Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What Should We Do with Our Classrooms? Make Them Mobile and Plastic.

The brain is plastic, free, [yet] we are still always and everywhere in chains.   -C. Malabou

In What Should We Do With Our Brain? (a pdf version can be found here), Catherine Malabou examines certain metaphors and models that are commonly used for making sense of the organization and function of one of the human body's most perplexing organs. Midway through the book she makes the claim that "Any vision of the brain is necessarily political" (52) because "[how we make sense of] neuronal functioning and [how we make sense of] social functioning inter-determine each other and mutually give each other form, to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish them" (9). More specifically, she posits that "There is today an exact correlation between descriptions of brain functioning and the political understanding of commanding" (32). Basically, how we talk about political power and social organization directly mirrors how we talk about brain organization, and vice versa. What we've discovered, however, is that we don't really understand brain organization, but we still rely on "so many unsettling metaphors in the register of command and government: a controller that sends orders down from on high [like] a central telephone exchange..." (4). Current research into neuroplasticity, however, demonstrates that the brain is not nearly so rigid and hierarchical (or could one say arbolic?) as the centralized command models suggest, which means we need a new language for talking about the brain, a reassessment that also could give way to more suitable metaphors or models for rethinking the politics of power socially and historically speaking. When rethinking language about both the brain and politics, perhaps the key is taking seriously their inter-determinable quality and exploring that relationship as a new model for both, a quality Malabou refers to as plasticity.

Plasticity is the ability to both receive and give form, meaning the brain gives form (much like the command center idea) but the organ is constantly modifying, repairing, and making new connections as well. Much of these modifications are shaped and impacted by environmental conditions, meaning the brain can receive form from factors outside its neuronal network (and how we organize power in our societal institutions, for instance, could serve as one of the many environmental factors which give the brain, as well as our conception of it, form as well). There is an inter-determinable relationship, in other words, between brain and world, and command center models miss this truth completely. What's most interesting is plasticity as a concept resists or subverts all models (if we are to assume that a 'model' is a rigid, unchanging form): "The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model" (6). A "centralized command center" not only fails to grasp the functionality of the brain: it presents a picture that is totally opposite of how our brains essentially and actually operate. And perhaps the command model also gives us a contrary picture of how political and social power could be rethought and redistributed: "It is thus not just a matter of uncovering, in the name of brain plasticity, a certain freedom of the brain but rather... to free this freedom, to disengage it from a certain number of ideological presuppositions that implicitly governs the entire neuroscientific field and, by mirror effect, the entire field of politics" (11). This got me reflecting upon the following question: How can we rearrange or reorganize power relations in our classrooms, for instance, to emancipate the student brain, to free it up such that it not only receives form but gives it as well, in our classroom environments and beyond?

He who bends others best is he who bends best himself.   -J. Ranciere

To see how our metaphors and models for political power permeate all levels of human existence (from brains to schools) take a look at the following image of a classroom from Nick Sousanis's Unflattening:

Nick Sousanis, Unflattening, Harvard University Press, 2015
The teacher, of course, serves as "the brain," commanding and giving form through his one-directional, neural networks which transfer data to the various receivers of information (namely, the students). The organization of the classroom mirrors the command center model of both politics and the brain, and it's obvious who's empowered and who's not in the above image. But what if we took the concept of plasticity more seriously? What can plasticity tell us about rethinking classroom politics & power relations?

One of my mantras for the year is the following quote from Jacques Ranciere's The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation: "He who bends others best is he who bends best himself" (85). (a pdf version can be found here). In the above picture, the only things that are demanded to bend are the students. It reminds me of Felix Guattari's distinction of Subject Groups and Subjugated Groups: the Subject Group (Teacher) has manifest power because they can demand to be heard, whereas the Subjugated Group (Student) doesn't necessarily have to be heard (however, the subjugated group does have latent power, if they were to act collectively for instance...). Classroom designs announce loudly for our students what models we're employing when it comes to distribution of power, and the design illustrated above messages clearly that students are to be told what to do, think, and learn. The teacher is the explicator of truth, and the students are to trace the teacher's path towards that truth: however, "It is the explicator who needs the incapable," writes Ranciere, "and not the other way around," (6). The explicator monopolizes power at the risk of disempowering and anesthetizing the students, meaning what we need instead is a pedagogy of student empowerment, which is another way of saying a "Pedagogy of Plasticity."

