Sunday, July 28, 2013

Streaming, Pooling, and Flowing: Sitting Beside the Digital Stream

Recently, I posted on my Facebook page the following passage from Chiminanda Adichie's latest book, Americanah.  New to the American education system, Ifemelu, Adichie's protagonist, is baffled by the American practice of rewarding students for "participation":

"School in America was easy, assignments sent in by e-mail, classrooms air-conditioned, professors willing to give make-up tests. But she was uncomfortable with what the professors called "participation," and did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words. It had to be that Americans were taught, from elementary school, to always say something in class, no matter what. And so she sat stiff-tongued, surrounded by students who were all folded easily in their seats, all flush with knowledge, not of the subject of the classes, but of how to be in classes. They never said, 'I don't know.' They said, instead, 'I'm not sure,' which did not give any information, but still suggested the possibility of knowledge."

There were assorted responses to my Facebook posting -- some calling for more conversation (which I hope this blog will be a place for), some identifying the challenge of and need to cultivate real learning discourse in classrooms, some suggesting the effects of culture and previous schooling experience on students' understandings of how to learn and how to fulfill their teachers' expectations of them as students (often not the same thing as learning!), some expressing enthusiasm about other literary and cultural contributions of Chimimanda Adichie.

It's an interesting moment to be thinking about this this weekend.  On Friday, the Project Zero Classroom summer institute drew to a close; and tomorrow, the Project Zero Future of Learning summer institute begins.  

At last week's institute, my role was to co-lead a workshop about a set of ideas called Making Learning Visible -- in fact, a new book called Visible Learners:  Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools just came out. The case study that I presented in the workshop was about my efforts to move my AP Literature and Composition students  beyond "participation," as Adichie's heroine would describe it, to the kind of speaking and listening on which I believed their collective and individual learning depended:  only when students engage authentically with one another's ideas is there the potential for re-examined and deepened content knowledge, re-examined and even transformed attitudes, and new insights that can lead to enlightened action. At the center of Making Learning Visible practice is capturing, representing, and sharing (via documentation) the potential moment of learning -- the snippet of conversation, the gesture or action that guides learning activity down a certain path, the student creations that accompany these moments -- so that it can be explored, examined, interpreted -- used to advance the learning of those inquiring into it.  

At next week's (tomorrow's!) institute, my role will be to co-lead a learning group that will grapple with some of the "big forces" that have ramifications for education:  globalization, the digital revolution, and new understandings of the mind and the brain. Perspectives will abound. Content will challenge our ideas about "what's possible" and "what we already know." Again, speaking and listening will be foregrounded, not just because institute participants will be coming from all over the world, will represent diverse perspectives, and will be part of so many different experiences and face-to-face discussions -- but because one of our topics is the digital world, which is always humming, churning, never sleeping, and endlessly spewing forth more words, more words, more words.   

I sit here blogging; Adichie's heroine is also a blogger. Lately I've been tweeting, too, trying to figure out what tweets are for, or can be for.  So here I am, contributing to and inquiring into that relentless digital streaming that sometimes irresistibly and sometimes irritatingly compels us to participate.  And at the same instant, here I am advocating for those Making Learning Visible learning approaches that insist on slowing things down, hitting the "pause" button, holding up learning experiences like crystals with multiple glittering facets that all deserve attention, advocating for taking the time to understand them deeply and with others.  

Hmmm . . . . could I tweet about the experience of capturing and exploring a moment? Could I convey in 140 characters the metaphorical experiences of managing to lift, with patience and a glass, some interesting creature from the rushing stream; of spending time observing it swimming around in the glass jar, trying to understand it and to learn from it; and of then returning it to its world and using what I learned from it in my own? Could one tweet do that? Could a bunch of tweets do that? Could a bunch of tweets from multiple people do that?

Recently, while I was contemplating the inherent contradictions in my Project-Zero-related learning life, I came across a photo that I took of my favorite reading spot along the stream right near our Berlin, New York cabin. I had taken the photo over the Fourth of July weekend because I wanted to remember that very hot afternoon when just keeping my feet in the water had kept me wonderfully cool while I was reading -- in fact, it was Americanah I was reading.  What caught my eye in the photo (don't know if I noticed this in the moment, but that's why Making Learning Visible encourages exploration of promising moments as they reveal themselves in photos and videotapes as well as words and other media) -- was the sky's bright blue reflection on a small, captured part of the stream that wasn't rushing by -- one of those many small pools that often establish themselves in some indentation in a stone or in some crevice between stones.  (I hope you can see it on the right side of the photograph  on the bottom half.)

Everyone who has ever had any association with Project Zero ideas knows that reflection is highly regarded as an essential learning activity.  The word "reflection" shows up in institute throughlines, and time and space is regularly dedicated to it.  So reflection is bright blue and sparkling in the Project Zero world, jewel-like and prized as it is here.

