As a teacher I am guided by the absolute primacy of the importance of relationships. I believe learning in school is different than learning alone, because we engage in concert with other people. These other people breathe complexity, and infuse the experience with a richness that alone we cannot achieve.
I began my work as a teacher in outdoor classrooms. There were often few instructional materials, and instead interactions and social development were paramount to the experience. In the outdoor classroom students were engaged with learning to observe the natural world, and the patterns and particulars of the woods and oceans. At the same time, I worked towards each child seeing herself more clearly, and then being able to interact more deeply with those around her. I measured success through the discussion, role switching, and new attitudes that students displayed. Time spent identifying trees, hiking, eating, and taking a water break were each an opportunity to help students talk with each other, and in doing learn more about themselves.
My work outside made me curious about teaching and learning. I transitioned to a public school classroom, and in my role as an elementary school teacher, I became more deeply grounded in the foundational role that my relationship played with regards to my success as a teacher. In a fourth grade classroom, these relationships were built over time, and I relished the planning of the first days of school, the moments when students came fresh to a new group, and a new experience. As I observed students, I was able to take note of what each child brought to the classroom, and where he might still need to develop more. I was also acutely aware of the ways in which students interact and regulated conversation, and how through everyday attention to the quality of our conversations, I was able to help students learn how to be with others. I adored their stories of the weekends, or an evening joke shared by a family, and the way I became a daily part of the rhythm of student’s lives. I remember one of the most important compliments I have received as a teacher. It was from parents of a fourth grade student and they offered, “we appreciate that you see our daugher, and see her best self within.”
Coming then to higher education presented me with new learning about what it means to be a teacher of undergraduate, and then graduate level students. My current work is teaching blended and completely online courses for practicing educators. This work is done at University of Maine at Farmington which has both a small population of graduate students, and a small group of faculty who teach in these delivery modes. In a blended and online environment, I do not have access to the same type of information that I did when a child entered my elementary classroom. As a teacher, I design learning experiences for individual students. But as the kinds of interactions have changed, and as the amount of time I spend interacting with the students has shifted, I have had to learn new ways to cultivate relationships, not just my own relationships with each graduate student, but among the students themselves.
While learning happens all the time, in the classroom or outside of it, a school remains an organized space for specific types of experiences to occur. Within this context, the needs of the individual and the needs of the community intersect, and my goal is to support both individual independence and collective interdependence. Parker Palmer, in his book The Courage to Teach, presents the pedagogical paradoxes that guide his practice (p.74). In teaching online I continually struggle with two of my own paradoxes: learning is individual and collective; learning is public and private. In order to grapple with these paradoxes, and maintain the “creative tension” that Palmer describes I am thankful to have available a huge array of technology choices that allow me to organize my course with attention to the the different needs of the students and the content. For instance a single shared Google Document allows the student to document individual and private reflections on a topic. With a quick change to the sharing settings, the student can make that same document open to a wider group, or even published to the web. In Google communities I have the option of making the group private or public, and leverage this choice depending on the goals of the course or group. Twitter becomes an excellent mechanism to make the classroom even larger than just the students within. We can bring in experts, search for opinions, or suggest our own solutions. As part of my pedagogy and course design I consider these paradoxes, and strive to interact with each learner to support individual growth, while continuously building a collaborative learning community. This learning community is built in part through reflection, dialog, and conversation.
I do have access to their voices, both through written and oral communication, and can amplify those voices. In a graduate class for teachers on new media, for example, we began the course with an autobiography from each student–in it they recounted their own experiences with literacy, and how their family engaged with literacy practices. They were asked to trace this story into the present, and explore their own experiences using technology for literacy–how now did they conceive of a fuller picture of multiliteracies? This project served as an important foundation for the students to reflect on the deeply personal lesson of literacy. One student shared how her parent’s marriage proposal had been written in a letter during WWII; and she noted that while her mother thought this cowardly, she did accept. This personal detail, told in her narrative, permitted me to see her background even in an online course, and helped me to understand more carefully who my student was as a learner. I have found that the assignment gives me the experience of hearing my students’ stories even while not sharing a physical classroom. This particular activity also gives me insight into the students’ own visions of literacy, and the biases they may be bringing to their work as teachers. Finally this offers me the opportunity to come to know them as students as I read their writing. These stories they share are important introductions to them as we begin our course.
