Trying to Get It Right…

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(Playing around with another cool, free tool)

Héctor hasn’t been blogging much recently (too many demands on his time these days), but when he does, it’s sure to be thought-provoking, and his recent posting The Taking of America 1-2-3 is no exception. Dismayed by the election results, he makes us look hard at how we are and aren’t teaching our children to REASON:

As we ponder the management of the Democratic journey–or even the Republican’s for that matter–what’s extremely clear is that we’re seeing in “red” America is the failure of education.

It’s tragic.

Our liberal education institutions are mere rights of passage to a socially stratisfied American reality: everyone is fighting for their own piece of the pie, up the ladder, and leaving everyone else out and down.

As long as it “ain’t happenin’ to me”…

The Bush Administration is one of the most divisive forces in our country’s short history. A Jihad has been constituted. We accept this–blindness reigns supreme, which means that education has not fostered the proper reflective practice necessary for deep and meaningful engagement with hard issues.

As an educator of just the kinds of students who will take up the mantle of leadership of this country a few years down the road, I have to look at what I’m doing in the classroom to foster, no to demand clear, deep thinking on the part of my students. Am I playing around with technology too much because, well, because it amuses me? Because I get attention for doing so? Am I sacrificing time that could be better spent in other activities that foster effective critical thinking? The faculty, administrators and IT folks attending the recent Multi-media Narrative Presentation asked me that question–repeatedly–and I’m glad they did. I’m glad Héctor does–all the time. It makes me have to take stock of my position.

I’m confident that, though certainly flawed in ways I won’t even see until I’m way down the road and doing a better job of integrating technology into the classroom, my use of blogging and digital storytelling has pushed my students into thinking long and hard about the important issues raised in class and on the blog. Right now there’s quite a discussion going on about what you can and can’t publish in an arts review, for instance, and there’s one about Stories with Images vs. with Words Added. In a regular class (meeting for 75 minutes twice a week), we can’t have those sprawling discussions–and we can’t archive them, returning later in class to point to them as we struggle to bring coherence and clarity to our thinking.

But it’s more than that–in brief class meetings, we also can’t develop the bold imaginative play that is crucial to deep inquiry. Technology–the freespaces of blogs and the multimedia authoring tools being developed used this way can have pretty remarkable results in this regard. Take this trial in England I learned about from Byran Alexander, for example, Savannah:

…a strategy-based adventure game where a virtual space is mapped directly onto a real space. Children ‘play’ at being lions in a savannah, navigating the augmented environments with a mobile handheld device. By using aspects of game play, Savannah challenges children to explore and survive in the augmented space. To do this they must successfully adopt strategies used by lions.

Preliminary findings suggest that, “the combination of play and planning within the game enabled children to explore knowledge from a number of different perspectives: through experience; through reflection on experience; and through research and discussion.” Perhaps this sort of project-based, experiential gaming-in-the-classroom experience in the younger grades will grow students who come to our undergraduate classrooms demanding opportunities to examine difficult questions from multiple perspectives and to think collaboratively, collectively. Just maybe…

And so I continue to be optimistic, to think that we’re on the right track with this work. It’s just beginning; I often fail; I usually have very little idea where a particular experiment will take my class, but I know that we’ll learn a heck of a lot in the doing as long as we’re careful to keep questioning, to keep deliberating and to keep searching.

Which brings me to my second, though related, topic of the day: Why the teacher who uses blogs must blog. And therefore why I need to spend next summer learning HTML, FLash, Dreamweaver inside-and-out at a minimum instead of depending on my good buddies to pull me out of my technology quagmires!

Blogging here in this space as my students take over and blog on awz, our course blog’zine is turning out to be a terrific idea on several fronts:

1. How can a teacher expect her students to blog (or to use any other tool, strategy, or technique) if she doesn’t use it herself, exploring the impact it has on her thinking, writing, research and creativity? This is what Elizabeth Daley was getting at during her keynote at the NITLE Annual Meeting when she explained that no faculty member was allowed to use the multimedia authoring tools at USC or to integrate multimedia into the classroom if she didn’t use it herself in her own research first! Blogging as regularly as is feasible during a busy semester keeps me well aware of how much time it takes to blog well. It puts me in their shoes.

2. Blogging pushes me to think through ideas and to keep anchoring my work to the larger conversation going on about the topics that interest me, and to keep revisiting earlier stops on my blogging-teacher’s journey. I can see my evolution and reflect on it (something I also ask my students to do). My research and pedagogy questions grow out of the postings; I build conference papers and proposals from the brainstorming.

3. I have a place to play around with some of the tools and strategies before trying them out in the classroom. I push myself to stay abreast of developments as best I can given the many demands on my time. (I mean, look at this kind of play going on with Flickr these days…)

Of course, Reason #3 also leads to frustration. Right now, I want to try out some sort of mapping for the Bloggers’ Field Trip we’re about to embark upon, and I need some time and HELP figuring out which tool to use and how to use it! (Perhaps it’s just the thing for Mikel Maron’s World Kit: Easy Web Geovisualization.)
I am also seeing this new kind of arts field trip as the perfect opportunity to try out podcasting (something Will Richardson has really thrown himself into recently!) or, perhaps a more multi-media kind of in-the-field blogging, a mix of images (via flickr) and video clips, narrative and even music as a way to look at the differences between improvisation and revision, between responses in the moment and reflective writing. There’s all kinds of potential in doing this sort of work. But FIRST I NEED TO GET MY HANDS ON A HALF DOZEN iPODS! Yes, many students own them, but not ALL students can even think of affording an iPOD. We have loaner mini DV cameras, still digital cameras, even laptops at our library circulation desk, but no iPODS. And people think it’s way over-the-top for me to be pushing for them.

So, for now, we’ll keep cobbling together our reports from the field. But I’m really looking forward to the day when the handheld do-it-all tool becomes available and affordable, easy-to-use and effective.