Learning Spaces & the 1 to 1 Classroom

Recently, it seems like the idea of using and not using technological tools during interactions with other people is ripe and alive in the media. I have just finished listening to a podcast of “On Being” from American Public Media entitled “Alive Enough,” and featuring a conversation between host Krista Tippett and Sherry Turkle, who is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. The title of this show/podcast refers to a moment Turkle had with her daughter at a Darwin exhibition while they looked at a Galapagos turtle. Her daughter, who had been exposed to animal robots from an early age due to Turkle’s work, remarked that a robot would have been “alive enough” to substitute for the turtle, without anything really getting missed. Reflecting on what works and what doesn’t for me so far in a 1 to 1 classroom, the idea of “alive enough,” and a number of other key points raised in the broadcast illuminated interesting questions for me. In any classroom, space matters, as I learned from Harry Wong’s classic The First Days of School. Space should be managed cooperatively between students and teachers, and the laptop opens a window the size of the Earth in each student and teacher’s personal space. What are the best ways to teach, learn, and cooperatively manage this new space? Additionally, I’ve been realizing lately how often I engage in conversations in our staff office while reading an article, or scanning emails, or flitting back to the screen from eye contact. I’m not fully present in the conversation, and both I and the other end of the conversation lose something as a result; the same happens in the 1 to 1 classroom, and I wonder what the best ways are to create moments of maximum human engagement, or if others are thinking about this. Finally, as our personal computing technology and network technology matures, what does this mean for education?

Obviously, in the 1 to 1 classroom, we can close the laptops and bring everyone out of the technological space and into the physical space, from an attention standpoint, at least momentarily. Of course, students have been distracting themselves from classroom instruction and activities since the dawn of classroom education, and a big reason for this is teacher-centered activities. When students are working on engaging, authentic, and self-directed activities to build their own understanding of topics and fluency in skills, they are more likely to be attentive, technology or no. However, the rise of “multitasking” and its attendant challenges has led, in my informal observations, to students who cannot stop the mini-distractions that arrive through their connected laptop and who don’t fully engage with something that I really believe they would otherwise. It is clearly arguable that the task isn’t engaging enough in such a case, but come on – they distract themselves from Facebook with Skype, so I’m going to state that something new is happening here. Tippett and Turkle discuss “sacred spaces” in their conversation, and the ideas could easily apply to our connected, 1 to 1 classrooms:

Ms. Tippett: You do use this phrase “sacred spaces.” One moment of insight that I had about technology was when I was talking to Jon Kabat-Zinn. Do you know him?

Ms. Turkle: No.

Ms. Tippett: He’s a scientist, but he’s worked on bringing meditation into medicine. He made this really simple observation that technology goes 24/7, but we don’t. I mean, biologically, physiologically, we can’t. It’s this boundarylessness. I mean, this gets back to your point that it’s not just a matter of choices. At some point, it’s a matter of survival we have to set boundaries. When you talk about sacred spaces, what are you talking about there?

Ms. Turkle: To make our life livable, we have to have spaces where we are fully present to each other or to ourselves, where we’re not competing with the roar of the Internet and, quite frankly, where the people around us are not competing with the latest news off the Facebook status update. They may not have anything new. They may just be there being in a way that needs attention… Anyway, I guess I’m saying that sacred space is for me the places in your daily life where you want to keep them for yourself and the people who you need to give full attention to.

Note, this isn’t a discussion of paying attention to stuff, like how to punctuate an end citation, but to each other. I’ve had great success with motivating and engaging students through cooperative projects, and I’ve had some success with cooperative projects using technology like Google docs. However, when students are having a guided small group discussion in a self-selected space, I so often walk upon them and find one student ignoring their peers partially or completely through their laptop. This runs counter to what I expect from teenagers – the drive to be a part of the group. Sometimes, I’m sure it’s an escape from interpersonal friction of some sort, but how serious? How minor? When the space between students is thinned or undervalued and the cyberspace escape is before them, choosing the escape is totally predictable. Prioritizing the interpersonal is essential in all classrooms, but I can see clearly that this must be addressed explicitly in the 1 to 1 classroom. How? Probably modeling. The discussion continued:

Ms. Turkle: I have very simple rules. I mean, so far as I have rules for how to know you’re close to one or in one or should be having one: It’s dinner, it’s sharing meals with your family, it’s that moment at school pickup when your kid looks up and is trying to meet your eye. You know, you’re looking down at your smartphone and your child is trying to meet your eye.

