Writing to reflect: For the Horde!

Confession: I drive a Subaru Forester. In Colorado this is about as common as a lodgepole pine tree is in our forests. I would be lying if I said I never walked up to another Forester and wondered why my remote wasn’t working to unlock the door. After one last frustrating moment of trying to locate my Subaru in a forest of Subarus (don’t even get me started on trying to find my car in an REI parking lot), I decided mine needed a marker of sorts. Actually, Felicia suggested I should mark it.

Felicia drives a Honda Pilot, which is not as common as a Subaru mind you, but common enough that she has walked up to the wrong car, and has been sitting in her car when another person mistook Felicia’s Pilot for her own. An awkward situation to say the least. So Felicia put a “Sailor Moon” window sticker on her car so as to easily mark it.

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Felicia’s Sailor Moon sticker

This has done wonders for both of us in locating her car in crowded lots. Each time it has been used or each time we would have difficult time locating my car, she would bring it up and tell me I should get a something to mark my car, too. However, I have always had a no sticker policy on my cars, which drove my deceased wife nuts, especially during political season.

But my policy has changed. After a frustrating moment trying to find my car in a forest of Foresters, I decided enough is enough. I spent a few days trying to decide with what to mark my car, and I decided on the symbol for the Horde from World of Warcraft (WOW). 

Before explaining why I chose the decal I did, I need to step back for a moment. I do my best to teach my students that writing to reflect is a process we do in order to arrive at a better understanding of a situation of an issue or ourselves. As our students are young, they have so little upon which to reflect. When we ask them to reflect, it is often thin and superficial at best. We have to remember they are still in midst of deciding their truths and their opinions. I think it was Hemingway who said something along the lines that you can’t write about Paris while you’re still in Paris. I still have a difficult time writing about my deceased wife as the experience is still being processed. Don’t get me wrong, I have written a bit here and there, but nothing I am still working on arriving at some truths and realizations since her passing four years ago. In other words, I am still in Paris.

So, when I decided it would a Horde symbol to mark my car, I thought and reflected on what my years of playing WOW did for me as a teacher and as a person. WOW provided me an opportunity to explore myself as a writer and a thinker. One of my former students, Ben Kendrick (he has no idea the debt of gratitude I owe him), would become a mentor for me as a writer. He was an editor for Gamerant, a website dedicated to video games. Over a few drinks at a mutual friend’s wedding, I told him that I played WOW and shared an essay I had written about it. A few months later, he asked me if I wanted to write a weekly column about the game for Gamerant. I took his offer and for a few years, I wrote a weekly column called World of Warcraft Wisdom (hence my Twitter handle).

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Is there any question as to why I need a sticker?

Those years writing that column shaped me in so many ways as a writer and a thinker. It gave me a platform to explore my thoughts and ideas on culture and the role games play. It helped me hone my skills as a writer. More importantly, it gave me an opportunity to practice what I preach to my students.

There is so much that goes into personal reflection and reflection writing. In so many ways, what makes it difficult for students to find the meaning in their experiences and their views is that they are still in Paris. For many, they hold their opinions and ideas on their sleeves with so little consideration as to where they came from because they are still developing these opinions and ideas. Our students can tell you what they think, but they have a difficult time exploring why they think what they think.

The set up for reflection writing is very important, so much of it comes from the questions we pose as teachers. It’s not enough simply to ask our students to write about a significant experience. I often structure reflection writing through a series of small questions that become larger, open ended questions. After some pre-writing activities and their answers in mind, they are free to put it all together and discern the significance and meaning from whatever it is they are reflecting.

In this essay, for example, consider the questions I have asked and answered about why I chose a World of Warcraft decal to mark my car. From the very simple (When did you play WOW? What side did you play?); to a bit more reflective (How did you get the writing gig? Why did you need a sticker?); to a bit more open ended and thoughtful (Why did you change your no sticker policy, anyway? You’re 49 years old, why the heck are you still identifying with a video game?). And these questions do not even include the meta aspect of this writing!

