‘Scuse Me, While I Kiss This Guy!

In the annals of misunderstandings, maybe my favorite is the “Purple Haze” syndrome. Mishearing lyrics or poetry even has a terminology: mondegreen. I remember, hilariously, a friend making this mistake in real time; so awesome is the memory that I doubt its existence, like snipe hunting or cow tipping, a signifier masking misadventure.

In fact, so pervasive is Purple Haze syndrome, some believe it to be based on fact, even naming their mondegreen websites after the lyric as they ironically explore the possibilities that the whole paradigm of their site is, in fact, bankrupt.

But that’s not what I want to write about.

Sometimes, even when we say what we mean, it gets misheard. Misunderstandings arise as language bubbles through emotional and physical filters like stress and our cochlea. Saying what we mean exactly, then, is essential, especially when we are instructing children or offering feedback.

A student came into my classroom yesterday, venting: “I just don’t know what she wants from me!” What is she hearing? What is being said? There’s almost no way of knowing.

I’m working on condensing a general use  6 Traits rubric to 4  traits based on feedback from my English department. People seem generally happy with it so far, though some colleagues found it too specific. I’ve been processing that, and I believe I have come to an understanding that specificity expresses expectations. An analytic rubric should express expectations for product. As such, an analytic rubric must be specific.

Additionally, being specific demands that we make decisions about what good products or outcomes are. Too often, the hidden curriculum of what a teacher likes or wishes for filters through a rubric, leading to grades in the end. Student gets grades, tries again next time. A solid analytic rubric communicates expectations, ideally in language the student understands and has practice with. The hidden curriculum or expectations will still exist somehow, but the student can be empowered to improve in a creative cycle through solid feedback and reflection based around a good analytic writing rubric, for example.

Even when expectations are clear, the student has to apply them and get to know the expectations personally, through their own writing (or other performance) and through their personally significant mental models. Until then, pieces of a complex rubric will be mini-mondegreens, limiting student learning and agency.

We’ve got to be specific and clear. We’ve got to be repetitive when it matters. We’ve got to engage in cycles of attempts and feedback. And we’ve got to give students experience with the expectations to internalize them meaningfully. Because even when we do, someone is going to hear something differently.

Now, excuse me, while I…

The Tale of My Blankie – from “Gears of My Childhood”

For whatever reason new, first time parents make decisions that seem, in retrospect, hilarious, my parents bought for me a white baby blanket, waffle fabric like old fashioned long underwear with a synthetic silken border. A melange of vomit and other bodily fluids, dirt, foodstuffs of all kinds, pet hair, and Play Dough slowly, almost generationally melded into a gray Earth tone no bleach could penetrate. White was their choice, but experience turned the blanket into the color of a November Ohio sky.

I have no actual memory of the synthetic silken portion of the blanket. According to my parents, I immediately set about tearing it off, so the frayed, soft edges of cotton are what I recall. I’m not surprised I hated the snaggy, slick feel of polyester silk; I hate synthetic fabrics still. Once altered and mine, the blanket became a constant companion and the basis of a narrative that still shapes not only how I learn, but how I interact with the world.

Somehow, the blanket became wedded to an imaginary, invisible friend named “Ghost.” Today, I can see that Ghost allowed me to weaves stories through my daily activities, processing in words and imagining worlds within worlds. When I first read Seymour Papert’s “Gears of My Childhood” essay introducing Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, I thought “Oh, it’s books for me.” Books and stories have been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember, but of course the stories came first – those read to me and invented by me.

Even today, watching my 4 1/2 year old daughter spin stories of play and possibility, I see the power of narrative to hammer experience into something comprehensible. In learning anything, I try, observe, reflect, and revise reflexively. Experience teaches, and narrative contextualizes the teaching intellectually and emotionally, in the way that we feel stories.

As I grew older, the blanket and I curled up on heating grates, couches, into corners, and in bed, endlessly reading. I read early, and continued reading. I’ve never really stopped. Growing up soaked in fiction led to an internalizing of narrative structures, and for better or worse, I recognize narratives unfurling in the world around me as a result. I explain ideas through stories. I see the inner narratives of people around me and their effects. I write stories. I am insufferable at the movies, often identifying the entire plot arc before the ice melts in my Coke and usually explaining my prediction to the groans of my wife.

Like Papert explains in his essay, the affective nature of narratives for me is anchoring and positive. Like Papert, nobody told me to read or love reading; in fact, people often begged me to stop or read less. When I write, I disappear somehow, absorbed. I still love imagining worlds, people, situations, reactions, causes and effects. The love that I have for narratives is engrossing. When I can build a narrative around an experience or through an experience of classroom learning, I succeed. When I can’t, I fail.

Through history, biological sciences, and some mathematics, I connected and made relationships with the subject matter, internalizing, revising, and building interpersonal narratives. When this process failed or was broken for me by teachers, I disconnected from the material intellectually and emotionally.

Beyond school and more importantly for my life today, my early experiences in the outdoors were regular and intense, leading to a very close relationship with the natural world. When I get to choose my leisure activities, they are outdoors or creative, like photography. Through these activities, I dream stories. I sit at night, quietly imagining the next time I run a rapid or snowboard through a tightly wooded glade, visualizing. Outside, I relax and my mind whirs through stories. Inside, like Wordsworth and his daffodils, I often drift off to a Colorado mountainside or a Slovenian river.

