Kim Jaxon: Empowering Students Through Co-Learning
Personal Story compiled by: Howard Rheingold
Kim Jaxon, Assistant Professor of Composition and Literacy in the English Department at Chico State University, calls herself a “big geek.” I call her a connected educator for whom the definition of literacy must be stretched to include Snapchat as well as cursive handwriting, texting as well as the five-paragraph essay: “While some people find it scary to think about how literacy changes and expands, I find it exciting. That’s what’s cool about language and reading and writing – our practices don’t stay static, they are always evolving. I have learned a lot from Deborah Brandt. She talks about literacies as both ‘spreading out’ and ‘piling up’ over time. I think you can stoke people’s fears when you think that you’re supposed to know all the literacies available to you. You can give yourself permission to not know all the new social apps that come out. And with that permission comes an opportunity to learn.”
“Snapchat?” I hadn’t expected her to namecheck that app when talking about current literacies.
“I talk to parents who are concerned about Snapchat.” Aside from the most widely publicized fears about sexting, Jaxon sees that young people find value in a way to communicate instantly without inscribing it forever on the Internet. “To me,” Jaxon notes, “that’s not much different than the way you would make a phone call and have a quick conversation that nobody expects to stick around. You didn’t transcribe each phone call.” Another concern about texting voiced by parents is distraction in the classroom: “Let’s not forget that students have been passing notes since the invention of school. A window to stare out of can be a distraction and so can a piece of blank paper and a pencil. If you create a classroom where people are respectful and we understand that we’re working on something that requires everyone’s attention, distraction goes away.”
Setting up that atmosphere of respect is where the art of teaching comes in. “I frame it the minute they walk in the door the first time. One thing we do is to move all the chairs to the center of the room so you can’t come in the door and sit down by yourself. You can’t ‘find your seat.’ It’s unnerving. Instead, we stand there, almost like a cocktail party without alcohol. There are mentors in the room who are training to be teachers. I ask the students to mingle, talk to each other, start to get to know each other. So we start with a kind of disruption of our expectations of what a classroom space is. Lesson one: this place isn’t about finding your place and just sitting there. Then I have some conversations at the beginning of each class meeting about being our least cynical selves, tell them that we will be trying out platforms and ways of communicating together, evaluating what different digital tools afford us, and we’re going to do this exploration in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I’m just not interested in having that relationship with my students where I police their behavior. Instead, I talk more than once about mutual respect and collegiality and the work we have promised to get done together. So I don’t have a lot of issues with my students using digital media they aren’t supposed to be using at the moment–as long as they respect the other values of our class.”
Jaxon has introduced Connected Learning to the writing course she teaches for future teachers. “The cap on the course has been 30 students. I wondered if I could make it bigger but put structures in place that would make it feel smaller.” So Jaxon’s “Jumbo” writing course can have 100 students with 10 writing mentors who work two hours a week with groups of 10, and then the entire class meets together for two hours a week. “We use everything from blogging to Twitter to Google Docs to Diigo–all kinds of ways for students to find a way into the class in addition to talking. It’s a big activity space where they’re writing, responding, reading watching things, sometimes putting away devices and writing out research questions on a big piece of butcher paper. It’s a huge configurable room. One of my goals was to rethink class size and give professional development opportunities for the future teachers who act as mentors, who also meet with us for two hours a week. We talk about writing assignment design, how to give feedback on student writing. We’re co-learning about co-learning.”
One thing Dr. Jaxon learned is “You can’t be the center of every student’s world in a big activity space with a hundred people.” Another thing Jaxon observed was that if she, the master teacher, wasn’t giving feedback to every student, but the mentors were giving feedback and the students were giving feedback to each other, the measures they used for assessing writing held up as consistently high as had traditional methods. “One of the first things I discovered was that I did not have to be central to every feedback loop and that what I could do was to distribute that feedback loop and assure the community that they were capable of giving each other thoughtful, useful feedback.”
