When a Project Gets Sidelined

The room buzzed with voices and movement. Students hovered in small groups around workstations, talking, pointing to the computer screens, gesturing. I had given what I thought was a simple assignment: find images that will bring to life a new layer of meaning in the poem you received at the start of class.

It was one of the first classes of the semester in a class on literacies and technologies in the English classroom. I thought we’d spend ten minutes, maybe 15, on this exercise. But clearly, it had touched a nerve. I watched for a few minutes more, when a thought struck me. I had to bang on the table to get the students’ attention, and even then, conversations dimmed but didn’t stop. I asked, “How many of you ever had an English class that looked like this?”

There were a few shrugs, some laughs, and one very sardonic, “Yeah, right!” before the noise resumed.

That would be a point I returned to again and again over the course of the semester. As students delved into theories of new literacies and created all kinds of things with a variety of digital tools on and off the Web, I wanted to know: When did English ever look like what they were experiencing in our class? If the answer was never, or only sometimes, why?

In the time since, I’ve other, slightly different, questions have come clearer for me. For example, in the face of rampant technological change and in an increasingly globalized society, what should English Language Arts look like in the American school?

We know that using technology, especially the Web (internet), changes the way people exist in the world, particularly in terms of communication and dealing with information, and also in terms of connecting with others, work, learning, buying and selling, recreation, creating– in short, everything. What do we need to be thinking about in terms of these social and cultural shifts and what we teach in English– and how we go about it?

The Connected Learning movement offers a vision for teaching and learning in the digital age, with big implications for the ways we think about English. They offer lots of publications, resources, and a blog. I am going to dive into this work.

We also know there are fears about “technology,” which is such an all-encompassing term we don’t really know what people mean when they use it. And, there are biases that come from misunderstanding and simple lack of knowledge. The PEW center recently issued a series called “Stories from Experts about the Impact of Digital Life” which includes pros and cons and makes for fascinating reading. (PEW gives an overview on the first page.) These things contribute in a broad way to how we think about what English needs to be.

Narrow wooden walkway over swamp with mountains in the background

CC0 via pixabay.com

But (instead of focusing on a project) I’ve begun to tiptoe into some philosophical waters. In the past week, I’ve read a couple of articles that have brought me to new questions– or maybe just grandchildren of the old ones. Chris Dede’s 2008 article, A Seismic Shift in Epistemology, suggests that Web 2.0 has introduced “new types and ways of ‘knowing'”.

OK, I said to myself, if the ways in which we know or come to understand something is changing as a result of the new technologies, specifically, the Web, what are the implications for our subject, English Language Arts, and the teaching of it? In the face of a new epistemology, what is important to know in the ELA classroom? What are the best ways for that teaching and learning to occur?

While the dust was still swirling on that question, I started poking around to see what else might be out these about epistemology and Web 2.0. I rediscovered George Siemen’s 2004 article, “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.

Siemens argues that the learning theories of the past, i.e., behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism, do not address learning that “is stored and manipulated by technology.” I am chewing over some of the ideas in this “theory”– it is very interesting as well as very controversial. Siemens’ work may suggest ideas for how teaching and learning in the ELA classroom can progress, but I have big doubts to overcome.

I am so curious about these things. Mine is an intuitive style of research, perhaps not as disciplined as some processes, but it seems to be how my brain works. Ideas bump up against one another and into recollections of past experiences and suddenly, I am looking for connections.

As the bumping occurred over the past week and that moment in the classroom floated up again, I started to feel as though I am embarking on a quest of sorts, a learning quest, and I don’t know where, if anywhere, it will take me.

I’m always up for a good adventure…but there’s this project I said I was working on that’s been left hanging. Now that I’ve outlined some of my questions, I can slide them to the sidelines while I get back to it.






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4 responses to “When a Project Gets Sidelined”

  1. 2008 seems so long ago. 2004 even longer ago. So when I see research w/ rhetoric claiming all these “new ways of knowing,” I yawn a little and ponder the research emerging about the detrimental effects of technology on attention spans and by extension critical thinking. Although anecdotal, I witness these effects in my students. I can’t help but think about all we’ve lost to the narrative positing we gain so much w/ technology. I rather long for those days when tech wasn’t so ubiquitous in our lives.

    • Karen says:

      I understand the longing for a simpler time.

      I don’t think the perspectives about ways of knowing or learning are being forwarded in an attempt to put a positive spin on the prevalence of technologies; I don’t think they in any way are intended to counter detrimental effects we may observe. I think they simply are arguments to account for changes in learning in a new technological era. One, Dede’s, gets a little more into the philosophical arena, but I am not sure he makes the case for a new epistemology. And, Siemens’ theory has received lots critiques.

      Like it or not, technologies are here to stay. The questions for us as educators is how to apply what folks in a variety of fields are learning. Dede and Siemens are ed tech folks; the Connected Learning folks study media and society. Not English, but still worth considering.

  2. There is a lot to chew on. Thanks for making me learn more by linking other insightful posts/ articles. I have included your post as the ones I recently visited on my #SOL18 for today.


    Come and visit me as well.

    Best wishes.

    Mrs. Trivedi-Ziemba

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