This is a story about spaces, the spaces we use to connect, communicate, and learn. As a digital literacy coach, I have a front row seat with students, teachers and parents as we negotiate a variety of physical and digital spaces. This is an important concept, particularly to a Middle School student as they develop their sense of identity and strive to carve out their own niche from the landscape. The UWCSEA East Campus Middle School English classes taught by Paula Guinto and Jabiz Raisdana are exploring and developing some unique learning spaces for themselves as they pursue three fundamental ideas: developing a sense of identity, belonging to a community, and articulating new 'big ideas' as they develop.
Paula began her career in the Philippines teaching higher education. She was offered to teach a section of Grade 6 and fell in love with Middle School and a method of learning she calls 'the table.' "The teaching was collaborative and constructivist, but I didn't really even know that jargon. I learned that you could have a conversation and teach and learn; there didn't have to be a separate class discussion time. That's the real power of the table."
The table is a space for discussion where everyone's ideas are heard and valued. Participants speak directly to each other with as little interference from the teacher as possible while they negotiate different roles like facilitator, clarifier and synthesizer. "The less we said, the more we were amazed at what they knew, what they understood, what they were asking." At the table, the teacher does play a key, yet subtle role to nudge the conversation to deeper levels. "What we needed to learn was how to get kids involved who were not talking and other strategies to elevate the higher order thinking."
I’ve really enjoyed watching the way our students are challenged and engaged by table discussions. The way this unique collaborative partnership between Paula and her teaching partner, Jabiz, came about is also a story about spaces, social media spaces. "I knew him online through Twitter and Instagram before we met in person. I had a lot of respect for him as an author.” Similarly, I first met both Paula and Jabiz online before meeting in person. “We just started making plans and kept throwing ideas at each other. I just wanted to tell him that yes, I'm a collaborative person, but it's not going to be about my agenda, it's going to be about the school and how we're going to build it. It was going to be a remix of what I wanted to do, because I wanted to learn from him too," Paula said.
I asked Jabiz how knowing each other online influenced their collaboration. "Because of this connection, we were able to just get on with it without fear of being judged or going though that period where you’re trying to figure out what they’re like.” When Paula mentioned the concept of the table, Jabiz was immediately drawn to it as “an area I needed to develop. I've never been satisfied with my class discussions."
The two set about developing the table, both as a concrete place (they both have large tables that dominate their room) and as a method in other spaces including their couch/beanbag corner and online with the following purpose: ultimately allow us to cultivate a culture of collaborative conversation, not recitation (see "The Table" at Meta by Ms. Guinto or Cluespace by Mr. Raisdana).
As they were establishing the routine of the table, they helped each student create a blog as a place for them to develop their identity online and build community through writing. Students set up their blogs and adorned them with their own images and color schemes and then were left to write on them as they wished. "Too often blogs become dead spaces where students post assignments. We didn't want that for these spaces," Jabiz said. Blogs give students a place, a home base, that's theirs, a place to write, post images, express themselves and develop their sense of identity. Though they may have other spaces online, like Tumblr or Facebook, the blog is something that's theirs and theirs alone to shape as they wish.
Jabiz and Paula felt the “way in” for students on the blogs was to develop a culture of commenting. As one of Paula’s students observed:
“so, the blog is just like the table, only outside of school.”
Students began posting pieces of writing about football, friendships, and even chapters of a developing book. Jabiz initiated a protocol with his students where they’d check out the titles and opening lines of the posts, select four or five to read, and comment on two. “We immediately saw a change in the table discussions. Students were coming to the table with authentic things to say to each other based on what they’d read and commented on,” Paula observed. As it turned out the writing on the blogs fed the table discussion and things said around the table are also prompting the writing.
Students writing more frequently about topics they love for an authentic audience seems like an obvious win right? But, as we’ve had conversations with colleagues and parents, they wonder how this approach will help students develop as writers. "How did it affect the writing?" was one of the ‘big questions’ Paula considered. "And, we saw that it's not separate. When you write and you discuss, you refine your thinking. When your thinking is refined your writing and your discussing become refined." Paula continued, "So it all became about the other. Sometimes you discuss so you can write about it, sometimes you write so you can discuss, but all of it is about critical thinking."
The combination of the table and blog has become a special formula for Paula and Jabiz, one that they’re sharing with others. Both recently presented the concepts at the Learning 2.0 conference in Beijing and they continue to write about their experiences in their own online spaces. Yet, both are taking a cautious approach to the early success they’ve had. Paula notes, “It's just a seed that's still fragile and growing and finding its truth and we are both really careful to nurture it and let it grow.”
“Things seem to be happening. I am not sure what is happening exactly, or where we are headed, but something feels different this year. I don’t want to jinx it, because like a young sprout our program is still very tender and potentially susceptible to failure, but many people have been asking me what is different about this year.”
I’ve been lucky to observe students develop their individual voices by writing on the blogs, reading and commenting on each other's posts, and then bringing the big ideas to the table to be discussed and taken to deeper levels with the help of two very skilled, passionate teachers who were fortunate enough to know each other before they actually met. I’m not sure if that’s the “what’s different” that Jabiz refers to, but I certainly recognise how they each bring something unique to the partnership and the way they’ve been able to fast-forward their professional relationship. That’s the power of collaboration and the power of the network.
Read more from Paula
- Article on the 'Blogging to learn' panel discussion
- Her blog - Negotiating meaning
Read more from Jabiz
- East Campus
- Teaching and Learning