Opening Up the Garden

Happy gardeners show their color and veggies!

The Connected Garden: Highlands Victory Community Garden

Three inches of snow in my city will make this past week’s snowfall go down as “the Big Snow of 2014.” Seriously, we rarely see more than a dusting.

So while schools (including universities) and businesses were closed, gardeners like me were cuddling up with seed catalogs and garden planners, dreaming of the warm days to come when we could dig in the earth again.

So where will I plant the purslane seeds? I’ve never grown this dark, leafy green but it’s supposed to be rich in Omega-3. How many Poblano peppers can I plant in the upper bed? Anticipation runs rampant as you imagine what can be.

It’s much the same process in planning a course. I’ll be teaching my signature course, ECI 521, “Teaching Literature for Young Adults,” first session summer school. I’ve not had the opportunity to teach it for more than a year, so I’m eager to update using all that I’ve learned since Fall 2012.

The garden metaphor is a favorite of mine (The Garden MOOC, Scaling the Walled Garden) — and it seems even more apropos considering rhizomatic learning. I want this garden/course to be one that students can not only dig in but help to envision and design.

Cathy Davidson in her January 29th Future of Education Google Hangout described Google’s Oxygen Study as being primarily responsible for her switch from traditional content knowledge-driven teaching to more of a connected, socially-engaged style that prepares her students to lead more “productive, happily socially-engaged lives.” “All education is vocational,” Davidson said. I can’t think of a more convincing argument for designing courses for teachers that prepare them for modeling for others what the connected life can look like and what the rewards might be.

I’ve opened the course up in many ways. We use blogs and Twitter and our class is totally open for anyone interested in young adult literature. But it is still very teacher-directed with a firm syllabus with weekly readings and required individual and group work. I’d like to open it up for more emergent learning and student input. I’m also hoping that opening things up may draw more open students who want to update their knowledge of the latest and greatest YA lit. I think the tight rein with typical grad school projects may have seemed off-putting even though they were not required to complete them. Bringing more diversity in terms of world view and experience would make this course more exciting for everyone.

Studying YA lit is usually fascinating for the students and many bring a real passion to the course. I’d like to open up the course so that students can find “their passion” (harkening back to something I mentioned that Mark Poole had suggested in #rhizo14, Week 2 Unhangout.

Maha voices a real concern that I always have when I ask students to embrace uncertainty, to suspend their disbelief . . .

. . . but whether I can help my students embrace them while not making them feel I am shortchanging them, not giving all of myself, this is my concern.

I can relate, oh boy, can I relate, Maha. The saddest evaluation I ever got was from a student who wrote: “I had to teach myself.” She was describing how she had to learn digital storytelling tools in our online Creative Inquiry class. In her mind, I failed because I didn’t deserve credit for teaching her. She had to teach herself. Forget all the tutorials and studio times for help. In my mind, I failed because she failed to learn that teaching yourself, and unlearning and learning and unlearning again may be the most important lessons from the class. Sigh . . .

It is especially hard to design a course for students when you know that their expectations will lead to much uncertainty. So their uncertainty makes your fear of failure even greater. Because, ultimately, I think that’s what uncertainty is all about — the fear of failure. But interestingly, the more you experience uncertainty and gain confidence in how you can cope with both it and the occasional failure, then the more productive and successful you’ll be. And the bolder and more adventurous . . .

Shelley Wright, one of the teachers I most admire, has written about overcoming her fear of failure to radically change how she teaches.

I think all teachers must have times when they’re faced with the decision to continue on the safe road that they know, or radically depart on a way that they believe to be better, but the specific route and outcomes are unknown . . . the top 10 jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. How do we prepare our students for jobs that don’t exist now, that will use technology that hasn’t been invented, to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet? By teaching them skills, not solely content.

That’s what I hope to do with ECI 521 — to create the conditions for my students to experience uncertainty, to reach for the brass ring. And I hope the result will be more teachers like Kevin’s Mrs. Grainger, a wonderful teacher from a children’s book, Frindle, who Kevin describes as one who teaches her students for the uncertainty that lies ahead by grounding them in language and literacy. I’d like to have a class full of Mrs. Graingers in ECI 521.

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6 Responses to Opening Up the Garden

  1. Maha bali says:

    Loved this post!
    More than just skills, though, as Wright suggests, is to focus on developing judgment of when to use the skills and how to integrate them with values (ideas of RonBarnett)

  2. Cris says:

    I agree, Maha. Wright’s really talking about Deeper Learning, isn’t she? ;-) Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Jim Stauffer says:

    How sad that the student sees “I had to teach myself.” as a negative. I want to shout in triumph, “JUST LOOK AT WHAT YOU ACCOMPLISHED! Nothing can stop you now.” Your post and the quotes you included are just the reinforcement I needed to persist in aiming to teach skills and accomplishments when it’s tempting retreat to the more familiar “content” delivery. (OK, you and much of the rest of #Rhizo14 community – thinking of Bonnie Stewart’s comments on FB about always qualifying statements )

  4. Cris says:

    And, you know, the saddest thing, Jim, is that this student will go forth and teach as she believes students should learn — from teachers. It’s a good example of why we can’t enforce independence.

    Good luck with your new course design. Hopefully, a few courses from now when you and I reflect on how our opening up has affected our students and ourselves, we’ll be glad we never looked back.

  5. I’ve missed seeing your garden pictures — didn’t realize how much until I saw this one

  6. Cris says:

    It’s been such a long, cold winter, Vanessa. I don’t remember so many nights the temperature dropped below 10. Our community garden is eager to get digging so we’ll begin February 15, planting spinach, carrots, beets, and who knows what;-) Hope your garden ventures are going well.

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