31 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
Then the camera circles around; you see and hear for a moment the kids and the classroom. And
you hear me as I announce a “five-minute warning” until it is time to clean up and go to lunch.
Then, the camera circles back around to Amari. This brief clip illustrates how she is forming
and is being formed by the social identity of our classroom. With the camera in her hand, cir-
cling around the social world of first grade, she is participating in the composition of a class-
Other students also filmed videos that served as assessment documents and records of engage-
ment. In one clip, Joslyn assumes a digital persona presenting an infomercial for a scripted
reading program required by the school. This recording preserved an accessible moment for
the children and me to engage in critical dialogue about the commodification of learning and
literacy. With Joslyn’s infomercial to mediate that conversation, the kids could enter into some
challenging and complex discussions about who decides what it means to be a reader.
In a four-minute video clip Everardo recorded, he moves about the classroom, simultaneously
pointing the camera at his classmates, asking them what they are doing, and joining in on their
conversations. In another clip, he zooms in on seedlings at the windowsill and tinfoil at the sci-
ence center. As he chooses where to point the camera, seemingly random objects take on new
meaning and demonstrate his interaction with the learning environment. Everardo used the
camera to mediate his social activity as he talked to everyone in the room, a thing he didn’t often
do at school otherwise. With a classroom culture that valued composition as an evolving, rolling
entity, however, Everardo found a space to generate a story that mattered.
When he moved about the classroom, asking all his classmates what they were doing, he was
joining a conversation that already existed. There had already been many instances of children
recording, watching, and discussing one another’s documentary clips. All of these experiences
combined to create a moment in which Everardo decided to take up the camera and engage. The
children had something to say about school and a place to say it, inviting other people to listen
and respond. They were constantly posing and answering a question that May once videotaped
herself asking a classmate: “Wanna see the movie?”
The camera became a symbol for me: an icon of how young children can engage in social digital
composition. And while it would be really easy to focus on the image of Amari’s circling cam-
era, it is not as simple as that. My “five-minute warning” in the background was a reminder
that the dominant narratives of school absolutely defined our classroom, too. Although I like to
reminisce on our classroom as being one of those free-flowing, whole-language contexts, I as the
teacher still was privileged to make more decisions about time, space, and activity—even if they
happened to include a lot of “progressive” pedagogical choices. Still, putting this digital tool
into the children’s hands and under their control created a counter-narrative, a story of school
in which the children made decisions about the time, space, and activity they chose to record.
The institutional forces working on these children were sometimes painfully rigid. In this “high-
needs school,” I was supposed to use a scripted literacy curriculum. Under mandate, I was re-
quired to comply with the use of weekly timed phonics and reading tests, the results of which
were used to name children to be pulled out of our classroom during science, social studies, and
even math for intensive and reductive “literacy instruction.” These conditions, in which the
voices and freedoms of our classroom were tightly controlled, make the visibility and naming of
the creative literacies of our documentaries all the more important.
32 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
May’s video—in which she asks a classmate, “Wanna see the movie?”—is a three-second mo-
ment in the larger context of a school year, yet it shows the social nature of composing within
our learning community. May isn’t writing empty sentences into worksheet slots. She is engag-
ing with a group of people who “make stuff” and even make stuff about their making. In an-
other clip, May created a documentary of “The Hat Store,” a riff off of Patricia Pollaco’s Chick-
en Sunday. She was able to do so because I brought the text into the classroom during a shared
reading and provided materials in the dramatic play center. May captured the children on video
as they recreated the story together. As she filmed, she engaged her social world, including
other children, me, and the literature. May’s rich multimodal text pushed back against scripted
curriculum, allowing her to demonstrate her understanding in ways that traditional learning
could not. Her video intentionally harnessed social networks, showing how a child’s learning is
not individual but deeply connected to peers, their contexts, and to the lens of the narrator. The
activity of filming created a new level of participation, capturing children’s participation not
only in school, but also in the naming of what school is.
The videos remind me that although there are challenges in this work of facilitating children’s
documentary making, there also is joy. Having access to these documentaries both during that
school year and since has allowed me to negotiate a story of teaching that sometimes felt and
feels like a very unsatisfactory jumble of diagnostic reading tests, endless meetings, and an ac-
companying anxiety. They remind me to hold in the forefront of my memory these people for
whom I care deeply and who have really interesting things to say.
