Reflections on Unit 6: The Empty Space and the Third Teacher

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Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

Connecting Past and Present

Working through this final unit about inspiring spaces, I could not help but be transported back to my undergraduate days and time I spent working in the professional theatre world. The theatre world, on some level, becomes almost entirely about a space.

One of my theatrical heroes, Peter Brook, published his seminal book The Empty Space in 1968, where he opens with the statement, “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” While investigating and exploring learning spaces as part of this unit, that volume’s opening resonated in my mind.

Cannot the same be said of a classroom?

While a stage may not be the most exact of comparisons, it can serve as an apt metaphor in this context. Even a stage itself is a classroom of sorts. Yet, riffing on Brook’s statement, I believe the following statement to be pretty accurate.  I can take any empty space and call it a classroom. A student inhabiting that empty space with curiosity and perception whilst connected somehow to a network of knowledge and experience, and this is all that is needed for an act of learning to be engaged. Viewed in that way, learning spaces become more of a state of mind than they are a physical classroom.

Four Forms in Two Contexts

Also interesting in Brook’s masterwork is how he draws four different distinctions when using the word theatre that he dubbed Deadly, Holy, Rough, and Immediate. These distinctions may yet have value applied to a classroom too.

Brook describes the Deadly Theatre as simply bad. It lacks honesty and openness, doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. This may be the most directly analogous connection to the classroom. There are plenty of bad classrooms and it may have little to do with the teacher, as many of the resources highlighted. There is no shortage of classrooms designed with a very narrow understanding of learning in mind, if it factored at all.

The Holy Theatre is called “The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible.” It can only exist when evoking contemporary experience and universal truth. This too has some a clear connection to the classroom. There are plenty of teacher-centered classrooms where scholar shares his knowledge and wisdom with the students from the front of the room. This is the traditional classroom and lecture hall designed with another narrow notion of learning, primarily as the act of listening.

The Rough Theatre eschews the formal, traditional settings in favour of a freer, more instinctive ones. It is about cultures of change where the change is needed. Again, there is a clear connection to the classroom. There are plenty of classrooms that are emerging in this vein. Many of them were classrooms held up as examples in this unit as reimagined and redesigned. They are classrooms that are transformed into learning spaces, shedding the yoke of what is traditionally envisioned as a classroom.

The Immediate Theatre always exists in the present, focused on relationships and deeply personal. This is the form that Brook most advocates and its connection to the classroom may be best of all. There are teachers and student-centered classrooms where learning is dynamic, fluid, and personal. This is the classroom that any good teacher hopes to create, open comfortable, and inviting, in spite of the weight of policy, standardization and tests,

Using Peter Brook’s examination of theatre as a lens through which to view classrooms as learning spaces might be a bit of a push, admittedly. Yet, there are parallels as I have tried to present. While Brook abstracts the concept of theatre far beyond the physical space, I would submit that the whole point of reconsidering classrooms as learning spaces is similarly an attempt to reach beyond the concrete, literally and figuratively.

Rediscovering Reggio Emilia

I have to admit that my understanding of Reggio Emilia’s work is limited. I only first heard of it a few years ago and have yet to dive very deeply in it. Nevertheless the notion that the environment is the third teacher is an elegant one.

There are a number of ways that this makes immediate sense. It is the kind of understanding that is intuitive but difficult to articulate. It is softer, experiential stuff. Of course, architects and designers have long known how to shape spaces, as well as articulate these experiences. The constraints of public building projects sometimes get in the way, however.

What rings clear is the truth that space is never neutral.

We live in a word where nearly everything is designed on some level, albeit plenty of it may be designed poorly. Genuine insight and elegance revealed in well designed products, services, or experiences provide a very different kind of value. Might this not be one of the most important lessons that we might teach our children.

Reflections on Unit 5: Assessment, Rubrics, and Portfolios

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Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

General Thoughts on Assessment and Writing as Assessment

When it comes to assessment, I have to admit that a lot of my thinking is heavily influenced by my background as an English teacher and specifically involves writing instruction. A major tenant I subscribed to when teaching writing was the idea that I did not teach writing as much as I taught young writers.

Consequently, this has always made me highly suspicious of formulaic approaches to assessment and rarely interested in low-hanging fruit, like multiple choice. Writing has always seemed about as authentic an assessment as it gets. Plus, I am not terribly interested in formulaic writers.

Still, show me what a student writes and I can see what he thinks, more or less. Plus, I am one of those that keeps advocating that we expand our notion of what constitutes a text, which means there is a whole mess of possibilities when I use the term writing. I am definitely a fan of Brian Kennedy’s idea that everything is an image, including text. Therefore, School needs to be a place where students learn how to communicate through an array of forms, genres, and purposes. The more practice the better.

