Friday, July 10, 2015

Digital Eight Days

I’m sure you’ve all heard that evolution doesn’t happen overnight; it can’t even happen over a lifetime, in fact. Whoever said that probably definitely never took Media Literacy, Popular Culture & Education with Dr. Lesley Bogad. I feel as if the past two weeks have been a true digital "evolution" in every sense of the term...and I've learned things I never knew I never knew (channeling Pocahontas here).

Once upon a time, I believed in two camps: Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives. I thought that the members of one camp could never (ever) cross over to the other, and that the two would simply never see eye-to-eye. This concept of a great divide between that two made so much sense to me, mostly because I could easily place myself in one category (Digital Immigrant) and my students in the other (Digital Natives). The tension between the two camps was strong: one fighting desperately for tradition, to keep things as they had always been for the next generation, and the other trying to break free, to do things in a new way. Somehow, even though I identified strongly with the Digital Immigrants, I found myself struggling to remain true and "loyal" - I like and am comfortable with the familiar, but I began to wonder if the newbies had a point. 

I have always been a book lover; perhaps this is why I found myself seamlessly fitting into the mold of a Digital Immigrant. I preferred books to my Kindle and iPad, and I was incessantly scribbling away in one of my zillion notebooks. I considered myself an "old soul," and avoided certain aspects of technology, even in my classroom - full of young, inquisitive minds that happened to belong to Digital Natives. I was digitally resistant. I looked at the brilliant young students in my classroom and thought to myself often, "these kids have no idea." My belief was that they were simply too tuned IN to their devices and social media to be tuned in to school, especially boring old English class. I often found myself telling nagging them to put their phones away; that's what my teachers had always done and (obviously) what I had to do now too. 

Along came my knight in shining armor, (more accurately, my Christof) - Media Literacy. Much like Cinderella is transformed by her fairy godmother, so I have been transformed by Dr. Bogad and all of you, my peers. By getting the chance to talk about the opportunities technology offers us in (and out of) our classrooms, and the chance to play around with so many digital tools, I've started to believe something I have heard before (thanks, Cinderella 2015) and now understand in a new way: "Just because it's what's done doesn't mean it should be done." 

I've started to believe that the two camps aren't in opposition at all, and that falling somewhere in the middle is alright. My goal in the English classroom is to work on bridging the gap between Natives and Immigrants, technology and tradition, reading and writing and thinking. My goal is to ensure that we, students and teachers alike, all have a place on (what I'd like to call) the "Digital Fluency Spectrum," similar to Scott Noon's 4 Tiers of Teacher Training. I now believe that we are all part of the same camp: Digital Learners. Dana Boyd poignantly states, "rather than focusing on coarse generational categories, it makes more sense to focus on the skills and knowledge that are necessary to make sense of a mediated world." That's what this is all about, and that's why we're all here - the skills, the knowledge, and the learning. How can we, as teachers, use the ever-changing digital tools and concepts to enhance the learning going on in our classrooms?

Part of the Common Core goals in schools include ensuring that our students are college and career-ready. This means that they will become adaptive problem solvers, collaborative communicators, and digitally fluent. These are skills that even the "Digital Natives" have to learn, develop, and practice. Linda Christensen claims that "if [we] want [our] students to wrestle with the social text of novels, news, or history books, they need the tools to critique media that encourage or legitimate social inequality." Much like I want my students to critique media, I know that they will ultimately create their own. If I want my students to be able to become active participants and producers in a digitally-evolving technological world, they need the tools to critique what is already out there as well as creating their own products. What better place to learn about, talk about, and practice with these tools than in the safe space of my classroom? 

So thinking about all of this during this course forced me to think about how these concepts were relevant even in my own classroom. In a world where my students and I see things very differently, I've decided to start focusing on the things we can do together that will enhance their digital fluency as well as my own. I've also (finally) started to, like Turkle, embrace the fact that technology is a part of our world and our classrooms, and it's here to stay. She argues that "When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters." Unlike Turkle, I believe that parts of these conversations can absolutely happen through, with, and because of technology. These conversations are very much a part of today's world, and I have the chance to help my students learn effective ways of communicating with one another through some of these tools. So now what do I want to do with it?

