The Dangers of Transactional Academics

When my students and I were in week 5 of digital learning during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we had already established a good routine, where some students would log on a little early, and we would chat about the last few days and how we were all getting through. Then, at the conclusion of our session, others would stick around for some familiar chat time like we used to do in the physical classroom, just before the late bell would ring. Online, we would chat just seconds before the next virtual class began; we were searching for normalcy while checking in on each other. Built into the foundations of our classrooms was a relational experience that established trust, respect, and a desire to embrace learning at an autonomous level.

Not everybody was handling the sudden switch to virtual learning, though. In the final weeks of school in early June, it was easy for teachers to recognize a student in need, whose patterns of behavior were inconsistent with what we had experienced in the first three quarters while in our classrooms. We were quick to contact counselors and administrators to let them know that something wasn’t quite right with a particular student, and we should follow up to see how they were doing.

Those three quarters that we shared together in the classroom was what made learning from a distance possible in that final, fourth quarter; it served as a grounding in relational experiences that, in the past, have been a natural part of the teaching process. As teachers, we had the opportunity to know our students as human beings early on; we recognized who they were and what they were capable of doing. We also understood that each child has a background that reaches much deeper than the content we’re covering in class.

It is this relational connection that allowed us to be better teachers for the individuals in our classrooms at the end of this school year. And, in understanding each child a little better, we were able to find ways to deliver curricular content despite the challenges they may have faced, whether that had been on an ongoing basis or due to the disruption of everyday life. The pandemic caused all of us to respond in ways we could have never imagined; for young children who no longer had that chance to meet with their friends, or their teachers, on a daily basis, school still served as their foundation, their normal grounding that gave them the confidence to grow and evolve into young adults.

We were fortunate to have that foundation established over those last three quarters of the 2019-2020 academic year; what concerns me is what happens if we begin the new school year in September without that opportunity for relational experiences to occur. The real danger exists that, if we are not careful, education will become nothing more than a transactional experience, where students and teachers become focused on percentages and point values rather than how the content relates personally to each of them.

I am not advocating for in-person schooling to occur if it cannot be done safely. Our first priority must be on the safety of our students and our educators. My argument is, simply, we cannot forego that familial foundation at the beginning of the year that is crucial to effective student engagement and ownership of learning.

Without it, a transactional education will allow many of our students to become mediocre participants in learning, and it will also put minorities and poverty-stricken children in an even more dangerous place. The absence of in-person, or relational, academics only contributes to the gap in learning in these at-risk groups. According to an article posted in January 2019 at Inside Higher Ed, titled “Takedown of Online Education,” online education fails when teachers and students have no real-time contact.

However, when there are opportunities for greater interaction with an instructor, especially in hybrid teaching models, students perform better and hold themselves more accountable for the work they produce.

Without that relational element, even on a small scale, online learning is transactional, at best.

We must find ways to have students own their learning, especially with there being limitations in our face-to-face meetings.

At the beginning of each year, I introduce the acronym WIIFM to my students, and I encourage them to embrace a very selfish “What’s In It For Me” mentality in everything we do. It invites them to own the material we discuss in class and make it relevant to their own lives: where they’ve been, who they are, and where they are going.

Throughout the year, my students tell me they are “WIIFMing” the material, or the point another student is making, or the epiphany they are experiencing in synthesizing content between English and other classes.

The question for teachers in my neighborhood, in my county, in our state, and across the nation is clear: How do we have our students embrace a WIIFM approach to education when the relational component established at the beginning of the school year is clearly missing?

In my other class, journalism, the students knew each other well, even though their ages spanned the four-year spread of high school. They understood their needs, their nuances, their strengths because they had worked closely together for 6 months in an environment that encouraged mutual trust and respect. They thrived in those last two months simply because the team dynamic was already firmly in place. It’s the relational foundation that made this possible.

If and when our classes begin outside of the classrooms in the fall of the new school year, and as teachers are meeting their students for the first time in little video boxes on aging school-issued laptops, we will need to be mindful of how we make education a relational experience. Some students will step up, embrace the WIIFM mantra, and take good care of themselves. But many will rely on a solely transactional relationship of points and deadlines, based on bare minimums in playing the game of pass and fail. We might be able to figure out the logistics and schedules of making sure everybody gets an equitable, educational experience, but the bigger issue we all need to consider now is how we make those experiences relational from the beginning.

