Through Their Eyes

This week, colleagues and I checked out Through Their Eyes: Tuscaloosa City Students on Race, 60 Years After Brown at a local gallery.  The exhibit, closely linked to this recent piece in The Atlantic, showcases student photographs depicting life at two of our three city high schools, and accompanying labels underscore points made by the author of the article regarding racial separation in our system.

While I’ve spent a great deal of time since the article’s publication, as well as more time this week after viewing the exhibit, wrangling with questions about race and education, this post is not about that.

As an English teacher, the students’ work and the context in which it was displayed prompted me to consider the duty we have in helping our students to tell their own stories, not ours.  I am not implying that the student photographers included in Through Their Eyes were misused, their stories manipulated, or their perspectives misrepresented.  This may be exactly the story the students would choose, unprompted and unguided, to tell.  I am not in a position to judge either way.

But I have some thoughts related to my own practice…

It is so important to find a balance between pushing student narratives to new places and sidestepping any inclinations to lead them to predetermined spots.  How do we navigate that?

Does my classroom provide opportunities for students to tell their stories, make their points, share their perspectives, not mine?  Do my questions lead or show bias?

Can a lens ever become a blinder?

At this time every year, even as I’m getting sniffly about the prospect of sending my kids off to high school, I start to itch for the fresh start that August brings.  My social studies partner- in-crime and I have mapped out the framework for 2014-2015’s collaboration, which asks students to consider identity, community, otherness, and cultural influences throughout their own histories and the history of the world, and I will take this week’s lessons with me as I plan next year.  I am so excited to set things up and then get out of the way so that they can show us the world through their eyes.


Happy New Year

We’ve now been back in school for two weeks, and my tenth year as an English teacher is under way.  I can honestly say that I have never been more excited about the start of the year.

Over the summer, I gave some thought to what’s got me so pumped this time around.  I’m co-teaching with a social studies colleague who also just happens to be a neighbor and a good friend.  We’ve got a cool new learning space to share in which I’ve been able to begin trying out ideas gleaned from research into designing flexible spaces for learning.  Our district is moving forward with the early phases of a 1:1 initiative, so every one of my students will have access to a Chromebook and a connection to the world when they’re in my class.  All of this stuff is great, and I can’t wait to see how the year unfolds.

But the truth is, once I got to thinking about it, I discovered that those things aren’t the root of my excitement.

This is:  More than ever before, what I believe and what I do are aligning.  Never before have I felt there were fewer barriers to doing exactly what my kids need.

It is an incredible gift.  I feel supported, challenged, protected.  I am connected to colleagues and friends to whom I can turn for support and new ideas.  It is also an enormous responsibility.  There is very little room for excuses.  We’ve got the room we need to do our best work every day.  How far can we run this year?

That said, lest readers be tempted to think that I am riding the high of the first weeks in a bubble of utopian naivete, let me also lay out a couple of the brain- and heart-puzzles currently in progress:

Puzzle #1:  Co-teaching is tough, yo.  I consider my social studies partner-in-crime to be a close friend, but over the past month I have (somewhat jokingly) likened this period of our professional relationship to the first year of marriage.   No matter how long  or how close your relationship, when you share living space (and classroom space is very much living space), the dance steps change.  Re-learning how to operate within that relationship, sorting out how to communicate effectively, and navigating the logistics of our classroom mash-up have proven to be interesting challenges.  I’m so glad my friend is along for this ride with me.

Puzzle #2:  Our school’s recently-adopted grading manifesto and our ongoing learning about assessment prompt me to rethink nearly every move I make.  That level of reflection and questioning is a good thing!  I believe that our instructional practice is moving in a direction to better serve our students.  However, I get the jibblies any time I approach the gradebook.

I’m thankful for the puzzles.  They keep me on my toes and challenge me to give complacency a wide berth.  And even on a holiday weekend, they motivate me to look forward to Monday.

Happy New Year, everybody 🙂

Games as Vehicles for Culture

This week some of my students will begin the process of designing their own video games.  Using the Learning Games Network’s Design Tool Kit as a our guide (and with help from Dr. Andre Denham at the University  of Alabama), students will work together to draft a design document and pitch their ideas at the end of the school year.

As a language arts teacher, the design tool kit – and the game design process in general – hits many of my instructional buttons.  Students must research, develop a narrative with fleshed-out characters and setting, offer explanations of gameplay, and build sound arguments for their choices in order to “sell” their game.  This week, though, since we’re in the countdown to spring break and just beginning this process, we’ll focus on games we already know and love by discussing genre, considering what good games can teach us, and examining those games as texts.

That last point (games as texts) was on my mind this morning as I watched the video below for the forthcoming game Remember Me.

It’s a fairly long video, but the main point of interest to me is around 4:10-4:35 when one of the developers discusses the cyberpunk nature of the game.  He notes that, while cyberpunk has been readily accepted by Japanese audiences for decades, it has only recently become easier to sell cyberpunk to a wider western audience (beyond those who grew up on Akira and Ghost in the Shell).

So, just as texts we explore in class can lead us to insights about their cultures of origin, so too can the games that we play and the games that we design reflect cultural identity.  That idea, and the fact that games are participatory texts and are becoming collaborative on an increasingly larger scale, leads me to a couple of questions.

How do games compare to more traditional texts in their ability to serve as cultural artifacts?

Given their digital nature and the undocumented social interactions that are an integral part of MMOs and other games that allow for collaboration, how can we preserve these parts of our cultural record?

