4 mins reading
Today the small country town of Kyneton said goodbye to Dordy.
The last surviving sibling of a family of nine children, with many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of her own, Dordy passed away peacefully at 91 years of age. Her name isn’t actually Dordy though; it’s Doreen, and she lived an inspiring life as a woman loved and appreciated by all those around her. Not many people know her as ‘Dordy’ – this was the affectionate term my Mum used for her Aunt, and so my sister, brother, and I always called her Dordy too.
When I was young I had very poor circulation in my hands, to the point I often got painful chilblains that swelled up my fingers. On particularly cold days, I couldn’t bend some of them properly. When Dordy learnt about this, she immediately knitted me a pair of woolen gloves. They were a perfect fit and, among the many others I’ve tried over the years, Dordy’s gloves have always been the best shield against the cold I’ve ever had.
When that first pair of gloves were so well worn they developed gaping holes and barely held onto my hands, Dordy made me another pair. I still have those gloves and wore them today. To the very end, Dordy was still maintaining a steady stream of birthday cards for loved ones. She was not only making beanies and other items for members of her family; she was even recruiting fellow nursing home residents to do the same. I was far from the only one who benefited from Dordy’s kindness…
Dordy wasn’t a teacher and as far as I know wasn’t interested in anything digital, so why do I tell this story on a Digital Learning site? Well, what Dordy taught me is that small things matter, and probably mostly in ways that people don’t usually witness or realise. I’m sure that Dordy’s modesty kept her from ever considering too deeply how much she’d helped me with what was no doubt to her a small gesture, but small gestures can mean a great deal. It’s the same when it comes to teaching.
What counts as a ‘small gesture’ in the online learning space will vary with the context. It might be the making of a short welcome video to give students a ‘human face’ to connect to, or a Canva image to communicate a key idea in a more aesthetically engaging form than words can manage alone. Such a gesture might comprise a brief piece of informal feedback and encouragement: a reply on a discussion thread, a comment on a student blog, or a ‘like’ on a social media post.
These small but significant gestures can of course be offered by students to their peers as well. For this reason, I’ve always loved David Gauntlett’s description of the ‘Media Studies 2.0’ approach as pointing toward
a world where students are making and sharing learning resources, individually and collaboratively, and responding to each other, in the way that YouTube contributors do when a community of enthusiasts create, share, and respond to each other’s contributions in a virtuous spiral of learning and development (2011, location 475, my emphasis).
Having built online learning communities as a central part of my teaching for a number of years now, I’ve discovered this ‘virtuous spiral’ relies less on grand gestures than it does an ongoing series of small things. It’s never about the big grade that gets allocated at the end of the unit with an (anti-)climactic round of formal feedback; it’s about the engagement students have with teachers and each other in all the little ways throughout the learning process. It’s about the small things; that’s what makes up a community.
When a student goes out of their comfort zone in even a little way, they will invariably inspire something in their peers – and usually without any visible indication of the impact they’ve had. And when institutional structures, policies, and deadlines give so much emphasis to the large matters and milestones of a teaching period, educators might need to consciously dedicate some time to ‘smaller gestures’. Small things can be easy to overlook or delay, but are often difficult to come back to once the opportunity passes by.
Dordy was always setting aside time in her life for small gestures. As a teacher I try to do the small things whenever I can as well. Small things matter, and you never really know how small they are anyway.
Speaking for myself, I’ll never want to wear anyone else’s gloves.
Gauntlett, D 2011, Media Studies 2.0, and Other Battles around the Future of Media Research, Kindle e-book.