Streaming, pooling:  I can't resist wondering if this "learning tension" actually has me "flowing" -- experiencing "flow" as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi might define it.  But that would be too neat and too perfect. I still have this tendency to seek that kind of completeness of metaphor,* and I have to be careful of that:  too much truth gets lost when metaphors are over-applied. Even so, I bring it up because it's my blog and I can.  Maybe this whole paragraph is a perfect example of digitally shared words that didn't need to be shared.

But back to Adichie.  None of this solves the problem of participation that Ifemelu identifies. And I understand the well-intentioned sources of it:  the hope of compelling very quiet students to speak out at least once so that we, their teachers, have some idea of the degree to which they're understanding the lesson, and so that they can experience themselves as being respected by, listened to, and learned from by their classmates. But quantification of talk doesn't guarantee quality or respect; in worst case scenarios, it masks mere tolerance and even disdain.  And it also too often produces a simulation of "learning together," rather than authentic learning derived from thoughtful listening and interchange.  

Language does and will proliferate, but a real "pedagogy of listening," as Carlina Rinaldi and other Making Learning Visible practitioners would call it, takes practice, discipline, and commitment.  Years ago when I read Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, I was struck by his concept of "bracketing" -- essentially, taking one's own viewpoint or perspective and setting it aside for a while so that one might fully entertain "new ideas" and the possibility of growth and understanding to which they might lead.  Peck quoted from Sam Keen's To a Dancing God, which spoke of the necessity of "silencing the familiar and welcoming the strange." That's what students -- and adults, also -- need to do if they are really going to try on the thinking of others to strengthen and deepen their own.

This brings to mind once again Howards End and Helen Schlegel's comment to her sister Margaret that I mentioned a few weeks back:  "Meg, shall we ever learn to talk less?" Maybe we don't need to talk less, as long as we are talking for the sake of understanding more and helping others to do the same, for the sake of expressing ourselves truly, or for the sake of building and sustaining communities that respect and care for the individuals within them. 

And maybe we don't need to talk less as long as we're giving others space and time to talk also.

But chances are that talking less is a good idea in a lot of cases.  So many people are talking. I hope just as many people are listening, especially to those who are striving to "only connect" by sharing something meaningful (with all of its possible interpretations) with those who are listening.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts -- and words -- about any of this!

* When I post about my great affection for Howards End's Margaret Schlegel by the end of August, I will mention this as a weakness that characterizes her in the first half of the book.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Sabbath When It Sizzles

So already, when Sabbath arrives this evening, it will be hot and late.  Boston is predicted to reach one hundred degrees today.  It can't be an easy day for people who are fasting in observance of Ramadan.

The other day, getting to and from my regular dentist appointment took me into the Boston neighborhoods where so many of my relatives -- including my parents -- grew up in the 1930's and 1940's.  This brought back a lot of Jewish memories -- not my own, but those of my parents, who often and easily recollect stories of grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, all of whom they lived near enough to to see relatively often. Over the years, I've heard many stories (often more than once!) of relatives whose Jewish lives were marked by different degrees of ritual observance and cultural and personal interpretation. My mother's paternal grandmother observed even the "minor" Jewish fast days; my paternal grandfather sometimes didn't fast on Yom Kippur.  Varieties of "Jewish decisions and actions" elicited respect, curiosity, and criticism from other family members.

Whenever I am asked who or what I am, my first response, even if it is only to myself, is that I am  a Jew.  As a matter of fact, I feel hard-wired to be a Jew -- as if what I value, do, cherish, feel in the deepest part of me -- is the result not of my having created or chosen something for myself, but of my having been immersed in a legacy and way of being that has always defined my family. That legacy really suits me -- so much so that I often think about parts of the Eitz Chayim prayer, which derives from Proverbs and Lamentations:

                 Behold, a good doctrine has been given you, My Torah; do
                 not forsake it.  It is a tree of life to those who hold it fast, and 
                 all that cling to it find happiness.  Its ways are ways of pleasant-
                 ness, and all its paths are peace.

But here's the problem:  I'm not a good Jew. When all is said and done, I don't "hold it fast" and "cling to it." I break dietary laws left and right (Oy!), do schoolwork on the Sabbath (Oy!!), and don't worship regularly at a synagogue (Oy!!!). Furthermore, I married late, and my non-Jewish husband and I have no children whom we are immersing in that Jewish legacy that is so meaningful to me (Oy!!!!).

I suspect the roots of this lie in part* in my having grown up in Jamaica Plain where I was the only Jewish kid in my class.  By the time we moved to Needham where I actually did have Jewish classmates and could walk to our synagogue to attend youth group meetings, I felt no need to have a teenage community that was exclusively Jewish. In addition, it was the 1960s and 1970s, and people were trying  to "smile on your brother" and "love one another": I was always being invited to the homes of friends of different cultural and religious backgrounds for their holiday observances. I remember being more interested in learning about everyone else's religions than in paying attention to my own. I suspect that one of the reasons for this was that I already viewed my Jewishness as quintessentially part of me, as something that would be there when I chose to embrace it. Sometimes I wonder if my story is a typically American Jewish story.