Thinking about Paulo Freire

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity (status quo) or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Raiding or Grinding?

As we hurtle toward the end of my first semester as a middle school teacher, I’ve been reflecting on how my new setup has gone.

Honestly?  Not great.

Finding myself in unfamiliar territory after the shift from high school to middle school, I got scared.  I flailed. I failed.

I failed, not because my students weren’t learning.  They were, but I let my fear dictate how my classroom operated, and I white-knuckled it through the day, planning for control rather than focusing on the things I know are good for kids.  All my big talk about how learners should be resilient in the face of failure because that’s where the good stuff happens?  Yup, went right out the window.

I recently sat down with my husband, who – having known me since I was thirteen – is pretty good at calling me on my nonsense and talking me down off the figurative ledge.  Our very long discussion ultimately led me to a single question about the way I’ve been planning for my classes:

Are they grinding or raiding?

Here are some quick definitions of these gaming terms to clarify what I mean:

Grind (v): to engage in repetitive tasks in order to make incremental character progress. Generally, these tasks are minimally challenging and can be completed solo.

Raid (v): to take on a challenging boss or series of bosses too powerful to defeat solo.  This task typically requires thoughtful strategy from a group of players that bring to the table a variety of skills and abilities.

Option #1  is in some ways the safe, traditional path: accept task, complete task, grow by millimeters, rinse, repeat.  Neat and tidy, maybe, and there’s value in exploring on one’s own from time to time, but is a steady diet of this good for kids’ learning?  Option #2 at its best is collaborative; it’s more project-based; and it lends itself to all manner of failure, reflection, and growth cycles.  Messy, yes, but a little more like what I want my classroom to be.

So I’m heading into this holiday break with a plan.  A little fear can be good, but I’m tired of letting my fear of failure run me.   I’m gearing up to raid.



Wanna get to know your kids? Ask them to be someone else.

Twice so far this school year I have asked my students to undertake a bit of roleplaying.

At the beginning of the school year, when I introduced the story that holds our gamified class together, I asked them to create the avatars that they’d use all year (see our “character creation screen” here) and to develop a backstory for those characters.  They went to town with this assignment, and the resulting narratives that they produced added new map points, family trees, and depth I’d not imagined to the world I sketched out for them.

This week I asked students once again to choose a character for themselves.  In the seventh grade classes, we are beginning our reading of The Hobbit, and the premise of our study (fitting into the overall frame story of our class game) is that a portal has opened to Middle Earth.  We must enter the world and track Bilbo and Co. on their journey, and to do this we must disguise ourselves and blend in.  So the kids were asked to make both race and class selections and to build well-balanced groups that could handle all the challenges this adventure might throw at them.  The quests they complete during this process reward them with their selected disguises as well as race- and class-specific provisions – consumables that will aid them on their way.

What I found most interesting as I moved from group to group and listened in on the students’ conversations is how much of themselves they put into those character choices.  Snippets of discussion (with student names changed) went a little something like this:

CHRISTINA: I want to use animals on the trip.  My character is a hunter! I’m gonna be a vet.  

RACHEL: Becca leads everything. She’s good at talking to people and making decisions. She should be the captain.

MARCUS: I like magic and stuff, and we speak three languages at my house.  I’m probably the group nerd. I’m gonna be the rune-keeper.

ANNE:  Mrs. Hammonds, which combo do you think is most like the Doctor? 

As I listened to them make their decisions, I considered my own gameplay and character selection experiences and how connected they are to my real-world self.  By and large, I am a mage.  I keep almost everyone at arm’s length, I am studious, and if you mess with my friends or family I will melt your face.  I’m also fairly comfortable working as a healer.  Keep me in the back, and let me take care of people – I’m doing my job well if I’m more or less invisible.

For the past nine years worth of first-days-of-school, I’ve done some variation of a student questionnaire, asking my students relatively un-thoughtful questions and  getting equally superficial responses in return.  Never have I learned so much so quickly about my students’ views of themselves, their anxieties, preferences for social interaction, coping mechanisms, goals for the future, and roles among their peers as I did on those days when I asked them to be someone else.

Let’s Talk About Rigor

So far, I’ve taught eight years of AP English Lit and two years of AP English Language.  This past week, along with some of my new middle school colleagues, I attended four days of pre-AP training, as my assignment this year will likely include two classes of pre-AP 7 and one class of pre-AP 8.

I am convinced, based on time spent at AP institutes and this new pre-AP training, that the presenters get paid by the number of times they use the word rigor.  

This is painful and scary to me, and I’ll tell you why.

First, a definition…

rigor (noun): (1): harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgment :severity   (2) : the quality of being unyielding or inflexible :strictness   (3) : severity of life : austerity

When we use this term to describe what’s going on in our classrooms, I think one of three things must be happening:

Thing #1: We are making a conscious decision to be harsh, inflexible, perhaps even a little cruel, out of a sense that this is needed to whip youngsters into shape in preparation for the real world.

Thing #2: We are, in fact, not engaging in deliberate cruelty but rather deliberate dishonesty. We say rigor to convince parents, administrators, and others that ours is a curriculum that will undoubtedly produce achievers.

Thing #3: We don’t actually have a clue what the word means or what it implies for our students.  It’s a buzzword, and we like those.

In the name of rigor, we’ve excused all manner of educational sins, and I think it’s time to excise the word from our collective vocabulary.

I am not suggesting that we should expect less from our students.  What I am suggesting is that we challenge our students with meaningful, purposeful work.  And we should challenge ourselves to do better than just pile on.