Monday, January 20, 2014

Room to Play

I wanted to write about so many things this week. It was so hard to decide that it stopped me from actually sitting down and committing to a topic. As I reflected on everything it became clear that the theme linking everything is finding room to play.

If we want to try new practices in education, be it mobile technology, problem-based learning, or a focus on nature, we must above all provide room to play. I know play is a word that many do not want to associate with schools but yes play. The school, teachers, and students all need an environment where it is OK to take the time, take a few wrong turns and wonder.

Here is an example: We are currently working with an elementary school in Chengdu in Sichuan Province China. We are working with teachers, parents and administration to individualize instruction through mobile devices (Tablets- mostly iPads). This group of first graders have created their first ever videos explaining their understanding of math problems. How did we create this room to play? We brought together parents, teachers and administration to commit to this vision. So much so that in a country as obsessed with national tests as China we got a waiver on student assessments to give teachers and students time to develop and answer the challenge. Here in the US it seems at times that we want to have our cake and eat it too. Everybody is fine with 21st century skills as long as everything else will happen as well. Imagine a teacher's desk with unit, district, semester and state assessment and hundreds of standards per year. Now imagine trying to make room for something as fluid and time consuming as technology integration (real, deep, instruction altering) or problem based learning. If you put that on the desk something is bound to fall...

The same thing is happening in my class as I try to implement democratic practices. The order and pacing have to shift to make room for new ways of teaching and learning as I create new lessons and rethink the way I deliver instruction so the practices become more than just a facade. Luckily in higher education we do have some room to maneuver, although, that may be changing as well.

The same holds for arts integration or more to the point learning in and through the arts. For such learning to be successful we must make room to be creative, to try, to fail, to try again. If we want our students to learn persistence we must give them room to fall, dust themselves off and get up again in authentic ways.



Monday, January 13, 2014

Teaching Reboot Starts Now

A new semester is upon me. A colleague mentioned today that we are lucky to restart twice a year. A new life a new opportunity to make it better- a reboot. As every semester rolls by I make improvements and adjustments. Last semester it was the addition of Open Educational Resources. This semester I am working on better integrating these resources, replicating past success and attempting to increase the visibility of democratic practices in my classroom.The ultimate goal is to present an alternative educational approach to the way our students are used to interact in education.

The dilemma is such an integration in a class that is essentially a content class in which students must acquire he basic teaching skills for teaching reading and writing in any school even schools that provide very little attention to democracy.

Right now I wonder how my students will accept these practices and the two graduate students that will help me work this out. I wonder how I can make sure they are making progress in their teaching of reading and writing while thinking about a more democratic option. Conceptually this is a simple problem but practically I am nervous. In some ways it is easier to fret openly before I start before I have names and faces. It is still conceptual but only for 10 hours more.

How does technology and creativity merge here?

Technology: some tools can be a great tool to increase participation, but to much emphasis on technology can take away from participation by creating added frustration. For example I thought about incorporating a Twitter backchannel to the class but now I am wondering if it is an overkill. Pinterest perhaps ? a choose your own?

21st century skills, I would love to add creativity to my class and reward my students for it but how? How do I provide a space for that in an already full class?



Friday, January 3, 2014

Jazz as a metaphor: Creativity Diversity & Modern Media

 Papa Celestin’s band Circa 1927
Let me start with full disclosure. I know fairly little about music. In a sense my musical taste is non-existent. My family contends that I will enjoy any music performed live (true), but will prefer talk to music on the radio (almost always true). Despite all this I was thinking about Jazz this week.

As winter break set in I had time to watch some movies and shows on Netflix. One of the shows was the Ken Burns documentary Jazz. As I was watching it I listened carefully to the language used to describe Jazz especially by Wynton Marsalis. They describe what can only be creativity. Not "inspiration" but perspiration born out of practice, deep understanding of the craft, and the license to experiment. In essence the quintessential 21st century learning experience was created over a hundred years ago. Down in New Orleans musicians from all walks of life created a genre of music that allows all of its participants to be constantly engaged with creation and recreation. In many ways Jazz is a great metaphor for 21st century learning.
Thelonious Monk 1947


  • Creativity. Jazz requires creativity from all. Not just composers but players and even the audience.
  • Collaboration. Jazz is inherently at once a collaborative and highly individualistic endeavor. Musicians sit together and collaborate to create an experience for themselves and audiences. They must take turns, lead, and follow. 
  • Experimentation. For Jazz to succeed there must be room to experiment and fail (often to be saved by your fellow musicians- so I am told).
  • Communication. Musicians must communicate with each other to take turns, solve problems and create a cohesive sound, not an easy feat while improvising. They also must be able to communicate verbally and musically with their audience.
  • Subject Matter. This creativity and effective collaboration happens as musicians master their instruments. There is a threshold of understanding of music and of a specific instrument before the rest can come into play in meaningful ways.
  • Diversity. Jazz was also born out the meeting of many cultures led by African Americans and later Creoles. It shows how important diversity of culture, language and experience are. And how they can make something new, original and wonderful that has survived the test of time. When we argue for diversity in our schools, universities, and places of work, we should keep Jazz as a shining example of the possible.
  • Technology. The spread of Jazz was aided to a great degree by the information technology of its age. First the gramophone and then radio that became the great equalizer like the internet does now.

Wynton Marsalis reflects:
"Well, we have to realize that just like in New Orleans, a, a band
would march down the street; everybody heard the music. Buddy Bolden’s open this trumpet up. If you were white, green, red, it didn’t make a difference. You were going to hear some swinging jazz music. If you played trumpet, you wanted to play like him. The radio did that in an ad… The radio did that nationally. Now, you could be in Dubuque, and you could hear somebody playing in a ballroom somewhere in New York, many times, you, you didn’t know whether the band was black or white. All you knew was, Man, whatever this is, I want to get a part of this. And the radio did a lot to break down segregation. In fact, even though the laws remained, in fact those m…, tho…, the, in fact, people all around the United States of America were listening to the mind and the soul of the Afro-American unguarded.
They could really check out the music of Duke Ellington, the music of Count Basie."(full transcript here)

Wynton points out the ability of technology to break down barriers, serve as a voice that is more democratic, more human, transcending some of the stereotypes generated by time and place.

So, Jazz can be a great metaphor, or maybe just maybe it can be part of a 21st century curriculum. A kind of learning that really goes to the uncommon core that can make our students truly creative, collaborative, and embracing diversity.