Participatory learning – the Ning steps up a notch.

I read a very interesting report earlier this week that I mentioned in one of my last posts. It was called ‘The Future of Learning Institutions in the Digital Age’. It is  an interesting read and even though it is primarily focused on higher education, it has parallels with the work we do with students at secondary level.

This paragraph rang true for me;

Every university in the global north, of course, is spending large sums of money revamping its technology offerings, creating great wired spaces where all forms of media can be accessed from the classroom. But how many have actually rethought the modes of organization, the structures of knowledge, and the relationships between and among groups of students, faculty, and others across campus or around the world? That larger challenge—to harness and focus the participatory learning methods in which our students are so accomplished—is only now beginning to be introduced and typically in relatively rare and isolated formats.

It made me think of the Digital Revolution rollout of netbook computers and infrastructure happening now. While creating technology rich environments is important in today’s world, supporting them with teacher professional development to make the most of participatory learning opportunities is vital. I’m not convinced that that part of the process has been thought through.

Which brings me to our Yr 9 Ning. This platform came out of our participation in Professional Development (Powerful Learning Practice). For us,  it’s been a great week in our Year 9 Ning. Participatory learning has certainly been at a premium.

I’ve mentioned in recent times our study of Michael Gerard Bauer’s ‘The Running Man’ and our visit from Vietnam veteran Barry Heard. Well, last weekend both Michael and Barry  joined our Ning and they have been responding to reflections and questions posed by our students.  

It’s been a great learning experience for all of us. Both Barry and Michael have been very generous with their time, and have, I think, surprised our students with their presence.  The day after Michael and Barry started contributing we opened our class with a visit to the Ning. The look on some of the students’ faces was priceless. They really didn’t think that we would have real life authors make an appearance! Some of them felt a little intimidated when it came to posting a question. They were worried their question would seem trivial or unimportant and not worthy as a result. One of the ways we overcame this was to have us brainstorm a list of questions and have one student post them on behalf of the group.

Barry left a comment for every student who had posted a comment in one of the forum topics that had been posted after his talk. Each was a personalised response. I know how busy Barry is and want to publicly thank him for his efforts.  

Michael has visited frequently over the week and I want to publicly thank him too. He was posting comments from an internet cafe in Adelaide and let the girls know this in his comments. (He was there last week visiting schools.) Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday he was in the Ning helping us out with our understanding. He visited again on Saturday and even uploaded a picture of the visual he made reference to in the novel when Tom Leyton had a picture of Frankenstein pinned on his wall. I’ve been overwhelmed by his efforts. Perhaps the best way to give you an indication of the quality of this interaction is to show you a student comment and Michael’s reply (I hope Michael is OK with this!);

Hi Michael,
My name is *****and I must say I really enjoyed reading your book. Most school books don’t feel like actual stories that you can really get into, because you just know that you have to read it for school. However, your book was wonderful!

When I was reading it, I forgot that I had to read it for school and I kept picking it up because I wanted to, not because I had to. Thankyou so much for that.
I’ve also been reading your replies to other girls and you have answered sooo many of my questions and I’m so thankful. Like ***** said, you’ve really helped us to understand the book so much more.

A question for you, I think I better ask you one to keep the ‘flow of the ning’ going. I know it’s a bit off the topic of ‘The Running Man’ but anyway…

When you’re writing, do you see the story in your mind, like it’s already a book that you’re reading yourself?
I love writing fictional stories and while I write I see, almost like little clips from a movie of my story, in my mind.
I’m just curious to see, if it’s something you do too, or maybe it’s just my weird mind!

Thanks

P.S. I did spot the ‘Leighton’ in the story. My friend and I came across it and we had a little giggle 🙂  

Michael’s reply;

Hi *****

Thanks you so much for those lovely comments. I am so glad you enjoyed the book.
That’s a great question about ‘seeing the story in your mind’. I think you and I are exactly the same when we write. I have used the same description you did of writing being like seeing part of a movie. Often I ‘replay’ a scene over and over in my mind until something makes it click on to the next scene. When I write I imagine what I’m trying to describe as a movie scene with certain camera angles, close ups etc. I’ve always said that I don’t feel so much like I’m creating something from nothing when I write or making it up but that I’m uncovering or discovering something that already exists somewhere – like the story is real and my job is to find it or see it. So no, I definitely don’t think it’s just your weird mind! (Of course it could be that we both have weird minds!)

Some people thought that different spelling of Leighton/Leyton was there on purpose. They thought it might have been symbolic or something. Nope, just a typo!
Cheers
Michael

I think you can see the high level of interest from both student and author here.  

I read an article entitled ‘A book is a place’, by Bob Stein that appeared in ‘The Age’ newspaper here in Melbourne. In it, the writer speculated about the changing nature of the book and the resultant changes for authors as the book evolves in a participatory culture. Here is some of Bob’s thinking;

I was now thinking of a book as a place – a place where readers, and sometimes authors, congregate. Along with that came the realisation that this new formulation required a wholesale re-thinking of the roles of different players.

And this;

Essentially, authors are about to learn what musicians have grasped during the past 10 years – that they get paid to show up. For musicians, this means live performances account for an increasingly significant percentage of their income in contrast to ever-shrinking royalties from sales. With books, as we redefine content to include the conversation that grows up around the text, the author will increasingly be expected to be part of that ongoing conversation and, of course, expect to be paid for that effort.

