The Big Empty

Sometimes a notion creeps, advancing slowly in moments of clarity and surprise. Lately, a notion is banging down my door, tired of creeping, and it began during a talk by Simon Breakspear at the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum last November in Prague.

Homogenized education, homogenized haircuts!
Homogenized education, homogenized haircuts!

Simon gave an inspiring talk to the group the day before, but due to some delayed flights, I missed it. The next day, we got more inspiration. PowerPoint slides flew fast and furious.

There was a bell curve, but we were all on the right side of it (the right side is the left, of course). There were photos of 19th Century schoolhouses, desks in a row, followed invariably by titters as we were asked if this looked like the classrooms of some people “we” knew in “our” schools. I recognized this rhetorical device. Pictures of candy replaced photos of assembly lines. This trope, too, was familiar. As if in a seance, or as if poised over the Ouija board, the specter of He Who Is So Often Channeled in such situations spoke to me, and he spoke in the form of an Idea Worth Spreading.

He, who is the second most recognizable two-named Sir of my lifetime; first is Sir Mix-a-lot (the hyphens make it one word), second, Sir Ken. For the love of Pete, he’s been animated and knighted.

And so it went, until the slides about what “we” must do to maintain competitiveness with China and India popped up on the screen. I was aghast, looked around, found one or two pairs of eyeballs equally aghast. From where I sat, though, I couldn’t see my Indian and Chinese colleagues who were also being inspired. In the same room. At the same time. Who, after all, were “we”?

They're the same candy. Wait, no...they're different. We're all individuals! Mass produced individuals!
They’re the same candy. Wait, no…they’re different. We’re all individuals! Mass produced individuals! Thanks to sudeep1116 for the photo.

This trope, of course, plays like gangbusters to the Western audience. Fear of a rising China and/or East lies latent, economic distress compounds the concerns, appeals to “competitiveness” strike deeply. Unless you’re Chinese.

What bothered me most in that moment was how this “we” was woven, a roomful of career teachers and a young, charismatic, almost-totally-probably well-meaning ed reformer were “colleagues.” It struck me as odd that a career student of education would so demonize the classroom of the past, present, or future because some are so obviously poor places for learning. I’ve had a bad ski lesson. Should I no longer go to the mountains for skiing?

Of course students learn beautifully outside of classrooms, less so inside some classrooms. Of course education is flawed. Of course education is something we do together; “we” is apropos. Simon is one of us, somehow. But can we reduce the cliches, visual or otherwise? And can we, please, not pit us against them, if we can at all avoid it?

The current educational discourse, so far as I can tell, includes actual teachers on the ground in places like Craig, Colorado, and

You see, it's a factory model, comrade.
You see, it’s a factory model, comrade.

reformed teachers with their heads in the clouds. Both, I’m sure, love kids and want only the best for them, but in the second link is a perfect storm of edufluff. There are two word clouds and two bulleted lists, each in its own format. But this author, Angela Meiers, is not alone. Every day on Twitter I view and re-view blog posts sponsored from upon high (Education Week) and from individuals like myself pouring out thoughts into the ether. Many feature titles such as

  • 17 Amazing Things To Do With an iPad!
  • The Problem With Disengagement
  • Finland – Utopia, or Simply Perfect?
  • Standardized Testing – What Are We Measuring?
  • The Opt Out Movement – Occupy Classrooms
  • Homeschooling: No Classrooms, No Limits!
  • Can Charters Succeed?
Wordle: Untitled
Small. Powerful. Words.

And so on.

When I sat whilst being inspired, quietly seething, I formulated vicious blog posts now sitting in draft format on my server, posts with titles like “Everyone Who Generalizes Sucks.” I sat on those ideas. My 180 Twitter followers might abandon me if I wrote what I felt. Twitter works that way, and so does Facebook, and most other media channels – the system indoctrinates its users into norms, simply and efficiently. Here I sit, typing into a blog read by my Mum (Love you Mum, and appreciate your readership!) and almost nobody else, and I actually censor myself. Seriously.

WikiCommons is a cesspool of filth like this AWESOME "Classroom Birching" image. The Id reels.
Any ed reformer wishing for a 19th C classroom pic should be required to use this AWESOME “Classroom Birching” image. The Id reels.

But today I played a short snippet of a conversation between genius blogger/writer Seth Godin and Krista Tippet on her radio show “On Being” for my Digital Journalism class. We were walking through the “Feature Rubric” for podcast and written features, but I wanted students to feel empowered to edit the rubric and ignore it, “discerning” what was good on their own. Seth, in speaking about art, spoke about discerning what contributes and what fails:

 And the only way you get that discernment is by practicing. Is by saying, when I pick this am I right? When I put this in the world, did it resonate with the people I was trying to reach?

