Teachers Returning from Deep Dives

Today in our final faculty meeting of the year, one of my colleagues, Chris Greco, tossed an analogy out for us all as we prepared to leave the harried school year and enter summer vacation. He reflected that, as a teacher, entering summer break is a lot like a scuba diver surfacing from a deep dive. Both involve transitions from extreme, high-pressure environments to sunny, usually notably lower-pressure situations. But, as Chris succinctly pointed out, if a scuba diver ascends too quickly, “their head explodes.” Here is where his analogy hits practicality for me as an educator entering my summer months.

I love summer. I need summer. I need the rest and flexibility that it brings. But I do remember last summer being less than the idyllic dreamscape I imagined. I felt stressed, fidgety, and aimless. So often I hear my peers and myself saying things like, “I don’t do well in the summer. I get anxious. I miss the structure.” Summer is, for many educators, a time of nervous ennui or of daunting confrontation with our own selves.

Listening to Chris today, I began to wonder if at least part of what we were experiencing was our metaphorical heads exploding. Perhaps we had come up from our school year deep dives too quickly, without giving our heads and our hearts time to adjust to the gradual changes in pressure and environment. Perhaps there had been no adjustment period.

And so, as I enter this summer, I am preparing differently than I have in the past. I am coming up for air slowly and carefully, paying attention to myself and my surroundings as I do so. Instead of hurling myself headlong into a series of long afternoon naps (which I absolutely still plan to indulge in), I’m going to plan out my afternoons. I’m making my lists of tasks and goals and hopes for the summer, and I’m carefully arranging them in ways that leave wide sunny summer afternoons open for grass naps with dogs, but that also structure my time to maintain a new kind of productivity that is both gentle and ambitious. I am doing my best to swim slowly to the surface, adjusting and patting the waiting pups along the way.

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Checkology: A Tool for Teaching Media Literacy

Despite the common impression that high school students are tech-savvy and fluent in their digital media navigation skills, time and time again we see that this is not actually the case. Although the average high school student does spend an admittedly sizeable amount of time reading and writing in digital realms, they still remain in need of the same skills they were in need of before the dawn of the digital era: strategic and flexible reading and writing skills.

It is my belief that, as teachers of reading and writing, this is our responsibility. This is one of the most important, relevant, and enriching gifts we can impart to our students: how to wield the power of the internet wisely and ethically. The wide arrays of strategies, approaches, and ideologies for doing this can be daunting; however, I would like to use this blog post to call attention to a particular tool that I have found helpful in equipping students to navigate the resources of the online world in productive ways: Checkology. But before I get into the beauty of Checkology, allow me to explain the particular problem that Checkology attempts to address.

One of the larger subcategories of teaching digital and online literacy is educating students on how to insightfully and critically approach information presented to them through digital media and news sources. This can include Twitter, Facebook, news sites, blogs, advertisements, and a wide variety of online media compositions that are designed to have very specific impacts on their audiences. Sometimes that specific impact is honestly intended to inform; however students need to understand that, more often than not, informing an audience is not the only or not even the primary goal of online media sources. Very frequently these pieces are intended to persuade, sell, entertain, or accomplish things very different from strictly informing. And our students are, as it turns out, unable to tell the difference.

A recent study by Stanford university assessed middle school, high school, and college students’ ability to evaluate the credibility of information and data presented through a variety of forms of online media, and the results were concerning to put it mildly. The data from over 7,800 surveyed students over 12 different states showed that MOST students were unable to determine when online news sources were fake, intensely biased, or attempting to sell them products. Students did not know when or how to evaluate author credibility, bias, sponsorship, or a long list of factors that would impact how they should interpret an apparent fact or set of information. Articles by NPR and The Wall Street Journal elaborate on the results of this study more thoroughly, but suffice it to say that your average high school student is easy prey for a well-composed online piece that aims to manipulate them. If we want our students to be able to competently read and interpret the things they find on the internet, we’re going to have to take the time to teach them how.

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This is where Checkology comes in. Checkology is a creation of the News Literacy Project, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with educators and journalists to teach students “how to sort fact from fiction in the digital age.” It is essentially a FREE interactive platform for classroom use that walks students through a set of lessons geared towards effectively approaching the complicated world of media literacy. In Checkology’s own words, “It equips students with the tools to interpret the news and information that shape their lives so they can make informed decisions about what to believe, share and act on — and ultimately become active members of civic society.” The 12 lessons focus on topics such as identifying rhetorical goals in a piece, recognizing bias, understanding personalization algorithms and sponsored content, and a variety of other tools necessary to deconstruct media sources in insightful, meaningful ways.

The Checkology curriculum uses current and relevant examples from a wide variety of sources to demonstrate their points and give students opportunities to see the principles they are learning about at play in the real world. Users can purchase a premium model of the Checkology platform that includes additional resources and options; however, I was more than satisfied with the resources and lessons available through the free model. While I myself did not actually ask my students to use the checkology online program, I worked through the lessons myself, gathering materials and ideas to integrate into my already-existing unit.

And this year was undoubtedly my best year yet for media literacy. Throughout the course of the unit and our associated discussions, students said and asked things like:

  • NO WAY! And they do that on purpose??
  • Wait, so how do I really know when something is true?
  • I think I may have only been reading things I already agree with for basically my whole life.
  • I’m never reading anything without looking the author up on Twitter ever again.
  • Now I know what to say when my crazy aunt shares those insane articles on Facebook!

Students connected deeply and practically with the values involved in vetting their own online information sources, and I do believe that they will go on to be smarter, more effective members of society because of it. So Media Literacy remains a critically important topic to include in standard high school classrooms, and Checkology’s tools help make that an accessible and low-stress option for teachers everywhere. Check it out! And get your students ready to meet the onslaught of complicated media messaging head on.

