SyncUp recently had the chance to interview Ryan Bubalo to learn more about his role as StudySync’s Education Accounts Manager. Last week, Ryan described his new position at StudySync. Now, here is Ryan on his personal experience with teaching and technology in the classroom.
Photo credit: David Fine
Where did you work prior to StudySync?
I am very fortunate to come to StudySync fresh off of two amazing teaching experiences. The first was in Oxford, Mississippi, where, while completing my MFA in fiction writing, I was awarded a three-year teaching fellowship.
In addition to learning how to write, my experience at Ole Miss really taught me how to teach. My first teaching job was as a Teaching Assistant for tenured faculty members in Literature classes. I also enrolled in courses that examined the history of Composition pedagogy. Prior to Ole Miss, I had done some substitute teaching at the high school level, and I think that experience, as well as growing up around teachers, had given me some background in teaching. But in graduate school I learned the nuts and bolts of the profession – everything from how to rearrange the desks to reinforce a particular type of learning objective, to how and when to divide a course plan into different learning modes.
Those lessons left me well prepared to take over my own classrooms when the time came. I taught both Composition and Creative Writing courses at Ole Miss, and in 2008, after my first year as an instructor-of-record, the university’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning awarded me their Graduate Instructor of the Year award.
And what was the second “amazing teaching experience?”
Well, I followed up on my time in Mississippi by doing what everyone would do: I took a job in Iraq.
Iraq? Wow, how did that come about?
In the spring of 2008, I was researching a novel that I wanted to take place in Baghdad. I found an opportunity to work in Iraq, and I just couldn’t pass it up.
I taught at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS). The first thing for Westerners to know in order to understand my job in Iraq is that Sulaimani is not Baghdad. It’s a very safe city of around a million people located north of Baghdad, and north of the line that separates greater Iraq from Iraqi Kurdistan. That line demarcates the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) area of control, and the KRG area is generally much safer, for both Westerners and Iraqis, than greater Iraq.
I walked to and from work. I ate out in restaurants. I rode the bus to the market. More than anything, I taught and taught and taught and taught. When I arrived, AUIS was a startup in its second year of operation – the facilities weren’t great, curriculum was still being ironed out, students were still getting used to an American system of education. But wow, were they willing to work.
The first course I taught was an ESL immersion course – 19 students and me, 5 hours a day for 16 weeks. To say that I wish I had had StudySync then would be the understatement of the year. The textbooks we used were all of about 100 pages, so if we covered more than a few pages a day, we would have run out of material in a quarter of the semester. Every day was a combination of lessons and activities generated from scratch, group projects, and a lot of happy accidents and improvisation. It was simultaneously the best and worst class I’ll ever teach. I think teachers always have one class they’ll never forget, that they think of on the first day of any new semester, that they tell the most stories about. That one was mine.
What made it so memorable?
I think it was my introduction to Iraqi students, who, I’ve come to believe, are the hardest working in the world. Granted, I’m biased. My students were so eager to learn, I actually had to be careful about how much homework I gave them because they’d stay up all night working to complete it and come to class unable to keep their eyes open. They asked for extra reading and writing assignments. They offered to walk to the bazaar with me on Saturdays as long as we spoke English on the way.
Honestly, I just can’t say enough good things about their work ethic, their intelligence, and their character. I know a lot of people perceive Iraq as a violent, restrictive society, and I’m sure there are definitely parts of the country that reinforce that stereotype. But the young people I worked with, the ones who will hopefully become the next generation of Iraqi leaders, defy those classifications. Driven, intelligent, moral - the Iraqi students forced me to become a better teacher just to keep up with them.
And we’ve heard that there’s a movie…?
Sort of. There’s a feature length documentary, Salaam Dunk, about the women’s basketball team at AUIS, which I coached (pictured above).The documentary follows the young women through their second season. It’s a sports movie that has both everything and nothing to do with sports.
Most of the young women had not played basketball before joining the team, so the game action doesn’t exactly look like the WNBA. But these young women absolutely loved the game, and loved it in a way that you often don’t see in people who have played their entire lives.