Further, he said:

So tell 10 people — there are 10 people who trust you enough to listen. And if you tell your thing to 10 people — if you send your e-book to 10 people — if you do your sermon to 10 people or show your product to 10 people and none of them want to tell their friends, and none of them are changed — then you failed. That you didn’t really understand what was good. But if some of them tell their friends, then they’ll tell their friends, and that’s how ideas spread. So it’s this 10 at a time — 10 by 10 by 10. How do you put an idea in the world that resonates enough with people if they trust you enough to hear it. That then it can go to the next step and the next step.

I think he’s right. So I challenged students to put the work they care about out into their social networks, to share in any ways they see fit, and to test their ideas in public. Seth goes on to say something interesting (albeit a bit confusing) about social networking, compelling about kids living out loud online, and revealing about his new work, The Icarus Deception. He said:

So if you and I had been sitting around just after the Dark Ages and heard the story of Icarus — what we would have heard is this: that Daedalus said to his son two things — one, put these wings on but don’t fly too close to the sun because it’s too hot up there and the wax will melt. But more important, Son, do not fly too low, do not fly too close to the sea, because the mist and the water will weigh down the wings and you will surely perish. And for me the most important message that I’ve come to after thinking about this for so many years is, we are flying too low. We built this universe, this technology, these connections, this society, and all we can do with it is make junk. All we can do with it is put on stupid entertainments. I’m not buying it.

Twitterverse, #education Twitterati, we are flying too low. I can’t continue to reflect the discourse when it is so repetitive. We’ve got to move beyond the packaged message as teachers, and recognize that sometimes, when messages feel familiar, it’s because that’s how they were designed. I want to write the education that I do, the teaching that I organize, the values that I hold. I am putting this out there, sharing with more than 10 friends, and we’ll see if it gets repeated. I’m trusting my voice, my knowledge, and my expertise. It’s time for pragmatics and ideals. I want to raise standards for behavior and turn ethics into action within and beyond my classroom. I don’t know how, but I know what I won’t do ever again:

  1. Quietly digest nonsense
  2. Use photos of 19th century classrooms or candy as a metaphor for “personalization,” which is a bullshit term anyway
  3. Gratuitously abuse lists (OK, I’ll do this all the time, but feel weak as I do so)
  4. Discuss boredom
  5. Retweet a cliche
  6. Embed a word cloud
  7. Complain without a solution
  8. Fetishize social media
  9. Censor myself (editing and revising myself will remain active)
  10. Write a top ten list

I will try to fill the big empty space with something that I care about. This is my notion: Do, then write. Share. And see what happens next.

Badges for Student Choice – Not Revolutionary (Yet), But Positive

One informed risk I’ve taken this year is the introduction of badges in my AP Literature and Composition classes. After a semester,  the reviews are positive – many students appreciated the opportunity to branch out and try something a bit different.

These badges replaced an outside reading requirement and allowed for student choice of both material and assessment type, something difficult to accomplish in an externally moderated course like the AP or IB. While the badges may not have provided whee-fun! responses per se, the respect afforded by choice improved the classroom environment in what can sometimes be a bit of a slog through content and repetitive writing types.

Less than five students chose to read outside of class for their badge. Far and away the most popular badge was the Internet Enlightenment badge, and it led to great discussions with students about their social media presences. As an “edtech” wonk, the depth and breadth of these conversations was surprising; I couldn’t predict student responses. Kids obviously chose this badge for its ease, which is perfect, because it made them change their behavior online, or at least change their privacy settings.

One concept that repeated through the conversations was the idea of “parking” social media personas for later use in life. If a kid isn’t using Google+ today, she sees that she may in two years, so she wants to keep that space “clean.” Pretty informative perspective, really. Spaces like Facebook are useful in the same way that my daughters’ playroom is useful for containing the mess in our flat, but the girls will outgrow this space someday.

The coolest badge was clearly the Starving Artist. I received beautiful digital art from a student on one of my favorite novels, Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Students made paintings and drawings based on all sorts of novels, including Kafka on the Shore, which impressed me. One student even made a dress of white chiffon with a belt made of real chains spray-painted gold on the basis of her outstanding reading of “The Lady of Shallott” by Tennyson. This young lady arranged a model and blew my mind with the rigor and specificity of her analytic argument, connecting throughout to the text specifically. Her rationale is a stellar example of literary argument.

While she wasn’t happy with the final result of the dress, she made it, and it was cool. Additionally, she reflected specifically on what she would do differently next time. All of this made my day, but it’s the display of fine literary argumentation produced through the pursuit of the badge that makes me so happy. Self-selected, this assignment rang true and captured the student, leading to excellent, meaningful practice. This didn’t happen for every student, but it will in other assessment contexts. When it happens once, I’m stoked.

Other students extended the classroom into other directions, resulting in learning that I value, and that many of them valued. If the badges doesn’t advance toward our AP Lit goals, I’m okay with that. In terms of the partially successful requirement that these badges replaced, I’m happier with the greater proportion of success created by the badges so far.