Summer Reflection

Looking Backward

First, I want to offer a three part summary of the eleven days in the summer. To create the summary, I summarized each of the eleven days at length by taking notes on all of the readings and going through the agenda for each day, see summary for each day . I also created an annotated bibliography with summaries of readings as well as TED talks and readings related to creativity, my ImagineIT topic. I found an especially good source of articles on creativity from the deep-play research group at Michigan State University, deep-play.com. Per the website, “the Deep-Play Research Group at Michigan State University is an interdisciplinary team focused on developing a better understanding of the issues related to creativity, education and technology”. I expect to continue to add to the annotated bibliography over the course of the year.

The three main themes of the summer, in my view, are (1) pedagogy (2) technical skills, and (3) professional development. Pedagogy is by far the largest area. This includes disciplinary thinking and the importance of getting to the essential understandings of your discipline, rather than racing through topics in a ‘coverage’ approach. The TPACK planning framework– technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge– is also a major theme. The importance of attending to student prior knowledge, especially student misconceptions is stressed, as are creativity related themes including teacher creativity, aesthetic teaching, multi-modal composition, and the maker movement. In the area of assessment, stress is on teaching for understanding, what it means to really understand, performances of understanding, and teaching for conceptual change.
After pedagogy, the next area is: teacher technical skills: these include how to use social media like Twitter and Facebook; the use of smartphones especially for video and photography; how to use Google Docs and Classroom; how to edit video, and, finally, how to use Worpress/Wix/Weebly for creating a teacher digital presence. Finally after technical skills, the last major theme is professional development. This last area tends toward the leadership component of MSUrbanSTEM on how cohort teachers can create effective PD themselves. Some of the professional development practices modeled include teacher social media use to allow for leadership and contributions from attending teachers; intense collaboration; thoughtful grouping; and a mix of different types of tasks often with time limits. PD should be teacher-centered just like our classrooms should be student-centered. Teacher-created play-stations is a way, like social media, to put teacher-voice front and center; the play-stations are a meet-up style experience in the middle of a regular PD where the agenda is created on the fly based on what teachers want to know about or have expertise in; these groups meet and talk for 30 minutes, and that’s it! No facilitators necessary. And indeed, if you look carefully at how this PD is set up you will see how teacher-centered it is, with messy experience and collaboration in groups coming before the summary of the big idea or essential content. The five essentials of an amazing stem lesson, for example, could easily have be delivered from an authority figure via a Powerpoint, but instead these essentials come after the STEM lessons are taught in small groups; only after the experience of the lessons are the essentials are then teased out by the facilitator in a large group discussion.

Now to take on some of the questions: (1) What have I learned this summer? (2) What is new about this experience (if at all)? (3) How does this learning experience matter to me (if at all)?. First (1) and (2). Essentially all of the experience noted in the summary was a new experience to me in that,almost always during the summer session, whatever prior knowledge I had was combined with something unfamiliar, whether it was a technology, a discipline different from my own, teammates I only sort of knew but had to get along with, and/or an unusual purpose or goal. Even technologies that I was ostensibly familiar with, like Google slides or video/pictures taken from one’s smartphone became suddenly strange when combined with an unexpected purpose and a time limit. This did mean that I tended to feel off balance or uncomfortable most of the time, and it is easy to see how this might be a potentially distressing experience; and, sometimes it was. But the distress level usually stayed low, to the extent that there were not so much right or wrong answers for most of the activities we did, rather there was an eventual accumulated wisdom or feeling for a better or worse product.

