The Possibilities and Challenges of a Participatory Learning Environment: Students and Teachers Speak

I’d like to share with you a conversation for learning I had this morning with fellow teacher Lisa Kennedy and two of her students.   Lisa and I have been contemplating the aspects of the inquiry driven, participatory learning classroom that students embrace as well as the pushback we’re seeing from students (which includes some Media 21 alum).   The backdrop of prior student learning experiences, extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, pressures of standardized testing and choices students make about using class time are layers of this learning ecology that we’re trying to negotiate as Lisa and fellow 1:1 netbook pilot program teacher Cleve Ard work through the tensions of shifting from a teacher centered classroom to a student centered focus.   The range of reactions to this model of learning from Lisa’s students mirror what Susan Lester and I have observed for the last two years:  a continuum of responses ranging from pure jubilation and a sense of feeling empowered and liberated to intense resistance.  In terms of student responses that are a pushback to this model of learning,  Lisa sees similar themes or motifs of student response that Susan and I witnessed, particularly during the 2010-11 academic year:

  • some students desire to be “spoon fed” knowledge rather than actively constructing it
  • some students expect  the classroom is the only site of learning and do not desire to engage in learning outside of the school day
  • some students privilege  classic literature over nonfiction texts (online and in print—memoirs, biography, journals, magazines, newspapers) as what counts as “real” reading and are concerned they aren’t reading “what we’re supposed to be reading” in an Honors or AP course.

For the last two years in my work with teachers like Lisa Kennedy and Susan Lester (Media21), I’ve been immersing myself in the discourse of a participatory learning ecology (and by default, the library as a site of participatory culture). In the last year or so, I’ve really started thinking critically about some of the pushback we’ve seen from students who are struggling with this model of learning and the reasons for that pushback—what are the stories behind this and what do they tell us about the bigger picture of the dynamics of education and learning in an educational culture driven by standardized testing and standards? Consequently, I’m wondering how do we effectively think about the challenges inherent in these narratives and the complexity of the layers we’re trying to peel back.  In the next couple of months, I’m hoping to look more closely at this challenges through the theoretical lens of scholars like Bakhtin as well as other critical theorists to hopefully have a better understanding of what I’m observing and to be a better teacher and practitioner; I also hope to draw on this to more thoughtfully contemplate how a model of participatory learning informs my conceptualization of “library.”  All of these wonderings reflect how I’ve become increasingly immersed in my role as learning specialist at my school.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll take time to watch this 18 minute video and listen closely to the ideas, concerns, and reflections, especially as they relate to matching learning tasks and assessments, the importance of failure, trust (or lack thereof) in a learning community, social/collaborative building of knowledge and meaning, ownership of learning, and inquiry.  A heartfelt thank you to Ms. Lisa Kennedy and her students for their honesty, constructive feedback, and willingness to share their thinking in such a public way and to help push our thinking.


Fontichiaro, K. (2009). Nudging toward Inquiry: Re-envisioning Existing Research Projects. School Library     Monthly26(1), 17-19.

Students Creating Content with Multigenre Learning Artifacts

Helene Blowers inspired me to think about a greater focus on content creation by patrons (in my case, students) at this summer’s GALILEO Gold Conference. As an English teacher for our district’s summer school program in June 2008, I enjoyed implementing a multigenre research project in which students created alternative learning artifacts in conjunction with a traditional paper to represent their key insights and ideas learned through their research experience.    You can read more about my initial efforts in these posts from 2008 (post 1, post 2,).   This past summer, I worked in our summer school program as one of the school librarians and was struck by how many of my previous students came by to say hello and to share how much they had enjoyed the multigenre aspect of the reserach project a year earlier—no small feat, obviously, for a learning experience to impress a teen to that degree!  I knew then that this multigenre work would need to resurface in the  fall as an integral part of my Media 21 project.  To learn more about the multigenre concept, please see my resource page I created earlier this year.

