26 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
ucts as a stimulus for a discussion they facilitated to further explore the character and the play.
Looking back even now, I see this assignment as the perfect invitation for peer-supported learn-
ing, as it affords students the opportunity to use multimodal tools in expressing their collaborative
interpretations of a challenging text. Back then, I was equally confident that the assignment would
be a sure-fire success because it was so consonant with my value for constructivist learning. And,
even though I noticed the typical disruptions that occur when students work in small groups, their
final products and the rich discussion that resulted from their presentations convinced me of their
rich learning experiences. Later, however, when Peter Smagorinsky and I analyzed the recordings
we had made as small groups constructed their body biographies, we discovered that students’ ex-
periences were far more uneven than met the eye (Smagorinsky and O’Donnell-Allen 2000).
One all-girl group exhibited virtually every feature of peer-supported learning, “[embodying]
ample opportunities for individual contribution and development in the service of collective
goals” (Ito et al. 2013:48). Their body biography reflected their high-functioning interactions. On
the other end of the spectrum, another group produced a stunning final product. When we ana-
lyzed their interactions, however, we discovered that their interactions largely replicated the less
equitable and unforeseen (at least to Peter and me) power hierarchies that existed in the classroom
based on students’ social standing. This mixed group included the most marginalized students in
the classroom—the cowboy who didn’t fit in to the mainstream social scene, an African-American
male who struggled academically, a cheerleader with a diagnosed learning disability, and a boy with
a surgically repaired cleft palate, whose speech and physical appearance often made him socially
withdrawn. Even though they appeared “busy” when I observed their behavior in the moment, the
transcripts showed occasional racist comments, a disengagement with the task, or complete with-
drawal from the group. In the end, the only girl in the group completed the final product on her
own because she was unwilling to sacrifice a good grade to the group’s dysfunction.
This experience taught me that looks can be deceiving. Even when assignments are designed to be
collaborative and students are grouped according to interest, peer-supported learning is not guaran-
teed. If youth are to share a value for learning together, they still need the more sustained mentor-
ing that teachers can provide. Consequently, I now have changed my teaching practices to support
students in creating specific norms to guide their work even before they begin the learning task so
that they can revisit them when interactions become unproductive. During learning, I allow myself
to intervene when I observe such instances in order to support students in getting back on track.
After learning, I require students to reflect on their collaborative experiences, naming what went
well and what they need to change in order to collaborate more effectively in future contexts.
Admittedly, these moves are small and subtle. They may appear as mere nods toward achieving
teachers’ loftier goals, but they are essential if students are to experience inclusive participation,
tackle challenges they cannot meet alone, and benefit from the interconnectedness the Connected
Learning report characterizes as peer-supported learning (Ito et al. 2013:78). As you read the narra-
tives that follow, I encourage you to notice the small moves Katie McKay makes to ensure that even
the most marginalized students draw on digital and multimodal tools to move closer to the center of
the classroom. Lacy Manship demonstrates how even the youngest students can become co-inquir-
ers to document learning in the classroom. Finally, Chelsea Geier and David Neisler frankly describe
how pre-service teachers experience (or do not experience) peer-supported learning and how those
experiences have the potential to shape their future teaching. In every instance, the small moves
teachers make allow students to learn in significant ways. Take a look.
27 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
lIghts, Camera, soCIal aCtIon!
Katie McKay, Heart of Texas Writing Project
“Should we let the white kid play today?”
“No offense, but you’re black, right?”
“Sweeping is a woman’s job.”
In these snippets of conversation, my fourth-grade students were searching for the language to talk
about complicated issues of race, gender, power, and equity. When I overheard them talking, I sup-
pressed the inclination to reprimand them. Instead, I initiated a study aiming to equip them with
the language and knowledge to learn about and from each other in peer-connected ways. In the
course of that year, I discovered that it was possible to build students’ literacy skills while simulta-
neously giving them the opportunity to pursue culturally relevant questions related to equity.
I applied to teach at this small Texas Title I school in part because of the diverse student demo-
graphics. This particular year, my transitional bilingual class included students who were of
mixed race; who had come to us as refugees from Africa; or were first-, second-, or third-genera-
tion Mexican Americans. I had a student who was closely tied to his Native-American culture and
another who was from a white, upper-middle-class household.