Each one of us describes our parabola around the truth - no two orbits are alike. And this is why the explicators endanger our revolution.   -J. Ranciere

Last spring, I had the fortunate opportunity to order new furniture for my classroom, a privilege I realize most teachers don't get, and I only had one serious request: I wanted everything to be mobile, which led us to select Learn2 desks made by KI:

Everything in the classroom, except the bookshelf, has wheels, including my desk, the students' desks, as well as the podium. As a result, everyday the relations among participants in the classroom shift and morph, depending on the activity; everyone is bending, giving form, and receiving it, including me. The design model is one of plasticity, and this change in the classroom arrangement helps give form to a new kind of pedagogy, an approach to teaching and learning that one might describe as andragogical. Already in the first 2 weeks of school, learning has taken some of the following forms:

There's no singular teaching style for all occasions, just as there's no singular learning style that proves better than all other methods. Just as plasticity as a model for the brain resists or even subverts all permanent forms so must our teaching methods. Mobile furniture is only one strategy for moving towards this realization, and it's been exciting to see it happen in my classroom this year. It's not the furniture that matters so much as the message we're sending in terms of who has the power over the learning process in our classrooms. To put it in Felix Guattari's terms, I hope the redesign of my classroom contributes in some way to removing the blinders from both the teacher's and students' perception such that the latent power of learning, that is autonomously in all of us, becomes manifest. The student doesn't trace the teacher's path to truth; everyone maps their individual journey together as a community.

They say classrooms are still always and everywhere in chains, but we know they can be plastic & free!

Works Cited:

Guattari, Felix. "Transversality." Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews, 1955-1971. Trans. Ames Hodges. Semiotext(e), 2015.

Malabou, Catherine. What Should We Do With Our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Trans. Kristin Ross. Stanford University Press, 2007.

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Harvard University Press, 2015.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Planning The Oakridge School's 2017 Inter-Institutional Colloquium on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - Entry 2, August 18, 2016

On January 30, 2017, The Oakridge School will be hosting a colloquium on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, giving high school students the chance to present papers, works of art,  films, and more on one of British literature's most thrilling and horrifying novels. 

After much discussion with teachers in the DFW community, the consensus was clear: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein should be the focus for the 2017 Metroplex Colloquium, to be hosted by The Oakridge School on January 30, 2017. I can't think of a better choice considering the fact that we're approaching the novel's bicentennial! Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein in 1816, and it was published for the first time in 1818. We look forward to welcoming students and faculty from various schools to join us in a celebratory conversation about one of literature's most influential novels.

We'll be reading the significantly revised version of the novel that was published many years later in 1831. At Oakridge, we're using the Penguin Classics Deluxe Ed., which looks like this:

After deciding upon a specific text, I invited faculty members from different schools in the surrounding area to join me on a google doc to plan and write collaboratively a call for papers for the 2017 Frankenstein Colloquium. I want to thank the following people for contributing to that endeavor: Jennifer Bonner at The Oakridge School, Joel Garza at Greenhill School, Christopher Schmidt at Parish Episcopal School, Chris Renshaw at The Oakridge School, and Jenny Fast at Founders Classical Academy.

As a result of everyone's creative input and suggestions, this year's colloquium will offer some excellent options for paper prompts as well as opportunities for 2D Art, Film, and MakerSpace submissions. The theme for January's colloquium is "Frankenstein 200 Years Later" and the prompts invite students to write about topics that range from literary and historical concerns to ones of a more scientific and philosophical nature. All the prompts are relevant to our experiences 200 years later in the 21st century, so go here to read more about the 2017 Frankenstein Colloquium's Call for Student Papers.

This year, we're excited to expand the invitation for student work by offering 2 new additions for the upcoming colloquium: (1) a Call for Student 2D Art & Film and (2) a Call for Student MakerSpace Designs & Products. To find out more about opportunities to showcase art or film inspired by Shelley's novel go here. And go here to learn more about the call for student MakerSpace creations (that are inspired by one of literature's greatest and most terrifying creations, namely Frankenstein's "monster").

The submission form for all student work can be found here, and all submissions must be turned in by Nov. 22, 2016.

So What Happens Next As We Wait For The Arrival of January 30, 2017?

Once the Call for Student Work was completed, I put together a blogspot as well as an official twitter account for the colloquium:

The idea behind the blog is to provide a space where students and faculty from various campuses can come together to collaborate, share ideas, and respond to each other's work online while reading and studying Shelley's text this fall well before we meet in January 2017. In previous years, Joel Garza of Greenhill School and Deborah Moreland formerly of Hockaday School have joined me and my classes on other blogs (go here and here) to study collaboratively the texts we've chosen for previous colloquia. I think Joel and Deborah would agree that the collaborations on the blogs added so much to the overall experiences, so I encourage readers (both remote and local) to think about joining us this year online. It's worth the risk and adventure; just go here to see what I mean.

At Oakridge, we'll be reading the novel during the month of September, so most of our activity on the blog will happen then. However, other schools will be reading the text later, so activity will continue on the blog as we move into the fall and winter seasons. We'd love for you to get on the site this semester to join our conversations or to just leave a comment.

A Call for Faculty Readers and Evaluators to Help Select Submissions for the 2017 Frankenstein Colloquium

Again, submissions are due Nov. 22, 2016, meaning I need to start putting together the committee of readers and evaluators who will determine which submissions should be accepted to be showcased at the colloquium on Monday, January 30, 2017. I plan to enlist readers and evaluators from various campuses, which we've done in the previous years as well. The other task at hand is to determine what other kind of special programming do we want to include for the colloquium in January: Keynote speaker? Special panel sessions? Creative writing workshops? Theatre workshop with 1 of the many play renditions? There's so many ideas to consider, which makes the task of putting the schedule together an exciting and rewarding challenge. Please stay in tune to learn more about plans for the schedule and program! 

