The Data of Our Lives
Supporting students to take control of their learning through data
By Sarane James and Sara Vogel
Note: Quotes from interviews edited for length and clarity.
Note: Tinkering Activity is a downloadable Excel file.
Dr. Sherese A. Mitchell is a Professor of Teacher Education at Hostos Community College.
Dr. Mitchell has worked with students and teachers in a variety of Pre-Kindergarten through Higher Education settings for two decades including work as a classroom teacher, a Reading Teacher at a Title I school, a Camp Assistant Director, a Sunday School teacher – and even a children’s clown!
Dr. Mitchell applies the lessons she’s learned in those settings to her work with Hostos students. She’s pushing herself to connect with her students more deeply to and incorporate their feedback. At the same time, she is working to prepare them with tools to help them learn independently and hold themselves accountable to their learning goals.
During her time in the CITE Summer PD in 2022, Dr. Mitchell designed a project called the “data selfie,” which she hoped would help students on that independent learning journey by prompting them to record data about how they spend their time, making it easier for them to decide what their priorities were and how they could divide their time to match.
“I’m big on student accountability. At the onset of the course, I put the burden of accountability on students. When teaching face-to-face classes, I hold up a spoon and motion as I pretend to feed them with it. This is how the course starts, with me holding the spoon.
As the course progresses, I hand off the spoon to them and they begin to feed themselves. Everyone has a choice to take the spoon or allow it to drop to the floor— that is the best representation of accountability that I can offer to get them on board and working towards self-sustained learning.”
Dr. Mitchell’s “Why” for CITE
At first, Dr. Mitchell joined CITE just so she could be part of the “club.”
“This buzzword of Computational Thinking was just getting thrown around, ‘CT this’ and ‘CT that.’ And I’m like ‘what is this about?’ I almost felt like, not like it was a secret society, but it was like a speakeasy, and I wanted to go in the door and see what was going on. So it was more of a curiosity.”
But as she began the summer professional development, she realized that thinking more about technology in relation to her practice would help her connect with her students, many of whom prefer the flexibility of online classes for their busy lives. She realized that taking part in the CITE program would involve getting over some of her fears related to technology – something she hadn’t explored much as a classroom teacher or as a faculty member.
“I was one of the youngest professors on the campus, and I was terrified of technology. I did not want to do Blackboard or upload my syllabus to Blackboard. I didn’t want anything to do with it, so slowly I eased myself into it.”
Dr. Mitchell’s Context
Dr. Mitchell currently teaches EDU 111: Teaching Math and Science to Young Learners, among many other courses in the Hostos Education department. Dr. Mitchell has been experimenting with the way she teaches this course, using her own experiences learning about technology to make lessons really click for her students. Because she found it easier to understand how to integrate technology into her classroom by doing it, she sought to recreate that experience for her students. She also asks students to put on their learner hats and then reflect on what they’ve done from the teacher perspective.
“…I revamped that syllabus to include more hands-on things because I felt like yeah, they need to know theory, and I think the theory is going to come. But the theory is going to come more in a four year college as opposed to in two years. And I was telling you before about when I jumped into technology, that’s when I understood more. So I almost feel like as they’re doing lesson plans, as they’re doing these hands on things, that’s a good time to say, ‘oh, by the way, this is what’s happening.’”
Lately, Dr. Mitchell is working on more consistently seeking feedback from her students to create a class that works for their learning styles. She has a wide range of students that take her courses, many of whom have busy lives and are taking care of family and working while furthering their education.
“I feel like these students have a lot going on… It’s about… priority. They don’t prioritize the class because life is happening, you know. I feel like they want to put family first, but when they put family first, a lot of their academics suffer. That’s what I’ve been seeing over the years.”
Dr. Mitchell sees her role as an equitable educator as removing the structural barriers to education that students face so they can excel in their studies.
“You got to meet people where they are. Once you meet them where they are, then you can step back and see where they go with it… You set up the stage. So if you set up the stage uneven you can’t expect them to have a good academic experience– they can’t finish strong if they didn’t start well.”
Ultimately, creating a culture of feedback and open conversation allows Dr. Mitchell to be flexible and compassionate with her students when complications arise. She has learned to work with students to accommodate their busy lives, allowing them to come to an appropriate balance between the initial plan and life’s emergencies.
“In the beginning of this career, I had a plan like this is how it’s supposed to go. There’s gotta be a gray area, and I’m learning that they’re all gray areas. And when the students see that you acknowledge them and accept the gray, they’ll work with you.”
