Winter Reflections on Time , Technology, Teaching, and Star Trek

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A wake up call from a changing workforce ..

film containerThis past August , I pulled 4–5 old tech items out of a bag at our New Teacher Academy as part of a welcome message to educators joining our learning community.

I really shouldn’t have been startled when a first-year teacher born in 1993 didn’t recognize a film reel canister. The tech I took for granted as a young teacher had long since vanished by the time he was born.

This younger generation who just started teaching this school year laughed with me as I held high my VHS tape,(the demise of VHS sales)  a Walkman disc-player (how the iPod shifted a market), and an old Blockbuster card (for more on how Blockbuster failed to have vision to see Netflix coming) I’d found squirreled away in my now 28-year old son’s vacant bedroom. Then,  I asked one young teacher to open a case for a floppy disk.  When he struggled with that task, I realized we had moved past my decades-long educational career in a few moments of pulling old tech from a canvas bag.

The tools of the relatively recent past were museum artifacts to many in the room. I couldn’t even begin to explain the intricacies of my struggle to thread a film reel leader through the projector necessary to show Donald in Math Magic Land to an impatient audience of children in 1978.

My experience sharing old tech with novice teachers reminded me of a late night twitter exchange with an English teacher sharing his frustration in trying to describe a pocket watch to kids reading a classic set in the 1800s.

It’s hard to make sense of tools that are no longer relevant to the world our young learners live in and increasingly a new generation of educators …

Technology transitions have always seemed a bit magical as generations of new tools have made their way into schools. It seemed that one day the smell of mimeograph fluid permeated the air in the teachers’ work room where I once worked as a first year teacher and the next day I found myself watching paper copies shoot out of a photocopier; a transition from creating purple duplicator stencils to filling paper trays in the new “Xerox” machine.

As young baby boomer educators we marveled when first introduced to Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 computers that ran on cassette tape players.

And when  Jobs’ and Wozniak’s Apple II computers were introduced in schools, the potential in the beige cases wowed us just as the challenge of learning to use this new tool intimidated us. I didn’t know then that we couldn’t begin to envision the even more complex changes still to come:

10 TEXT:HOME

20 ?”HELLO WORLD”

In Slow Motion: From Pencils to Word Processors ….

pencilsWe moved forward into the 21st century but the 20th century learning model still dominated, reinforced by the school standardization movement embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Even though tech tools changed workplaces, homes, and entertainment, not much changed in mainstream education. The pencil remained our 1:1 device of choice. Interactive White Boards replaced the chalk board but as a tool used primarily by teachers. Laptop carts replaced more primitive desktop labs but mostly were used as a tool of consumption not production. LCD projectors replaced overhead projectors and the strange and wonderful science fiction of the Internet, laptops, and mobile devices jumped off the screen from Star Trek into mainstream America.

“every now and then a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything…” Steve Jobs, 2007

As technology innovation accelerated, the world became accessible and transportable; first as Blackberries in the pockets of business people and then pretty much around the globe everyone owned a smart phone. Tech communication accelerated — social media, YouTube, an app for everything. Some in K-12 and higher education began not just talking about virtual learning but also making it happen. 1:1 initiatives put laptops in the hands of all learners in some school districts. The advent of Bring Your Own Device allowed kids to connect at school with personally owned tech. Drives became thumb-sized storehouses. Then, the portable thumb became the ubiquitous cloud.

techkidNow consider some teachers and professors who remain in front of the class, lecturing from the dominant teaching walls. Phones ring in backpacks. Text messages are sent under desks. Facebook is open on screens (if allowed). Boredom today shifts learners of all ages from daydreaming, fidgeting and staring into space to actively transporting out of class with their own personal devices. Sound, video and text move them elsewhere at what can seem like Star Trek Warp Speed.

The teacher of the ’80s who once was challenged to compete with Sesame Street is now  today’s educator challenged with holding attention in the face of online gaming, instant social connectivity, goofy cat YT videos, and millions of apps. Kids are the most powered-up generation that the world has ever seen and the tech keeps coming.

What does it all mean when it comes to learning?

library studio musicians

library studio musicians

It’s good news for our profession that young people value being together as learners and spending time with adults who care about them and offer interesting and relevant paths to learning. Kids today still like stories, hands-on activities, projects, music, movement, games, discussions, and challenging collaborative work that speaks to questions and curiosity — the pedagogical basics of excellent teaching across time.

However, when bored from being seated and expected to listen for far too long, learners drift as they/we always have. Today their choices of drift often take them to tech that provides different paths to dreaming than the doodling or staring out the window of their parents’ generation. The upside is that teachers still matter to kids even as they appreciate being active learners in our classrooms using the high-tech we provide or they bring – along with books, uni-fix cubes, microscopes, paintbrushes and so on.

Technology today gives learners the world.

writing8Tech tools create access. Tech tools provide new avenues for communication. Tech tools allow research to occur anywhere, anytime. Tech tools extend the act of creating. Tech learning tools of this century are as exciting to them as the more primitive technologies of the 20th century were to their parents.

The possibilities of what learners can do today as they search, connect, communicate and make are endless. The potential of technologies to power up learning sets the stage for teachers to create opportunities that take advantage of resources in ways that were science fiction until recently.

Tech tools do not replace people in kids’ lives.