For the first time in seventy years, the school had just been branded with the scarlet letters “AU”:
Academically Unacceptable. Though I joined the staff after this designation had been made, my
classroom was under tremendous scrutiny. Some days the students had to crane their necks just
to see me, outnumbered by classroom “visitors” with clipboards. I was required to provide de-
tailed daily plans that explained explicitly how I was meeting standards and preparing students
for state tests. In spite of this constant surveillance, I was committed to providing my students
with authentic opportunities to develop as readers and writers.
With the flood of media around the 2008 presidential race as our backdrop, we delved into a
project-based unit on the history of discrimination in the United States. In the process of build-
ing charts, making timelines, labeling maps, and discussing and reading about current events,
students posed the question, “Has Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream come true?” Students identi-
fied blatant discrimination and more subtle micro-aggressions occurring inside and outside our
classroom, as well as in our nation’s past and present. Eventually, they began to inquire how they
might try on the role of agents of change.
Reading from Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series provided the opportunity for them to do
so. Students became inspired to create comics for their third- and fifth-grade peers and worked
together in small groups—heterogeneously mixed by gender, language, and literacy develop-
ment—to write scripts, illustrate comic strip panels, and transform their work into narrated
slideshows. As a culminating project, each group produced two iMovies, one highlighting com-
mon micro-aggressions students see today and a second about the history of discrimination in
the United States. In each movie that portrayed a current scenario, students wrote in an “agent of
change” who bravely and respectfully defended the rights of others.
Both our process and purpose throughout the unit encouraged an inclusive classroom commu-
nity. When it came time to record students’ voices, students offered each other language support
or feedback on reading with expression. Each person’s work was dependent upon the work of a
28 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
peer who had different strengths and experiences that could contribute to the end result. As is
the beauty of group projects, however, certain questions and obstacles arose, especially when it
came to determining the make-up of the groups.
“Our group’s not big enough for all of our parts. Could someone from another
group make a cameo appearance?”
“We need someone who speaks Spanish. Could someone help us?”
The answer to each problem was to include another student who had been excluded previously
or to step into the shoes of a character different from oneself. A Mexican-American student
recorded the words, “I have a dream….” A boy read the part of Rosa Parks refusing to stand.
So while each movie credited two to three writer/producers, groups overlapped as they script-
ed, cast, and edited. Some students were successful throughout this project even though I had
struggled to reach them in previous learning experiences.
Though Diana had attended our school since kindergarten, her oral proficiency in English was
behind that of her peers. Quiet in nature, she was treated like a little sister by her friends. “We
help Diana out,” they had informed me on the first day of school, translating Diana’s quiet pal-
abras. Before this project, Diana had often kept her eyes down during lessons, as if praying not
to be called on. Now, her drive to advocate for the rights of women and Spanish speakers along
with her interest in digital tools had her rushing around from group to group. She helped Eng-
lish speakers write and record lines in Spanish. She recorded and re-recorded her voice, liberated
through the opportunity to try her English lines until they sounded just right to her. Later in the
year at our author’s reading at a local bookstore, Diana proudly introduced herself and presented
her iMovie to an audience of at least fifty people. The use of digital tools gave Diana a forum and
the confidence and motivation to make her voice heard.
The project drew another student into the classroom community, as well. Samuel was known as
the best artist in the class, but he was frequently overcome with anger, having recently experi-
enced the death of a brother and the divorce of his parents. Many days, I considered it a success
if I simply could get him to come out from under his desk where he liked to draw. Though most
of his previous artwork reflected Samuel’s anger, this unit gave him a new subject. He smiled
when he saw his work projected onto a big screen—the voices of his peers bringing his char-
acters to life. While drawing was an initial hook, the use of digital media ensured Samuel’s full
participation. He couldn’t just draw and pass his illustrations to his peers. His voice was needed
to play one of the parts, and he had to take photos of each picture to upload for the slideshow.
There was too much to do without everyone’s participation, and Samuel stepped up to the chal-
lenge. His group completed their project by the deadline—the first time he had completed an
assignment all year.
