On Storytelling

There are a few things that happen when a new acquaintance unfamiliar to the world of education learns that I am a teacher. Subsequent inquiries are frequently made about what age level and subject I teach. When I respond that I teach high school, it seems to open a neural pathway to a pool of teenage memories. Those who smile dreamily thinking of their high school sagas I often believe were popular jocks, and those who grimace seem to resent me for reminding them of the acne, cliques and heartbreak. When I mention that I teach history, they either light up and state their avowed love for the discipline or confess their lack of aptitude. Nearly everyone shares something about a history teacher. These teachers are characterized as either master storytellers or resented date-drillers. They often cite a renewed adult interest in history courtesy of a Ken Burns documentary. What strikes me most is the detail with which people of all ages remember the storyteller teacher.

See the rest of my reflection on my summer study in Scotland here. It was posted a few weeks ago on The Lamp, Holderness School’s space for sharing ideas about education and the teaching profession.

The sweeping views and cobblestone streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, provided the perfect setting for Kelsey Berry to study the many stories and narrators of history.

Why Study History?: Thoughts on the Job of a Historian for History Teachers

A junior student asked me last May, during dorm duty, “Ms. Berry–What can you do with a history degree?”

Me: (joking) “You mean, besides do what I do?”

Student: (sheepishly) “Well… yes.”

Me: (in my best saleswomen voice with the goal of admiring her foresight, but also lessening her anxiety about the college process )…

I spoke somewhat apprehensively about the skills that are developed at a liberal arts school, and in the humanities especially (and noted this was from my limited perspective/experience). We discussed how the job she will likely do, probably has not yet been created... it was definitely an unintentional plug for the liberal arts approach. Then I spoke about being interested in what you are studying, and how important that is to success.

But I need a better answer to this question, “why study history?” While education is the focus of my career so far, why history education?  I have been with 30 teachers for the past week (mostly history, some English and one librarian) studying Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment. As we debate the enigmatic character of the father of both the Declaration of Independence and slave Sally Hemmings’ children (likely), we were constantly trying to reconcile competing images of a hero of the American national story. Should we care that he was a slave owner? He was a “man of his time”… but the argument goes, he was also “not a man of his times” (all men are created equal, unalienable rights etc). What is the historian’s job? What is the history teacher’s job? Is it to defend Jefferson? Apologize for Jefferson? Indict Jefferson? Are these even the right questions to be asking? (also these questions are at the heart of the AP US curriculum debate). The opinions and ideas of this group of teachers had me asking…what does it mean to be a historian? Perhaps, if I try to define the role I play in regards to Jefferson’s story, then I can ask a better question.

What is the job description of a historian? Often historians are teachers, and sometimes a teacher would identify as a historian. Are “professional” historians just those with a PhD?  What about the mental engines behind small town historical societies? But what exactly does a historian do? Study the past is the simplest description. So how do they study? It seems that the historian appropriates/adopts the methodology of other professions as they seek to study the past. What is the job description, then, of the history teacher? To facilitate burgeoning historians? To model being a historian? So then I return to my first question: what is the job description of a historian? A few ideas…

Tell stories.                      

Historians can be story tellers in the tradition of Herodotus.

Investigate the data.      

Historians can be scientists of the past, carefully measuring data with the precision of a chemist, but their scientific method is foiled by the countless  unknown variables.

Weigh the evidence.    

Historians can be lawyers, carefully weighing the available evidence to judge the past.

Listen and analyze.      

Historians can be psychologists, poring over diaries and letters with a Freudian lens judging sexuality, phobias and temperaments.

Architects of a national story.     

Historians can be politician-soldiers , “Defenders of the Faith” whatever that faith may be, if their hero is Thomas Jefferson, if their historical satan is Thomas Jefferson, some historians are in the business of defending the fairy tale given by the storytellers to young children.

Time travelers. 

Historians can yearn to be anthropologists as well, and travel back in time and live among and study their subjects, one reason for the many historical reenactments.