Over the years, my religious explorations have led me to membership in a synagogue, adult Jewish education, and university study -- even to the creation of a "Religion in Literature" English language arts course for my high school.  But the constant in my quest to embrace my own Jewishness and to keep learning about everyone else's religions, traditions, and sources of spirit, has been reading.  The constant in my reading -- not every page, not every included selection -- has been the Best (American) Spiritual Writing series edited by Philip Zaleski and published annually.

While Philip Zaleski always provides a foreward to begin the annual collection of carefully selected writings, each volume usually includes an introduction by some author, thinker, or leader generally regarded as "spiritual." The year that Peter Gomes was the guest introduction-writer, I -- responding to the spirit of Advent that was alive for so many of my Christian friends -- determined to read the entire volume as my own Advent ritual.** Though I definitely preferred some of the anthologized pieces to others, I was glad I read the whole book -- glad I'd carved out an opportunity to care about more than the relentless demands of the daily.

My favorite of these volumes has been the 2001 one edited by Andre Dubus III.  It gave me Daphne Merkin's "Trouble in the Tribe, " which begins with the sentence, "I've been trying to lose my religion for years now, but it refuses to go away."  It gave me Wendell Berry's "Sabbaths, 1999" and introduced me to Mark Doty through a poem that continues to fill me with transcendent joy every time I read it, "Source." Most importantly, it gave me Ben Birnbaum's "How to Pray:  Reverence, Stories, and the Rebbe's Dream."  

I had first encountered Ben Birnbaum when he participated in a Harvard Divinity School forum that centered on James Carroll's then recently published bookConstantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, a History.  As the assistant to the president of Boston College and the editor of Boston College Magazine, he was a self-reflective Jew whose formal ties to various BC Jewish-Christian initiatives made him an old hand at both personal and intellectual engagement with Christians and people of other religious backgrounds. 

I read Birnbaum's essay for the first time during one of my periodic bouts with deep spiritual isolation: inevitably, I experience moments when I long for more Jewish friends or a Jewish community that might help me to understand my loneliness and then transcend it. Birnbaum's combination of personal memories, Jewish knowledge, and self-reflectiveness provided me with both spiritual hope and reasons to laugh. Early in the essay, he asserts what prayer is and isn't:  

                 Prayer does not take you into your self or out of our world.  It is not
                 a transcendental meditation. The relaxation response is not its goal.
                 Nor is prayer oratory. Rather, prayer places you in proximal, eyes-
                 front relationship with the Creator.  And so the Hebrew word for
                 liturgical prayer is tefilah, an invocation of God as judge.

But then, right after speaking with didactic authority, he backs off: "But the Talmud is merely the glorious Talmud. It is not Judaism; it is not the lives of men and women, lived in the valleys and on the flats -- holy ground that is nonetheless ground." 

Next he recounts a story:  a boy who had been praying with a passage of scripture asked his father, a Chasidic rabbi, "'With what are you praying?' The rabbi answered, 'With the floor and the bench.'" This story echoes Birnbaum's experience:  "In Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1950's, I learned to pray as most of us learn to pray:  with the floor and with the bench, or in my case, with the sheet linoleum and gunmetal folding chairs in the Young Israel Synagogue of New Lots and East New York, . . .." 

Temple Emeth Saturday morning youth services and the long High Holy Day services of my childhood: the duty and repetitiveness all came back to me with Birnbaum's gunmetal and linoleum. Pages later, I identified with Birnbaum's description of himself as a "modern," incapable of "feel[ing] comfortable except If I rest on vexatious ambiguity, the rough mattress I'm used to." But despite his stories and admissions, Birnbaum prays. So, I kept reading. I would have to learn more about "selfless devotion" and "'With all your might before God'" in order to quell the deep loneliness that I was feeling, but the reverence part I got. And I felt somehow consoled by Birnbaum's print companionship on the spiritual road. 

Over time, I've been learning it's all about reaching out and reaching toward  -- but that doesn't mean I've been doing much reaching. In 2004, I was part of a Cambridge Forum Round Table Discussion that featured author Katherine Paterson in an event entitled "'Are You There God?' Asking Big Questions in Children's Literature."  When the third panelist, a minister on the faculty of Harvard Divinity School, spoke about her faith and its role in her life and her teaching, the moderator asked me what I believed.  

Even my closest friends seldom ask me exactly if I believe and what I believe.  But here I was in this very public forum that was being taped for radio.  I felt that I needed to answer: anyone who teaches "Religion and Literature" to public high school students has to know what she believes so she's sure not to present it as "truth" that students are responsible for accepting and learning. I also wanted to answer the question.

