Being Where We Are: Physical Place, Non-Mediated Learning, Slowness, and Reflection in the Classroom

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NOTE: Excited to read what’s below?! Email cwenger@shepherd.edu for details about writing a guest post–we are looking for writers!!

These days, people are never where they seem to be.

Sure, their bodies are somewhere – in the classroom, on the bus, at the kitchen table – but more often than not their minds are off in Internet Land chuckling over Instagrams or Snapchats or Tweets, frowning at the headlines, or tapping away on a phone/iPad/computer/tablet keyboard in order to buy clothes, make plans, or use punctuation to communicate their emotional responses.

:/

It’s no secret that that our cultural relationship to media, information, and technology has changed quickly. Our world has never been more full of information – or more full of mediated experiences. We can hear speeches, watch performances, take and teach classes, and talk with friends and family in far remote places, thanks to the ever-growing miracles of the Internet and its search engines. Yet, despite the fact that these technologically mediated experiences are not at all the same as face to face, unmediated experiences, most of us enjoy an unexamined expectation of their existence, much the way we simply expect that water will come out of the faucet.

Perhaps this is why mindfulness has found such a foothold in contemporary conversations about education: we’re trying to figure out what to do about the way our (and our students’) attention is so scattered. We’re all well-rehearsed in the reasons why this is happening – because of the Internet, cell phones, social media, fantasy sports, online learning, and on and on and on. There seem to be endless reasons why we’re distracted, and our growing academic interest in mindfulness is evidence that we’re trying to find our way back to the ability to experience a quiet mind and in a quiet body that exists in one physical place at a time. What we’re trying to do is locate ourselves and our thoughts in a world that engenders increasingly fluid boundaries between the self in time and space.

And our students desperately need our help with this. Their experiences with technology, the Internet, social media, and information have generally been relatively instantaneous, completely mediated, and nearly always forward moving. The forward momentum of the Internet particularly impacts the classroom. We navigate sites, follow links, and find ourselves in a perpetual choose-your-own-adventure of new content. Of course it is possible to go backwards in a browser, but isn’t that just something we do when we’ve made a mistake? Instead we coast along on a veritable river of information that seems to continually keep us moving to new and better places.

 

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But This Is Taking FOREVER

What happens then, when students are confronted with a learning task that is complicated and requires slower thinking? What happens when we ask them to write a 6-8 page research paper that will certainly require them to be able to brainstorm, plan, research, select sources, draft, reflect, find more research, draft, reflect, and revise? Well, if you’ve taught First-Year Writing students recently, you’ll know that what actually happens is some form of confusion or disbelief about what is actually being required. They appear at my office door befuddled. They tell me that their papers are terrible, their ideas are terrible, and that the library database “has nothing AT ALL on their topic.” As we talk I learn that they are stuck because they thought that they would be able to find some research and then write an awesome paper. Just like that, in an afternoon.

There are some popular narratives out there right now about students not being able to research or think or write “like they used to” but what I see is that they can do all of this at least as well as students could 15 years ago. The difference is that now their expectations are getting in their way. They are so used to being pulled along by the “river” of the Internet that they aren’t sure what to do when they are expected to lead the process. For beginning writers, writing doesn’t move them along – they have to actively choose to make it happen and then choose again and again for it to keep going. It requires patience, reflection, and the ability to loop backwards, perusing thoughts and ideas, considering how idea A might work with research artifact B, etc. Most importantly, it is slow – often uncomfortably so – and that confuses them. If it’s slow, it must be wrong. Right?

I want to be clear here, that I’m not making fun of our students. Even I sometimes confront this is my own research and writing. Of course I would like my writing process to be as quick and seamless as Google’s search engine! The difference is that when I confront something difficult I can simply observe that it is difficult, and then try a new strategy. But often our students think that if it’s is difficult then something must be wrong: either they are stupid or we are. Neither of these is a useful mindset for learning.

We need to help students confront their own thinking and ideas. We need to help them develop scholarly patience, attention literacy, and delayed judgment about others’ ideas and their own. In order to do this, we need to create classrooms and curricula that engage with physical place and encourage non-mediated learning and reflection. Here are some strategies.

 

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Think about your use of technology in the curriculum.