The verb “to reconcile” seems closest to the work I do with my students. See the Google definition below. The french word conciliare means “bring together”. How do we reconcile, or bring together the view of Jefferson as the author of words below yet also the view of him as salesmen of humans, and more contentiously, a rapist by modern standards?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Reconciliation has a positive connotation, but when a historian does it, is it a positive thing? Seeking to reconcile is an important part of the historian’s job, but we should, perhaps, clarify that it is a constant state of trying to reconcile, rather than asking students to square a circle. The hardest part of teaching history, I find, is the lack of a “right answer” for students. However, it is also my answer to “why study history”? There is no right answer, but seeking to answer, seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable, is not only a practice in critical thinking, but a constant acknowledgement of human complexity. Jefferson is the archetype of a historical paradox, a walking contradiction, and he is not unique.

Rudulph Evans’s statue of Thomas Jefferson was mounted in the Jefferson Memorial in 1947, four years after the memorial opened, Washington, D.C. Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011633648/

James Akin. “A Philosophic Cock,” Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1804. Hand-colored aquatint. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (140), http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefffed.html.

reconcile ˈrɛk(ə)nsʌɪl verb
verb: reconcile; 3rd person present: reconciles; past tense: reconciled; past participle:reconciled; gerund or present participle: reconciling
  1. 1.
    restore friendly relations between.
    “the king and the archbishop were publicly reconciled”
    • settle (a quarrel).
      “advice on how to reconcile the conflict”
      synonyms: reunite, bring (back) together (again), restore friendly relations between, restore harmony between, make peace between, resolve differences between, bring to terms; More

      “the news reconciled us”
      settle, resolve, patch up, sort out, smooth over, iron out, put to rights, mend, remedy, heal, cure, rectify
      “the quarrel was reconciled”
      antonyms: estrange, alienate
    • make or show to be compatible.
      “the agreement had to be reconciled with the city’s new international relations policy”
      synonyms: make compatible, harmonize, square, make harmonious,synthesize, make congruent, cause to be in agreement, cause to sit happily/easily with; More

      “it wasn’t easy trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his career”
    • make someone accept (a disagreeable or unwelcome thing).
      “he was reconciled to leaving”
      synonyms: accept, come to accept, resign oneself to, come to terms with, learn to live with, get used to, make the best of, submit to, accommodate oneself to, adjust oneself to, become accustomed to, acclimatize oneself to; More

      grin and bear it;
      informallike it or lump it
      “the creditors had to reconcile themselves to drastic losses of income and capital”
  2. 2.
    make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.
    “it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the financial accounts”
late Middle English: from Old French reconcilier or Latin reconciliare, from Latin re- ‘back’ (also expressing intensive force) + conciliare ‘bring together’.

Design the Revolution! Step 1: Who is the User? Reflections on NAIS Conference


Traditional Classroom (Wikipedia)

Modern American Classroom (Wikipedia)

My Classroom- Video Conferencing in Comparative Government with Wen Ho about his trip to North Korea (a connection made at KSI!) Photo by Emily Magnus

“Education is the only thing a person from 1915 would recognize” serial educational entrepreneur Brian Bordainick said at the annual NAIS conference this past weekend. But ever since I tweeted it I have been wondering about the implications of this statement. My classroom doesn’t look like it did in 1915, and I know this is not just because I work in an independent school (which can actually be more “traditional” at times in classroom architecture but I acknowledge has more room to maneuver). What about the art classroom? The Harkness Table? This critique isn’t entirely original, and has been a common comment of our educational system since, well, forever. I also hesitate at that idea that education is the “only” thing that would be recognized by a 1915 time traveler. What about class divisions? hymns? the recreation of bygone eras for amusement?(see footnote 1 for the digression). One of my favorite time-traveling observers is Simon Rich’s “Herschel” character. While historical fiction and imagining time-travel or subjunctive history it is a great way to test a student’s understanding I wonder at the co opting of the historical narrative for any argument… because often it is portrayed singularly, and there is danger in a single story as Chimamanda Adichie reminded us. The next day at the conference Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc referenced the leveling of the music industry in the 1990’s and the surge of innovation that followed, and noted that the “schools at the bottom” have the gift of “urgency and a sense of crises” that push innovation. However, I think both of these observations fail to recognize that while the goals of the music industry have remained the same (to make music and money), and that innovation seems to start best as a response to failure, the goals of education have fundamentally shifted while at the same time staying very much the same.