At the start of this course, I comfortably identified as a (resistant) Techno-Traditionalist. I emailed frequently and used an online gradebook (although that really consisted of transferring the grades from my paper gradebook to the computer). I envied teachers that were able to find creative and exciting ways to incorporate technology and digital tools into their lessons. 

I did try. Last year, instead of my usual journal writing, I set up a blog - which was pretty neat and fun to share with others...until I stopped writing on it. Note that my last post was January 5...oops. But even that blog was never really meant for my students or my classroom, just me. I feared that I would forever remain a Techno-Traditionalist. After the past 8 days of thinking and talking and collaborating and creating and learning, I started to gain some momentum and excitement thinking about what I could bring back to the classroom. I got a glimpse of how others utilized technology to enhance student learning and I started to regain hope...

I'm here today, and I can say now that this is what I believe. I believe that we are all a part of this digitally-evolving world. I believe that we can learn as much from our students as they can learn from us. And I believe that there is no such thing as a Digital Immigrant OR a Digital Native - so I can no longer identify as one and look at my students as the other. Instead, I believe in Digital Fluency. I was overwhelmed by the project at first, and sort of afraid of failing. There were so many tools to choose from and I kept getting distracted by all of the shiny and fun things on the computer. I forced myself to focus and refocus, and think, "what will support my belief about students and their learning? What do I believe?" 

I believe that learning happens when students and parents and teachers are all able to connect in and out of the classroom and carry on conversations from many different places and spaces. Building a community of learners will enhance the education of every single person involved, and sometimes doing that takes risks. So what could I risk, here and now?

I finally started to think about the website I had always dreamed of as an anchor for and extension of my classroom, and knew this was my chance to try and do it. It's very much not finished yet, and it took a LOT of playing around and frustrated forehead smacks, but it's a work in progress I'm extremely proud of. I decided to use Wordpress because I liked the clean, professional look of the sites, and found the customization/navigational tools relatively easy to learn and use. Suddenly, hours had gone by and I had an official class website, which I'm looking forward to working on and finalizing before September comes. 

My goal for myself was to stop looking at technology and all of the opportunities it presented as an intrusion of my book-filled, traditional, "Digital Immigrant" world. My new website offers a meeting-point for my students, their parents, and me to come together, and a starting point for incorporating some of the other tools we've experimented with here. By offering a virtual extension of my classroom, I am offering students (and parents) a new way to connect and build a community of learners. 

Earlier in this course, I talked about my fear of failure. Today, I'm here to promise myself that I will take more risks with technology in my classroom, because I believe learning happens when risks are taken. I will ask my students to take risks for that same reason. I began this course believing that when my students were "plugged in" they were "tuned out" of my classroom. As a newly self-proclaimed (and website-creating!!!) Techno-Constructivist, I believe we can absolutely make learning happen when students are plugged in - we just have to try plugging in too. It is through taking these great risks that we can learn, become better, and, ultimately, grow.

I felt as if Michael Wesch's words could have been my own: "Because I do not know everything . . . . I am in the wonderful but awkward position of not knowing exactly what I am doing by blissfully learning along the way. My job becomes less about teaching, and more about encouraging students to join me on the quest." I'm looking forward to what comes next in my Digital Journey, and I can't wait to ask my students to join me on the quest. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Connecting & Learning

Turkle and Wesch are very near and dear to my heart - in fact, after leading a class discussion on these two pieces in Dr. Bogad's class just last year, I feel as if they are sort of my friends. They just don't know it yet. Some of this is pulled from my thoughts (and blog) from that class, but a lot of it has been enhanced just by our conversations and learnings over that past four days. It's incredible how quickly learning happens when it's fun and meaningful and - oh, yeah...that entire list we put up on the board!

1. Wesch argues that, "most of us know from our own experience, the best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that learners are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives. Focusing on the quality of learning, rather than the quality of teaching, transforms the entire educational agenda." Our students learn by doing, not by taking diligent notes on long lectures and memorizing irrelevant facts. 

2. Turkle argues that in the midst of this "technological universe," we "need to remember - in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts - to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another." These are the moments in which we allow ourselves to be human, have feelings and reactions and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. They allow us to be present in the moment.

