Mia Zamora: Helping Other Educators Experience Connected Learning
Personal Story compiled by: Howard Rheingold
Mia Zamora, associate professor of English, Director of the Kean University Writing Project, and coordinator of the World Literature Program at Kean U., now uses paper circuitry, Twitter chats, and digital storytelling in her pedagogy, although she started out as a comparative literature instructor “steeped in theoretical engagement with literary studies.” Her path, like that of many connected educators, is as much about networks as it is about tools.
In many English departments, a distinct boundary separates “writing people” who teach composition and theoretical engagement with the writing process and “literature people” who cover the history of literature, literary studies, and theories of literature. A mentor and colleague who was retiring, Dr. Linda Best, the founding director of the Kean University Writing Project, felt that Dr. Zamora would be the right person to lead the project into its next phase. Her first step when she took over the project 1- years ago, Zamora recalls, was to find and engage with teachers who were enhancing writing pedagogy — what we, today, would call a personal learning network.
Zamora found her PLN in the National Writing Project, a national organization of approximately 200 sites across the United States, mostly housed in universities. A core group from those universities work with teachers across their states to support writing pedagogy in school districts. “It’s a wonderful outreach mechanism for university professors to talk with teachers from kindergarten all the way through university levels about writing process and how to teach writing effectively in any classroom,” says Zamora. “I was in that role, working with teachers in New Jersey on thinking about writing process and writing pedagogy.” At the same time, Zamora was becoming interested in the digital humanities, “So I undertook an intellectual shift, broadening my interests from literature and writing pedagogy to include open source, online networks, and social media’s role in the classroom. My role as an outreach coordinator for writing teachers converged with my growing interest in the affordances of a digital environment.”
Literature would seem to be a challenging field for the kind of connected learning powered by the interests of learners. Zamora agrees: “It’s not easy to get students to read these days and many students have a hard time relating literature to their lives and interests. I’ve been able to make projects more meaningful to students by connecting the projects to their own experience, starting with the lens of literature and then extending into project-driven work based on their own interests.”
Last spring, professor Zamora taught a course on “Ethnic American Literature,” which Zamora says is “really a course about American narratives.” Before she embraced a more Connected Learning approach, Zamora’s approach to this class was to do close readings of the stories of “a wonderful roster of different writers” and “think about the ways in which America is posited within a writer’s narrative and also the ways in which it might be challenged, or pushed back on, or opened up for critique.”
“That was our entry point for close reading each text. We asked ourselves: ‘In what ways does this text confirm a notion of what it means to be American, or push back on a mainstream sense of it, or reinvent it’? When I embraced Connected Learning, I decided that there was an important space in that course for them to tell their own American stories. And one of the wonderful things about Kean University is that it’s one of the most racially, ethnically, religiously, socio-economically diverse universities in the country.”
Zamora realized that the diversity of her students’ backgrounds could serve as a rich narrative resource for thinking together about questions around what it means to be American: she began to encourage her students to use digital media to tell their families’ stories. How could a video or podcast of a family’s ‘becoming-American’ narrative be seen through the lens of literature? “Since we had read the literature on being American before embarking on these projects, we were accustomed to a complex engagement with that idea, which prepared students to think about symbols, imagery, voice, and tone in ways that manifested powerfully in their final projects.”
“The way that whole process enriched me as a learner was profound,” recalls Zamora, “because one of the things I took away from that experience was that there was more in this classroom than I had ever tapped into in the past. So much flowed from encountering the students’ stories about how they and their family had come to understand themselves as Americans. Looking together at those stories through the lens of literature, critically, analytically, and within the context of a national community — it was amazing.”
Zamora recalls a young man named Mark: “… a middle class white guy from New Jersey, tall and quiet and very thoughtful in his work. Mark immediately showed me how so few aspects of students’ everyday lives ever come forth in all the traditional literary discussions we have. Mark’s student video project told the story of how his journey through dance (I would’ve never guessed he was a dancer) taught him how to understand difference in the world and America. He’s a Russian Jew who immigrated when he was a child, lived in Brooklyn for a while, and was taught in a small Jewish school and was very protected in that world. His parents were apprehensive about the rest of the American environment. But, at a certain point in his early teen years, he decided he was interested in other cultures.”
“Mark’s venue for examining difference was through his dance classes. And so he made this beautiful video that included him dancing with different dance partners, and different forms of dance, and engaging with the language of dance as another way to understand something different than you. It was a fascinating project. I would never have known anything about that if it wasn’t for the fact that I was able to give them the chance to take their personal interests into the course.”
Moving to more peer-supported learning can be a challenge to educators. I remember my own trepidation when I ventured into co-learning, growing out of my fears about losing my authority, about whether I was really doing my job when I encouraging the students to teach along with me. Zamora put it this way:
“We educators have this need or impulse to take an expert stance in the classroom. It’s comfortable to be the expert. I found that relinquishing some of that stance and giving students ways to be the experts can lead them to lean over each other’s shoulders, teaching each other as they teach themselves, and ultimately teaching me something I didn’t know before about teaching this class.”