This shift/non-shift is in the “user” of education. This is not a simple answer, who are the users of education in America? The variability and complexity of the answer to this question is what makes it so hard to define a solution. Sir Ken Robinson’s comment about needing to move beyond the industrial model of education resonated, because something has changed, and the model needs to adapt, but what precisely has changed? How has it changed? Why has it changed? Should it change?

The theme of the conference was centered around design thinking. I still can not clearly define it, but I did have some experience with this framework at KSI this past summer- see my post about redesigning the first day of school here. If we were to actually “design the revolution” what might it look like? The panel on the future of education in the general session was fascinating (I particularly enjoyed Nannerl Keohane’s citation of Alice Freeman Parker’s Why Go to College? Essay ) but too often it seemed to start not with the first step of design thinking, empathy, but with a definition of problems. This is not to say that the panel hadn’t practice plenty of empathy behind their ideas, but if we, as a society, do not define the user, we have a glaring blind spot in the design process. The definition of the user is, perhaps the hardest part. Liz Davis at EdcampIS last Saturday described it well: “Design thinking doesn’t start with the problem, you have to define user first, empathize and then identify the problem.” Let me restate that: If we define the problem before the user we are working in our blind spot. For example, if I start by asking the questions: what is the problem with education in America? or What is the problem with the schedule at a residential school? There are the initial answers if you don’t employ the empathy step first…Much like trying to define the “user” in a “schools” schedule, the variety and definition of the user for education in America becomes the central issue. The entrepreneur isn’t afraid to try new things, and is an important approach as Brian Bordainick has reminded us, but that step comes after the definition of the user in design thinking (the test stage). John Maeda, another speaker at the conference shared his leadership style as including not only the willingness to fail and try new things, but also the importance of empathy and having office hours and time to listen (first college president on twitter too!)

I am left with many questions. Thank you NAIS for keeping me thinking.

  • Locally what role does design thinking have for Holderness School? For my classroom? [Stay tuned for a post about my experiments with Mastery Based Assessment]
  • What does the “revolution” look like for
    • a residential independent boarding school? How are our traditions, and intentional community counter-cultural? What does this mean for the future?
    • a residential liberal arts college like the one I attended? cost-value of the $60,000/year price tag
    • the economy? Does the educational model drive the economy or does the economy drive the educational model?
    • for society? How does society change through education, or does how education change through society?
Education in America Schedule at a Residential School
Defining the problem pre-empathy….working in the “blind-spot”??? (summary of common statements about the “problem”)

(from my limited teacher perspective)

  • Not enough time in the day
  • We don’t go to school enough
  • Kids and Teachers are over-scheduled
  • Can’t do everything well as a “triple-threat” faculty member
Empathy Who is the user?

  • Teachers (Public, Private, Charter, Independent, Home-school)
  • Students (Public, Private, Charter, Independent, Home-school)
  • Administrators
  • Families
  • The World (via MOOCS?)
  • Employers?
Who is the user?

Faculty Families
The often-small town communities? (remember non-profit tax benefits)

Define How would the definition of the problem be different if there was an empathy step first? How would the definition of the problem be different if there was an empathy step first?

I do not have the answers. Please comment if you are interested in sharing any projects that you know that are in the ideate, prototype or test phase! = any sort of innovation that is trying to solve problems in education, casting a wide-net here. How would you define the user?




1. For example the 18th century costumes in To Catch a Thief  and the modern obsessions with the Gilded Age and the 1920s.

Back to the Drawing Board

Back to the Drawing Board

I was recently reminded I even have a blog by a mentor I was lucky enough to run into at the NAIS conference in Boston yesterday. I just counted: 15 drafts of posts each awaiting my perfectionism to publish. The demands of life always seem to come first… putting that reality aside for a minute, here is my foray back into the virtual world of online teaching and learning. (Also I recently remembered I had a Twitter handle, when asked what it was after beginning to tweet again yesterday, I had to look it up.)

