Friday, January 25, 2013

Learning to Fly: The Greatest Time to be an Educator

Note: This post works as a follw-up to previous post, "The Real Enemy of Great."

Earlier this month, St. John’s had Jonathan Martin lead an in-service on 21st Century Education for us. It was awesome—“best in-service ever,” several teachers praised. Jonathan packed his presentation with loads of theory and concrete information, and teachers left with clear steps for moving forward. The day made me miss being in the classroom as a teacher. What has resonated with me since then is a question Jonathan asked: When was a time when you suddenly knew things would never be the same?
While I can think of many pivotal moments during my career in education, four stand out as “Aha!” sort of experiences.
·         The first came in the mid-90s. I was teaching 9th grade English, and students were doing research on a small section of Genesis or Exodus. The idea was to dig as deeply into it as possible, from various angles. Our library had limited resources, and my knowledge was finite. I convinced the tech director to give each student an e-mail address. Then I contacted various seminaries and religious studies departments around the nation to see if anyone would be willing to serve as a “telementor.” Suddenly my students were collaborating with experts on some very serious scholarship. I wasn’t obsolete, but my role was certainly different as I became much more of a guide and partner in the learning process.
·         Around 2005 or so, I was teaching a self-developed course called The Ways We Know, a hybrid of neuroscience, cognition, and epistemology. Needless to say, there was no pre-existing textbook, and I wanted a wide variety of resources. The course book became a page in a content management system with a bunch of links to myriads materials. So much for my notion of the textbook.
·         About that same time, I was teaching a junior poetry course. For the final project, I wanted the students to do something that would incorporate all the facets of the course. The typical analytical essay just wasn’t going to work. Instead, the students created electronic poetry museums which had multiple facets, including the usual written elements along with created and downloaded multi-media elements. An added bonus was how much time the students spent exploring each other’s museums.  Authentic assessment became my ideal.
·         The final one occurred in the spring of 2010. The chairman of the arts department came to see me about an email he had received from someone in Bhutan. The person was an education student and was inquiring about something she had traced to our school via an article in some education journal published in Asia. But the information was vague, and we had no idea what she was referring to. We apologized for not being able to help, but the person politely tried us again. We involved the educational technology director, who did some searching and “got a Google”— a single hit for the entered search terms. It turns out the article had contained a reference to a website some of my students had created in a junior English class several years earlier. Yes, we are closely connected in unforeseen ways, and students can make important contributions.
At the end of each anecdote I comment very briefly on its significance, and each point matters. More important is the composite. Together, they show just about every traditional aspect of the teacher-student relationship beyond the basic human connection being upset to some degree.
                At the same time, however—and this where the crucial idea really starts—these epiphanies did not alter my essential philosophy. Powerful relationships, finding relevance and purpose, learning how learn, creativity, collaboration, student as worker—all these ideas and others have fueled my practices from the first time I stepped into a classroom. After all, I’m the guy who put everything aside for a month in 1988 when a bunch of eighth graders wanted to rewrite their own version of Romeo and Juliet and then videotape the performance (still one of my greatest experiences as a teacher; how I wish it had been digitalized before the tape was ruined). Two simple truths often held me back. The first was, as a young teacher, having to reconcile my beliefs and wishes with so much of what my experience as a student and the larger culture were telling me a teacher should do—the very traditional view of the role. Working through that was difficult, full of inevitable pitfalls only deepened by the mistakes most young teachers make. The second was more practical. It was too hard and even impossible to do some of what I would have liked. For example, recall the story above about creating the on-line repository of resources for a course. Back in the 80s, I wanted to create a reader for one of my classes. Dealing with the publishers, the copyright issues, the fees, and the sheer time involved were simply overwhelming; and I abandoned the project. Twenty years later, I could create just what I wanted, with multimedia, rather easily.  I’ve written many times that technology must function as a tool that allows us to achieve our objectives in the bet fashion. Tablet, laptop, phone—the device doesn’t matter. The power lies in the what and the how, driven by the why. As suggested above, that why becomes much more achievable.  It’s really quite amazing and empowering.
                Sometimes I think we forget that. We have become so accustomed to rapid technological change that we fail to consider its impact. Take a minute and ask yourself: What am I glad I can do now that I couldn’t do x number of years ago? Even more importantly, what can students do? Think about what happened in the examples outlines above. In just about a decade, my students went from passive consumers to active creators and even contributors on a global scale. Imagine, then, what the future may hold. And we must prepare young people not for our pasts or even our presents, but for their futures.
                Even beyond that, this empowerment feeds the educators our children need in other key ways. As Dan Pink’s work in Drive shows us, true motivation and fulfillment come from autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In the right environment, teachers have more and more opportunities to sense those feelings. While doing so, to borrow Seth Godin’s metaphor about important work, thoughtful and brave educators can become true artists. We can build upon the great work done before our time. However, we have an obligation to break molds, to imagine and design and create, to take small steps into the adjacent possible or flying leaps into the skies of what could be.

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