Saturday, November 04, 2006

Akeelah and Adult Precocity

It’s hard for my family to find a movie we all can watch together. As I’m writing this the kids are watching Lord of the Rings II for the Nth time – my wife sat down with them at the start but she made a quick exit to make dinner. I didn’t even make a pretense. I’m satiated with that sort of thing to the point that I’d rather stick a finger down my throat.

I have watched some adventure movies with the boys that my wife didn’t care for, namely Kidnapped (the 1995 version of the Robert Louis Stevenson story) which is a boy’s delight and Last of the Mohicans, in which the Madeline Stowe character (Cora Munro) does go through a personal transformation akin to what we’d like to see instructors do when embracing technology in their teaching, but if you watch it for that you’re really stretching it, and occasionally am ok with that sort of picture on its own terms. But more often than not it’s more oil and vinegar when it comes to movies that the kids and I both like. And my wife’s taste for schmaltz (think Fried Green Tomatoes) also runs contrary to my own taste, where I’d like to be challenged more, intellectually or emotionally. So I tend to record films and then watch by myself, most recently Touch of Evil, a black and white classic with Orson Wells in the role of a police chief in a border town playing both sides of the law and Charlton Heston, tall and elegant and with dyed skin because his character is Mexican, as the more virtuous type of law enforcement officer whose jurisdiction is across the border, a reversal of our American stereotype.

So it is a delight to find a movie that appeals to each of us in the family and really captivates us and I can report that Akeelah and the Bee fit the bill nicely – a few weeks after the first viewing we watched it a second time together, very unusual and a testament to it being a film that really worked for us. It is an improbable but convincing story of a South LA African-American girl, Akeelah, enrolled in a majority Black middle school that has no reputation for academic achievement, who has a fondness and aptitude for words (and hence spelling) that enables her to compete with students from the best schools in the city, and ultimately at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The story works on many levels. It is about the need of African Americans (and, frankly, the rest of us too) for role models of achievement that can uplift us, give us pride, and bring us together. It is about how the dominant culture, in general but especially in the predominatly Black communities, anticipates mediocre performance and hence a precocious kid like Akeelah must overcome that, enduring the jeers and mockery of her schoolmates, something which at first is what holds her back. It is about how even the very talented, indeed perhaps because they are very talented, need intense coaching and commitment from dedicated and inspired teachers. And it is about overcoming racial stereotype, something which the vast majority of us want, if only we have good examples to point to so that we can show convincingly that there can be high achievement in all of us.

Watching the movie I felt challenged – could this be real? I considered several possible angles. It was my own view that spelling and memorization was not a good signpost of intellectual achievement. But the movie made a good case to the contrary. Akeelah had an old computer at home which had a scrabble game on it and that became her refuge, a way to express herself without the companionship of anyone else. I’ve experienced that sort of thing too (though not with computer scrabble) and so on that score the story was credible. And then later in the story when the Laurence Fishburne character (a Professor at UCLA, Dr. Larabee, former chair of the English Department there and currently on sabbatical) who ends up coaching Akeelah and takes over her program of development, it is much more about understanding the power of language than it is about memorizing particular words – though that definitely is a part. So on that score, I think the story did a good job of convincing us this was real and that Akeelah was not some idiot savant but rather an incredibly bright young woman with a penchant for language.

So I considered another dimension and for a while I thought I had found the lie to the story. It was my contention that serious intellectual engagement is accompanied with humor and laughter, the two go together like bread and butter, or so I thought. The movie, however, has none of that. The characters are earnest – always, but funny – never. I can’t envision learning like this happening if it is not play, and in play there is laughter. So I thought this must be it, a good try at a story but not the real McCoy.

Then, subconsciously at first and more deliberately after a while, I monitored the exchanges I was having with others while at work on campus, in a variety of different meetings. Humor wasn’t part of most of them either, but the sense of earnestness was omnipresent. I wonder why I had felt it was otherwise. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, perhaps I project too much about my own persona. In any event, based on that Akeelah passed the reality test.

There are two particular scenes in the movie I want you to consider. After Akeelah wins the spelling bee at her local school, figuratively without breaking a sweat, the Laurence Fisburne character interrupts the proceedings by giving Akeelah more challenging words to spell. She gets the first few and the rest of the audience are awed by her ability. But she eventually stumbles on a word and some of the other girls in the audience laugh derisively at her error. Akeelah runs out of the room in shame, her performance ruined by that last bit, as if nothing she had done before mattered. The Laurence Fishburne character catches up to her on the stairwell and explains to Akeelah, teary eyed, that they mock her because they are intimidated by her.

