Hip Hop Genius: Remixing Education

In this video, Sam Seidel defines hip hop genius as creative resourcefulness in the face of limited resources, or, as it’s known in hip hop, flipping something out of nothing. He argues for the need to transform schools using hip hop genius.



These are just a few of the ways Seidel proposes we can use hip hop genius in education that struck me as salient for hybrid pedagogy:

  • the role of sampling/remixing: teachers can borrow from diverse models and improvise innovative blends of educational practices; we don’t have to do the same old thing or follow one model
  • staying fresh: we must do something new and different to remain relevant; this is a continuous process
  • students have brilliant ideas and instincts: as teachers we should respect and build on their ideas and instincts and allow students to engage as creators, not consumers

The aspect of hip hop culture to which I am most drawn is graffiti. As Seidel points out, graffiti artists realized that they didn’t need a private art gallery for their work to be seen. By using the urban landscape as their art gallery, their work could reach a much wider public audience. But this was (and still is) seen as disruptive, so graffiti artists began to use the disruptive nature of their art as a way to voice political and cultural protests (in much the same way that skateboarders are forced to be disruptive because they have been denied spaces within which to practice their art).

Our students now have the public space in which to explore and create, but far too often they are denied these spaces by schools, teachers, and parents because the spaces and what they do within them are viewed as disruptive, when what we should be doing is encouraging and teaching them to use these spaces in ways that are relevant and meaningful to others and that allow them to engage in promoting change and innovation.

We need to empower them to make their hustle positive or they will (continue to) use it as a negative response to our irrelevancy.

photo credit: niznoz via photo pin cc

If Context Shapes Content, What Does It Mean for Hybrid Pedagogy?

This TEDx talk by skateboarder Rodney Mullen fascinates and inspires me, not as skateboarder (which I am most definitely not) but as a teacher and advocate of hybrid pedagogy:

Here are some of the points that I took away from Mullen’s talk that I think impact pedagogy and hybrid pedagogy in particular:

  • the joy is in creating
  • everything is built upon a basic infrastructure
  • what drives us is doing something new
  • context shapes content
  • different environments change the nature of what you’re doing & lead to innovation
  • skateboarding is both disruptive and humbling
  • being in the moment and trusting your intuition leads to new cognitive connections
  • the beauty of skateboarding is that no guy is the best
  • members of the community use skateboarding to individuate themselves
  • they do this by taking others’ tricks, making them their own, and contributing back to the community in a way that edifies the community itself
  • summation gives us something we could never achieve individually
  • hack=knowing a technology so well you can manipulate it and steer it to do things it was never intended to do
  • hacking involves thinking about and doing things in ways that aren’t authorized
  • hacking involves connecting disparate information in unexpected ways
  • open source operates on the premise of taking what others do, making it better, and giving it back
  • there is an intrinsic value in the act of creating for the sake of creating [and teaching/learning for the sake of teaching/learning]

I have not yet begun to process these ideas and figure out exactly how they apply to the 21st century classroom. I’d love for others to begin to discuss, debate, and evaluate these ideas in terms of pedagogy.

How do the practices and rules of skateboarding relate to (or should be incorporated into) our classrooms (both physical and virtual)?

Building a Learning Skatepark, Part 2: Zen and the Art of Failure

photo credit: amber_rsm via photo pin cc

In a Chronicle of Higher Education post I read last week, “The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn,” James M. Lang summarizes a recent study that found that creating cognitive disfluency helps students learn more deeply. In other words, the easier we make things for our students, the less they will learn. This is not really news to me. I’ve been trying for several years now to create cognitive dissonance in my students by asking them to do things they’ve never done before–to read, think, and write critically and analytically; to use software and tools that are unfamiliar and have, in some cases, steep learning curves; to question, debate, and disagree with me and each other; to not be satisfied with good enough or mediocre thinking or writing. These are hard things to ask students to do, especially freshman, because making learning hard is not the norm in our current educational system. In fact, I would argue that we’ve made things too easy on students. I used to be one of the worst offenders. I coddled and spoon fed my freshman because I bought into the idea that they weren’t smart enough or mature enough or didn’t want to do the kind of work that I really thought college students should do. While I inwardly cringed whenever a colleague would remark upon the need to “dumb down” the curriculum, I nonetheless contributed to the process out of fear.

