Learning from Dystopia

You probably know the books. Or maybe the movies.

The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Handmaid’s Tale.

Each of the stories are set in a dystopian world where some aspect of society falls apart. In one, teenage tributes are sent to fight to their death in a televised arena. In another, factions of the population are divided by their abilities. In the last, women become properties of the state and are forced into sexual servitude. While the books (movies?) are all entertaining in their own ways, they also present a troubling glimpse of what society could be.

But they also present a troubling glimpse of what society is. At least that was the conversation I shared with a couple of colleagues in a mini-book group we’ve organized to read The Manifesto of Teaching Online together. One of my colleagues teaches a dystopian literature course on campus and offered a unique perspective of what we can learn from reading these novels. Rather than just providing scary stories of some twisted possible world, she explained, the stories offer a lens to view the world we live in currently. When it’s done well, dystopian literature reveals the ills of society by distorting them and reflecting them back to the reader. But the distortions and reflections aren’t offered just for entertainment value alone. Instead, they’re offered as an educational tool. We can learn from dystopian fiction, or we can be doomed to experience it firsthand.

Clearly, I’m not an expert of dystopian literature. And that’s probably a huge oversimplification of our book group conversation. If you’re wondering how we got to books about dystopian worlds when we’ve gathered to discuss a book about online teaching, it actually wasn’t that much of a leap. Our discussion about online teaching led to a conversation about the global pandemic which eventually led to dystopian literature. See. It doesn’t seem THAT far-fetched. And like most of these conversations I have with my wicked-smart colleagues, this topic has bounced around in my head for the last week or so. Not that we’re living a dystopian world. Not really. There are no tributes fighting to their death on television. There are no groups of women walking around in red dresses and white hats. There are no zombies.

But it’s hard to argue that our current educational world isn’t kind of dystopian-like. Face-to-face classes have been largely canceled at most educational institutions. Few of us have stepped foot on our campuses in months. Most of our interactions with students and colleagues are mediated via a synchronous tool that a large segment of the population didn’t know existed twelve months ago.

Our students are struggling. Our colleagues are anxious. We all feel isolated.

So, what can we learn from this? Think about it. Eventually, we’re going to go back to some more normal version of things. Are we just going to hit the reset button to March 2020 and go back to teaching and learning exactly the way we’ve always had? Or are we going to see the distorted world that is being reflected back to us and learn from it?

Who Do You Serve?

I’ve shared this story before, but I feel like it deserves to be revisited.

A mother was teaching her daughter how to roast a turkey. In the lesson, the mother removed the drumsticks and wings and re-positioned them in the pan. The daughter asked why she needed to do this. Did it help the turkey cook faster? Did it make the turkey tenderer? “I never really thought about that,” the mother explained “It’s just the way I was taught by your grandmother. We should ask her.” The mother called the grandmother and asked why she dismembered the bird prior to roasting it. The grandmother laughed and explained, “the turkey wouldn’t fit in the pan we owned so I had to cut it up to make it fit.” And so, the family tradition began.

One of my favorite words I’ve learned over the last decade is the word filiopietism, which means an “excessive veneration for tradition.” When I think about the word, my mind always races to the opening song in The Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye sings “TRADITION! TRADITION!”

That’s filiopietism sung in its most artful form.

But filiopietism isn’t just the stuff of religious cultures (or of awesome Broadway musicals). It can describe the blind acceptance of norms or the inability to question established practices. Like the daughters who followed the cooking practices of their grandmother, traditions can unknowingly develop and take root. Some cut apart a turkey before they roast it because that’s what they’ve always did. But is that really the best thing to do? Who knows? It’s tradition! Tradition!

A colleague recently shared a newsletter from Michigan Arts Education Instruction & Assessment (MAEIA). In the newsletter, the author (Heather Vaughan-Southard) asks a simple question: “In your teaching, are you serving the tradition or the people in front of you?” As we approach the ten-month mark of social distancing due to the pandemic in the United States, Vaughan-Southard applies this question to arts education, but I believe it deserves more widespread attention.  In your teaching during these pandemic times, are you serving tradition? Or the students in front of you?

While I’ll let you reflect on that question on your own, I wanted to share an experience that has caused these concepts to burrow into my brain. My son is a student at a high school that moved to remote instruction in early December due to state mandates related to increased COVID infections. Despite these issues, one of my son’s teachers assigned a group project to be completed over the winter break. The project involved my son writing a script and recording a video with five or six other students. The group gathered a few days ago at one student’s house and wore masks as they acted out their parts and recorded their video. When I dropped off my son, I considered the appropriateness of the assignment considering the current pandemic conditions. While I remember my daughter doing a similar assignment five years ago when she had this teacher, was the teacher serving the tradition? Or were they serving the students in front of them? I don’t know.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing the teacher’s decision. More than anything, I’m offering a lens for each of us to review our own instructional decisions and to help us identify the decisions guided by tradition and those informed by student-centered perspectives.