An ideal scenario would be having students somehow meeting their teachers – in person – prior to or in the first week of classes. Even though the meet-and-greet will be an event that upholds all the measures of social distancing and the use of face coverings, we need an opportunity to meet our students, and they need the opportunity to meet us.

I’m throwing around a hundred different ideas that all seem ideal on paper, like each child sharing a 60-second infomercial on who they are, and what they look forward to in the coming year. But I know that this doesn’t work for all students, for many valid reasons. Technology, privacy issues, and home environments all lead to limitations that can’t easily be fixed for short home movies, not to mention the challenges we might face with authenticity and truth.

But we must find a way for that community to be built not on a screen but in real time, in a real place face to face (or even mask to mask). Our learning environment established early in September must be genuine, where we all have the courage to WIIFM the experience and take our learning seriously, and for all the right reasons.

We cannot allow the pandemic to derail our educational goals; instead, we must rise to the challenge of becoming better teachers in providing the opportunities our students need to own the education they deserve.

Model Teaching: Empowerment Through Multi-Faceted Instruction

I’ve been teaching for a long time — long enough to see the spin of the pedagogical cycle of strategies come full circle. What I have learned along the way is that there are some practices that work better than others when it comes to teaching writing.
In 2009, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a call-to-action report, “Writing in the 21st Century,” that stated clearly our need to recognize the importance of teaching writing in a way that aligns with our complex lifestyles interwoven with technology and multitasking.

In the report’s introduction, NCTE past president, Kathleen Blake Yancey, writes, “It’s time for us to join the future and support all forms of 21st century literacies, inside school and outside school. For in this time and in this place we want our kids—in our classrooms, yes, and in our families, on our streets and in our neighborhoods, across this wide country and, indeed, around the world—to ‘grow up in a society that values knowledge and hard work and public spirit over owning stuff and looking cool.’” (Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion)

She rallies teachers of writing to answer this “call to research and articulate new composition, [this] call to help our students compose often, compose well, and through these composings, become the citizen writers of our country, the citizen writers of our world, and the writers of our future.”

I could not agree more with Yancey’s call to action. What we need to do, as teachers of writing, is to find ways to integrate the various strategies that have worked over the years and apply them to real-world needs that empower our students to effect change. This is the most meaningful way to make writing matter to students who are already engaged in communication outlets and devices only dreamed of in sci-fi works a generation ago.

Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year, models this beautifully in a 12-minute feature with the Teaching Channel. This video, titled, “Making Learning Personalized and Customized,” empowers individuals in the classroom to write about real issues (many of their own choosing) that are relevant in their lives today and, most certainly, their future.

What makes McComb’s approach so authentic and applicable to the students’ lives is his development of this project.

McComb’s strategies are clear in this graphic that is presented toward the end of the video. Not only has he integrated technology through Skype sessions and Google interviews with real sources, as well as through laptops and tablets at various stations, he has integrated opportunities for individual, one-on-one, small group, and larger group collaborative activities that all work toward the publishing of original, genuine, and meaningful works for a larger audience.

In other words, he has taken the finest materials of our best teaching strategies, the recursive writing process, real-world issues, and publishing and has seamlessly woven them together to create a lasting experience for his students that they will be able to apply long after the last bell rings for the school year.
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Our opportunities to teach well and effect change in the classroom are still available to us as teachers of writing (and this applies to all ages and across all content areas). We need to rethink how we approach teaching, though, and create projects like McComb’s that have strong beginnings built on the foundations of communication and comprehension, solid middles filled with diverse opportunities for rigorous and highly applicable learning, and empowering endings that give the students the tools they need to succeed in real-world ways that improve their communities and allow them to fight confidently and appropriately in the acts of advocacy and equality.

To see the full video, click on the image below.
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Why We Fear Creativity, And How To Let Go

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I have been in this cafe for a little over an hour, writing in my Daybook to the ambient sounds of chatter, the clanging of dishes, all blended with the meditative, hollow sounds of Deuter playing his bamboo flute. On these pages, I have written about singular moments I experienced decades ago along the marshy lands lining the Patuxent River, the beautiful flow of my life in this present here in Baltimore, and the possibilities that await elsewhere in this world with an open heart.

