A Clean House

Last week, my colleague, Leslie Gates, and I gave a presentation to a group of teacher candidates who were starting their year-long internships. The presentation mostly focused on professionalism, but also discussed educator ethics a bit. Leslie and I have been giving this “kick-off presentation” for the last five or six years, and while the content could be overly preachy and pedantic, we try to keep our message positive and our advice as practical as possible. More than anything, we hoped the presentation would help our teacher candidates avoid potential ethical “land mines” in their interactions with students, parents, and other professionals in the schools in which they’re interning.

After the whole group presentation, faculty members met with teacher candidates in small groups. I met with ten prospective teachers, and we discussed the presentation content in more detail. The group had lots of great questions. Should I cover my tattoos? Can I text my mentor teacher? Do I have to delete my social media accounts? Am I allowed to have a social life? I’m not new to these kinds of questions. About a decade ago, I worked with some folks at the PA Department of Education to develop an ethics curriculum for teacher preparation programs. Since then, I’ve given dozens of professional development workshops and induction trainings for inservice teachers. I recently served on a committee that wrote new ethics competencies for teachers seeking certification in the state. So, while I typically blog about teaching and learning and online education (and other stuff), I’ve dug into the world of educator ethics, too.

During the small group conversation, one of the teacher candidates posed a question that caught me off guard. She wondered whether presenting a sanitized version of ourselves as teachers was fake. She also questioned whether acting a certain way to look professional was inauthentic. I started by talking about the expectations of the profession. I explained that as teachers we had a responsibility to our students and their families to be the best versions of ourselves. It’s not that we’re being fake as teachers but trying to accentuate the best parts of who we are (and can be). To make the point a little clearer for the teacher candidates, I asked what they would do if they were inviting people over to their house for a party. As a good host, wouldn’t they try to clean up a bit? Wouldn’t they want the house to look the best it could be? Sure, our houses don’t always look that way. Our kitchen sinks are sometimes full of dishes. Our carpets may need to be vacuumed. The end tables may need to be dusted. But if we have guests coming over, don’t we want things to look their best?

The analogy seemed to make sense. Thankfully, this won’t be the last time we’ll be talking about ethics with these teacher candidates this year. Later in the semester, Leslie and I will be facilitating a workshop which will help these folks think through some potential ethical dilemmas they’re likely to face as teachers.  Ultimately, we want the teacher candidates to learn that the ethical landscape can be really complicated for teachers. But that will take time and lots of thoughtful conversations. During these first days of the semester, however, we hope they’ll be able to showcase their best versions of themselves.

Learning from Games

I just finished a book that has me thinking a lot about games, gaming, and game design. The book, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, isn’t an academic text at all. It’s a fictional story of three friends who collaborate to design video games. Covering about twenty years of their lives together, the story details the ups and downs and successes and failures of their friendships, romances, and professional lives. While I really enjoyed the book (and I highly recommend it), it’s the gaming connections that really connected with me. Beyond detailing the process of making video games, Zevin uses gaming as a metaphor and as a lens for life. And for death. To do this, Zevin masterfully weaves game concepts into the narrative so the reader can see the comparisons she’s drawing. In one of the more emotionally challenging section of the book, a character reflects on gaming.

“You are a gaming person, which is to say you are the kind of person who believes that ‘game over’ is a construction. The game is only over if you stop playing. There is always one more life. Even the most brutal death isn’t final. You could have taken poison, fallen into a vat of acid, been decapitated, been shot a hundred times, and still, if you clicked restart, you could begin it all over again. Next time, you would get it right. Next time, you might even win.” (p. 365)

This reflection comes at a pretty pivotal point for the character. They’re likely not going to be able to click restart. For the character, “game over” is probably not a construction, but something existential. And when that section of the text finally reached its conclusion, I felt a sense of loss. And a groundless desire that the character would get another chance at success. But that’s the optimistic gamer in me.