As part of their research and learning portfolios for their Issues in Africa research project, Ms. Lester and I asked students to create five multigenre learning artifacts that reflected a representation of information that stood out to them from either the reading of their book or their actual research.   The options included:

Here are some student reactions and thoughts on the multigenre aspect of the research experience:

from Maida:

I think that I learned more through multigenre projects compared to others.

from Danielle:

I have truly enjoyed the multi-genre project that we recently started. I think it is a good project because it forces me to look at the book from yet another point of view. It is almost as if I am putting myself in the characters’ shoes and telling their story.

from Zach:

The multigenre part of our research project has been my favorite activity from this year so far.  These multigenre elements have given me a new perspective of the events that are described in the book such as genocide and the lost boys.  I love being able to show my creativity while telling the story of the lost boys.

from Alex:

To be honest, I think that I am enjoying the multigenre projects for my research portfolio web site more than anything else.  I think that this portion of the project is my favorite because I could choose from a large list of projects.  I feel like I am more in charge of the multigenre aspect of this project than any other part that I have done.  I really enjoy the fact that I get to be more creative and let my personality come out in the multigenre project.  I like that artistic people can benefit from some of the multigenre elements, and people that like to write can also benefit from some of the multigenre elements.  Personally, I am enjoying both the writing part and the artistic part of this project.

We have seen some terrific representations of students’ interpretations of information and understandings, include original artwork, Glogsters, videos, poems, creative forms of writing, and even bulletin boards.  One artifact, though, that has really stood out to me is Betty’s “two voice poem” based on her reading of the novel Chanda’s Secrets and her research on AIDS.  Betty, who has given me permission to post her two voice poem here, has created a powerful snapshot of her thinking:

This kind of work has me thinking about several ideas and areas of inquiry:

  • What are ways to help students promote and publish their work outside of their Google Site and Slideshare portfolios?  Or to somehow catalog and promote their portfolios through our virtual and physical library space? How might student work become a new part of the library collection? How would this move fit into my framework of participatory librarianship?  Right now I’m thinking about ways to build a virtual student collection of work that could integrated into my catalog—suggestions are welcomed!—and ways to also promote this new part of our collection.
  • What are other possibilities for the multigenre menu that would speak to my efforts to posit transliteracy as a mainstream literacy?
  • How might a greater emphasis on content creation engage students in research and information fluency?

Imagine: The End of Multiple Citation Styles

William Gunn posed one of the most intriguing questions I have seen in some time:

I readily admit to feeling a sense of elation and relief at the thought of one uniform citation style instead of the current maze of style manuals we are often forced to negotiate.  What do you think?  What would be the pros and cons of such a simple yet bold move?  How might the simplification of citation style impact student research?   I invite you to contribute to the conversation at FriendFeed and/or here on my blog.


Within Reason?

I have not been able to get Seth Godin’s post, “Within Reason”, out of mind since reading it yesterday.  When I think about this post might apply to libraries and schools, I can’t help but think of statements, explicit and implicit,  like these that many of us hear (and maybe utter ourselves) on a regular basis:

  • “That would be great for students to have access to social media websites…within reason.”
  • “Sure, you can check out and read whatever books you want…within reason.”
  • “You can use these information sources in your research project…within reason.”
  • “Yes, it would be great for students to post their work online and share information about their learning processes…within reason.”
  • “Students may have access to the Internet…within reason.”
  • “Of course we want teachers to integrate technology and use cutting edge resources…within reason.”
  • “We encourage and ask our teachers to think for themselves and use their professional judgement…within reason.”
  • “We will give teachers the right to override blocked websites and to submit filter removal requests…within reason.”
  • “We will examine open source and cloud computing solutions for our schools and libraries…within reason.”
  • “We promote and encourage intellectual freedom…within reason.”
  • “Of course teachers can still implement inquiry based projects and units of learning in a testing driven school culture…within reason.”
  • “Students can use school and library computers for learning…within reason.”
  • “Yes, you may use your cell phone or MP3 player here in the library/classroom...within reason.”
  • “Of course you can develop whatever research questions you want for your project…within reason.”
  • “We support your efforts to expand the concept of what a library can be in the 21st century…within reason.”