Neither Wesch nor Turkle hate technology; rather, they are trying to figure out (like the rest of us) how technology best fits into our worlds and our classrooms. I see them as allies, working from the same camp, trying to bridge the meaningful and relevant pieces of our lives with the technological pieces of the world that are everywhere around us. For Turkle, this means learning how to have real conversations, and possessing the ability to look up from our phones and do life with one another. For Wesch, it means understanding the capabilities and limitlessness of our technology and valuing the connections we can make through that technology.

I think we do need to have a lot of conversations with our students (and teach them how to have these conversations) about racism, sexism, social injustices, as well as conversations about their day, their opinions, their feelings. I also think that we need to get comfortable with technology in our classrooms, especially as a way to enhance, not our teaching, but student learning. There are so many opportunities for our students to be connected to information, ideas and other students that they might not have had the opportunity to be connected to before. So why are we (or our administrators or our school districts) shying away from this? Wesch argues that "we are all interconnected" and that we should provide for our students the opportunity for an "important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create." We have to find a way to use technology with our students, so that we all may learn from it.

In his TED Talk, by posing a unique analogy, Todd Rose asks educators a question that Turkle and Wesch (along with us, too!) would have several cups of coffee over as he discusses flexible learning environments created by technology...."So the question isn't 'do you want the technology?' - it's already here, you've already paid for it - the question is, 'what do you want it to be?'" 

What DO we want technology to be? How will we make it become that? How can we best incorporate it into our daily lives, in order to enhance the conversations and questions our students voice? Like Kelly Reed brought up yesterday, technology is simply a tool, like the physical tools that we got to play around with and cut and glue and create. Let's work on making it a part of learning.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Storybird Tutorial

Here's a short tutorial I created this evening that will help you navigate your way through Storybird for the first time! I couldn't embed the video within my email to Dr. Bogad's blog, but I also put up the link to the tutorial in the comment section :)

(P.s. this was my first tutorial ever! Talk about trying new things this week!)

Risky Business: The Politics of Education

"Taking Action Against Disney" -Steven Friedman

As a class, we concluded that one of Linda Christensen's main arguments in "Unlearning the Myths that Bind Us" is the importance of moving beyond developing critical consciousness, and moving students to action. "But what am I teaching them if the lesson ends there? That it's enough to be critical without taking action? That we can quietly rebel in the privacy of the classroom while we practice our writing skills, but we don't really have to do anything about the problems we uncover, nor do we need to create anything to take the place of what we've expelled?" (197) Part Five of the Rethinking Popular Culture and Media book focuses on just that: Taking Action For A Just Society.

One of the pieces that caught my eye, for several reasons, was Steven Friedman's "Taking Action Against Disney" (253). What first drew me in was seeing the words right beneath the title...."A teacher struggles with encouraging direct student action." Instantly, I was reminded of our conversation earlier today about the political-ness of teaching and the dangers that are sometimes associated with that. Friedman describes his dilemma in encouraging activism after discussing the exploitation of workers in factories contracted to Disney with his 7th and 8th graders. 

Why was he so hesitant to encourage students to take direct action, especially knowing he was "on solid ground with respect to the extent of injustices in Disney's sweatshops?" Truthfully, he had already been reprimanded once before and told that he had crossed a line. He was told by his school director that "by becoming a political activist, [he] was perilously close to muddying [his] role as a neutral educator" (254). Teaching is, and always has been, a political act. The decisions a teacher makes in his or her classroom impact so many more people than just those sitting in that classroom. There is no way to remain "neutral"...but why would we want to? Why are we here? We are all here because we want to make a difference - we are all here because we are "sensitive to the importance of letting students discuss, analyze, and make up their own minds about social issues - rather than merely allowing them to regurgitate what they perceive to be the teachers' views" (255). We are here to encourage critical thinking and inquiry, but we are also here to encourage students to DO - to act upon those critical inquiries. Our "why" should always be at the center of our teaching and the center of our classrooms. 