Authenticity in Assessment

There are different kinds of authenticity when it comes to assessment. There is the nature and purpose of the task being used to assess but there is also the actual assessment that a student receives after having completed the task, be it feedback or more. What kind of information that students receive interests quite a bit.

When it came to assessment, the best way I learned how to help and teach young writers was always through interventions that were early and often with a gradual release. I think we teachers often underestimate how hard it can be for students just to get started at anything. So a lot of my approach involves helping more in the earliest stages, showing students a few possible paths, and then encouraging them to pick one and see what happens. So much of that approach ends up being far more formative than summative.

I like to say that I spent over ten years of my teaching career trying to make grades as meaningless as possible, which meant I spent a lot more time giving feedback and a whole lot less time giving grades. I even eschewed putting grades on papers altogether at times. This was not always the most popular approach, but there are a lot of benefits.

One of the main aims for more feedback and fewer grades was to begin giving students the tools to strengthen their ability to self-assess their own work. I used to say often, “In the long run, self-assessment is the only kind that really matters all that much.” Still do. That does not always play well with high schoolers but I still believe it. There are plenty of students that get it, too.

They may not be completely autonomous at this moment in their lives but they know that it is coming. They are in the midst of major transition and are starting to get a sense of where their true strengths and weaknesses are. As educators, we need to help them identify and play to their strengths. They may need to work on weaknesses but their strengths will take them far further than the work on their weaknesses. Plus, strong, honest self-assessment can get awfully authentic.

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Alfie Kohn and Rubrics

When I was getting certified and taking courses, I distinctly remember thinking that Alfie Kohn was ridiculous. The little I read of his work at that time I felt was completely Pollyanna nonsense.

How little I actually understood about anything.

One of my most fascinating transformations over my teaching career involves my response to Alfie Kohn. Having taught for over ten years, I now think just about everything he writes is as sharply focused and accurate as possible. The longer I have been a teacher the more I have sided with him on just about everything.

I had not seen “Why the Best Teachers Don’t Give Tests” prior to this class but could not agree more with the argument he is making. In fact, this article articulated a host of things that I have believed and tried argued to little or no avail for quite a few years. He communicated them far better than I did no doubt, but I am amazed at how many people passively ignore most of these sentiments.

My favorite among them is his section on rubrics.

I must confess, I had no idea what a rubric was until I began education school as an adult. As I have grown to understand them more deeply, I have come to the conclusion that the rubric is this era’s grading curve.

When I was a kid, students were routinely graded on a curve under a completely misguided application of a tool that works in one context but not another. Of course, when looking at a test performance of say 30,000 students, a bell curve is a very likely distribution of scores. However, in a sample size of 30 or less in a classroom, it is tantamount to malpractice.

Similarly, rubrics are tools to unify scoring across multiple assessors on a standardized, normed test. Again, it is the preferred tool for hundreds of scorers looking at the work of 30,000 students. Interestingly and somewhat ironic, the rubric scores of multiple assessors for those thousands of students would likely fall into a bell curve.

In most K12 classrooms, a single teacher is grading 30 or fewer students in a far from normed context. Using rubrics in this way is a misuse of the tool. It is an application that does not correspond with its purpose or function. Still, it has not stopped their proliferation.

It makes sense to use them, in preparation for the kinds of tests where they are used, like a practice state assessment or AP test. In that way, students can approach that kind of writing almost as a genre task. Yet to use them to assess writing in a class of 20 students is often an invitation for producing formulaic, “standardized writers,” as Kohn quotes highlights when quoting Maja Wilson.

This does not mean that I dismiss rubrics altogether. In truth, the best thing about rubrics, especially in the more common misused classroom context, involves the process of making them, either alone or with students. Creating a rubric from scratch can be an excellent way to focus on what the most important elements are in a given task. However, that process need not necessarily render a rubric, as they are typically known. Instead, a kind of grading checklist can more than suffice and be useful for teachers and students. It clearly tells the students, “This is what must be included in the work.”

The next part of making a rubric, the descent into the categorization of levels for accountability purposes with scores and such often degenerates into arbitrary parsing and superficial cover for standardized subjectivity. On that level, rubrics become another tool for ranking and sorting students, which is something I have always had very little interest in doing as a teacher.

Digital Portfolios

I began using portfolios within my first year of teaching and never stopped. They can be challenging to manage as a teacher. However, there is no better way to get a sense of what a student knows and can do then by using a portfolio.