The stop motion video violating the laws of physics, for example, could not really be correct or incorrect. It was important to have something finished in the time frame, and one got extra points (internally) if the project was applauded when it was shared with the larger group, but I would say that I got used to the fact that a particular project might or might not be particularly great, and that was fine. I would say that in this part of the MSUrbanSTEM program, teachers occupy a kind of permanently ambiguous space in which one’s final products are evaluated all in terms of shades of grey. It is often not clear what the purpose of doing the activity is even as one is doing it. Of course, the teacher who took a picture of herself in the middle of the busy intersection, who captioned it saying she liked to take intellectual risks, clearly had the best introduction of herself to the group. But it is easy to go easy on oneself for not coming up with that idea oneself; it is not as though my own picture with a statue of Mother Teresa is wrong; it is just not as good. Rather the takeaway is to notice how creative that other person was and to try to take similar license oneself in the next activity with the goal of coming up with something more clever or better than your own last attempt. Activities like these create an atmosphere of intellectual risk taking and excitement in which everyone is eager to share what their own creation with the group.

Similarly, even though I am a committed inquiry-based math teacher, I would say this program managed to make the familiar pedagogical task of inquiry strange for me. When I say inquiry, I might mean a lot of things but I specifically mean that wherever possible, I try to have a messy investigation or experience for students first before leading students to discover the essential objectives at the end. The idea is that giving a vocabulary term or learning goal first does not mean nearly as much until the student has had some sort of experience with the concept or idea. Code.org shorthands this ABE, EBV, “activity before experience, experience before vocabulary”. I am sold on this idea, yet I now see how mundane I have let this practice become in some cases in my classes. When I am not paying attention, student inquiry can become little more than a demo in which students go through the motion of an activity in which they are supposed to discover the answer, all the while just waiting for the teacher to tell them the answer at the end. Certainly in the case of planning professional development for other teachers, it is clear that the inquiry or teacher-centered dictum is not followed nearly as much as it should be. Overall, I feel that this idea of inquiry, which I thought I knew everything about, is thoroughly refreshed and ready to make sure that my inquiry based instruction is honest and the best I can make it.

Looking forward

In one of Professor Mishra’s articles, he writes about the forces arrayed against creativity in education. He writes about scripted curricula, popular especially in urban environments in which the teacher is imagined as a performer of the curriculum, the way an actor might perform a script, which at first may seem creative, but at second glance leaves no room for improvisation based on the needs of the students in front of the teacher. This approach to education may be falling out of favor, but a 2005 New York TImes article, “By the Script”, discusses the experience of a teacher taught in his Master’s program at Harvard how to design instruction, “But he is not designing anything. He is following the Balanced Literacy script”,which has a flow of the day chart with times so strict that some teachers reporting administrators so strict that teachers should be finishing the same sentences at the same time across different classrooms. Lately, the push is toward teacher accountability systems and high stakes tests. In an environment like this, Mishra writes:

It is often a matter of finding what parts of creativity might fit in the curriculum or the school environment. Teachers in classrooms may work to negotiate this tension between a system that is in many ways anti-creative, and what they can do to support their students’ creativity. Teachers can break students into groups to support autonomy and independence. A teacher can design assignments or projects for flexibility and choice. In identifying what creativity requires (e.g., intrinsic interest, autonomy, flexibility, different perspectives, original thought, divergent thinking, problem discovery, and self-expression), we can consider how to incorporate these…

In other words, teaching creatively in your classroom is the right thing to do, and the teacher must figure out how to fit that creativity in regardless of the dictates of the system. When I first started teaching, veteran teachers would sometimes say, ‘When you shut your door, it is your classroom and you know what is best for your kids’. I did not necessarily know what that meant at the time, but I think what they mean is that the dictates from Chicago Public Schools will come and go; there may be some value in some of these; and as a teacher, you must be compliant, but you, the teacher, are in charge of where you place the stress in your room. In this sense the MSUrbanSTEM program has been effective in making so many familiar things strange and reinvigorating pedagogical approaches that I may have known about for years, but now seem new.

In my particular imagineIT, I will be deliberately assessing creativity as a part of any major performance of understanding my students undertake. I will be designing rubrics where part of the goal is explicitly to assess creative thinking. I will continue to revisit my annotated bibilographies and the articles and article summaries I have made. I will also connect with colleagues about my successes and failures on social media, and I will have the support of a great team of professors, graduate students and others at Michigan State who will support me in the implementation of my project.

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