If you have ideas for programs or special workshops, OR if you want to be a reader or an evaluator of submissions, OR if you want to join our collaboration on the blog in a deeper way, please contact Jared Colley, English Chair, The Oakridge School, at jcolley@theoakridgeschool.org or @jcolley8.

2017 Frankenstein Colloquium's calls for student work:
1. A Call for Papers
2. A Call for 2D Art & Film
3. A Call for MakerSpace Designs & Products
4. Submisstion Form for all student work (Due Nov. 22, 2016)

Contact Info.:
Jared Colley
Chair, English Department
The Oakridge School

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Resources from Lausanne Learning Institute - July 10-12, 2016 - Memphis, TN

Lausanne Learning Institute, July 10-12, 2016, #LLI16

Last week I had the opportunity to attend one of my favorite summer conferences: the Lausanne Learning Institute in Memphis.  If you've never had the chance to go, I highly recommend LLI for the educator interested in current conversations about educational technology and student-centered learning. There's no better place to have such discussions than in a city like Memphis with its fascinating history, rich musical culture, and savory southern cuisine. For 3 years now, I've had a blast attending Lausanne, and it's exciting to hear that they'll be growing their brand as well as their reach as a professional development institute as soon as next year.
Beale Street, Saturday evening
The Oakridge School is the 2016 Spotlight School

Attending this year included the added privilege of representing the 2016 Spotlight School of the Year. The Oakridge School was recognized as "the most innovative independent school, from technology integration to student-centered curriculum" by the Lausanne Learning Institute based on its extensive review of schools across the nation. I was proud to be a part of such an impressive team of collaborative, student-centered educators: all in all, we hosted around 20 sessions at the conference on topics ranging from maker spaces to authentic learning to writing across the curricula. Below you can watch the acceptance video that was shown at the opening banquet when Jon Kellam, Headmaster of The Oakridge School, accepted the award on behalf of the school. (The video was made by Oakridge upper school students...)

Resources for the 4 Sessions I Hosted:

Over two busy days, I hosted four sessions, two with Claire Reddig, Writing Specialist at The Oakridge School, and two on my own. Day one, I facilitated a conversation titled, "Rhizomatic Learning & Disrupting School Silos." Most of what was explored in this session stems from my interactions with the #Rhizo16 community as well as my work with Joel Garza and Seth Burgess (including our "Ignite" Keynote from OESIS LA 2016). Go here to read more about my thoughts on how "Rhizomatic" thinking could provoke a radical shift in mindsets in terms of how we rethink school organization. Below, I've provided an embedded version of the Google slides (contact me if there's any questions):

Unfortunately, my first session on "Rhizomatic Learning" was not very well attended, but those of us in the room, perhaps due to the smaller size, had a great conversation. One of my administrators joked that I've got to quit putting obscure words in my session titles if I want more people to attend. That's fair advice, but esoteric word choices didn't stop people from attending my second workshop: "Pwning the Humanities: Gamification in the Classroom" (for a definition of "pwning" go here...).  One of the best parts of the session was the fact that students attended, and they weren't afraid to join the conversation and give feedback.
Although I don't have a "slide show" for the session on gamification, go here to find resources, related content, and links based on what was discussed, and again, contact me if there's questions.
"Pwning the Humanities..." | Mon., July 11th, 2016
Day two, Claire Reddig and I hosted two sessions related to writing. Our first workshop was titled "Connecting Writing with Authentic Audiences," where we facilitated a conversation on what it means to connect student writing to an authentic audience as well as what strategies we could employ to make it happen in our classrooms tomorrow. I've embedded the slide show for this session as well; feel free to take a look:

After lunch, we hosted another workshop on a similar topic, called "Writing Across the Curricula at The Oakridge School," and we were blown away by the turnout for the final session. It was standing room only, which made clear to me that this is a timelessly valuable topic: how do we integrate one of the most important, transdisciplinary skills across the departments in way that is intentional, clear, and collaborative? Much of what we shared was based on the hard work done by the Oakridge English department (and beyond) in recent years to improve the execution of writing instruction across the campus, K through 12. Below, I've supplied the slides to this one as well, and I urge anyone to take a look and give feedback:

For more resources related to the sessions I hosted at #LLI16, go to my google site, which can be found here. There's many more links and useful content to be found there.

On February 23-24, 2017, The Oakridge School is hosting the first LLI Southwest Conference!

Jon Kellam accepting Spotlight Award
Another exciting development related to last week's conference was the announcement that The Oakridge School, LLI's 2016 Spotlight School, will be hosting the first southwest regional gathering for LLI in February 2017. One of the main themes we keep returning to as we begin to plan February's conference is the idea of "Making Good Teaching Visible." With this in mind, we plan to schedule two kinds of session formats: (1) the traditional 1hr. block workshop for presentation & conversation and (2) what we're calling "fishbowl" sessions, such that the first 45mins will include a lesson with students in the room, followed by a 45min presenter-led debrief without the students in the room. We're excited about the 2nd format because it allows teachers to see each other's craft in action: it makes good teaching visible for everyone to see! We hope to have educators submit proposals for both kinds of formats, and we hope attendees and presenters come from all over the nation. Make sure you go here to submit a proposal for next February, and hopefully we'll see you in Arlington!

