Creating Learning Experiences

I've spent the last couple of days thinking about the tools I will use next term with my classes (21classes? Edublogs? Ning? Wikispaces? PBWiki? MindMeister?) only to discover that what I'm really interested in is preparing the ground for learning. I don't want to structure and pre-define. I do not want to create a community or a social network for my students. Instead, I want to create the conditions necessary for the right kind of environment to emerge. Building an environment for the students is likely to result in failure: environments and communities need to be build with the students, with their full participation, through their work and their interactions with and about texts. It's not just about choosing a blogging platform and letting the kinds in. We need to move beyond the traditional approach of "pick the tools, add students and stir." Unfortunately, my curriculum is still to a large extent dominated by units, lessons, assignments. Those are the realities of teaching and learning in North America in the 21st century - it's not about the process, it's about the product. So, as a teacher in the 21st century, I am taking a stand: I want to have a classroom where my students can enjoy learning experiences. Instead of dividing the curriculum into neat chunks, I will try to set the stage for the right kind of environment to emerge - the kind of environment where learning experiences can take shape. The kind of environment that is similar to what Ben Wilkoff has termed, "the ripe environment," one characterized by "a culture of connection."

Before I explain what I have in mind, let me take you back to last term. I'd like to tell you about Vanessa. Last term, she chose to research child soldiers. She spent months reading articles, interviews, watching online videos, and documenting her research on her blog. Gradually, she immersed herself in her topic and learned much more than I ever could have taught her. Then, towards the end of the term, after documenting her research, reflecting on it, and sharing it with her classmates, she started writing poetry in response to this gruesome and difficult topic. Take a look:

I am part of the Revolutionary United Forces and I will stop at nothing for victory... To overthrow the enemy one must not abide by the rules, Governing ourselves, altering the thoughts of many Vulnerability in a child is our advantage Even in the children's eyes, death is to be taught as the answer The children have sorrow in their eyes longing for love They cry, Scream, Weep for love,

Defeating the enemy, is of the utmost importance No sympathy, no traitors, no survivors The child's innocence will not affect us, Risking their lives will lead us closer to victory. The children have sorrow in their eyes longing for hope, They cry, Scream, Weep for hope

Respect given to the children will conquer any love once given to them Our training methods constant and cruel On the front lines of battle, they shed blood for us We are the R.U.F's, envisioning only supremacy The children have sorrow in their eyes longing to defeat the enemy They cry, Scream, Weep for victory.

I realized that this was a genuine personal response, indicative of a lot of personal investment in the topic. It was a kind of personal way of coming to terms with what she had learned. Vanessa wasn't the only one. Trudy, who'd spent months researching Anne Frank, also posted some poetry:

The book opens A new piece of information is just being handed to you But you know at the end something dark awaits And lets just say its not a happy ending

You read the beginning and then the end Throughout each day personalities change Feelings change It is a new type of life unfolding right in front of your eyes

You witness life in the eyes of a young girl The way she writes the way she explains, Its like its happening To you Right this very moment Everyday sounds and voices scare you But shes just a 13 year old girl what can she do? Nothing

New laws, new relationships are all so different Its kind of like beginning a new life Like a caterpillar growing into a butterfly A new life unfolds

No fun, no friends Just your family With petite spaces and little boundaries Closed windows make you want to witness nature But you can't

A new love, Someone to share your feelings with But is it true? Or have you just gotten to the point you can't think and you do things that you would never do in you old life

So many rules to follow: Be Quiet! Walk Slowly! Sit Down during the day! Read, write just be quiet....during the day!

When the sun has gone down and the moon has gone up There are different rules: Walk Around Be Free But Don't open the windows Or go outside!

With every pleasant thing you do, There will always be a consequence During this time of your life

All the personalities change so quickly Funny Talkative Sometimes even ignorant Personal

There is so much time but soon.... Sooner than you think There will be no more time left.

At first, while certainly very impressed by the creative work of these thirteen-year-olds, I did not think that there was anything out of the ordinary about it. Then, I realized that there was. Having become researchers (one might even say content experts) in their respective fields, Vanessa and Trudy started contributing. Yes, contributing! We don't often think of students as contributors. Even in the context of Web 2.0, I often talk about collaboration and connections, but rarely about genuine contributions. These poems, it occurred to me one day, are learning objects - they are unique artifacts that I can use next year with another class when discussing child soldiers or Anne Frank. Much like edubloggers around the world who, through my aggregator, contribute to my knowledge of learning in the 21st century, these girls were contributing specific artifacts to the topics they chose to study.