I have enough data from children who’re going through this experience to know that it’s a terrible moment for them. It’s on the playground. Very bad when your child’s on the jungle gym and is desperately trying to have you look at them, for them to be taking hands off the jungle gym to try to get your attention — accident time. I mean, be in the park. Be in the park with them. Spend less time there, but make it a space. Make it a moment. These are important moments.

Ms. Tippett: It’s so interesting that you’re talking as much as or more about adults not setting boundaries with this, right? I mean…

Ms. Turkle: Oh, absolutely. Well, this is data-driven. I mean, this is data-driven in the sense that this is one of the surprises to me in doing the research. I thought when I started this research that I was going to be telling a story of children driving their parents crazy.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Ms. Turkle: And I’m not. It ended up that it was a story of parents — as much a story of parents leaving their children feeling lonely and alone and modeling the very behavior that then they came to find irritating in their children.

While the focus in this discussion is parenting, the parallels to the classroom are clear (and fascinating – what are we modeling?). Even in this piece, I am struggling to define the anti-social (in anal0g) behaviors that I do, such as partially ignore a colleague in the staff office, while tracing the contours of similar student behavior in the classroom. So, what are the signals for interpersonal space, for interpersonal digital space, for solo space or solitude for thinking, or for solitude in digital space, which can be so hard to find in Web 2.0? Tom Ashbrook, in a recent “On Point,” discussed texting in a fairly facile conversation, but he covered the expressive abilities of teenagers to signal with an eyebrow that they are still listening, but need a moment to read and respond to a particularly important or provocative text message. Should we create explicit classroom structures that delineate specific times for specific spaces, as listed above (or including spaces I haven’t considered), sending the “eyebrow message,” if you will, that it’s time to work alone on a short written response, and that this alone time should mean close the browser, shut off the Skype alerts, turn off the music, and everything else for a little time alone with your mind? I think this could do a world of good. As they continued the discussion, they addressed the idea of what schools and universities could be doing in this regard:

Ms. Turkle: That’s great, you know, but knowing how to do that and getting good at doing that, this is the art and science of 21st-century communication arts and sciences. It needs to be nurtured and developed, and I think that’s the problem that we’ve had in education where, you know, you set up the ability for people to have WiFi in classrooms, you put them in big lecture halls, and they shop [laugh]. You know, I mean, was it just because we put them on WiFi that we thought they were going to be setting up exciting fora in which they would be bringing things to a higher level?

One university after another is rethinking this and, as I go around the country, you know, we talk about it, we laugh about it because everyone who’s a professor today pretty much, you know, a senior faculty were there when this was set up and we remember what was on our minds and now we stand in the back of those classrooms and watch our students, you know, ordering from REI Sports and Amazon and on Facebook and on J. Crew. You know, we didn’t give it enough thought, so that’s what I mean.

Ms. Tippett: So that’s part of the growing up.

Ms. Turkle: Just this is part of growing up. Just because we grew up with the Internet, we think the Internet is all grown up and it’s not.

You know, what are the things that, if we don’t pass them on, even with this new technology, we’re going to feel we didn’t do our job? (emphasis added) And I know the ones for me. I mean, I have the ones that are important to me. I feel very strongly about privacy, a very important conversation. You know, I can’t necessarily make that conversation come out the way I want it, but I want to make sure that my voice is heard in the mix. That’s very important to me, and then solitude, the importance of solitude.

Ms. Tippett: And this question of where leadership lies in starting these important questions about how we shape technology to be humane and sustainable, and the possibilities of that answer are more interesting because of the nature of this technology, right? There’s a possibility for everyone to be a leader on their Facebook page or as they reshape their family lives. I don’t know.