However, school is not just about the relationship between a single teacher and a single student. School has historically been a social situation, and the lessons students learn from their peers are essential and important. In online learning, this can be difficult, and finding ways to replicate the chatter of students prior to a lesson or during a break is challenging. Multiple venues for expression are vital to this experience–and using video and other synchronous elements can help to foster these connections. As teachers, we rarely get to see ourselves in practice, and when I began to teach online, it forced me to reflect deeply on the way in which I speak and present material. I increasingly make videos now–to give a tour to a new online space, to demonstrate a new tool, to change the way students hear me, and hopefully to give dimension to the flattened classroom. This is both exciting, and hard. Who wants to watch oneself and contemplate the public and reproducible nature of one’s teaching? But it is informative in multiple ways. For example, I share a lot of my videos to YouTube, and can view the statistics of use–a more visible way of knowing whether a student is ignoring me. In my online classroom, I also have varied the ways in which I ask students to interact, and the platforms that I use. I talk with students about the garden walls, and building our community within–respecting the shared information as private. But at the same time there are occasions when I want to celebrate and speak out from the classroom. Using a shared hashtag on twitter helps to celebrate success publically, or pose important questions to our peers.
I have struggled when teaching online to articulate and create the balance I want between formal and informal learning. In any class, there are times for formal production of content knowledge or demonstration of skills, and there are times for informal discussion where we use the texts as mirrors and windows for inquiry. And then in any classroom there are the times of discovery: “Look what I saw,” as an impromptu connection to what we discussed yesterday. In a physical classroom I have an easier time communicating and establishing this flow and equilibrium. In online teaching, it is harder to generate this balance. I can make clear the difference between an academic post and a conversational post, but describing classroom engagement is more challenging in online teaching. Newer platforms–like Google+–and a lot of modeling have helped to generate conversational elements in my online courses. At this point, creating this environment still takes constant attention, and I hope this too can become habit, just like walking down the hall with a student at the end of the day.
Rarely in online learning do I witness the experiences that help students engage and master content; I witness instead an artifact produced as a result of the readings, reflections, and exercises, that students and I plan for learning. This fundamentally has shifted the way I need to prepare the learning experiences. This tension is significant for me, as I love the in-the-moment aspects of elementary school teaching, when students notice their own world with curiosity. As an online teacher, I have begun to realize, and harness, the power of metacognition. I now ask my students to make their learning visible in new ways. While I sometimes miss the ability to directly observe my student as he sits in class, and works his way through an experiment or a discussion, I now am able to hear or read my students observations as they think about their own thinking. I cannot overstate how vital systematic reflection on learning is, and teaching online has allowed me to realize this powerful truth.
I have stumbled into this finding by accident, while I was designing a project where students were given enormous freedom in how to construct the project. As I examined my course goals, I was trying to map how each project would lead to mastery. But as I was designing these projects, I realized that if my goal was to empower my graduate students to create their own learning, I should also be encouraging them to express the connections. I should give each student the responsibility to articulate how she was designing the project, and thus demonstrate mastery of these course goals. As they submitted written reflections on their learning and process, I realized that these assignments were vital to all learners, and maybe even more so in online learning with graduate students who are ready to direct and reflect on their learning.
Now whenever I teach a class, students are engaged in this same process, and in an active construction of how the theory applies to their practice. All my students are practicing educators, and ideally not only does what they are newly learning change their beliefs, but it encourages them to shift and change their own practices to improve their students’ learning. Hearing them engage in active metacognition about the kinds of teachers they have been, and how this might sustain or change in the future, has been a powerful learning experience for me. In my teaching I must embrace the tension between the theory of an expanded understanding of education with the intimate and deep richness each of these educators has in the daily practice of being a teacher. In an online classroom this means that I must construct opportunities to open doors for knowledge, and allow for opportunities to practice with this knowledge, and then reflect on any new applications of this content and how it becomes personal once integrated into practice.
I do believe one of the values of graduate education is the systematic reflection on practice, but I feel I had not fully harnessed this prior to teaching online. That kind of reflection existed in previous classes; I know because I could hear some of it in discussion or conversations with students. But what I realize now is that I could only hear it from the students who were talking, and that was not all of them. Now, through providing mechanisms for all students to reflect and make that reflection audible or visible, I feel I am finally helping my students engage with this critical aspect of the learning process.
In addition to establishing the social experience of learning, I believe that learning spaces must be designed to reflect the learning goals. In the physical classroom, I took great pleasure in arranging the furniture to design the flow of learning. Where was my desk? How were students’ desks grouped? What were the usage guidelines for pillows and informal learning? As the content and seasons would change, I could easily rearrange the classroom to reflect the needs of the new project. As my goals for social-emotional experiences shifted, so too did the furniture. My elementary school students became less and less surprised as the year went on that the classroom looked different on Monday morning than it had on Friday, or even perhaps when they returned from lunch.
In online learning the physical design of the course is essential to learning as well. However, I have found that within a single course, it is far harder to change the location of the desk than it was in my room. Online learners are computer users, and as such are habituated to technology usage, so they expect certain elements. The way I organize and divide content and learning experiences is now the equivalent to the thought I put into the physical design of the classroom, and in online learning I have come to be reminded that this is time intensive and critical work to support learning. I spend a lot of time figuring out how to organize content: should it be by topic? by timeframe? Where should links be placed to help students navigate? I often judge how successful I am in this process by how few questions I get in a course that ask me where to find something in our online portal. When designing learning experiences, I want students to spend cognitive energy on new information, processing dissonance, and reflecting. I therefore design the online elements carefully, and provide technical guidance through videos.