What’s been happening in our Ning this week is part of this evolutionary process. Both Michael and Barry have been very obliging to experiment with the medium. Right now, this is a rarity. Not all that many schools (I don’t think!) would be exploring this kind of interaction using a platform like Ning. But this will change and so will the way authors respond to such requests. This potentially will become something controlled by agents with financial incentive for the authors.

Right now, I, and the students at my school, are incredibly grateful to two very committed and interested authors , who were willing to push the boundaries and engage with their audience via our Ning platform. Michael and Barry, you are true gentlemen!

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Barry Heard’s gift – his story.

I feel like I’ve been away from this blog for a long time. There has been so much to write about but other things – life – have got in the way.

Last Friday I was privileged to be a member of the audience when Barry Heard addressed our Year 9 students and spoke of his experiences during and after the Vietnam War. We are studying Michael Gerard Bauer’s ‘The Running Man’, a story that recounts the experience of a reclusive figure, Tom Leyton, who experienced time in Vietnam. It was an hour and a half that saw our students transfixed by story.  Barry left nothing out and didn’t sanitise the experience. I’ve read works by Tim O’Brien that tell Vietnam like it was; Barry’s recount was on par with ‘The Things they Carried‘.

Barry spent twelve months in a psychiatric institution. It was during this time that he wrote, ‘Well Done, Those Men’. He didn’t give it to a publisher  until he had gone some way towards recovering from the post traumatic stress disorder he was suffering from. Its publication has led to thousands of emails and speaking engagements where Barry has been able to inform and enlighten many of us who need to hear this story.

This is Barry’s gift to us. I doubt that he would associate the word gift with his experience. But a gift it is. Some gifts come with sharp edges and teach us something about ourselves. I know that what Barry has imparted has been a gift to my students who have learnt much from the experience. Just reading some of the comments they have shared in our Ning has confirmed for me that sharp edged messages, although hard to hear, are important.

Four main things affected me most:
When he was first sent to war and dumped his bag on the bed, not knowing that it was a shrine to the mate of his tent-mates. I would feel really shameful and stupid, just flinging it there, so disrespectful to their mate, even though he had no idea what the significance of the bed was.
The story of the horses in world war 1 – how he’d always wondered why the veteran he knew collected all the broken-down, retired old farm horses etc, and saved them, and then finally found out that it was because of all the horses who died in WW1.
When he returned to Australia and went to university and was abused horrifically for something he’d had no choice in whatsoever. He hadn’t had any idea what he was doing, where he was going, what or where Vietnam was, or anything – he’d never wanted to go kill people, and then when he finally got out and came back he was beaten and shouted at and had …muck… thrown at him. Everyone was just so ignorant.
His mother’s last words: “My Barry never came home.” He’d changed so much… He didn’t mean to, but he did.

This was a truly moving and eye-opening experience, listening to Barry’s description, so flat and matter-of-fact and shattering. I cried all the way home in the car because I just had to share it with my mum. I’m really glad that I listened to this talk, even though it made me cry like a tap (and I don’t think that bench thing in the lecture theatre will ever be the same… 😦 )

        I think that Barry Heard’s talk, or presentation (I’m not sure exactly what is was), was a little disturbing, to say the least. I’m glad he didn’t treat us like children and leave out some bits that other authors and such would have, but both my friends and I are having trouble wondering whether we “enjoyed” the talk or not. What he has been through was mind blowing, and awful, and the fact that he had been administered in a mental home just a few years ago made it seem surreal. When he told us that 3 of his friends from the war had committed suicide, and about his friend who had half his face blown off, and his animated “BOOMS” that seemed to make everyone in the room jump, well I think that it made it just seem a whole lot more awful then Tom Leyton’s break down. While Tom Leyton had been to the war, and had had awful experiences like Barry, I think it was just a small shadow of the reality of what people went through.

My reply to this comment was this;

You know, there are times in life when I think we need to be exposed to the uncomfortable realities of what some people are exposed to and have to endure. We lead pretty sanitised lives for the most part. If we don’t have opportunities to ‘walk in another’s shoes’ how do we develop empathy for our fellow human beings who travel a road far more rocky than the one we take? Yes Barry’s talk was disturbing, but it could also be described as enlightening. I awoke to some realities of the war experience and the difficulties faced by veterans on their return home to a country that didn’t have a lot of empathy for what they had endured.I think this talk has made us look at ‘The Running Man’ and the character of Tom Leyton with much more empathy. We have had an opportunity to walk, for a brief moment, in someone else’s shoes.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am that we have the Ning environment where we can share an experience like this. We have two threads running in the Ning at the moment related to Barry’s speech and we have had 35 replies. All of them express sincere feelings from our students and let us know how much they valued Barry’s words. Last year our student’s heard Barry’s words but no forum like this existed where they could share their thoughts about the experience.   

Barry began his talk by showing us a pen and telling us it was his best friend. He told my students it could be their best friend too. I think some of them are starting to realise this. I know that the last year and  half have taught me that writing is cathartic and leads to growth. Barry knows this; let’s hope that others who are carrying heavy loads can learn the same thing……

*My students created a wiki about Australian involvement in Vietnam. I am very proud of their efforts. They created the pages over three lessons.

*Be on the lookout for Tag, Barry’s latest work. My students are clamouring to read it after Barry’s description. Geoffrey Blainey emailed Barry to tell him it was the best account of the trench warfare in Gallipoli that he had ever read.

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