Saturday, December 22, 2007

On the cusp of the season 

Two years now on the last day of the school year I give my middle school classes a break from the brainbending work of figuring out non-linear writing and trying to make sense of their increasingly virtual world and instead show them how to make virtual snowflakes. The flash-based software is pretty cool, to be fair, allowing more precise cuts and more perfect folds than real paper, where folds turn thinness into mass so quickly by doubling rules.

What I like about this activity is that it reaches an unexpected set of kids. Normally, my teaching style hooks a specific type of kid, not necessarily the best and brightest by traditional standards, but those who can visualize and reimagine the world flexibly. Over a term, they build a relationship between real world and virtual which explands their views of rhetoric, of space and time as applied to communication and perception -- a tall task for the average fourteen year old.

Here, however, the kids who get stuff quickly are lost and too-quickly bored. Instead, it is those who need seasonal magic -- a few cuts turning into something delicate and lithe, hexagonally-speaking -- who brighten up. The sad kids who just needed a plaything, the different-brained kids who turn to games out of a lack of understanding of basic writing parameters; the kids who loved the hands-on work of elementary school and have lost their way in the new paperwork of middleschool -- here is the moment, the magic, the time to find them more than just a new medium for expression of the same old cumulative concepts.

It is no-stakes, in one sense, but it means everything for them. The room fills up my time with kids eager to share what their virtual scissors have wrought. For a change, the "lost boys" want me to see their work, instead of hiding its skimpiness from view as I pass by. I get to smile and praise students who have not been praised or smiled at for weeks. And I get to see their secret selves emerge, if they let me, if they try, if they let their newly jaded middleschool selves get hooked.

If I'm careful, the lesson can continue from there. I've got scissors and paper ready; I do not push, only mention that what can be true in cyberspace can be made real here, as always. Against the back wall counter, I show those who seem interested how to turn the online lesson into a tempate for real paper, real folding, a lesson hiding topology and imagination-to-real lessons which will hide in their brains until they need to use the virtual world to make the real world work to their advantage. By the end of class, while their peers play space invaders illicitly on the internet, those few and happy kids lag behind, finishing one last papercut before slogging off to math and the endless spate of sugarparties that inevitably characterize that last pre-holiday schoolday, lost to too much energy, curriculumless and chaotic.

But I am left with their temporarily recovered childhood of paper dolls and cheer, proudly pasted to windows and walls. It makes the heart sing as I close down the computers for the long break, to know that their last day was full of pride and youthful glee. Over break, the custodians will scour the paperscraps from the floor, hiding the activity; on the first day back, the sowflakes pinned there will come down and be filed away, or more likely fill the recycle bins. But one or two will stay, high in a corner where no one will notice much. It's enough, I think. Maybe, just maybe, they'll remember when they return.

posted by boyhowdy | 4:56 PM |

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