So I prefaced my answer with two Jewish jokes, which I've never been able to forget.

In the first, a young man says, "Rabbi, I don't think I believe in God," to which the rabbi replies, "Do you think God cares?"

In the second, two rabbis are having a religious argument.  When they realize neither will persuade the other, they decide to ask God.  When God sides with one of the rabbis, the other says, "So now it's two against one."

I then explained that I loved that I came from a religious background in which argument and debate were the norm.  I also explained that I believed in God but didn't have a close relationship with Him.  That said, I wanted to make clear that I wasn't blaming God for this; I was the one who wasn't coming around very much.

Lately I've been wondering if I might like to make that relationship a little closer.  At my core, I am Jewish, and I know I have been given a good doctrine.  What holds me back is that spirit presents itself to me so many ways, events, places, and people.  I am struggling to embrace my Judaism and experience it fully while needing not to deny spirit as it manifests itself "non-Jewishly" in the world.

So I'm going to keep reading.  And I'm also going to try praying more, even though it tends to feel inauthentic to me, except when I'm lighting the Sabbath candles.  We live in an innovative age.  So already, who knows what will happen?

They also lie in part in a certain kind of orneriness that I exhibit when people try to tell me what to do.
** Creating an Advent ritual: this is the kind of thing Jews don't usually do.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wrestling with Borders: The Project Slice Experience

Last April, I attended the Hewlett Foundation-sponsored Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High in San Diego.  The highlight of my three conference days was the optional first one entitled the "Deeper Learning Pre-Conference Project Slice." 

Curiosity, confusion, and hope had led me to the Deeper Learning Conference in the first place.  I didn't know what a "project slice" was, but I knew enough from the materials on the conference web site to know that I would be required to participate actively in a day-long learning process that was connected importantly to project-based learning.

Project-based learning was something else about which I was still somewhat confused, not so much in terms of its intent and scope, but in terms of its implementation.  I knew it was collaborative, but I was uncertain how and when it was a whole-group, small-group, and individual-student effort.  I didn't understand how teachers ensured that it was both student-driven and standards-aligned, when alignment with standards was an issue. I wondered how its interdisciplinary rigor was ensured when both teachers' and students' goals made the contributions of multiple disciplines essential. These were the kinds of confusions I felt sure I could address by exploring examples and conversing with PBL practitioners, many of whom were at the conference.  

But I had a whole other set of confusions* that seemed more likely to persist . There are so many progressive initiatives and approaches out there -- and they all have trademark vocabularies to go with them.  So whenever I began to think about project-based learning, design thinking, innovation engineering, expeditionary learning, global competence, inquiry-centered learning, to name a few, I had so many questions about the precise definitions of various terms associated with each of them, and about the overlaps and distinctions among them.  I believed, and still do, that they all seek to prepare students for learning and "the pursuit of happiness" in a 21st century world through empowerment, engagement, and deep understanding.  But beyond that, how do their emphases and basic operating principles distinguish them?  My own long experience with the Teaching for Understanding framework no doubt shaped my questions. 

  • What product or outcome is deep, or deepening, understanding supposed to result in for each of these?  
  • When deep understanding isn't the ultimate goal of an initiative, what is the relationship of deep understanding to that goal?  
  • How is -- and isn't -- a prototype a performance of understanding?  What kinds of inquiry can yield prototypes?
  • Must inquiry lead to an action step or a solution in order to have value?  When is deep understanding an adequately valuable outcome? 
  • How, when, and why does each initiative value action and reflection?
I hoped the project slice, defined in an orientation e-mail as "a day long launch into an essential question important to our area," would help me begin to see my way through my forest of questions.  And it did by giving me the opportunity to spend almost an entire day as a learner exploring an essential question:  "How does the US-Mexican border impact our community, and how do we impact the border?"

My key learnings were around the following:  purpose, perspectives, and prototypes. 

Purpose:  As a Massachusetts resident, I came to San Diego knowing that many Mexicans cross the border into the United States in a variety of places and ways.  But I had never contemplated the daily life experiences, as well as the movement, of people living on both sides of the border. I needed to begin to understand border life issues if the day's inquiry was going to feel purposeful, focused, and important enough to engage in whole-heartedly.

The first two project slice activities created and/or deepened our whole group's engagement and purpose. First, we explored a topographical map labeled and annotated in Spanish, which I don't speak. This was billed -- really aptly for me -- as the "Mystery Experience."  Second, we participated in a silent gallery walk featuring many artifacts from a variety of categories (photographs, newspaper clippings, musical instruments, video clips, foods and beverages, magazines, crafts). Our individual responses to an "I notice . . . I wonder" thinking routine formed the basis of an important small group activity through which we wondered, speculated, and developed ideas and questions that we hoped would guide our observations and conversations during out impending field work: 1/2 of our whole slice group was headed to Friendship Park, where Mexicans and Americans can visit across the border through a wire fence; the other 1/2 of us was headed to the San Ysidro/Tijuana border crossing.  I was in the group that, after meeting with a community organizer/regional planner in San Ysidro, crossed into Mexico and back into the US on foot.