Submit proposals here for the 2017 LLI Southwest Conference at The Oakridge School!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Planning The Oakridge School's 2017 Inter-Institutional Colloquium on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - Entry 1, April 9, 2016

The Oakridge School is excited to announce that we will be hosting the 2017 Colloquium on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818 nearly 200 years ago!

This is going to be the first entry in a series of posts about the steps we'll be taking as a community to plan the 5th inter-institutional paper colloquium for high school students in the surrounding metroplex area of North Texas. Since one of my goals this year is to expand the reach of this collaboration both geographically and digitally, I almost hesitate to specify our regional location, but the schools of Dallas, Arlington, Fort Worth, and the surrounding area are the reason this practice is now in its 5th iteration. It's a privilege to be a part of a community where there's so much trust and collegiality.

What do we mean by a student-centered, inter-institutional colloquium?

Before the 2012-2013 school year, I began having conversations with Joel Garza of Greenhill School and Deborah Moreland formerly of The Hockaday School about the idea of hosting a colloquium at the The Oakridge School's campus where students from multiple schools would read the same text, submit papers by a certain deadline, and attend a paper conference with workshops for students to present their ideas and have conversations together (much like we do at the collegiate and professional level). We all recognized the many benefits of pursuing such a project: (1) students could practice public speaking; (2) there would be an authentic audience for students' writing, making the learning experience more meaningful and relevant to them; (3) we would be modeling what higher level scholarship looks like; (4) this would break schools out of their silos (such as campuses, departments, and classrooms) and facilitate purposeful collaboration.

After sharing and stretching ideas with Joel Garza and Deborah Moreland (as well as other teachers from various schools), a call for papers came together which focused on the collection of short stories, Dubliners, by James Joyce. Here's a trailer of the culminating event:

Of course, so much went on (in terms of work and collaboration) prior to the filming of this video that made the event you just witnessed as successful as it was. We set up a blog, for instance, to instigate collaboration and interaction between campuses months before the gathering ever took place. Go here to get a much more detailed version of the story (especially if you want to learn more about how we used tech tools to collaborate across campuses a-synchronistically in anticipation of the future colloquium...)

For the 2013-2014 school year, The Oakridge School hosted another event, this time to investigate William Shakespeare's play, Richard III.  Once the call for papers was distributed, several schools, including Hockaday and Greenhill, returned to participate again, and we added new elements to the program by inviting Drama/Theatre departments to participate as well as historical and archeological inquiry in honor of the recent successful dig to rediscover the Yorkist ruler's remains.

Since then, the tradition has continued to grow. Last year, Gary Nied of Cistercian Preparatory School organized a colloquium on Flannery O'Connor's short stories hosted by his campus in the fall of 2014, and most recently Joel Garza of Greenhill School hosted a "Midwinter" colloquium on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, an event that just took place last February bringing together theatre, dance, literary discourse, and many other interdisciplinary activities. The tradition continues to evolve as more campuses are getting involved and more disciplines are being brought into the fold. Again, my hope is to welcome even more students and faculty from other areas who can join the fun this year (or in the future), even if that means being a remote participant using digital platforms and tools.

What have we done so far for next year's gathering?

Last February, I decided it was time to start reaching out to faculty, campuses, and various departments about planning the next student-centered paper colloquium for the spring semester of 2017. The first question, of course, was what text, theme, or topic did we want to focus on? Considering how the conferences had grown, what other elements would we want to include (in the past there's been acting workshops, archeological presentations, slam poetry sessions, creative writing workshops, and so on...)? What other departments did we want to invite (considering that most of us involved are English teachers or department heads)? Also, how could we get more schools and students to participate? Instead of answering such queries in isolation, I set up a google doc, data-mined emails, and blasted a message to the surrounding community with a link to the document which was created to facilitate a collaborative approach to planning. (Please go here to see the doc; it shows how amazing a conversation can be when everyone adopts a collegial spirit of wanting to work together to do something bigger than what can be done by one person, school, or classroom...)

Once the google doc had lived for about a month, I consolidated everyone's comments into 4 options for the topic of next year's colloquium:

1. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (200 year anniversary is 2018; nice intersection of issues such as tech, otherness, gender)
2. a selection of science fiction texts (a handful of short stories and/or novellas)
3. a selection of texts about totalitarianism & politics (perhaps 1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, Handmaid's Tale)
4. Chicago Then, Chicago Now (an examination of Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun & Wright's Native Son)

I set up a google form (which can be found here), and around 25 respondents from 12 different campuses voted on what they thought would be the best selection. Here's the breakdown of the results:

I'm excited to announce that next year's colloquium will be revisiting Mary Shelley's Frankenstein nearly 200 years after its first date of publication, and the outcome of the survey was based on the insights and opinions of faculty and administrators from the following schools: All Saints' Episcopal School of Fort Worth, Cistercian Preparatory School, Dallas International School, The Episcopal School of Dallas, Fort Worth Country Day School, Greenhill School, The Oakridge School, Parish Episcopal School, St. Mark's School, Southwest Christian School, Trinity Valley School, and Ursuline Academy of Dallas. How many out there already read this canonical classic in your curricula? Why not join our collaborative conversation??

