I Believe in Connected Learning
After participating in the week-long Connected Learning Summer Institute with the Tar River Writing Project, I came away with lots of ideas for how to implement more connected learning in my classroom. But, I also came away an opportunity to reflect on connected learning that already exists in my classroom. The kind folks at TRWP asked me to create another connected learning resource, and I couldn’t for the life of me decide what to write about. Twenty percent time? Haven’t done it yet. Service learning? That project needs some kinks worked out. Then I got an e-mail from a student that had me shedding tears in my driveway, and I realized that of all the activities I do in my classroom, one stands out above the rest as a bastion of connectivity.
I Believe in Thievery
When I was a newcomer to teaching AP English, my first order of business was to win over the students so that they would trust me enough to learn with me. So I did what any good teacher does, I begged, borrowed, and stole. Fortunately, my predecessor, Michael Flinchbaugh was amenable to my thievery, and he handed over his flash drive full of materials, along with boxes piled with random papers. Of the ideas I stole and attempted to make my own, the most significant is the This I Believe essay and podcast. This project has been around long before Mike or I started teaching. Neither of us can claim it as an original concept, but we can both claim to have put our mark on it and to have had incredible teaching moments with it. The concept started with a 1950s radio broadcast, and since then, people of all walks of life have written tens of thousands of essays and a non-profit organization based on the original concept has developed everything from lessons to books.
I Believe in Some Things Remaining a Mystery
My students’ essays, which now number somewhere around 300, are among the thousands that have been written. The essays that end up being the best, the most provocative and evocative, usually look a lot different in the beginning of the process than at the end because they have to learn that it is okay to open up, okay to share themselves with their classmates. One way that I encourage revision is by not giving them all the instructions up front. Crazy, right? I give the basic assignment, the instructions and invitation from the website, but then, after they write their first draft, I add a twist. I have them find something concrete to use as a symbol to ground their belief.
I got this idea from working with students on listening to a This I Believe podcast called Returning to What’s Natural, which describes semi-permanent hair dye as a metaphor for being able to return to one’s roots. The first time my class read this together, we examined how the writer moved between the concrete and the abstract in her podcast, and I had my students experiment with doing this in their own writing. This does a couple of different things: it forces them to be more specific in how they communicate the story of how they came to their belief and it forces them to actually do revision, and not just change a couple of words here and there. In order for the process to be more organic, it helps for them to think of some specific event or conversation, which in turn makes it easier to find that concrete object that is tied to both the belief and whatever it is that shaped the belief. It’s also just a challenge that they aren’t used to. They can write about themselves in generalities and they can describe a belief that they got from a song lyric, but looking inward and reflecting on what really shaped a belief is a different animal altogether.
I Believe in Revision
That first year, I had a student who wrote about how she believed in the beach. But she didn’t really believe in the beach. She just really liked it and thought it was fun and wished she was still on summer vacation. The essay was utterly uninspired. I met with her one afternoon and gave her an honest critique. We took a walk around the school and we talked about some tough things going on in her life. She told me about how she didn’t put as much effort into her essay as she would have liked because she had been so focused on and upset about her parents’ divorce. She cried as she told me of her family’s struggle, and also as she spoke of her disappointment in herself for letting it affect her work. She left without a clear idea of what she was going to write about for second essay, but she returned to school that Monday with an essay entitled “I Believe in Tears.” For her, crying was both the catharsis and the inspiration she needed to move past grief and disappointment and into a phase of creativity. Her classmates voted for her essay as the best of the group.
As it turns out, I too, believe in tears. At this point, you may be curious about what was in the e-mail that would lead me to cry in my driveway. The message contained a link to a revision of this student’s This I Believe essay. He didn’t have to do the revision. He wasn’t in my class anymore. He had graduated in May. But the assignment resonated with him so much that he felt he had give it a full rewrite to do justice to himself. His first essay, the one he wrote at the beginning of his junior year, was a quality piece. He used coloring outside the lines as a metaphor for being unafraid to be different. He wrote that he was judged for being different, that people assumed he was gay due to his interest in theater and music and his uber-neat handwriting. He assured his readers and listeners that he was not gay, that this judgment was incorrect. Last week, I got an e-mail from this student thanking me for a class in which he felt “at home.” The night before graduation, he rewrote his This I Believe essay, now titled “I Believe in Plot Twists,” to reflect the fact that he is gay. He felt that he was denying a part of himself, and that he needed to do a revision to be honest with himself, me, and the rest of the “AP English family.” Rarely have I been so moved by a piece of student writing, so pleased that he gave me permission to share it, so surprised that he rewrote it in the first place.
