June is the Cruellest Month

And so another school year has come to a close. The last four weeks have been very busy: marking, exams, report cards. After months of thoughtful engagement with my students and their blogs, I spent the last few days of this school year calculating medians and grade equivalents that my students achieved on a standardized test. I also had to reduce the work of every student – months of network- and knowledge-building – to one final grade. I had to translate all that engagement into a number. Many of my students were also very busy calculating their averages and memorizing their review sheets for a variety of subjects. Reflection was replaced by the thoughts of “doing well” on exams or achieving that much-coveted average of 80% or higher. Who has time for reflection when we’re busy perpetuating the institutionalized commodity of learning?

Before the end of the year and the madness that comes with the final exams, in an effort to counteract this focus on grades, I encouraged my students to reflect on their independent research projects that they have been documenting on their blogs. Many of them took up the challenge and gave me an interesting glimpse into their learning.

Sooooooooooooooooo What?

This is unfortunately my final and last post. This is my so what. From my research, I have learned many things. First of all I have learned that children all around are suffering constantly and Canada is not involved in the coalition to prevent child soldiers. I have learned that the training is cruel and intolerable, an experience no child should go through. They are punished for expressing any fear or sincerity, tear shed will only cause blood shed. Overall I would like to continue researching this topic but due to the lack of time I cannot. I hoped I achieved my goal which was to raise awareness about this topic among my classmates. Hope you enjoyed following my topic. (Italics mine)

This is what happens when we compartmentalize learning into neat chunks. There’s nothing that’s stopping Chloe from continuing her research. I can make sure that she has access to her blog for as long as she needs to. She can also transfer her entries to a Blogger blog, for example, and continue her efforts there. Unfortunately, the one thing that school taught her very well is that learning ends in June, that it is organized into neat units, and that weeks and months of learning can be reduced to a single test or exam.

On Sunday, June 3, 2007, Michael wrote a reflection on his research on genocide and, specifically, the situation in Darfur.

When will we ever learn?

What have we learned now about genocide now? After all the things that have happened with genocide to people over the years all the death, people always forget the results of genocide. We have learned nothing. If we had this would not have happened in Darfur. This genocide has been started by: president Bashir, vice-president Taha, and security chief Gosh. These men are from the Sudanese government. They are supporting the janjaweed militia while lying about doing so. It is a massacre/genocide on all of the non-Baggra population. The Sudanese government is making sure no one finds out anymore and is trying to kill all witnesses of these things. Now this is agreed upon by everyone that this is a genocide. When the United Nations try to help the Sudanese government attacks them. What has begun at just Darfur is now beginning to spread all the way to Chad and Central Africa. This is a current situation that has already had a major effect on people in that area, already 450 000 are dead from violence and disease. This genocide is currently not very big and has not killed huge amount of people yet, but it is growing. Soon it will grow larger if it is not stopped soon. We must stand up and stop the wrongs happening in Sudan.

Both of the above entries show, in my opinion, that these two students engaged as learners. They researched topics that they were passionate about and they have both become experts. They certainly know more about their respective topics than I do. They have created on their blogs a cognitive trail of their efforts. They have created learning objects that I, their teacher, can now learn from and perhaps even use next year when discussing these topics in my class with another group of students.

Of course, I knew about child soldiers and the situation in Darfur – not to mention some of the other topics that my children explored this past year – before the research projects started. But through these blogs, through their research, I have learned more. I have also become engaged not as a teacher who needs to know what the students are doing in order to assess and evaluate, but as a human being whose thirst for knowledge was satiated by a group of fourteen-year-olds who set a goal for themselves – a goal of exploring issues they found relevant and interesting.

The fact that their goals were their own made a big difference.

Their work also made me realize that I can measure their success not only by how much they have learned individually but also by how much they have learned from each other and by how much they have taught me.

Here are some topics that they explored on their blogs:

Child soldiers

Darfur

Genocide

Children’s Rights

Current Human Rights Abuses

Nazi Human Experimentation

Anne Frank

War Diaries as a Literary Genre

Street Children Around the World

Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide

Domestic Abuse

Women and Children in the Holocaust

Fascism in Italy

The Warsaw Uprising

The Internment of the Japanese Canadians and Americans

Freedom of Expression Violations

Nazi Propaganda

This past year, through the research that they have been documenting on their blogs, my students expanded my understanding of all of the above issues. They have found many links that I eagerly added to my delicious account. They have expressed views that I had not come across before. They started multiple conversations and expressed themselves in what Darren Kuropatwa calls “galleries of thought.” They engaged as researchers interested in expanding their knowledge.

Too bad June had to put an end to that.

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11 Responses to June is the Cruellest Month

  1. Claudia Ceraso June 24, 2007 at 9:44 pm #

    Are learning compartmentalisation and lifelong-learning mutually exclusive terms? I struggle with these issues when setting deadlines for students’ creative tasks. (Not to mention my own learning as a student).

    The issue is time. Shall we meet the deadline or the learning? We are here to teach students to do as much learning as possible within a time-frame. But how about teaching them to devote as much time as learning takes. That’s the lesson on being involved and gladly give a bit of yourself to the task.

    What are we after? Results or process. Some people go for the certificates. Some of us go for the learning.

    It is quite clear which side of the pendulum your students are at.