So why a blanket? Attachment to a material object is an attachment to memory, and my memory is story, image, and a marriage of the two. Imagining a friend based somehow on the blanket is my earliest memory of making stories, constructing narratives. The stories we tell ourselves are the foundation of our identity. I process the world through stories and conceptualize of complex relationships between ideas, objects, and people as narratives. Further, I see narratives in my mind’s eye, experiencing them, feeling them. The blanket is the genetic object behind my relationship to narratives.

Papert claims “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.” My experience as a teacher and a learner supports this claim. I feel lucky to have a diverse and useful set of mental models for learning, but each gets processed reflectively through an internal narrative. From my earliest important material object to my career as an English teacher building literacy and writing skills with children, roots from this genesis of learning through narratives spread broadly, connecting it all into a (mostly) coherent whole.

Interest-Based Learning – Readings & Reflections from “Learning Creative Learning” MOOC

That learning should be interest-based is, to me, obvious; I base the curriculum of several digital journalism courses solely upon students following their interests. Of course, as a teacher, I also do my damnedest daily to wallop kids with material they will not only not approach with interest, but be bored by in large percentages. Such is the lot of the literature teacher in a traditional sense (there’s room for change here, but I’m only scratching the surface).  Still, plenty of stimulation from the readings and videos arose, and my short reflection is here, numbered by question:

  1. What did you find most interesting or surprising in the readings?
  2. What did you disagree with or have questions about?

1. I’ve written about Living and Learning With New Media before here and here. I love it, particularly the “hanging out, messing around, geeking out” heuristic. Providing the time, space, resources, and social opportunities for kids to work together or independently on chasing personal interests and to produce media (in my courses’ cases) based on it is my favorite part of my current job. Blending this heuristic with Mitchel Resnick’s brilliant creative spiral of Imagine Create-Play-Share-Reflect-Imagine provides the foundation for providing supportive learning environments for students to explore their own and shared creative processes.

2. However, what I found surprising, if not totally so, was how hard Joi Ito jumped up and down on school and his experience in it. Almost nobody goes broke in America these days by excoriating school; I also didn’t enjoy most of it, which is why I teach. Still, the degree to which academics beat up K-12 school is disconcerting to me and is a drumbeat that grows particularly tiresome, if not obviously hypocritical. (/soapbox)

1. Of course, as Joi Ito alludes to rightly in his talk, Mimi Ito loved books and structured her learning narrative around them – this works because reading is what school is largely based upon. A learner like Joi is destined to suffer if he is not a bibliophile. As Joi wrote on his blog, education should be more flexible and responsive, particularly by trusting the value of children’s interests – even when they are video games, etc, that stuffy adults almost reflexively distrust. But even as MOOCS start ruling the world, his experience echoes my own, in that as our interests get more and more focused and based on experience, we may also “find [ourselves] increasingly reaching out to formal education institutions for the rigor and depth that [we] need to explore [our] areas of interest.” Finally, I loved “Dubai & Knowing the Unknowable” because it was an excellent explanation of why I have spent so much of my life abroad. Learning has many forms, and most are valuable.

2. The power of pull – I love it. How do we embed literacy instruction and guidance to shepherd younger students toward positive centers of gravity and away from, for example, the pull of Reddit’s found porn communities? I can’t be part of fostering such interests, nor can I value them at all. What is the role of guiding and modeling positive ethics as we offer opportunities for exploration, via messing around and geeking out?

The Slide, or The Problem With Rules

Think of the rule that you never enforce. Maybe it’s hats, or gum in the classroom, or cell phone use in the hallway, or eating outside the cafeteria, or using a black pen on Tuesdays, or whatever. There’s one, the bridge too far. The beginning of The Slide.

In general, I detest rules. It’s congenital. Of course, boundaries are the essence of society, and we must have them. I like setting my expectations at the upper limit, with a few ground floor expectations for consistency’s sake: Respect, Responsibility, Cooperation, Preparation, Engagement. I’m sure that’s a few too many; it could begin and end with Respect.

But the rules. Oh, the rules. At our one-to-one school, there was a laptop-free lunch several years ago. Then, we opened the top floor for the desperate. Then it spread downwards. Now, lunchtime is a battlefield of spell-casters and Gossip Girl-heads strewn prone throughout the campus, slackjawed, staring. Conversation, when it happens, revolves around which demon to slay, which is a step up from TV induced silence. Digital Natives, living in their Brave New World? Not exactly.

Let’s ignore, for now, the students’ free periods. (JOKING)

And there’s food strewn about, and litter, and hats, and halter-tops, and cell-phones, and a bunch of stuff that I don’t enforce regularly, mostly because, you know, come on, right? nobody is, and what a hassle, and are you kidding me? and so on. This is The Slide.

Straight-up – I am a guilty participant in The Slide, the loosening of rules and expectations, and witness first hand the bleeding over of one loosened rule into the transgression of many others. This is the essence of any society or institution: We’ve got to agree on a few boundaries, or the boundary I care most about will be transgressed, just as the ones I don’t care about are transgressed before me.

Schools often have too many rules. Those that we choose should be essential, and five or less in number (probably). We should model said behaviors. This is obvious. However, discarding the rules that we can live without is a foray into a dark barn of sacred cows, lit differently for each student and teacher by culture, background, and values, particularly in an international school. To halt The Slide, though, this is exactly where an institution must go, examining our shared values and laying them on the table for all to see.

Of course, it’s all theoretical for me. I have been nowhere that actually went through an open process of reexamining the detritus of the years, leftover rules and concepts to which some adhere and of which others know nothing at all. I wonder what it’s like. Tough as it may be, hard conversations about priorities and the inevitable give and take seem like a way to reset, or to halt The Slide.