The terms “education” or “pedagogy” never signified much to me, even in the classroom, where I selected books that gave me illumination and excitement and shared them with young people, regularly receiving, with gratitude, insights from them.
embedded perspective + emotion
I’ve been trying to capture a thought for the last few days. While I’m not quite there yet, I’ll share what I have so far, and perhaps someone can get me the rest of the way there.
The thought began when I re-read one of my favorite children’s books: The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. I love this book. It’s incredibly clever, and I especially love Oliver Jeffers's illustration style. I could write a whole post about Jeffers and how much I like his work (it's definitely squishy, not slick), but for now I'm more interested in the book's content and what it got me thinking about.
The book’s premise is smart: the crayons in a kid’s crayon box are upset with him for all kinds of perceived poor treatment: the way that he neglects, overuses, or otherwise mishandles them. Spoiler warning / a favorite example: the orange and yellow crayons write him impassioned letters arguing that they should be the one that he uses to draw the sun, not their counterpart. That’s a great premise, and it reminded me of what I love about my favorite writing prompts, something I’ve been trying to figure out how to put into words, maybe even a formula …
I think the formula is something like this:
embedded perspective + emotion
Explanation? Ok. Yeah, that’s probably necessary.
I remember an illustration I saw once that might help.
Quite a few of the subjects that I studied in school felt like the spreadsheet columns. They were organized nicely into rows, and you could see the logic and how everything related to everything else. This was nice for me because I really like organization and things fitting together logically. The only problem with this was that it was entirely forgettable. I had very little capacity for remembering or understanding content that was presented in this way. You could explain the categories, the rows and columns, and I’d understand it completely. But then I’d walk away and forget it. It didn’t stick.
"Narrative is the scaffolding of our experience." - James K. A. Smith
What The Day the Crayons Quit reminded me of was the narrative trick for understanding the grid. I need a narrative to make it make sense. I need stories from inside the grid to understand how the pieces work together. I think that quite a few students feel this way too. Not everyone can absorb the spreadsheet and retain it. Some can. Most (most?) can’t.
This is what stories do. They take one of the data points in the spreadsheet and allow us to see the world from that one perspective. Suddenly the data point that rests at the intersection of column H, row 4 is no longer so forgettable. This data point has emotions, opinions, perspectives, and a story. We can see what the data points around it are like from that perspective.
An example? Yeah, that’s probably necessary:
Is it as simple as this? Instead of having students fill out a worksheet giving the definition of chlorophyll and listing its properties, why not have them write an ode to chlorophyll from the perspective of an emotional tree? Would this work? I think so.
With this switch to the embedded perspective + emotion method, dull content get a lot easier for most of us to understand and retain. It’s a bit of a stretch to give a tree emotions, but maybe if you’re trying the trick, you should pull out a list of emotions and pick a random one.
So, here’s the formula that I think works for understanding and making dull content more interesting: pick a perspective (should be an object or person involved in whatever it is) and give them an emotion from which to explain their thoughts on the topic.
So, I guess the formula then is really:
perspective + emotion + explanation to make dull content more interesting and memorable
Update: dapperdeku adds this thought: “Let me just say that this method is what saved me in Chemistry. I attached stories and personalities to ions and properties of the like and that alone raised me a letter grade. It works.”
William Logan on “ideal elementary-school curriculum”
We don’t live in such a world, and perhaps not even poets alive today wish we did. My ideal elementary-school curriculum would instead require all children to learn: (1) the times tables up to, say, 25; (2) a foreign language, preferably obscure; (3) the geography of a foreign land, like New Jersey; (4) how to use basic hand tools and cook a cassoulet; (5) how to raise a bird or lizard (if the child is vegetarian, then a potato); (6) poems by heart, say one per week; (7) how to find the way home from a town at least 10 miles away; (8) singing; (9) somersaults. With all that out of the way by age 12, there’s no telling what children might do. I have thieved a couple of items from W. H. Auden’s dreamcurriculum for a College of Bards. If my elementary school students are not completely disgusted by poetry, off they could go one day to that college, well prepared.
squishy not slick, the edtech futurist version / #thoughtvectors not call centers
lots of rumblings lately, lots of connections
[most of this will just serve as placeholders until I have more time to fill in the missing pieces]
Is the future of educational technology going to look like a call center?
