Friday, July 16, 2010

Too much social, not enough media...

OK, I've been thinking about the value of online collaboration lately. For the record, I really, really like #edchat. In fact I am fond of chiming in at a number of Twitter-based online collaborations... #ecosys, #ptchat, #gtchat and more. I appreciate the professional value of these online networks relative to sharing ideas and furthering the improvement of anything to do with teaching and learning... but, there is an issue.

I've been using Twitter to build my cyber-PLN (personal learning network) since late last November, and I'm beginning to notice that occasionally the conversation surrounding teaching and learning becomes imbalanced; too much social and not enough media in social media. Let me explain the context...

'Social' for the purpose of relaying my point of view here will mean, "of the group." 'Media' in kind, will mean, "a means of communication." It's my impression at times when involved in Twitter chats that some people participate more for the social element of it than the media element; primarily to be part of the group. Don't get me wrong; there's nothing inherently damaging about socializing, but when the social environment and the seemingly overwhelming need for some to preserve it, hinders open and honest dialog about the issues being addressed, this means the scales have tipped to create an imbalance between socializing and communicating professionally. I see an increasingly prevalent level of groupthink out there in Twitterland, and it's bothering me a bit. Like Professional Learning Communities (PLC's... we love our acronyms don't we...) my understanding is that the most prominent element of a PLN needs to be learning. If learning isn't happening as the major element of our professional social media interaction, then it's just socializing; again, not inherently bad, but also not productive with regard to becoming a better teacher and learner.

I don't go to professional chats to socialize per se... I go to learn- that's the essence of professional development; the reason I think we all participate via Twitter in the first place- to develop ourselves professionally. Its like those who call going out for a refreshment with coworkers on a Friday after work "team-building"- this is fun for most, and I would even submit that you may get to know your co-workers better as a result, but in the context of team-building, there is no benefit... the function of the team is not strengthened by this activity, hence it's not team-building. If I'm going to involve myself in professional conversation using Twitter (and the group chats that occur there) as my conduit, then I am professionally responsible to do this intellectually and with purpose beyond simply belonging to a group of like-minded people. I love the original version of "Twelve Angry Men"... Henry Fonda's character, Mr. Davis is the only juror in a capital murder case to cast a not-guilty vote for the accused, and he sticks to his guns despite the intense groupthink efforts of the rest of the jury to sway him... a remarkable film broaching human nature in such a visceral way- highly recommended. We all need to be reminded of the Mr. Davis' of the world, and when we're feeling the peer pressure of any group to conform at the expense of our core beliefs just so we can continue to belong in that group, we need to step back and remember our responsibility to be true to ourselves, even if that means disagreeing with the direction the group is pulling us in. We need to think independently first if we are to make a meaningful contribution to any group.

As professionals who use Twitter as a conduit for collaborative idea jamming, we must avoid groupthink. I don't have to agree with you, and you don't have to agree with me... I prefer conversations where agreement is a distant possibility because its dissonance that stretches people's thoughts, not conformity. Through the process of hashing about our theses and antithesis toward that distant possibility called synthesis, we grow ideas; we formulate potential and truly evolve understanding. Many profess to appreciate having their ideas stretched until someone disagrees with them; then their true nature is revealed through defensive lashing out at the contradictory person. We have to get past this tendency to take things personally and strive for a default position that takes an objective point of view toward dissonance; one that posits conceptual growth... the evolution of ideas is impossible without contradiction. Blindly accepting the ideas of any group/cohort/ movement/etc... is a recipe for stagnating ideology... dead-end thinking.

Teachers, lets act objectively and responsibly toward the sharing of ideas and professional collaboration. We can't grow our status as leaders of thought otherwise... we have to be true intellectuals; people who invite contradiction as challenge leading to deeper and fuller understanding... aka knowledge.

Feel free to disagree with me;o)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

You can teach an old dog new tricks...

Although I completely get that our children are growing up in a digital age that is vastly different and more advanced than any other widely accessible technology we have previously seen in society, I am growing weary of the whole "digital citizens/digital immigrants" continuum. Let me tell you why.