It was not hard to get here. In fact, I’m not really in a cafe at all. Try a dining room table in my suburban home next to my kids who are experimenting with crayons, sketch pencils, and a lot of funny faces.

But I feel like I am in a cafe, thanks to the assistance of coffitivity.com with the background noise. Because of their creative and innovative thinking, I am able (as are you) to find a fertile environment for creativity anywhere and at anytime.

(I have to admit, I discovered Coffitivity in Anahad O’Connor’s article in the New York Times (published 6/21/13), How The Hum of a Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity. O’Connor cites a fantastic study published in the Journal of Consumer Research on the correlation between ambient noise and enhanced creativity. The findings by Mehta, Zhu, and Cheema — the authors of the study, through a series of five experiments, showed how and why moderate ambient background noise can enhance creativity, primarily by opening up the mind to think more abstractly.)

Being creative: it doesn’t take planning, or great orchestration, or even cooperation from others.

All it really takes is a decision, on your behalf, to embrace the powers of creativity within you and live a mindful and inspired life.

Too busy? Too old? Not your style?

Nope. Sorry — Not buying it. Everybody’s busy doing the work that everybody else expects, we all think we are older than we really are, and too many of us are trying to discard the things we have been told are foolish, childish, and a downright waste of our time.

I’m not buying any of it, and you shouldn’t either.

We have been fed, far too long, the belief that “being creative” is something extreme artists do. They are poor, they are messy, and they are crazy, wild madmen and madwomen set out to do outrageous things.

Those creative types, always cutting off their ears and stuff. Really! Get over it already and find a real job like everybody else!

Yes. Creativity has gotten a pretty bad rap over the last century or so. It’s not your fault, though, and it’s not even your parents’ fault; it goes a little deeper than that. But we don’t need to be concerned about the past so much. We need to be concerned about what is happening to creativity right now to you, me, and even our children in our heavily funded school systems. (if you haven’t stumbled over this TedTalk gem by Sir Ken Robinson, go grab a fresh cup of coffee and push play; you won’t be disappointed.)

The Suppression of Creativity

Julia Cameron, author of the best-selling book and program, The Artist’s Way, has spent her entire career fighting for the right of all individuals, young and old, to reclaim their creative souls and live a more mindful, inspired life. In her follow-up to Artist’s Way, Vein of Gold, she argues that the first step is to awaken from the ho-hum expectations passed down to us. “Most of us are not raised to actively encounter our destiny. We may not know we have one. As children, we are seldom told we have a place in life that is uniquely ours alone. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that our life should somehow fulfill the expectations of others, that we will (or should) find our satisfactions as they have found theirs.”

How sad! But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Somewhere in our childhood, right around the age of 8 or 9, our lives changed. The time had arrived to put away the colored pencils and get “serious” about life.

Cameron continues: “Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others’ versions of ourselves. We are brought up in our life as told to us by someone else! When we survey our lives, seeking to fulfill our creativity, we often see we had a dream that went glimmering because we believed, and those around us believed, that the dream was beyond our reach. Many of us would have been, or at least might have been, done, tried something, if…If we had known who we really were. But how were we to know?”

Ugh. It makes me sick every time I think about how we suppress the very key to innovative thinking and inspired living. Our greatest accomplishments in the history of our world have come about from being creative! And yet, we treat creativity like some banished, bad kid who has spent a little too much time being naughty, wasting everyone’s time with silly games and stupid thoughts.

And, now that we are older, we seem to think that it is just too late to do anything about it.

But I have a family, a job, other responsibilities now…

Yes. Most of us do. But the truth is this (and here’s where we can boldly begin to discard the excuses and the worries): We can use these constraints to our advantage, once we accept creativity back into our lives.

Turning Constraints into Creative Opportunities

Daniel Levitin, speaking on “Creativity in Music: Constraints and Innovation” at Stanford University’s Behavioral Science Summit earlier this month, argued that much of our creative explorations that have led to masterpieces are a result of evolution, rather than just revolution.

