Monday, December 17, 2007

Examining my anxiety over the frustrating excitement of learning new things

I can't say I'm not disappointed with myself. Yet, I am having trouble putting my finger on it. What's most disturbing is feeling like I'm not moving forward, or worse, I'm actually regressing. Am I doing enough? Am I trying to do too much? Is it possible to be both?

Looking back, I have begun to narrow down the source of my angst. (disclaimer: I turned 40 this summer, so forgive this angst, or even the use of the word here) Last school year was eye opening for me. A year ago at this time, my biggest revelation was discovering the use of a classroom blog in which the students posted responses to prompts in the comments section. From there, my learning grew exponentially as I dove further into the use of blogs, wikis, and all those other web 2.0 applications that I conveniently lump together. A big part of that learning was my own personal blog. The excitement I felt last year in my own professional growth was like nothing I had ever experienced. To summarize, I discovered THE shift. THE shift.

And now, here it is December 2007, and I'm back on the blog, posting similar prompts for students to respond to about The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Somehow it feels like I should be beyond that. That the kids would be enthusiastically posting to their own blogs, swapping thoughts, synthesizing ideas they'd gleaned from one another.

Coming into this school year, I thought I was ready for it to continue to bloom. David Warlick facilitated a workshop during the two days before school started. However, that's where the cracks began to show. My excitement evolved into apprehension. In a school filled with teachers who consider themselves technically proficient, hardly any of them knew what an RSS feed was and many consider a blog to be an Internet taboo, akin to those "dangerous" chat rooms of the 1990s. As a result, Warlick's presentation was lost on too many of them who do not have the time to "do all that stuff." I can understand those teachers' frustration, but because I am in a different place.

Embracing these web 2.0 tools is - and should - not be an alternative to some tried and true teaching method, like Literature Circles would be to traditional classroom discussions. We're talking about a new model for learning, one of collaboration and providing new venues for writing. (I know this is no revelation, but my brain takes a while to kick in after I grapple with something for a little while) I know how important "that stuff" is, yet there is still inside me a nagging sense that I don't do enough. Despite having a classroom full of laptops, I still struggle to create meaningful lessons and learning for my students. It would almost be better if I didn't know what I do know. It's that frustration - with myself - that has been the biggest struggle so far.

Here's what I'm talking about. After we read A Separate Peace, I asked the students to create a multi-media presentation on what it means to grow up. In the past, this might have been a poster or a collage followed by a 2-3 minute presentation to the class explaining it. Not this year. This year it was creating a multi-media presentation with Microsoft Movie Maker. Finding powerful photos at Flickr or through Creative Commons. Selecting a song. Putting it all together and saving it as a Windows media file. Of course it took longer than if we spent a few days cutting pictures out of a magazine. If they were going to find pictures on the Internet, they had to include the source. So I set up a wiki page for students to compile and share their work. And then between the movie maker software and the laptops, I had to add almost another week to the whole thing. And still not everyone finished on time. Frustrating.

Why was it so frustrating? Was it because it took longer than I wanted expected? Was it because the students didn't gush with enthusiasm over using the wiki? Was it because it didn't solve all those problems that typically vex every thing we do in the classroom - student apathy, procrastination, struggles to understand, difficulties planning time?

If we add it up, we doubled the time set aside for the project - from one to two weeks. We probably added more frustration and anxiety to the students as they struggled with the technology and the complexities of the assignment. I'm not saying that a little bit of anxiety is a bad thing. And I'll admit, we got much better products than cluttered posters destined to stick to the classroom walls before unceremoniously falling to the floor one by one. Am I not giving myself enough credit? It's taken me a few months to figure out that I have work harder to fight through this frustration and not let it generate even more frustration, which leads to inertia.

Is that the problem? Because I have seen the awesome potential of these web 2.0 tools, am I expecting too much? I have to remain realistic and understand that these new ideas about collaboration and writing are not magic potions to cure what ails education. Sure they can help if they are put in the right hands for the right reasons. Is it that easy? Am I going too slow?

That shift. It's made things a lot more complicated. Frustrating and exciting, too. But still complicated.


Robert said...

It sounds as if you're expecting too much too soon. If you believe that what you're teaching them is valuable, worthwhile, and important, then teach it, whether they appreciate it now or not. Much of what is taught won't make sense or t seem valuable to students until much later. It's up to you to examine what you're doing so that you can have confidence in it regardless of the students' initial reaction.

Miller said...

Thanks for listening to me vent, and I agree that I may be expecting too much. Not all the kids were apathetic etc., but the usual amount you get in a high school classroom. And it just seemed with all the technical difficulties that come with this new learning shift, maybe I expected the return to be higher.