We recently bought new net-books for our children. My son is particularly interested in computers, and we are actively encouraging his interest. He is a very smart kid, but the traditional school environment isn't really working for him, so we're working on connecting him with different forms of digital interaction so as he grows perhaps he will migrate toward his aptitude for tech integrated learning. He's super excited about the new blog we're building together, the gaming he's getting involved in and different forms of social media software like Skype, Twitter etc.

This evening, one of the coolest things happened. I've been communicating with my grandfather for years now via Skype. Originally from Saskatchewan, he now lives in Ottawa. My grandfather is an electrician by trade, and worked for years with Saskatchewan Power Corporation, so he has some really strong mechanical understanding and worked with analog computers in his role as an operator with Sask. Power, but it wasn't until I sent him an old HP computer we had replaced about 9 years ago that he began tinkering with digital technology. That's also when we started communicating via Skype. When the kids were babies we used to hold them up in front of the web camera so my grandfather could see them and talk to them. They have grown up with this, and they love to visit with their grampa in this manner. Tonight was the first time my son spoke with his great grandfather on his brand new net-book, and he was thrilled... it was touching for his mom and I to see him get so excited about what he was doing. The happiness on his face as he spoke to his Grampa Woods using this tool that he has always known, but never manipulated personally was obvious.

So here's why I'm weary about the digital native/digital immigrant continuum. This evening I witnessed the joy of two people... a ninety-two year old man, and a seven year old boy... as they manipulated a tech tool to digitally connect with each other. My grandfather was born in 1918. Certainly that must place him in the digital immigrant cohort. Think about it... he has lived to see the evolution of the motor age, the age of flight and the video age. He told me once that when televisions became widely available and he got his first in the 1950's, he wondered if there would ever be a day when he would be able to talk with people on the telephone and see their face on some sort of TV-like screen. Well today he did just that, and on his computer screen were the happy faces of a couple of digital citizens- his great grandchildren.

How cool is that?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Worksheets are to learning as junkfood is to eating...

With special thanks to Lisa Butler (via Twitter @SrtaLisa) for creating this poster, I'd like to further the thoughts behind the quote.

This quote (in the form of a tweet) garnered 22 re-tweets; a record for me;o) The simple message seemed to resonate with people, and I was happy about that. The idea for the quote came to me after visiting two distinctly different grocery vendors on the same day in my home town.

Where I live, people have been enjoying the ambiance of our local farmer's market for over forty years. A stroll down the aisles of this HUGE outdoor market on a sunny Saturday morning... the sights, sounds and smells welcoming you from all sides... is one of my families absolute favorite things to do in spring, summer and fall. It's a multi-sensory experience that just feels right. We eat fresh cooked breakfast there; we sample and buy fresh produce and other natural products like honey and soap; we listen to cultural musicians and we occasionally buy stuff that catches our eyes for the kids, or for our home... there is no end to the supply of unique and interesting clothing, art, nostalgia, furniture, greenery etc. We could spend all day there, but alas, the market moves on to the next town around noon, and we go on with the rest of our day.

A couple of weeks ago we left the farmer's market and went to a local big-box retailer to purchase some party supplies for my daughter's birthday party. As we walked through the doors of this massive building it just hit me. You know how that happens... like a big old wind that comes out of nowhere and startles you with its strength... I was completely taken aback. Fresh from my visceral and fulfilling morning at the farmer's market, I knew my big-box experience was going to be less than memorable.

The farmer's market is so vivid, so stimulating to the senses, that its impossible to feel rushed. Every modality is firing on all cylinders there- you feel alive and receptive; in the here and now. Coupled with the fact that virtually every item for sale at the market is produced naturally, by hand in an organic and particular way, the farmer's market experience becomes so meaningful and mindful; the two words I use to describe an authentic environment.

