuff is the white elephant stuffed with explosives. The danger in itself is educational software, prepackaged units and modules, schools in the clouds, lessons all as videos on demand. Where are the teachers? We don’t need them. Or, really, we need fewer teachers. Who needs experienced teachers when students can access this material with an iPad app? When we have prepackaged modules that lay out objectives, lesson plans and worksheets, why do you need teachers to create that stuff. You only need people to deliver. What we’ll need is teacher aids monitoring students on computers or tablets or sitting in front of video displays. We’ll need aids that can photocopy worksheets and give them to kids. Then, we’ll need a licensed teacher monitoring a half-dozen teacher aids.  What a budget-saving boon to districts, to society not having to pay for pensions. If we continue to believe that learning must be fun, that technology is the answer, we’ll continue down this slope I’m talking about.

Common Core and the teacher rubrics adopted in my district offer an opportunity to take our teaching to a new level. This needs to fall somewhere between repurposing the old just for the sake of meeting new standards, adopting what educational publishers push at middling administrators, and throwing all of what we’ve done in the past out to arrive at some new evolution.