The project demonstrates the power of putting cameras in the hands of all students, no mat-
ter what the contexts of their classroom. Allowing students to capture and narrate their lives
in the classroom—even when those experiences appear less playful or less free—offers valuable
glimpses into how they perceive the communities they share, how they learn together, and what
forms of play and freedom might emerge in the process. And my continued access to our class-
room world during that year gave and gives me energy to keep at it as a teacher, even in chal-
Link to Digital Is Resource: http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/1807
33 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
tWo fUtUre teaChers’ vIeWs on
Chelsea Geier and David Neisler, Colorado State University
Colorado State University’s E401, “Teaching Reading,” is a required course for all students
aspiring to teach language arts in a public school setting. The semester we were enrolled in the
course, our professor, Dr. Antero Garcia, began in a theoretical vein with an exploration of Lit-
eracy: Reading the Word and the World by Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (1987). Even though
there was a great deal of surface-level uniformity in the demographic makeup of E401—most
students in our class were white and in their early twenties—there were strong divisions of
interests between students who were drawn to more practically oriented subjects explored in
class and those who were comfortable considering the act of reading from a more philosophical
stance. Many in the class expected it to be organized exclusively around teaching techniques, so
there was great consternation when the semester began with reading this text. These same stu-
dents breathed a collective sigh of relief when the focus later shifted to the practical as we read
When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do by Kylene Beers (2002).
What is literacy?
During the first few weeks of the course, however, we experienced peer-supported connected
learning by considering the broader question, “What is literacy?” As a class, we worked with
Freire and Macedo and other texts to arrive at some ideas, comparing their definitions to our
own personal definitions. Beginning with this essential question, which persisted throughout
the course, eventually allowed most students to understand that we must pursue an answer in
order to define how to teach reading.
Dr. Garcia’s class culminated in a collaborative multiliteracies project that allowed students to
experience peer-supported connected learning by creating a Digital Is resource for other active
and pre-service teachers. In lieu of a final paper, which would have had an audience of one, this
project synthesized much of the course content by requiring us to demonstrate our own defini-
tions of literacy. In the process of creating it, we grappled with what it means to teach reading
effectively, both as pre-service teachers and as future educators who might someday create simi-
lar collaborative assignments in our own classrooms.
The multiliteracies project
The multiliteracies project began with individual brain-
storming sessions in which students created a bubble
chart that visually depicted the concepts explored dur-
ing the semester and how they related to one another.
With our individually crafted bubble charts in hand, we
then collaborated on a class-consensus bubble chart that
would eventually become the blueprint for our Digital Is
Example of bubble chart defining literacy
34 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
The bubble chart reflected philosophical sections such as “What is Power?” alongside more
practice-based sections such as “Standards and Textbooks: Hidden Connection.” Based on our
interests, we formed groups to create a section of the Digital Is resource that captured the gist
of what the class had learned about their topic.
How does peer support impact learning?
In completing the final project, we learned that peer-supported learning absolutely involves
having a social connection with others. Thirty-minute blocks of collaboration time over sev-
eral class periods allowed groups to “hang out” and casually talk about our end-products. We
also contributed our individual expertise to the project in a social, less formal way within our
groups. This expertise influenced which group we chose, increased our engagement, and also
lessened the pressure of completing the project.
As future educators, we learned about collaboration firsthand through this project. Collabo-
ration is a word often thrown around classrooms. Teachers create projects for students to
“work together” and learn the process of “compromise,” but often these projects result in
many people doing individual projects remotely, then cutting and pasting them together for a
final product. We learned that creating an environment for true collaboration requires more
than just putting students in groups with their peers and saying, “Go!” Dr. Garcia designed
a project that embodied peer-supported learning, allowing us to “[share and give] feedback
in inclusive social experiences that are fluid and highly engaging” (Ito et al. 2013:12). In fact,
the entire course was designed so that we developed and revisited our evolving definitions of
literacy in anticipation of our final project.
How to facilitate learning that actually connects with learners
Another important element of connected learning throughout the course was interest-powered
learning. Because we were allowed to choose our topic for the project, students were more
interested in the work we were doing, and our thoughts and ideas flowed more easily than they
might have if we were forced into a group. In David’s experience, the multiliteracies project
differed from other assignments he had completed because of the seamlessness of this col-
laboration. His group had diverse interests, and the digital format, along with the open-ended
aspect of the assignment, allowed group members to take an approach for which they had
genuine enthusiasm and to contribute to the overall quality of the final project. While David
was interested in a more text-based exploration of the subject, his collaborators were very
interested in adding audio and visual elements to the piece.
The positive aspects of collaboration were not uniform for all students, however. Even though
Dr. Garcia determined the final make-up of the groups, all projects did not go as planned. Some
of our classmates chose groups with their friends, while others used very little collaboration at
all to create their resources. Collaboration is tricky because if group members’ ideas or passion
for the project do not mesh, everyone may not be on the same page. This possibility is an un-
avoidable factor in connected learning that can be both beneficial and detrimental to learning,
depending on individual group members’ work ethic and the effort they put forth.