Perspectives: In providing us with field journals and encouraging us to shoot photographs and video and to conduct interviews, our project slice facilitators reminded us that our inquiry required our consideration of the views of many -- residents of and workers in both border-abutting communities, researchers, service providers, to name a few. My group was stunned to learn from the San Ysidro regional planner that 80,000 pedestrians and 45,000 automobiles cross the Mexican/American border at Tijuana daily.  The answer to "what are they going and coming for" begged for multiple perspectives -- and that question neglected the perspectives of the numerous people who live and make livings in the communities abutting the border but who generally don't cross it.

There was another way diverse perspectives were playing a critical role in our learning. Our facilitators artfully choreographed our interactions during the day: sometimes we explored and reflected alone, sometimes in small groups, and sometimes as a whole group. Never did we meet in the same small group more than once:  the goal was to  enlarge our individual and collective thinking in part through encounter with the range of perspectives within our own project slice inquiry group, the result of our divergent experiences, knowledge bases, and personal sensitivities.  We were negotiating learning via diverse perspectives in terms of both focus content and inquiry process.

Prototypes:  Back from our experiences in the field, we were next required to create prototypes.  Would I finally understand what  prototype was if I succeeded in creating one?

From many of my conversations with innovating educators, I had understood prototypes as designs that had purpose and satisfied the needs of various people by taking into account their perspectives.   This conception of prototypes seemed a direct reflection of typical dictionary definitions of prototype: "A first or preliminary model of something, esp. a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied."

But our goal for the day had been to explore an essential question and understand a complex topic, not to solve a problem that we hadn't yet identified.  We might have, for example, decided to create a design for a border crossing at San/Ysidro.  But the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry Project is well underway, and there is and has already been much hope, trepidation, and civic activity surrounding it.

So what is a prototype when it isn't the first version of a design or model of something? When our project slice facilitators directed us as individuals to make use of an array of appealing arts/crafts materials to capture and represent the day's most significant insight, fact, or question -- the take-away(s)  that we knew we wouldn't stop thinking about, and didn't want to stop thinking about -- I began to understand that a prototype could be a representation that drew on an inquiry experience, and suggested the next steps in it. It represented the thinking and understanding of the moment, and provided something to share with others for feedback and support.  As such, it was the most preliminary design for what might in time become a final project (and that final project might be a design or action plan) -- not because the prototype's form would necessarily be preserved and improved, but because the thinking it represented would be present in a deepened, expanded way.

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed creating my prototype. We had a very limited time in which both to conceive and to create our prototypes, so what might have felt like a stressful and potentially artistically embarrassing situation, became a low-stakes challenge.  There was no time to weigh better and worse ideas for what to convey and how to convey it.  I had to choose something that came to mind quickly and go with it. What would that be? I thought back to the images, comments, and information that had struck me the hardest during the day: the daily long lines, the omnipresent construction, the dominant commercialism on both sides of the border and its relationship to (or conflicts with?) the civic and cultural goals of the two host communities. Perhaps something about the daily profitable and somehow impersonal yet charged "order" on both sides of the border? There were finger paints, felt, and glue. I could do something to show that I was developing some very preliminary answers to the essential question around which our day was structured. I was beginning to understand something about the impact of the border on people, how they took advantage of it and were in some ways victimized by it.

When we shared our prototypes with the full group -- our facilitators had insisted that we work individually, emphasizing that it was important for us to explore our individual thinking fully before bringing it to collaborations with others -- it was fascinating and illuminating to see the shared and varied impressions and ideas that characterized both the San Ysidro/Tijuana and Friendship Park groups. Personally, I felt creative and enlightened, and grateful again for our facilitators' skill at orchestrating low-stakes presentations of our prototypes with clear instructions for providing feedback to one another -- yet another opportunity to take advantage of multiple perspectives. 

Months later, when I discovered a document from Stanford entitled "Taking Design Thinking to Schools,"  I realized that in San Diego, through playing with materials and ideas in order to communicate and continue working on the border question/problem, I had grown in the "creative confidence" that the Stanford document specifies as the major goal of design thinking in schools. It's a responsive, accountable creativity that's fostered by the Stanford approach, one that mandates strong connections between creativity and understanding.

        Understanding is the first phase of the design thinking process. During this 
        phase, students immerse themselves in learning. They talk to experts and 
        conduct research. The goal is to develop background knowledge through these 
        experiences. They use their developing understandings as a springboard as they 
        begin to address design challenges.

