On Visiting the MFA and Reflecting on How Tricky/Important/Magnificent Reading Can Be

Today my husband and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for the first time in years. They offer free admission on Wednesday nights after 4pm, and I had been let out of school early for snow, so our timing was perfect. For two people who LOVE critiquing and debating the nuances and implications of films, books, plays, music, and articles, we have a borderline embarrassing lack of cool when it comes to 3-D art in physical spaces like museums or exhibit halls. It’s not our comfort zone, and we have essentially no experience with it. But, as a teacher of reading and writing who believes in her core in the value of multimodal composition and who teaches visual rhetoric, this seemed like an untenable position, so off to the MFA we went.

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As we ambled awkwardly into a nearby gallery room (we started with American art from the 1800s which was a questionable choice) and faced the first floor-to-ceiling oil painting looming in its gilded frame, I had a very odd, but also faintly familiar experience. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. As I squinted at the complicated brush strokes and imposing oil-painting figures, I was at a bit of a loss. What does one do with paintings? Was I supposed to say how it made me feel? Was it supposed to mean something? How could I even tell if I LIKED it or not?

Immediately, and with a faint smile, I recognized the questions running through my mind. They’re the same questions my students ask when I show them something new. They’re the same questions I hear from and see in them when we tackle an unusual composition, an unfamiliar genre, or a whole new mode. When I ask students to rhetorically analyze sound compositions, their faces look like I felt as the larger-than-life oil painting version of George Washington stared down at me imposingly. I had to laugh.

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I had forgotten how disorienting and daunting it can be to attempt to read a composition in a mode outside our comfort zone. As my husband and I slowly moved from impressionist paintings to cubist paintings to sculptures and so on, I recalled how squaring off with an unfamiliar genre or mode can feel a little like getting pushed into the deep end of a swimming pool unexpectedly. But I also inhabited the importance of having flexible, complex reading skills that apply to any mode in any scenario.

And so, under oil painting George Washington’s watchful eye, I went back to what I know, because I DO know how to read. I read the paintings. I read each painting multiple times, like I would a poem. Once to understand, again to notice, again to analyze, and then again to reflect. I paid attention to my own responses, both emotional and intellectual. I carefully read accompanying plaques to construct small rhetorical analyses with which to understand authorial goals and contextual influences. I noticed features: colors, lines, framing, repetition, symbols etc. I compared them to other works they reminded me of. I considered different theoretical lenses. I asked myself questions, and then I discussed my answers with my husband, who was doing the same thing in his own mind. We READ the paintings.

And, guys, reading is TRULY magnificent! Paintings and sculptures that initially intimidated me or struck me as dull became rich, emotional works when I really read them and shared those readings with another person. I poked around in my own heart and mind with depth and dimension, feeling emotional responses and thoughtfully noticing them. As we wandered the museum, reading carefully, we were deeply and profoundly human. We sifted through the truths of existence that hang just below the surface of our conscious days. We felt and observed our differences as individuals, and we soaked ourselves in beauty and creation.

Ultimately, my husband and I spent upwards of 3 hours engrossed in the different galleries, floors, and exhibits. But we wouldn’t have been able to have that experience as individuals or together if we hadn’t leaned into the discomfort of reading in new genres and drawn from our tried and true strategies for reading texts. As an educator, this experience was an important reminder for me. I walked away renewed in my conviction that:

  • For reading to be real, living, and impactful in my students’ lives, it has to be multimodal, flexible, and diverse.
  • Reading, REALLY reading, new things is vulnerable, intimidating, and uncomfortable. But it’s the stuff truth and life are made of, and my students need to have the tools to do it bravely and well.

So, if you find yourself at the MFA on a Wednesday night, look around. There’s a good chance we’ll be there too.

 

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Playing with Padlet

My recent posts have centered almost exclusively around the looming demise of Storify. I swear I’ll move on from that soon, BUT I did want to write a post about the program I used to get me through one of my assignments this year that I usually use Storify for! I have since then discovered Wakelet, which I blogged about here and which I will most likely use for this particular assignment in the future, but I did get some interesting experience with a new option in the meantime.

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Created in 2012, Padlet has been around for awhile. I’d heard teachers talk about it, I’d seen demonstrations, and students had shown me some work they’d done using it, but I’d never actually used it. When I discovered that Storify was dying approximately 24 hours before the class in which I needed to use it, I shrugged and decided to give Padlet a try.