What do we plan to do next?

1. The next thing we plan to do is establish a date for the colloquium (most likely late January or early to mid February 2017) as well as a due date for student submissions to present papers.
2. We also need to craft a call for papers, and judging from the 2nd pie graph above, there are many participants who are eager to contribute ideas for prompts. Most importantly, I want to make the call for papers as inclusive as possible in terms of disciplines and student interests.
3. We need to reach out to more schools to expand the community of collaborators. (Let us know if you're interested! Geography is not an obstacle considering our access to technological tools.)
4. Speaking of technology, I want this collaborative, communal investigation to begin sooner than later, so we plan to set up a blog or wiki site such that students and faculty from various campuses and classrooms can begin to collaborate, share ideas, and post demonstrations of learning in various mediums well before we meet for the colloquium.

I will continue to post entries as we journey through this adventure together. If there's interest to join our investigation (even if it means only collaborating digitally on the forthcoming webpage or having a student skype in his or her presentation at the event), please contact me so we can connect. I'm already looking forward the 2017 spring semester!

Jared Colley

Friday, February 5, 2016

Connecting Educators to Break Down Silos: Inviting Readers & Colleagues to Sign Up & Join the "Grassroots" Movement

On February 23-24, Seth Burgess of Lausanne Collegiate School and I will be traveling to Los Angeles to present at the 2016 OESIS gathering. We'll be hosting a workshop on gamification (like we did in Boston last fall; go here to see more...), but we'll also be sitting on a panel discussing "English Teachers and Innovative Practices" AND we'll be giving an Ignite Keynote address on "Breaking Down the Silo Mentality: A Grassroots Movement." It's going to be a busy few days, and we're so excited about it. (You can go here to see the conference program.)
Come see our "Ignite Keynote" Feb. 23, 8:00-9:15am, at OESIS LA 2016
A lot of what we'll be sharing in our keynote is an extension of what I reflected on (in a more theoretical manner) in a previous post (which can be found here). We as educators sometimes feel limited or isolated by the parameters of curriculum, departmental territories, the geographic separation of campuses, or assessment models that are too tied to grade averages, which makes it difficult for a teacher to take risks, try something new, or simply experiment with an idea. So how can we make that more possible? How can we make connections with fellow educators who, like us, want to break out of such silos by bringing together our classrooms, departments, campuses, etc., for purposes of attempting to do something differently? It's hard to break free of the silo mentality alone: we need each other, and my story is a perfect example (watch the vid. below if you have 25mins; it's not necessary for the point of the post, however...):

Of course Seth and I met on similar terms (much like the story told in the above video). We were two teachers at a conference who were both interested in breaking out of certain silos, in this case our classrooms and campuses, and our willingness to collaborate pushed both of us to try something totally different when we successfully gamified our English classes for the first time (go here for links to read more about it.)  As Seth and I prepare to deliver our talk on this very topic, I've decided to set up a Google Form (here), and the idea is that any educator, at OESIS or elsewhere, can fill in his or her info (name, place or work, position, contact info., and what "silo" they want to break out of) such that the information entered will be displayed publicly for other educators to see. That way we can start the process of breaking down silos one collaboration at a time by connecting with each other to plan projects outside the area that makes us feel so limited (campus, department, assessment models, etc.). If you go to the link for the Google Form, you'll see an embedded spreadsheet presentation with people's information located just below the form. Anyone who fills out the form will have his or her information displayed there as well, and I suggest that one think of it as an arrival/departure board like that found in airports where one can look for the possible connection, the potential "line of flight," that makes breaking out of the silo in question all the more feasible.  Who on the spreadsheet is the right connection for you and your idea? Take a look, and once people begin to provide their info., identify the person whose interests match your own. Maybe you're looking for someone who's of a similar department but wants to connect with classrooms at other campuses. Maybe you're looking a for a history teacher to collaborate on your art project? The possibilities are quite expansive, so go here, check it out, and fill in your info. so we can connect our classrooms, our curricula, and most excitingly our students to break down the walls of today so we can explore the "rhizomatic" landscapes of tomorrow.

Join the grassroots movement!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Some Reflections from Friday’s Unconference: Notes on How to Make Class Discussions More Successful

The Oakridge Unconference, Jan. 29, 2016
Last Friday, my school hosted an afternoon of professional development for educators both from our campus and from our sister schools in the surrounding area. The gathering was organized like an unconference where teachers, coaches, and administrators voluntarily facilitated ad hoc conversations on interest-based topics ranging from scheduling to tech integration to sessions about what books people are reading and why. It was a great day full of unexpected conversations with people I don’t normally get to spend time with on an average day of typical school scheduling. 

