Learning to Avoid "School Talk" (Part 1)

Nothing has brought pedagogical theory into greater disrepute than the belief that it is identified with handing out to teachers recipes and models to be followed in teaching .

- John Dewey, Democracy and Education

I've written about this before, but the concept of engaging students in conversations and engaging, as an educator, in conversational assessment, is something that I continue to investigate.

Of course, it is not easy to have meaningful and authentic conversations with students about a literary text that they're reading. First of all, they know very well that I'm an expert - even if I don't see myself as one. Therefore, they are absolutely convinced that they cannot contribute anything to the discussion that I don't already know. No matter how much I try to show them that there are still many aspects of a given topic that I am not very familiar with, students persist in their belief that teachers are experts.

So, I often try to start conversations and create activities that are just as challenging for me as they are for them. This calls for quite a bit of creativity and forces me to abandon tried and tested lesson plans.

Last month, I decided to help my students engage with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl as more than just a literary text. I wanted them to look at it as an experience, as life written down by someone their own age. They find it difficult not to treat the diary as just another "big book" that they study at school. I wanted them to think about Anne as a person and her diary as a personal record. I wanted them to have an opportunity to engage with the text and think about what Anne's words and experiences meant to them. I wanted to create an avenue for a personal connection - not an easy task in a classroom setting where every text we study is likely to be perceived as a literary text first and a personal experience second. At the same time, I also wanted to engage myself as a participant. I wanted to model the kind of personal engagement I wanted my students to experience.

It occurred to me that one way of doing this would be to create a soundtrack for the diary. So, I spent some time browsing through the SeeqPod and SkreemR archives on the mixwit page . The next day, I walked into our classroom and explained to my students how I got the idea:

I always listen to music when I read. Last night I was listening to Mozart and re-reading parts of the diary for our discussion today. Suddenly, I realized that the piece I was listening to suited the passage I was reading perfectly. It felt almost like the best soundtrack for that specific passage. So, I decided to make a list of songs and classical pieces that, in my opinion, would work well as a soundtrack for Anne's diary.

And then I showed them the soundtrack I had made and we listened to a couple of tracks. I saved my soundtrack using mixwit's highly visual interface and then embedded it in my blog in the grade eight blogosphere:

(Click here if the above widget does not work)

Then, I continued:

I want you to know that this took a long time and I found it very difficult to choose the songs. I kept searching the mixwit database for all kinds of songs that I thought would be perfect, but then I realized that the lyrics didn't really work or that the song was actually very different from how I remembered it. In other words, I had to spend quite a bit of time not just coming up with possible song titles for this but also justifying my choices.

So, I would like you to do the same. Create a mixwit account and then search the database for tracks that, in your opinion, would be perfect for a soundtrack for The Diary of a Young Girl . There's one catch, though: You have to be able to justify your decisions.

And then the conversations started. The one thing that made a huge impact was that I had challenged them to create something that I myself had already done. They could interact with my playlist and learn from the process I had engaged in prior to starting their own. They could critique my work and analyze it before embarking on their own journey of creating a soundtrack. In other words, I had entered the classroom and started the conversation as a participant. Creating my own mixwit tape placed me in the position of a learner. I eagerly shared with them my experiences of using mixwit and choosing the appropriate songs.

The point here is that what they were encouraged to do was not based on an abstract assignment description. I had entered the classroom with evidence of my own meaningful personal engagement with the diary, not just a typed handout explaining what they had to do.

This exercise led to a number of meaningful conversations with my students about Anne Frank, her writing, and our interpretations of her personality and her work. The fact that they all needed to justify their musical choices ensured that the conversations we had focused not just on the music but also, perhaps primarily, on the text. I had many one-on-one conversations with my students in which they talked about specific aspects of Anne's personality and shared their knowledge of popular music with me. They read and listened to the lyrics carefully because they realized that the choices had to be justified and couldn't be in any way offensive to the sanctity of the text written by a girl their age who perished in the Holocaust. This wasn't just about listening to music, it was about making connections, and they all realized that, in order to make them, they had to become very familiar with both the songs and the text - I had encouraged them to become experts.

I was also pleased that this activity gave all of us an opportunity to engage with the diary in a new and unique way. The students still studied the text, they still had to think about Anne as a person and a writer, but they had to do it in a context that rarely enters our classrooms, one that certainly is never present when we discuss literary texts.

I learned that entering the community as a participant allowed me to have conversations with my students that they did not perceive as instructional. Yes, they were talking to Mr.Glogowski about their songs and their reasons for picking them, but it did not feel like school talk.