Levitin defines creativity in the following way: “Works of art that we judge to be the most creative involve the artists working under constraints to produce something novel, or something that pushes the edges of these assumed constraints.”

In other words, because of these constraints, our creativity can manifest into great things, for ourselves, for our communities, or for the world.

Well, it’s not too late. I am here to tell you: You are a creative individual, and you have the right and the duty to live a mindful and inspired life right now. Maybe it’s time to take an online creative writing course, or at the very least, head to your local bookstore and pick up a new journal and begin creating. What matters most, right now, is that you realize there’s a creative YOU waiting to be rediscovered, right now, and you don’t have to do anything extreme to bring creativity back into your life.

Why wait any longer? A creative, mindful, and inspired life is waiting within you, ready to be ignited.

 

 

Challenger: 73 Seconds Define 30 Years

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 10.42.07 AM Dateline – Tuesday, 28 January 1986. 11:35 a.m.

I’m upstairs in my bedroom, cramming the last of my new textbooks in my bag, grabbing a few extra pens and my journal, and checking my look in the mirror: clean-shaven, every single hair gelled in place, and wearing a white oxford with a blue Hugo Boss cardigan sweater. I smile at myself, fighting the need to wear a jacket in the cold January weather. I am beginning my second semester of junior year: an English major with an education minor. This semester feels just the opposite, though, as I am taking classes like Principles of Secondary Education and Teaching Reading in the Secondary Classroom. I am so happy to be immersed in my major courses as I try to look like the teacher I can’t wait to be.

I rush downstairs just in time to catch the liftoff of the most important space launch of my lifetime. Teacher Christa McCauliffe, designated a payload specialist, has joined the flight team of commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith, mission specialists Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik; and a second payload specialist, Greg Jarvis.

At 11:37 a.m., I look at my Mickey Mouse watch. I don’t have to be on campus until 1 p.m., but parking will be a challenge, as usual, so I will need to head out as soon as the space shuttle disappears from the camera’s eye and is swallowed by space.

Dad is in his chair to the left of the television, as he always is when he’s not at the firehouse. I am so thankful that this is his last year before he retires. He hasn’t looked himself lately.

At 11:38 a.m. I sit on the edge of the couch and watch the liftoff, a brilliant burst of light and fire propelling this team of seven into the skies. The energy that it takes, I think, to lift such a machine into the heavens, just so that it can carry on its mission in weightlessness.

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Three seconds into ignition, the Public Affairs Officer announces on NASA TV: “Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”

I have been following Christa McCauliffe’s story for months, where her energy to teach mingles with the lessons I am learning in my courses at Towson. While others are lifting superheroes or movie stars as their idols, I am lifting this 37-year-old teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who is paving a path for all of us in what it means to teach, what it means to “touch the future.”

Twenty-eight seconds, pilot Mike Smith says: “There’s ten thousand feet and Mach point five.”

I watch the bright light arc right, bend to the heavens, on the ultimate teaching mission. I can’t help but see and feel the parallels in my own life. This time next year, I think, I will be in the classroom as a student teacher, realizing a dream to work with others since I was in high school. From my days in elementary classrooms through my senior year, I had the best role models to show me what teaching was all about: Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney; then Crouse, Falcone, and DeVita. They had been human, loving, nurturing, guiding in those first 12 years of school. There, as I watch McAuliffe climb higher and higher in the shuttle, piercing the blue and leaving behind a single stream of white, I feel the immediate urge to teach stir within me. This is going to be the best semester yet.

Sixty-eight seconds, CAPCOM, or the Capsule Communicator, says: “Challenger, go at throttle up.”

Dad and I are silent. We are captured by the beauty of the launch on this clear blue Tuesday morning as we watch Challenger roll right.

Seventy seconds, Commander Dick Scobee replies: “Roger, go at throttle up.”

We watch as CNN zooms into the Shuttle. I feel so close to it on the television. We are with the crew of seven, we are flying with teacher Christa McCauliffe for the most magnificent teachable moments imaginable.

Then, at seventy-three seconds, that single stream of white explodes, and two rocket boosters fly to the left and right, leaving a chalice of smoke in the silence of the broadcast.