I decided to host a conversation on “Class Discussions: How Do We Make Them Successful,” and all the participants who attended had “a successful discussion” on the topic, helping me clarify some of the thoughts and strategies I've developed over years as I’ve continued to wrestle with this issue. How do we make class discussion more student-driven, evidence based, inclusive to all voices (including the shy kids), and therefore more empowering & meaningful for all? Here's some notes & reflections from the session:

1. Are we focusing more on teacher-preparedness or student-preparedness when planning a discussion-driven day of classes? 

Too often in my early years, I spent more energy and time making sure I ("the content expert") was prepared for the discussion by crafting thought-provoking questions, perhaps planning a kind of thematic arc to how it “should” unfold, and thereby delivering my prepped questions “charismatically” to inspire student buy-in. It took me a long time to realize that one key element to successful discussion is directing one’s energy and instructional design towards making sure students are prepared for the discussion (instead of worrying about my preparedness). I started using google docs and online discussions, for instance, to provide questions ahead of time, to get students gathering their thoughts as well as examples of evidence before they're on the spot the next day in class. If using online discussion threads, I like to have the highlights from the online conversation on the digital projector when the students enter the room. They're always eager to share when they've spent time thinking about it the night before; it's like they want you and the others to see what they have accomplished. Google docs is also useful for disseminating questions well ahead of time, and I encourage students to leave comments about which questions they feel confident about as well as which ones they're less comfortable answering (it gives me instant feedback about strengths, weaknesses, needs, etc...)

A quick note: go here to read more about methods I’ve used, involving google docs, to better prepare and empower students before the class discussion ever takes place.

2. What measures are we taking as teachers to make sure students feel safe and comfortable when taking the risk to voice their thoughts and feelings? 

Preliminary Small Group Talks as Prep for Class Discussion
I think we forget how scary it is to offer a reading, interpretation, or feeling about some difficult academic topic and to have to do so in front of one’s peers as well as one’s teacher (who will be giving a grade at the end of the 9 weeks…). Students need space, time, and (as stated before) preparation to feel comfortable enough to even gather their thoughts, much less to articulate them in front of an audience. In the unconference session we all agreed that time moves differently for us as teachers, and we have to remind ourselves to slow down and to allow the lingering silence, even if it feels awkward or like a waste of precious class time. (It’s not a waste, by the way, because these are the invaluable moments when students are given time to do the thinking for themselves.) As stated before, it’s important to also let the students prepare (again, I think of flipped classroom techniques like google docs or online discussions). For instance, I like to organize students into smaller groups to have a kind of brainstorming conversation beforehand in a safer environment of 3 or 4 peers. Joel Garza once modeled for me another simple but profoundly effective technique where one gives the shier, less confident student a gentle 5-10 minute warning that he will be asked to speak on question X in the next few minutes, thereby giving them time to think it through. A simple nudge or warning does wonders for the anxious student.

3. Who are the students speaking to in the class discussion? Are they speaking to the teacher or are they speaking and listening to each other? 

My current seating design for my classroom; students sit on
the outside and inside of the circle of connected tables
How do we get students to quit talking to the teacher and to engage their peers instead? The first thing that was brought up in reaction to this question was the issue of classroom design. How we arrange our classrooms communicates a lot to students about our expectations of how they should interact with the teacher and their peers. Letting students push around and arrange easily-movable furniture to suit the learning occasion is ideal (if you ask me), but unfortunately, some teachers have no control over the design of classrooms and have to do their best with what they’ve got. In fact, one teacher in our session proclaimed that she was this close to unbolting the tables and chairs in her room... Another response that took the the form of a question was the following: Who is constructing/asking the questions in the class discussion? We all agreed that to have successful, meaningful class conversations we as teachers have to cede control to empower students to create the questions for each other. In my class I divide students into groups of four, assigning a chunk of a novel (or whatever) to each group, such that when a designated section of the reading is due the group assigned to that material has to have posted (24 hours ahead of time) at least five questions (usually on a google doc) for the class; this again allows the other students the proper time to prepare for the anticipated discussion. Many thanks to Joel Garza for helping me develop such methods! I once invited Mr. Garza to guest-teach my sophomore English class at Oakridge, and he employed another technique that I’ve continued to use to get students to engage each other instead of me (and it works everytime…). He divided the room in half, and one set of students got the following prompt for the day’s discussion: what I need to know about last night’s reading is ______________. The other half of the class were told to explore the opposite prompt: what I definitely know about last night’s reading is ______________. Each group discussed their prompts separately and then came together to sound off their main talking points, and discussion took off naturally and without hesitation. We simply leaned back and enjoyed the exchange.