That was Zamora’s paradigm shift. I took a parallel path in my own professional development. I started using social media with my students because we were studying the impacts of social media, so it only made sense to use the technology we were studying. When I became a co-learner in the blogs and comments, the forum, and our wiki, the way these media tend to flatten social hierarchies (who knew that the widely respected expert in your electronics discussion list was only 12 years old?) led me to see the direct benefits of encouraging students to be more active participants in each other’s learning, and in my own learning.
Recently, in her role as Director of the Writing Project, teaching teachers to think about Connected Learning, Zamora recognizes “My students are peers. I’m still the professor, but the students aren’t university students; they’re teachers thinking about their own pedagogical approach.” Zamora decided to do something that would challenge them all, including herself, to encounter writing in an entirely new way that wasn’t possible before. “Notebook hacking” uses conductive stickers and flat components to add circuits, switches, flashing lights, even sounds to ordinary paper notebooks.”
When I asked her about how notebook hacking and writing pedagogy came together, Zamora said, “To me, as well as my students, paper circuitry was a new way of engaging with writing as making. We could literally illuminate written pages with conductive tape, LEDs, small batteries. I started by sharing a teaching kit — created by Mozilla with another National Writing Project affiliate — on how to do paper circuitry. We also watched some demonstration videos. We thought about the aesthetic engagement involved and then the engineering engagement.
So we had the basics down of how-to, then they started making. And as soon as the making started to occur, and we’re all around a big table, everybody started guiding each other. I was a little concerned because, to be honest with you, I had never done the paper circuitry myself. I was a newbie, too. And so I was concerned that I didn’t know enough to be leading the charge because I was learning along with them, but the peer learning came through loud and clear.”
Zamora’s teacher-students had their laptops out and could watch how-to videos again if they wanted to, but the excitement in the room literally lit up when the first learner was able to get an LED to light up, “and this literal lightbulb is accompanied by exclamations of delight over learning. Everybody runs over and looks: ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool!’ and then ‘How did you do that?’ and everybody figures out how to get started, shoulder to shoulder.”
After the class, the writing teachers reflected on the experience. Putting the educators in the position of learners — with the teacher of the class learning along with them — had demonstrated the power of peer learning better than any lecture or lesson. “They were egging each other on and troubleshooting together,” Zamora said: a description that every teacher recognizes if they’ve ever seen peer learning come to life.
A colleague from the National Writing Project challenged Zamora to articulate “a theory of action for paper circuitry that goes beyond crafting together and ‘isn’t this nifty?'” She replied: “I would start with the same reflective piece I did with teachers. We asked ourselves ‘what are the choices we make when we compose?'” That reflection led to think about writing as an engagement with composing that enlists multiple literacies: “When you write a poem, every single word is an important choice, and as you tinker with each word, you bear down on the meaning afforded by those nuanced choices. Then if you layer that further with your own possibilities of a visual text, which is what paper circuitry affords, you can add drawings and images to words and finally add circuitry that includes illumination. You have to make more choices where you are going to use electronic illumination in the text — yet another layer of meaning production. If you get more complicated with your circuitry, you could base it on certain engagement interactivities with the text. If you flip a page, answer a question, press here, then something lights up, you have engaged the reader in interacting with the text in a new way.”
To write a poem with paper circuitry means reflecting on the semantic meaning of each word, the way each word sounds, and where and why to trigger physical illumination. Becoming conscious of all these composing choices brings readers closer to the writer’s struggle to produce meaning. “As an academic engagement it can become rather sophisticated,” Zamora told me: “Engaging at the composition, making, and production levels enables learners to see how nuanced the production of meaning can be with language text, visual text, engineering text.”
While leading the paper circuitry workshop, Zamora was leading the National Writing Project’s Connected Learning MOOC for a week. The CLMOOC was conducted through six “make cycles” and Zamora’s cycle (in parallel with the paper circuitry workshop) was called “Hack Your Writing.” Zamora invited the 2000 people in the CLMOOC community to think about opening up remix methods and writing, reflecting on what is changed or extended by using remix for meaning production. “Some of the artists in our community literally hacked their texts by making layered book sculptures with X-Acto knives.” Each leaf of each page has text, so it’s not only the sculptural shapes that the book hackers had to consider, but the textual layers their physical alteration of book pages revealed. “The heart of my excitement right now is this notion of writing as making. If we can transform our understanding of writing process as a making process, it opens up different gateways to writing.”
Seeing writing as making, Zamora believes, opens paths to writing for writers to engage in the writing process in a freer sense than the formulaic exercise such as the five-paragraph essay that schools have forced on students. Combining literary theory, writing methodology, a reflective making necessarily brought Zamora into engagement with networks: “I can identify different communities where I have an interest and a voice. One is literary studies. Another is connected learning and education. Other communities include digital humanities, electronic literature, and making. Those communities don’t necessarily overlap, but people’s work within those communities are meaningful to each other, and my own position at the intersections enables me to see those connections. I would not have been able to put together my present pedagogy if I had remained in interaction only with analog, physical communities — colleagues at conferences or on campus, publishing in journals. Networks empowered me, but I also think that as an active participant in them, I empower others.”