This experience of feeling like I am somehow failing at my goals of being an innovative educator is a representative of how my classes have gone this year, post Klingenstein Summer Institute. My classroom is my laboratory, in theory and in practice. I hope to post soon about my trials and errors with competency based assessment experiments with seniors and sophomores. Yet, in my AP US class, I feel like I am the Benjamin Button of innovative teaching, I started with all of these ideas and goals, and have become more traditional, not the other way around. Sure we use tech every day, and there is a Harkness discussion once a week, we use multimedia, and different platforms to go over the content, but it is still teacher centered.

What happened? Why did my twitter handle fall silent? Why did I stop innovating in that class? Why did I fall out of the blog-o-sphere? Well here is what happened.

I wanted to do a good job.

I wanted to prepare my students for an AP exam to help catapult them to the college classroom and in doing so I reverted to the traditional, teacher centered model of education.  My diligent students are suspicious and often resentful of paradigm shifts. They (and this is cultural) are so focused on college and outcomes rather than process that my student-centered approaches were too scary and new to use on an unwelcoming audience.  I can easily empathize with their outcome-driven mentality- I felt that pressure as a student–it is the culture they are in. They have signed up for my AP class with the college process in mind, even if they genuinely love history.  I let my empathy for the students in the “sausage machine” of college admissions distract me. They were/are more comfortable with my role as the “bastion of knowledge”… perhaps I was/am too.

What is even more disappointing about my “regression” is that the new AP US curriculum doesn’t require you to have a content driven course anymore. Although the textbook companies haven’t quite caught up, (even my excellent new text Give Me Liberty! by Eric Foner isn’t structured to support it.) I don’t have to teach the way I was taught. But I do. I teach via my relationships with the students, a bit of personality, and knowledge of the subject. But too rarely do I give students the opportunity to drive the course.

A new colleague reminded the entire school in chapel talk last week of the importance of optimism. He is new to the school this year, and he commented on the common-place phrase he has picked up over the past six months “that will never happen.” I am reminded at NAIS, as I am inspired by the innovation around me, of the importance of rejecting that statement.

How do I shift the paradigm about teaching and learning from the bottom up in my classroom? How I do I counter all of the grade-motivated, college motivated, outcome based culture even in my AP class? Of course I hope we can do this on an institutional and cultural level, but in my “cog” of School House classroom #3, how can I shift the paradigm?

I have to go back to the drawing board. Practice some design thinking. Doodle. And most importantly never again say, “I can’t do that because it is AP.” I can do it. What “it” is I am not sure yet, but I will let you know.

“Hi, nice to meet you. I am Ms. Berry. Have we met before?”

Whew….I knew this was going be hard to keep up, but the expression “haven’t come up for air yet” seems apt for the first few weeks of school. I drafted a post about the night before the first day of meetings, then meetings happened and it no longer seemed honest. I drafted a post about orientation activities, and then was on a three day hike with no internet access. I drafted a post about some ideas for the first day of school, and then I did something different. I know. Lame. Excuses.

Here I am. Block 1X, Tuesdays 10:30-11:50. An 80 minute block reserved just for this little blog. Every Tuesday practice “reflective teaching”….before I get to each lunch (I, like my dog can be motivated by food).

This semester I am teaching 63 students. Nearly half of them I have taught before which poses some interesting observations about how the introductory week goes (they already know I prefer the latte to the apple) I am wary of referencing past classrooms with them too much, as it is not inclusive to the new students; yet I am excited they remember things from last year! So much of the first week is about establishing expectations, classroom norms, and the students ascertaining just exactly how they should behave. The students who have had me before go through this assessment much more quickly than those who are new to my classroom. Yet, there is something about the rebirth of a teacher and a student that happens in September that merits consideration. This is a new group. A new year. A chance to start fresh, start with, quite appropriately, a clean slate. I am a different teacher than last year. The process changes you. One more year of experience has changed me. Most notably, the intense two weeks at Klingenstein in June, and a summer of thinking about teaching even as I fell asleep, changed me.

Last year I was full steam ahead in the first week. This was based on a belief that I had so much to do, might as well dive in head first. This was problematic. I have slowed the pace a bit this year. In AP US, for example, we are taking our time to focus on the work they did in the summer. Last year, the assignment included four historical monographs, they had to pick one and compose an essay. We (the two AP US teachers) tried to use these monographs and the students knowledge throughout the year to make it relevant. Unfortunately, by the time it came to talk about Martha Ballard, the book was not fresh in their minds that were full of fear of failure in an AP, stress, wanting to prove themselves on Varsity X, disappointment over not making Varsity X, the boy/girl sitting next to them. The kids who wrote excellent essays a month earlier couldn’t access them easily.