4. With so many individuals in the room, how are we keeping everyone engaged, especially the quiet student? 

One thing I always do when facilitating a class discussion is I assign one or two students to be the scribe or note-taker for the day. I usually encourage them to log on to the google doc where the student-created questions have been posted for the day and instruct them to take notes in the form of detailed bullet points under the relevant prompt being addressed in class. When conducting inner/outer circle formats, Jason Kern suggested (in our session) providing a back channel for the students who are not currently part of the active conversation (Again, I use google docs for this, but one could use TodaysMeet or Chatzy for such a thing). The students using the back channel can take notes or exchange commentary about the inner circle discussion taking place. If possible, put the note-taker’s or the outer circle’s recorded thoughts on a digital projector so everything is visible to all participants during class. These kinds of alternative forms of engagement can also be a way to bring the quieter student into the conversation without making him feel like he's completely left his comfort zone. 
Screen Capture of a Student-Scribe's Notes from a Class Discussion on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
***Note: Go here to learn more about "Five Platforms for a Classroom Back-channel Chat" from Richard Byrne's blog.

5. What do you do with the discussions once they’re done? Does it end there? 

If students are being provided time and space to prepare (via google docs or discussion threads) as well as being given tasks (such as serving as a scribe), there’s going to be a written record of the knowledge the class has constructed together. With this in mind, make use of that written record: I recommend having students cite each other in a future paper/written-response assignment for two important reasons: (1) it empowers the student whose words or ideas are being cited, thereby making her feel heard, valued, and affirmed, and (2) it gets the students to practice digital literacy and citizenship by having them learn how to cite an online document or discussion thread correctly. I’ve used the students’ language from the notes and threads on exams, essay prompts, and quizzes before as well, which I think provides a sense of relevancy for them. It’s not just a come-and-go activity never to be revisited: it’s connected to a greater arc of inquiry that’s taking place all semester.  

Friday's session was an enlightening conversation for everyone involved, but we were definitely left with questions to reflect upon and explore at greater length. Here's some to ponder:

1. What are other methods or best practices to better engage and empower the shy student?
2. Should every student be “forced” to participate in class discussions even if it makes them anxious and uncomfortable? Why or why not?
3. How do you handle the overly-eager student who wants to dominate the discussion?
4. Should one assess student discussion in the form of grades, and if so, what specifically is one assessing?

Please help us keep the conversation from Friday’s unconference alive and moving forward by providing a comment below!

Friday, January 29, 2016

Metaphors We Teach By, Part Four: On the Rhetoric of Change in Schools, Plasticity vs. Flexibility

Change is Hard

Me w/ Pat Bassett at Oakridge
Pat Bassett recently visited my school to deliver a talk on "The Big Shifts in Education,” and much of the discussion that Mr. Bassett encouraged us to explore focused on identifying the shifts and changes taking place on our campus as well as the ones we anticipate or desire to take place as the future continues to unfold. I remember one of Bassett’s slides that day projecting the provocative declaration: “If you’re not a school of the future, you won’t be a school in the future.” That’s a statement that should make one stop and think, perhaps inspiring a feeling of excitement and opportunity, while also leaving some of us with a lingering sense of anxiety. But why is that the case? Because change isn’t easy, and oftentimes it comes with many discomforts and unexpected mishaps. So what do we do to work through that? What kind of language do we employ to make sense of the difficulties that come with growth? It’s an important question because the language we use directly shapes and models the ways we make sense of important concepts such as change as well as concepts involving the relations of power. [1]  

Oftentimes when we implement a sudden change in our classroom procedures, policies, or routines, students react with resistance and hesitation, perhaps even distrust, because they too feel like they’re out of their comfort zone and fear the prospect of an unpredictable mishap. Change is hard, plain and simple. When thinking about such situations, what language does a teacher employ to get students to cope with the adjustment? How do we mobilize a class of students or an assemblage of personalities to move towards the change we want to happen? One might enact the figure of authority, for instance, and demand compliance: “You will do what I’m asking because I’m the teacher and I said so! Just trust me.” This of course relies on a model of central-command authority, which has its costs emotionally and relationally speaking. But what about strategies that are less coercive? One that comes to mind is the commonly-voiced idea of being flexible. The person or teacher who invokes this notion of flexibility no longer commands authority in the same straightforward way; instead this person coaches, encourages, and/or reasons with the frustrated student, gently urging him to recognize that the change being implemented is necessary (and therefore inevitable) and the student must understand, as a result, that the best response to the inevitable is to be flexible. Here we have the model of the facilitator/manager who molds and bends the student through intervention, encouragement, and persuasion, reminding the person to flex with and conform to that which is inevitable... Flexibility here serves as an interesting rhetorical figure, for it suggests the properties of being bendable and stretchable, as well as something that conforms or molds to stronger forces/harder objects. In other words, it too gives shape to a model that necessitates the exercise of unilateral power.

To empower students and encourage critical thinking, I think we need a more symmetrically balanced model of give-and-take that does not enforce the figure of flexibility upon the weaker partner, and I believe this is true for all modalities of relationships in a school (in other words, for all the siloed binary pairings of teacher-student; faculty-admin.; department-to-department; division-to-division; etc.), especially when coping with or embracing change as an educational community. How do we empower a student body or a staff to take ownership of the change in process? First of all, we need to think about the politics of our metaphors. What does it mean to be flexible? What if we thought about the connections & relationships of a school community, not as being made functional by the participants’ promise to be flexible, but as being shaped by the principle of plasticity?

