That Networked Learning elective “English Seminar” class I taught last semester ended two weeks ago. (Sift through the archives for related posts.)
For new readers or simply people not tuned in here during the last six months, here’s a recap: Ten students of mixed grades (9-12, ages 15-18), each with a MacBook laptop (the school is 1:1), were given the most open, autonomous, swim-or-drown class experience they’d probably ever had, and are likely to ever have again.
The idea was simple:
This is a language arts course: writing, speaking, communicating. If you spend this semester communicating about topics that “teacher” assigns, you will not be real writers. You will just be doing homework. Writers write of their own interests and ideas. That means you will have to find your own topics, in order to experience being a writer, speaker, film-maker, etc.
So you will develop a web-based project based on your interests; use whatever modes of communication you desire – writing, podcasting, screencasting, movie-making, etc; launch and grow your project over six months, and apply the principals of quality – in whatever “language art” mode you’ve chosen – from the mini-lessons and sitting together conferences we had; do your project singly or in teams; extra credit for using Twitter, Skype, Facebook, YouTube, and the rest to network, go global, and “imagine big.”
If you “try big” and fail, you can still receive an A, if you articulate and apply the lessons your failures taught you.
A six month project in absolute freedom will bring you to brick walls, slumps, quagmires, that may last for weeks. As long as you push through them, and come out the other side, you don’t need to fear for your grade. I want you to experience the difficulty of not being able to quit in the face of adversity, the difficulty of freedom and responsibility, of keeping an idea alive.
If you’re lazy, unproductive, unimaginative, unconcerned about quality – you won’t do well.
You will be given almost the entirety of each 77-minute class to independently work on your project. I will occasionally give whole-class mini-lessons on authentically good writing, audio- and video-production, and will also check in with each of you by simply pulling up a chair next to you and talking about your progress, challenges, and thoughts. But the rest of the time will be yours to work. So you have no excuse for not getting that work done.
You will grade yourselves, by the way, based on your monthly production and reflection on lessons learned. You’ll have to justify your grades with evidence of your work.
Since it was the most “radical” (per Dean) “releasing of the hounds” (if I have Chris Harbeck‘s gist right) and “edupunk” (if Lindsea is right, since I didn’t jump on that meme) thing I’ve done in my teaching career, and since I wrote about it regularly throughout the semester, I want to honor my contract with a final report to whatever readers out there wonder, “How did that ever turn out, anyway?”
The problem is, I’m overloaded right now. I just got back from Hong Kong yesterday, still have immigration issues to deal with, a career transition to navigate, and a new apartment to move into in ten days.
So I’m going to share with you excerpts from the final reflections some of the students wrote during the final exam, in a series. I’ll preface each student with my own summary of his/her project, and anecdotal impressions of his/her journey. A caveat, first: I wasn’t on top of my game in setting up these reflections. In the past, I’ve always created an anonymous user account on Moodle, and had students evaluate the course using that account in order to ensure maximum honesty via that anonymity. I didn’t do that this time. You’ll have to decide how much weight to give the following lines.
1. Younsuk and Jaeho: Basketball without Borders:
Younsuk, a sophomore, has been featured a lot on these pages over the last six months. He teamed with senior Jaeho to launch the Basketball without Borders project, which evolved into a beautifully networked series of podcasted Skype interviews with Asian college and professional basketball stars in the US and elsewhere. This project was the dark horse of the whole class, and it exploded in about month three to win the race by several lengths. These guys astonished me with their ability to use their own personal and family networks to arrange interviews with players in Japan, Korea, and the US. Nothing comes close, in my teaching experience, to seeing them enter the classroom so many times to say, “Mr. Burell, we have a Skype interview scheduled with [this or that player] for this class. Can we go to a quiet room?” And then to see, at the end of the class, these successful audio producers come back in with grins wrapped so infectiously around their heads. (I videotaped them for Youtube in one such moment on this post.)
I had Younsuk as a freshman in English 9 the prior year – the first class I ever did classroom blogging with. I can tell you that his writing has gained impressively in ideas, in voice, in rhetoric, in style.
The irony? At the beginning of the class, Younsuk insisted, in no uncertain terms, that he had no interest in podcasting. Click here for all the posts on this blog with Younsuk and/or Jaeho.