So, because I value thoughtful classroom spaces, I value shaping classroom structures that mimic thoughtful human interaction or solitude in digital spaces. This is new territory for students and teachers, and I can imagine an action research project in which we work together to shape these new classroom norms. Using syncing technology to block internet connectivity for digital personal space doesn’t feel right to me, because it is authoritarian and inauthentic. Nobody learns how to take care of themselves more humanely in an authoritarian structure. If students work with me to shape these spaces, they will be censoring their own flow of information and connectivity, which seems like an essential skill for our brave new world. Connectivity is like cookies, and ultimatums like: I will no longer eat cookies! tend to go nowhere. We need to work together to find a way to moderate our cookie intake to something healthy and protective of the essential deliciousness of the cookie (too far with the metaphor?). As pointed out in this program, the internet itself is new, and Web 2.0 is newer; we’ve gorged. Now, as the web matures, technology matures, and we mature as users and people, what new practices are best for the connected 1 to 1 classroom? Many practices, like student centered, constructivist approaches will always be fantastic. However, my thoughts for next year are as follows:

  • Work with students in transparent action research to create  signals and processes for creating cooperative interpersonal space in the physical classroom, cooperative interpersonal digital space,  solo physical space or solitude for thinking, and solitude in digital space for thinking.
  • Model interpersonal engagement during interactions, and avoid the eye flit, the microdistraction. In short, be present with others.
  • Prioritize a cooperative environment in the physical classroom through cooperative structures, as I may have been blinded by the technology and let this slip a bit.
  • Continue reflecting on what I value in learning and build classroom structures that support that.
  • Reflect and respond to the maturing technology in ways that support learning. I am really thinking a lot about Google Chromebooks, and have thoughts on this that will follow soon. But, that’s for another day.

High School English – The Right Argument

Kim Brooks has published an excellent piece in Salon.com entitled “Death to High School English,” and it’s spot on. So spot on, in fact, that it’s painful to read. I make the statement every day that I’m a writing teacher, and the statement becomes an argument over time. I love literature; like Brooks, my latter two years of high school English were an awakening for me, but so was photography and AP Art History, which she didn’t have a chance to take. For me, the opportunity to read around the canon, pieces like Cat’s Cradle and Travels With Charley did me a world of good, as did arguing vehemently through my ignorance with teachers and shaping my evolving arguments into cogent, well-organized paragraphs and essays. In university, I struggled to find a better meal ticket major than English Literature, but I stopped caring about other people’s concepts of my future and sank into a deep love of words, sentences, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, books, plays, films, and essays. This was for me, and I gave back, writing myself, mostly for myself, but loving every moment of the engagement with language.

Now, I teach high school English, and I’ve learned beyond the shadow of a doubt that I love teaching argument, media, nonfiction, and writing, writing, writing, but that it is really hard work. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had my best success in classes of between one and six. Today, I teach classes up to 18, which is still a fine number and in some ways better than a handful, because learning cooperatively often catalyzes persuasive writing and revision processes for kids who might be otherwise disengaged. Ironically, in my new position I am a literature teacher – AP Literature and courses for younger high school students designed to get them to literature, IB or AP. I have shaped my approach to non-fiction based courses like AP Language, for example, to AP Lit, working in essay forms, sentence writing, but not nearly enough grammar writ large, opting for more of a less intensive, personalized approach that doesn’t work so great. In fact, I’m looking for the grammar instruction cure all – if you’ve got it, send it my way. My personal goal for the past three consecutive years has been to improve my grammar instruction and I’ve failed three years in a row.  The good news is that it’s my goal for next year, and I’ve got two excellent partners teaching 10th grade English who share the goal.  Additionally, we share a goal to shape the curriculum at least equally around reading and writing, which is exciting. I’m bringing my experience in writing-first curriculum, which by no means abandons reading instruction, and shaping it to allow for exploration of texts through writing in addition to discussion. Or, at least that’s the plan.

Ultimately, high school English is about performance – what are we asking kids to do? Brooks’s students report:

Those who didn’t make it onto the honors or A.P. track hardly mention writing or reading at all. They talk about giving oral presentations and keeping reading journals evaluated with a big, meaningless check. They reveal putting on skits, reenacting some scene in a novel or play whose title they can’t recall. One student recounts a month of junior English class in which she and her classmates produced digital short film adaptations of the trial in “The Scarlet Letter.”

“Sounds fun,” I say to this student, a girl who would not know how to summarize a source or correct a sentence fragment if her life depended on it.