Can we see the film? Has Salaam Dunk shown anywhere yet?
The film premiered at the Los Angeles International Film Festival over the summer. It won the Gold Plaque award at the Chicago Film Festival in October and also played at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
Far and away my favorite showing, however, was at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar. In an incredibly gracious move, Doha Tribeca flew the entire basketball team (17 young women) from Iraq to Doha for the premiere. I flew out from the States and met them and their new coaches there. It was a surreal experience. For a week, we stepped out of our normal lives to walk the red carpet behind celebrities and play games in a giant arena.
You can see the film’s trailer here: www.salaamdunkfilm.com.
And the website will have updates about future release information.
With all of these varied experiences, what are your views on technology in the classroom? What has been your experience with ed tech?
If you’d told me when I first started teaching that in five years I’d be working and advocating for a web-based literacy program, I would have thought you were insane. I began as, and in some ways very much still am, an old-school chalkboard and lecture English teacher. I thought technology in the classroom was, at best, a diversion to reward students for having completed their “real” work, or, at worst, the dumbing down of education to the level of entertainment (or “edutainment” as it is sometimes derisively called).
As with pretty much all the growth I’ve made as a teacher, my students were ultimately the ones who motivated my change. The students in my Composition course had read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the group that was presenting on Gladwell’s chapter about “stickiness” employed so many different methods to teach their lesson – Power Point, video, blog responses prior to class, on the spot questionnaires, and even some good old fashioned chalkboard writing. The presentation was unforgettable, the perfect blend of form and content.
From there I started dipping my toe in the technology waters. A YouTube clip here, a PowerPoint portion of a lecture there. It was still a full year, though, before I started using my school’s LMS to post texts and have students read and respond in a blog thread. When I did, the quality of my class discussions increased fivefold overnight. Students were coming into the classroom having already read and responded to the text, and having already read their peers’ responses. They had such a better idea of what they wanted to say and, because they were more confident, they spoke up more in class. Suddenly, those wallflowers in the back of the class were mixing it up in a discussion about Jamaica Kincaid.
So what do you now think about technology in the classroom?
Ultimately, I think using technology in the classroom is about engagement. As a teacher, I want to engage my students in every way that I can. The more ideas from my classroom that find their way into my students’ lives, the better the odds that they consider those ideas in a thoughtful way. I may be a passionate advocate for sitting down in a quiet room with an actual words-on-paper book, and it’s fine for me to encourage that, but if I want to engage my students, I need to be willing to meet them on their turf. They live multi-modal lives. We all do. We need multi-modal classrooms if we’re going to engage students with literacy, writing, and critical thinking lessons that remain as important today as they ever were. In fact, with the proliferation of media and information, you could argue that these traditional skills are even more important today. It would be a shame for us to fail to teach literacy and critical thinking simply because we’re unwilling to alter our own modes of delivery.
What excites you most about StudySync?
StudySync incorporates much of what I said above. It definitely drives student engagement. It is also a great model for the kinds of literacy skills students need in this day and age. I mean, how often in your real life does anyone ask you to take two weeks, read a book, and then write a 1,000-word response to it? Almost never, right? It’s Literature in a vacuum. But that’s the model still in place for teaching Literature and literacy in many schools.
Almost everything we do in the twenty-first century workplace involves collaboration with our peers, and most of that collaboration now takes place over the web. Bringing collaborative learning to literacy education is vital. It’s not just that collaboration better engages students in literacy lessons; collaboration improves the content of the lessons themselves. With StudySync, what used to be one student toiling away on an essay about the theme of Romeo and Juliet is now a group of students going through the difficult process of teasing out a theme together, with the SyncTV episodes to model for them how that works. The students will ultimately write their own essays, display their own voices, and complete their own assignments, but they also have the opportunity to collaborate along the way. I think StudySync is a really effective platform for teaching the process of discovery, and I think that learning that process is far more important for our students than any theme they may extract individually.