On the contrary, the big-box environment is filled with stuff too, but it hits you in a vastly different manner. There are no smells in the big-box store beyond the air-freshener aisle. Everything just sits on shelves within the same packaging it left the factory. There's no sound beyond the whirling of shopping carts and the odd "cleanup on aisle 8" intercom announcements in the big-box store. In the grocery section there was no fresh produce in sight... as I walked up and down the aisles I felt rather unstimulated and distant... and I know why. The big-box store was the antithesis of what I call an authentic environment. That's when the analogy hit me.

The farmer's market and the big-box store both provided me with an opportunity to get stuff I needed (even if I didn't realize I needed it until I got there;o) That's where the similarity ends though. At the market, high-quality, organic and creatively manufactured products are sold in a wonderfully stimulating environment that peaks the senses in a way that would affect even the most unreceptive patron... that's just the way it is. In the big-box store, prepackaged, mass-produced chemically-altered products of marginal quality are sold in a glorified warehouse that is about as inviting to the senses as the industrial plants the products were manufactured within.

It's hard for teachers not to draw parallels between their in, and out-of-school experiences... enter my thoughts about authentic teaching and learning environments. The market was like an authentic classroom... hitting all the sensory targets with creative, meaningful and purposeful activities... the classroom where students and teachers feel a sense of discovery and wonderment... where the experience is remembered because it was enjoyable and stimulating to the mind, body and spirit.

The big-box was like an inauthentic classroom environment... hitting none of the sensory targets as a result of under-stimulating, prescribed activities with little relevance to the learner... the environment where the answers are already provided (curriculum) and everyone is busy trying to make up the questions to match them.The first example of a "learning activity" I thought of that undeniably represents this sort of environment was the infamous worksheet... hence the quote.

The pre-packaged, chemically-altered junk we buy at bog-box stores, like the worksheets teachers use in school, fill us up to be sure, but not with anything good. Let's move away from the easy 'drop a worksheet on the desk' mentality and start letting kids fill themselves up with questions instead of answers, and lets make sure that the classroom environments we create look, sound and feel more like the metaphoric farmer's market than the big-box store.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

We lose our dreams, and that's a bad thing...

Young kids know dreams implicitly. I have spoken to so many social workers that consider this fact a hindrance to determining the appropriateness of a child's home environment because it's hard for kids to articulate reality when they are young. On the contrary, I think it's a blessing. If kids who grow up in environments that place them at risk had to also be vividly aware of this fact, it would be overwhelming.

I remember a therapist asking me a question once during a family counseling session when I was about 7 years old, and all hell was breaking loose in my home... "Sean, what is your biggest problem at home- the problem you would like to change if it were possible?" My answer was that I wished that the clothes I wanted to wear on any particular day were clean; because they weren't always. Amidst the violence, battery and alcoholism that was prevalent in my home during that time, this was a peculiar response, I must say. I can only guess that at the tender age of seven, it just wasn't possible for me to perceive anything more serious than that particular problem from my child's perspective... even though some really bad things were happening. Perhaps I was dreaming, (and for a child I daresay, that just means living,) in a world of my creation; a world where bad things didn't happen and only good things were justified.

As a counselor in a middle school, and at various times in my teaching experience when I have encountered kids who were really down and out, one of my more effective strategies was to pull out their cumulative file and show them their school pictures from their first years in school. I have yet to look at one that didn't represent hope and happiness in the bright face and glowing smile of each child. This could be called a re-framing strategy that I consider to be a version of the crystal ball technique. The questions that accompany this strategy attempt to revisit the state of mind of these kids when the picture was taken seeking understanding about why things have changed. Questions like, "why were you so happy back then?" and "if you could be as happy now as you were then, what would have to change to get that way?"... are the type I would ask, and believe me, the tears flowed quickly and inadvertently many, many times.

What are the circumstances that create the child's dream state of mind? I think it's actually the child's state of mind that creates the circumstances. Children live in a visceral and fascinating world inside their heads that allows them to see the world they believe; not believe the world they see... the world of their dreams, and I think there is tremendous possibility in extending this perspective beyond childhood along the growth spectrum; even into adulthood. At some point we lose our dreams, and that's just profoundly sad because losing our dreams in adult terms is synonymous with lost purpose and possibility. The only thing worse than losing our dreams is losing our tears, but that's another post for another time.