This year we had them read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, and answer a DBQ question about American Exceptionalism. Check it out below, or here. The Gilded Age is a complicated time, and a challenging period for students on the exam. With a chronological approach, it often falls in January. Which in New Hampshire is cold and dark, and did I mention cold? I think it is also challenging because it is the convergence of so many different themes/narratives. It is not just about industrialization, it is not just about corruption, it is not just about progressivism, populism, or monetary issues, it isn’t just about imperialism, or dealing with the legacy of the Civil War and reconstruction, it isn’t just about the beginning of a “modern-looking” America-it is about all of these things. All periods are complex, but the Gilded Age is harder to distill into clear content objectives you can count on your hand. So we thought, let’s have them focus on it in the summer and spend a week discussing it; establish some basic level of skills and introduce the expectations of the course.

Jury is still out. But I am optimistic, I can use this unit and summer work again.

It is day three of AP US. Check out the backwards planning (Understanding By Design style with a Performance Based Assessment: thank you #ksi14 ) for the unit here,. Today they discussed a set of multiple-choice questions (I wrote feverishly last night, trying to use the new AP language)  in groups, and then as a class. Through observation I was able to see their different personalities, what prior knowledge of US history they bring to the class and how well they played with others (they had to come to a group consensus). As it was a long block, they then looked at feedback on their summer essays and drafted an action plan for revision.

It seems greedy to steal a week from our already limited time together (ahem 90 class meetings to prepare them for the AP yikes), but I learned so much about them as current students (not who they were last year) from today’s observation. Tonight they are facing some short answer-style questions on the same sources, but individually.

Questions I still have:

  • Will they remember this in January? Will it be useful to them?
  • Do the few who do not have a good base of prior knowledge feel under-prepared for the class? They shouldn’t. It is early.
  • Is this (relative) sacrifice of a week worth it?

Other notes on the first few days:

  • Senior electives are fun! I had students write a “positionality” essay considering how their experiences and identity influence the way they think…my favorite papers to read all year. Check out the introduction to the prompt here. More on how this is going next week.
  • Bringing local history into my Research Methods class. I was worried students would find it boring. Got an email on Saturday night asking to see more local pictures. Too early to pronounce victory, but, cough. Victory!

Question for the Blog-o-sphere: 

How important is the first week to establish the norms, expectations of a classroom? I am introducing myself as Ms. Berry, but what does that mean in September of 2014? It is different than September 2013.


How do I Transfer?: Attempts to Create A Schema for KSI



I have learned/am learning so many things here at KSI that I want to bring to my teaching- how can I do it all? Would it be overly ambitious to do it all? How can I change how I plan and prepare? Basically, how do I not forget any of this important stuff I have learned and become the “perfect” teacher?  (before being outraged at the notion of a perfect teacher, please go to end note 1).

Dr. Kelley Nicholson-Flynn talked at the beginning of the institute about behaviorism, cognition and the science of learning. She spoke of the importance of schemas.  Bransford, J.D., et al. in How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000) described “schemas” in their chapter “Experts and Novices”, when noting the importance of knowledge of the “big ideas” of a discipline, or the ability to recognize patterns or access “conditionalized knowledge”. These big ideas and pattern recognition are what differentiate an “expert” from an “accomplished novice”. I wondered how I can apply the notion of a schema to remember some of the lessons I have learned here? How can I become an “expert” at applying this material (really I am just shooting for “accomplished novice” again see end note 1#).

I have often used a template to design my classes thinking about what the homework will be, what class topics will be, and what skills will be introduced and/or practiced. When working to generate a “Performance Based Assessment” at the end of last week, we were given a template I found very useful. After crafting a “unit understanding” with my group, (an excruciating, but transformative experience my colleague Leslie wrote about here), we used this template, given to us by KSI and based on Wiggins and McTighe (Understanding By Design, 1998). Leslie used her experience working in Ontario to introduce other frameworks for designing learning experience that we added into our PBA. (Frameworks such as GRASPS (check it out here), KICA= Knowledge, Inquiry, Communication and Application, and “By the end of the unit students will: ‘Know’ ‘Understand’and ‘Be Able to'”). Our final result on Gilded Age America is here.