Even as early as fourth grade, many children form beliefs about what kind of students they are or
are not. Like Diana and Samuel, Eduardo was no exception. Although he was a positive leader on
the soccer field, in class he often used his influence to derail lessons. Working in a diverse group
for this project, however, required him to channel his strengths more positively. I intention-
ally grouped Eduardo with a female African refugee and a boy who identified strongly with his
Native-American roots. Eduardo had moved to Texas from Mexico as a young child. As this group
worked together, the members began to realize that they had more in common than they original-
ly had thought, each having witnessed discrimination against people from their own culture. One
29 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
of the movies they produced together was about the importance of the critical masses during the
Civil Rights Movement. Eduardo read the part of Martin Luther King, Jr., reciting the first lines
of his “I Have a Dream” speech. At our author’s reading, he introduced the movie by saying,
“We can be heroes, too, if we believe we can change the world.” Eduardo, in his commitment to
the ideas that their movie portrayed, helped to create a new class culture of students who identi-
fied as capable of making a difference.
Though this project was transformative for these students and our classroom community as a
whole, this success did not release us from the mandates imposed by the school’s “AU” designa-
tion. Even as we were engaging in discussions of resistance and impact, visits from district su-
pervisors reminded us of the current realities of the looming tests. I purposely avoided designing
the project as one that would allow me to “teach to the test”; however, the skills required by the
project allowed me to provide instruction within a meaningful context. As students wrote their
scripts, I conducted mini-lessons on effective sequencing, introductions, conclusions, and organi-
zation. When it was time to study the “testing genre,” I reminded students of all they had learned
in writing their scripts. Realizing that there was an audience for their writing and that their words
should serve a purpose, students were more motivated to practice timed writing as required.
When I reflect on this unit, I see that we were not only working to promote tolerance and appre-
ciation for diversity in our community. We also were resisting an oppressive educational context.
In the midst of the pressure to perform on tests that were isolating and divisive, we united in
collaborative work that required critical thinking and trouble-shooting. In a climate that valued
silence, antiquated skills, and high-stakes testing, we engaged in peer-connected learning that
highlighted twenty-first-century skills and made an impact on our community.
These larger purposes were not lost on the students, who demonstrated intense engagement with
their work. In our time crunch toward the end of the project, students had to learn to navigate
iMovie quickly. The room constantly abuzz, it was a challenge to record so many different scripts
without also recording distracting background noise. Some students came in at lunch or stayed
after school to finish their work. In the end, the rushed feel was fitting. The message was clear:
our work was urgent, and there was no time to waste.
Link to Digital Is Resource: http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/781
30 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
Wanna see the movIe?
Lacy Manship, UNC Charlotte Writing Project
I sit among a pile of video camera batteries, flash drives, laptop cord, hard drives, screened de-
vices, an audio recorder, and stacks of crayon and pencil papers, and photographs. I am trying to
consolidate a multimodal record of two years of teaching. Finally somewhere I hit a goldmine of
footage from our class Flip video camera. And I am fascinated, inspired, and in love with these
students all over again.
This reflection emerged from my work with a National Writing Project group to inquire into ur-
ban literacies. I was curious to discover how students and I might create space in our classroom
for funds of knowledge (Moll et al. 1992) and other peer (Corsaro 1992), home, and community-
based literacies not usually valued in school. I teach in an urban elementary school on the outer
edges of a large city. Our school includes students from many ethnic and cultural groups speak-
ing at least six different languages. Over the two years that this inquiry took place, my students
and I looped together through both kindergarten and first grade. Although many students
flowed in and out of our class in accordance with the movement of households in our city, the
core group featured here—Amari, Joslyn, Everardo, and May—were together both years.
In the second year of the project, which I focus on here, the children and I documented our
classroom “underlife”—those stories of the classroom that often go unnoticed (Brooke 1987;
Canagarajah 1997). To find out how these documentaries might provide a window into the
peer, home, and community literacies that figured into our everyday school lives, I set up “class
videographer” as a classroom job. Just as it was someone’s job to water the plants, someone else
was in charge of using the Flip camera to document the day. The class videographer was free to
video any part of our classroom and to share the camera with others who wanted to record. The
video clips became sources of reflection, analysis, and sharing for us as they organically wove
into our activities. The children and I were co-inquirers in the process of documenting our
By reflecting in writing on a
set of video clips taken by the
children, I discovered from
their perspective what it was
like to be in our classroom and
how new literacy practices are
shaped through video, sound,
and text. Some videos made me
reflect on the broad context of
being a first-grade classroom
videographer. A simple four
seconds of footage created by
one student, Amari, sort of
says it all to me. At the start
of the video, her face is close
to the screen in self-portrait.
Screen shot of classroom video posted to Digital Is
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested