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Creating Engaging Discussions: Strategies for "Avoiding Crickets" in Any Size Classroom and Online
Date Reviewed: March 19, 2019
In the preface to their book, Herman and Nilson note that there are not many book-length treatments of discussion as a teaching method; the relative few that exist focus on student participation and are primarily oriented toward small face-to-face classrooms. Other books feature discussion as one tool among many in the teacher’s toolbox, and again focus on getting students to talk. But, as Herman and Nilson write, “Talk alone is cheap” (xxiv). The fact that students are participating in a discussion does not necessarily mean that they are actually learning. In addition to questions of participation, treatments of discussion as a way of learning also need to take into account the variety of classrooms in which students are learning: large and small, face-to-face, online, and blended. This is what Herman and Nilson set out to do.
Chapter one lays out three common challenges of discussion in both online and face-to-face classrooms: inconsistent or uneven student engagement, lack of adequate connection between course goals and discussion content or process, and lack of assessment. Chapters two and three focus on student behavior, chapter four suggests a variety of strategies for ensuring that discussions advance learning, and chapter five details ways to assess discussion both for skillful student engagement and for clear connection to course content. Chapters six through thirteen are case studies, written by a variety of practitioners and addressing a variety of discussion delivery systems (face-to-face, online, and blended) and levels (undergraduate, graduate, and professional). The final chapter, written by Herman and Nilson, provides writing prompts, discussion questions, and workshop ideas that both teachers themselves, and those charged with the professional development of teachers, could use to engage with the book’s contents.
Like many of Nilson’s previous books, this one is packed with information. As a practitioner, it is tempting to grab one or more of the discussion activities referenced in the quick guide at the front of the book and then return the book to the shelf. Doing so is a mistake precisely because of one of the ideas this book successfully advances: the need to align discussion content and process with course learning goals. This emphasis on alignment is one of my main learnings from the book, and one I will need to keep pondering and experimenting with. Each teacher must consider her course content, delivery system, institutional objectives and constraints, and student population in wisely selecting and applying discussion tactics to her particular circumstances. If I have one suggestion for the authors of this book, it might be to put the quick reference at the end to underline this point.
I will confess that when I picked up the book, I was dubious about the value of the case study chapters for my work as a theological educator. What is the relevance of collaborative autoethnography to a class on Christian worship, or of course-based scientific research to a class on Christian formation? As I continued reading, however, the case studies underlined two of Herman and Nilson’s theses: the need for and value of learning from others, even when their circumstances are different than ours, and the benefits of a deep dive into a tactic rather than a quick ransack of possible takeaways. So having finished reading the book, I plan to read it again – this time with colleagues, and over time.
How do theological educators help students face the constant reality of failure? Picture this scenario: a second career divinity student suffers health and financial troubles that impede her studies. The impact of these issues revives past psychological wounds. Enduring this morass of difficulties leads to the student’s failure in ...
Digital Storytelling Form and Content
Date Reviewed: May 17, 2018
Upon reading the varied chapters that constitute Digital Story Telling: Form and Content, I could not help but be reminded of Salman Rushdie’s comments on the power of story.
Those who do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts. (1991, Dec. 12, New York Times)
Rushdie’s words illustrate the demands the postmodern world places on all individuals. It is a world replete with a multiplicity of stories in a myriad of forms… stories of domination and liberation, state narratives and personal accounts, corporate media renderings, and cellphone videos. In this world, the personal and political are not easily divorced. It is a world eager for new mediums which can offer the individual tools for agency and a space in which to tell, retell, rethink, deconstruct, joke about, and change their story. Digital Storytelling (DS) appears to be one such medium.
What is DS? This volume’s editors, Mark Dunford and Tricia Jenkins, describe it as “a simple, creative process whereby people with little or no experience of computers gain the skills needed to tell a personal story as a two minute video using predominately still images combined with recorded voice-over, and often including music and/or other sounds” (3). The end products are “self-representational stories which emerge from a collaborative workshop process using a ‘Story Circle,’ in which a range of writing stimuli and other activities are used to develop trust within the group and ‘find’ the story” (3). Much of this definition comes from a pioneer in the field of DS, Joe Lambert, whose Digital Storytelling workshops, terminology, and methods have shaped the DS movement.
DS is a form of participatory media in which political activism is embedded in its very practice. Lambert describes how in the 1990s he and those he was working with “thought of the Internet, new low-cost digital media production tools, and the distribution opportunities of the web as major advances that could promote global democracy and liberation” (22). The advent of the Internet for such a medium is tantamount to the proliferation of the printing press in sixteenth-century Europe. One need only look to social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram to see how the Internet and low-cost media production tools have changed what we watch and how we watch it. DS is a precursor to this platform proliferation and the motivations driving it as a process appear to have been less fiscally motivated. One of the paramount intentions of DS is to provide the voiceless the means to be heard. Of course, DS workshops have facilitators and funders, both of which, intentionally or not, are intimately involved in the creation and dissemination of these personal stories.
The volume is segmented into four elements or parts: Practice (five case studies from Kenya to the UK of DS in action); Content (pieces addressing the role content, especially content of a political [Simsek] or socially provocative [Kuga Thas] nature, plays in how that content is created, collected, received, parsed, and disseminated [Lewis and Matthews] and licensed [Spurgeon]); Form (insights garnered from when the cultural specificity of the DS model requires modification such as in Japan, Romania, and Ireland); and Understanding (three essays honing in on the limits and potential of DS as a political and personal force in the world).
The volume culminates with Nancy Thumim’s chapter “Therapy, Democracy, and the Creative Practice of Digital Storytelling” in which she reflects on the unifying themes of the book (DS as democratizing work, DS as therapy, DS as meaning-making, reflection, presentation, and representation) as well as the logistical and ethical challenges DS faces (issues of ownership in regard to co-created media, the afterlife of created materials, restructuring workshops to accommodate participants of disparate backgrounds and differing needs). DS, in its varied iterations, straddles the personal and public and opens up a space for creativity among communities created by the DS workshops and those affected by their material output (artifacts).
Perhaps the most compelling aspects of this volume are the stories (as found in Rainbird, Henry, Hardy and Sumner, Lewis and Matthews, Ogawa and Tsuchiya, Alexandra, and Brushwood Rose) of those persons challenged with mediating and assisting others (often those whose voices go unheard) through the process of narrating their own stories. As an academic advisor, the power of storytelling for self-actualization is readily apparent to me. Like the DS workshop facilitators in this book, academic advisors are involved in a co-creative narrative process. Advisors help students reflect on their goals and values and provide them with tools and mechanisms for authoring their own academic life story. The examples of DS workshop facilitators agonizing over how active to be in the creation of these personal stories should resonate with any reader who works in a co-creative capacity (advisors, administrators, teachers, parents, therapists, and so forth). The stories presented in each of these chapters are rather remarkable and, indeed, powerful. Anyone interested in modern media, narrative, social activism, communication studies, film, as well as those versed in DS scholarship, will find this a compelling read.
Over the past few years, I’ve come to cherish the opportunity to observe others teach. Teaching my own courses, I don’t get the chance to do this as much as I would like, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the profession. I love a good ...
Over the past few months, the entries in this blog series have attempted to provide guidance and insight related to the pedagogical challenges of teaching traumatic materials. The series was initiated to provide a sense of reassurance about facing these challenges. By discussing the range of challenges, the variety of ...