The Big Learn


I am riskier these days.  I have a political blog.  I am adding networking as a coequal ingredient to my comp/research class. I am way outside the bounds of the norm with a very liquid syllabus, an exploded idea about what the products of a research comp course can be, and a hard push to get my students to value curiosity over strategy.

As Taleb says above, “School will never teach you how to stand & take risks for your beliefs,”  but I bet teachers can show their students how to begin to do it.  That’s my theory anyway.  That’s my attempted practice. But, as the cowboy says in “The Big Lebowski”,

Sometimes the bar eats you

Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you.

Yesterday, I ran into a bear.

I work at a regional university.  In a relatively poor state like Kentucky that means that we don’t have a good research library (it ain’t bad either) or lots of PhD programs (we have two) or academic reputation.  We accept almost everyone who applies, we struggle mightily to keep folks in school, and students are stretched thither and yon just to survive and learn. Friday was one of those days where only half the students came.  Every class was the same. Big holes.

I asked those who came, “Where is everybody?”  They shruggeth and say, “It’s Friday.”  Others say with not a whit of sarcasm, “Yeah, it’s the Friday before Spring Break.”  Really?  Were my students already leaving for Spring Break.

Look at all the cool stuff I brought along to share.

How dare they not come and partake of the feast I have prepared for them! How dare they indeed. How dare I, in fact, assume that my classroom was a feast day in some very weird university liturgical calendar and that it had to stay fixed. As Hemingway argued: life has to be a movable feast, it has to have many courses.

BIG NIGHT (1996) – I Secondi

Fragment of great movie called “Big Night” (1996) by trio Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott and Joseph Tropiano. It’s story about two italian brothers running restaurant in America. This clip contains chapter “I Secondi” which is part of title big night party. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) brings their’s guest to cuisine ecstasy.

I dare me. I dare you. I dare us.

Show Your Work | Find Your Link | Connect

Probably the most boring post I could write would be one where I “show my work”.  Who cares?  I don’t know how to answer that.  I write for an assumed audience-some I know might show up to read and others I don’t. And much of what I write about my own teaching practice is idiosyncratic and the product of twenty years teaching and at the same time unschooling our three (now adult) kids.  I am a witch’s brew of John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Ivan Illich, Grant Wiggins, Seymour Papert, John Dewey and being against the moronic cycles of reform that have nearly swamped us over those last twenty years. If I did not laugh, I would despair.

So…I have been looking very closely at my own practice especially what happens from the moment I leave the classroom at the end of day to the moment I begin the next day.  In other words how do I deal with the ‘daily prediction’ of teaching and learning.

The image below is an artifact from this daily feedforward of imagining what the next class will be like.  I write these on the smallest post-its I can get. I do that on purpose because it forces me into the simplest possible ‘dream’ of what might happen in the next class.

I enhanced this unreadable image below with little boxy callouts using SnagIt.


I have been sending Google Forms to students in my E300 Writing Across the Disciplines course and asking for feedback. I read them before my next class period. All of the items above (except presentation tools) were requested in this feedback.

I woolgather several times before the next class, just letting my mind idly consider what might happen in class.  Sometimes these are very pragmatic ‘fieldwalks of the imagination’ and other times they include some passing strangenesses.  (Of late, they have had a fearful tenor as I watch with worry that the Kentucky legislature will enact a concealed carry law for the post-secondary classroom, but I digress.)  Suffice to say this woolgathering by definition is a random walk of the imagination, purposely unintentional.

I have a one hour commute to school so I use that to consider further what might happen in the classroom.  When I get to school I make my class notes in the corner of the whiteboard. It is in small print and visible to students.  Inspired by my once a month Google Hangouts with Daniel Bassill and Simon Ensor, I have been reflecting on the nature of these notes.  Below are my notes for my Wednesday class along with comments via Vialogue.

I number the order of ‘things’ to be considered and then add a spice of improv.  Since I teach three sections of this course back-to-back, I get to reorder, discard, ‘add to’ in response to what students bring to the mix.  It is fun.  Take, for example, my Daniel & Simon motivated interest in networking with students.

I want my classes to be able to network among themselves as well as with others outside the classroom as part of their semester-long research project.  De-veiling these networks can be a devilish business.  I started simply with a Google Map where students could pin their homeplaces:

This leads to a discussion of the networks they are already a part of.  Someone mentions Wikipedia.  I counter with idea of API’s and how big networks connect overtly with others who want access to their big data. That led to an introduction to Wiki Gnomes and the fantastic network visualization/audio-ization, Hatnote.

Later in the class I circle back around to the presentation style, pechakucha, and Alan Levine’s super tool Pechaflickr.  Alan’s tool opens up the Flickr network, combines it with pechakucha and we get the full circle where the students can improvise presentations along with their classmates– revealing yet another network of skills and affordances hidden within the classroom.  We never knew this existed in this particular way before Alan helped us create the conditions for it to emerge.

What we discovered about networks today as we worked through the “class notes” was inspiring to me.  We learned that my three E300 classes are a nascent network, a face-to-face network enabled by the university schedule and calendar and personal circumstance .  It is also informed by other larger networks that are available for connection (Wikipedia, Hatnote, Flickr).  Lastly, we begin to grow into the idea that we have agency as we create more bridges and bonds within the community by using ideas and tools together. Perhaps we have community learning goals that are congruent with and linked to individual goals? We mos def shall see.

BTW, their assignment for Friday is to bring in three ideas for making networks visible.