Rob led me to Gardner Campbell’s talk [who I just realized is a colleague of some of my favorite people on the internet, @jonbecker and @twoodwar who are working on the #thoughtvectors thing at VCU], in which he explains the point of all this as ”networked transcontextualism,” which is the way to escape “the double bind,” a term from Gregory Bateson.
In the same vein, Audrey Watters says all the right things [and thanks to Rob for storifying it]
Seymour Papert keeps coming up [Campbell and Watters mention him]
Campbell’s “networked transcontextualism” especially reminded me of what Richard Elmore had to say about all this, that we’re moving from “nested hierarchy” to “networked relationships.”
Then Dan Meyer joined in, saying it with a Neil Diamond analogy.
This is all happens while I’m trying to make Sugata Mitra’s SOLE idea, or something similar, happen in more traditional classrooms, an attempt at finding an alternate path, an escape from the call center version of our edtech future.
KFC is bringing back the Double Down, which reminds me that I once had students do some critical thinking about this sandwich (including the question: is it really a sandwich?).
A list of reasons why teaching The Great Gatsby is so much better now than it was five years ago.
It’s been about five years since I last taught The Great Gatsby, and OH MY GOODNESS THE INTERNET HAS COME ALONG AND CHANGED EVERYTHING AND NOW THIS ALL SO FUN AND EASY AND AMAZING.
Ready for a Gastby reference? Here it is: I, for one, am very glad I’m not repeating the past.
I hate doing blog posts of top whatever lists, but this deserves it. So, without further excessive use of caps locks: a list of reasons why teaching The Great Gatsby is so much better now than it was five years ago.
• Reflector + iAnnotate - I put the text of Gatsby into a PDF with some huge margins and dropped it into iAnnotate. With the Reflector Airplay Receiver, I can mirror my iPad to my computer and get it on the wall with the projector. That means I can have the text on the screen with big margins, and I can be annotating the book using iAnnotate as we go through it. I guess I could have done that a few years ago with an overhead and a ridiculous number of transparencies… but this, at least to me, seems like a new thing that is available widely only in the last few years. And I think it makes teaching Gatsby ridiculously fun. But, then again, I’m really into this kind of thing. I also like sweater vests, so take all this enthusiasm with a heaping spoonful of salt.
[iAnnotate in action]
• Crash Course - Not only do they have the perfect video to set up the Jazz Age (slightly not safe for some classrooms, btw), they also made two episodes just about the novel, perfect for viewing afterwards.
• RapGenius - ok, I’m having a hard time deciding if this is my favorite thing or if iAnnotate + Reflector is, because, wow, this is so, so good. Some kind people on the internet have given Gatsby the RapGenius treatment and annotated it thoroughly with helpful explanations. It’s not perfect. Typical user-generated-content caveats apply, but even still, it is so useful.
• Bingo Card Generator - I had this idea while eating breakfast this morning: what if I put together a BINGO game for Gatsby? Then I thought, nah, too complicated. I decided to google it anyway, and I found that Mr. Gravell put together a Bingo Card Generator. This was perfect. While eating my morning omelette, I typed some recurring themes and symbols and ideas from Gatsby into the generator and had a class set of Bingo cards ready to go by first period. It’s been a fun way to guide us in paying attention to what might be important in the novel.
• Splashtop Streamer / Whiteboard - with Splashtop I can roam the classroom, iPad in hand, but still control my computer that is attached to the projector. This allows me to start and stop the audiobook while roaming the room, switch between Keynote for some slides and Google Chrome for videos and their timer (just Google “set timer for 5 minutes” and see what happens).
• Socrative - Socrative allows me to collect quick feedback from my students using whatever fancy devices they happen to walk in with, as long as it has a browser. I can have them do short answer responses to interesting prompts (shameless self promotion, I think these Gatsby prompts are pretty great) or have them take polls or quick quizzes to check for understanding. Socrative is one of my favorite weapons in my teaching arsenal.
*Please note that the new, Baz Luhrmann version of Gatsby is not one of my reasons. No, I don’t want to elaborate.*
[This list will likely update as I think of / encounter more reasons]
In a postindustrial society, understanding is reached through negotiation between the individual and his or her culture. Intelligence thus becomes communal, creative, and communicational, reflecting an ability to bring relevant “knowledge to bear on a novel situation” and a context in which “understandings can only be apprehended and appreciated if they are performed by a student.” The productive exchange between teachers and learners… is interactive, surprising and challenging as the exchange between performance artists and their audiences.