As often happens with the things I read, my brain tries to find connections with my role as an educator. If gaming could serve as a lens and metaphor for life, it can also serve as one for teaching and learning.  That’s not my novel thought, but one shared by lots of people, including James Paul Gee. Besides researching linguistics and discourse, Gee has written a lot about what games can teach us about learning. In 2003, Gee wrote a book called What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, which I strongly recommend for any game-minded teachers (or teaching minded gamers). Gee also edited a book called Good Video Games + Good Learning, which collects essay on video games, learning and literacy.  While Zevin weaves the gaming elements into her narrative, Gee takes a more analytical approach in his writing, explicitly making connections to games and game design in his writing. For example, in a chapter on the digital participation gap, Gee discusses gaming as a way to introduce different properties of environments where humans think and learn best. These properties include:

(a) learners have clear goals for taking an action in the experience, an action that they care about;
(b) learners gain good feedback as they seek to accomplish the goal, including feedback that might make them rethink their goals;
(c) learners are actively encouraged to compare and contrast this experience to other related experiences in order to find patterns (generalizations) in experience;
(d) learners are encouraged to think about and talk about their assumptions, hypotheses, and strategies while acting and after action;
(e) learners hear others talk about their assumptions, hypotheses, and strategies as they attempt to accomplish the same or a similar action (often in an “after action review session”);
(f) learners are encouraged to persist past failure, explore, take risks, and innovate (and, thus, the cost of failure cannot be too high);
(g) learners hear language—sometimes a specialist or academic form of language— that fits the experience and the actions and goals that are an integral part of it; and
(h) learners are assessed on multiple variables sensitive to growth across time and useful for planning new actions and experiences.

(Gee, 2013, p. 66)

As I read through these properties, I wonder whether we do enough to foster these properties not only in our classroom spaces, but in our workplaces, too. Sure, these properties are derived from the magical world of video games, where we can hit the “restart” button after a misstep or failure. But these properties can serve as important guides for those of us who are fortunate enough to create environments where others work and learn.

References:

Gee, J.P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Palgrave MacMillan.
Gee, J. P. (2013). Good video games+ good learning: Collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy. Peter Lang.
Zevin, G. (2022). Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Random House.

A Constellation of Sorts

I often think about ancient astronomers, staring at the night sky and looking at the thousands and thousands of stars above. I think about how the creative ones would assemble these celestial bodies that were separated by millions of miles and tell of the grand things they could see in the sky. A ram. A crab. A lion. While the stars are real physical objects, the constellations emerged from the astronomers’ imaginations, gathered for and from the stories they were telling.

I sometimes like to think of my blogging as constellation building. Some of my blog posts are ones where I’m working through an idea or a concept I’ve come across. Others are ones where I’m telling a story about an interaction with a colleague or a student with the hopes of learning and growing from its retelling here. But there are also the “constellation ones,” those posts where I’m assembling disparate quotes, statistics, ideas or theories and bringing them together to form something through my own imagination. And that was my intent with this post. I have a bunch of quotes that have been buzzing in my head for the last week or so. I’m sure if I worked at it, they would converge into some creative object (maybe a crab or a lion?) that I could share here.

But instead, I’ll leave the meaning making and constellation building to you, dear reader. Some of these quotes (stars?) are ones you may have seen before, especially if you read this blog regularly. Others may be new. Regardless, ponder their connections and how they can help to guide you as you navigate the weeks ahead.

“What are you leaving behind? For me, the solution is children and art. I’ve got four kids. So far as I can tell, I’ve raised them well, and I’ve not broken any of them, and they get to go off into the world. Then there are the other children you leave behind because you affected them. You made something that touched or changed them. I’m one of the children of C.S. Lewis. I may be a grumpy and rebellious child of C.S. Lewis, but I am a child of C. S. Lewis. I’m a child of Tolkien. I’m a child of Zelazny. I’m a child of E. Nesbit. P. L. Travers. These are the people who got me at a young age. I love it when I get readers at a young age. So it’s all children and art. That’s what it is.

-Neil Gaiman, in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine

The biggest act we can perform for another is sacrifice: where we surrender something important for someone else, where we take a risk for someone else. The step below that is generosity: where we surrender some share of our time or resources for another. Kindness is entry-level caring: kindness is just the temporary suspension of indifference.

The Biblical story of the Good Samaritan is a story about kindness. The Good Samaritan finds an injured man by the side of the road, stops, bandages him up, and takes him on the back of his donkey to a nearby inn. Where he gives him to the innkeeper, with some money to pay for his care. The Good Samaritan doesn’t fight off a band of hoodlums, single-handedly. Or sneak the injured man past an enemy checkpoint. He’s kind. Not brave.”

-Malcolm Gladwell, Revisionist History podcast

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

-Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

-Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Lessons from Abroad

I recently returned from a trip overseas with my family and some friends. We spent a total of fifteen days in Europe, almost equally divided between Sweden and Holland. This week, I thought I’d spend a little time reflecting on my travels. Since this trip wasn’t work related, my observations and reflections are not going to be directly related to teaching and learning.

