Friday, February 2, 2007

School 2.0: In Search of a Story

(I started to write this as a comment in response to Chris's comment on my last post, but as I wrote I began to realize that it was going to take a while, so I'm upgrading this from a lowly comment to a full-fledged daily post, in the form of an epistle. Thereby getting that monkey off my back as well.)

Hi Chris,

There's a thin line, I guess, between ambition and arrogance, and this wouldn't be the first time I've caught walking that line and trying not to fall over. But, perhaps because of my years as an undergraduate philosophy major, I do tend to want to connect the dots and see what kind of big picture we're looking at.

Throughout the middle years of my teaching career I often found myself teaching a class that went really well, only to find that the next group doing the same lesson, or the same group doing a different lesson the next day, would be a complete crash-and-burn scenario. My successes seemed to be almost random (and very often came when I had veered so far off the track of my original lesson plan that I had to make something up on the fly), and my failures equally unpredictable. It wasn't until I arrived at my present school, after 28 years of teaching, that I wound up being able to start pulling my experiences and my intuitions together. What was the difference? At this school, in this environment, there was a highly developed culture of dialogue and sharing of ideas, and an understanding that in a school this large (close to 1800 students in grades 9-12), with most students switching teachers each semester, we were going to have to work pretty hard to make their experience have any kind of continuity. As an English teacher and, recently, department head, I've wound up having to spend a lot of time trying to come up with clear answers to the question of who we are and what we are doing.

And that's the problem I think we all face—individually as teachers, and collectively as a group. There are lots of cool ideas and new tools and nifty lessons out there, and we've all had our moments of insight and our moments of success, but unless we have a conceptual frame to put them in, they're like so many firecrackers going off at random: a noise over here, a noise over there, but nothing coherent, nothing satisfying, nothing of music sufficient to soothe the savage beast. I think that as we try to imagine School 2.0, we face the same dilemma. What is our common vision? How do we pull together our various intuitions and hunches beliefs realizations—the sorts of things that are on your preliminary list—and and shape them into a coherent whole? Where do we start?

One way to begin is to make the move I made yesterday, which is to find a point of entry, a single statement or question that looks like it could serve as a scaffold, and then begin laying some brickwork within that frame. The danger there is you're essentially starting to build a house by starting with one room. It might be nice to have a blueprint, a sense of the whole structure, before you begin. That is, I take it, what we're trying to shape over on the manifesto page at the School 2.0 wiki, but a glance at that page shows how amorphous and multidimensional the set of ideas surrounding School 2.0 is at this point in time. A blueprint needs an architect, someone who knows how to connect all the various elements into a whole which is logically coherent and aesthetically pleasing. That work could conceivably be done by a small group, but probably not by a committee.

Another way would be to try to sort out the various core beliefs or assumptions and start elaborating within that framework, which is essentially how the "Who We Are" statement I cited above got started. The limitation of this approach is that whatever schemata you use as a preliminary frame may very well marginalize or omit entirely essential elements that aren't in its angle of vision.

A third way of approaching the problem might be to think of the challenge in narrative terms rather than more explicitly conceptual terms.
A question I frequently ask of myself, and of my colleagues in the English department, is "What is the story we're telling our students?" Or, alternatively, "What is the story we're asking our students to play a part in?" Over four years, is there a some sort of meta-narrative that we can even articulate to ourselves? And, perhaps more importantly, what is the story that the students think they are being told, and does it bear any resemblance to the story we thought we were telling? So that would be one way of posing the question: What story students in School 2.0 be enacting?

There are, I'm sure, lots of other ways to think about the challenge before us. It's clear that the landscape is shifting beneath our feet, and that the arrival of ever-more-sophisticated (and easy to use) technological tools is inevitably going to change—is already changing—how we teach and how students learn. The fact that it is possible for us to be even having this conversation across state and national borders is one measure of how things have changed. It's both challenging and satisfying to be a part of this dialogue, to be able to have contact with people like you and Graham and Will and Doug and the many other educators who are trying to figure it all out. The old complaint that teaching is an isolating profession is, thanks to the increasingly visible presence of blogs and wikis and the like, no longer true, or at least not necessarily true, and I'm grateful for that.


- Bruce

1 comment:

Clay Burell said...


This will be quicker than I'd like at the moment, but I've got too many monkeys clawing my own back to pause for more reflection (installing Moodle and WordPress MU on our own new dedicated host server, for example--two things this humanities teacher has never done before).

So I just wanted to say that your move to start this dialogue is one that I will be following closely, because that conversation needs to happen in my own school, which is gaining critical mass towards making the shift, and doing so on the shifting sands you speak of too.

I hope your colleagues embrace the offer for what it promises to be: a transformative conversation for teachers and classrooms.

Please share any developments so I can look on and benefit in my Bloglines ;-)

From another ex-philosophy undergrad HS English teacher.