Top Posts of 2020 – Part 2

As we stare down the end of 2020, let me thank you again for visiting this space and reading my musings. This has been a busy year for the 8 Blog. Almost 15,000 people have visited this space to find some solace or some support. I’m blessed to have this forum to share my thoughts and work through my ideas. As I written before, I write to learn. I come here to work through the different challenges I face in my classroom and I’m tremendously grateful that these thoughts resonate with you. I wish you and your loved ones a joyous and healthy 2021.

Without fanfare, here are the Top Five posts from 2020.

  1. Resources for Disruptions: From March 2020, this post serves as a time capsule for the start of the pandemic. At the time, we were all working through the pain of quickly moving our face-to-face classrooms to remote instruction. This post was an effort to provide some resources for educators to navigate those challenges.
  2. Teaching Remotely? Forget about Perfect: Also from March 2020, this post offers a supportive reality check for the amazing, hard-working teachers who are driven to perfection, even amidst a global pandemic.
  3. What Matters: From April 2020, this post was a response to an opinion piece from Inside Higher Education where a professor chastised students who appeared unkempt in their Zoom classroom. I offered that we need to focus on what really matters in our classrooms. And include a powerful Maya Angelou quote for good measure.
  4. Flip a Switch: This is another post from early in the pandemic. Inspired by a tweet from Howard Rheingold, this post shared some critical resources during some of the darkest moments of the 2020 academic year.
  5. Visions of Hell: This post from May 2020 is a little existential. Inspired by a catchy witticism, this post examines what the definition of hell might look like for a student-centered teacher.

Top Posts of 2020 – Part 1

We all know how challenging 2020 has been. The social, educational and personal upheavals due to the global pandemic has created so many challenges for all of us. If you’re an educator, you know firsthand how COVID-19 has impacted your classroom, your students and, more broadly, your institution. Through all of those challenging times, I hope the 8 Blog has provided you with some insight, some guidance and some support. I’m grateful that you’ve joined me through my musings this year. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy this holiday season.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll share the Top Ten posts from 2020. This week, I share posts 6 through 10. Visit back for the Top Five next week.

6. Remote Students Speak – Part 1: In this post from August 2020, I share some survey data from one of my classes. I simply asked the students “Name something that your professors did in the spring that you found ineffective.” Their responses were eye opening and impactful.

7. Check the Snark:  In this post from October, I discuss my internal debate when trying to figure out the best way to communicate with students in need.

8. The Roomers and The Zoomers: From early December, this post discusses the challenges with working with students in face-to-face classrooms (the Roomers) while also trying to teach students participating through Zoom (the Zoomers).

9. Teacher Dreams and Expectations: In this post from August 2020, I discuss my “teacher dreams” in advance of the new academic year and how I’m wrestling with the expectations for my upcoming synchronous classes.

10. Tending to the Garden: This is probably one of my favorite posts from 2020 because I got to bring in my dad’s gardening prowess. Written in October 2020, this post explores specific strategies for supporting students’ social and emotional needs

Incorporating SEL Online

I started teaching a graduate class this week. I know it’s winter break at many institutions but our university offers a winter semester and I’ve traditionally taught a class called Online Learning Environments in our graduate program during the semester. There’s usually a handful (or more) of graduate students who are hoping to use their vacation to get take a class or two to progress in their programs. Since I do better when I’m busy, I’m happy to oblige.

I’ve taught this class the last four winters. The class has traditionally culminated with the design and development of an online unit that my graduate students can use with their students. In past years, I’ve built the unit around there being some inclement weather event where schools are shut down for a week or more. With the inclement weather shutdown, the teacher needs to teach their students online and have to purposefully go through an instructional design process to analyze students’ needs and build a unit that incorporates good online pedagogy,

It’s funny. Looking back at previous iterations of the course, I’d always have students who would balk at the fictional nature of the activity. “When would we really need to create a week or two of online instruction?” they’d ask. With the global pandemic upon us, I’m doubting I’ll get any push back from my graduate students this winter.

But I’ve also reframed the activity. The students are still designing and building an online instructional unit but instead of focusing on some fictional inclement weather event, they’re purposefully implementing social emotional learning into their teaching. With so many schools moving to remote, hybrid and online modalities, I’m finding lots of teachers know how to create lessons and activities for their students online. The challenge now becomes teaching online in a way that also supports students’ well-being and promotes a safe space for them to learn. As I’ve written in other posts, I worry a lot about how the isolation from online teaching and social distancing is impacting our students and it’s critical for teachers to support students’ social emotional aspects through good design.

I know that social emotional learning (SEL) may be new to some readers, so I thought I’d provide some resources. PBS LearningMedia has created some great videos addressing the Core Competencies of SEL and the Indicators of Schoolwide SEL. In my class, students don’t necessarily have to teach SEL to their students through their online instructional units. Instead, I want them to build SEL practices into their online teaching. If you’re wondering how you could do this with your students, here are some ideas:

30 Ways to Integrate SEL During Distance Learning
28 Social Emotional Activities that Support Distance Learning at Home
5 Tips for Supporting Students Socially and Emotionally During Distance Learning

These resources cover a bunch of different grade levels and academic contexts, so some of them may not be appropriate for every setting. Others may need a little tweaking to fit the academic setting in which you work. Regardless, it’s important that we all intentionally build in SEL practices into our online learning environments so our students’ well-being is supported.