Moving from Spectators to Participants

CC image via
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You may have noticed I have not blogged much in the last two months; you may also have noticed virtually no posts on Media 21 compared to what you were seeing this time a year ago.   The sporadic postings have primarily been due to the increase in my teaching load so far this year, a happy challenge to enjoy; the absence of posts about Media 21 have been somewhat related to the more intense demand for my instructional services, but the lack of posts have also been impacted by several factors that I will outline below.   Media 21 has presented two primary challenges so far this school year:

1.  Helping students move from passive(and in some cases, large pockets of outright resistant) learners who consume to learners who contribute, create, and participate

2.  Balancing my own participation as a teacher and learner with these students with the other responsibilities and demands on my time as the lead librarian in my program.

These challenges have weighed heavily enough on my mind to find their way into my dreams the last seven weeks.  One particularly vivid dream involved Susan and I being at some kind of learning event , perhaps a conference, at a beach on top of mountain.  While at this “summit”, there was a feeling of happiness and joy.  However, as we started to leave the beach/mountaintop in a 1980s style vehicle,  I felt a tremendous sense of worry as our car was skidding on ice on the numerous curves we encountered on our descent.  At one point, I nearly fell out of the passenger side window and realized I was not buckled in with a seatbelt.  Once I snapped my seatbelt, I relaxed and wasn’t so nervous as we slipped and slid on the ice and snow that covered the curves.  Eventually, we made it to the bottom and ended our trip with a gentle landing.  When I woke up from this dream, I realized this dream represented the worry that things were not starting off as smoothly as we’d hoped but that somehow, things were going to be alright in spite of the rough start and uncertainty.

Because this initiative is one I care so deeply about it, I’ve found it difficult to honestly and thoughtfully articulate what I’ve been seeing, thinking, and feeling the last seven or so weeks.  However, I think now I am ready to share some reflections as it is extremely important to me to be honest and reflective in sharing my practice with others.

Sequencing of Learning Activities and Units of Study

Last year, we spent the first six weeks exploring uses of social media in education as well as for “social good” and introducing a number of cloud computing tools for learning; consequently, I was much more involved in the day to day instruction of the two sections of classes (10th Honors World Literature/Composition).   This year, Susan Lester (my co-teacher) and I decided to start with a novel study of Cry, The Beloved Country because we thought it might help lay the groundwork for our upcoming inquiry into “Issues in Africa” (October, November) and provide some scaffolding for inquiry/literature circles.    While I’ve been involved in instruction and working with both Susan and the students, my involvement has not been on a daily basis like it was last year although that is about to change as of September 27 as we begin our “Issues in Africa” unit of inquiry.

Right now, the jury is still out for us as to whether or not we would choose this unit as a starter for 2011-12 as we saw pros and cons to beginning with this novel study.  Whether we begin with a novel or some other medium next August, I think perhaps next year I want to adapt more of Jim Burke’s ideas from What’s The Big Idea; I definitely need more time to dwell in this book and to have time to better design learning activities that reflect the principles of inquiry (and subsequent scaffolding).  In addition, Susan and I both feel we need more help in adapting the ideas from Inquiry Circles in Action as we encountered challenges in all students acting as contributing participants in their August inquiry circles even though we tried to involve them in establishing inquiry circle protocols.

Getting to Know You

One of my primary frustrations this academic year is not knowing the students as well as I’d like at this point in the year.  I usually know names within a week of working with a group on a daily basis, and if I’m working with students regularly, I feel I am on my way in getting to know them as learners and individuals within the first month based on their writing, face to face conversations, and observation.    Because my contact with the students through face to face and virtual means has not been as great and because the class sizes are decidedly larger (on average, by 10 students or so in each section), I have found it difficult to know them beyond what I see in a 50 minute period.

However, I was actually able to facilitate a class conversation and then have one on one conversations with students in both classes for an entire period yesterday; the energy and interactions were incredibly positive and reflected my belief that what I’ve seen from their writing, there is great potential for thoughtful and significant work from these students.  I am hopeful that as I get to spend more time with them in the physical classroom (our library) and virtual spaces that I can better cultivate the kinds rapport and relationships I did with last year’s students (which have carried over into this school year) to better support and understand their strengths and needs as students and learners.  At the heart of any successful learning environment are meaningful relationships and a building a sense of community and connectedness.

