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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

CEP 818: Synthesizing (The Argument)

How Do I Love Thee
By: Rachael Hilliker

I am not a classroom teacher; however I would argue that we are all students and teachers in some respect. What I have learned in the past few months about the importance of creativity in teaching and learning has been enlightening, inspiring and compelling.  Creating a compelling experience for a student is not necessarily something the average teacher may consider in outlining the curriculum and lesson plans. Teachers often hope to just have adequate time to cover statistics, dates, names and other necessary components for successful standardized testing. What if you could cover all of that material more efficiently than through lectures and quizzes while allowing for more time to reflect on your student’s achievements? What if rather than spending hours grading long research papers that may or may not be remembered by the student years down the road you could invest more time into fine tuning the compelling experience your classroom is for each learner?
Besides our own observations that teaching can be challenging when it comes to engaging the learners, there has also been recent research that supports this. “The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) was developed in 1966 and renormed five times…. Analysis of the normative data showed that creative thinking scores remained static or decreased, starting at sixth grade. Results also indicated that since 1990, even as IQ scores have risen, creative thinking scores have significantly decreased. The decrease for kindergartners through third graders was the most significant (Kim, 2011).” 

When you look around your classroom, do your students look bored, confused, or even distracted? Have your attempts at making the lesson the more engaging felt as though they were missing something? “The significant decrease of Strengths scores since 1990 indicates that over the last 20 years, children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle (Kim, 2011).”  So what can teachers do get creativity back into the classroom and create compelling experiences for their students and themselves? If you take heed of the following cognitive tools, you will create a more dynamic and compelling experience for your students and for yourself.

In the book “Sparks of Genius” by Robert and Michelle Root-Bernstein, they provide a step by step analysis and guide for navigating the thirteen cognitive tools they identified as being necessary to fostering the creative process. The tools they have identified are as follows: observing, imaging, abstracting, recognizing patterns, forming patterns, analogizing, body thinking, empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transforming, and synthesizing. By combining some of the tools above, we can condense those tools into seven steps to take in the creative process using all of those tools: perceiving, abstracting, patterning, embodied thinking, modeling, playing and synthesizing. These are not just steps for the teacher to take in formulating their lessons, but they are also steps the student should take in learning the material.  

Regardless of your topic, these steps can be taken by both the teacher and the student in the learning process. The results will be more effective communication of material, a higher level of engagement from students, a deeper level of critical thinking on the subject matter, and overall higher level of satisfaction of the compelling experience by all those involved. Although connecting topics like social inequality with tools like “patterning’ may seem an easy task when initially considered, after all there are stratification patterns in social demographics to begin with.  However, by incorporating the cognitive tools in your formulation you will begin to perceive these patterns in a more abstract way.  

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou is a great example for a student of any age to explore social injustice. Giving the assignment to a student to read this poem and explain its meaning in a paper would be good way to see if the student understands the basic literary concepts, illustrations of social injustice and the inter-disciplinary inferences that can be made. This poem invokes various feelings for the reader. The use of visual words can create images in our minds. When one reads the poem over and over they can find that the images change. What does the poem smell like? Taste like? Look like? Sound like? Feel like? The words on the page don't smell, taste, sound or feel like anything. They look like words. What does social injustice smell like? Perhaps it smells like the homeless man on the street. It might taste bitter (figuratively). It may sound like a person crying or a bird singing (happily or sadly). It could feel cold or lonely like the inside of a prison cell for a wrongly convicted person. It may look like a caged bird. Take the poem and try to perceive it differently than a standard lesson plan would allow. 

People can have varied perceptions about paintings, poems, pictures, events and even words. Perceiving a topic differently can help students make a connection to the material and also foster creativity. Completing this type of activity can help the teacher and students perceive things differently. How many different ways can we present a lesson about poetry or social injustice? These activities are not only helpful in thinking of how to design lessons on a new level  but also in generating ideas on how students will make connections with topics and activities that they can do to make those connections.  

Having a visual vocabulary to go along with the poem can help the reader think about the meaning of the poem. Does the caged bird "sing" because it’s happy? Is the caged bird trying to find the "good" in being caged? Is the "free" bird really free? What does freedom look like? How is a caged bird like social inequality? Are the impoverished like the caged bird? Some may feel like they are caged going to an office everyday and looking out the window at people walking by wishing they were "free" to be out there as well. 

As one moves along in the activity, they may consider how others would re-image or perceive the poem. If one asks students to do a presentation where they choose photographs specifically to illustrate the poem, would their photos be entirely different? What would happen if they were asked to take their own photos to illustrate the poem and present it? The results would most likely show their level of understanding of the poem itself and it may reveal something about their own world view. What if current events were incorporated into the lesson as well?
By overlapping an image of caged bars on top of an image showing the paradox many voters experience suddenly before a presidential election the poem is being reimaged. Many people feel the new voter id laws are social inequality at its worst and they are "singing" about it. They feel "caged" because it is a law being implemented by government who has control over the people. They feel as though they are standing on the graves of dreams because their right to vote has been taken away from them-them being specific demographics like the elderly, blacks, students, impoverished, etc. The "free" bird would be those in other demographics-the rich, white, typically middle age male who naturally would have a driver's license no matter what because their demographic relies much more on one than other demographics. The passing of these laws clip the wings and tie the feet of the caged bird. 