I have modified this template in order to try and “remind” myself of things to focus on when planning. I am not sure if it counts as a “schema” but it does let me organize some of the information I have learned this week on a framework I have used before

It already had for each class day:

Learning Goal…Topic/Agenda…HW Due…Skills Introduced/Practiced…Knowledge/Skill Formative Assessment…Prior Misconceptions/Prior Knowledge


Stone Window (Juylane Farmer, Pinterest)

Windows: I clarified the phrase “learning goal” with the term “window”. I hope the learning goals I articulate are actually “windows” into the broader world and not just repeating things my students already know. For more on windows (and mirrors) check out an earlier blog post here.

“Woman in Front of Mirror” Mose Bianchi 1900

Mirrors: I added a space in my planning document for “mirrors”. In my curriculum, what identities are mirrored? Too often it is rich, white men, and I need to be aware of how I may be unconsciously perpetuation the “great man theory” in my curriculum. Furthermore, after hearing Dr. Derald Wing Sue speak about micro-aggressions, I need to consciously reflect on how to present contentious material, like “Who discovered America?” (not Columbus by the way).

Time for Reflection

Reflection: thinking about how we think, and how we learn is important in any discipline. We study meta-cognition in history through historiography , other disciplines might phrase this type of study as “literature review”. Giving time for reflection on the learning process is very important towards greater levels of understanding and learning.  Again Leslie described this as a type of assessment really well with an Ontario framework: “Assessment AS learning”. (There were also “assessment OF learning” = summative assessments, and assessment FOR learning= formative assessment).

As a group, when constructing our PBA, we added the “Learning Goal”, “Formative Assessment” and “Prior Misconceptions/Prior Knowledge” categories. Thinking about these categories as we planned, reinforced the message and importance of formative assessment and prior knowledge for me.

Given the shout outs for Leslie and Ontario teaching in general, here are some resources she shared specific to history. Also- the independent schools in Canada have to follow these regulations, I wonder how common core and standards in general would differ if American independent schools had to follow them?

Canadian and World Studies Grades 9 and 10 Curriculum FrameworkCanadian and World Studies Grades 11 and 12 Curriculum Framework

CHECK OUT my new template what do you think? I would love feedback. How do you plan your units? Are there other categories I should be considering on a daily basis? Perhaps differentiation? What about if a student misses class, should I have a plan for them ahead of time? At what point does it become overwhelming when planning? More or less?

End Note:

1.  I am being completely facetious with “perfect teacher” and “expert”, but not really. A bit… I was a perfectionist…and still remain a closet perfectionist. I try not to lose sleep over the typos in this blog, but I have to admit I still hesitate over the publish button and struggle to read past blog posts with typos….it is late, and I just put an end note in a blog, that happened.

Design your own Virtual Experience: Windows or Mirrors?

Johannes Vermeer “The Astronomer” Louvre in 1668.  Notice the location of the celestial globe in relation to the window…

Norman Rockwell “Girl at Mirror” March 6, 1954. Notice the magazine looks a lot like her…

There have been so many provocative conversations over the past week at Klingenstein’s Summer Institute for Young Teachers. Whether it was in the plenary sessions with incredible speakers, or in diversity group addressing tough, but critically important issues, in the history cohort where we get to delve into the essential questions of our discipline (and some dorky videos), or around a breakfast, lunch, dinner table, or changing the tire on my car with new friends, I feel like my head is circling with probing questions all day. A conversation at the lunch table today seemed to bring so much of what we have been learning together for me, and I was led to a new understanding I thought I would share….it will take me a while to get there, but bear with me, I am a bit verbose. Yesterday, Dr. Eliza Byard spoke about the importance of having windows and mirrors in our curriculum for all members of our communities. Windows into the unknown. Windows to expose students to new knowledge. Windows to challenge students’ misconceptions of the world. But we also need mirrors. We need to see ourselves in our community, in the curriculum, in the faculty, in the staff and in the students. The many different identities we bring to the table need confirmation and acceptance. What too often happens, are that the dominant and powerful identities of white, straight, male, and wealthy can eclipse any recognition of others’ sense of “normal”.

