Thursday, February 22, 2007

56 Hours

At the end of yesterday's post I alluded to some dilemmas. My shorthand notation for the primary dilemma is "56 hours." At Punahou we have a modular schedule. Most of our classes meet four days out of each six-day cycle for a total of 14 cycles per semester. 56 hours. 56 hours in which I have some kind of a mandate, stated or implied, to have the students read a certain quantity of books and essays and stories and poems; work on improving writing skills in each of several genres; make progress with such other basic skills as sentence level coherence and accuracy and vocab development and mastery of MLA conventions; prepare for the PSAT and SAT; focus on critical thinking skills; learn how to work effectively with one another in small groups; articulate and examine their own essential questions; complete various homework assignments and individual and group projects; reflect on their status as citizens of the world: you get the picture. I'm very much aware of the time passing by during each month, each week, each class period. Maybe you have more hours. In my previous school it was more like 85 hours per class per semester It still wasn't enough.

Marco's afternoon workshop, which I did not write about yesterday, enacted the dilemma in miniature. There were perhaps thirty teachers present, and we had all been asked to bring a video camera with the understanding that we would have a one-hour workshop in How to Produce a Very Short Film. But before we could begin, Marco wanted to share with us some of what teaches his students about "the grammar of film." He ran us through some basic concepts and showed us some really interesting film clips to illustrate what he was talking about and the next thing you know we looked up and the hour was up and we hadn't picked up our cameras yet.

I didn't have a problem with that. Everything Marco had to say was interesting and relevant. But, as it turned out, as it always turns out, There Was Just Not Enough Time. I've had enough experience with using film with classes to know that whatever amount of time I think I can break loose from the list of things I feel committed to trying to accomplish in my class, it's not going to be enough. And if it involves videotaping, fuggeddaboutit. Videotape projects always take four or five or six times more hours than you think they are going to. And that's assuming things go well: that the software does what it's supposed to do, that the hard drive doesn't crap out on you, that someone doesn't inadvertently record over half of your almost-finished project before you get a chance to burn it to DVD.

So the question is, how many of my 56 hours can I play around with? How much of what we do when we are filming or blogging or Googling or whatever we are doing can be integrated with what we already are signed up to do so that we are approaching core content in a novel but still effective way?

A second dilemma that I have been turning over in my mind, and that I have heard others discussing, has to do with demographics. Marco is working in a poverty area in Los Angeles County, and by his own admission the kids he is working with are not channeled toward academic success as it has been traditionally assessed in schools. So, as I wrote yesterday, Marco is actively seeking out alternative channels which offer students a greater chance of success. But Punahou is private school with a population of students who by virtue of having been admitted are precisely the kinds of kids who have shown they can succeed in a traditional academic setting. So what does that mean for us? On the one hand, it would seem ridiculous to say that because these kids are academically successful, they don't really need the (further?) advantages that technological competence would give them. On the other hand, there is a certain plausible systemic inertia along the lines of "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" Despite their supposed advantages, a large number of my students—well, pretty much all of them—do in fact still have significant things to learn about writing well and writing well and thinking well. So is technology going to help us do those things better, or is it a distraction, a red herring?

And then today I had a visit from a teacher from a private school in Seattle where the students have been using laptops in all of their classes for several years. He had just sat in on a number of classes, and admitted that he felt a certain wistfulness when he walked in and saw kids sitting at their desks with books and pens and notebooks. He seemed to feel that there was a kind of attentiveness, a collected connectedness, in the room which is not always present when everyone is sitting with a screen in front of them, for which he now feels a certain nostalgia.

I'll close this reflection by giving the floor to Tim, a colleague in my department, who sent out this (encouraging) email today to a number of us:
It is kind of intimidating to think that every assignment I ever give may become obsolete due to technological changes. In over twenty years of teaching, I think it's probably accurate to say that at least 75% of the time I've started class by saying, "Take out a sheet of paper." The idea that suddenly kids won't bring paper to class, while not a bad thing -- especially from an environmental perspective -- does make the insecure side of me say, "What the heck am I going to do now?" That said, I think it's important to realize that Marco Torres is not a good teacher because he uses technology; he is a good teacher because he takes his students seriously, because he has a passion to see them grow and prosper, and because he is an imaginative, personable guy with a set of skills that work well in high school classrooms. If Torres happened to be born in a different era, and if his teaching prime came, say, 30 years ago, he still would be a great teacher, though he'd probably be doing something other than using iMovie and GarageBand.

His talk made me realize -- and I found this comforting -- that good teaching is not a result of good use of technology, but that technology can be a helpful tool to enhance things that we already do well...