On Plasticity as an Emancipatory Metaphor

Many people have a tree growing in their heads but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree. 
-G. Deleuze & F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 15

In Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do With Our Brain?, she explores the implications of a neuroplastic model for the brain, but she approaches her topic from a more literary-philosophical point of view, which makes her keenly aware of the ideological assumptions that accompany one's word choices, metaphors, and modes of articulation, even in the realm of the sciences. She writes, “Any vision of the brain is necessarily political. It is not the identity of cerebral organization and socioeconomic organization that poses a problem, but rather the unconsciousness of this identity” (52). In other words, any metaphor or mode of verbal representation we employ to make sense of what we mean by “brain” reflects certain assumptions and biases of how we think politics, power, and the social. As stated in the previous post, our models and metaphors reveal our assumptions, values, and desired outcomes as a society, a culture, or a given group of people. (I think of how functionalism for instance as an approach to philosophy of mind came hand-in-hand with our increased fascination with computing as a model for intelligence and problem-solving.) Malabou mentions one common vision for the brain which likens it to a rigid command center, “which gives rise to so many unsettling metaphors in the register of command and government: a controller that sends orders down from on high, a central telephone exchange, a computer…” (4-5). Of course, she discusses this in order to explore a newer, alternative model for brain-functioning, namely one that relies on the metaphorical notion of plasticity, which describes something as both receiving and giving form (commands), thereby having the ability to constantly connect, modify, repair, and re-map. 

The receiving and giving of form is what distinguishes plasticity from flexibility. Malabou explains it further stating, “The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it as not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model” (6). “Neuroplasticity” as Google defines it is “...the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.” In other words, new research about the plasticity of the brain shows that the brain is less of a rigid command center and more of an ever-changing neuronal network whose form adapts, molds, and adjusts in response to the environmental exposures and encounters during its history and development as an organ. Our brain and its neuronal functionings also help shape the workings of the brain as well as its environment both in and outside the biological system of the body, meaning “…neuronal functioning and social functioning interdetermine each other and mutually give each other form, to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish them” (9). We have not realized the entire reach of this useful concept, says Malabou, for neuronal plasticity entails freedom from unilateral demands for compliance. It's a give-and-take model and this means “...it is not just a matter of uncovering, in the name of brain plasticity, a certain freedom of the brain but rather… to free this freedom, to disengage it from a certain number of ideological presuppositions that implicitly governs the entire neuroscientific field and, by mirror effect, the entire field of politics” (11). Plasticity helps us envision how relationships could function in a more egalitarian, horizontal manner and therefore shifts our mindset in terms of how we cultivate partnerships for change. 

IMAGE CREDIT: Esther Beaton/Australian Geographic
Most of the time, however, we still rely on compliance to push things forward: “[Although] the brain is plastic [and] free, we are still always and everywhere in chains” (11). Catherine Malabou argues that “...today, the true sense of plasticity is hidden, and we tend constantly to substitute for its mistaken cognate, flexibility… [and] the problem is that [flexibility] grasp[s] only one of the semantic registers of plasticity: that of receiving form. Indeed, what flexibility lacks is the resource of giving form, the power to create, to invent or even to erase an impression, the power to style. Flexibility is plasticity minus its genius” (12). When we want to implement change, whether it be in a classroom or among a whole staff, we need to be more “genius” like our plastic brains by empowering all participants transparently and collaboratively. And I suggest we need to conceive of all campus-wide relations in terms of plasticity, as opposed to flexibility or other modalities of power relations. Like the wasp and orchid, plasticity is about aparallel evolution. [2] 

-When I suddenly decided to “gamify” my class last year (in the middle of the semester), it demanded a lot of adjustment out of my students, so it was important to be transparent, communicative, and open to student feedback and intervention. I constantly asked them for ideas and suggestions for improvement, and we molded to each other in the process of our shared exchange while embarking on this new experience together. 
-Recently, the leadership at my school has done a great job embracing plasticity over flexibility as we continue to challenge each other to embrace certain changes to serve our students even better: (1) Today, we’re hosting an “unconference” on campus where teachers freely lead and facilitate sessions that they deem most necessary and relevant for our needs as a school in relation to professional development. Usually the agenda for PD comes from the top-down. (2) Additionally, this semester we are launching several teacher-led (as opposed to department or divisional heads) research & design teams to discuss changes needed to meet our long range vision and goals as a school. 

It’s great to see the aparallel evolution of certain campus silos such that they are working together in a way where collaboration takes the place of compliance.  Jacques Ranciere put it nicely when he said, “He who bends others best is he who bends best himself” (85). My challenge to myself is to replace the demand for flexibility with the model of plasticity both as a teacher and as a collaborative colleague. Otherwise, relationships become a struggle for power, which reminds me of something else Pat Bassett said the other day: “Education is relational, not transactional.”
"Dendrites" - http://www.nica-institute.com/dendrites/

Works Cited:

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.

Malabou, Catherine. What Should We Do With Our Brain? Trans. Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.