An essential part of Connected Learning is the kind of co-learning where the teacher learns along with the students about how to make the course more effective. Jaxon made it clear that everyone was expected to speak up about what did and did not work. “I don’t expect every student to be adept at every platform. But I did take advantage of what expertise they bring into the class. So if students come into the class who are already users of Twitter, they become our Twitter Leads and their role is to Tweet the discussions that the small teams are having, so they can be projected on big screens in front of the room so all 100 of us can see all of the conversations. If a student is really comfortable with organizing collaboration on Google Docs, they’re the ones in their project teams who make notes for their group. Others make concept maps and show them.”
“Almost every semester,” Jaxon re-reads Situated Learning by Lave and Wenger or Wenger’s Communities of Practice. She notes that “Those two texts aren’t focused on education or school. They’re about apprenticeships and how people learn to do particular practices. And I can’t do literacy theory without thinking about learning theory, and for me that usually involves distributed cognition or situated learning. When I re-read on those areas, I remember why I’m using groups. I don’t put students in groups so they can learn to work in groups or be social. The world is social. They’ll figure that out. I put people in groups because I think that’s how knowledge is created–by people who talk though ideas and puzzle through problems.”
Although Jaxon is looking through the lens of more recent theories of social learning, she acknowledges that she’s touching bases with the value of “learning how to learn” as part of a traditional liberal arts education. “In some ways what we educators ought to be concerned with in some part at the undergraduate level are ways of being, like habits of being kind, being interested in the world, and at the level of details, the habit of re-reading a draft before turning it in because that’s a kind act for the person who’s going to read it. It may not be the comma splice that they’ll remember, but they’ll remember that they should read their drafts before turning them in.”
To Jaxon, kindness has everything to do with the literacies of the online commons. In the olden days, students wrote papers and teachers read them. And maybe someday in their jobs they would write things. But everyone who participates online now is dealing with online culture in which unkindness to and from strangers is a stumbling block to taking advantage of digital media–so teaching kindness is part of participation literacy. “It’s not trivial,” Jaxon emphasizes. “When you communicate on public platforms where you want to be heard, you don’t want the platform to be rendered useless by meanspiritedness. We have a responsibility to each other if we want to participate in dialogue online to try to do it with some civic spirit.”
Jaxon also works with Wendy Fairon, who teaches seventh and eighth grade at Chico Country Day School. Jaxon and Fairon met through the National Writing Project. They paired college students who wanted to become future teachers with eighth graders. The pairs chose from a large reading list of young adult novels, then blogged together on the project website for seven weeks. “The eighth graders read way faster than we could, sometimes reading three novels in a week. They expanded our book list…and they were so excited that some were getting in trouble at home for sleeping with flashlights under their covers because they couldn’t wait to talk with their college peers about the book.” Then they made artifacts about their reading – a map, a Storify, a Twitter chat. “My college students who are aiming to become teachers jumped at a chance to see how real kids are learning right now, and found their ideas about what kids are capable of reading and how much reading they are willing to do totally disrupted.” The young readers were so sophisticated that we are planning to continue to work with them with a college level literacy studies class. We’re going to write together.”
In terms of Connected Courses, Jaxon gained some learning of her own from her writing experiments. “I learned first of all that I could have open and connected courses without it having to be one of those huge MOOCs everyone has been talking about. The eighth grade readers weren’t connected to everybody on the planet, but the course connected two real communities to each other: students and prospective teachers. I also learned that if I teach two instances of the same course, we can pair up students to be peer responders so every reader has an audience outside of the class. I’ve become hyper-aware of audiences outside the class, of opportunities for connecting students to real communities of practice, even if it isn’t an enormous enterprise with thousands of learners like ds106.”
I asked Jaxon how she got into this Connected Learning practice. She replied: “You know how sometimes in your life you encounter a community whose lexicon matches things you’ve been puzzling about and suddenly you find that you have a language for things you’ve teen wondering about for a while? I was always one of those people who would not always play by school rules myself. I would take a B, because a reading wasn’t interesting to me. I wanted students to feel some of the control over their learning that I had gained–to recognize how much it is up to them to determine what to get out of their education. I put my ideas out there and ended up in the Connected Courses planning group last summer with people who were doing similar things. Walking into that room was like seeing my syllabus come to life.” (Interested readers can access the recording of the Hangout on web literacy with Jaxon and others from last Fall’s Connected Courses.)
Photos courtesy of: Kim Jaxon, the DML Research Hub, and Twitter.