Obviously, these students are doing little to anything relevant either to themselves or their current or future language skill needs. I pick up hints of my own failings in that description, for sure. In a best case scenario, students are writing and reading a great deal, revising their work and reflecting on their learning outcomes. Mixed in there should be authentic tasks that aren’t writing and reading, but perhaps one or the other, or a media-based facsimile of writing skills, like outlining. Still, I’ve fallen prey to EnglishLite, with lots of presentations and media, and little writing or reading, justifying it by student choice. I should have worked harder and smarter to get everyone on board with what they needed to do, unit by unit.

So, what do students need to do? I take it as understood that nobody needs to read Faulkner or Joyce, Victorian novels, or Derek Walcott (everyone should read Derek Walcott, but only if they want to live a complete life as a human being, but maybe the world needs derivative traders, too). I also take it as understood that everyone should read an essay by David James Duncan, Richard Rodriguez, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Virginia Wolff, or Barbara Ehrenreich. Read, and then what?  Do they need to learn how to write? Brooks answers brilliantly:

I bounce the question off another friend, Amelia Shapiro, a longtime writing tutor and composition professor who now directs support services at a university in Hawaii.

“I hate that fucking question,” she replies. “I hear it all the time and I hate it. No one asks this question about calculus, but who uses calculus besides math majors? If the question’s going to be asked about writing it should be asked about every subject. Even students who aren’t going to stay in college need to know how to write. We’ve all gotten emails or cover letters where we’ve judged people based on the writing. It’s not an essay but it’s still communication and people fail at it all the time in profound and meaningful ways.”

When I ask her why she thinks there’s such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: “It’s not fun.”

True, but then, teaching (and for that matter, learning) isn’t always fun. Changing my kid’s dirty diapers isn’t fun. Dragging my fat ass onto a treadmill isn’t fun. Helping my grandmother “fix” her computer isn’t fun. Sometimes we do things not because they’re fun but because they’re important.

In a word: Word! This is it, the hard, painful truth. Teaching writing serves kids, and it’s important. Writing is communication. Every day colleagues write me emails that could mean at least two things, and even with what I like to consider advanced reading skills in English, I struggle to discern their meanings. I judge – I’m a teacher. You judge, too. Students should learn to write not because it’s a “21st Century Skill,” but because it is an essential skill. Also, writing is thinking about text, and about the world, and about our own values, and there’s nothing more engaging or authentic.

I could go on all night about what is true in this piece, but read it yourself and share a comment or two. Let’s discuss, in writing. After all, I’m a writing teacher.

Thinking About Feedback

As I rounded essay number 45 or so and headed for third base today, my eyes were dry and I had the familiar essay ache that doubtless plagued my students at the end of their timed write. I enjoy reading student writing, and actually look forward to assessments like timed essays because it gives me data, information on what kids have learned, improved upon, missed completely, or ignored outright. I write a lot of feedback on student writing, and I push myself to be specific every time. I also try to focus on no more than three areas of growth, tied to our writing rubric, for each kid each time. There are many balls to keep in the air, including goals from previous writing assessments, but I dig it and enjoy the interactive nature of reading student writing and providing specific, targeted feedback.

So I read, I write, and I give students back their writing. They flip to the grade, roll their eyes, give high-fives, gasp in delight or horror, and ignore everything else. In the past, I had students who were much less grade driven and/or had classes with very few students, in which we could all sit down individually and discuss each student’s performance at length. I’ve made some minor changes to providing feedback, asking students to write metacognitive responses prior to seeing feedback or grades, but in larger (but by no means large) classes, I haven’t found the magic trick that will move students past simply looking at grades and shutting down or throwing up defensive walls. Of course, the same thing that works every time takes a long time to establish: a mutually respectful, open, and honest collegial relationship.

