Monday, May 26, 2014

Socratic Spaces

Learning communities are networks, systems that themselves grow and learn, propelled by the interactions of their members.  Socratic spaces are a vital network element enabling learning of both individual and group, created by a collection of mindsets - respecting conflicting point of view, empathizing with the speaker, understanding cultural perspective - and methods of knowing when to ask the probing why and how questions to drive thinking deeper.  Paulo Freire identified these critical discussions as essential to learning - where our ideas conflict, our potential to learn is greatest.  Where two beams of light intersect, their brilliance is most intense.   Today in the 21st century, we add the lever of technology and we potentially move the earth.
Enter Mrs. Renee Cheng's fifth grade class where students engaged in a three week project using poetry, social issue driven literature, in class Socratic book clubs, and online platforms to deepen their reflective process.  Our goal was to create a mixture of classroom discussion and lab space combined with an online platform to invite multiple forms of student expression. Students amazed us with their ability to revisit, rethink, and deepen their thinking through the combination of classroom time discussion and online sharing space.
Our project began within metered verse, the wails of the blues, and the polyrhythms of be bop jazz captured by Langston Hughes.  We began by singing a blues version of "Madam and Her Madam", rapping "Children's Rhyme", and dramatically reciting "A Dream Deferred".  To better grasp historical distance we traced the line of thought from a young African American "...I know I can't be president..." to the modern times of Obama's inaugural speech referencing Martin Luther King's "dream", then back to Langston's "dream deferred".  Then we dove into a closer analysis of "Madam and Her Madam", a narrative of a mistreated maid by her employer.  Students grappled with writing in first person from four different perspectives - the maid, the Madam, the poet, and the modern reader - then used iPads to capture their metacognition of the process in Explain Everything screencasts.  With Google Sites as a sharepoint, the dialogue continued the following day in class.
The next phase of the project challenged students to a real life practicum, a Skype interview with Australian poet Kevin Brophy at the University of Melbourne.  To spark questioning, two poems from Kevin served as insight into Brophy’s perspective.  Through Google Docs students brainstormed, edited, and revised their inquiry, finalizing a list of probing questions.
At 8:00 AM we arranged arena seating around out projected screen.  We DC laughed at the notion of us being in Brophy’s past, he in our future.  Then Omer started with a bang,
“Ok.. so a famous Israeli poet once said, ‘A man is model of his own homeland.’ In what way is poetry affected by your homeland?”  
Students posed questions while the class frantically collaborated on collective notes online.  Kevin was playful and laughed with each student, picking up on minuscule details in their appearance and mannerisms, and then, through a mixture of poems he recited to the class and anecdotes from his own life, he dove straight into life’s heartiest matters - nationalism and identity, estranged parents, global warming, child abuse, how to maintain inspiration and creativity, and advice on finding direction in life…
“You don’t really choose what you become you just become what you are.”
It was impossible not to be moved by the acuity of his thinking and glaring honesty with the students.  I wondered if we had pushed our fifth graders into issues too deep to digest, but, as defined by Aristotle, the right mix of ethos, pathos, and logos makes something unavoidably interesting.  Over the next few days we watched as scattered seeds germinated.
That night students collaborated on a Google Document transcribing the interview, embellishing details like a few moments of dramatic silence went by, and, Jiho got up and left dramatically.  They also identified the parts of the interview that were most meaningful.  In class these highlights became the central focus of silent, slow motion socratic dialogues using post its and butcher paper, as we emphasized that reading and writing are just very slow conversations that allow one to encapsulate thoughts before sharing them.  To explore different platforms of expression these threads were digitized using Murally, a Google App that serves as an interactive posting board.  A line from one of Brophy’s poems, “panic is our companion”, instigated a vibrant discussion.  Joshua explained…
“...even when you're crying your eyes out, a bit of panic is with you, because your sane side thinks, ‘I'm so upset, I might get TOO out of control in emotion, and start getting angry, and you know where the panic goes from there.’ So, panic is kind of a second brain in your body, a second personality, always looking for what to worry about, what to be afraid of, what to panic about.”
One of many more beautiful examples inviting an openness in student reflection in thought we don’t always find face to face interaction.  Technology served as a medium to capture student expression through collaborative documents, verbal-visual-tactile Explain Everything screencasts, backchannel discussion threads, live interviewing with Skype, slow motion socratic dialogue using Murally, and Google Sites as the platform base for documenting and curating everything.  All of this to create a living classroom space where the critical discussion has already begun prior to the real time meeting, and a revisiting space is there to collect student thought in multiple formats.

And as always, this is not about the technology, it’s about fomenting the learning community by enabling every learner.  Technology just makes it more intense, more immediate, more flexible, more metacognitive, more integrative, more personal… and, more fun!

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