Here are some examples of what they created:

... and, of course, the best thing about this was that there was no rubric or evaluation sheet. Why? Because when you listen to student soundtracks for The Diary of a Young Girl and the music works, the music fits, you just know the students did a great job ... and they do too - not because they received a rubric with a high mark, but because their work emerged from meaningful conversations with each other and the teacher.

Conversation with Pre-Service Teachers - The Set Curriculum

On November 19th, I will be hosting a Second Life workshop for pre-service teachers from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. They are currently taking a course on instructional technology in teaching. They have already explored technology integration, internet safety, and information literacy. They've read a number of entries on this blog and then, as a group, composed a list of questions regarding technology integration in my classroom. For the next few weeks, we will be using this blog as a discussion platform. If you are interested in following the discussion and interacting with teachers who, very soon, will be integrating technology into their subject areas in their own classrooms, please join us by responding to the questions, my own answers, or the comments left by the students. I hope that you will jump in and join the discussion, either here or by posting a response on your own blog. I want the students from Brigham Young to see that the edublogosphere is a varied and rich network. So, if you are a librarian, a high school teacher, an elementary teacher, or an administrator, please join me in this collaborative and mutually-enriching exercise in professional development. If you choose to express your views on your own blog, please use the following tag to make it easier for all of us to keep track of this discussion: BYUPD07.

So, let's begin!

First of all, I'd like to thank the students from Brigham Young and their instructor for the opportunity to engage in this discussion. Those of us who have been blogging with our students or using other interactive tools often begin to live in a sort of bubble and forget that our first steps were often very hesitant. The questions you sent reminded me that meaningful integration of technology can be a challenging task - one that is often dominated by technical and Internet safety concerns, as well as the need to conform to institutional pressures at the school or district level. In other words, as I looked at the questions I remembered all the obstacles that I had to overcome when I first started thinking of creating a blogging community in my classroom. Now, I realize that while learning from other teachers is an important part of this process, implementing technology in my own classroom is a process that requires a lot of personal reflection. It's a great opportunity to engage in some informal action research, learn more about myself, and the nature of my classroom practice. In other words, there is no clear, simple answer to any of the questions that you sent me. They are, however, great conversation starters. I hope that you will engage in a discussion here on this blog and that other readers of this blog will join us as we explore the issues you are interested in.

In this entry, I'd like to address your question on the set curriculum:

What are your feelings on a set curriculum? Do you believe we as teachers, and as human beings should have more freedom to be able to study and teach things that are important and that interest us, such as human rights abuses? What is the limit of going outside the curriculum? Is there such a limit?

Prior to researching and using a blogging community in my classroom I never had a problem with a set curriculum. I never even questioned it. It seemed logical to me that my responsibility as an educator was to prepare a collection of texts, resources, diagnostic and assessment/evaluation tools in order to achieve specific learning outcomes. I saw myself as a subject expert whose primary responsibility in the classroom was to teach a very specific set of skills and competencies. I saw myself as someone who possessed knowledge and perceived my students as individuals who needed to acquire it.

Then, one day, in my grade 12 English class, Julia came up to me after class and said:

"Mr.Glogowski, could you please take a look at my essay before I hand it in? I just wanna make sure that it's ok."

The essay was due at the end of that day. Julia was a conscientious student and thought that asking me to proofread it would give her another chance to revise her work, if necessary, and then hand it in in the afternoon.

I said, "Sure, let's take a look."

I skimmed her work and saw that it was well organized and supported with lots of specific examples from a variety of secondary sources. Julia wrote about the AIDS crisis in Africa and seemed to have a solid grasp of the topic.

"This looks great!" I said. "You can hand it in now. No need to wait till this afternoon."

"Thank you. But could you take a good look? You see, I'm worried about little careless mistakes ... you know they're never really serious but they do add up."

"Julia," I said, "you've written essays in the past. You're a good writer ... I don't think there's anything to worry about."

"But ... could you just take a good look at the thesis statement and the hook? Also, I'm not sure my supporting sentences flow very well. The conclusion took me hours to write ... now it seems forced."

I skimmed through her work again, this time focusing on the specific parts that she was unsure about.

"No, I don't see any major weaknesses here ... I'm sure you'll do well."

"Thanks ... but ... will this get me 89%?"

"Why 89%?" I asked, puzzled.

"I need 89% on this assignment to get into Queen's."

That's when I realized that, to Julia - one of the best students in my class, one of the best writers - writing was really only about getting a grade. It had no other meaning or purpose. All of her learning was reduced to one thing - the need to achieve a certain average.

