Thursday, 13 March 2014

eTwinning: the educational fandom?

A couple of weeks ago I had the happiest reunion ever with friends from the US.
We sat in a bright spot of Piazza del Campo, had tea and cakes at a lovely Café, and basically kept chatting all together all the time.

There was a lot to catch up with - say, the last five years of our offline lives. We happen to be teachers, all of us. So after a quick overview on husbands/kids&pets, the conversation immediately turned to ‘The Topic’: school. We had a good time laughing at the tricks of our students (or admiring them), comparing our school lives – not so different after all, and trying to conjure up projects and ideas to work together despite the distance.
Yes, definetely having a good time.
That is, until Tina asked me "So, what’s this eTwinning you’ve fallen head over heels for?"
Pang of disillusion - I could remember talking about this before hundreds of times. But obviously being not that convincing. However. Enthusiastic and proud, as a good Ambassador is supposed to be, I proceeded to describe eTwinning, its opportunities, its world, its projects, its potential. I paid attention not to be boring, so I tried to sum it up in less than 15 minutes. And put all of my energies smiles and jokes in it, as usual.
When I got to the end there was a pause.The girls looked at each other, then Tina said “I see. Sort of an educational fandom.”

Had we been in an online conversation, I would have probably taken it as an offence – or at least a verrrry negative remark. But we were sitting face to face, drinking tea and laughing and eating ricciarelli… and it was clearly impossible something less than nice was meant. [Note for Italian readers: I know, ricciarelli don’t go with tea and don’t go with this time of the year. Still, foreigners love them all year round, and I do as well.]

So, while hordes of Little Monsters, Directioners and Selenators came to my mind, I kept my cool and smiled the subject away, taking a mental note of googling “fandom” as soon as I got home.
The day turned out to be one of those you want to keep among your best memories. One of those you keep referring to in emails, in your facebook status, in your tweets, for years – that is to say, till the next face to face reunion.

But I couldn’t forget the fandom thing… 
That same night I sat in front of my pc reading about fandoms in Wikipedia. And here it is (I quote the beginning of the article, but if you’ve got time, read it to the end, some aspects are truly interesting in an educational perspective):

Fandom (consisting of fan [fanatic] plus the suffix -dom, as in kingdom, freedom, etc.) is a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest. Fans typically are interested in even minor details of the object(s) of their fandom and spend a significant portion of their time and energy involved with their interest, often as a part of a social network with particular practices (a fandom); this is what differentiates "fannish" (fandom-affiliated) fans from those with only a casual interest. A fandom can grow up centered around any area of human interest or activity. The subject of fan interest can be narrowly defined, focused on something like an individual celebrity, or more widely defined, encompassing entire hobbies, genres or fashions.

Ok. Less intimidating than I thought. And now I know I’m in a lot of fandoms myself, even if I seldom used this word before. I’m actually a pretty active Whovian and Ringer, a Trekkie and even if I am maybe too old to be one, I think I could make a decent Potterhead.

But what has this to do with school? and with eTwinning in particular?

Well, to be honest I must say I saw the connection almost immediately
However, I quickly moved to the next step. That same night I launched an online survey involving most of the ex-students I have among my fb contacts (I don’t want any current students among them, but that’s only my personal policy, plus my students are 11-14, so formally too young for fb). I told them I was working on a research and asked them to name their fandoms: no explanation given, no other info.
I expected few replies and lots of “dunno”. But that was not what I got.
Out of around 120 students, an average 80% answered, and all of them could name at least a couple of fandoms they are involved with, mainly dealing with sci-fi or fantasy sagas (i.e. reading !!!!), tv series, and bands or singers.
Not too difficult to see the educational potential of these fan worlds. It looks like our students spend a lot of time reading, watching, writing about (even dressing up as) characters and stories they feel they can relate to. They discuss the story, they imagine alternative endings, they interact and learn from each other, no teacher involved.
I am sure we, as teachers, could and should work with all of this potential. Which doesn’t mean entering their worlds, but we make the effort to get to know them at least, and try to take advantage of this huge self practice and this huge involvement.

And as for eTwinning? is it an educational fandom, after all? I suppose the answer is yes, it is.

It’s a part of our professional life, true, and we enter it as professionals. But how and why do we go on? Why are we still eTwinners after five, six years or more? Why are we still part of this world?
I used to say: because it works. Projects work with students: they learn. Which is great. But it’s not all here. After years, we apparently don’t get bored of the same tool. So why are we still in eTwinning? isn’t it because of the people as well? isn’t it because of the social network? because of the conferences, seminars, events that allow us to meet each other? (could we call them fandom conventions?) isn’t it because of the games we make up, the groups we created on other socials, the “educational family” we’ve been building together?
Just like our students, we work for free, out of passion and curiousity: they read their stories, they write their essays on, say, Katniss Everdeen, without any assignments, we read and write our eTwinning articles on thenewTwinSpace/ thebugsofthenewTwinSpace/ theTeachersRoomspotential/ theeTwinningAwards and we post in TRs, blogs and forums without being paid for and without being forced to do so. Because we like it.
Both categories – the students and the teachers – act as learners in this process. We learn by discussing something we like with someone we like. That’s all.

And while we are not exactly fangirling or shipping eTwinning couples, it’s true that eTwinners also have their own slang. Plus, I must admit I share with Monika Kiss some nice memories of eTwinning cosplay and even some fan fiction writing...

So, thank you Tina and girls. After much thinking about it, I like this idea of the educational fandom, with its pros and cons of course. I’ll be thinking about it some more. And I’ll be working on this, for sure. Definitely, there’s a lot more to come, lots of worlds to explore. Friends and colleagues of the eTwinning fandom, keep on board.

[and yes... it's actually bigger on the inside :)]