  • Choose your in-class technology carefully. Is it vital that you show the video clip or website in class? Perhaps you could assign the work to be initially viewed at home so that the students could reflect on their viewing once they arrive in class. This allows the classroom to remain an unmediated atmosphere – just people talking with people in the same room at the same time.
  • Slow everything down with repetition. Don’t be afraid to show the same clip or view the same image many times. If we want students to see that layers of understanding unfold with each successive interaction, then we have to structure that experience for them. Perhaps you could show a short clip three times. The first time students are directed to just watch and react (do they like it or not?). The second time, they ought to make comprehension-based notes about what is happening. The third time, they should analyze the clip as text (why is this clip important? how does it relate to the current learning unit?).
  • Always ask students to reflect on their interactions with technology. Even if you just ask them what they did, where they went, or what they saw you will be helping them develop a literacy of their own behaviors.

 

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Think about the topics you assign students.

  • Find unmediated topics. The beautiful thing about a writing class is that students can write about almost any topic. Assign topics that take students into exploring unmediated experiences. When have they felt the most alive/scared/exuberant/defeated? How did their bodies feel? How did their minds feel? Where were they in that moment? What had happened? Begin prompts with the body and move out into the larger scene.
  • Food, place, and family. Food, place, and family are all excellent topics that require students to engage in questions that implicitly involve embodied feelings. If we want redefine research for students as something personal, then we need to give them personal entries into it. A research paper about the history of chocolate milkshakes, the state park where your family camps, or your grandmother’s childhood home in Italy, are all evocative entries into research – for the writer and the reader.
  • Assign low-stakes writing. Journaling and in-class writing are good examples of low-stakes writing, or writing the students do in order to get thinking into words without worrying about how it might influence their grades. Nature journals or other journaling assignments should ask students to make observations about the physical place in which they write coupled with reflections about what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling. These assignments blend observations of interior and exterior landscape and help students feel unified and grounded.

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Assign reflective and critically reflective writing.

  • First, assign reflective work! When students engage in reflective work, they practice pausing, lopping backward, and becoming familiar with their own thinking and behaviors. Reflective work can be low-stakes and written quickly in class or prepared more thoughtfully outside of class.
  • Reflection versus critical reflection. In the broadest sense reflection is the process of capturing meandering thoughts while critical reflection is more pointed and written for an audience beyond the writer. While both kinds of reflection improve mindfulness, critical reflection is more likely to create a series of “historical” artifacts documenting the writing process for the student to view later.
  • Integrate reflection throughout the semester. Ask students to reflect mid-way through the processes of drafting, research, and writing. If you wait until they finish an essay they learn that reflection is simply a concluding activity. If they reflect mid-process they become aware of their ability to assess and revise their writing more than once. Also, reflection is a habit of mind and habits only come to us through repeated activity.
  • Design very specific reflective prompts. When in doubt, err on the side of more structure. Questions like “what did you think about the writing assignment” seem like they would open the door to many responses; actually they allow students to answer without critically examining their writing or research decisions. Instead, design prompts that require students to critically consider their work. For example, “Describe one writing choice you made in this essay. What was the impact of your decision?”

 

Think about how you can model these mindsets and behaviors.

  • Be present. It would sound too easy if we didn’t all know how hard this is, but being 100% present in the classroom creates the initial energy and focus for everyone. If you are scattered, it’s hard for anyone else to feel settled and ready to learn.
  • Go slowly. We all feel rushed to get through our curriculum in the allotted timeframe, but if we want students to slow down, then we have to remember to leave time for them (and us!) to reflect, think, and respond. When you pause to ask for questions, actually pause and wait for questions.
  • Be transparent about your purpose and think aloud for students. Perpetuating the idea that a curriculum or specific writing assignments just arose and existed out of nowhere isn’t helpful. Talk to your students about the origins of the work you assign and share alternate paths you might have taken. We need to show students that writing and teaching are both slow, thoughtful endeavors.

 

Finally, talk openly about the ideas of difficulty and slowness in the classroom. Explain to students that writing is a complex set of behaviors that requires critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and reflection. Explain to them that even though they can find information at the drop of a hat, it isn’t very easy to just “answer” an authentic and complicated research question. Writing can be messy, chaotic, and difficult, but we can create classrooms and assignments that help students slow down, become familiar with their thinking, and maybe (just maybe) be where they are.

-Amy Ratto Parks

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