But fear of what?

Failure. I didn’t want my students to fail. If my students failed, I thought, then somehow I also failed as a teacher. And, like my students, I was afraid of failure.

I, too, am a product of the factory system of education. Failure was never an option for me as a student. Failure was scary and to be avoided at all costs. Failure was bad.

Schooling has made us all fear failure, the teachers just as much as the students. But, as Dr. Tae points out in “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?”, in skateboarding, failure is normal. Not only is it normal, but it’s expected. When failure is expected, then it’s no longer stigmatized. Everyone who skateboards fails, so they know what failure feels and looks like and they know that failure is a necessary part of the process of learning. This is just the opposite of what students experience during traditional schooling, when it should be the norm. What happens when failure is not the norm–when it is stigmatized–is that students become so uncomfortable with failure that they’ll do anything to not fail, including avoidance and dishonesty, which, ironically, are behaviors that will lead to certain failure in college. I experience the most push-back–in the form of everything from anger to tears to plagiarism to tuning out–when I ask students to step out of their comfort zones and into cognitive disfluency. They barrage me with verbal maneuvering: “This is too hard.” “I don’t know how to do this.” “I can’t do this, can’t you let me do something else?” “I don’t understand this.” They put an inordinate amount of effort into avoiding the possibility of failure.

So, how do we make failure the norm and remove the stigmatism?

First, I think that we have to model what we expect from our students. We have to overcome our own fears about failure. As I’ve stepped out of my own teaching comfort zone, I’ve become much more comfortable with failure. In fact, I’ve learned to not only admit my teaching failures, but to share them via my blog. I also purposely place myself in the same situations that I place my students in. Last term, for example, I began using Google spreadsheets to gather data from students in some of my classes. I’m comfortable with Excel, but Excel does not do what Google Docs can do in terms of open, collaborative access and real-time updating. I had already created a draft of the course schedule in Excel (within a matter of minutes), but decided to finish it in Google Docs. What followed was a laborious process as I learned how to format codes for hyperlinks. Each time I failed to code the link correctly, I would have to meticulously examine my coding to locate my mistakes and then correct them. My cognitive disfluency was at a maximum, but if I had stuck with Excel, then I never would have learned how to use Google spreadsheets.

Secondly, I think that we have to be open with students about failure–our own and theirs. We need to talk about failure with our students and let them know that it’s okay to fail–that failure is, in fact, expected. When it became painfully obvious that my hybrid FYC course was a failure, I openly discussed it with my students and asked them to stop and assess the course so that we could figure out what had went wrong and how we could fix it. Failure is not the end of the world, as some students believe. In fact, sometimes it’s just the beginning.

Thirdly, I think that we need to make students responsible for thinking about and assessing their own learning. We need to teach them how to be more “meta.” I try to do this via regular student self-assessments within the context of deliberate practice and by using portfolios for summative assessments. Today, a student pointed out that there was a disconnect between my assessment of their writing and their own. Whereas they had thought their early writings were much better than I had, they saw their recent writings as less effective than I did. The explanation was simple: the student had learned how to recognize their own failings as a writer and was now much harder on themselves. My early feedback seemed harsh because at the time they saw their writing through rose-colored glasses; they hadn’t yet learned how to practice deliberately . But now, they’ve achieved “meta:” instead of wanting to not fail at writing, they want to be better at writing (and there is a distinct difference).

photo credit: Steve A Johnson via photo pin cc

The problem with creating cognitive disfluency, as I’ve pointed out, is that there’s a zen-like balance that we, as teachers, have to achieve between challenging our students and motivating them. Lang identifies the same dilemma:

But, of course, if we push them too hard toward disfluency, we may end up discouraging them and shutting off their learning altogether. . .

