Sunday, March 30, 2014

Powering Education by Unplugging

Working together isn't easy. It is more often awkward, frustrating, time-consuming and humbling than it is meaningful, joyful or inspiring. But the trouble is, when you’re doing big things like teaching children, you simply can’t do it alone. You either give up (you still go to work each day, but you’re only going through the motions) or you deplete your energy in the effort.

In education, small groups joined by common interests, goals and passions often work together. The hard work, though, and the work that matters most to our children who can only rarely pick and choose their teachers, is to make sure that we all work together even when we don’t exactly agree, when our methods differ, our personalities clash. What matters most is that the community where the children learn is one of connection, that if their teacher is overwhelmed, someone in the next room is ready to help; if a teacher is sad or frustrated, there is a team on hand to buoy them up; if a teacher struggles to support a particular child, he can reach out to say, I don’t know what to do; if a teacher’s methods are no longer supporting the students, the team can provide side-by-side help for learning new approaches. And the teachers each know it will be all right that they don’t know everything, that they find things difficult, that they need help. They know that they, too, are needed to support colleagues who don’t have all the answers, who struggle where they are strong, who need a shoulder once in a while.

The problems that most need to be solved so that each child has a teacher who is working at an optimal level are never ones that can be fixed by clicking for answers on Pinterest. In fact, I’m beginning to think it’s the opposite, a way to bury ourselves in busyness, so that we don’t have to think about hard things. I’m even beginning to think that an educator’s global connections, our twitter conversations, on-line seminars, Google hangouts, blog feeds and Facebook follows matter only marginally for our kids. Worse, I worry that these virtual communities have seduced our attention away from the connections in our schools that do matter. And who can blame us? When we can work with the whole world, we need only pick people who think like us. There is none of the frustration of diversity. We can turn our connections on and off as we get busy. We can “support” our global colleagues with a simple “like” or happy face. And if a particular group or individual no longer inspires us, we just delete them from our feeds. Best of all, in the virtual world, we can be polished and interesting as we craft our replies and showcase the good moments. In real life, we can’t air-brush out the stack of unmarked papers at the back of the classroom, the boy with his head on his desk refusing to work, the failed lessons, the exasperation and weariness: we can’t pretend that we are fine.

Working together day-to-day is hard and humbling. But I’m not sure there is anything more important. In fact, I'm almost certain, despite my continued infatuation with the promise and possibilities of technology, that the answers to our complex problems won’t be found by plugging in to the global community, but by unplugging to join hands with the people nearby.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Is it possible that being bored is a good thing for kids?

When I was a girl, I lived “off the grid.”  We were raised in small logging communities: no TV – or at best, one fuzzy channel on a clear day – no movie theaters or malls and even the radio reception was spotty. What’s more, I lived miles away from my friends – a long bike ride unless we could cajole our mother into driving us. Our world was slow. And quiet.

But now, even I wonder what we did all day. Weren't you bored, my youngest son often asks when I tell him about my childhood. I do remember sometimes telling my mom I was. Are you, she’d say in her dangerous tone of voice. Then I’ll find you something to do. And we’d scurry off, because of course she meant that she’d send us out to weed the garden or stack wood or pick up sticks in the newly plowed field.

I remember long, long stretches on a rainy weekend playing gin rummy with my brother or hours and hours of complicated Barbie play with my sister that included using the Sears catalogue, cardboard and my mother’s box of fabric scraps to create additional props. I’m reading Why School by Will Richardson right now. He extols the creative capacity and independence that virtual game play facilitates in our children. He shares the story of his son who, one boring rainy morning, learned how to play the online game Minecraft, creating, by the end of the day, a beautiful house, completely furnished, on top of a mountain. He marvels that his son figured it out on his own by reading online manuals, watching videos, connecting with friends. But, thinking back, no one taught Kim and me how to design our Barbie houses and we cobbled them together, not from pre-fabricated parts in a digital space, but from whatever we could find. It seems to me that the play we engaged in, even though it wasn't tweeted about, posted on Facebook or immortalized as a YouTube video, was at least as creative; we were certainly independent in our play in a way that gamers can’t possibly be. We created the game. We designed (and revised at our convenience) the rules.  We built the game pieces.

Richardson acclaims the digital world where “real learning happens anytime, anywhere, with anyone we like.” Certainly, given a choice, my brother would never have played with sisters and I wouldn't choose to play with a little girl three whole years younger than I. Our game play would have been much more sophisticated. Who would choose scraps of paper, fabric and cardboard if you could have virtual castles and luxurious furniture in any colour you wanted. But thinking back, learning to play with whoever is in the room and creating with whatever you've got are important skills, that even now, in the 21st century, I use daily.

On the other hand, I rarely have to fill long empty stretches of time. I have emails to respond to, a twitter stream to read, Facebook posts to ponder, Pinterest boards to peruse. I listen to the beeps and chirps from my phone, the notifications from my computer; I have a stacks of book everywhere and if the one I want isn't available, I download it instantly. I am connected to everyone, everywhere; I have instant access to everything. There are no quiet moments.