Within the classroom ecosystem there is a delicate balance between challenge and support. As students work towards new goals, I must set high expectations and provide the necessary scaffolds for successful progress. As an educator, I believe it is my job to provide space and support for learners to challenge their own conceptions of themselves as students, as well as their potential for success. My students bring a great deal of experience to our classroom; they have taught for many years, been coaches, worked in other careers, are parents, and are committed to high quality education. These experiences bring a richness to our classroom, and bring high expectations for my practice. Graduate students are adults who have selected to join a masters program, and they are eager, both for content, and for excellent pedagogy to inform their own practice.
Teaching in person I am more aware of the shared time I have with students. I wanted to ensure that all students experienced the same content, but struggled with finding the correct pace for these same students. I can see now that sometimes I was impatient with the learning process, and tried to avoid errors that might take time away from our learning. I unfortunately think I many have rushed a few students so all could move on, instead of allowing those children the same time and depth with the content. In teaching online, I am aware of the pacing and divisions of the content, but I also appreciate the increased flexibility my students have, and the increased control each has to plan her own learning.
In order to maximize the control a student has on his learning experience, I have found that designing learning activities with extreme clarity becomes essential, because the in-the-moment instructions do not happen. While my students are not shy, and will email or call to ask “am I headed in the right direction?,” I want those calls to be genuine questions about content. I seek to provide clarity regarding the goal, and the options for demonstrating mastery of such a goal. As an elementary school teacher, I spent a lot of time working on the routines in the classroom: Where do you hand in work? How do we keep our materials? and more. As an online teacher, I have found that it is essential for me to develop the same routines for students. I love to use a variety of tools to support learning in an online environment, but as such my students are sometimes juggling three or four tools–like BlackBoard, Edmodo, and Google Plus. Designing the use of these elements is a careful balancing act where I seek to place the cognitive load on the new content or skill, not on the experience of encountering that new content.
Teaching online both contrasts and echoes to my other experiences as a teacher. Palmer offered that
“organizations…they are the vessels in which a society holds hard-won treasures from the past. Movements represent the principle of flux and change: they are the processes through which a society channels its energies for renewal and transformation. A healthy society will encourage the interplay between the two” (p. 164)
For me, to begin a career in outdoor education, and move into a traditional elementary classroom was the shift from a very open and fluid learning environment, into an organized learning environment as given Palmer’s definitions. Changing to higher education represented a new organizational structure, but still bounded by the rules of tradition. My shift into online education has returned me to my beginning in some ways now, as the world of online learning embodies a flexibility that time delineated structures do not.
This flexibility is not without challenges. The expanded classroom and access for students has meant that at times I have felt I too need to be available to my students at all moments. This left me feeling tethered to my technology, and at times wishing to disconnect completely. Students too report new struggles with being a learner in a classroom that feels as if it is constantly expecting engagement. This new flexibility requires our attention if we are to be fulfilled as teachers and students. We all need time to step away from our devices, and engage with our local and real connections.
Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together explore the complexity of the role technology plays in our social, emotional, and professional lives. Her analysis challenges common assumptions about who values technology and why, and instead presents a far more nuanced problem, and one that lacks a simple solution. It is unlikely that we will revert from our fascination and use of technology, but instead, as human communities we must struggle with the far more complex reality that has emerged. She
“suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology… [and] encourage humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions..” (p. 294).
As I think about the landscape of digital learning, it is changing rapidly. In a recent article about higher education institutions adopting a digital strategy the author Peter Stokes (2015) points out that
“the shift to digital strategy will only be significant if it enables institutions to not only think and teach differently, but also to talk more effectively about who they are and what makes them different at the very core”.
As we grapple with becoming teachers online, I would argue that it has forces me to grapple with who I am as a teacher, and what makes my pedagogical approach effective for learning in this new flexible and mobile world. The paradox between being a movement, with freedom and agility within an institution or organization is both filled with tension and creativity.
Teaching is a great source of joy for me, and the development of learners is an amazing process to be part of. I feel fortunate to teach, whether it’s in person, a blended class, or online. I would imagine it is similar to a tennis player who can master grass, asphalt, and clay. She may have a preference, and her skill on one may be stronger, but ultimately the time spent playing the game, and learning how the ball reacts in each environment, deepens the understanding of the mechanics of the game. As a teacher, developing versatility with the different environments has forced me to think more deeply about who I am, and about how I want to structure learning for students.
Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. Jossey-Bass; San Francisco, CA.
Stokes, Peter (2015, July 30) Going online, being digital. [Web log post] Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/07/30/its-time-shift-discussion-online-learning-digital-strategy-essay
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic Books: New York, NY.