1. Despite being almost 250 years old, the United States is still so young.
Stockholm was founded in 1252. Amsterdam was founded in 1275. While neither city has many buildings still standing from the early days of their formation, it wasn’t uncommon to walk past buildings that were older than the United States. In Stockholm, we visited the Vasa Museum which houses a fully intact ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. The sunken ship was discovered in the 1950s and salvaged in the 1960s. Also, while in Stockholm, we passed the location of the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1517 where King Christian orchestrated an elaborate dinner party that led to the execution of almost 100 of his political opponents. Just being around so many historic locations and objects helped to put current events into greater context.

2. I don’t walk enough.
Over the course of fifteen days, I walked over 100 miles, averaging more than seven miles per day. While I’m an avid biker and exercise regularly, my Apple Watch never records that level of activity on my daily strolls across campus or in my neighborhood. This trip definitely demonstrated that I’m capable of walking more than I currently do.

3. America needs better public transportation.
While staying in Stockholm and Amsterdam, we mainly relied on public transportation to get around. Both cities have robust transit systems that allow people to travel around easily and inexpensively. For example, while staying in Holland, my family took a train from Amsterdam to Utrecht for about $20 round trip. Between the trains, buses, trams, and subways available in both cities, we never needed a car. I don’t know if someone could travel to the United States and have that same level of access, though.

4. Smartphones have made traveling internationally so much easier.
With the wide variety of apps available for international travelers, going overseas has really never been easier. When shopping for groceries in Stockholm, I pulled up Google Translate to be able to read the labels on several products. When planning our trips around the cities, we used apps like 9292 and Google Maps to navigate from place to place. I don’t speak Swedish or Dutch but despite the language barrier, most people we encountered were really helpful and kind. But the apps helped us be a little more independent and figure things out on our own.

5. I need to travel again soon.
This trip was mainly prompted by a study abroad trip that my daughter had planned to attend this summer. When her university canceled the trip in February, my wife and I decided to step in and try to plan a similar outing for her and our family. While the trip was an educational journey for my daughter, I’ve caught the travel bug myself and can’t wait to plan our next trip.

Planning for the Interregnum

A week or two ago, my podcasting partner, Scott McDonald, used the word “interregnum” in an episode we were recording about online learning. In the episode, Scott discussed how the shift to online learning and remote lessons and meetings during had a huge impact on social connections between students and faculty on campus. While most of us remember how hard it was to foster deep, meaningful conversations in asynchronous discussion boards or during Zoom classes, Scott chose to examine another area of face-to-face learning environments. Midway through our discussion, Scott explains:

“These opportunities for informal interactions that we get in regular classrooms that is much harder in environments like Zoom and more asynchronous environments… There’s no bumping into people in the hallway. There’s no talking to people before or after class. So, you have to recognize that those things are actually important. Those interregnums.”

If you listen to the episode, you’ll hear that I’m clearly flummoxed by hearing this (new to me) word. So, I looked it up.

interregnum (noun) – in-tə-ˈreg-nəm
1. the time during which a throne is vacant between two successive reigns or regimes
2. a period during which the normal functions of government or control are suspended
3. a lapse or pause in a continuous series

In Scott’s use of the word, he’s describing the stuff that happens between the planned activities like meetings and classes. You’re walking to class and bunch into a student and strike up a conversation. Or a student chooses to stick around after class to ask a few questions. Those types of interactions happen in the interregnum, which is harder to design for in online learning environments. When a class (or meeting) starts at 9 AM, people usually show up at 9 AM. If the class (or meeting) ends at 11:30 AM, people promptly log off then.

So, what is an online teacher to do? How does one “plan for the interregnum” when the “interregnum” happens when we’re not online together?

Thinking about this, I realized the suggestions I’d offer are ones that I’ve offered before on this blog. If you’ve a regular reader, you know I’ve talked about the need for fostering social presence in online classes for years. During the pandemic, I wrote a post about how to make Zoom a little more social. If you’re working in an asynchronous environment, check out this post from 2013. While neither post discusses the “interregnum” specifically, I think the strategies can help a motivated instructor better support online students’ need for social connection.

But if you want to hear me and Scott discuss this stuff more deeply, check out the episode “If the future’s online..” which will be available on Wednesday July 27, 2022 on the Science In-Between webpage or wherever you access podcasts.