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Looking with the heart:  Celebrating the human in the digital

Looking with the heart: Celebrating the human in the digital

Written by Christina Puntel
July 28, 2013

Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-29 10:14“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change 

Eight teachers from around the country gather online in a google hangout on sweltering summer night at 8pm EST to describe work from two students who designed a video game in Game Star Mechanic about chocolate and social justice.  In late fall, thirty teachers gather for a professional development about argument based writing in the common core to look closely at a 9th grader’s artfully created podcast that argues for abortion rights.  At another large professional development, teachers convene at a nearby university to delve into a dystopian iMovie, produced by a group of freshman in high school involved in piloting a curriculum from educurious, about the danger of sugary drinks in high schools.  A dozen teachers gather for a webinar from 4:30-6:30pm to discuss an essay crafted by another 9th grader about the cons of a new voter ID law in Pennsylvania, who is on her way to getting the Opinion Maker badge as part of the same curriculum.

As teachers, we craft assignments to allow our students to “become themselves,” as makers, producers, editors, and more.  We develop ways for them to connect their learning, to each other, to experts, to the field.  What are some ways we look at these compositions, not to judge or grade them, but to see the student’s strengths in the work?  How can we leverage digital spaces to look at multimodal compositions?  And, what is the point of all this looking anyway?

Hecho a Mano

Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-28 14:13As a teacher in Philadelphia, my practice has been greatly informed by the work of Patricia Carini and all at Prospect Center, through the use of many processes to describe students, their work, and our own teaching.  Patricia Carini’s adapted remarks from her address “Made By Hand” often come to me as I am describing student work.

“The Descriptive Review of Works starts from the premise that what people make, child or adult, has meaning and importance — that the work bears the imprint of the maker – and that these meanings and the maker’s hand are visible in the work.”

When we describe student work through oral inquiry processes, we develop a relationship with the maker, with the work, and with each other.  To prepare for the original Digital Is conference, Christina Cantrill and Paul Oh gathered a group of us to remix the Prospect Center Descriptive Review of Works, with an eye towards looking closely at digital work.  (I can not stress enough how this process grows directly from Prospect processes, and I hope this resource leads you to find out more about their work!) Teachers around the country have been using this process to look closely at digital compositions, in a variety of spaces, with very different purposes.  It is a process open to more remixing.

In the end, I think the power of the process lies in the ways we use oral inquiry to deepen our relationship to the human-ness of digital composition and all of the work our students make. Celebrate the dualities!  The fragility and the strength!  The broken links and the powerful images!  The consistencies and the inconsistencies!  As Myles Horton wrote in We Make the Road By Walking, “I’m as proud of my inconsistencies as I am my consistencies.”

Top 5 Reasons to Look Closely

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1.  It is an antidote to the culture of deficiency.

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2. We make a professional development community by doing this work together.

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3. Looking closely can happen anywhere.

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4. We learn about the process of creation, and generate new work and ways of working.

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5. It is a remixable process.

It is an antidote to the culture of deficiency

Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-29 09:53Part of the power of this process comes from its grounding in the DESCRIPTIVE, in the non-judgmental, non-evaluative world that is hardly seen or heard from in schools.  In schools, we are often forced into being a grading people, a community of disparate rubric makers.  I often say that, with this process, we are looking with our third eye.

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This tethers us to the composition and also frees us to see what the student IS doing, instead of what she’s NOT doing.  This kind of looking readies us for the moment we see the student in the classroom once again.  We see the student as a maker and a doer, not as someone who needs a certain skill or who is lacking in a certain area.  We teach from a place of the child’s strengths.

Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-28 14:48Even though we talk about this process as “seeing” or “describing,” we are actually doing more than seeing with our eyes.  We are doing The Little Prince thing and looking with our heart.  This might seem strange to say!  Looking at digital compositions with your heart?  OF COURSE!  Because of this kind of looking, we connect with the student through her work.  We become better teachers of that student and of many other students because of this process.

Patricia Carini, again in the adapted comments from her talk, “Made By Hand” says it powerfully:

We Make a professional development community by looking closely together

Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-29 09:51This process packs a punch because we do it IN COMMUNITY.  Check out these reflections after a large professional development.  Note the ways teachers were struck by the power of looking at the student work together.

“The depth of knowledge and care in the room was evident.”

“Learning takes place in community.”

“Both teaching and learning is accomplished through structured discussion.”

“Time flies when work is productive, meaningful, and shared.”

“The expertise in the room is greater than the knowledge of any one person.”

“I was inspired by the way a collection of teachers were able to imagine and develop such meaningful approaches to teaching and learning from student work.”

“What stands out to me is the collaborative nature of the process, how it opened up the piece (and my thinking) to many minds.”

“We were able to say so many meaningful and positive things about the student’s work.”

“The emphasis on collaborative conversation stood out for me.”

“Sharing with each other was invaluable. Looking at the text and looking at it various ways.  Being open with each other.”

These reflections come from a group of teachers who engaged in the process once, during a mandatory professional development.  For me, depth and resonance develop over time, when teachers commit to doing this process together, in any interest driven environment.  There is an intimacy that develops, a joy in sharing student work, leaning into one another’s noticings, wondering together.  This is the kind of collegiality that allows us to professionally develop each other, in the way the Writing Project does best… “Teachers are the best teachers of teachers.”

