Saturday, November 8, 2014

Meaningful Learning:When Reality and School Meet

“Meaningful Learning” is the latest buzzword in educational circles - in the Israeli Ministry of Education it is, at least. It can take many shapes and be different in different situations, for different subjects, but it popped up and smacked me in the face on September 1st this year, when I was suddenly - after literally decades of teaching - petrified to go into the classroom.

I live in Israel, in a community situated on the border with the Gaza Strip, and this past summer, for around 60 days, my community was literally a war zone.  Throughout the summer, I remained in my home despite the pleas of family and friends to go someplace safer. I did it for a number of reasons. The most significant of my reasons for staying was that I was able to make a difference by being here. I have lived in this community for almost 40 years, and so I know it very well. As a native English speaker, who does not have any inhibitions speaking to strangers, I found myself fulfilling the role of a war correspondent, literally, giving an average of an interview a day to many of the major tv channels in the US and Europe. And I wrote.

In 2012, when there was the previous flare up of hostilities on the border, I had started to write my eye-witness accounts on a platform called CNN iReport. It is a place where anyone can write about anything they want, and if CNN feel that the item is newsworthy, or compelling for other reasons, they will vet it, and give it wider exposure.  When the current hostilities flared up at the end of June, 2014, I started writing again.

And so my summer went - running for cover, giving interviews, and writing. It was a traumatic time, to say the least, and our community was tragically impacted, with two members of our community being seriously injured, and two more killed. The war ended suddenly, and not very securely, in a tenuous ceasefire on August 26th. Less than a week before school was set to commence.

Usually I spend my summer planning my syllabii for the coming school year, preparing my gradebooks,  and doing different “rituals” that get me set for walking into the classroom with a feeling that I am there to give my students something, enrich them in some way. This summer’s progression left me no time for anything like that. I felt that, after a summer of dealing with life and death issues - literally - on a daily basis, I had nothing of relevance to bring into that classroom with me. I couldn’t get my head around the juxtaposition of depicting life in a war zone, getting our collective voice heard throughout the world, as opposed to going into the classroom to teach a bunch of teenagers (who… let’s face it… would rather be outside chatting up the opposite sex) about grammar and reading comprehension and other EFL issues.

Not to mention the fact that my students, themselves had had no summer vacation, since they, too, live in this area that was under fire. Many of them were taken away from their homes for weeks at a time in order to be in safer environments. Even those who live further away from the border were affected by what was going on this summer. After all, even though there are a certain percentage of them who do not live directly in mortar or rocket range, and were not personally threatened by the possibility of infiltration by terrorists through tunnels that were dug into or near their communities, their school is. They faced the prospects of having to come daily to a school, situated less than 5 kilometers from the border. Although it is reinforced and rocket-safe, they still have to take busses to get to school, and walk from class to class around the campus. In addition, in each of the 6 grade levels in our school, there is either a student who lost one of their fathers, or whose parent or grandparent was one of the seriously wounded.  Not to mention the students who had siblings, parents, neighbors who served in the armed forces during the war of this summer. All of the students in my school were touched by this unreal situation. All of them are affected by it.

I went to speak to a psychologist (one of the many who came to my community to help us come to grips with the realities through which we had lived), to share my concerns of being incapable of going into the classroom, segwaying seemlessly from functioning as war correspondent into EFL teacher.  He gave me some very wise advice: “Bring the war correspondent into class with you.”

So I did.

This is how I came to introduce Twitter into the classroom (not very effectively - yet). This is how I came to set one of their writing tasks as a projects to get them writing about what THEY experienced. Writing throughout the summer not only served a patriotic function, for me. It also served as a way for me to try to get my head around what was going on (sometimes: falling apart) around me.  So I thought: maybe for some of them, writing will serve that function, as well. I am a strong believer in getting one’s voice out there. I have 31 11th grade students who experienced war this summer, most of whom will be joining the military, themselves in two year’s time. They all have voices that deserve to be heard.

I set the task: write about the war of this summer through YOUR eyes. Don’t write only facts and figures. Those are important as well, but anyone can read about that in the newspapers. Write about what you felt, about what it is like for a teenager tp experience what you experienced.  

THis is when we get to the part that is relevant for “Digitally yours”: I told them that what they wrote would not just be seen by me - it would be out there for the world to read. I told them I would publish their reports to CNN iReport.

They started out by writing in the classroom. Their homework was to type up their reports on Googledocs and share them with me, to look for or take a relevant photograph to accompany their report (it HAD to be one that they had taken or had permission to use) and to get their parents to send me an email with permission to publish what they wrote.

The Googledocs have gone back and forth, commenting, suggesting, trying to eek out of them the ability to share what they experienced, what they felt, what they thought and hoped for, all in a foreign language about an emotionally-loaded topic. Not all of them have finished yet. Writing is a process; it takes time and patience. Not all of them agree to publish. That’s fine too. But they ALL have to write something. This is where school ends and reality begins.

I opened up a new CNN iReport account, dedicated to this project. Each morning I upload another student’s report. I use photographs that they give me - and if not, I add my own (I took a lot of pictures this summer). I then “send it out”, not relying on CNN alone, I publish it over Facebook (different professional development groups in which I participate, as well as a group I am in that has Israelis and Palestinians who write about their concerns, experiences and desires for coexistence) and Google +. I tweet it to the world.

I have been in touch with CNN and they seem excited about this project, and are looking for ways to “showcase” it. I am also trying to get other teachers interested in joining the project with their students. From BOTH sides of the border.

On each of the CNN iReport pages, we can see how many people have read the report, how many have shared it and some of the reports have even gotten comments. In these comments, readers thank my students for sharing their impressions, ask questions, encourage. I even received a letter from a teacher in another school in the region, asking permission to bring some of the reports to her class to read them, as part of their lesson.
How wonderful would it be for people around the world to be able to read the impressions of teenagers who are living and growing up in this region? Now I say THAT’s meaningful learning if I ever saw it.   

Here is the link to our project page on CNN iReport: You are invited to read, respond, interact, pass it on. If you have any ideas for getting your kids writing using Googledocs and CNN iReport, please share them here.

Digitally yours,


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