The challenge that we face, then, is to create what psychologists call “desirable difficulties”: enough cognitive disfluency to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.

This is the part of pedagogy that poses the most difficulty for me and that I am struggling with at the moment. I don’t automatically know the correct formula. Which means that I’m going to have to play with it, which means that, more than likely, I’m going to fail at it before I get it right (if I ever get it right). But I’m okay with that.

In the meantime, the question that keeps harshing my mellow is how do I address the even bigger challenge of teaching my students to be okay with the discomfort of cognitive disfluency?

Creating a Learning Skatepark, Step 1: Deliberate Practice

photo credit: Andrés Navarro García via photo pin cc

In my last post, I shared a video that compared learning to skateboarding; while this video has had a major positive impact on my teaching philosophy, I mentioned the negative impact that it has had on the control that I feel I have over the learning that takes place in my classroom:

I think that everything Dr. Tae says is true about learning. And it’s kind of scary because it means that there’s even less that I can do about my students’ learning than I thought. They all learn at their own pace, learning is not always fun for them (and if we think that we can make it fun all the time, then we’re deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure), and failure is guaranteed (at least at first).

I thought that I would write a series of posts that address how I have remixed my classroom as a result of these realities. I now see myself less as a sage on the stage or even a guide on the side, and more of an architect. As Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” The first thing that is necessary for creating conditions for learning is allowing students the freedom, space, and time to practice (and failure needs to be both expected and acceptable, but that’s a topic for another post). It does no good to create the conditions for learning–a skatepark, to use Dr. Tae’s analogy–and then try to tell your students what they need to do and how to do it. And then tell them they get one chance to try it and if they fail then, not only will they be penalized with a bad grade that stays with them for the rest of their time at the skatepark, but they won’t get any further opportunities to try to master the trick (unless it’s by re-taking the class again next term) and they’ll have to move on to the next trick on the list of tricks they must learn, whether they’ve mastered the first trick or not. And guess what? The next trick is even harder and requires mastery of the first trick. This is no more of an effective way of helping students learn as it is to put your kid on a bicycle with no training wheels, tell them they’ve got one chance to get it right, and then give them a big push.

But just any old practice is not going to do. One of the characteristics of learning to skateboard is working at a skill or trick until you get it right, not half-way or almost there, but right. This requires a type of practice called deliberate practice, which requires both a focused and concerted effort on mastery of a skill and reflection on what worked and what didn’t work during each practice session. I often have my students read this article from Time on the role of deliberate practice in becoming a great musician and we discuss the similarities between learning to play an instrument (or learning to perform a skateboard trick) and writing. What the studies on deliberate practice make clear is that the most important thing about practice is not how long or how much you practice; it’s about being able to recognize what you did wrong and making a commitment to figuring out how to do it right.

And this is what I require my students to do with each of their writing assignments (which I now call opportunities because, at the skatepark, every session is an opportunity to practice with and learn from other skaters). Firstly, I use a portfolio system. This allows students some freedom from the pressures of being graded on each writing performance. It also means that I’ve removed the sticks and carrots from my classroom. If students do anything in my classroom, they have to do it because they want to. I refuse to bribe them into being there and doing anything they don’t truly want to do. Only hardcore skaters are allowed at my park. And, yes, that means that some students drop or opt out. That’s their choice.

The second way I have integrated deliberate practice into my writing classes is by requiring students to self-assess each of their writing “practice sessions.” I’ll discuss my method in depth in a future post, but basically each student has to answer a set of questions about their final draft that addresses what they think is working and not working in the piece. They also have to set goals for themselves for their next “practice session,” selecting at least one weakness in the current piece they will work at weeding out of their next draft (and, if necessary, the next one and the next one, etc.). I then focus my feedback around their assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their writing and where they need to focus their deliberate practice efforts.