It’s easy to get used to being always busy. Just recently, while waiting for a ceremony to begin, I was sitting with a table of people I didn’t know well; I was peripheral to the desultory conversation and itched to take out my phone to scan my twitter feed. The wait was too slow. I was…bored.

Kids today, of course, have no qualms about taking out their devices. In Ontario, a school board recently moved to block Netflix and YouTube. One third of their bandwidth was being used by students to stream their entertainment, rather than for education. One girl said in the interview, that yes, she often watched her favourite shows on Netflix whenever things got dull in class or when she was finished whatever she was meant to do.

I hear it often from students. I’m “done.” What do I do now? They are uncomfortable in the quiet space between activity, the space of day-dreams and doodling, wondering, reading, adding, extending, pondering, consolidating, rethinking, and creating a whole new world with from nothing more than scraps of paper or bits of wood and whoever is nearby to imagine with you. And while the Internet is certainly a place of connection, creativity and passion, it is more often used to effortlessly consume, to fill time, to pacify our mind’s search for meaning and meaningful activity.

One of the great criticisms of school is this: it’s boring. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a bad thing.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Should children listen more and talk less in school?

Recently, a Snuneymuxw elder came to speak to my students. She softly insisted that they keep still, sit up straight, remain silent. You cannot listen if you are moving or talking, she said. She gently removed the pencils they were doodling with, placed her hand on tapping fingers, gestured slouching students to straightness and soon, like some sort of sorcerer every teacher wishes she could keep, she had lulled the class into quiet, calm and still. They listened. A student tried to ask a question, but she stopped him: now it is time to listen, she reminded him, not to talk. 

Such a classroom, one of an elder sharing her wisdom and the children, silent, still, attentive, listening – is now, according to the latest pedagogical theories, considered outdated at best and at worst, detrimental to the students. We are told to be a guide on the side, a facilitator, a coach with the children constantly talking, experimenting, discovering concepts rather than listening, following their passions rather than receiving information or ideas. If we must talk, we are to give students doodle paper, fiddle toys and special bounce or wobble chairs so they never need to be still. Every 20 minutes, we should have them run, dance, skip, jump, clap.

Yet anyone who knows children knows this: they can sit silent and unmoving for hours in front of a television, computer or game system.

What, I wonder, is the wisdom they are absorbing as their attention is thus captured? What values are instilled as they stare at the screen, attention complete, watching reality shows and playing first person shooter games?  

And what wisdom from their years in school - or do we now believe there is none - do we hope they may take with them into the future? Do they have to listen, I wonder, to hear it?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Taking Time to Notice

I've been thinking about what we notice. Mostly it’s the noisy moments, like the Olympics, when athletes in obscure sports like bob-sleighing get a chance to shine and then sink back into obscurity for another four years, eking out a living to follow their passion. Or the noisy people like Justin Bieber or the Kardashians (I’m still not sure who they are, but they keep coming up in the magazines I read while I’m waiting at the supermarket checkout).  

In smaller circles, the noisy people are those willing to tell their story. When you think about it, most people simply do things, rather than tell about them. They don’t even think they have a story to tell. When I was working with teachers to use technology, I fought an uphill battle with social media, not so much because they were technophobes, but because they didn't like to express themselves in such a public forum. They didn't feel that what they thought ought to be shared widely. Who wants to hear about us, they’d say.

So we are told only a handful of the stories worth telling and we listen to even fewer. It isn’t surprising, since most of us are busy with our own tasks and trials, that we lift our eyes only when there is sufficient noise. When I first started at my new school in my new position teaching in an entirely different world (elementary verses secondary), I was hit by the tsunami of new things that left me reeling. I scarcely noticed anything except the challenge directly in front of me.

But lately, I’m starting to lift my head a little.  I watched the Olympics. I read a few books. I paid attention to some of the things my colleagues do. And I was reminded of how much I wish we would make more noise about their work.

Here’s one small story.

Every Friday after school (on Friday – after a gruelling week of teaching hard-to-teach students), my colleague runs an open gym for basketball. Anyone can come, but the grade 6 and 7 boys are the most regular attenders, along with a scattering of girls and little boys, some only in grade one. They split into teams and play a game, the big boys, learning that a team is whatever you make of it, become coaches themselves as they pass to their smaller and clumsy team-mates, yell at them to run forward, to fall back, to hold up their hands, to follow their check. It's loud and raucous; there are often quarrels and drama, hurt knees and bruised feelings, but the gym is open. Every Friday. For two years.

The students, of course, don’t thank her. Parents don’t really think about her commitment when they pick up their children. It just seems like another thing schools do; they don’t realize that she could be sitting at home with her feet up reading a book, at the pub drinking an end-of-the-week pint with colleagues or even just in her classroom reorganizing and planning so that she has one less hour to work on the weekend.  Instead, she’s running up and down the basketball court.

Earlier this month, our intermediate boys had their first basketball game of the season. They won handily. The best part for me, watching them, was the full bench of players from our small school rotating onto the court regularly, the way they played as a team, the way the strong players passed the ball or ran a screen to let others get the glory – and, above all, the stories they told about themselves the next day.

Behind the scenes, not even a part of the stories they tell – what do they understand, after all? – is Twila. Thank you.  I just wanted to say I noticed.