Here are some excerpts from his reflection:
- This revolutionary course that I took this semester, revolutionized me as a person. I certainly became a better writer that cares. Through my project, I had real audience. In order to succeed, I had to have a good writing that catches people. I’ve learned to make the title catching, and I’ve learned to make sure the audience wanted to read. To do that, I had to think about the sentence styles, order of what I write about, and maybe throwing some nice metaphors. I’m starting to care about what I write a lot. And one can observe my improvement in writing if one reads my own blog. [note: this is not his PLN basketball blog, but his personal blog for his English class, now in its second year]
- As a thinker, I’ve learned to think. After doing a project about something I’m interested in, I’ve learned to think in my own way, that things I like can turn into something like this [note: this is his basketball project blog]. After realizing this, I’ve learned to write about things that I like. And to me, writing is just like thinking. When I write about something I like, then I feel good. I’ve learned that ultimately, I would want to please the audience, but it all starts from pleasing myself with my own thoughts.
- I’ve learned that I’m a producer now. I produce things. I’ve produced my website, I’ve produced the interviews, and I’ve produced the productivity. I never turned in anything. Everything I did in this class, was what I produced. I’ve learned that by producing, I can learn more.
- As a networker, I’m not a big user of twitter. But using our connection, we’ve reached three big-time interviewees. One of the tools that helped us was facebook. There are many “non-educational’ ways to use facebook, but it still keeps people in touch. It’s easy to contact people, and it’s easy to expand my network by becoming friends with my friends’ friends. This method led us to interview three big basketball figures in Asia. Connection is important, because with one, you can have a million.
- Again, I thank Mr. Burell for this revolutionary class. It was the only real experience I had at school.
Re: that last bullet: Man, if only students realized how much teachers need to hear that from their students. My morale would have been so much higher this semester if I’d only known he was getting what I was trying to deliver. Hear this, students: your teachers need positive feedback more than you realize. Give it to them, if you want them to stay in the classroom.
* * *
Jaeho was a senior, and Younsuk’s partner. As I said in a comment to Jaeho’s final reflection before graduating, “Thanks for making this vision worthwhile. It’s been amazing to know you as a student in this class, and as a different student in AP Lit. I much prefer this class.”
Because my wife just got home, and writing is a completely different endeavor as a married man (and this is light-years from a complaint, as I’m very, very happy), I’m going to simply paste Jaeho’s entire final post here (being on the school server, the entire pln blog will probably be deleted soon, so call this an archive):
Photo by: Jarrellish
“It is a small world after all”. The past five months truly taught me what this quote meant.
As with most other cases, the start was not so great. I did not want to make this into a academic, insignificant project. Deliberating desperately to figure out a way to make this work, I came up with a risky idea of focusing on the stereotypes about basketball. Due to the relatively long time that took us to decide on what we are going to do, the group went on a slow start.
Connecting to the world.. It was not so far away from us after all. After I chose the focus, things started to work out for us rather quickly. Luckily for us, the Columbia University basketball star Keijuro Matsui accepted our interview request. “Maybe this could actually work“, I thought to myself. Then Ko Yada, then Kelvin Kim. In approximately 4 weeks, we had interviewed 3 basketball sensations. The empty parking lot started to fill when visitors started coming to see the show and naturally the show began to flourish..
Writing… This was an inevitable part of the class. The primary problem was not knowing my weaknesses. It wasn’t too long before Mr. Burell pointed out that my sentence structures are always the same. (Subject verb object). Clearly, I had to change this style to make people want to read me. As time went, luckily for me, my writing improved to a level where Mr. Burell said “That was good!” I have not completely grasped the art of organic writing yet, but started to notice where to pause, where to put in the funny stuff. Looking back, my lack of confidence about writing was preventing me from trying out different things in my writing.
At this point, I can honestly say that the English Seminar Class has taught me two valuable experiences that I did not experience anywhere else. It has taught me the power of technology, and the techniques of creative writing.
For the ending, I want to thank Mr. Burell for having faith in us when we were lost in the Sahara Desert and helping us find something that can be extended into the world. Thanks.
Stay tuned for a few more student reports.