35 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
How can we ensure eﬀective participation, not just individual work
Educators, especially new teachers, often are concerned about the degree of participation in
peer-supported collaborative projects. Are all members contributing equally to produce the
project? How do we grade group projects? How should students be assessed? The expertise
factor was hugely important in the overall product Chelsea’s group created. One member
composed a song, and another made a digital slideshow. Another student contributed her
experience with blogging and other twenty-first-century skills by putting everyone’s work
together in order to define literacy in a “real-world” context.
Working with a group to create this digital resource posed some challenges but also allowed us
to provide a great deal of support for one another. Through this project, Chelsea and her partner
became Facebook friends in the end—a big deal in the social world—because they connected
around a topic that interested both of them inside and outside the classroom. Collaborating with
peers supported her learning because the work felt more like a passionate conversation that her
group wanted to reproduce for the world to hear, rather than a forced project with an unneces-
sary deadline completed by people with vastly different ideas. Overall, the inclusive nature of
the multiliteracies project allowed our class to effectively represent what we had learned togeth-
er since everyone’s voices were present in the Digital Is resource.
Looking back, we realize that the learning environment Dr. Garcia created in his classroom
was much different from others in our college careers where collaborative projects also were
required. Our experiences with connected learning taught us firsthand that it has validity. At
some points during the course, we and our classmates may not have understood our learning
and work in those terms. Still, as future teachers, we learned that there is so much power in
allowing students to connect what they’re learning in the classroom to real-world experiences.
While the basic concept of connected learning might seem logical, finding ways to help stu-
dents make connections to the real world truly is an art.
In David’s case, he began the project with the mindset that he was a student writing a piece
that would be viewed by professionals. As he crafted the project with his fellow group mem-
bers, however, David began to see himself on par with his audience, as a teacher-in-training
with insights that could benefit others. David now realizes that this was a very important shift
in thinking—the point where he ceased to view himself as a person on the student end of a
As we envision our future classrooms, we are eager to share the empowering aspects of peer-
supported connected learning with our students. We want to give them the opportunity we had
to become experts on a topic, share it with a wider audience, and feel the sense of dignity that
comes from that experience.
Link to Digital Is Resource: http://digitalis.nwp.org/resource/5029
36 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
ConClUsIon: a glImpse behInD the CUrtaIn
at the “front” anD “baCk” praCtICes of
peer-sUpporteD learnIng Classrooms
In her study of creative collaboration, Vera John-Steiner makes the following assertion: “In at-
tempting to analyze the way scientific advances are co-constructed, it would be helpful to rely on
both the ‘front’ and the ‘back’ of creative practices” (2000:46). That is, in order to fully under-
stand the finished products that mark discovery, we must also examine the “modes of thought”
that lead to them. I likewise contend that in order to replicate instances of peer-supported learn-
ing in classrooms, we must do more than fawn over students’ impressive “front practices”—the
iMovies, classroom documentaries, and multiliteracies projects they produce. We must also exam-
ine the “back practices” that allow youth to co-construct knowledge in the first place. As noted in
my introduction to this chapter, authentic peer-supported learning doesn’t happen by accident.
The narratives written by Katie McKay, Lacy Manship, Chelsea Geier, and David Neisler allow us
to pull back the curtain and glimpse backstage into classrooms where this kind of learning occurs.
The Connected Learning report clearly outlines what youth do in peer-supported learning envi-
ronments, mostly outside of school: they connect with other youth around shared interests and
goals, often using new media to do so; they exchange resources and information freely; they
learn from and with mentors and models; they “tinker, explore, hypothesize and test assump-
tions” together (Ito et al. 2013:81); and they make their work public, again often with the assis-
tance of new media.