I appreciate what [our tech coordinators] are doing to get us to think about ways to use technology, and I hope I can take greater advantage of their expertise. That said, I'm not worried that the art of teaching is suddenly changing. In fact art is a good analogy: just because digital photography and new media give artists all sorts of new challenges and opportunities, this doesn't mean there isn't value in learning how to paint with brushes, shoot pictures with 35 mm cameras, and draw with pen and ink. So my overall point here is that we should all feel pretty good about the state of teaching at Punahou, and we should remind each other not to panic too much about how the world is changing. It is in some ways for sure. And in other ways, the more things change the more they stay the same...

Our students will figure out how to negotiate the gaps between "old school" and "new." I can think of small steps I can take into the ed. tech realm that can lead, eventually, to bigger steps. As we share big ideas and as we re-train ourselves to use technology, perhaps we can also share our ideas for small, incremental steps. Eventually the big leapers and the small steppers will all reach the same good places...
I think pretty much all of what Tim has to say is dead on. I'm interested in exploring how we can use web tools and video tools and software tools to help students extend the range of what they can do well. The challenge is to find a way to do that while still keeping our eye on what is central, which is not the gadgets and not the products, but on the students. If we can use the tech tools to help our students to think more clearly or more deeply, to communicate more effectively, to understand their lives and to enjoy their time as students, so much the better.

For a few other reflections on Marco Torres, here are posts by Chris and Lara.


Eric said...

Right: it's not about technology, it's about inspiration.

When I was a teenaged drummer I went to see jazz great Joe Morello at a downtown music store. The manager looked on in horror as Morello picked out a cheap knock-off imported drum set to play. Three minutes later he had the heads tuned and was playing the hell out of those drums. It's not about the drums. Or as Lance Armstrong says, it's not about the bike. It's about being inspired.

Eric MacKnight

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

Once years ago I was in an art class and asked to make a photo montage...or some such thing before the age of film in our hands...I believe of a big event but played out in my life. This was splayed with examples of connection to then very hot moments of activism or something like what TV was bringing us...things of the time like "Roots" awakened...or when I came out...or just things I like now to call "Oprah Moments'.
As we began to address things not allowed to be said openly before.
(which I just finished a book on how collectively all this kind of group awareness and making is almost a "viral process" pushing these things into awareness and change in a collective process).It was important to do this, we were processing the times. We were making our connections visible or actually doing. I get that now better than I did then.

So I chose to do my work on "things no one sees" from my life. Anti -assignment which was very much the theme of the day, I was doing no more than applying it (the construct of over-turning a "norm") to the assignment level over the product level which is why my teachers at that time always gave me top bill.

And those photo's were very hard to make because they weren't random, they were tiny, ordinary insights into a simple often tedious daily life. Extremely calm mind required. Collected they began to represent something that wouldn't go to notice normally. Highly personal. They were departure points for my growing interest in taking on my education in a personal and self-growth way. Which at 19 is where students are. Oddly this piece was what the group did focus on, but very much as a departure into their life. I was not feeling very heroic and real, I felt very stressed, limited, bound by money, desire to do something, frustrations, general disgust with my own lack of knowledge. Just a me.I guess a life person. In time, evolving. No matter... It's rather long to say...but I thought here about this connection to student, to their lives. You have it so well. It's the all of teaching. Nothing else to me more core.

My art ed. teacher Bill Thomas always, always spoke to this as something we barely bridge. Take me into your world. Let me see your now. For me that's a very simple, ordinary place. But there is a certain value in this.Can we know another? Can we visualize as they do, can we better understand another through film? Is this a way to enter into the heart of others? I found it awful in art training to need to be Spike Lee, or to need to speak to the universe, to perform something profound. Aggression was the thing in my days in school. Making it visible. So if I were working with a group of students making small class films which I wish I was, I'd have categories, humor, love, loss, want, need, dream,judging, hating disappointment, fury, embarrassment, friendship, connection, change, growth, endurance, myth, danger....and make small film, ordinary proof of these states. Can I show as simply as possible the truth/real of these.For me. A montage of these.

As I sit with my pneumonia thinking of how your kids are experiencing so much good work.I really enjoy reading here.

Bruce Schauble said...

Again, thanks. I'm still trying to figure out how much and where to bend what is already on the agenda toward the nice-to-haves or maybe-somedays. So I'm trying to think of it in terms of zones, and to have one zone of exploration (for them and for me) going on in any one class at any one time. For my 8:30 sophs this semester, it's blogs. For my 11:30 group, it's a wiki. For my seniors last semester, it was a film. Which they didn't finish, but which did support a lot of dialogue and learning between us.

Sorry to hear about the pneumonia. Hope you feel better soon.