I’m not what anyone would call overly emotional, but reading this e-mail reminded me of what I love about this assignment and how powerful it can be. This is connected learning. So much of our process is centered around building a positive peer culture. These AP students can sometimes get caught up being competitive with one another and building a carefully constructed persona that they present to their teachers, and they forget that we all humans with feelings, and beliefs in ideas bigger than the almighty 4.0. These are kids who are so invested in their futures that they can sometimes forget to live in the moment and forget that they have a past that shaped them. And if they’re forgetting that about themselves, they’re certainly not remembering it about others.
I Believe in Taking Risks
This student refers to our class as a family, and that gets at the heart of why, in this time of test-centric teaching, I have to continue to assign this project. It is a hugely important step in forming the connections that carry us through the rest of the year. This assignment is an essay and a podcast about beliefs. But it can be much more than that. It can be the basis of the connections that form a classroom community. They need to see each other’s vulnerability, experience each other’s support, be each other’s friend in order to be able to take the risks that lead to the pinnacle of writing and creating. Playing it safe doesn’t lead to greatness. Taking risks does. The peer culture begins with a large group discussion, continues to small group peer revisions, and comes back around to each individual student sharing a belief with the whole group. Doing this project at the beginning of the year cuts out all the posturing, makes the students comfortable enough to be both silly and honest with one another. If they didn’t lay bare what lies at the heart of their beliefs at the beginning of the year, would they feel safe enough to later take the risk of making this gem?
I Believe in Sharing
Over the years, my students have all shared these essays with each other, culminating in hearing each essay read in the author’s voice. Some students are reluctant to share in front of each other at first, but once they share these thoughts and feelings with each other, they seldom fail to take the risk of sharing it with the rest of the world and having their podcast displayed on our class website.
Once they record their podcasts, I send the link to teachers, administrators, faculty at the local university, family, and anyone else who might care to listen. Having the students’ work be openly networked is a bonus to this assignment that I always include, but the payoff sometimes comes at random times. I am sometimes struck by how far the podcasts reach, in time, distance, and impact. At the beginning of the summer, I got an e-mail from a student I taught four years ago who wanted the link to her brother’s This I Believe. She was a camp counselor and thought her campers could benefit from the message in her brother’s essay. Her friend’s sister’s friend twice removed was in her brother’s class and had shared it with her back in January. Two years ago, I had a parent come in weeks after the podcasts were shared to tell me that she had never heard her son be comfortable talking in front of a group larger than five about anything, much less about her divorce, until she heard his voice as she was listening to the podcasts.
I don’t make my students do this on their own; I have written my own This I Believe essay, and I share it with my students. The importance of teachers sharing their own craft and creation with their students cannot be overestimated. Too often, they think that we plug ourselves into the wall to recharge for the next day; they don’t always realize that we, too, are writers, makers, and human beings who get frustrated and need to revise. So I try to frequently share my own writing process with them, and this act seems particularly important with this essay because it can leave a person so vulnerable.
That vulnerability shows through students writing about beliefs formed in grief, in love, in the unknown, in an instant, and in a lifetime. Stories of adoption, captured in a picture of life with no background, stories of death, batik fabric pieced together into a quilt of grief and healing, stories of daisy chains, woven into wonder and imagination. These are the beliefs my students have shared with each other, my students who are connected so strongly that they call each other family.
I Believe in Remixing Remixes
This summer, partly due to my work with the Tar River Writing Project’s Connected Learning Institute, I have done a lot of thinking about remixes. I had been kicking around ideas for a Connected Learning Resource, when I got the e-mail containing the year-in-the-making revision. That revision has inspired me to devote more time to this project in order to allow students to experience the process of making. Stealing yet another idea from Michael Flinchbaugh, I will have my students create a remix, a product that embodies their beliefs. My plan is to then combine the texts, the podcasts, and the remixes into an iBook. This format will allow me to share the text and audio side by side, it will also be a remix of my students’ remixes, a sort of meta remix. The interactivity and variety offered through the iBook format has the same feel as the essays themselves, and adds another aspect to sharing out our work.
The years when I have focused more on this project have yielded better writing, more insightful conversation, and yes, even better test scores. This past year, I skipped some steps; I had less time to teach the class, so I trimmed some pieces of the assignment. I will not do that this year. I will make time in the beginning of the year to build the connections that allow my students to feel comfortable enough to take the risks they need to take later.