Of course, the whole system is based on evaluation. It wasn't just my classroom and my methodology that transformed Julia into an average-calculating automaton. Yet, as I was driving home that day, I thought, "She did not engage with her topic at all. She wrote about human rights in Africa and yet she didn't really seem to care about the issues she had researched. Instead, all she cared about was her average. Writing that paper was a means to an end. It certainly was not an opportunity to engage with a topic, to engage as a human being."

I realized that my classroom was a place where there was a lot of teaching going on, but not a lot of learning. When talking to me about her work, Julia had used an adopted voice. She spoke about the thesis statement, the hook, about effective support. She used the terminology that I had been using since the beginning of the school year. She realized that school is about "playing school," that as long as she could jump through all of my hoops, she would do well and get into the university of her choice. My class was reduced to an obstacle course. She knew that writing a good paper was about learning how to produce the right reactions in its evaluator - her teacher. That's why she asked about specific parts of the essay - the introduction, conclusion, specific supporting ideas - things that were part of my set curriculum. What she produced was an example of "school writing." It was voiceless and generic, written to demonstrate that she had acquired a skill but devoid of any personal meaning.

And so, the problem with a set curriculum, regardless of the subject, is that it makes us focus almost exclusively on teaching. It makes us think that the most important person in the classroom is the teacher. It is based on the assumption that we know all and that the students know very little.

Should we have the freedom to study and teach things that are important to us as human beings? Absolutely. What is even more important is that we create environments in our classrooms where the students can explore issues that are important to them. Of course, they do need to know how to write an essay or organize a written response - I believe that it is my responsibility to help them learn how to best express their thoughts. But I also believe that it is my responsibility to help them learn how to express themselves in more than one medium and to support them as they engage in this process. In every subject, there is a set of skills and competencies that the children should learn, but we often believe that they must be taught in specific, pre-defined ways.

After that brief conversation with Julia, I realized that I had pre-defined all of her learning. I reduced English and writing to topic sentences and proper organization. No wonder then that Julia's topic was not as important to her as the technical aspects of her writing. As a teacher, I had completely neglected her growth as a human being and focused instead on peddling pre-selected content. Of course, I should be proud of the fact that I had, after all, taught her a great deal about writing essays. But, at the same time, I wish that I had done it in an environment where knowledge was not presented as a static product to be absorbed. Imagine how much more competent she could have become as a writer if she had been given the opportunity to arrive at the importance of solid support as a result of trial and error, peer editing, and in the context of her own journey as a budding writer. Instead, she acquired the skills through automatic drills. In other words, I wish I had taught those skills in an environment where she could also explore her own passions and grow as a human being.

This brings me to John Dewey and his notion of experience. In Experience and Education, Dewey argues that amid all uncertainties in education "there is one permanent frame of reference: namely, the organic connection between education and personal experience." He goes on to say that:

There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract. The notion that some subjects and methods and that the acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of predigested materials.


What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul; loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses the desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?

In other words, Dewey argues that no subject has inherent educational value. It is the interaction between the individual and the subject matter that makes the experience "educative" and that our job as educators is to ensure that the environment in which learning takes place allows learners to interact with the subject matter. He argues that "educative experiences" must "arouse in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas. The new facts and new ideas thus obtained become the ground for further experiences in which new problems are presented."

The environment in which Julia wrote her essay did not provide opportunities for interaction between the learner and the subject matter. The skills she had learned were removed from any meaningful context. They were neatly pre-packaged and delivered. As a result, her learning stopped once she finished the paper. There was nothing to motivate her to keep exploring her topic of the AIDS crisis in Africa. Dewey would have said that since no experience has an inherent value, I erred when I selected experiences ahead of time for my students and neglected to create an environment where personally relevant interactions could take place.

Julia taught me that my classroom needs to be first and foremost an inclusive and welcoming environment that encourages exploration and knowledge-building. It needs to be a place where students can engage as individuals. In this kind of environment students can learn through personally meaningful experiences which engage them in what Dewey calls "an active quest for information and for production of new ideas." This cannot happen if the curriculum is pre-selected for the students. If the experiences they are to have in the classroom are pre-defined ahead of time, the opportunities for meaningful involvement are greatly reduced.

Unfortunately, such an environment is not easy to create. First, because it must be co-created with the students. It must take into account their interests and goals. Second, because it dethrones the teacher and forces us to assume the role of a facilitator or a co-contributor. It requires that we participate as human beings and not just content experts. It requires that we engage in learning with our students.

I've been trying to create that environment in my classroom for the past two years. I cannot say that I've succeeded or that everything I do always works out. I can say, however, that I have learned a lot from these attempts to create an engaging and participatory environment, and that they have tremendously affected my classroom practice. That's all it really takes ... finding in ourselves the courage to admit openly that we enter our classrooms every day not just to teach but also - perhaps primarily - to learn.