I learned at an earlier professional development through SPHERE when I worked at the Ethel Walker School, of the importance of recognizing I am white to my students. I am by no means an expert in this research, but I have found this simple recognition, early in the school year, allowed for a more open and honest discussion of race in my classroom. I couldn’t feel guilty that I was white, and I couldn’t pretend we lived in a “color blind” society.  Now, when I introduce myself to a new class I tell the classic “what-if” used in international politics classes to describe nationalism: “who would I trust with my bags at the Paris airport?”  I introduce them to a picture of my family, then friends,  then members of my immediate communities, perhaps alumni from one of my past schools, maybe a fellow New England native, then perhaps an American. Perhaps I would have to go to the bathroom so badly I would just bolt?  Then I ask my students “would I trust that same American in New York City?” “Why would I trust them at all if they are a stranger?”, “What would be positive about this way of thinking?,” “Negative?”, Why do we operate this way?”, “Is it because an American will likely speak English?”, “Or is there something bigger at play?”

I am a bit off topic, but this intro is a way for me to examine and introduce  the various lenses which color my interpretation of the world, and the importance of recognizing they are, in fact distorting and guiding my interpretation.  I then move on to global identities. I am able to recognize verbally my identity as a member of the developed world, as white, as female and as straight. Now, I am not off the hook after I recognize these parts of my identity, but it does let students know I am open to talking about these issues, and I recognize my privilege. We then move to an introductory “get to know you” essay about how their positionality (their place in the world) impacts the way they think (epistemology), (totally copied it from this author). Ultimately this also allows me to introduce ideas of historiography, and debunk the misconception that history is a single narrative. Click here for more on white anti-racism and the negative impact of the image of a “color blind” society

In my introductory exercise I am putting up a mirror of myself and hopefully, honestly reflecting into it. When I was thinking about how I could prompt students to write better postionality essays (some were good, some talked about watching the news with their parents, and  others were very superficial) I was thinking about their virtual identities. Was there a way I could engage them with the complexity of their identities through what they put online? Their virtual identity is so important to many of them. I thought about prompting them to think about “what the web knows about them.” If they Google themselves, what groups do they obviously belong to? I would encourage them to observe their pictures, tweets, instagrams and the collective message they send to the world. This a bit of digital citizenship exercise, but I am more interested in them thinking about how this “window” to the world, might in fact actually be a mirror. THEY get to construct their worlds online by who they follow, the various media forms the read, who their friends are. They also don’t have control over their virtual worlds in terms of the software that tracks them and tailors their advertisements to their specific preferences, or what they just looked up the day before.

As I was talking about this idea, a new friend Leslie brought up, the notion of “net neutrality” and how the internet is seen as an equalizer in terms of “access to information” by virtue of seemingly “unfiltered” access to information. The conversation turned to the ways internet is filtered, from countries that do block certain sites, the parameters we set on our school’s internet (although easily bypassed by 3G), and the times when the US does have limitations/consequences of “free” internet use. Who owns the internet? What does it actually look like? Leslie directed me to the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet written by a friend of hers on the actual infrastructure of the internet. She also discussed the various reasons cable companies would like to filter our web use (to make a profit of course), and then notion of Google Fiber. (So much! You can see why my head was swimming!)

So why am I fixated on mirrors and windows? Students need these in our schools, but we also need to teach them to craft their virtual worlds not only as a deceptive mirror of the things they believe and affirm, but also windows into that big ‘ol world. Too often, they will see the internet as a window, but when they look into it, they will only see confirming ideas and faces reflecting back at them. We need to encourage them to follow news outlets that do not necessarily match up with their politics, or their countries, to follow people that they can both question and re-tweet. We need to encourage them to construct their virtual worlds in the same way we construct our classrooms, schools and communities: as both mirrors and windows. 

I just scratched the surface in the ways in which students could add complexity to their virtual worlds. Any ideas?