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Invisible Schools

This week my English 10 classes published an e-book, “Invisible Schools,” on Scribd.com.  I’m excited to share this product of student collaboration, and in this post I’ll describe the process that led to it.

Early in the fall, I ran across a notice from a teacher seeking partners for a collaborative study of Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities.

cover image

Invisible Schools cover image by Lily Burdick

I thought the novel could work well in my Literature of Western Europe course (a/k/a English 10), so I asked around and got conceptual support from my administration and logistical support from my bookstore manager.  It ended up that classes from three schools (Poughkeepsie Day in New York, Folkungaskolan in Linkoping, Sweden, and my school, Durham Academy) read Invisible Cities and discussed it online.  The three sets of students were never online at the same time, and it was challenging to set up coordinated reading schedules.  But we managed well enough, and it was always exciting to open up the wiki site and see what the other groups had been writing.

As we approached the end of the unit, I didn’t know what to expect.  We needed a culminating project, and Hurricane Sandy had interrupted communications with Trace Schillinger, the teacher who had led the whole endeavor.  The Swedish students suddently started posting fascinating digital images and short films.  I loved them but wasn’t ready to support that kind of project for my students; they had already been hit pretty hard with new technology tools, and I felt they were due for a good, thorough exercise in writing and revision.   A conventional analytical essay wouldn’t fit the mood of the ongoing collaborative effort, though.  My students needed to do something that could engage their counterparts in New York and Sweden.

The title “Invisible Schools” came to me first, and the project wasn’t hard to design from there.   I spent a class period talking about digital information as the “4th era” in human communication, and I mused about its unknown impact on the future of education.  Sir Ken Robinson’s animated lecture “Changing Educational Paradigms” helped students understand the concept of the factory model of school, which is what most of them have always known.  It’s a profound challenge for students in the middle of their education to try to view it differently–like asking a fish to describe water or imagine another medium for its existence.  The imaginative, dreamy style of Italo Calvino was helpful here.  Students latched onto the use of imagery and incorporation of familiar elements to create new and surprising forms.  We began to call their visions “possible schools” to parallel Calvino’s “possible cities.”

inside cover image

Inside cover image by Claire Burdick

From that point, it was up to the students.  I created some structures (timing, revision criteria, etc.), but they wrote the vignettes and the frame story, posted to a wiki, created a format, categories, tags, etc.  One student took it upon himself to copy each piece into InDesign to create the e-book format.  I encouraged everyone to think in terms of polishing throughly enough to publish the product.  Two students (twins, incidentally) created fascinating and different images to represent the project visually.  And finally, I chose Scribd as our publishig platform and uploaded the ebook.

So now what?  Maybe that’s all, and maybe not.  I’m waiting to see.

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