When I ask my students to write reflective essays after a project or an essay they have written for class, I often use a Google Form to collect their responses and thinking. Each question they answer on the Form gets progressively open ended. The assignment will dictate the questions I have them answer (either for pre-writing or post activity reflection). When they are done and we have conferred on their responses, they are ready to find the meaning of whatever it is that I am asking them to find. They are, in short, ready to arrive at a better, more clear and personal understanding.

When I finally decided that it was time for a decal, I had my choice narrowed down to two decals: the Horde and the Colorado Avalanche hockey team logo. The debate in my head was not too long. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Avs. In the hockey world the Avs are the good guys, everyone else is ok (and then there is the wild (I refuse to capitalize their name), who are just plain wrong). But when I think about what has played a more significant role in shaping who I am today, there was a clear winner. Mind you, I have not played WOW in quite sometime, but I still consider those years writing and playing formative in my understanding as to how popular culture functions in our lives and beyond us. I came to realize just how significant popular culture is in shaping us as individuals and as a people. I often wonder about the interplay between popular culture and reality and the push and pull of those.

In part because of World of Warcraft, therefore, I came into my own as a writer, a thinker, an observer, a writing teacher.

Tell me, how do you encourage reflection in your students? Leave a comment below.

Gamer culture

Currently, I am taking a class to get my certification in teaching ESL kids. Here is an essay I wrote for the class. The topic of the essay is about dealing with culture shock. Rather than go the normal route, I decided to write about my introduction into gamer culture through World of Warcraft. Happy reading!


A friend of mine who is more than half Sioux told me that a person who speaks two languages is two people, it is an expression he learned from his grandfather. Travis told me this during a set break when I was sitting in on guitar with his band. That line of his has stuck with me since he laid it out there for me and the universe to hear. He used it to illustrate the significance of having been raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation speaking Sioux and English and the struggles he had when he would visit family who lived off the reservation. I have processed this idea over the years, and I feel that stage four of culture shock (Brown, 1982) gives it the foundational understanding I have struggled with since that night: it is through language that one can be fully acculturated and can be both the person in this culture and that culture. I have said many times that after a few months totally immersed in French culture that anyone, French or American, would have had a difficult time in recognizing that I was American. However, what’s more is this culture transition from shock to assimilation is just as significant in my introduction and foray into gamer culture.

I don’t quite remember the year, but I remember the sensation of logging into World of Warcraft for the first time. It was not unlike going to a new city or country. I was ‘surrounded’ by new sights, new languages, new sounds. When a player enters a massive, multiplayer, online game (MMO) such as World of Warcraft for the first time, he or she enters into a new world and new culture. A world full of virtual ‘newness’ that can be so overwhelming to the ‘noob.’ I remember feeling the “excitement and euphoria” that one often feels when entering a new culture (Brown, 1982). While there are many MMOs and video games out there, there is a common culture and language at the foundation of gamer culture.

I wandered this new world and I began to feel a sense of forlornness. In all MMOs, there are manners in which players can communicate. As for World of Warcraft, there is a general and trade chat where everyone in that part of the realm can see what a player says. There is the private chat between two people, there are small group chats between players in a small group, and there is the guild chat (players in World of Warcraft organize themselves into large social groups called guilds). My first few weeks had me looking to the internet to translate the language I read. Words like noob, pwn, lawlz were foreign to me, as were a variety of acronyms (irl, lfg, afk, brb, ftw) that also sent me to the internet for translation. Asking for help in the general chat could result in mockery, so I found a guild of older players like me, and I would go to them for help or assistance in navigating the communication and traditions I saw happening in the game. Similar to the second stage of culture acquisition, the people in my guild provided necessary support that one often needs when immersing into a new culture (Brown, 1982).

