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Friday, November 30, 2012

Off the Sidelines and Onto the Playing Field

The Pro’s and Con’s

University of Minnesota education researchers Roger and David Johnson have pioneered in teaching and exploring the ways cooperation in the classroom yields different results than regular, individual, and competitive kinds of learning.

The philosophy, in a nut-shell, is “we are all in this together,” or “four heads are better than one.”  This I can attest is true in the field of mass communication, where documentaries, television programs of all kinds and advertising is a group effort; so I’m dyed-in-the-wool believer in cooperative learning.

The Pro and Con activity in my Introduction to Mass Communication class is modeled after the Creative Controversy exercise we studied and actively played out in Minnesota in our training with the Johnson brothers.

This activity has, over the years, become part of our faculty training at Northwest Vista College, and I invariably volunteer to teach it. I confess I do it to inspire myself to lift my britches and gather my energies to do it each semester in each of my five sections: It is exhausting, and I don’t even do any work!

The effort is always worth it: It is exciting to see the engagement as students stand and speak in their "big boy and big girl voices" putting forth well-researched positions pro and con on a topic in their group. The groups in the class create a happy cacophony that is music to my ears.

They are encouraged to use passion and force as they speak, yet they follow the rules and protocols that remind us of respecting people with whom we don’t agree, and generally remembering “This is Me” and “This is My Idea” are, importantly and indeed, different.

Student groups have been preparing group media presentations on topics they have selected about the Internet and its impact on people. They have researched in the college library’s collections and databases the pro’s and con’s of their topic. Some examples are digital piracy, whether or not cyber-bullying is a true problem or not, if technology helps or hurts intimate, personal relationships.

The Pro and Con activity is a part of the staggered, worth-30 % -of -the -entire -course -grade-media presentation project. The project requires students to steep themselves in both sides of the topic, and to argue strongly both sides, using no opinions or personal experiences, but only material from their research. They are also required to attribute the sources of the facts or data they use in their pro or con arguments, as in “According to a 2011 study of 3,000 students at Harvard University who participated in a study about texting, researchers there found that their grades were/were not affected by use of texting.”

The whole process is about four weeks worth of classes and assignments, including working with the databases to locate and examine articles selected by using the 5 w’s and h (who, what, where, when, why and how), and working on the technical side of the media presentation by creating a Prezi or PowerPoint, a film, and an Infographic to display data.

The addition to the activity this semester was asking the students to consider their “debate” presentation portions as the prologue to the actual “hard” work, which in fact it is: The last part of the activity is the group’s “creative” contribution to the topic they are examining. First, the group finishes 16 minutes of controlled, timed presentations in their groups with students taking first the pro then the con side, then swapping sides to present the opposite position. This alone is a stretch for many of us, who, naturally, are often wedded to a point of view.

What this swapping of sides teaches is that there is value to listening to and even speaking with our own voices the ideas of the people with whom we do not agree. It can be surprising that we start finally to see “the other side” when we spend enough time examining those ideas we don’t start out believing or agreeing with, much less understanding.

The “hard” work is the creativity required to create a list of options and alternatives to the extremes of “pro” and “con”, “yes” and “no”, “I’m right” and “You’re Wrong”. I added a brief but most important part to my usual activity by requiring the groups to present their alternatives and options to the entire class. Some students had topics which were easier than others to find options for. A group of students exploring cyber-bullying  suggested before children are allowed to use social media they first be taught to report to their parents any signs of cyber-bullying, and one way to ensure that was by keeping the family’s computer in the open living/ family room where children would be comfortable and used to sharing their cyber experiences with their families.

Another group examining YouTube and copyright abuse suggested YouTube ask its users to view a short video explaining the problems with piracy before being allowed to open an account on YouTube.

One way that I can improve the activity for next semester is to make the last part more concrete, with examples that this semester’s students used, and to offer suggestions such as to think about alternatives and options that could be undertaken by someone “at the level of the home and family” or at the other extreme, if you prefer, “at the level of governmental policy-making.”

It’s hard to know, but I wonder if this was the first time that some of my college students ever entered the arena of a problem, and saw themselves as agents of change, idea-makers and problem-solvers whose insights and experiences count. The side-lines is where all of us start out, but if we are to create more problem-solvers, educators need to provide skills in getting off the sidelines and onto the playing field.

Whether it’s the first time to be in the arena of making a difference for some of the students or not, these close encounters with thorny issues, controversial topics are exactly what changes a student from one whose learning is at arm’s length and not yet their own, to one who is in full possession of the important and necessary notion that their ideas and experiences do matter.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pre and Post Dia de los Muertos or the Signing of the Will

When I go
I don’t care if I’m wearing a tu-tu and a
Woolen sweater or a flowered flannel gown,
Jeans and a headdress of feathers
When I go
I’ll be somewhere else
Before the ceremony or the service begins.

I’m seeing the attorney tomorrow
For the signing over of the property, the items
To set my departure in the right lane
Past the velvet curtain
To the pulsing red sign that's been blinking
Its ‘exit here’ announcement
From the deepest corner 
Of my memory.

These papers that we’re signing
Will clear the way for singing, for the raising of glasses
Pray to Guadalupe, that she finds me.
Remember me as I’d wish you to, hugging me near.
Me, who will be someone else,
Somehow knowing where to go.

When I go
I’ll be empty as an overturned vase
Dry and safe for a family of spiders
May they mate and multiply inside of me
I’ll be gone before the mood turns to lunch or to the next thing,
Gone before I know it.