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photo pin cc

But what I really wanted to focus on in this post is allowing my writing students to have some deliberate practice with engaging in the academic conversation–the type of dialogue that I want them to have with the sources that they are integrating into their blog posts. By far the most effective method for teaching students the type of summary and response that all academic writing engages in that I’ve used is Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s “The say/I say/So what?” method. But even with providing them with the templates from the book, my freshmen still struggle with how to effectively agree with someone (and disagreeing they won’t touch with a thirty-nine and half foot pole). So I designed a couple of different spaces  that allow them some deliberate practice with agreeing and disagreeing with their peers in preparation for agreeing and disagreeing with their sources.

We begin with a safe zone–the physical classroom–and a buddy system–peer groups–for testing the academic conversation waters. Students are grouped from the very first class meeting with 3-4 peers with whom they will stay for the whole term (I’ve considered the idea of rotating group members, as some instructors do, but once students become comfortable with each other, I think fear of failure decreases dramatically, so right now I’m opting for building a layer of protection with the peer groups). Their groups are where they will test out their ideas, bounce around arguments, and receive feedback during the entire process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and publishing a piece of writing. I’ve spent quite a few semesters eavesdropping on the conversations that go on during these group sessions and am always surprised at how honest students will be with a small group of peers, especially once they have connected with each other and realize that everyone else is just as lost as they are when it comes to this academic writing thing.

Once students are pretty secure about their ideas and how best to communicate them, they publish their piece on their blog. I won’t spend time here discussing the benefits of having students blog. There are pros and cons and I have weighed them both and tried various methods and have had overwhelming success with public student blogs, both in terms of the quality of the students’ ideas and their writing and in terms of the feedback from the students on the positive impact of blogging on their feelings about writing. Among the many reasons why I require my students to blog, one is the dialogue that it creates around the students’ own writing. That’s the whole purpose of a public blog–to generate a discussion about an issue or topic. How much more exciting do you think students find it that their writing will be read and discussed by their peers rather than unceremoniously tossed in the trash after a cursory once-over by their profs? Just ask your students this question and see what happens. And if it doesn’t excite them, then you need to find something that does and that may not involve blogging (but that’s okay, there’s other ways to skin a cat).

The point of publishing their writing on their blog is so that the entire class has an opportunity to read what they have to say and respond to it in some way. So I require students to read and respond to at least three peers’ blog posts each week (I’m currently trying out a system of rotating students between the roles of bloggers and readers/commenters; I’ll let you know how that turns out and whether I’ll make it a regular practice or not). I give them some guidelines on how to comment on a blog post using a handout on commenting in online discussions that I found online and remixed to focus on blog comments. And then I let them practice–deliberatively. And I model effective blog commenting by commenting myself (more on the importance of role models in the skatepark later). One thing I’m trying out this summer is having students use Storify to create annotated bibliographies for their research, embed their “stories” in their blog, and then read and comment on each others’ bibliographies. So far, I think it’s working. Here’s a snippet from the comments on a student’s annotated bibliography post:

There are a couple of things going on here (all good, I think). Students are practicing agreeing and disagreeing with each other and they are providing feedback on the reliability and relevancy of research sources. The hope is that they will internalize these assessment skills and learn to apply them to their own research and writing practice.

That’s my hope, anyway. I don’t expect these kinds of comments from every student with every blog post. Some will get it faster than others. Some will not get it until the very end. Some may never get it (but hopefully will down the road if they get another instructor who’s willing to provide them the chance to try). And that’s okay. I’ve provided them with the space to practice in, some guidelines on how to know when they’ve got it right, and the freedom to try and fail as many times as they need to to get it right. If they learn anything, I hope it’s that it’s okay to suck at something when you try it the first time and that it doesn’t mean you can’t get better at it, and maybe even great at it, with a little deliberate practice.

I’m interested in how others are integrating deliberate practice into their classrooms and which methods you’ve found effective and ineffective. So, please share your ideas, stories, and questions. After all, students aren’t the only ones who benefit from deliberate practice.




Remixing College English

Damian Marley & Nas collaborating & sampling African music

I’ve been putting this off for a while. But when you start composing blog posts in your head you know it’s time to start blogging. I’ve been doing that for some time now, but every time I would think to myself, “I make my students blog, I should be blogging, too,” the other voice in my head (the sane one) would respond, “But when do you have the time?” I’m already remixing my classroom, which takes up a lot of my free time (what little I have of it). Do I really want to take precious time away from doing something that I’m so passionate about and that requires so much research, self-training (in technical stuff), planning, and revising? But I just can’t stop writing blog posts in my head and I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, the stuff I’m doing in my classes is really making a difference and maybe, just maybe, others can learn from my successes and my mistakes. So here goes. My first blog post (other than the dozen or so I’ve written in my head).

So, where to begin? Maybe with what I mean by remixing. I think of remixing as meaning various things. There’s the association with rap and hip-hop artists’ sampling and remixing of other music. I certainly do that. But all teachers do. We steal and plagiarize each other’s lessons and syllabi all the time and put our own little spin on them. The first lesson that you learn as a teacher is to never spend time re-inventing the wheel. There’s also the idea of mixing things up, remaking them anew. This kind of remixing is similar to quilting–taking the usable pieces of discarded clothing and fabric and piecing them together in a way that makes them both newly serviceable and newly beautiful, in fact, often more beautiful than they were before. That’s what I’d like to think I’m doing as a college instructor–not only am I finding new utilities for old methods, but I’m putting them together in a totally new and innovative way. That’s the word one of my students from my Spring Hybrid First-Year Composition course used when he was having his mid-term conference with me: innovative. He actually called my class innovative. I’ve been riding on that high for months now.

But it’s not good enough to be innovative. I also have to be effective. That’s the most important thing. And the hardest. But this blog will be a record of my attempts to be both innovative and effective.

This is a video that came across my radar last semester. It struck a nerve with me and I haven’t been able to shake the implications that it has for me, my students, and my teaching.

I think that everything Dr. Tae says is true about learning. And it’s kind of scary because it means that there’s even less that I can do about my students’ learning than I thought. They all learn at their own pace, learning is not always fun for them (and if we think that we can make it fun all the time, then we’re deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure), and failure is guaranteed (at least at first).I have, during a traditional term, 14 weeks to try to teach them how to write well. Or how to analyze a piece of literature and articulate that analysis, with effective supporting details, in writing. Many of them are very poorly prepared for the type of writing I’m asking them to do. Many of them don’t even know how to write a clear and complete sentence. Those who do know how to put together a mechanical five paragraph essay (with 5-7 sentences in each paragraph), pride themselves on making it through twelve years of school without reading a book. And my job is to teach them how to read critically and to analyze what they read. But if they can’t understand the words that are being used in the texts they have to read, it’s hard for them to do that. And when you factor in these realities with the realities of learning that Dr. Tae so brilliantly articulates, the task before us becomes overwhelming. But not impossible.

I’ve been remixing my classes for about a year now, staring last Fall with my first hybrid classes. And in that year, I have witnessed the possibilities that open up when you open yourself and your teaching up to the students’ points of view and the potential that they have. They are living in what many are calling the greatest age of information revolution since the invention of the printing press. They are a generation with the world at their fingertips. And many of them want to do something with their potential and their possibilities. As Dylan said, “The order is rapidly fading.” The old ways of reading, thinking, writing, and learning are being transformed, remixed, and, in some cases, abandoned. And we’re going to have to “get out of the new [road]” if we can’t adapt to and adopt it as our own. Our students are already on it and they are not able or willing to turn around and change their direction. That’s a challenge that we’re going to have to meet. And I’m trying. It’s hard and time-consuming but I have never felt more like a teacher.