Friday, January 23, 2015

Transcending Isolation in Classrooms: Google Docs and How to Learn as a Community

From Sir Ken Robinson's talk on Changing Paradigms
A former student came to visit me yesterday during my lunch break, and of course, we talked about a lot of different things – the college courses he’s taking, what books we’ve read recently, some of this year’s major news events, and so on… (Landry, always a pleasure man!) We also talked about authorship and the art of writing, both acknowledging how now - more than ever – the practice of writing is rarely performed alone. Take the television renaissance of recent years, for instance. If Henry Fielding made popular the “epic in prose” (better known as the novel), television writers may well have done the same in recent years for what we’ll call the birth of “the epic in moving images.” My former student and I found ourselves reflecting on the fact that these new moving-image-epics (aka tv shows) are usually written by a community of creative writers.  It’s getting harder and harder, that is, to isolate an author when reading/viewing contemporary texts, whether they be print or image based. Simply put, writing is (more often than not) a collaborative process for most of us these days. More and more, we do things together, but as I write this I take a look around my classroom, which for the most part looks like any other room at any other campus. And what I notice is this: the designs of our classroom spaces – the walls, the singular desks, the rows, perhaps a lectern at front, the teacher’s desk of course crammed in one corner of the room – are born out of an ethos of another era. Traditional classroom designs, I think, are married to a model of education which emphasized and focused on the dynamics of the isolated individual’s learning process as opposed to one modelled on the equally important process of learning-as-a-community. Sometimes classrooms are isolating, and if we don’t think about such things the danger is that the learning environment we cultivate may be one where everyone is learning alone – and not together. That to me is a problem when considering how collaborative and connected our world has become.

As a teacher who values community and human interaction, I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with technology due to its impact on how we relate to each other as social beings. Throw in the techno-philistine utopianism of some Silicon-Valley-thinking and one could say that my relationship to tech could even be characterized as one that’s ill-at-ease to say the least. But some of this is obviously misguided. Technology, ironically enough, has helped me transcend the isolationist designs of my 20th century classroom for purposes of creating communities of collaborative learning. An epiphany for me has been the realization that technology can bring us together in very human ways (for some this is probably obvious…). More than ever, my students are learning for each other, inquiring for each other, studying for each other, and we as educators could adopt parallel strategies as the curricular guides & planners/designers of our learning environments. With this said, I want to share some examples of how tech tools are helping create more meaningful experiences where we learn as a community.

Studying for each other: Like many these days, I’m not a big fan of “high stakes” tests and final exams – partly due to my dislike for punitive approaches to scoring. Also, exams often reinforce one of the less interesting levels of the learning process – namely, that of rote memorization.  With this in mind, the idea of presenting my students with a difficult, monolithic test where mistakes on the student’s part are kind of like “gotcha” moments in what was otherwise a noble effort to get things right after a night of sleepless, exhaustive studying makes no sense to me. Also, what an isolating experience: sitting alone for 2 hours trying to keep in view an amount of information & knowledge that would be overwhelming to any person of regular intelligence.

One simple tech tool that has helped add value and meaning to the whole exam experience for me and for my students has been Google Docs. I’ve started using the Google platform as a way to create with my students a collaborative review over what we covered that given semester.  All I do is create the doc and put down some basics: some literary terms & concepts, a list of works studied with some themes briefly noted, some minimal bullet points for possible essay prompts, and reminders of other various things covered such as grammatical rules of usage or MLA citation guidelines. Once the students join, they transform what was a 1 page skeletal outline into a multi-page, living document where students are teaching each other, defining things for each other, and unpacking literary texts & themes for each other. I just sit back and nudge ‘em here or there if I sense the conversation has diverted from the proper target, but they (the students) basically make the exam. I simply take the language they’ve decided upon and give it back to them on the day of the test. It’s a slam dunk experience for everyone, and the easy nature of the test is no indicator of a lack of learning or a lack of an academic challenge: quite the opposite! The challenge was a more meaningful one that took place over a 2 week period leading up to the test: it was the process which preceded the testing experience. Some of my favorite moments were when students found themselves in conversations of negotiation over wording or whether one was right to apply a certain theme or concept to this or that text. Again, I just sat back unless they veered off course (which really didn’t happen since they clearly knew what resources they could access to compile the info needed.) I also let them synthesize the essay prompts and negotiate which 3 should make the exam. Their discussions were a joy to witness! 

What are other ways in which we as teachers can employ new technologies or new designs to our learning environments in order to overcome the trappings of isolation?

More Examples of this to come...

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