Since understanding is critical to them, prototypes are in some ways performances of understanding. They make use of developing understanding, however, as a springboard not just for more and deeper understanding, but for future actions and/or designs that intend to solve problems, meet the needs of people, and improve the quality of life.  As I look back on my project slice day, I am humbled by how much I would have to learn before I could propose a potentially viable action or solution to any of the challenges being faced at the border.  But even having had only one day of border immersion, I have so many ideas about what I would need and want to explore next. 

So as I look back on my time at San Diego (as you can see, I also had time to visit the San Diego Zoo), I am feeling like I know a lot more about borders in general.  My interest in news related to the US/Mexican border has intensified.  And I've developed some tentative answers to my progressive education initiative-related inquiry questions.  I now have some clearer ideas about where these initiatives are separated by impassable barbed wire fences; where they're separated by chain-link fences that permit friendship, communication, and negotiation; and where the borders separating them are really nothing more than differences of focus and terminology masquerading as borders. 

*I actually learn a lot when I'm navigating confusion of this nature, but I often work with teachers who want to put good ideas into practice, so I feel obligated to get through that confusion.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Howard's End #1: Trying to "Only Connect" After The Boston Marathon Bombings

So much of the news yesterday in Boston centered on four suspected murderers:  Whitey Bulger, Aaron Hernandez, George Zimmerman, and Dzhokar Tsarnaev. 

Over the last few weeks in general, the media's accounts of courtroom events have testified relentlessly to the disastrous judgments and hideous actions of which people are capable. Furthermore, witnesses' conflicting memories of events in the Bulger and Zimmerman trials have made me wonder whether young people following the news think that the standard courtroom procedure of having witnesses swear to tell the truth is anything but a formality. I've felt cynical watching these proceedings from afar.  The silence of the dead is deafening.

But yesterday, when Dzhokar* was arraigned, "afar" wasn't part of my reaction equation:  the combination of rage, sadness, and existential bewilderment that I usually keep relatively contained and "manageable" in some basement room of my psyche began seeping up through the floorboards. Dzhokar's seven-minute court appearance gave me a taste of how difficult his trial is going to be for so many.  For a large number of people, I suspect it will be unsettling and disturbing, awakening the questions, feelings, and interpersonal tensions of this past spring.  For a smaller group, the victims who have been living at Marathon Ground Zero, I imagine it will be yet another challenge to face on the strange, difficult, and sometimes lonely journey they are already making.

So what does this have to do with Howard's End, the novel that E.M. Forster wrote in 1920 (and published in 1921 -- there's a World War between these two dates)? I'll try to explain.

The Marathon bombings happened on Monday, April 15; on Monday, April 22, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where I am a teacher, re-opened its post-vacation doors to students and staff, all of whom had different connections to the event's victims and alleged perpetrators. For the first two weeks, we simply "got through," doing what we were supposed to do as best we could.  Concentration was difficult, if not impossible.  At the end of each school day, I hoped that we as a school community had taken one more small collective step back toward normalcy.  

I also felt that I could hardly wait to get home.  My "home" isn't the kind of place that makes visitors say, "It would be so wonderful to live here!"  A small condominium in a large converted factory building, it's almost identical to my neighbors' in terms of features, layout, and appliances. It offers no lovely views of nature, and it doesn't have a fireplace in front of which I can hunker down while the snow is piling up and the wind is howling. But it does offer lots of wall space for my husband's wonderful paintings -- and lots of windows that admit plenty of natural light.  It's comfortable and functional and cheerful, and it has plenty of space for the books and CDs that often take good care of my spirit.

By the second week of May, the school as a whole seemed back on course.  My students' writing became more focused and developed again, and their homework began to come in regularly and on time -- a good thing since the AP exam was May 9!  I also became productive, and with that sense of rediscovered productivity came some relief. 

But I was hardly back to "normal" -- and who knew if "normal" was the best aspiration, anyway? I felt untethered. Drifting -- sometimes sadly, sometimes sullenly, sometimes emptily -- I needed something that might make me feel less existentially adrift.  I wondered if reading would provide me with the lifeline I could use to pull myself back to something or some place that would anchor me, at least temporarily. Still easily distracted and prone to thinking about nothing, I decided that a book that would require too much persistent, rigorous attention wouldn't work for me; nor would one that required too little. The solution seemed to be to reread a good, literary novel: the combination of anticipating what I already knew and moving beyond it would keep me engaged.

With this plan made, I thought of Howard's End almost immediately. The first time I'd used the word "untethered" to describe how I was feeling, Forster's "Only connect" had come to mind almost immediately.  The comfort I was taking in being home -- just sitting in my living room and doing next to nothing -- had gotten me thinking of Mrs. Wilcox's continual longing for her childhood home, for which the novel is named. Furthermore, I knew I still had the old, beaten copy of the novel that I'd read inattentively in college. It was the right size and weight to bring with me on the train every day. I could look forward to immersing myself in the novel between my periodic scans of the the station or car to see that there were no unattended backpacks needing to be reported.