Padlet has been described quite accurately in my opinion as “an online virtual ‘bulletin’ board, where students and teachers can collaborate, reflect, share links and pictures, in a secure location.” Upon creating an account, users can set up a background using any color or image on which they can arrange the information they choose to curate. That information can either be imported using links to images, sites, social media accounts etc. OR it can be uploaded directly from your computer. The Padlet creator can then decide if they want their Padlet to be public or private and if they want to invite collaborators to contribute to the work.

For this assignment, students had to research and create a summary of the rhetorical situation surrounding a set of photos by a particular photographer as a pre-writing activity to an essay in which they read the photos.

Pros:
Padlet worked well for the students in that it was profoundly flexible. Unlike Storify, which featured a single, linear layout, Padlet is more open-ended. Students could arrange information and links in ways that were more spatially and visually diverse. This reflected their individual learning styles more accurately. The linear thinkers could choose a layout more similar to Storify, but some students chose layouts that more closely resembled word webs or flow charts. The visual nature of Padlet, much like Storify, prompted students to consider the way their visuals communicated the ethos of the photographer they were researching, engaging some unconscious multimodal thought. Also, much like Storify, the shareable nature of the information made it easy for students to collaborate and compare notes.

Cons:
As with all things in life, there were aspects that created difficulties. The open-ended nature of Padlet was overwhelming for some students, particularly those who were not as experienced in visual composition or those who did not have much background using digital apps. These students tended to shy away from thinking too deeply about the role of their information’s layout, which led several of them to simply throw information onto the board in a haphazard manner. For these students, a pre-determined linear layout would have been beneficial. The difficulty of learning an unfamiliar program was stressful for some students, although I believe that is an important process for them to experience safely and with my support.

Ultimately, while Padlet actually created more affordances and opportunities for some students, it was a little too free-form for others. Because of this, I will most likely use Wakelet for this assignment next time, but I MAY recommend Padlet to a few select students who I think it would be a good fit for.

Here are some examples of students who created what I consider to be really smart Padlets that served as their research hubs for the essays they went on to write:

  • Padlet on Sergey Ponomarev’s photos of Syrian refugees

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  • Padlet on Uriel Sinai’s photos of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake

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  • Padlet on Uriel Sinai’s photos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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At the end of the day, if you give smart students cool tools, they’ll do smart and cool things with them. And Padlet is a cool tool to have in my set.

 

 

Blogging with NCTE!

I have recently, along with some of my colleagues, been sharing some of my work and research on NCTE’s blog, which I have always found to be a deeply helpful and rich resource for collaboration and reflection in the field of teaching composition and reading. I wanted to briefly share that a post I published with NCTE earlier this year, “More Than a Grade: Cultivating Intellectual Play in Students,” made their list of “Top 10 Blogs from 2017“!

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As someone who is relatively new to the world of teaching and blogging about teaching, it is a massive honor to be listed alongside names like Jeff Wilhem and Arina Bokas. And so I wanted to take a minute to thank NCTE as well as to encourage any educators in the disciplines of reading and writing to consider contributing to NCTE’s blog so that we can continue to grow as we share and learn from one another as educators, readers, and writers!

Wakelet and the Twitterverse Save the Day (mostly)!

In my last post, I mourned the loss of the web-based social networking tool Storify AND fretted over how best to preserve the work I and my students had accumulated through Storify’s platform over the past few years. After tweeting that blog post out, I was able to bear witness to the magical power of social media firsthand. The Twitterverse and some site called Wakelet solved my problem for me.

My blog post had been up on my Twitter feed for about 10 minutes before I received this response from an unfamiliar account.

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Wakelet saw my post and was ready with their solution to the impending death of Storify. So, as my response suggested I would, I followed up.

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 12.04.21 PMMuch to my delight, Wakelet turned out to be awesome. Not only do they have an incredibly easy-to-use tool to import and maintain all my Storify content, they also have a fabulously user-friendly and appealing interface! It is essentially a polished up version of Storify, allowing users to organize and annotate online content from a variety of locations into a single, linear Story. Much like Storify, you can link to information from a site OR upload files directly from your computer, and, just like Storify, you can drag and drop items in the timeline to easily rearrange them.

Improving on Storify’s design, Wakelet offers a few more options on how to arrange content. You can choose from a traditional linear layout, a grid layout, or something resembling a table of contents, where each item has a space for text next to it. You can also easily add or remove contributors, which was something I remember struggling with in Storify.