Adjusting to a new culture is difficult, regardless of that culture. Gamer culture is no different. While adjusting to gamer culture through MMOs is certainly not as difficult as adjusting to a new culture in reality, but it highlights various differences in the two worlds to which gamers need to adjust. The “culture stress” described in stage three appropriately notes that as we adjust to our new surroundings we can “accept the differences in thinking and feeling” which surround us (Brown, 1982). With some experience, the ‘noob’ in the game begins to shed some of her innocence of the culture as she begins to use new language and begins to seek out companions for her adventures in the game. As she loses her innocence, she can more easily relate to “natives” and fit into the culture of the game a bit more comfortably.

There comes a moment in every transition from one culture to another where the individual reaches “assimilation or adaptation” (Brown, 1982). I realized I had fully adapted and assimilated into gamer culture when I could easily talk to my gamer students. When I engaged in some of the traditions of the game. When I could easily navigate my way in World of Warcraft. When I could easily enter a new MMO or conversation about a video game. I am truly bilingual and bicultural as I speak the language of gamer culture as easily as I speak my native language. I recognize myself in and out of gamer culture.   

So I come back to Travis and the idea that a person who speaks two languages is two people. The person I am in gamer culture is very different from the person who played with Travis’ blues band that night. Both rely on language particular to that culture, and both utilize words that might be recognizable to those not a part of that culture, however the true meaning of those words are predicated on fluency within that culture. I have to consider the implications on my students. Every new school year, students have to adjust to micro cultures with new teachers and new classrooms. Each teacher seeks to create a culture in his or her room that suits the course and the teaching/learning style of the teacher and, hopefully, meet the needs of the students. Every year I see over 100 new faces as they struggle to adapt to the culture I seek to create in my classroom. Eventually, many develop fluency in the language of my room and my classes, and when they do, they become two people: the student inside my classroom and the young adult outside of it. Until they develop fluency in the language of my room, however, they work to adapt. It is upon me and others familiar with the culture in my room to help the ‘noobs’ as they go through the four stages of culture shock. And when they are able to assimilate, hopefully true learning can happen.

Source:

Brown, H. Douglas. (1982). Sociocultural factors. In Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (pp. 193-196). White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Colonized by the grade book

Modern education has been fully colonized by the grade book. As any colonizer, the grade book imposes its values as truth and reality over those whom have been colonized. This is not an easy process as these values often are in direct opposition with the colonized‘s previously held values. Eventually, however, with force and other methods of control, these values will be seen as the only way forward and will not to be questioned. When this shift happens, the colonizer’s ideology becomes reality and the colonized see no other way but that way of life.

My AP class just read George Orwell’s, “Shooting an Elephant.” Every time I use this essay in class, I am reminded why I sympathize with the speaker when he is compelled to use his rifle, which he calls a”magical,” because it transforms him to a man of power and authority.  While I do not have a magical rifle, I have a magical grade book. And like the speaker in the essay, I am forced to use it. And sadly, due to the process of colonization, sometimes that is all the students, like all colonized, understand.

A quick summary if you are not familiar the essay: The speaker of the essay is a British police officer in Lower Burma. As such, he is a representative of the colonizing force from England. The speaker admits early in the essay that “imperialism was an evil thing” and was doing what he could to get away from it. One day, however, the speaker recalls a “tiny incident” which he claims reveal the true “nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” He was called to do something about an elephant running amok in the bazaar. The speaker does not want to hurt the elephant, but with the collected wills of the local population, he is compelled to use his magical rifle and shoot the elephant.

Much like the speaker I am compelled to confront my own elephant, which I do with my magical grade book. My students understand in the abstract the meaninglessness of grades and test scores. They understand that the only people who care about their grades and transcripts are them, their parents, and (to a certain degree) their college application. But the values imposed by the colonizer is quite different. The colonizer seeks to supplant the will of the colonized with the will of the colonizer. This is not an easy process and one that has to be done over and over again, lest the colonized’s will resurge. And so my students focus on the magical grade book.