The cognitive tool of patterning can assist in problem solving. By recognizing patterns in math, language, and even society-one can better "see" and understand the problem and potential solution(s). Patterns in social equality or inequality through charts and graphs are very easy to find online. However, part of teaching social justice issues is connecting the data with the emotional side of the student. While one may think some activists are "born" in current social problem classes, is it because the student is able to see the patterns in history on their own doing and not because of a stellar bar graph? How can teachers make these patterns real for them?
In a caste system, the social injustices are felt most in the impoverished populations as well as the minorities (sometimes these are overlapping). Review the educational disparities among men and women and ethnic minorities over the last 100 years by going to Harvard’s website.  They have law school graduating class photos all the way back to the late 1800’s. Seeing the people and being able to recognize their race and gender while they are all in a pattern (in rows lined up) would be a great way to illustrate the disparities in education.

To make the patterns connect for them, I believe it is necessary to use examples that have a human connection. What better way to connect than with photos of actual humans? 

Visually,  photos represent the statistics regarding these disparities over time. It is obvious that Harvard (like many other colleges) had mostly male Caucasian/white graduates for years.

How do you abstract social injustice or inequality? Cartoonist often present current events related to social injustice or inequality in their work.

Photographers often capture dramatic examples of social injustices or inequalities due to current or staged events.

Typically in a peaceful protest, you don't see the participants being pepper sprayed. The officer was later reprimanded for his actions. In the photo, it is easy to see people holding up cell phones and recording the injustice.

A depiction of a shopper walking by a poor man showing, once again, the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots." In this photo, the abstract depiction of the subject matter can prompt the viewer of this photo to "see" different things by observing. One might not necessarily only draw the conclusion of social inequality by looking at it. One may see it as -- a "problem" of homelessness in the urban areas. One could also see it as the two people in the photo not noticing each other because they are so different.
With abstracting and analogies, we try looking at two topics that are seemingly unrelated. How much do our birth traits effect our social position in life? With an infographic the student can see that by certain birth traits we are closer to success or at the very least access to certain things-education, health care, etc. Try to creating an infographic like the one below:

While creating an infographic might not be "abstracting" the subject matter directly, it may be an activity that leads to opening up the doorway to abstracting.  The idea of an infographic to depict social disparities is not commonplace. Infographics are usually used to visually represent data.  While actual data isn’t used in the above infographic, it is illustrating the concept of the disparities visually.

Much of our access to education, health care and "wealth" can be determined by where are born (developed or undeveloped nation), our gender, our "race", ethnicity, and the socio-economic status of our parents. Sure, one can achieve upward mobility-for women the easiest way to do so is by "marrying up".  However, getting the student to think about the fact that if they had been born another gender, race, in a different place in the world---how much would their lives be different and would they have taken a different path?

Social injustice or inequality inherently involves emotion-and embodied thinking incorporates our emotional impulses as much as body movement itself. The Blue-Eyed/Brown-Eyed experiment conducted by Jane Elliot illustrates embodied thinking very well. While an Institutional Review Board (IRB) may not be very fond of one conducting this experiment the way Dr. Elliot did, it is possible to incorporate this experiment (briefly) into a lesson plan even by just showing the PBS special created about it rather than conduct the actual experiment itself. PBS's website even has a Teacher's Guide which states: "A Class Divided is an encore presentation of the classic documentary on third-grade teacher Jane Elliott's "blue eyes/brown eyes" exercise, originally conducted in the days following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. This guide is designed to help you use the film to engage students in reflection and dialogue about the historical role of racism in the United States, as well as the role of prejudice and stereotyping in students' lives today. Because the film deals with racism and prejudice, it may raise deep emotions for both you and your students. Some students may be confronted with privilege for the first time while others may see an affirmation of a lifetime of discrimination. As you see in the film, frustration, anger, and pain are not uncommon responses to being confronted with bias and inequity. To prepare yourself, plan to spend some time viewing and reflecting on the film by yourself or with trusted colleagues, family, or friends before bringing it in the classroom. That way you won't be processing your own raw emotions while also trying to help students deal with their own potentially intense reactions."
John Stossel discussed this experiment along with other stereotypes at one time. An interesting part of his story is when Dr. Elliot reenacts this experiment many years later with students who know it is an experiment and yet it still invokes strong emotions in them-tears, anger, frustration, etc. This is something these students will never forget as an experience-and their entire bodies reacted to it. The research subjects empathized with the subject matter and felt the emotions. It was a compelling experience and it taught them very valuable lessons about stereotyping, social inequality and social injustice in an atypical format.