The major drawback I see so far with Wakelet is that, when I import my stories from Storify, the embedded links don’t transfer. So the text elements import, but the links are gone. I can certainly just edit the document and replace the link, but it does mean that my initial impression was a little too good to be true. I’ve messaged the SUPER responsive Wakelet help team, and I’ll report back if they find a solution.

So, not only is all my Storify work safe and sound, I also have a shiny new platform for my students and I to play with! Needless to say, I’m a fan.

 

 

 

 

Storify is Dead (Almost)

I don’t know if you’ve heard the terrible news. My much beloved Storify is dying. On May 16, 2018, Storify will be shutting down and deleting all of its content. They’ve posted the message loud and clear on their soon-to-be-deleted homepage.

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Storify has been a regular feature on this blog.

I’m still sorting out how best to preserve while still continuing to share the content that I and students have built using Storify’s platform. I have until May 16th to figure it all out. Apparently, after May, I will have the option to use Storify 2 which comes inside of a purchased Livefyre license, but, if Storify is no longer free, it loses its value for me.

So, for now, it appears that my stand-in for this year’s students will be Padlet, which is essentially an online bulletin board that allows students to individually or collaboratively arrange links, images, and text in a secure, but shareable space. I’ll report back on the usefulness of this stand-in; however, before I get too ahead of myself, a moment of silence for Storify.

Resuscitating the Manifesto in 2018

This is objectively the longest I have gone in the past 2 years without posting on this blog. It feels weird. It is also a reflection of the fact that this school year has been a tricky one for me. Despite this being my second year at LCA and despite my meeting this year with an already-prepared and tested curriculum, I have found this year to be taxing and tiring in new and unexpected ways. I have found my energy levels and enthusiasm flagging. And I have consequently found myself battling guilt for my flagging energy levels and enthusiasm, which is objectively unhelpful.

Regardless of the reasons for and legitimacy of my fatigue, I’m realizing the necessity of reviving my Teaching Manifesto for this academic year. Things that seemed self-evident and inevitable as I gleefully typed them in the rosy dusk of summer vacation have unexpectedly become more challenging this year as temperatures and energy levels plummet.

And so I spent some time this afternoon reflecting on commitments I made to myself, my colleagues, and my students before this school year began. And I’ve compiled a list for myself to meditate on in the breathing room that Christmas vacation offers. I selected these items from my manifesto as the ones I have struggled with the most over this past academic year. These are the commitments that I can’t say I’ve truly succeeded in keeping. These are the commitments that I want to prayerfully and carefully resuscitate in this new calendar year.

I don’t believe in New Years Resolutions, although I like the idea of them. So, as far as resolutions for 2018 go, this is probably as close as I will get:

I will honor my students:

  • I will only speak with positivity and respect about my students, whether or not they are there to hear what I say. When my students can hear what I am saying, I will make a conscious effort to praise and affirm each one of them. (While I don’t often speak negatively of my students, I believe I have lapsed in my praise and affirmation of them and their work. My shortage of emotional energy has led me to skimp on the personalized and individualized positivity that should be raging like a wildfire in my classroom.)
  • I will resist the temptation to rely on quick grading schemes, easy teacher-centric lessons, and passive teaching. I will continue to push myself to do the extra work required to promote student choice, empowerment, and involvement. (My lack of enthusiasm has inadvertently resulted in a more teacher-centric classroom dynamic. Partially because of a lack of time, but partially because I am not putting out the energy required to create an invitational classroom, my students sometimes expect my to do the intellectual heavy lifting in our time together. And I have succumbed to that in the moment more often than I’d care to admit.)

I will honor my scholarship:

  • I will continue to reflect on my practice and connect with others in my field through my blog and Twitter account. (This seems self explanatory.)
  • I will make time to continue my own practices as a reader and a writer, creating space to read and write for a variety of personal and enjoyable reasons. (I have lacked the motivation or energy to engage in or get excited about the things I am writing or reading outside of the classroom. I haven’t regularly extended my creativity and curiosity outside of myself to make something or interact with something in the world around me.)

I will honor myself:

  • I will maintain a healthy, guilt-free faith life, praying, worshipping, and resting in ways that bring me closer to God, enrich my daily life, and shape my pedagogy. (I won’t even try to figure out if my challenges this year have been caused by or resulted in my shortage of time in prayer, worship, or rest in God. Perhaps there is no correlation at all. The point is that there is a shortage.)

The final line item in my 2017-2018 Manifesto will also be the final line item to this resuscitation of said manifesto.

I will push myself to be my best, but I will be kind to myself when I fall short.