Every time I read this essay, it seems that the colonizer, too,  must be re-colonized in order to inflict the colonizer’s will upon the natives. The speaker realizes that what he is doing is not the right thing, regardless, he continues with it. He continues to use this magical rifle. He continues to enforce the colonizer’s rules and impose their values.

Just like I continue to enter and ‘value’ grades. And spend the first few days back from summer break looking over SAT, PSAT, IB, AP, and other test scores (I don’t mind data, what I do mind is not allowing my students to be individuals). In doing all of this, I break the will of my students a bit more so that they are fully under the spell of the colonizer.

To push this metaphor of colonization one step further, there is a time when learning is about joy and fun. When the grade book does not matter. A time when school is about exploring. But then enters the test. Enters the venerated test maker. Enters the person who has the fucking audacity to ask if your first grader is college ready? Here, the kid leaves and is replaced with a data point or, worse yet, the stresses of being adult.

I find myself playing into the game. I find myself pulling out my magical grade book. I listen to the crowd of thousands making sure I use it.

As we started to discuss “Shooting an Elephant,” I presented this idea to my students. The irony is they agree. They agree that they are the elephant and the system (through me and the grade book) is taking their will very slowly. They agree that their thoughts about school and education have been fully colonized and they cannot see anything beyond the ‘significance’ of the grade book. They agree that the first question they are concerned about is if an assignment is being graded and how many points it is worth. It seems the more it is worth, the more work they will put into it.

And so I work to combat it. I work to find the balance between satisfying the needs and wants of the colonizer and making sure my students leave my classes with their wills mostly in tact. To be honest, in order to function as a society, we must give a bit of ourselves up, I have no problem with this. What concerns me, however, is the lack of desire for many of my students to learn for themselves in school, to put themselves into their learning. That if we want them to become lifelong learners, then we have to confront the incentive for learning in school. We have to confront the process of colonization through the grade book.

I will be spending some time over the next few posts as I explore some of what I am trying to do to combat this process colonization by the grade book in my classes. Right now, I am experimenting with the grades themselves, I am including some PBL approaches to learning, and other ideas. But I wonder about you? What are you doing in your classes to try and get your students’ focus off the grade book and on the learning? Please share some ideas in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Thinking without a Harness

I have been thinking quite a bit this school year about the significance of student (and teacher) reflection. I enjoy spending time in my own head, but often I find I don’t do it with the intention that I really should. I encourage my students to reflect and share their reflections, so I reckon I should too. In so many ways, that is the purpose of this blog and website. I intend to use this as a time to put together ideas and reflect on what I have done in my classes, tried to do in my classes, read for fun (and my classes), and other random writing and thinking.

So let this be a welcome mat to my  blog and my latest creative and educational endeavor. I suppose I should spend a moment on why I finally decided to give this medium a go on my own.

Last week I was at the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association 2018 conference and sat in on a few sessions by George Couros. I was moved. I was motivated. I realized in his session what a sham I had been asking my students to take risks with their writing and their thinking and all the while I was hiding most of my thinking on this computer of mine. Moreover, I realized if I want to improve my craft, I need to get out there more. By that, I mean I need to get my writing, my ideas, my struggles, my successes, my thoughts, all of it. I just need to get out there more.

And so this site was born over a couple of Manhattans with Felicia, my girl friend. I told her of my thoughts to put this together and we brainstormed ideas about the name and the purpose. And here it is, Thinking without a Harness.

Here you will find various pieces of my writing and thinking and reactions and reflections. I will post about teaching, learning, living, functioning, and the like. Take what you will. Leave a comment or two. Join in for the ride.

So, welcome to Thinking Without a Harness. This is my place to reflect and work some thoughts and ideas out in public.  And it starts now.

I look forward to your comments and thoughts and insights. As educators and people, we cannot function well in isolation, so please join in the conversations. I will let go of my safety harness and put my thoughts and ideas out there. I hope you will join me in this endeavor as I put my reflections out there and do what I ask of my students, and not what I do.