Archive for March, 2008

Meme:Passion Quilt

I am grateful to be a reader of Tricia’s Miss Rumphius Effect because her dedicated writing gives me the opportunity to know her better–and to learn all kinds of great things about books and poetry! So I am answering her “tag” here, happy to be a part of such a wonderful quilt.

What am I passionate about teaching my students? Well, everything I know about learning I learned from my own children, so my picture for the quilt will let me tell a bit about that story:

My kids, like all kids, loved big, empty boxes. They would make me cut holes in them for doors and windows, and they insisted on painting them. They also loved costumes and pretending. It all came together one day with a large discarded window treatment and a case of the stomach flu. With both parents laid out on the couch, the boys were entertaining themselves (read:making a big mess) when they had an epiphany: Mom and Dad need us to make them feel better! They started to bring together the things they loved, making a kind of puppet theater in which they were both costumed actors and puppeteers. They told goofy, disjointed stories that had us holding our sore tummies and laughing. I could see on their faces how proud they were of themselves–they had created something effective and teh laughter they heard was all the “grade” they needed!

What I learned from that day has shaped the way I teach. I try to remind myself that the most amazing thing happens when I give people a reason to do something new, and then get out of the way. What I am passionate about teaching my students is that they have it in themselves to DO things, to LEARN things and to CREATE things. But what makes me a teacher is that I know that telling them this message is not the same thing as teaching them about this! Here is how it works out in my classroom: students read or write outside of classtime. Then, during class time, they work in small groups to come up with something new related to what they have read and written (a question, an answer, a picture, etc.). Then the small groups offer what they have come up with to the whole class. I try to facilitate a “learning community” because I think we learn best when we can work together to solve problems. It is important to me that they get back in touch with their “inner learner” who did this learning thing so naturally as a child, and connect the new stuff to themselves and to real life. I want them to know that they have the power to do this already–inside themselves.
And the interesting twist is that they seem to do this best when there is a real life product involved, when they feel that someone needs them and that what they create matters. I have written before about what I think of as my most successful class ever. I will never, never forget how I felt when I saw what had been a rag-tag bunch of flip-flop clad students with a “messy” project show up in suits and dresses to give the most amazing ,active presentation I have seen, demonstrating a deep understanding of the composition theory and pedagogy. Really–that presentation was better than most I have seen at professional conferences, and because they presented to real folks from Richmond and Henrico County, there are now middle and high school writing centers in operation in our area! Their work was real, it mattered, and I got out of the way and let them do the whole project themselves, with my only role being: designing the project, gathering an audience, and trying not to act too nervous while I paced around their group meetings like a sheep dog circling an unruly herd.

So now I will tag some educators who I would like to have add to the quilt.

Reverend Jim

* Think about what you are passionate about teaching your students.
* Post a picture from a source like FlickrCC or Flickr Creative Commons or make/take your own that captures what YOU are most passionate about for kids to learn about…and give your picture a short title.
* Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt” and link back to this blog entry.
* Include links to 5 folks in your professional learning network or whom you follow on Twitter/Pownce.


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After following some links, I ended up at this post over at Connectivism. Various people are discussing the merits of the idea that, when discussing technology and teaching, we should always put pedagogy first. It is an interesting discussion, to be sure, but I want to raise a different question, a question that I think has to come BEFORE that question: who or what is the referent for that pronoun? (Ahh, now I have revealed myself for the English teacher that I am…)
Seriously, who are the people involved in these discussions? Obviously, some of the party must be teachers. But I know that most of us in this conversation spend part or all of our days supporting others who teach. We are faculty development specialists, instructional technologists, directors of centers for teaching excellence, etc. And, as one of that cohort, I find myself in this position: what is my role here? In what way should I bring up the “P” word at all, let alone decide what part it plays in the design of the class or the use of a tool?

Let me put it another way: am I a paraprofessional or a professional? Do I support faculty, or am I leading change? In my early years, I worked as a paralegal, so perhaps that colors my view of this, but if I am support staff, is it really my job to lead change? Paralegals aren’t out there teaching lawyers new things about the law. But they are professionals in their own right, with their own duties and responsibilities toward the clients. They bill their hours just as lawyers do, just at a lower rate. In a typical teaching center (if there is such a thing) we are not teaching the classes ourselves, we are only supporting people who do teach the classes. I suppose this analogy places students in the role of “clients” which may or may not be accurate, but go with me here. In this scenario, why are we supporting faculty? Ultimately to inprove the educational experiences of the students at our institutions.
I think that any time we end up in the position of “instructing faculty” we end up in trouble. Yes, I know that they didn’t learn about education theory in grad school and that what we know can help them. Yes, I know that technology opens amazing new doors of opportunity for classes and students, and that we know about technology tools that most faculty haven’t heard of. But I am not sure conversations in which we develop a “holier than thou” attitude will help us in any way with the folks who have to go in the classroom on Monday and work with the people who get to say anything they want on student evaluations that are read by department chairs and deans and ultimately play a part in raises and tenure.