Can we really create successful, vibrant, meaningful libraries and schools as long as stay within reason?  Do current educational and/or library  practices and policies undermine the mission statements and vision we claim to have?  Is it reasonable to stay within reason?




Image used under a Creative Commons license from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nyllows/3475906797/sizes/l/

While I take great pride in my professional growth of the last three years, especially the last 12 months, I frequently worry I am not growing enough or as quickly as I’d like.

I read a diverse range of blogs and articles that I discover through my wonderfully insightful PLN (personal learning network) via Google Reader, Facebook, and Twitter, and it seems the more I read and dialogue with others, the more I worry that I may not be adapting quickly enough to the changing information landscape.  On a bigger scale, technology is changing our society and culture whether we acknowledge this change or not.

How might these changes affect the role(s) I have to play in the lives of my students?  My role within our school?  How do I need to respond to these changes to make my library program even more relevant and meaningful in our learning community here at Creekview?  What technologies or cultural shifts do I need to give more attention that might change the way a school library may function in the next year or the next five years?

Three different pieces have caused me take pause and wish I had a better ability to peer into the future and to figure out what I need to do to stay ahead of the curve and to better adapt my current concept of a school library to the changes that are taking place around me.

Howard Kurtz had this to say in “The Death of Print?” in yesterday’s Washington Post:

The people who run such companies bear a considerable share of the blame. In 1993, just before the Internet became a consumer force, I argued in a book that newspapers had become too cautious, too incremental and too dull, tailored largely for insiders. The rise of hugely profitable monopoly papers in most cities made them increasingly bland, seemingly allergic to controversy.

Then the Net changed America, but newspapers remained mired in two-dimensional thinking. They created sites that were largely a static replica of their print editions. There was little updating, little sense of the dynamism of the Web, and when I started writing a blog for washingtonpost.com in 2000, I had little company in the mainstream media.

The missed opportunities were endless.

On April 30, Joyce Valenza had this to say in her Neverending Search blog:

What is clear is that a lot of smart people–people who are out there teaching, speaking, moving, and shaking–are disappointed in what they see when they see school librarians.  Either we have a perception problem or we need to do some serious retooling.  I’d say we have to deal with both.  In a hurry.

Being an information (or media) specialist today means being an expert in how information and media flow TODAY!  It is about knowing how information and media are created and communicated. How to evalute, synthesize, and ethically use information and media in all their varied forms.  It is about being able to communicate knowlege in new ways for new audiences using powerful new information and communication tools.

Forgive me if it hurts.

In my mind, if you are not an expert in new information and communication tools, you are NOT a media specialist for today.

Doug Johnson shared this worry on May 10 in his Blue Skunk blog:

Some days I feel great about what I do – when someone e-mails or comes up to me at a conference to say that I have been helpful to them. But I also wonder what the hell I have been doing for the past 20 years when more school library positions and programs are in greater peril than ever. Either my strategies are flawed or the message hasn’t gotten through in my work trying to make the profession more relevant, more critical, and less dispensable to schools.

These three pieces have me stirred up this morning—I’m  trying to think hard, to reflect deeply, to see beyond the familiar—am I missing opportunities to make my library program more relevant to our students, teachers, administrators, and community?  Are we ignoring the warning signs and tremors that may portend major changes in the way school libraries function in the not so distant future?  Are we willing to think outside our comfort zone, to possibly give up the way school libraries function now for something that may be far different but even more powerful for 21st century learning?

I’ll be thinking long, hard, and critically about this question while I look diligently for opportunities this next year to make my library an authentic agent of change in my school.