Monday, September 10, 2012

From Introduction-Making to Identity-Construction: An Example of Taking Tech from Glitz to Deep Learning

Photo #9. Landscape of "destiny"

My previous post looked at the general issue of infusing technology, and I promised to subsequently explore a specific case.  A fellow blogger’s excellent advice gives us a start.  In Limor’s Storytelling Agora , on How to Handle Characters Too Complex for Telling, August 25, 2012, she says:  “It takes a couple of minutes listening to a tour-guide, a teacher, a storyteller speaking about such a character to figure out the problem – pathos, which is the outcome of trying to capture and deliver something too complex turned national and monumental – if complex was not enough.”  Limor continues:
Problem: How can you relate to such a character?
Solution: By finding your reflection. 

While Limor’s case study focuses on handling the story of a big political figure, David Ben-Gurion, I’ll apply this to my students’ first assignment on digital media production: introduce yourself.  While our characters might not appear “too complex for telling,” if we really look for our “reflection,” we may be surprised.  In addition, the assignment especially lends itself to looking at how infusing technology offers possibilities ranging from skimming happily on the surface to diving for deeper meaning.  Finally, I was motivated to push this assignment past the surface-level introductions because I had found in the previous semester of teaching that in order to teach from feel rather than from the lesson plan, I needed to know my students much better.

In the Introduce-Yourself assignment, I want the composing to extend past the superficialities that often characterize introductions: I teach at the University of Maryland, love riding horses, drinking coffee, & eating chocolate.  Sounds pretty blah but put it in digital media (see 1 Min Intro) and shazam; maybe okay, even an A?  The animation, color, music, and flow of digital media can beguile; do we know when we’re being glitzed over?  I don’t want to let myself or my students skate on the surface without even realizing what we’re missing in terms of knowing ourselves and each other.  The digital media might even help us construct better personal and social identities.   

A sense of identity combines the individual, personal world with the collective space of cultural and social relations” (Grootenboer, Lowrie, & Smith).   While the integration of personal-cultural-social may look to make the task “too complex for telling,” I believe the shift to identity construction promises the right direction.  After all, our course is Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice, and our study leads us to engage our evolved capacity for imaginative collaboration.  I believe if we are to enact our capacity, it may well depend on our constructing identities through the goodness of stories that we study and produce, not fictions but true narratives powerful enough to stand up to the troubles of our time.

Given that huge backdrop, let’s look at the much more simple process.  Based on the stories and journals we were already doing, students were directed to compose or collect ten images (photos, drawings, or other representations):
1 Photo of yourself that you like
2 Photo of yourself that you don’t particularly like
3 Community with which you identify
4 Community of aspiration but not membership
5 Drawing of the stranger from the Kanu story with whom you are most connected/identified
6. Representation of/from the “mature masculine” as related to stories
7 Representation for the “daughter of the village”
8 Most important story you’ve heard
9 Landscape/seascape/skyscape of “destiny”
10 Image of obstacle/monster/villain

  I assembled my set of ten images to illustrate and to have a feel for what my students might encounter.  The first two images should be easy enough, I figured.  We all have photos of ourselves and, if not, we can snap them with our phones and laptops.  Not a big deal, not until I started going through my photo files because then I saw the range of images, a few I liked and a lot I didn’t.  They exposed a variety of quality and significance.  As Limor directed, I wanted to find my reflection; and in probing more closely, I fell through the shimmer of introduction and into the well of identity.  That’s how our infusion of technology offers more than the glitz surface; the lush visual resources also invite movement into art, and perhaps on into Keats’ beauty is truth.

While I certainly don’t claim the grasp of truth, in looking at a few images, I realized that some reflect what I consider more true about me than others.  For example, the profile shot that I have up on my blog has me smiling in a NWP cap. 

The National Writing Project does animate my being because it affirms the teacher’s authority about situated learning and it offers a “community of practice” essential to sustaining professional efforts to transform education into a paradigm of collaboration instead of the existing crucible of external and invalid assessment.  So that photo goes into the digital media production, and notice how it’s already drafting the voice-over track.

In reviewing images, I decided it would also be revealing to show a photo that isn’t liked, one that doesn’t resonate nicely.  I picked this one and joked with my students about not liking the pants stuck in the boot, but I caught my insincerity or lack of depth.  This wasn’t really contributing much to my construction of identity. 

The opportunity with this exploration of identity invites me to go further and to find a reflection that is true and that I really want to see changed.  It’s easy enough for us to snap a shot with tongue sticking out in Photo Booth and use that for the “not-liked” requirement, but it doesn’t promise to build the sense of identity needed for collaboration in social justice.  How can we use the gift of technology that lets us see our reflection in order to reform, to begin re-constructing identity.

So I thought more about the not-liked image and recalled how an earlier project had been driven precisely by such a confrontation.  The production process for On Knowing worked in the “write-to-learn” tradition as the composing led me through the embarrassment of seeing myself reflected in a study of failed horsemanship that led to valuable insight.  The resulting discovery opened, perhaps constructed, an aspect of my identity involving a developing capacity to know by “feel,” the hallmark of “true unity” in riding, my favorite avocation (note Howard Reingold’s on blogging about avocation in relation to Civic Life Online, p. 108).

I want to offer this to my students.  I want to challenge them to go beyond introducing themselves into constructing their identities and our identity so that we can collaborate.  And I want our infusion of technology not to take us further into la-la land but to take us further in our quest for a world with peace and justice.

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