Am I saying “we” shouldn’t exist. Not at all. I think the answer lies in doing development in a different way. I think we can help faculty to know what we know and get them to be our change agent partners only by entering into community with them. I think we create opportunities for faculty to find supportive, stimulating community that they may not be able to find anywhere else. These communities that function as safe places to ask hard questions can change a whole campus culture. No matter how small the project, some of the same hard questions come up. For example, in a group of faculty members all using podcasting in their classes for the first time, the question will inevitable come up: how do you grade these things? It is not too productive for me to hand them a rubric at that point. What IS productive is to get the faculty talking about what grades mean, what their students expect, what the goals of the project are, etc. Anything they come up with will work better than some generic rubric, and the added magic of sharing ideas about teaching and learning has happened. I think that magic is the really important part. And so I think that, instead of a “paraprofessional,” I am a community building expert.

To read more about community, technology and risk taking, read on over to Jeff’s post.

And, just for fun, to see a really interesting way of viewing grading and the way community can build a shared grading system, read Barbara’s post.

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A Little Dreaming

Sometimes, with other educator friends, I will get into one of those converstations: If you could create a school any way you want, what would it be like? Recently, I saw that an educator that I so admire is leaving the confines of the academy–maybe to pursue such a dream? I only know that higher ed is losing someone special when we lose Barbara Ganley. But because of her and Middlebury, I was looking at colleges in Vermont with my son who has never quite been happy in the K-12 world, and we came across Bennington. I have to say, if I were designing a school, I think it would be a lot like Bennington.

The school is very small, but has big, complex ideals. When I first read this presidential speech, I was sure of that. It is well worth reading the whole thing, but here is an excerpt:

Bennington is designed to move in the direction where things need to be done, where the stakes are high, where its flexibility, its unusual diversity of faculty resources (as rich in the arts as in the traditional academic disciplines) combined with its small size, and its fascination with what matters, are the drivers.

What fascinates me is the “HOW” of all of this. Students don’t “choose” a major”–they design one for themselves with the guidance of a group of faculty who mentor them. They don’t only study in the classroom, but also in the community when they work at an internship every January. They don’t make “art” or “new knowledge” in an ivory tower, but they explore the relationships between art and democracy, between creativity and logic. Students are active co-creators of the education at Bennington, and they are not only “allowed” to be active, they are expected to be! My son’s phone interview with Bennington was a conversation with a student. On the windows in the admissions building, there were hand painted portrait/sketches of people who work in admissions–done by a student for a class project. Students barged into the d-hall and made a big announcement like town criers about a lecture from a visiting expert on giant moths.

For my son, who was sometimes chastised in school for “asking too many questions” and reading too much that wasn’t in the text book, this could be just the place to make friends again with education. Heck, I wish I could go there! But at least it has given me a lot to think about, and to talk about the next time I am in educational dreaming mode.

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Michael Reder is leader of the Small College group at POD, and a wonderful colleague. He was one of the first people to help me see the particular challenges of talking about teaching at a liberal arts institution that values teaching. I know, that sounds like I have left out a word or made a mistake or something, but, no, that is exactly what I mean. Here is Reder’s description of the problem:

However, because [good teaching] is assumed, there is often the collective illusion that good teaching happens “naturally” (which is bad) (Reder and Gallagher 2007.) The false logic goes something like this: “We all value teaching; that is why we are here; therefore, we must be good at it.” Not surprisingly, most administrators are complicit with the idea that good teaching always happens on their campuses, without the need for support or intervention. And, as a whole, faculty members do care about their teaching and improving student learning, but caring is not enough.

(Read the wholearticle here.

How do we get past that? There are many different ways, but they have one thing in common. Again, I will let Reder speak for me:

Our work provides faculty with the opportunity to overcome what Lee Shulman, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, terms “pedagogical solitude.” Faculty from different departments, some on the opposite ends of our campus, many with differing levels of teaching experience, work together and learn from each other. By providing occasions during which faculty may talk about their teaching, we create the opportunities for them to learn: from each other, from the literature about teaching and learning, from reflective practice.

One interesting tension in my own work is that I find that I can help faculty well one on one, to identify their own goals, to reflect on their own teaching, and to facilitate their learning. But that doesn’t help create the kind of community that talks about and values teaching. Well, it doesn’t directly create that community, but it creates individuals who will be LOOKING for that kind of community. Maybe it is the first step. Patience is not one of my strongest virtues.

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