It didn't take me long to locate the novel.  When I opened it to the title, page, I had my first inkling of homecoming:  there were the words "'Only connect . . .'" sitting right above the Vintage Books logo.  By the bottom of the third page, I had already laughed:  Helen Schlegel had asked her sister Margaret in a letter written at Howard's End, "Meg, shall we ever learn to talk less?" I have several very verbal friends named Meg, and even more verbal friends named Margaret -- so we talk a lot. I doubt we'll learn to talk less.

It felt good to laugh about something after the events of the previous weeks. And so began my connecting to Howard's End.

* As a CRLS teacher, I always call CRLS graduates by their first names.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Envisioning, Defining, or Designing: Should Innovating Educators Imagine Competencies, People, or Jobs?

I've been playing in my mind with the differences among -- and the implications of -- creating a profile of a successful 21st-century high school graduate vs. designing the learner of the future vs. defining a set of competencies that well-prepared 21st century students and learners must have.  Maybe we need to be asking not only what these future learners should have and might be, but what they will want, and who they will want to be.

At both the Deeper Learning Alliance's Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego last April and the Asia Society's Partnership for Global Learning Annual Meeting in Brooklyn in June, various schools and organizations shared profiles of competent and effective students/graduates and teachers; at last summer's Project Zero Future of Learning Institute, some participants engaged in design processes that yielded prototypes for the learner of the future.  

In all of these gatherings, there was talk of specific competencies and the best ways to help students achieve them. I was glad that in all three of these settings, participating educators were asked to envision people and competencies simultaneously.  When educators and policy-makers focus exclusively on competencies and the means of assessing them, they too easily lose sight of the fact that (a) people are not defined solely by their competencies, (b) people aren't important solely because of their competencies, and (c) people don't define themselves solely -- or even most meaningfully -- in terms of their competencies. While competencies matter, the whole child must remain whole, must not be redesigned or re-envisioned as only a learning machine.

Designing and envisioning are related but not identical processes. The idea of designing -- as opposed to envisioning -- people ("learners") makes me uncomfortable, even when I recognize that its intent is deeper understanding and better advocacy for educational programs and approaches.  There is an important but fine line between cultivating future learners and citizens and engineering them.  Too easily those learners/citizens can become the objects of, rather than the collaborators in, efforts intended to benefit them.

In contrast, envisioning the "well-prepared" graduate or student reminds us that people tend to resist being molded (though not always deliberately) and aren't born first-and-foremost to learn in and participate in a market-driven economy. Human satisfaction generally requires more than, or different from, the promise and the realization of successful economic participation (although successful participation can make possible some very satisfying life experiences -- like reading a good book (and not worrying about the economy) while lying in a lake-side hammock).

All of that said, my experiences at the Deeper Learning Conference did the most to challenge my unexamined resistance to entrepreneurism's influence on conceptions of 21st-century education. Various conversations, sessions and speeches increased my understanding of the practical and aspirational rationales for innovation, entrepreneurship, and design, in the classroom and beyond it:  to make the world a better place for oneself and for others. Prior to San Diego, my own limited perspective had predisposed me to associate entrepreneurism with for-profit business initiatives.  

When my need to understand more led me to explore on the internet, I encountered so many kinds of entrepreneurism:  social, cultural, artist, to name a few.  What these varieties all acknowledged was the importance of people's employment and employability from and individual and societal perspective:  making a living meaningfully, or the potential to do so, is essential not only to the individual worker's wellbeing, but to widespread social stability and desirable change. Thus, good education is -- at least in part -- about creating a range of entrepreneurs who have jobs -- and whose successful new products, businesses, and services better the lives of many.

There was a lot of appealing talk about innovation itself in San Diego. To begin to embrace innovation as more about the socio-economic need of the society than the bloated economic desires of society's individual members is something I can do.  If a major challenge is to reduce debt, create employability, and foster employment that aligns with rather than falls short of workers' educational skill levels and aspirations, then innovation is critical.  The idea that "new jobs" created through innovation and entrepreneurial efforts can allow people to use their educations in pursuing their own aspirations while meeting the needs of the world and people around them inspires me.  I am especially inspired when innovation's proponents speak publicly about the importance of interdisciplinary thinking in all of this:  the academic disciplines have important roles to play, though they must become team players that resist their historical tendency to exist as separate gated academic communities.

