A couple of Easters ago someone gave me a metal egg with chocolate inside. It was my first year of teaching. I came back to school to teach a novel unit that required students to write a reflective, imaginative memoir as a character in novels they disliked. Most of them disliked reading (full stop) – particularly the boys.
One morning I was out walking when something caught my eye. Long grass with the most delicate Santa Clauses – will o wisps. I gathered them up and took them home. I was in the middle of lesson planning to inspire these Year 10s to write memoirs as characters.
It was ambitious of me to think that I could incorporate experiential learning into my lessons, as a first-year teacher, particularly as the school’s pedagogical model was Explicit Teaching. It was all: I do, We do, You do.
But I gathered the students up to give them a little pep talk holding this metal egg in my hand. I asked them to guess what was inside.
I told them that every story should hold a surprise that delights the audience – this is the message that I have been told countless times by master story tellers and I was simply passing it on in hopefully a memorable way that imprinted upon their minds. I opened the story egg and let the will o wisps fly around the room. It was a demonstration and an experience. And my students produced some lovely work. Most of them wrote intently with great purpose. And it carried over into the poetry unit.
Employment ads for teachers often say something like: must be familiar with contemporary pedagogical strategies. My interpretation of this is that they want someone who is familiar with the latest teaching and learning strategies to create engaging lessons and learning opportunities.
Well, I’ve watched teachers proudly trot out activities they have been satisfied with for years – and they are pleased to admit this. Tried and tested. Except that students of today aren’t the same as the students of just five years ago when there was no Snapchat or Instagram.
In 2005, I wrote a proposal for a website to engage new audiences. I found this lying in a box today while I was cleaning out rubbish.
And this is a story I noted:
“Digital natives teaching Gen X teachers in the classroom”
Teacher confiscates student’s PSP in class.
Teacher: “What do you want to be when you grow up Finn?”
Finn: “A gamer”
Teacher: “Check the dictionary, there’s no such thing Finn.”
Finn: “But Coca-Cola, Pepsi and PSPs aren’t in the dictionary either”
Teacher: “Um … no, but they are not …”
Finn: “You’re not going to tell me that THEY don’t exist either!”
The bell rings. Finn turns to go back to his desk and the teacher looks at the classroom full of children playing computer games, talking on mobile phones and listening to iPods.
And this is the situation that teachers face in the classroom today. I think teachers need to surprise students in the same way as creative story tellers do.
“Share” – to “get”, “have”, or “give”, “divide”, “distribute”, to “use” or “benefit”.
Out of all these verbs which one best describes a social network, let’s say, Snapchat.
Basically, Snapchat is a texting service – a distribution network. Users must derive and create their own meaning.
Students sit beside each other (or in separate classrooms, or on the other side of the same room) texting each other in class – thinking that the teacher does not know about their private “sharing”. They share and then “ta-da” the conversation vanishes by magic.
“Take a look Miss, there’s nothing there!” And you can bet it’s not a renaissance portrait.
Tell a student to write a letter and they are almost lost. They don’t write letters.
Tell as student to write a text – they don’t have an excuse. And then they have the start of a letter.
Everyone has the ability to sketch the truth around the facts and invent “personal” truths to share with different audiences – friends and foes. Now they have the technology! But can they use it to effect?
I wonder what Scout might have mused about Boo Radley on Snapchat?
Or what would Ponyboy have said to Dallas about his oldest brother Darry?
A text, a letter, a book – it really doesn’t matter what type of “text” – whether written, spoken, or illustrated – communication is a social act, it’s about “sharing” thoughts, feelings and experiences.
We write ourselves into the world as we piece the puzzle of this world together. We compare and contrast our thoughts and feelings about what is *important* and *relevant*. And that’s what is happening on Snapchat while teachers try to engage students in a novel study.
We all define where we belong and who we are – as much as the world tries to define who we are and how deserving we are. But today, smartphones allow us to commentate our own story and create our own brand – imitating our heroes.
Celebrity (hero) worship, cultural sampling and identity engineering are activities that follow fashions – as the late David Bowie brought to our attention some years ago … “It’s big and it’s bland, full of tension and fear…” bunny hop … “Fashion”
Bowie, a high functioning humanoid capable of constructing identity as commercial branding and yet offering meaningful “wisdoms” in such ways as to bring a diverse range of people together to share his music (values). Pop culture took its cues on appearance from David Bowie. That is influence (persuasive text).
Today, high functioning humanoids still imitate and follow the fashions and attitudes of celebrities off tv shows such as Scream Queens or rappers like Kayne West and his wife, KK.
Today, meaningful culture is equated with glib quips and snips and snaps among peers in a small, initiated gang on a social network (most of it not very good) … this is the altar of knowledge at which they worship, the most powerful point of engagement, the forge shaping shared meaning (and not just by teenagers but teachers, parents, celebrities, community leaders). This is the media that defines contemporary society.
As a relief teacher, I walked into a classroom of students struggling to write a letter as a character to another character from the book they were studying. Some had written perfectly good letters. Others … had not even started. Many students reach high school with little cultural knowledge – novels, letters, writing … these are not *relevant* to their lives. Yet! And they aren’t about to sit down and listen to your “how to…”
Firstly, you aren’t their “real” teacher and, secondly, they don’t listen to their real teacher because they aren’t interested in learning about books or letters. So instead we brainstorm what the characters would say in a text: “Hey bae, ru ok?”
They are floored to hear this kind of language being spoken by the teacher in the classroom. E(•_•)∃ Listening. Responding. Engaging.
“She knows how to spell it!” one exclaims.
It gives them an opening. They have insight into the thoughts and feelings of characters and a means to express themselves. They have understanding, purpose and audience. I call this cultural appropriation in the classroom. You use the cultural capital at hand.
P.S. It took me three hours to write, edit and illustrate this post. 730 words. The wonders of modern technology!