Devoting More Time for Reflection, Deeper Study, Research, and Conversation

Susan and I both are struggling with finding a chunk of time in the day to reflect, talk, and share our ideas and reflections as she is dealing with new and more demanding course preps as well as an increase of overall students in her courses; I’m juggling more hours of delivering instruction and then spending even more time with instructional prep and program administration duties after hours as well.    We talk via email, in person, via phone whenever we can, but as many of you can relate, balancing the demands of professional life with personal life (plus the need for sleep!) is often a slippery slope.

Things I really want to somehow carve out more time to do this school year, not just in relation to Media 21, but in all aspects of library life:

  • More bursts of collaborative planning time with all my teachers (not just Susan!)
  • More one on one time with individual instruction with students and not feeling “rushed” or pulled in 10 directions during a given class period by other needs/interruptions in the library; for now, I may aim for 3-5 meaningful conversations with students per class period and try to build upon that.
  • Launching an ethnographic research project (this seriously could be a full time endeavor for what I have in mind)
  • Creating a small study group with both immediate faculty members as well as members of my PLN to explore challenges, common readings, and sharing of work on a regular basis to expand and better inform my theory and practice
  • Setting a regular block of time for deep reading, whether it be online articles, ebooks, or print materials
  • More regular reflection on this blog or perhaps a blog devoted to Media 21 and other similar efforts much like Karl Fisch with Transparent Algebra; I genuinely admire his commitment to blogging classroom life and his thinking about those transactions with students on a near daily basis.

It  is easy to dismiss such a list and say, “You make time for the things that are important to you.”  Sometimes this is the case, but for me, it has been more a matter of prioritizing the most immediate and pressing demands on my time as an instructional leader and individual.

Respecting Difference While Nudging

In spite of the fact I’ve been teaching for eighteen years,  I still am sometimes astonished at how very different groups of students can be from one year to another even though common sense dictates this should be an obvious fact!   Last year’s cohort was generally more of a risk-taking group with learning strategies as well as new technologies.  While we did encounter some resistance to an inquiry based, participatory learning environment from some students last year, most students eventually embraced that model and enjoyed opportunities to think for themselves, ask questions, create content, and collaborate.    For the first month or so, this year’s cohort has struggled in these areas.  How so?

  • Some have had negative previous experiences with technology; others have had limited or not so positive experiences working with small groups.
  • Some students in this year’s cohort were initially concerned that we were not starting with classical ancient literature (The Iliad) like other sections of 10th Honors World Literature.  I think this perception that there are “correct” texts to study and that “Literature/Composition” is mostly classical texts (and not study of other genres, research, and multiple forms of writing) is one that tends to crop up more with students taking Honors/AP courses.    These concerns speak to larger issues of what the NCLB climate of testing and “schooliness” are doing to “learning” versus “achieving.”
  • Other students found it uncomfortable that their traditional mode of learning, in which they were consumers of information rather than creators and collaborators, was not the model of learning we practice.
  • Our text and our efforts to look at other world views also disrupted some students’ assumptions and beliefs.

I have to remind myself that inquiry often does disrupt our comfort zones, and that the process of working through that discomfort, whatever it may be, is unique for each person.  I’m trying to balance my expectations of these students as learners ( because I DO believe they will rise to whatever expectations you set forth) and my desire to help them find ways to tap into their “cognitive surplus” with the fact that they come with unique previous experiences and temperament that may impact how they work through the assorted disruptions and where they are as learners.   While the idea of incorporating transliterate practices and privileging many forms of literacy into the act of creating a personal learning environment is familiar to me, it is not to these students, and I need to do a better job of respecting  the process of making the unfamiliar familiar.   Ultimately, the process of moving from a spectator to a participant in a learning community is a unique journey for each person.