All of this raises the issue of challenging the status quo. These issues and ideas will probably not be foregrounded when most schools open their doors a few weeks from now for the newest academic year.  Time to envision the profile and competencies of successful status quo challengers and institution transformers?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

10 Take-Aways from the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning 2013 Annual Meeting

Three Questions for Globalizing Curriculum Topics:  Teachers can globalize student learning around a given content topic  (___) by having students consider the following questions:
  • What effect do/did events in other places in the world  and interactions with other people in the world have on ___?  (or, what are/were some global causes of/influences on ___?)
  • What effect does/did ___ have on other people and places in the world? (or, what’s the global impact of ___?)
  • Where else in the world do we see/have we seen something like ___?
[Workshop Session:  Develop Globally Competent Students Through Project-Based Learning]

Thinking Globally Isn’t the Same as Thinking Internationally:  If we use the concept of “nation-state” to organize our thinking about the world, we risk “leaving out” peoples, places, systems, and cultures because they are not easily categorized as "national." Resisting categorization according to nation, they may be viewed by some as less worthy of the media’s -- and by extension, our -- attention.  Using themes to approach a deeper and broader understanding of an interconnected world minimizes the exclusion of lesser known and less frequently documented/media-reported  groups and places.  Many processes are enacted within and across "national" boundaries and groups.
[Breakout Session:  Global Competency and Professional Development]

The Issue of Positionality:  American students need to grapple with the issue of positionality.  How we view the world is bound up in who we are.  The relative “positions” of nations can create "imperatives" that hinder and limit understanding of “the world.”  Prioritizing and valuing global learning -- which requires critical thinking, perspective-recognizing and perspective-taking, solution-seeking, appreciating and accepting the challenges of change and ambiguity -- will help American (and other) students to recognize hierarchies and biases -- and also possibilities for learning and action.
[Breakout Session:  Global Competency and Professional Development]

Major Challenges to Implementing Global Learning in the US:  According to participants in a breakout session about supporting teachers to learn to teach for global competence, many American educators resist embracing global learning because they generally
  • resist controversy and encounter in the classroom,
  • avoid topics that push them up against the limits of their own expertise and knowledge, and
  • worry about balancing the need to educate all students about the world with the need to enculturate “new Americans” in their classrooms.
[Breakout Session:  Global Competency and Professional Development]

Research Papers as Means, Not Ends:  Envision the “required research paper” not as the “major final assignment” associated with an inquiry process, but as the launching pad for student actions designed to solve problems or positively affect people’s lives. In Dana Maloney’s ELA classroom, Inquiry leads first to the “required research paper,” then to Action informed by that research paper, and then to Action Research (which further informs the Inquiry initially undertaken). Check out <>.
[Breakout Session: Solve the World’s Problems in the Secondary School Classroom]

The Place and Importance of Anonymous Questions:  Students often fear they will offend when asking questions about religions and religious difference.  While we must and can teach students “to channel their curiosity into respectful questions about cultures, religions, and diversity” (this was the focus of a breakout session that featured Tanenbaum’s The Seven Principles for Inclusive Education), we also need to provide opportunities for students to ask need-to-know questions anonymously:  at various moments, it is more important for students be able to raise urgent questions than to be able to raise them well and in public. Check out <>.
[Breakout Session:  Including Religious Diversity in Global Learning]

“Social Network for Social Good”: "TakingITGlobal empowers youth to understand and act on the world's greatest challenges,” according to its web site.  The “Telling Our Own Stories” activity in the Education section of the site includes some very good discussion questions.  Lots of student voice here, from everywhere. Check out <>.
[Breakout Session: Building Future-Friendly Schools Through the Use of Collaborative Technology]

With Social Responsibility Comes Student Happiness/Well-Being:  Student happiness/well-being is an important educational goal -- and student social responsibility correlates strongly to student happiness/well-being. “A happy student is likely to be responsible for self and others,” according to materials from  Dana Maloney, NJ high school English language arts teacher. Check out <>: the videos of student reflections make the case!   
[Breakout Session: Solve the World’s Problems in the Secondary School Classroom]

The Student Bill of Rights:  Brandon Busteed of the Gallup Foundation shared The Student Bill of Rights:
Every student in the world, from pre-K to higher ed, needs:
  • Someone who cares about their development
  • To do what they like to do each day
  • To do what they are best at every day  
[Lunchtime Plenary Session:  The Global Bill of Rights for All Students]

What Pablo Casals Had to Say:  Linda Darling-Hammond shared the following quotation from Pablo Casals, one that will inspire some and be dismissed by others.
“Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.”
[Lunchtime Plenary Session:  Global Perspectives:  Developing and Sustaining Global Competence]

[Please note: Thanks to the generosity of the NEA Foundation, three of us who studied about and then traveled to China as part of the NEA Foundation's Pearson Foundation Global Learning Fellowship Program attended the Asia Society Partnership for Global Learning 2013 Annual Meeting in Brooklyn, NY from June 27 to 29. Some or all of the above will be shared in some form with the NEA Foundation for dissemination to other Global Learning Fellows. Some of the above may be relevant to participants in the upcoming Project Zero Future of Learning Institute (hgpzfol) (FOL13)].