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Don’t Feed the Bird

Why students, not teachers, should create in the classroom

I have written about the dangers of social media in education before, how trying to create “Twitter-worthy” lesson plans can lead teachers down a dangerous path of providing a veneer of learning designed primarily to look good in pictures. Back then, I focused on what happened in the classrooms around me, with students in attendance. Some teachers trying to impress administrators, or to get hired at a different district, often engaged in this kind of behavior at my former school division. It was annoying, and it encouraged the same kind of questionable praxis from teachers who might have otherwise stuck to their better teaching instincts. The worry of a bad evaluation if they were not visible enough loomed large in a district mired in merit pay experimentation.

After leaving my position in the district a year ago, I have made changes in my engagement with social media. I have grown the list of accounts I follow substantially, looking for people from whom I can learn, both in and out of the education field. Since one of my areas of interest has been the role of experimentation and play in learning, especially with technology, I’ve been following people who do creative work with easily accessible tools. Here I am referring to everyday tools that are free or low-cost rather than to accessibility features, although I appreciate accessibility features as well.

One of my favorite tools for creative onscreen play that fits this role perfectly is Keynote. If you have an Apple device, Keynote is part of the package. It was originally marketed as presentation software, and this is how the majority of people use it. But, it can be “hacked” to make super fun animations. Earlier in the summer I presented a session on using Keynote for creative pursuits, sharing examples of animated title sequences, custom clip transitions, green screen special effects, and even scientific illustration. My latest infatuation is making animated GIF monsters.

Green monster animated using Keynote
Green monster animated using Keynote
Animation created in Keynote

I have been advocating for creative uses of Keynote in classroom settings for years. I traveled all the way to Denmark back in 2017 to speak about using Keynote to teach iterative design and computational thinking. Around that time, I also pitched teaching Keynote animation as part of a larger course in video production to multiple people, both in my own school district and to friends working elsewhere. It is not a crazy idea, using Keynote for non-presentation design projects. The use of Keynote for prototyping apps has been well documented, for example, and numerous sites even offer templates and design objects to facilitate this ‘creative’ use of the application. Unfortunately, my idea for repurposing Keynote has not taken root in any academic settings around me, and it is very disappointing.

However, the idea of animating with Keynote is alive and well on social media, so that’s where I share some of my creations. I make “twitter-worthy” Keynote content because it is a hobby. Also, because my husband is equally interested in creativity and digital media and we bounce ideas off each other all the time. We work together on projects, experimenting and exploring, pushing the limits of builds, actions, shapes, and color to convey specific effects on the screen. We get inordinately excited about features that spark project ideas. The other morning, for example, we spent way too much time speculating about projects we could create making use of the ability to move a video clip across the screen as it plays.

So I do post some of my work. I love showing off my work. I mean, everyone does, right? And yet, this desire to show off my work weighs on me in the same way that my colleagues creating a photogenic tableau that didn’t represent the reality of their lessons worried me a few years ago. My work in education should not be about what I can do. After all, I already went to school, survived some really bad teaching, got a few degrees, and a career. This shouldn’t be about me. My goal should not be the adulation of my peers or attracting the notice of the makers of Keynote. So, while I post my work to share ideas and techniques with other educators, I don’t necessarily want them making more stuff themselves. As I said earlier, I want to inspire others to use Keynote as a tool to teach design, iterative work, abstraction, logic, and creative problem-solving. We tend to think of those as belonging in the realm of coding environments, but that is not an exclusive arrangement. We can teach those skills — and more — with other tools as well. But we can only teach the skills if we provide opportunities for students to make their own stuff.

Of course, I support teachers who are creative and want to learn new skills. It’s a commendable endeavor, especially if we consider how busy teachers are. But there can be a dangerous divergence of purpose here. Let’s say a teacher experiments with a tool and creates something really neat. What is the next step? Typically, they’ll hand their creation over for students to “learn from”: a video, an animation, a game, a slide presentation, whatever. The teacher feels great, so proud to have used technology in a creative way. It’s understandable. It’s human nature.

And yet, the truth lies in what students produce, how tools are leveraged through exploration, experimentation, and play.

Of course there are curricular requirements to cover, and sometimes it feels like feeding information to students is the most expedient way to go. Dressing up that delivery with some crafty Keynote magic gives a veneer of modernity, engagement, and a slew of other buzz-word modifiers to any teacher and classroom. And yet, the truth lies in what students produce, how tools are leveraged through exploration, experimentation, and play. If teachers make creative delivery tools, students should have the opportunity to make creative products to demonstrate their learning as well. After all, they now have an excellent sample and an expert in the room to guide their efforts.

Sadly, most teachers have the same response to this suggestion: we don’t have time!

Then we must take time, or make it. We must find better ways of spending the time we have to ensure students have the opportunity to develop skills that allow them to be creative, to make something that is uniquely theirs, and to solve problems within tight constraints. This is something we can’t feed students. We can’t have them watch a video or just look over an example. They must do it, start to finish, following their own ideas. Otherwise, we are denying students that same feeling of satisfaction we get when we create our own “Twitter-worthy” stuff.

Let’s say we ask students to make something in Keynote and we use Keynote in the most traditional way. We ask students to let us know what they’re learning by converting their textbook information into bullet points on slides… Voilà! A hands-on “project” with educational technology FTW!

But that’s not the point, is it? Anyone can copy-paste onto a template. The beauty of Keynote is in the creative combination of shapes, colors, and movement to produce effects that tell a story or illustrate a point. The point is to learn to see what is not obviously there and to create something new, combining experiences, preferences, and skills to showcase learning. This is what we should want for all our students. This is literacy. This is creation over consumption, and it represents deeper learning any day.

Making stuff for students to consume and for teachers to show off, does not lead to better teaching and learning. As I continue to grow my social media network, I look at the posts people share and ask myself some questions:

  1. Does this creation involve thinking beyond a few obvious clicks?
  2. What was the purpose for making this?
  3. Does this person share an idea of how this could be used in the classroom that I find interesting and informative?
  4. Will students be creators or simply consumers?
  5. Most importantly, does this person showcase student work, providing proof that the objective is teaching and learning rather than personal aggrandizing?

If I were on a selection committee for any brand ambassador type of program, these would be the questions I’d ask myself, too.

It’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between thoughtful educators and mercenary brand ambassadors, but if we want to grow and provide better learning opportunities for our students, we should take the time to discern between them.

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