I started thinking about their progress as researchers and it occurred to me that the whole class seemed to follow the same pattern. Once I gave them the freedom to find a topic they were interested in, they began to seek out and immerse themselves in learning experiences. No one really seemed to care about grades or tests. Instead, they were immersed in learning about topics they cared about. Looking back, I realize that the process that the whole class engaged in consisted of four stages. Vanessa and Trudy, however, moved beyond into the fifth stage. The girls, along with their classmates, inspired me to start thinking about the process of creating learning experiences. The five stages described below illustrate my emerging approach based on my classroom practice and the work of my students (be kind - it's still a work in progress):

Creating Learning Experiences

1. DISCOVER: First, the students were given the freedom to pick a topic of interest within a specific context that we had entered through our discussions of literature - the context of social justice. I gave all my students sufficient time to think about what they were passionate about, visit some sites, read some articles and uncover that one specific topic that they wanted to learn more about.

At this point, the students were really just surfing and lurking. They were visiting various sites and communities to explore topics that were of interest to them as potential ideas for future research. There were no conversations here, just fleeting interactions.

2. DEFINE: During this stage, I gave the students time to post some preliminary entries on their blogs, to think out loud about their topics in general terms before they started their research. The point here was to allow them the freedom to start defining their research topics and possible ways of tackling them.

3. IMMERSE: The next step was the longest and most complex. Having narrowed it down to a specific topic, the students then were given time in class to immerse themselves in the topic, to learn more about it, to start looking for, identifying, and interacting with valuable resources. This was an opportunity to bookmark relevant content and use RSS to start creating a network of valuable and reliable resources (I want to extend it this year to a network of peers and adult experts). I wanted my students to become researchers who locate valuable content, read, interact, and document their learning on the blog by writing entries about the topic and their journey as researchers.

4. BUILD: The students' efforts to document their discoveries and their learning contributed to the process of building their own knowledge in this specific area. The entries showed me and their peers - our whole community - how much they were learning. These were thoughts made visible. The students used their blogs to document their research and to build their own knowledge in their respective fields of expertise. There were many connections that emerged among students researching related ideas. The students interacted with each other by posting comments and by sharing and commenting on resources. They were engaged in their own research projects as individual researchers but, at the same time, there emerged many small networks within our class blogosphere of students interested in similar topics. They were all engaged and connected.

And that was where the process ended, or so I thought until I noticed Vanessa's poem and then Trudy's. Both girls were contributing unique, personal content to the fields they chose to research. That's when I realized that in order for the learning experience to be complete, the students needed to go beyond researching, connecting, and network-building to become creators and contributors. Of course, one could argue that their research entries contributed valuable material to our class community, but this - their poetry - was unique and personal. These were artifacts which, despite their personal, literary, and creative nature, could enrich anyone's understanding of child soldiers or Anne Frank. They emerged because the girls went beyond the process of documenting their research.

So, I realized that there was one more, final stage in this process.

5. CONTRIBUTE: This final stage happens when, as learners, the students begin to contribute through their own creativity. It happens when, having acquainted themselves with the topic, they begin to rewrite or remix it in their own unique way and thus contribute to and enrich the field they're researching. This is the stage when the students begin to create unique artifacts that contribute to the existing body of knowledge on a given topic. This final stage is not just about contributing links or resources to a group project or to a community. It is primarily an exercise in creativity. It begins when the students interact with ideas, resources, and people to create or enter a network. Once they can tap into the collective intelligence of their networks, they can begin to learn, and once they begin to learn, they can also begin to create their own resources - podcasts, films, creative writing, or any other artifacts that can then be used by others and can enrich their grasp of the topic.

Why can't this fifth stage replace my traditional evaluation strategies? Why can't I replace tests or assignments given to the whole class with the kind of engaging and personally relevant approach to learning that is encapsulated in the five-stage process above?

I think it can certainly be accomplished but, first, I need to foster in my classroom the kind of environment where this five-stage process can take place. This means that I need to think about how to create the kind of environment that fosters and supports learning experiences, not the kind of environment that imposes them on students. Perhaps, what I'm really interested in is what Dave Cormier calls "habitat." He states that a proper habitat can "make it more likely for community to form and more likely that that community will do the kinds of things that were intended … that prompted the creation of that habitat." In other words, as Dave argues, "a careful attention to the construction of habitat can increase the chances of a community forming." I spent the last three years creating communities with my students and I learned that if the right (ripe?) environment is there, the community will emerge. It seems to me that the approach I described above can help create the kind of habitat that will lead to the emergence of networks, correspondences, and - most importantly - contributions.

In order to make all of this happen in a grade seven or eight Language Arts classroom, I need to think about facilitating connections and supporting my students in the process of creating their own networks where their contributions - poems, interviews, chatcasts, blog entries, podcasts, films - will be seen as enriching artifacts.

June is the Cruellest Month

And so another school year has come to a close. The last four weeks have been very busy: marking, exams, report cards. After months of thoughtful engagement with my students and their blogs, I spent the last few days of this school year calculating medians and grade equivalents that my students achieved on a standardized test. I also had to reduce the work of every student - months of network- and knowledge-building - to one final grade. I had to translate all that engagement into a number. Many of my students were also very busy calculating their averages and memorizing their review sheets for a variety of subjects. Reflection was replaced by the thoughts of "doing well" on exams or achieving that much-coveted average of 80% or higher. Who has time for reflection when we're busy perpetuating the institutionalized commodity of learning? Before the end of the year and the madness that comes with the final exams, in an effort to counteract this focus on grades, I encouraged my students to reflect on their independent research projects that they have been documenting on their blogs. Many of them took up the challenge and gave me an interesting glimpse into their learning.

Sooooooooooooooooo What?

This is unfortunately my final and last post. This is my so what. From my research, I have learned many things. First of all I have learned that children all around are suffering constantly and Canada is not involved in the coalition to prevent child soldiers. I have learned that the training is cruel and intolerable, an experience no child should go through. They are punished for expressing any fear or sincerity, tear shed will only cause blood shed. Overall I would like to continue researching this topic but due to the lack of time I cannot. I hoped I achieved my goal which was to raise awareness about this topic among my classmates. Hope you enjoyed following my topic. (Italics mine)

This is what happens when we compartmentalize learning into neat chunks. There's nothing that's stopping Chloe from continuing her research. I can make sure that she has access to her blog for as long as she needs to. She can also transfer her entries to a Blogger blog, for example, and continue her efforts there. Unfortunately, the one thing that school taught her very well is that learning ends in June, that it is organized into neat units, and that weeks and months of learning can be reduced to a single test or exam.

On Sunday, June 3, 2007, Michael wrote a reflection on his research on genocide and, specifically, the situation in Darfur.

When will we ever learn?

What have we learned now about genocide now? After all the things that have happened with genocide to people over the years all the death, people always forget the results of genocide. We have learned nothing. If we had this would not have happened in Darfur. This genocide has been started by: president Bashir, vice-president Taha, and security chief Gosh. These men are from the Sudanese government. They are supporting the janjaweed militia while lying about doing so. It is a massacre/genocide on all of the non-Baggra population. The Sudanese government is making sure no one finds out anymore and is trying to kill all witnesses of these things. Now this is agreed upon by everyone that this is a genocide. When the United Nations try to help the Sudanese government attacks them. What has begun at just Darfur is now beginning to spread all the way to Chad and Central Africa. This is a current situation that has already had a major effect on people in that area, already 450 000 are dead from violence and disease. This genocide is currently not very big and has not killed huge amount of people yet, but it is growing. Soon it will grow larger if it is not stopped soon. We must stand up and stop the wrongs happening in Sudan.

Both of the above entries show, in my opinion, that these two students engaged as learners. They researched topics that they were passionate about and they have both become experts. They certainly know more about their respective topics than I do. They have created on their blogs a cognitive trail of their efforts. They have created learning objects that I, their teacher, can now learn from and perhaps even use next year when discussing these topics in my class with another group of students.

Of course, I knew about child soldiers and the situation in Darfur - not to mention some of the other topics that my children explored this past year - before the research projects started. But through these blogs, through their research, I have learned more. I have also become engaged not as a teacher who needs to know what the students are doing in order to assess and evaluate, but as a human being whose thirst for knowledge was satiated by a group of fourteen-year-olds who set a goal for themselves - a goal of exploring issues they found relevant and interesting.

The fact that their goals were their own made a big difference.

Their work also made me realize that I can measure their success not only by how much they have learned individually but also by how much they have learned from each other and by how much they have taught me.

Here are some topics that they explored on their blogs:

Child soldiers



Children's Rights

Current Human Rights Abuses

Nazi Human Experimentation

Anne Frank

War Diaries as a Literary Genre

Street Children Around the World

Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide

Domestic Abuse

Women and Children in the Holocaust

Fascism in Italy

The Warsaw Uprising

The Internment of the Japanese Canadians and Americans

Freedom of Expression Violations

Nazi Propaganda

This past year, through the research that they have been documenting on their blogs, my students expanded my understanding of all of the above issues. They have found many links that I eagerly added to my delicious account. They have expressed views that I had not come across before. They started multiple conversations and expressed themselves in what Darren Kuropatwa calls "galleries of thought." They engaged as researchers interested in expanding their knowledge.

Too bad June had to put an end to that.