  2. Kristee June 24, 2007 at 10:58 pm #

    I really like your teaching/educational approach. I homeschool for alot of the reasons you reflect on…working for the grade vs. the joy of learning and broadening oneself. Grading has it’s place- math. ;) We also school year round with breaks just as we need them. Been at it for 2yrs, so far so good.
    You sound like an awesome teacher. I could’ve use one like you…
    blessings,
    Kristee

  3. Konrad Glogowski June 26, 2007 at 8:33 pm #

    Claudia,

    Thanks for the comment. I find that many of my students, after a year of blogging, are much more interested in the process, in being engaged as researchers and in developing as experts. Unfortunately, every year, the school year comes to a close and we need to reduce all that richness to one grade.

    Is it possible to reconcile results and process, grades and thoughtful engagement? I believe it is. I think that blogging communities need to grow not just over one year but throughout high school or middle school. I’m interested in creating communities that persist and don’t end when the school year ends. I wrote about it here:

    blog of proximal development » Blog Archive » I Will Be a Gardener

    The problem is that some students are very comfortable with the focus on results and compartmentalization. Changing the way we understand school and learning will, in itself, be a process.

  4. Konrad Glogowski June 26, 2007 at 8:40 pm #

    Kristee,

    Yes, homeschooling would provide the flexibility needed for learning that doesn’t end in June. It can still be done at school but I think it needs to be a longer process because the students themselves are used to learning in chunks and learning for a grade.

    However, I’ve learned through my research that they can be engaged and focus on what you’ve referred to as “broadening oneself.” As teachers, we need to think about how to reconfigure our classrooms/schools/curricula to make sure that it happens.

    Thanks for the comment!

  5. diane June 27, 2007 at 6:41 pm #

    Konrad, I’m a SLMS (Librarian/Teacher) who will be initiating a current events course next year for a small group of high school students. Your class sounds like exactly what I’m aiming for: content with embedded technology. Did you use any other tools, like Google Reader or Zoho (I don’t even know how to work that yet – I hope the kids and I can learn together)? Our district is in a small, rural community and we don’t always have access to the latest “toys”. I’ve requested e-mail addresses for my students, but they will be the only non-staff members to have them. Any advice?
    Re. the compartmentalization of learning: at least you’ve given them the tools to explore – and you have no way of knowing when the knowledge they’ve gained will come into play. Perhaps it never will, but you may have set something in motion that will emerge “ages and ages hence”.

  6. Eric MacKnight June 30, 2007 at 9:20 am #

    Hi Konrad,

    A good friend of mine used to refer to teaching as ‘planting time bombs in children’s minds’. There’s no question that we live in a state of alienation, in school and in society as a whole. Students work in school because they want the marks / grades / credits that result from the work. None of this interests me, of course: I am looking always for those golden moments of understanding, enlightenment, new insight. But I use their desire for rewards to get them to invest themselves in a story, a poem, an idea. I want to inspire them, but I rarely succeed. I settle instead for making their time in my class as pleasant and interesting as possible under the circumstances.I have often felt, as a teacher, that I was working undercover behind enemy lines. I have also wondered whether I do as much to perpetuate the system as I do to subvert it. In the end we all have to pay the rent, fill in the report card, show up for work every day. In Vonnegut’s immortal words, so it goes.

  7. Konrad Glogowski July 3, 2007 at 5:03 pm #

    Eric,

    Your comments remind me of the notion of the teacher as a transformative intellectual – we have the power and the opportunities to inspire and to engage. Unfortunately, as you rightly point out, the mundane does often take over or dictate what we do.

    Nevertheless, I believe that school does not exist to give you a grade or to entertain you for an hour every day. Teaching should always be a subversive activity, not a conformist one. “Working undercover behind enemy lines” is a good way of putting it. The question, of course, is can we sustain this kind of practice if the support of our peers and the system itself is not always what it should be?

    Thanks for your comment!

  8. Jose July 8, 2007 at 11:04 am #

    This was a very good entry. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve got your students engaged this heavily into their own assessments and reflections. I read a bit of your last entry, too, and this just reinforces those ideals. Well done …

  9. Leigh July 12, 2007 at 6:31 am #

    not the end, the beginning. Congratulations on another year of teaching as a subversive activity and a little deschooling. And I might add that, if you make it possible for your students to see this blog, that they are getting far more than just a grade.

    When/where can I get the book that will be your thesis?

  10. Konrad Glogowski July 12, 2007 at 2:40 pm #

    Diane,

    We did use RSS but not Google Reader. The software I used had a built-in aggregator so there was not need to use anything external to that.

    Next year, we will definitely use Google Docs or maybe the Zoho suite of online tools. I want them to do some peer-editing and collaborative work using these tools, although a well-designed blogging community works just as well, in my opinion.

    Don’t be afraid to learn with your students. I have been doing that for a couple of years now. It requires that we reconfigure our traditional approach to teaching and can be filled with moments of uncertainty at first, but it is definitely worth it.

  11. Konrad Glogowski July 12, 2007 at 2:45 pm #

    Leigh,

    You’re very kind. Yes, I guess “deschooling” is the right word, isn’t it? It borders on anarchy sometimes, this classroom 2.0 business, but it is necessary, that and some critical pedagogyto help them evaluate the world around them and not be tricked and manipulated by the preponderance of voices and opinions.

    I’m working on the last chapter of the thesis now. If all goes well, it will be ready for distribution this fall.

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