But what do teachers do? How do they operate as intentional architects who plan classrooms that
allow peer-supported learning to occur? While not an exhaustive list, the following “back practic-
es” emerge when we look at the peer-supported classrooms described in this chapter’s narratives:
• Teachers pose the right questions for themselves and teach their students to do the same. Both
Katie and Lacy begin their narratives with the kind of “wonderings” that character-
ize teacher inquiry (Hubbard and Power 2003). As Katie eavesdropped on her students’
conversations, she wondered how peer-supported learning might help students har-
ness their language skills to confront the micro-aggressions in their classroom and the
macro-aggressions in our nation’s history. Katie’s question framed her students’ question
in turn: “Has Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream come true?” Similarly, Lacy’s question of
how student-created documentaries “might provide a window into the peer, home, and
community literacies that figured into our everyday school lives” led her students to ex-
amine what learning looked like in their classroom community and to question mandated
The question “What is literacy?” sustained pre-service teachers Chelsea and David’s peer-sup-
ported learning for an entire course. This question was initially posed by their professor, but as
Gordon Wells (1999) points out, questions don’t always have to originate with the student in
order to be meaningful. After all, teachers can pose interesting questions, too. What matters is
that the questions are taken up by students, jointly negotiated, and collaboratively pursued, just
as they were by Chelsea, David, and their classmates in Antero Garcia’s classroom. Notably, the
guiding questions featured in all of these narratives were in some way related to equity, which
37 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
ensured that the questions mattered immediately and eventually to students, both in and outside
the classroom. Furthermore the questions were complex enough that peer-supported learning was
required to broach some provisional answers and to spin out other questions that were likely to
fuel a lifetime of future inquiries.
• Teachers who value peer-supported learning create inclusive classrooms where even mar-
ginalized students can draw on each other’s strengths to manage tasks they could not have
accomplished alone. In Katie’s racially and linguistically diverse classroom, her student
Diana learned that her home language was an asset when English students who could
not speak Spanish asked her to translate lines for their slideshows. Samuel’s artistic skills
were essential to his group’s completion of their project. Eduardo and his peers created a
movie on the Civil Rights Movement, emanating from past experiences of discrimination
experienced in their respective cultures.
Lacy’s students routinely engaged their peers to document their classroom life for an entire year,
showing in the process “how a child’s learning is not individual but deeply connected to peers,
their contexts, and to the lens of the narrator. The activity of filming created a new level of par-
ticipation, capturing children’s participation not only in school, but also in the naming of what
Finally, Chelsea and David spoke to the rewards and challenges of collaboration as they “grappled
with what it means to teach reading effectively” in the process of creating a resource for Digital
Is. Students braided together their individual definitions of literacy with those from their text-
books to create joint definitions that unfurled throughout the course and were featured in their
final product. Students relied on one another’s varied expertise with digital tools to recreate “a
passionate conversation [for] the world to hear.” Despite the challenges the class experienced with
collaboration, Chelsea and David are persuaded enough by the potential of peer-supported learn-
ing that they want to make similar opportunities available to their future students.
• Teachers support students in using new media to amplify and push out their learning. Regret-
tably, some teachers still use computers in their classrooms as nothing more than fancy
typewriters and see the Internet as just a high-tech card catalogue students access to
consume outside knowledge (Leander 2007). By contrast, Lacy and Katie view their stu-
dents as producers who use multimodal and digital tools to construct and showcase their
knowledge so they can share it with others. Katie challenged her students to blend print,
sound, and images in digital texts that inspired younger students and a local bookstore
audience. Lacy bestowed upon her students the composer’s agency by placing a camera
in their young hands. Finally, David described the empowering leveling effect of creating
a final product for the Digital Is network: “I began to see myself on par with my audi-
ence, as a teacher-in-training with insights that could benefit others. . . . I ceased to view
myself as a person on the student end of a teacher/student binary.”
• Teachers make it all about the kids, not all about the mandates. Both Katie and Lacy teach
in contexts where youth are externally defined by deficit labels like “academically unac-
ceptable” and “high needs.” Scripted curriculum, standardized tests, and district super-
visors who view individual achievement as the pinnacle of academic success could easily
thwart their impulses to teach in ways they believe are supportive of children’s learning.
Yet they are savvy in negotiating this tension. They push back. They meet mandates but
not at the expense of connected learning.
38 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
Katie embedded required skills in peer-supported, project-based instruction. Lacy complied with
required reading tests, but also provided materials to support students’ dramatic play around a
children’s book they enjoyed reading together. Even in highly regulated environments that might
disconnect them from their learning, youth read, compose, and share meaningful texts. One imag-
ines that based on the strength of their own peer-supported learning experiences, Chelsea and
David will help their students do the same. These teachers and teachers-to-be consistently strive
in Katie’s words to “create a new class culture of students who [identify] themselves as capable of
making a difference.”
Taken together, the classrooms described in this chapter function as powerful counter-narratives
to the constant refrain in the media and political arena that the United States is slipping, that the
educational system is broken, and that teachers are to blame. They offer conclusive evidence that
the rich learning experiences described mostly in out-of-school spaces in the Connected Learning
report also are possible inside of schools. Indeed, they are alive and well in classrooms organized
around the principle of peer-supported learning.