Replacing Grading with Conversations

My Twitter page shows that I've been spending a lot of time commenting on student work in our grade eight blogosphere. Perhaps "commenting" is not the best word to describe what I'm doing. I'm trying to engage students in conversations about the topics they're researching. This is not just about giving feedback. That would only reinforce in my students the notion that their blog entries are final pronouncements on a given topic, that each entry is conclusive and definitive, written to be commented upon and evaluated by the teacher. I want them to understand that every entry that they post is only one of many steps in their journey as researchers. In other words, I want them to see their blogs and their entries as organic entities, as attempts to engage with ideas, as evidence of growth and development. It's about maintaining conversations, not ending them by saying "Well done!" or "Good job!" So, while I do post comments, I want them to show that I see the students as independent researchers, as individuals who need to know that their work has value not because it will generate a grade but because it keeps me glued to my laptop screen at 10:30pm on a Tuesday night. I read because I'm learning, not because I have a gradebook to fill.

Needless to say, in order to have these conversations, I needed to abandon my teacherly voice in favour of a more conversational, expressive, and readerly voice of a participant. I think I succeed most of the time but I'm still at a point where I have to carefully analyze my responses to student work before I press that "post comment" button. They still tend to be evaluative, of the "teacher knows best" variety. They still tend to end student engagement. "This deserves a B+," they seem to say, "now let's move on to another assignment."

Recently, I've been commenting on the work that my students are doing on human rights. I gave them the freedom to pick any topic within this context and encouraged to find some aspect of it that they want to engage with as researchers. Some are still looking for that perfect fit, but some have already posted a number of entries. I've been trying to nurture the voices that I see around me in the class blogosphere by starting and maintaining conversations about student research. Here are some of my attempts:

Dawn, I am really looking forward to learning more about child soldiers from your research. I've always been interested in this topic but never really had the time or the opportunity to do serious research.

The video is excellent - I'm glad that we got YouTube unblocked and that it is possible to post videos on this blog.

What a great way to start your project - with a poem! I think the repetition of this line - "Lies and hatred obscure all truth" - is very effective. This is what the whole problem of child soldiers really boils down to - brainwashing. I'll be visiting your blog regularly - inspiring stuff!

Then, in response to Dawn's subsequent entry:

In my comment to your previous entry, I wrote that I was really looking forward to learning more about child soldiers from your research. I feel that I am learning. You are very good at combining facts and statistics with your own personal thoughts. Your writing is personal and informative, thoughtful and engaging.

I find this topic very sad but I am glad that you chose to research this issue. Forcing children to fight in a war and to kill is a reprehensible act. It is wrong on so many levels. Is anything being done to stop it? Have there been any attempts, either in Sierra Leone or other African countries and Western nations, to introduce laws to protect children and punish those who recruit and use them as soldiers? Perhaps the region where this is happening is too unstable to do anything about it. Are any other countries doing anything to stop this?

Also, you should probably take a look at this: Declaration of the Rights of the Child It might be helpful to you in your research.

This probably does not read like anything out of the ordinary but, to me, it represents a long period of learning to engage with students as a learner and a participant and not a teacher who has read it all and knows everything the students can possibly come up with. I've had to learn this and it is still a challenge.

It's a challenge because becoming a participant and divesting myself of that teacherly voice means that I need to gradually move away from formal evaluation. I want to. I am interested in reading my students' work, sitting down with them individually and talking about their progress. I don't want to be the only arbiter of their progress. They need to be part of the process too. In fact, since it is their work, they should be given a chance to talk about it, not as an artifact to be evaluated but as evidence of engagement. I want them to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What is my goal?
  • What have I learned?
  • Where do I want to go next?
  • Are there any gaps in my knowledge?

Assigning a grade is not going to help them in this process, primarily because grades are final and tend to stop progress. Once we attach them to student work, they indicate what has been accomplished, not what can still be done. They do not measure potential.

So, instead of assigning grades, even progress grades, I want to experiment with my own take on instructional conversations (and here). I've devised a Personal Progress Chart (work in progress) that I'll be testing over the next few weeks.

Personal Progress Chart

I want my students to realize that learning is not about making your work conform to some standard imposed by the teacher. Learning is about creating your own standards and adjusting them based on your goals. Learning is about setting your own goals and monitoring your own progress. It is about having conversations with yourself and others. So, instead of imposing, I want to ask: What do you want to accomplish? What do you think is good? What would make you feel proud? I want to promote a process of questioning and I want to do it through dialogue.

If I give my students a list of my own criteria or a rubric then I'm essentially asking them to listen and conform. They may have the freedom to do their own research but if all their work is expected to conform to a rubric imposed by the teacher then they are still just trying to reach some goal that may have very little to do with who they are and what they're interested in. So, instead of giving my students a list of criteria, I want to talk with them individually and get them to develop their own. I want them to use the progress chart to think about where they are, where they see themselves going, and how they think they can get there. I want them to use this chart to ask themselves questions about their own work and their own work habits. I want to use the chart as an opportunity to talk about their work, one-on-one. I'm tired of having conversations about grades. I want to start talking about ideas that they care about. I'm hoping that this guide will help.

This is, of course, work in progress. Any thoughts and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.