Later in the film, after Akeelah has survived the regional Bee, and gotten through the state qualifier, and she has appeared on TV news so that the entire community knows she is going to the nationals, we see the community come behind her fully with support, proud of her excellence, inspired by the performance, and willing to help her with the few last steps before she goes to Washington.

* * * * *

This past week we had a delightful visit by Barbara Ganley of Middlebury College. I met Barbara online through blogging and based on reading her blog had an intuition that she would give us a needed spark here in our efforts with a virtual component for the Learning Commons and to jump start our approach to blogging. She delivered on that and gave us much, much more.

Those who can, do. Yet precocity, particularly in adults, goes beyond the doing. Others have to witness the doing in action. And they have to feel that the doing they see transcends what they themselves are capable of, but with that they feel inspired to try it themselves – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

Barbara is very much about the human interaction and not about any particular technology, but given that she really is for blogs because it enables the telling of stories and because it keeps a sense of individual identity. She is ok with other technologies – notably wikis – but doesn’t make use of them as much because they are much more about constructing knowledge than they are about telling stories and because they obscure a sense of identity. She’s also not into virtual environments (e.g., Second Life) again for those same reasons.

Barbara’s visit made it clear to me that there is a potential symbiotic relationship between small Liberal Arts colleges, where intensive teaching is the expectation, and large research universities, such as the U of I, where many people do research on innovative approaches to learning. We don’t seem to be exploiting this potential very well at all at present. We should think more about how it might be possible to do so.

And yet there is a different dimension to this type of collaboration. I and others here talked openly with Barbara about how the incentives for good teaching are weak here and that the institution struggles to find the right balance between teaching and research. Yet based on who attended her talks, there clearly are several faculty here who are seriously looking for ways to better their teaching and who are willing to put in the effort if somebody would just point them in the right direction. That somebody might very well be at a small liberal arts college, somebody like Barbara, who has done it and has a lot of experience doing it. So effective practice might transfer this way, albeit there is a class size issue that Barbara is very cognizant about. She was extremely impressed with Christian Sandvig’s work here as he has done something similar with the blogging and in very large classes.

There is still another aspect of this type of collaboration, one I’ve felt before when working with Gail Hawisher and with Peggy Lant. That is the benefit from collaboration between humanists, English profs in particular, and scientist and other technical types, with regard to the teaching approach, at least when the technical type is ripe with suggestions for improving the teaching, such as is the case with Walt Hurley. This is such a rare thing at present, but it seems such a natural. I wonder how we can make it a more regular occurrence.

In all these respects, Barbara’s visit was a sheer delight. She has the power that Akeelah showed in the movie - to awe, inspire, and bring others to action. Barbara told me she is in big demand to make visits to other universities and deliver, I assume, a similar performance. I can understand why she’s such a hot item these days, though I wish I could keep her power our little secret, so I might have a chance to lure her back to CU in the not too distant future.


Barbara said...


I love the way you weave these two stories together, but I'm afraid you are far too kind in your comments about me. And oh dear, I sure hope I didn't come off as being pleased with myself and my travel schedule. I really don't think that I'm getting these invitations because I'm better than others at seeing or conveying the possibilities and realities of this new way of teaching and learning, but because educators around the world are really interested in effective use of social software and there aren't yet many people with much experience in the classroom with these tools or on their own blogs as reflective practitioners.

I'm just lucky.

Thanks for the delightful visit; you are doing great work out there with your faculty, inspiring them to think creatively. You are surrounded by some pretty incredible teachers and fine people. But you can have the landscape--I'm happy to be back in my mountains! I look forward to following along from afar as Walt and others take to blogging and to rethinking the way they engage their students at the beginning of each semester.


Lanny Arvan said...

Barbara -

I wrote that Akeelah story in part to emphasize the double-edged-sword nature of achievement and indeed during your visit we saw some of the darker aspects of that regarding the Learning Commons blog. I had made an implicit assumption that proved wrong - that my posts would begat the postings of others. I really do have admiration for what you accomplished in your visit here and avoiding the traps I've fallen into. That is not luck. It is insight.

I do think there is something in the times that makes your message particularly compelling now and in that sense you are in a fortuitous position. At our Learning Technology Group Conference here at the University of Minnesota, our featured speaker, Tom Reeves, a Professor of Education at the University of Georgia, talked eloquently about the Conative Domain, a forgotten aspect of our students education. (His slides will be up at the conference Web site soon.) Your approach touches students deeply in this dimension - your discussion of eliciting their commitment to the course is precisely what this is about. I believe that a lot of people want to hear about this, not in the abstraction of the Conative domain, but rather in the reality of students working hard and caring about each other as they engage in their learning.

Thanks again for coming to visit.