39 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
Incubating Teacher Ingenuity
Perhaps more than any other component of a connected learning framework, the cultivation
of academically oriented forms of engagement should, in principle, resonate most clearly with
the familiar areas of teacher practice. By their nature, schools should thrive as spaces in which
teachers develop rich contexts of incubating academic growth over time. But what do we mean
when we talk about “academic” learning in the twenty-first century? Are the same forms of
knowledge and the same disciplinary approaches to them that we’ve prescribed in classrooms
what are needed for an “always on” digitally savvy posterity? Looking at nationwide initiatives,
there are general thrusts toward change and originality. The U.S. Department of Education’s
Investing in Innovation (I3) Fund, for instance, attempts to highlight powerful ways to shift how
we educate young people.
While many youth today are succeeding within our schools, there is a disconnect between how
the U.S. education system understands “academically oriented,” the forms of learning precluded
in this definition, and the demographics of youth receiving this educational opportunity whole-
sale. In the Connected Learning report, academically- oriented engagement can be understood as:
“Learners flourish and realize their potential when they can connect their interests and social
engagement to academic studies, civic engagement, and career opportunity” (Ito et al. 2013:8).
Unpacking this definition, it is important to consider the context of academic learning being
framed: educators must push to integrate the socially and culturally meaningful contexts of
youths’ lives with the academic expectations of today’s classrooms.
The common rhetoric since the turn of the century is that today’s educators are preparing
students for forms of labor that do not yet exist. Our youths’ consumptive, productive, civic,
and labor practices extend and challenge what we know today to comprise “academic” school
activities. James Paul Gee has called the types of prepared youth who will flourish when they
leave our classrooms “shape-shifting portfolio people” (2004). Academically prepared youth
should be able to shift their skill sets for the new contexts of labor and innovation in the future.
These students are ushering in a post-post-industrial era of education that may be rife with the
possibilities of alleviating our nation’s “educational debt” (Ladson-Billings 2006). And yet our
schools are largely operating in an industrial, factory model of education (Berliner and Biddle
1996; McNeil 2000).
At the same time that connected learning researchers are ushering in a wave of powerful find-
ings of youth learning and engagement vis-à-vis new media literacies, the pendulum of U.S.
education reform is swinging ever farther toward metrics of academic assessment and stan-
dardization. This tendency is only part of the problem. What are most lacking in this space are
broadened definitions of what counts as academic when our students today take tests and are
evaluated as part of their regular in-school learning and matriculation.
Antero Garcia, Colorado State University
40 | Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom
Research, outreach, and collective dialogue can push beyond these garroting definitions of “aca-
demic” within our classrooms. They can shape public perception and push against policies that
stymie teacher support of powerful youth learning in schools. In describing the thrilling learn-
ing opportunities at the game-based school Quest To Learn in the Connected Learning report, Ito
et al. note that the school “bestows academic legitimacy on forms of work that are not easily
measured by standardized assessments” (2013:37). It takes an ecosystem of engaged and pas-
sionate individuals to ignite and orient academic learning to reflect the authentic experiences
of today’s youth. And though teachers today would be hard-pressed to find many districts that
bestow “academic legitimacy” on classroom work that is not easily measured by standardized
tests, the examples of possibilities in this chapter point to ways teachers can push the academic
culture within schools.
Look at the three examples of academically oriented connected learning in this chapter and
notice the scope of where this work heads. Janelle Bence’s teacher-driven inquiry does not
focus on a singular issue within her classroom; instead, it highlights how teachers must contend
with cultural shifts in an era of connected learning. Janelle’s exploration highlights the need
for teachers to feel comfortable, questioning and recognizing their own pedagogical uncertainty.
Connected learning does not come from educators having all of the answers all of the time; it
comes from the same kinds of deep learning we ask of our students.
Following Janelle’s example, Larissa Pahomov’s and Nick Kremer’s case studies orient the rest of
this chapter to focus on two separate aspects of working with youth. Larissa underscores ways
to support traditional writing practices using Google Docs as a pedagogical tool. She not only
emphasizes positive digital literacies that can be fostered relatively easily within schools, but
does so in ways that fit strategically within the writing strategies naturally transpiring in her
classroom. Likewise, Nick identifies the powerful possibilities and cultural cache of comics in
his classroom. He highlights ways the genre, its conventions, and his students’ familiarity with
them create rich spaces of expertise, interest, and healthy provocation within the classroom.
The three examples in this chapter build on the spaces for academically oriented teaching and
innovation. This innovation can be found at the theoretical and pedagogical level, in the ways
forms of content are integrated and in the kinds of tools adopted within classroom spaces. The
contexts and needs of students drive the ways these educators reframe academic connected
learning within the classroom.
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested