Why this blog?

"... Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - Letters to a Young Artist, R. M. Rilke

Rooted in the promise and challenge of growth ...

these are letters from a young teacher.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Man is a tool-using animal" ... or do the tools use us?

Perhaps I am too new to working in public schools to have ceased paying genuine attention to pre-service meetings and pep rallies. On the morning of a specially planned simulcast of two guest speakers, the buzz amongst my team of teachers was what busywork they could bring to do while listening. Some call this multi-tasking, but something told me before the simulcast was even to begin that the greater "task" at hand, shall we say, was managing to keep everybody there past the free lunch.
Not to dismiss both the efforts put into the organization of the day and the value of hearing our guests speak and of being inspired by them - I greatly enjoyed what I heard! What I heard, however, was not what had been planned, because the day unfolded like this:
The speakers scheduled were Daniel Pink and Alan November, both known for their strong opinions (and written works) on the need for a more global approach to education. Pink explains thoroughly the necessary balance between left-brain and right-brain tasks, while November emphasizes empowering students with technology (as opposed to empowering technology with increasingly gadget-dependent teaching? - the question will soon make itself clear). And so it was, as can be read in the Burlington Free Press.
Now, our superintendent (I believe) was very invested in the simulcasting of these talks, which were taking place over an hour away, because, as he said, and I paraphrase, "We're not talking about technology in schools, we're talking about the way technology is changing the entire world." He referenced Thomas Friedman's catch-phrase that technology has "flattened" the world, creating an even playing field for global economic competition. This trend has shifted the structure of the global economy so that there are more tangible connections between countries. However, despite these connections and the resulting opportunities, dialogue between countries today are dominated primarily by tension and conflict. All of this puts new demands on our schooling system and on the education we provide our students. (This is how I understood his introduction to the speakers.)
With that, as he was expressing these thoughts, the signal for the simulcast was lost and the guest speakers, thus, - poof! - disappeared, not only from the room (they were only 2-D images anyway), but, by default, from the agenda. Hah! Fancy that! Technology is changing the world, but only as far as the signal will reach. No need to fret, though, for a few promotional videos had already been cued up AND an iPod Touch was to be raffled off at the end of lunch, so stick around ...
I had to feel bad for the guy - he had apparently been planning this event for the whole summer and obviously believed in what he was saying. I admire that. And I think there was a great deal of truth in what he was trying to express and in what Pink and November would share in their talks. I had to remember back, though, to a saying my stepfather is known for in our family:

"Man is a tool-using animal."

Now, this piece of wisdom was usually pulled out at a dinner table of finger food before it was ever a statement on technology, but it has stayed with me throughout my own examination of how we use technology.
Do we truly use technology as a tool? Or have we become the tools of technology?
At the graduate program I began at IslandWood, I was required in one of my classes to write a so-called Technology Position Paper, stating my position on the use of technology in education. I struggled and thought about it and struggled some more before I came to my honest opinion:

I do not consider technology any sort of evil in the classroom. It is, indeed, an area of my own learning that I am continuing to expand and deepen as best I can. At the same time, I seek to deepen my students’ imagination and sense of what knowledge and learning can be ... [when based] in their person and in their interactions with whatever resources may be available. After all, the value of any tool is only as great as the technique of the practitioner. From my position, I focus more on the practitioner than the tool.

As unfortunate as it was not to be able to see the speakers, I still took a lesson from the day: If we truly are tool-using animals, then we truly are practitioners. If we are practitioners, we are the ones in practice, not the tool; the tool exists only because we - in our practice - developed it. How fascinating that technology returns the favor, developing us as we develop it! But what exactly about technology do we want to teach in our practice? Are we going to rely so heavily on it that the value of a lesson is eliminated when it doesn't work?
Let's not forget who's who in this match - or perhaps, specifically, who we are and what role we play in the development of technology and in the culture of its usage.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The value of a "rigorous" education

Walking around the Middlebury campus today, I found myself in a bit of a memory stupor: there was the library that was brand new my senior year ... the window to the economics class I took on a whim ... the dining hall ... my beloved Chateau tower dorm room from sophomore year ...
Within the context of my current residency, though, it reminded me that so much of my identity as a teacher is informed by my identity as a student, and I began to remember beyond the sheer locations to the experiences I had in them: working on my senior thesis, conversing with friends, learning to stretch my learning ... For it was here, in the constellation of my environs, my companions and colleagues, and my thoughts, that I learned to let go of grades. Not that they weren't important, but I have come to see them as ultimately less meaningful to my learning experience than were the content and experience in and of itself. And so I remain, even in my teaching, a self-directed student of life: the entire world is my classroom, and I will never stop learning. Perhaps more importantly, I will never stop wanting to learn.

Brief topic switch ...
I was struck by President Liebowitz' baccalaureate address to the graduating seniors of this year's class (check it out here) on the "work hard, play hard" mentality typical of students at so-called "rigorous" academic institutions. He suggested in his address that perhaps it is the very rigor that the liberal arts tradition prides itself on that is pushing its students to engage in extreme social activity (i.e. binge drinking) that endangers the name and reputation of the tradition, not to mention the aversive effects to one's personal health and the health of one's community. I have to applaud him for making such a suggestion that I'm sure was the controversial subject of many a conversation following his address. However, it got me thinking about my own ideas of what rigor really is in one's education.
As I remember it, the idea - and challenge - of "academic rigor" was considered desirable, because it meant one would be stretched and challenged and ultimately deserve the diploma, the honors, and the job offer at the end. I'm sure my parents, who were paying tuition, were also concerned about the return on their investment, as well. Rigor also emerged in conversation at my graduate program at IslandWood, but we were also concerned about the amount of and value of the experience we had teaching our students. And goodness knows the call for more rigorous academics in public schools, in an effort to increase student performance on standardized tests.
As a student, primarily, I have come to see rigor not in the workload, but in the work itself: the reach of a single assignment into my own cognition and creativity. Bloom's taxonomy suggests several levels of knowing something, the most advanced of which is, according to the revised version, creating something new: is the student able to construct, design, develop, etc. something original based on newly gained knowledge? These have always been my favorite assessments: from supposedly "boring" papers to a creative dramatic performance to my teaching portfolio, I was lucky to "create" quite a bit at Middlebury. And I really wonder whether it wasn't in these assignments that I began to forget about accountability and achievement and, instead, just took joy in what I was learning, what it meant for me as an individual, and what it might come to mean even if I never got a diploma. (For the record, as of this transition, my grades improved significantly!)
I don't know for sure whether Middlebury and other similar institutions need to reassess the rigor of the academic workload assigned students. However, as a teacher, I can only say that I have learned to reassess constantly the quality of the assignments that I do give, to assure that they are not a waste of time for me or my students, and that they might truly inspire a joyful and meaningful learning experience for them. In the end, the rigor of education lies not in the amount of material covered, but in the material that is uncovered by one question.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Arrival in Middlebury

It's official. I'm here.
After almost two weeks of moving, traveling, visiting, and transitioning from West Coast to East Coast, I arrived in Middlebury today for good. There are 14 Kindergartners waiting for me to show up next Wednesday morning to be their student teacher this fall and I have a week left to prepare / enjoy my last days of summer vacation.
Oh, I'm ready, though. After a summer of 4- and 5-year-old half-day camps, I'm ready for the depth and challenge of a full-day classroom (?? - still not sure of exact school hours). I've been out of touch with American public schools for about three years, so it's high time I inform myself once again and gather up some more kernels of experience.
Hmm ... Kindergarten. Who remembers their first day? I don't (though I'm sure my mother has an epic to tell about it). I do remember my teacher, though -- Mrs. McKenna -- and have a vague picture in my mind still, of what the classroom looked like. Interestingly enough, I don't remember much of any instruction that took place, only the special day when we made green eggs and ham in honor of the famed Dr. Suess children's book.
What I remember most clearly from this age, though, are the bus rides. On the bus that picked me up in the morning, Kindergartners had to sit in the first three rows, to be closer to the bus driver. At some point, though, I made friends with some 6th graders (I don't remember how) and I got to sit in the back of the bus for a while. That was a very big deal. At lunch, I took a bus from Mrs. McKenna's class (half-day) to my former pre-school, which offered a PM Kindergarten program. That bus was much smaller, a half-size, and I remember having a very friendly bus driver, though the name and face elude me.
No, I don't remember much else more than anyone else would. But somehow, my memory of that age in general is one of sunshine. The pictures of the people, the places, and the journeys are all basked in a gentle yellow haze, like old faded color pictures. I was a very happy kid, which probably explains why I don't remember a whole lot from that time of my life, but still feel very connected to who I was then.
I've worked enough with kids to know that they are not little adults. Quite the opposite: adults are big kids. If this is true - and it is when I look at the world through my eyes - then I am most definitely a big Kindergartner. This might well be why I am so drawn to this age: I have never ceased to wonder and ask why ... to enjoy a daily rhythm of song, story, work, and play ... to experience the world around me with the very best tools I own: my five senses ... and to wear my heart on my sleeve, or rather, on my tongue.
As the school year begins, I hope you're not having bad dreams about unexpected tests and nonexistent classroom #123. If you do, remember the child inside of you. They know the way, because they know who they are.