Friedman didn't have to encourage the students to act on his own: the National Labor Committee was organizing an international week of action against Disney. This information was quickly passed on to the students and their families, from whom he got mostly positive feedback. There were some parents, however, that felt he'd "abandoned [his] role as a neutral educator by leading students to protest. They were worried [he] hadn't presented both sides of the story." Friedman argues that sometimes, there are issues (political and social and moral) that do not have two equally valid sides, and it is everyone's responsibility to expose injustices and oppressions within these issues, and, more importantly, to take action against them. For our students to be a part of a movement, to form an opinion on an issue that exists that other people also have opinions about - this is teaching them to stand up for what they believe in, what is right, and what is socially just. That's the center of Friedman's "why"...and I know it's at the center of mine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The World of Disney Extends Far Past Disney World

I've only been to Disney once, and I wasn't enchanted by it then. I didn't fall in love with Prince Charming or want to wear a sparkly dress with a beautiful tiara because of it. I didn't want Timon and Pumbaa to be my best friends and I didn't pretend to wear a seashell bathing suit and comb my hair with a fork by the pool when we came home. No. These little pieces of me already existed long before that family vacation we took when I was in second grade. I was Cinderella for Halloween three years in a row, and then had to pick someone else to be because the costume no longer fit. In fact, we still have at least twenty VHS tapes of my favorite Disney movies, rewound and re-watched so many times I could recite every single one today, twenty years later.

The first time I was ever asked to critically analyze one of my beloved Disney movies was during my freshman year of college, in an Introduction to Literary Study course with Professor Joseph Zornado. The choice of what we wanted to analyze was completely our own - and I figured what better reason would I ever have to watch Disney's new movie Enchanted over and over again for an entire weekend - as an adult?! (Little did I know that a few summers later I'd get to watch TWO Disney movies in TWO days in a graduate-level actual dream come true!) I'm not so sure I "resisted" the critical analysis, like Christensen suggests many students do upon first viewing (193), but I'm also not so sure that I was overtly critical of the film, rather just analytical. The fact that the film tied in several aspects from different Disney princess narratives in a story about Amy Adams as a princess in real life had me hooked from the start. My very naive and very weak attempt at "critical analysis" was merely a commentary on the differences that Disney was starting to make in regards to the princess/heroine narrative.

It wasn't until I started to study education with Dr. August the following semester that I finally started to question the "social blueprints" embedded within these beloved Disney texts, in turn questioning my own upbringing and beliefs. Much like Christensen's student Justine, I felt some "discomfort with prying apart [my] identity and discovering where [I] had received [my] ideas" (192), but I also knew that I wanted to teach my students to question the world around them...and in order to expect that of them, I knew I would have to do the same, starting with the world I had grown up in. This past semester, I asked my students to analyze several of the cartoons they were familiar with and had grown up watching, using a gender lens. Many of their responses were similar to those of Christensen's students: "I will never be able to watch TV the same way again," commented one of my students, while others were appalled that they had never noticed or been asked to notice/think about/question gender stereotypes...and now they couldn't stop noticing them everywhere. Like Christensen, however, I wondered where I could then take them...

As a group, one of the most interesting things we came across in our critical endeavor was an article about a woman in Sweden who was sick of the narrative that princesses and superheroes impose on young children. What did she do? She created her own set of coloring books, "Super-Soft Heroes" and "Super Strong Princesses," to redefine what it meant to be a hero or a princess (or both!). My students loved telling new stories to go along with the new images they were presented with, and they didn't stop there. I had one student explain gender stereotypes to a worker at Build-A-Bear when her younger brother picked up a pink bear and was told to "go get a blue one because that's the boy bear." Another student came running up to me in the hall to talk to me about the gender stereotypes he noticed in the book he was reading.

Over the years, especially now that I am an adult (and more removed, teaching in a middle school setting), I have come to appreciate Disney's attempt at creating narratives with true heroines, like in Frozen and Brave, fighting for more than a Prince and a sparkly tiara - fighting for, rather, a sister and a mother, fighting to protect the kingdom and individual freedoms. Merida was one of the spunkiest and most genuine princesses I have ever seen (although I think I may still like Frozen a teeny tiny bit more - sorry, Dr. Bogad!), and I felt my heart smiling when I thought of how inspired I felt at 25 watching her stand up to her mother (and tradition) for her independence, imagining how much more influential she would even be in the life of a young child.

I'll admit...I will always love Disney, especially the princesses, and cherish the part of my childhood that they belong to (or, truthfully, that belonged to them). Cinderella is still my favorite princess, and I still get sappy when I think of romantic fairy tales. Blame the romantic in me. On the other hand, I think having conversations with our students and asking them to pick apart these narratives that are so comfortable and familiar to them is crucial to helping them grow as learners and as critical consumers in today's world.