IMG_4750Yet… tech tools don’t check eyes for understanding. Tech tools don’t respond with emotion to a kid sharing a tough situation or experiencing the sheer joy of learning something new. Tech tools don’t design for learning that excites and engages and moves with the flow of a community of learners.

Teachers do all those things and so much more when they go back go the roots of engaging pedagogy.

Relationships, Learning Agency, and Opportunities Matter …

So, every year when I greet new teachers, the important words are about relationships, being open to learning, sustaining efficacy, and challenging learners with access to the best learning experiences we can offer.

Today on almost New Year’s Eve 2015, I go back to where I began the 2015-16 school year  —purposefully  pulling old tech out of a canvas bag as a starting point to engage new teachers who also are still learners despite their role change. Why? Because a wise teacher told me before I started my first day teaching, “your job is to get kids excited about learning. Do that the first day — and every day after and kids will love learning in your class.”

Learning tools, whether high or low tech, are no more or less important than when I started teaching. They augment our teaching and our students’ learning. No matter their computing speed, the fastest devices today do not replace teachers who set up opportunities for powerful learning and community-building each day, even as they grow and develop their own expertise over their careers.

Tools change over time. The best teachers do as well. That was my message to new teachers in August 2015 and the one I reflect on as we enter 2016.

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11 Reasons Why I am Thankful for American Education: Revisiting Perspective


 Horace Mann once wrote “the public school is the greatest discovery of man.” He understood the importance of public education as a foundation for creating a  culture of democratic participation in the relatively young United States of his day. We in America have come to take public education for granted, something that is still far from reality in many parts of the world. Mann and his fellow educational dreamers took nothing for granted as they built the early system of public schooling.

This past October, the world learned of Malala Yousafzai, 14 year-old Pakistani female student and social activist, who the Taliban attempted to assassinate because of her advocacy for the right of young girls to an education. Her story reminds me that public education stands between (as Lincoln orated in the Gettysburg Address) a government “of the people, by the people, and for people” and one controlled by a privileged subset, serving the interests of not all the people – but rather a select few. Malala understood the power of learning as a tool to liberate voices of women in her own country. The Taliban feared such power in the hands of young women whom they have subjugated for generations. Education liberates.

Education also creates. In revisiting the work of Neil Postman, I discovered this description of the importance of public education in the End of Education (p.17):

“Public education does not serve a public, it creates a public. The question is, What kind of public does it want?”

America’s public educational system serves children in what some call Statue of Liberty schools, ones whose doors are open to all regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, handicap, or economic background. While we certainly need to answer Postman’s question as we work to un-anchor from the low orbit test prep curricula and factory schools of the late 20th century, we should also acknowledge that we have much to be thankful for when it comes to the work of America’s educators, its young people, and the communities that support our schools in creating a public for and of America.

Over time, we’ve pushed our doors open to the children of immigrants, to females, to those with handicaps, to children living in poverty, to those representing any religious belief or none at all, and to young people who once were segregated for no reason other than color. Our educational system is unique that way and we should celebrate its success in sustaining the Republic, even as we seek to advance the possibilities of our public education system as a space for contemporary learners.  What we have here doesn’t exist everywhere.

So, here are the 11 reasons I’m thankful for American education.

  1. In the People’s Republic of China, the decision was made in 2007 to fund nine years of compulsory public education for the 80% of young people who live in rural poverty and cannot afford the many fees attached to schooling in China or have access to quality education in general.
  2. In India, less than 40% of adolescents attend school. An increased commitment of India to educating its young people has resulted in only 9.6 million school children not being enrolled in school at all.
  3. In Mexico, only 68 % of children completing first grade will complete nine years of education. Compulsory education now extends to 8 years of schooling, a recent extension across the country.
  4. In Afghanistan, only 14% of female children are enrolled in primary school.
  5. In Morocco, approximately 40% of females between the ages of 15-24 are illiterate.
  6. In Saudi Arabia women attend gender-segregated schools and are prohibited from studying architecture, engineering, and journalism.
  7. In Japan, gender gaps in society, workforce, and education continue into this century. Women make up only 38% of students enrolled in Japanese universities as compared to 54% of college students in the United States.
  8. In South Korea, performance on exit exams is considered a “life and death” matter. Parental pressure and personal pressure lead to high suicide rates, inflated grades, and enrollment of significant numbers of students in private tutorial schools. Even the American military limits operations to provide maximum quiet on exam day.
  9. In Finland, 42% of teenagers in school reported being intoxicated within the last thirty days, more than double the U.S. reported rate.
  10. In Germany, most “special needs” students attend “special schools” that only serve students who have learning or emotional difficulties.

Bashing public education has become a national sport for media and politicians who compete 24/7 for public market share. While our public education system certainly has room for improvement across multiple factors, we continue to educate far more of our young people for more school years than either India or China. Our best students may not be as academically driven as South Korea’s best or as academically successful as the Finns, but overall our young people are far less self-abusive teenagers. Our young women today have far more educational and career opportunities than their peers in Japan, the Middle East or on the African continent. Children who enter the United States from third world countries are better served in our Statue of Liberty Schools than in their own countries. We are dedicated to including, not excluding, special needs and immigrant children in our regular school communities and to keeping learning doors open rather than closed. And, of course, there’s number …

11. America’s dreamers created the reality that all young people, regardless of class, gender, race, ethnicity or religion are afforded the right to a free, public education. This gift, I do not take for granted.