So, I have some ideas about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to feedback and focusing students on feedback. What doesn’t work:

  • Grade Centrism – Grades just get in the way. In a perfect situation in which any rubrics handed down from upon high are very valid, used with and by students regularly, and common across curriculum areas, grades become measures of performance. In less than perfect situations, grades quickly turn into arbitrary judgements of the good and the bad, the smart and the not-smart, or whatever the teenaged mind might read into the ambiguity between performance and grades. Not good, feedback doesn’t get through here.
  • Competitive Academic Environments – Collegiality counts. If you are an obstacle to my success, if this is a zero-sum situation, we’re in trouble. Related to the above.
  • Shifting Language – As a writing teacher, it’s a little crazy to me how many terms teachers have for the word “thesis.” It’s equally crazy how many different ideas teachers have for what a thesis should be. If I laud a student’s voice, and another teacher applauds that student’s style, and another teacher cheers that student’s tone (but without meaning tone, as I define it, as the speaker’s relationship to the subject), the student will think she is doing three things well. If one of us gives negative feedback on voice/style/tone/etc, how will she fix the problem? This even happens in math, I think, when kids learn different terms for operations at different levels. We have to know this means learning the same thing differently, time and again. Getting our language aligned can streamline learning and certainly make feedback laser focused.
  • Vague Feedback – I learned this from Grant Wiggins. “Good job!” Every time I write “Yes!” or “Great!” it’s a clarion call to keep writing: “Yes – sensible identification of tone in narration and effect on the theme of confusion in the text!” or “Great use of a signal verb to introduce a detail from the text!”
  • Dropping It Like It’s Hot – Got, got, got to go metacognitive, ideally before they see my feedback at all. This can be tough sometimes, but it must be done. This can go hand in hand with portfolio assessments, which is why I say we’ve got, got, got to be doing e-portfolios, but that is for another day.

There are more things that don’t work. What works reads like a flipped list:

  • Performance Feedback, not Grades – Sure, grades, I get it. It’s the way we do things. Sweet. Still, let’s change school cultures to focus on performance, through authentic performance tasks for assessment. Let’s show kids what great is, how to create great, and then assess the result with lots of specific feedback.
  • Cooperative Academic Environments – Nobody is an obstacle to your success – they are either an asset utilized or ignored. It’s a paradigm for mutual success. If this is working, everybody can provide constructive, specific feedback at any level in any direction and everybody learns, including instructors and administrators.
  • Aligned Language – Make the language match across the disciplines. Wow, does this take a lot of work. It’s worth it, though. Ancillary benefits are clearer expectations and a greater conversation around big ideas like differentiated instruction and assessment, what that means, what non-negotiable performance benchmarks might be. I don’t know what bad outcomes of this slow process can be.
  • Specific Feedback – Specific and aligned to expectations shared in advance of, as part of, or through instruction. Language must be non-judgmental, but also clear in terms of what has been done well, what hasn’t, the implications, and the path forward.
  • Spending Time with Feedback – Here’s a great opportunity for metacognitive response, conferencing (portfolios!), revision, peer discussions, and so much more. My action research for my MAT focused on student-created rubrics from model work or exemplars – it wasn’t all perfect, so perhaps model could be a misleading term for some. Students can create powerful assessment tools and, through so doing, truly internalize the expectations and produce amazing products as a result. It’s like a feedback loop inside a feedback loop.

Anyway, here’s a quick breakdown of what works from Grant Wiggins, as published by New Horizons.org:

Elements of a an educative assessment system:

1. Standards

· specifications (e.g. 80 wpm w/ 0 mistakes)
· models (exemplars of each point on the scale – e.g. anchor papers)
· criteria: conditions to be met to achieve goals – e.g. “persuasive and clear” writing

2. Feedback

· Facts: what events/behavior happened, related to goal
· Impact: a description of the effects of the facts (results and/or reactions)
· Commentary: the facts and impact explained in the context of the goal; an explanation of all confirmation and disconfirmation concerning the results

3. Elements of evaluation

· Evaluation: value judgments made about the facts and their impact
· Praise / Blame: appraisal of individual’s performance in light of expectations for that performer

4. Elements of Guidance

· Advice about what to do in light of the feedback
· Re-direction of current practice in light of results

There is more outstanding information at the Wiggins article linked above and here regarding how to create a feedback cycle. It’s genius in its simplicity and power. At any rate, as I read, wrote, and reflected, I wondered what makes me effective as a writing teacher. As I consider all of the things I’m doing differently now from last year, it’s the commonality of my feedback on student writing that helps students learn and improve more than any one thing. At least, that’s my thought for this busy Sunday, and it’s what led to the reflections herein. I wonder what works for other people in terms of providing feedback for student learning.