Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Best Moment: The children are now working as if I did not exist.

The greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist."

I attended a lecture the other evening given by Leo Van Lier, a researcher/professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. His focus on an ecological view of the classroom is based on his work with language learners, but I think it applies to all teachers since everyone is a learning through language--as evidenced here on this blog, in our class discussions, our students' writing, etc.

As Van Lier summarized a history of education through the lens of curriculum theorists, he projected the above quote by Maria Montessori and it resonated with me. Clearly we don’t teach children, but some times in the computer lab I have to wonder... (As you guys may or may not remember, I was grappling last semester with my students’ attention spans in front of a screen. It was almost turning into the Battle between the Medium (Web 2.0 platforms) and the Outcome (learning).) I wouldn't want to throw the baby (no pun intended) out with the bath water by giving up on computer labs, but I had to wonder: How could I design lesson plans and sequences that engaged them and could actually harness and even promote playfulness in the lab? How could I layer in intrinsic motivation in the face of Facebook addictions…? 

One A-ha! moment came when I had them collaborate on a Google Docs doc (much like we did at our last Comm 2.0 meeting). This was my ESL 99 class and you can see the post for the class activity here. The part that I loved the most was when, after they were divided up in groups, they began writing responses on this Google Docs doc. The room was electric as the groups generated their answers. I had portioned out sections of the Google Docs doc for each group to write on. Not only did they do what they were *supposed to do, they were having fun doing it: they were reading each other’s answers (and sometimes sneaking in words and phrases in their own languages into each other’s sections). I wish I had a “film” of the screen as different colored cursors like little army ants moved about filling the document with language, making edits, going back to make insertions, moving whole blocks of texts to suit their purposes.

As I walked around the room, I saw no one on the dreaded Facebook although I did notice some cut and pasting comments in Chinese into Google Translate to figure out what their classmates had written in their text. (NOTE: I did it too—a little scared they might have written something inappropriate—it translated to an innocent, “Hello, Kitty!”) They were checking their spelling and consulting with each other.

When we went back to full group to look at the answers, the students seemed more energized than when they had started. They had read, written, talked, and listened—practiced language in its modes—but they had taken it a step further and forgotten for a while that they were in a classroom, doing an assignment, needing to pass the course. Good prescription (or should I say description) for learning.

During the lecture, Van Lier also quoted Lawrence Stenhouse—another radical curriculum dude—who observed that, “Education as induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioral outcomes of the students unpredictable.”

I’ll be exploring again this semester ways to harness (old verb, sorry!) the power of Web 2.0 participatory platforms for learning—I know it has so much potential—but also addressing the lure of other sites and screens… Re-envisioning/remembering that the classroom is a place for learning to happen as a social practice is one step toward that; another is that learning becomes intrinsically motivated, and finally, that with all this emphasis on detailed learning outcomes, I need to leave wiggle room for the unexpected, the unpredictable.


  1. Thanks for this post. I think you've hit on one of the fundamentals, namely grappling with "harnessing" in another way - that is, strongly sensing the energy of your students and accordingly guiding or NOT guiding the flow of the activity, but letting it unfold. Your post goes to the issue of control and how to navigate it. This comes up alot in leading professional development activities too - although it's usually lighter on facebook (not always, though;-)

  2. Love your students' work on Docs!

    I am beginning to think that Google Docs is the best tool I've used so far. We may seriously want to look into how to tape what is happening when students work in groups on the Docs.

    Keep an eye peeled for an inter-class activity on Docs that Smith, Michelle, and I are planning. We'll see how it turns out!

  3. That was a great lecture! I like the way it relates to the activity you did in the class, too.