Parent-Teacher Interviews 2.0

Yesterday, we had our first parent-teacher interviews for the current academic year. Some of my colleagues don't like them. I do. I enjoy parent-teacher interviews because I always see them as an opportunity to reflect on what I've accomplished with each individual child. Getting ready for parent-teacher interviews is an opportunity for reflection and self-assessment. It's an opportunity to look beyond the province-sanctioned learning outcomes that often define my work and focus on the individuals in my classroom, on individual human beings and their strengths, weaknesses, and the quality of the learning journey that they're on. It is a great opportunity not only to ask what the student has accomplished, how she or he is progressing in my class, but also to ask myself "What have I done for this child? How has this student benefited from being in my classroom?

I've always thought that the only weakness of parent-teacher interviews, at least at all the schools where I've taught over the years, is the fact that the student never participates. Parent-teacher interviews are conversations about the learner that, in most places I know, purposely exclude the learner.

Imagine my surprise when, yesterday, one of our new parents (her daughter came to our school only a month ago) arrived with her daughter!

As soon as the mom introduced herself and they both sat down, I thought, "Fantastic! Finally, an opportunity to experience a parent-teacher interview with the student." I was so impressed and thankful for this opportunity that I actually wanted to congratulate the mom for taking this bold step and bringing her daughter to talk to her teachers. Now, looking back, I know that I should have.

It was a fascinating learning experience. My biggest fear, throughout the interview, was that I would spend too much time addressing the parent and discuss her daughter in the third person. I don't think the mom would have been upset by that, but it just did not seem right. So, I spoke to both. My comments about the daughter's progress and the curriculum were interspersed with questions addressed to both mom and the daughter. We talked about specific assignments and tests, I summarized my plans for the rest of this term, and ,throughout this conversation, both the parent and the child were actively engaged. It was not easy and, occasionally, I did revert back to the familiar third person when discussing my student's progress. But, overall, this was a conversation about learning that included the three key figures in the child's academic progress - the parent, the teacher, and the student herself.

On my way home, I kept thinking about what I had said and how both the mom and the daughter participated in the interview. I still remember the look of empowerment and confidence in the daughter's eyes when I told her, in front of her mom, that she performed very well on an important assignment last week. I still remember how often the mom glanced at her daughter to make sure that she was listening intently to my comments about her habits, skills, accomplishments to date, and the upcoming assignments.

Of course, one could argue that the interview went well because the student in question is a hard-working and dedicated individual. I'm sure skeptics will say that things would have been very different if I had to deliver bad news and comment on the student's lack of effort or some failing grades. I disagree. The interview would certainly have been different, but the impact on the student would have been just as valuable. The interview would have provided an excellent platform to openly discuss challenges, past difficulties, and develop a plan for the future. How can such a plan be developed if the student is not there? How can we ensure that the student is involved in her learning if the conversation about learning takes place without her? How can we have a meaningful conversation about learning, if the student herself is not considered important enough to attend the meeting about her own achievements, challenges, and goals for the future?

The educational blogosphere is filled with posts and conversations about the participatory nature of learning in the 21st century. We all write about making our classrooms more democratic, about the importance of empowering the learner and suppressing the autocratic teacherly voice. We discuss how blogs, wikis, and many other participatory educational tools have the power to transform learning into a process of discovery, knowledge-building, and personal meaning-making. Yet, when it comes to talking to students and their parents about learning, we rely on the traditional and outdated model that excludes the learner.

And so, as I was driving home, it occurred to me that we often reduce teaching in the 21st century to a handful of digital tools that, in our opinion, should drive learning in our classrooms. I'm not saying that they shouldn't. I'm not saying that these tools are not valuable. Many of us have done a lot of work with blogs, for example, to know that they can have a significant impact on student engagement, motivation, and achievement. But, in our rush to implement these 21st century tools, we shouldn't forget about other school practices that tend to alienate the learner. Learning today is also about transforming outdated institutional practices that no longer work - that cannot work - in this new paradigm. My blogging community, no matter how participatory and engaging, will have a limited impact if, outside my classroom, the school as institution insists on treating the students as recipients of knowledge rather than participants and meaning-makers.

It's time to insist on conversations, not just in our classrooms, but also in our schools and communities. It's time to remind everyone involved that we are not here to dispense but to converse and engage. We cannot do that if the doors to our classrooms are closed to our students when their teachers and their parents meet to talk about their learning and the plans and strategies for the future.