Dr. Mitchell’s Learning and Design Journey
At first, Dr. Mitchell was frustrated with the CITE PD. Then, she took control of her learning, like she advises her students to do.
“It was no fault of you guys, but I felt really lost. I was overwhelmed. I felt like I didn’t know where this was going. …this has taught me to ask questions instead of staying silent and kind of going with the flow and just floating downstream. Because when I started asking questions, then I was like cooking with gas. Like my brother says, ‘closed mouths don’t get fed.’”
Dr. Mitchell shared her frustrations with CITE Director Aankit Patel and came to a greater understanding of CITE’s approach to pedagogy and how it could benefit her classroom. Given she was interested in learning more about her students and supporting them in becoming responsible for their own learning, he suggested that she could create a teaching artifact that would help both her and her students collect insightful data about themselves.
In part, she felt an assignment like this could build on a routine that Dr. Mitchell had already been implementing – each semester, she provided students with a chart of class activities and projects and asked students to record their grades and to self-assess in an “accountability paper.” She believes that asking students to track their own progress leads to more investment than when she provides them with a progress report.
“When they see certain things on paper, or they see certain things recorded, they are not forced to look at them. But when they are asked to reflect, it’s a different vibe and they approach it differently. Even though they are just writing it down, it’s like they have a part in it… and that’s where accountability begins for them in reflecting on their final grades.”
Dr. Mitchell’s artifact
Dr. Mitchell’s Data Selfies artifact asked students to dive into areas related to the “quantified self” – the idea that collecting data about ourselves might support us in solving problems or achieving goals.
Activities In A Nutshell
Conversations ABOUT data
Students considered what data about them is being collected, what it is used for, and what image of them might be created from it.
Activities WITH data
Her artifact asserts that data is being collected about us all the time, so we might as well collect and analyze data about ourselves to gain self-awareness, set goals, make plans, and consider how we self-represent. She asked students to collect, visualize, and analyze data about how they spend their time to find out what patterns emerge from it and what it says about them as a person. Specifically, she hoped they would consider how the time they spent does or doesn’t relate to the things they consider important.
Expressing themselves THROUGH data
She then asked students to write a paper describing a solution to a problem they solved with help from their data. Students were asked to use their experience with their data selfie to brainstorm why it might be important for young children to collect and represent data of different kinds.
Conversations AGAINST particular kinds of digital data collection
Dr. Mitchell didn’t necessarily take up a critical lens with her students on this issue, but having conversations AGAINST particular kinds of digital data collection might offer opportunities for them to help young learners maintain their privacy when they are online.
She allowed them the flexibility to present their work in any form so that they could be less worried about the presentation, freeing them to think about the content of their project instead. She’s had experiences with this tension in the prior “accountability paper” assignment:
“Some students do feel bad, like they can’t use the chart that I give them for the accountability paper. Oh, ‘I don’t know how to do this. Can I just use a chart that I create?’ That’s fine. You know, I don’t want them to be afraid of technology to the point that they don’t want to do work. So that goes back to meeting them where they are.”
What did Dr. Mitchell learn through implementation?
Dr. Mitchell described some of the projects her students created: One student tracked how much time she spent with her son. Dr. M described her students’ insight: “And she said, ‘You know I spent a lot of time with my son. I don’t really spend any time with myself.’ I’m like ‘Wow! That’s heavy.’”
To Dr. Mitchell, the most important aspect of her assignment was that students learned about their technology use.
“I like the data selfie because they were keeping track of who they were. And I think our students, they don’t do that. They don’t keep track unless you ask them to track. I don’t think anyone’s really looking at their phone to see how long they’ve been on the phone. They just go on the phone.“
What didn’t work? What would she want to do next?
Because Dr. Mitchell did not want to stifle the creativity of her students or provide unnecessary pressure about the presentation of their projects, she omitted example projects from her initial lesson plan. However, as time went on, she found that students felt lost without an exemplar to guide them. She found herself having to reteach the assignment over and over, but still running into a disconnect between her students and what the assignment was asking of them. Eventually she shifted her lesson plan to add example projects for students to better understand what was being asked of them. However, this led to a new dilemma as some students mimicked the examples. She wasn’t sure how to balance the imperative of offering example projects with that of encouraging original, non-imitative work.
“I realized that it has to be in baby steps for them. You know me trying to say ‘here, do this data selfie project’ and not giving them examples or just expecting them to read it and figure it out–that’s not a good idea. So giving them those examples, I think they were very helpful.… But then the trouble with giving examples is they model their own work on them. But, I mean, I think it was very helpful, and I got a lot more participation because of that.”