Looking closely can happen anywhere

Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-29 09:49This process can happen anywhere.  The facilitator should have an eye toward equity, access and full participation when designing or choosing a space with the group.  In Philadelphia, teachers have met since 1978 in teacher centers and each other’s homes after school to describe student work, have reflective conversations, and make together. Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-28 15:33

Google Hangout also provides a fantastic, engaging meeting space for a group of teachers from all over the country, especially with the easy screen share, YouTube sharing capabilities, collaborative documents, and the chat option.Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-28 15:34

I’ve also had the experience of using this process via webinar, with people both chatting and talking during the different rounds.

We learn about the process of creation, and generate new work and ways of working

Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-29 09:42In the process, we train ourselves towards generativity and production and away from negativity and stagnation.  We also become makers, not grade makers or number assigners or red pen wielding markers.  We make knowledge about teaching from our students’ work.  From participating in a session to look closely at an augmented reality poster created by one of Erin Klein’s 2nd graders, I brainstormed a million ideas for my 9-12 Spanish class.  When we described a Google Doc book review written by one of Jeremy Hyler’s 8th grade students, she reminded me of students with whom I’ve developed incredible relationships with over time around digital work.  These are students I would never normally get to know in the classroom, but I see them in the work, and our relationships evolve from there.  At a session around a group of freshmen’s dystopian iMovie, I learned about the technical vocabulary involved in the production of films, the wide shot, the cut in, the over the shoulder shot.  I learned to see the many choices students had in editing the film, and this helps me when we produce iMovies in my own class together.

It is a remarkable process

Image originally uploaded on 2013-07-29 09:48The process of looking at student work can and should change as you use it.  It might change because the piece you are describing has three or four parts (For example: a website with many images, an embedded Animoto, and even drawings done by the student in Google Draw or scanned; a long iMovie, with a trailer and a blooper section; a videogame with a walkthrough).  The process might change because you are with a group of teachers who you know have a zillion awesome ideas about where the work might go next, so you add a section for “recommendations.”  You will use this process and discover other hacks waiting to happen.

The heart of this process lies in valuing the student’s work and the creativity of the student at all times. Again, from Made By Hand, Pat Carini reminds us what cannot be remixed, what must be safeguarded and protected, nurtured in the process:

It is a way of looking that argues with the expectation that children, or people more generally, can be fixed to fit a model or be solved like a puzzle. It is a way of looking that affirms confidence in the capacity of people, children and adults alike, to benefit from the differences among us, each contributing to the whole.

This, it seems to me is terribly important. It is terribly important, especially in these dark times in education, that we, the adults, recognize ourselves as mutually responsible for the well-being of children. By bringing teachers or parents or both together to pool their observations and perspectives, the descriptive processes offer a way to exercise that responsibility of support to children and also to ourselves. Meeting together, assisting each other to see each child‟s value, desire, and need and to take what steps can be taken to create the maximum space for the child‟s interests to be served is strenuous but refreshing work. It is work that nurtures the spirit, work that is an act of resistance to the rejection of the child, and more importantly, it is a positive and doable act on behalf of the child – and ourselves. A group of teachers or parents meeting regularly to describe children’s works builds a strong collaborative structure – a support for each other as well as for the children.

Aaaaaand, here it is! A remixable process for looking at digital work, multimodal compositions, and other student work (with thanks to Prospect Center’s Descriptive Review of Work)

I.Getting started

  • Facilitator starts introductions– name, role, organization

  • Facilitator explains process

    • Introduce facilitator, teacher, notetaker

    • Focus on description

    • Option to pass

    • Optional use of double entry journal (in folders, Google Docs, etc.)

  • Teacher presents work only given grade level and subject matter.

  • Participants observe or read the work in silence, using their double entry journal to keep notes.

  • Facilitator allows enough time to pass for all to observe, read, listen to, play, interact with the make, etc.

  • Facilitator asks for clarifying questions (Please be strict here and do not allow for content questions at this point.)

II.Describing the work – what do you see/notice?

  • Facilitator starts by group around the group asking the participants, “What do you see/notice?”

  • Participants provide answers without making judgments about the quality of the work or their personal preferences.  This round continues until the facilitator feels the group is ready to move on.

  • Note: If a judgment emerges, the facilitator might ask the group member to stay close to the text/composition, rather than making a judgement.

III.Describing what is successful – what is working in this piece/in this composition?

  • Facilitator asks the group, “What is working in this piece/in this composition?”

  • Participants, based on their observations, will share what they think works in the composition they just observed and described.  Again this round continues until the facilitator feels the group is ready to move on.

IV.What questions are raised – What does it make you wonder/what questions does it raise?

  • Facilitator asks the group, “What questions does this work raise for you? What does it make you wonder?”

  • Participants state any questions or wondering that are raised for them or for the field at large.  Just as in the other rounds, this continues until the group is ready to move on.

  • Note: Teacher may choose to make notes about these questions, but s/he does not respond to them now (nor is s/he obligated to respond to them in Step V either.)

V.Hearing from the presenting teacher

  • Facilitator invites the presenting teacher to speak.

  • Teacher provides his or her perspective on the work, describing what s/he sees in it, responding (if s/he chooses) to one or more of the questions raised, and adding any other information that s/he feels is important to share with the group.

  • Teacher also comments on anything surprising or unexpected that s/he heard during the describing, questioning and speculating phases.

VI.Personal writing

  • Facilitator prompts everyone to write to “What stands out for you from this conversation?”


  • Facilitator thanks the presenting teacher.

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