Sounds like an interesting and uncanny parallel, right? Well, as it turns out, I’ve had this realization for some time, and now that the school year’s end is in sight, I’m working to prove to myself that I’m a semi-observant person and can adjust course based on prior experience. So, what is this thus-far-nebulous realization I’ve had? It has to do with the fact that only so much meaningful collaboration (in this case via social media tools, like wikis) can be centrally-organized and successfully implemented by the teacher.
Before the beginning of this school year I had very ambitious plans of implementing a complex rotation system of assignments amongst my sophomores that would help them meaningfully reorganize the material from the textbook in various ways and simultaneously create a collectively-built review guide that would be useful on quizzes, tests, and exams. My plans, as I alluded to a bit earlier in this post, did not come entirely to fruition in the way that I had hoped, so I jettisoned the system in favor of a more individual-centric (read: what I had done in years past) approach.
In spite of this shift I nevertheless remain a big advocate of the necessity of reorganizing information in various ways if it is going to have resonance for a student; however, perhaps this realization is somehow akin to the one that recovering addicts must make before getting healthy: “I have a problem with trying to memorize everything. Trying to memorize the entire textbook is not healthy and will eventually drive me insane or cause me to have a heart attack in my teenage years. I must develop other intellectual coping strategies. I need help.” While I’d hoped to facilitate this shift through my rotation plan, I discovered that much of the benefit that students derive from working collectively can only be achieved if they themselves decide to implement the system and distribute the labor. Governing this system centrally and assigning grades for participation in these collaborative ventures seems overly-complicated (mainly for me as the teacher) and ineffective.
Now shifting to economics metaphors, it seems that “The Loop,” of which I was a part with my high school peers and was my initial inspiration for this rotation-based approach, was essentially a free market solution to this problem. (Or is it actually more akin to a labor union? Or is it more akin to the Landsmanschaften that new migrants organized at the turn of the 20th century? I guess this metaphor got away from me).
So, as I’m now planning to embark with my ninth graders on our unit over Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men I’m once again considering how I can help students gain access to a complicated and in-depth text. Certainly, the sheer volume of people in the book makes it a challenge to work through. Moreover, when one is born in the mid-1990s, acquiring knowledge of the major players in the book and the historical context proves to be a major challenge. Ideally, a collaboratively-built review guide would be a great way to ease the burden of each individual student having to create his or her own character chart — a task that can quickly intimidate almost any student upon initial inspection of the cast of characters.
Initially I had wanted to implement a rotation system between a variety of tasks — 1) adding to the character chart, 2) writing chapter summaries, 3) writing critical questions about the chapters, and 4) bringing in articles from the New York Times‘ historic newspapers database; however, considering the logistics of assigning these tasks quickly proved overly-complicated and I could anticipate the management nightmare that I was about to create for myself. Proving that I can learn based on past experience, I’ve shifted the assignment’s emphases to encourage students to form their own collaborations, which, of course, can be aided by social media tools.
If you’re interested, you can have a look at the assignment sheet here.
Hopefully my adjustments — paring down the mandatory work and only having a rotation for the NYT portion of the assignment will be easier to manage and encourage students to explore tools that facilitate online collaborations independent of any teacher-imposed mandates. We’ll see how this experiment works out!