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Thirty-one seconds after the explosion, a somber voice from the Command Center says: “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

The silence between my father and me changes, shifts from the incredible to the incredulous. We are unsure what has happened, as CNN channels through its camera shots from white-lined skies to crowds of shocked onlookers, some of them Christa’s family. They are holding on to each other. They are holding on to hope.

I look at my watch and the time has somehow slipped away. Minutes have ticked away like seconds, and it is already after 12 p.m. I have to leave. Head to school. Learn what I can to be a good teacher.

But what I realize on the drive to Towson is that what I need to learn to Touch The Future is already in me, thanks to the Christa McCauliffes who have shown me what it means to hold such responsibility, such opportunity to empower others to embrace learning, to let them know that there are no limits to how far they can go.

Seventy-three seconds crystallized that for me for those 30 years that would follow. I vowed then, at 20 years old, to always remember what Green, Gordon, Bennett, Delaney, DeVita, Crouse, Falcone, and now McCauliffe had taught me: no matter the challenges we might face, never lose the energy to empower the young, never abandon the belief in the individual futures that breathe life into our classrooms.

Seventy-three seconds made me who I am today. Though my cardigan might now be a little worn, I will always carry with me the energy of my mentors and Christa McAuliffe’s words, “I touch the future; I teach.”

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The Child At My Door

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It was a late November night,
And I was just about done.
The stacks of papers that I needed to grade
Had, in some small way, dwindled down to none.

I lifted the stained red cup from my desk
And finished the cold coffee poured hours before;
I reached for the lamp signed by students years ago,
But was stopped by a soft knock on my classroom door.

“Enter!” I said, but there was no reply,
And so I left the light on and walked to see who was there.
I peered out the small window and saw a head bowed so low;
It was a mere child, standing small, his clothes threadbare.

I opened the door – just a crack – to see who he was
And what he wanted, and why he was here.
At first he didn’t speak, not a single sound;
I wondered if he was dumb, or simply frozen with fear.

“What is it, my son?” I asked. “You can tell me what is wrong.”
He looked up, his eyes stained with mud and tears,
And immediately I could see that he had traveled far;
This boy, still in his teens, had aged far beyond these early years.

“My Lord, what has come of you?” I asked, still holding the door.
“My school has closed,” he replied, “And I have nowhere else to go.
“They have burned our buildings and our books.
“Now we are left with no place to grow.”

I felt the weight of the door press against my chest
As I looked into his eyes, filled with desperation, with defeat.
My classes were already packed, I thought,
And I was warned to be wary of lies, or even deceit.

Was I wrong to be fearful of this boy,
Who had traveled far to seek shelter in my room?
After all, he was different, and his land was filled with dread;
He came from a place that was dark, a harbinger of Persephone’s tomb.

I pulled the door shut, affirming my fears, and sighed.
As I had been warned of the dangers of such travelers in the night,
True, though I knew they had nowhere left to turn,
It would be easy for me to send him away, out of my sight.

But then I turned around and looked across my room
At the scattered desks left awry by the lives I had taught;
Hundreds – no thousands – over the years who had come through this door
Despite their struggles, their challenges, that had once left them distraught.

Of their backgrounds I knew little at the beginning of school,
Then- as they wrote, and shared, their stories with their peers,
I understood the adversity that they had faced
And realized that I had met them at the end of their hardship years.

Was this child any different than those who had come?
Different than the thousands who brought color and life?
They filled these four walls in this once-barren room
With the expressions of love and learning, far distant from that long-ago strife.

I thrust open the door and welcomed him in-
A shuffle, if you will, of warmth and care like I had shown no other.
“You are welcome in this room, my friend,” I said,
“And here you are safe, for I will help you as I would my own brother.”

I poured him the last of my coffee and gave him my seat,
The soft glow of the old lamp casting a warm light on his tired face.
We are all one in this world, once weary, once in need, I thought,
As he absorbed the feel of his new home, a nurturing, kind place.

I stuffed the stack of papers in my old teacher’s bag
And opened our books to chapter one.
He looked at me and smiled when he read the first three words
And I smiled too— For us both, as our new journeys had, indeed, just begun.

Rus VanWestervelt, 11/18/15