The Best Kind of Assignment

In my humble opinion, the best kind of assignment is no assignment at all. Allow me to explain myself.

The most valuable kind of work a student can do is work that is voluntary, self-motivated, and unassigned. This is the kind of thing a student thinks of and pursues independently, just because they think it’s cool. Despite the elusive and difficult-to-quantify nature of uncoerced student productivity, it is unquestionably the richest, most meaningful work of all. Students learn and retain more by exercising their own creative and independent ideas than they will ever completing our imposed tasks and assessments. This self-propelled work is often the best use of everyone’s time.

The logistics of creating space and opportunity for this kind of work in the classroom, however, are incredibly tricky. The very idea requires a lot of careful planning and trust in students on the part of the classroom educator. It involves trimming down compulsory classroom work to the bare necessities so we have time and energy for intellectual play. It requires me to strategically cultivate attitudes of exploration and curiosity over time so my students are increasingly predisposed to come up with, recognize, and act on creative compositional impulses. Relationships between the students and myself and between the students themselves must be mentored into bringing about the kind of collaborative environment that naturally erupts into spontaneous acts of creation. It’s actually kind of exhausting, but, in my experience, TOTALLY worth it.

The central, anxious questions haunting my dreams as I try to design a classroom environment that invites voluntary work always go something like…

  • What if students choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration?
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly?
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits?
  • How do I grade this madness?

This is an adapted list, as the complete one is approximately 30 times as long; however, I have found that there are pretty practical, simple answers to these questions.

  • What if students just choose to do nothing with the space I create for voluntary exploration? Some will. Others won’t. As time goes on, the number of students choosing to do nothing will dwindle as they observe their peers interested and engaged in really cool, individualized work. Some students choosing to do nothing with the space might actually just need space.
  • What if students apply what I’m teaching them incorrectly? What I often perceive as incorrect application of a skill or principle I’ve taught can, on closer inspection, just be a student’s very different take on what we are learning together. However, if the student genuinely struggled to understand what I was teaching, there is NO better learning opportunity than when underway in an applicable, interesting project. 
  • What if students are only interested in one avenue of exploration and neglect necessary skills, leaving them unprepared for future academic exploits? My answer to this has been balance. I do not recommend doing away altogether with compulsory work that encourages students to stretch in all directions. I am however preparing my students for a world in which creativity, individual motivation, and ability to self-direct will probably get them a lot farther than any discrete content I have to teach them, so my classroom design needs to account for that.
  • How do I grade this madness? I grade effort, progress, and reflection. Have I watched the student struggle and overcome? Has the project evolved into something significantly more complex than the first draft? Can the student insightfully converse with me or peers on their intellectual process? It’s not scientific, but I find students rarely disagree with my final grades.

What I’ve learned while experimenting with this idea of creating space for students to act independently and then stepping back is this: when you invest in teaching your kids real world skills that are flexible, applicable, and multipurposed, they start doing really cool things just because they can. Teaching students how to flex their creative, activist, or design muscles can trigger a number of students to authentically desire to play with their newly discovered skills. We can and SHOULD stay up late at night designing strategic, well-integrated, and thoughtful assignments, but we also need to face the facts that the only people who can really create understanding and productivity in our students is our students themselves. So let’s do what we can to back them up!

 

A Defense of Classroom Tea Parties

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This whole thing started because I personally drink a lot of tea. And, since I’m usually brewing said tea in bulk, I often end up sharing the extra with whichever interested students are in my immediate vicinity. Over my time here at LCA, the classroom tea situation has evolved into something of a ritual. Particularly on days when we read and discuss together, we all get out our mugs, I boil the water, and we drink tea. Lots of tea.

I never meant for this to be a central or strategic feature of my classroom pedagogy; however, as time has gone on, I’ve discovered some hidden advantages to our classroom tea parties. As a colleague and I were discussing this somewhat bizarre classroom expectation that I have accidentally cultivated, I found myself reflecting on some of the ways in which a hot cup of tea can bring out the best in my kiddos. Am I looking for psuedo-pedagogical reasons to buy/brew/drink more tea? Yes. But hear me out.

  1. Holding a warm cup of tea and taking periodic sips gives nervous, fidgety students an outlet for some of their anxiety. Classroom discussions can be a genuinely overwhelming prospect for certain personality types. Oddly enough, I have found that handing an intimidated student a mug gives them something to steady their hands and to intermittently retreat behind, channeling their anxious energy.
  2. A sleepy student who is tired or has a tendency to disengage and nod off is much more likely to stay engaged and alert when they have a (lightly) caffeinated beverage to sample throughout the block.
  3. Sharing tea creates a classroom culture of community and care. Students feel known and connected when I make them tea. It cultivates trust and camaraderie between us, both of which are things I need from them in the work we do together.
  4. Even though taking the 3 minutes of classroom time to fill mugs doesn’t really detract from our overall time together, it communicates to students that I am not looking to rush them in the hopes of maximizing our productivity. It demonstrates that I care about their experience and process in my class. It invites them to lay the academic rigamarole aside for a block and just focus on what we like and what interests us.

I recognize that I am uniquely privileged to teach smaller classes that allow this tea time tradition. LCA classes tend to max out at around 18 kids, so it’s more feasible for me. I also don’t really mind doing the dishes somewhat regularly, although students usually do them for me throughout the day. We do sometimes break mugs or spill tea on books, but, if I’m being honest, that’s part of the fun. And it’s part of my process of modeling what it looks like to honestly enjoy literature, discussion, and collaborative discovery. So, bottoms up to classroom tea parties!

 

 

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.

 

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!