I have noticed that the incident often occurs in middle school. At this point kids are placed in a broader social spectrum; they become more aware of the other kids and how they live their lives. They may be more exposed to the others through visits to their house, playing on sports teams with them or some other extracurricular activity. In whatever context though, the maturation process and expanded awareness of the world around them makes kids reflect on their own reality, and sometimes they don't like what they see, and it's devastating.

What can teachers do? I think we can ensure that our learning spaces are the type that will be adored by kids; magical places in their eyes that provide opportunities to discover, question and explore without fear of scrutiny or failure. They should be places where mistakes are welcome elements of the learning process. After all, if mistakes were the end of the world, nobody would ever learn how to ride a bike. I have been in many classrooms like this, and each one was physically different. It's about the way a place makes you feel, not what the place looks like. We need to make the zeitgeist of our classrooms viscerally endearing to kids; intellectually stimulating from their perspective as opposed perhaps, to ours. We need to tap into their instinctive learning tendencies and not let them fade over time. Is this easy?


When I sit and talk to kids who have been jerked away from their sense of wonderment and possibility so much sooner than most, and they feel helpless and hopeless, it's been a very effective strategy to suggest they return to their place of dreams seeking the purpose and enthusiasm they once realized.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sometimes the path chooses you...

I have written loads about the power of learning people's stories. This spring as my first year as a school administrator wound down, I had the pleasure and good fortune to attend the retirement celebrations of two very honorable and noble men. One is my former District Superintendent, and the other is a friend and lacrosse coaching colleague, and now a former principal. Once again I was reminded what an honor it is to learn someone's story.

I have worked in my District for ten years, the same term that my retiring Superintendent has been in his position. I have known Don to be the epitome of professionalism and commitment in his role as Superintendent, and I have had total confidence in his leadership and guidance. Bob was the principal of the elementary school that my behavior program was housed within during my first five years with the District. I learned a great deal from him about leadership and the art of caring. He also had an incredible ability to use inaction as a form of deliberate action... a skill I have worked hard to develop over the course of the year, (hard for me as a first time administrator wanting to do whatever it takes to the best of my ability in every single situation). Both of these scholarly and hard-working gentlemen have been mentors to me whether they know it or not, but in the context of this post, I want to focus particularly on an element of their retirement celebrations that is resonating with me.

As part of each retirement party event, a historical overview of each man's life before and during their teaching and administrative careers was presented. As I sat listening to these presentations, and watching the slide shows that accompanied them, I became admittedly emotional. I heard things about each man, impressive things, that I had never known before, and it struck an emotional chord with me. In my professional dealings with each of them, I had never known about the personal challenges they overcame to become the people I had come to know. I had not known about many of the amazing accomplishments each had achieved in their lives, or the scope of their talents outside of the educational environment. Hearing about these things for the first time, and being so impressed by each of their respective personal journeys made me wish I had known these things about Don and Bob when I started with the District ten years earlier. At any rate, I know them now, and I am an improved person as a result.

I know that in each man's case, their life journey took them down paths that they may not necessarily had predicted, or even chosen in some cases. I also know that, depending on the situation, they did whatever needed to be done to endure, solve, overcome or perhaps cherish or celebrate the challenges encountered on these paths. This is the mark of  resilient, humble and effective leaders- those who recognize that the path chooses them and understand that the manner in which they walk down it makes all the difference. 

In the hurried and complicated context of our everyday professional lives, it is so easy for really important stuff about people to go unnoticed. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to become aware of some of this stuff about Don and Bob; two honorable men whose mark on teaching and learning has been positively and permanently made, and for that I thank them... and I thank them also for sharing their stories with me.

As a protege and successor to these fine educators, I have been etched by their stories, and reminded that the rewards in teaching and learning far, far outweigh the challenges.

Best wishes Don and Bob.
Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog


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