When I migrated writing portfolios from analog to digital, the biggest challenge had to do with the drafting and iterative process.

Google Docs draft history is not an entirely accurate representation of familiar analog draft versions. This is different when trying to get a snapshot at a particular moment since Google archives essentially on the fly. So it is harder to lock down a particular version, at a given moment, as a window into how a piece has evolved.

Digital writing  can always be open to modification, which is great, in some ways. Still, getting a sense of a document’s evolution becomes considerably more fluid. Preserving iterations at specific points can be done, of course, but it needs to be planned and adjustments need to be made.

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Technology Benefits for Assessment

When it comes to using technology in assessment, I want to believe that it is more beneficial but I have my reservations. We are on the threshold of a major turning point in assessment. In the United States, the rush is on to make all major standardized assessments computer-based. So for better or worse, technology-based assessment will become increasingly common.

One of the benefits is the speed that feedback can be delivered, which satisfies an instant gratification itch. Ironically, the big standardized tests have yet to be able to deliver on the promise of faster results in any meaningful way.

There are definitely applications of technology-based assessment that can be effective, particularly on the formative front. When done well, the ability for a teacher to quickly capture some basic data in a fast, external, and retrievable way can really help inform instruction.

Yet, the problem for me is that technology-based assessment privileges certain kinds of assessment over others, making them far more likely to be commonly used. For example, technology has made multiple choice items easier than ever to create, deliver, and score. The trouble is multiple choice items are not a terribly good way to assess students. We sacrifice assessment quality for expediency. This not so much a technology-based impulse as it is a market-based one.

Recently, Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post‘s “Should you trust a computer to grade your child’s writing on Common Core tests?” reignited the controversy of computer-based scoring of writing. I have already mentioned that I believe writing to be one of the better forms of assessment. Moreover, I find the notion of computer-based scoring fundamentally flawed.

What truly is communicated to students when educators, at any level, ask them to write something that will not even be read by a human?

I have written about this before and likely will again but that is for another post.

Reflections on Unit 4: Looking, Seeing, and Visual Literacy

Image: Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Periodic Table of Visualization Methods

Note: This post is an extended reflection from the EdTech Team’s Teacher Leader Certification Program. I am participating in the initial cohort.

Having graduated high school and beginning my university studies as an art major only to eventually graduate with a bachelor of fine arts in theatre, visual literacy is an area that has been something on my radar for a long time.

Once I entered the field of education, I quickly surmised teachers who understand elements of design  are at a distinct advantage. Educators create and generate an enormous amount of media for their curriculum and students. Given that all media is constructed, good design is one of the primary factors in determining the quality and success of media generated.

Importance of Visually Literacy

Quite simply, we see before we speak. We see even before we reason. We see long before we learn to read.

Visuals can be universal and a way that we communicate when our language breaks down. For that reason alone visual literacy is necessary, especially in an ever increasing global community.

Perhaps it is the immediacy and utility of sight that fools us. Initially, we tend to think that everyone sees what we see. In the most simplistic terms, this may be true but intuitively we know it is not quite accurate. It takes considerable time to fully realize everyone does not see what we individually see, that it is far more complicated than all that. Gaining visual literacy aids in this understanding.

I tend to agree with Brian Kennedy in the idea that everything is an image. Yet I also advocate that we need to expand our notion of text.

I think this is because the principle way we interact with visuals is to see, whereas the principal way we interact with text is to read but we must get to the reading action in visuals to become literate. That is where the work is to be done.

I like the idea that the single word literacy be all-encompassing, much like the New London Group’s concept of “multiliteracies.” In my mind, “multiliteracies” should de facto mean literacy.

Design Principal Teach to Students

For me, the first principle I share with students is a meta one that all media is constructed. Regardless of format, genre, whatever, all media is designed and constructed to communicate and on some level influence. I start from there. Everything else follows.

Consequently, I try to have students zero in on how they feel about something as a precursor to what they think. I have often believed that feelings are not given nearly enough attention in school as a gateway to thinking. Once students can identify how they feel in response to an image, text, music, or whatever, we can begin to ask why and how.

Deconstructing communication in a way to reveal how and why it works and makes us feel what we feel is a pretty powerful way to begin.

From there, I zero in on the mother of all design principles ‑ composition. For me, it is the one that has the most crossover with creative efforts of all kinds. How and why all the other elements and principles are combined and put together. So whether we are looking at images, text, video, or music we have a common language to begin our investigation.

I have often begun the discussion of composition after screening the video below. It is one of the better introductions that I have found that has broad reach and application.