Another example of embodied thinking as it relates to social justice would be protesting. "Standing together" to protest something you feel is an injustice is allowing your body to speak for your mind on a topic. History has shown us time after time instances where people physically protest (picket lines, chaining themselves to trees, forming human chains, etc.) to send their message to others (government, unions, societies, corporations, etc.).  "Standing up" for something you believe in is a physical expression of belief as much as it is a figurative explanation of actions.  Creating an activity where students create protests signs displaying their personal viewpoints and having them stand in front of the class while holding those signs would be an excellent activity that would convey the step of embodied thinking. 

Two other cognitive tools teachers should examine in the classroom are modeling and playing. Take for example an online role playing video game from Games for Change. "Like most game prototypes created by the students at the GAMBIT Game Lab, A Closed World was designed to explore and research different aspects of games, in this case, the lack of compelling video game content for LGBTQ youth (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). A Closed World takes the gameplay aesthetics and mechanics of ‘JRPGs’ (Japanese role playing games) and puts you in control of a character of ambiguous gender that begins exploring a forest on the edge of town. Disregarding rumors of ‘demons’ that exist in the forest who have the ability to ‘destroy’ your village, your character must overcome the hardships of a forbidden relationship by exploring what lies inside the forest. Through this journey, players battle the forest’s ‘demons’ and the ideals they are trying to force upon them. The players’ only defense is their logic, passion, ethics, and the ability to remain calm during conflict. As ‘demons’ attack with their beliefs, they must fight back and defy their ideas of what’s ‘normal’ and what love is supposed to look like."

While playing this game students may experience emotional responses confronting the demons in the game. Using this game in the classroom or as homework even to generate discussion on the societal views of LGTBQ people and perhaps create discussion regarding the local communities’ treatment of, policies that support or discriminate against LGTB people. Whether the student can relate to the views regarding LGTBQ people because of a personal experience does not need to be discussed prior to the game for it creates a very compelling experience on its own. 

Games allow the student to have an emotional experience with topics and model the situations others face daily when they deal with them. When a student simply reads a chapter about discrimination or authoritarian control and is able to recite the theories involved, he or she has learned information. However, when a student plays a game they are able to put those theories into practice and see the results of their choices immediately. While both of the games have scripts and don't allow for complete free thinking, they do model typical responses that the average person would most likely take. Enabling the student to still have choices over how they play the game is an example of our everyday real world experiences that shape sociological theories and norms.
In the publication "Simple Games for Teaching Sociological Perspectives: Four Examples of the Do-It-Yourself Approach" by Roger Straus, the author illustrates sociological perspectives by way of role playing games. They are designed allow for much more creative freedoms for the players.

The first game he discusses is a "Gender Reversal Game". In the game, the players assume the gender role of the opposite sex and carry out improvisational role playing situations where the student is asked to model the behavior (body language, mannerisms, voice inflection, vernacular, etc.) of the opposite sex.
The "gender roles" we have defined by society are changing-and in fact have changed drastically since this publication in 1986.  Using such a game in the classroom could involve adding a decade and give specific scenarios to re-enact.  In other words, behave like a member of the opposite sex in the 1950's in the scenario of "dinner table" or "date night" (men would be acting like women from the 1950s and women acting like men from the 1950s in those situations).  Of course the game could still be used as intended and ask them to take on modern day gender roles-but have the lines between men and women been blurred to the point of not knowing where that line is? A 1950s female reenactment of dinner time may include the female putting the dinner she prepared on the table and asking how her husband’s day was.  A modern day female reenactment of dinner time may include asking her stay at home husband what restaurant they are eating at. Although these two examples could occur in any decade-which decade is each scenario more prevalent in and would that affect the roles the game players choose. Will the students construct their roles differently if they are given a scenario and a decade?

It has been said that if you really want to learn about a person-their world view, character, values and so on-play a game with them for one hour. Putting people outside of their comfort zones by asking them to pretend to be something they are not can really open up their eyes to their own stereotypes and labels of others. It can teach them a lot about their own world view as well as allow them to explore other views.
This activity could also be done in an online environment. A virtual room could be used where students create an avatar that fits the character they are supposed to play. Design elements on how they create their avatar can be considered the same way the "body language" element of the in person activity was to be considered. They could talk in a forum setting after being given a prompt about the activity and their interactions would follow the same guidelines as the in person activity but take longer to complete (a week as opposed to an hour). 

By taking a journey through these cognitive tools and asking your students to do the same, you will be learning and teaching concepts creatively. Approaching teaching and learning with creativity will create compelling experiences for teachers and students. These compelling experiences will stay with everyone involved for many years and they will share them with others as Jane Elliot’s students did. We can get through the material, our students can pass tests and our objectives can be met for now through standard teaching methods. However, the question is do we want to teach for today or tomorrow?

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