My Thinking Right Now

After the initial experience of Media 21 and seeing how those learning experiences have carried over into students’ lives this year as juniors, I realize it is easy to forget that helping scaffold the foundation for this type of learning environment is often messy and involves varying degrees of pushback (more so this year, though, for sure); however, I am more committed than ever to having faith in the inquiry and participatory centered learning model while being more responsive to student needs and concerns as Susan and I do our very best to scaffold their efforts.

Two important footnotes:

  • Susan and I have decided to refer to our work with students this year as Learning 21″ to better reflect what we are actually doing with students and the focus of our work.   Technology provides us the tools to facilitate participation, content creation, collaboration, and inquiry.
  • I will be taking advantage of our week-long fall break next week to consider ways to make my  list of reflecting/reading/writing/library life “wishes” a reality and regular part of my work as a researcher and practitioner.

Your Thoughts and Insights

Many of you are encountering similar challenges (which I discussed to some extent this past summer) on this scale.  What strategies have you found effective in nudging students of this test driven era from spectators to participants in your learning communities?

Information Literacy and Inquiry as Disruption to School Culture Oppressed by Testing

My Media 21 project is inspired by the work of Wendy Drexler and Dr. Michael Wesch; this tweet from last week’s NEIT Conference reflects an essential question driving my Media 21 project:

As my Media 21 students have shared some new research reflections in the last week, I have felt both overjoyed and frustrated by responses.  How is it that some students have seen the last 15 weeks as the most challenging and rewarding learning experience of their lives that they hope will continue second semester while others have viewed the learning experiences more as a chore and something to simply “get done”?  Why do some students embrace reflection and original thinking while others chafe in the face of learning experiences that do not reflect the knowledge banking nature of today’s test driven educational climate?

In reflecting and returning to a reality that I faced when I adopted a literacy as inquiry stance as a classroom teacher in 2002, I am revisiting my studies of literacy as inquiry with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia.  Just as some students resisted a learning environment I created that valued questions, not black and white answers, I see this resistance in some of my Media 21 students who seem to prefer learning activities that value regurgitation of facts rather than questioning or critical, creative thinking.  This question came up during Dr. Wesch’s keynote at NEIT:

In my corner of the world, my answer is “More than you might think.”  While some students are liberated by choice and free thought, others feel threatened by a learning environment that is inquiry driven and participatory in nature.    I can’t help but think that this phenomenon is easier to comprehend when you consider today’s students are among the first generation to grow up in a test driven school culture that is contradictory to inquiry.

What is inquiry? Here are qualities identified by classmate Sharon Murphy in Fall of 2002:

• Dis-ease. There are many questions raised without answers.

• Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work.

• Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class.

• Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings.

• Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer.

• Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.

• Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.

Does this sound like the learning environment many school librarians crave yet find themselves hungering for it in the current educational landscape?

In revisiting my initial reading of Pedagogy of the Oppressed of 2002, Paulo Freire says the oppressed are often “hosts” of the oppressor (48) because they are so immersed in the culture of oppression.   Does this description fit today’s student who must buy into the testing culture so privileged (whether by choice or force) by public schools?  Does it also apply to many classroom teachers whose careers are judged by test scores and perhaps even our profession as school librarians as we are called upon to tie our programs to student achievement in order to “survive”?  How does the assimilation of the discourse of testing impact how students transactions with information and how they construct knowledge?

The current test driven culture values knowledge banking and correct answers; standardized curriculum and conformity to ways of knowing and learning are the hallmarks of contemporary American education.  In many schools, students and teachers feel pressured to “cover” knowledge precisely and efficiently.  Contrast these values to those Freire asserts:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).

So what does this all mean?  Right now, some key ideas are resonating with me:

My big question:  how can inquiry driven learning and an inquiry stance on information literacy positively disrupt students who are entrenched and oppressed by the testing culture?  How can participatory librarianship support inquiry and students who find conversations about learning troublesome rather than empowering?   How do we address their “dis-ease” they feel as they are pushed out of their comfort zone?  How can school librarians and libraries be more effective sponsors of information literacy and transliteracy?