Just part of the air we breathe, teacher

heart rhythmLast Saturday my wife, Danielle, and I sat with my cousin Jim in the intensive care unit as he neared the end of his life. Not only did we accept that his vital signs would be monitored by several machines in the room and displayed in vivid colors with large font displays, over the several hours of our vigil, those numbers, sounds and traces became part of our collective experience, together with our dying cousin. Through medical technology, he was including us in his transition, sharing the data that has become commonplace in today’s hospitals, something unknown to humans a couple generations ago. Before, families watching a quiet bedridden relative would look for signs of breathing, listen for hints that life remained or had passed, but it was only through the stethoscope of the doctor (who may or may not be present) that they would eventually know for certain. Today, we have real-time data. We know, and it informs our way of thinking and perceiving.

Sitting under our plastic gowns, we could see that Jim was nearing the end of his illness, and his life. The nurse stepped over to Jim’s bedside, approached the monitor, switched off the display, and returned to her electronic charting. Danielle and I turned to each other with a look of “Wha?!” I looked at Jim, and instantly felt a broken connection, the frustration of information denied rising inside me. I turned to the nurse and said as politely as I could muster, “I assume you turned off the monitor because of all the alarms that will be going off shortly?” She looked mildly surprised, and said, “Oh, you want them on? Some families do, some don’t.” She restarted the monitor, and for another half hour or so we followed our cousin to his last breath and final heartbeat. It was intimate and precious and utterly unmediated by a third-person stethoscope, all thanks to the telemetry. I would not have given that up for anything.

It is important to this post that I cop to taking all that medical technology completely for granted. It felt familiar and necessary, and it is a comfortable part of my 21st Century experience. If I had walked into his hospital and had not seen evidence of data collection and display, not only would I have been disappointed, I would have demanded my cousin be moved to a decent hospital.

This is precisely the experience of our students when we, by force of law, pull them from their data-infused world and into school that often does not meaningfully follow their common access to data. We persist in demanding they break their connections, and most teachers want to be the stethoscope in the room to tell their students whether the heart of the world is still beating, or if it has a heart at all. And like our nurse, we are surprised when students are confused that we want them to disconnect from their data stream. They know their life is richer because of it. Can’t we see that?

Yes, instructional change is tough, but it begins with an awareness that humans’ relationship to technology has changed the culture of living and learning, in school and out. When students turn to us with a look of “Wha?!” in their eyes, it is simply incomprehension as they power-down, not insolence. Find what you can do to make your teaching and their learning as vital and meaningful, as intimate and precious as they know it can be.

Prince Ea on Ed Tech

The creamy center of virtually every discussion on education reform, use of technology, and how people learn is directly related to our belief systems. “Systems” is plural here because we all carry around several, and here are some examples of a few of mine: Who I am, who you are, what I’m worth, what you’re worth, how adults learn, how children learn, why I think the way I do, what you’re thinking and why you’re thinking that, ad nauseum. We are walking catalogs of interplaying belief systems. When children don’t learn, it is useful to examine what we think about that. When we don’t get along with each other, in any context, it is helpful to consider why.

Right now, Ferguson, MO, is not far from the surface of our awareness if we are aware of anything at all. In the video linked below, St. Louis-based spoken-word artist Prince Ea shares his thoughts about what’s at the heart of events in Ferguson, and his words point to the heart of so many challenges we face as educators and as humans on the planet. Please give him 3:42 of your time and let him do what he does so well.

PBL Hangouts

Buck Institute LogoThe Buck Institute for Education, creator and host of Edmodo, hosts weekly Hangouts in Google that are quick and excellent. For 30 minutes you get to bask in the light of PBL in the middle of the day. Bring your lunch!

The next Hangout on October 28th, from 12:00-12:30 PM PST is on The Importance of Project-Based Teaching with BIE Executive Director John Mergendoller.

See you there.

I miss the days of trust, really I do

Vicki Davis, the Cool Cat Teacher blogger and Ed Tech guru of many years standing, has issued an impassioned and earnest plea in Why I now friend my students on social media for school and government authorities to back off the over-regulation of communications via social media between teachers and students. You will feel as well as hear her plea in her presentation here:

My reply to her blog post is below. I will also mention that she is a teacher in a private school in Camilla, GA, and has always enjoyed certain benefits not available to us in the public sector, including an expectation that students in her classes enjoy sure access to technology at home, for instance. There are any number of regulatory spaces not carefully attended to in the private sector, permitting a certain kind of choice-making not available to the rest of us.


Hi Vicki,

I am entirely resonant with what you are saying here, and I share the desire to be able to connect with kids when they are reaching out to us. At the outset of my career, I was the teacher who gave out his home phone number, and that was waaay before cell phones, and before Internet. It was during that time I intervened with more than one suicidal student because a friend had my number, so my heart is certainly with you.

Our world has changed, though. Currently, a local physics teacher is serving time for seducing and raping female students, and his primary mode of communication was Words With Friends. Not long ago in our area a local teacher had to be hospitalized, and her Facebook-based classroom help group became flame central to the point one of her students was afraid to come to school, with everything happening out of sight of the teacher who had (legally and effectively) extended the teaching/learning space into the back channels of a medium that was undiscoverable and unsupervised. She had unintentionally left her classroom without a teacher present, and the potential consequences of vicious online bullying are too well known.

Federal and state statutes have defined our responsibilities in terms of how student information, student-teacher communication, and learning spaces connected to terms of employment are to be managed. What you would like to see as possible has been overtaken in drastic measure by FERPA, state Education Codes, and board policies which seek to limit the liability of education systems when things go wrong.

In the past, teachers were able to use their discretion when meeting privately with students, and while there have always been bad apples among both teachers and students, teachers generally knew which students were not trustworthy behind a closed door, they knew when to leave it open with a colleague not far away. This has been particularly true for male teachers. Commercial social media, however, has made the risk of covert back-channel communication high risk for all because any teacher who connects online in undiscoverable (as in invisible and unverifiable) channels is exposed to great risk of unfounded accusation, and the law has done much to protect minors in those same spaces.

What you are hoping to see in the way of reform would require major retooling of many statutes to restore the freedom of discretion we once enjoyed, but because of the actions of a few spectacular exceptions, this is highly unlikely to occur any time soon. I think our best strategy, at least until the current spasm of social media over-protection has run its course, is to make sure our students receive education and socialization that recognizes the necessity of quality face-to-face relationships so that social media is not their only option when life goes sour.

Fighting the Common Core

My educator hackles have been up these past few months as I hear increasingly vocal and frankly hysteric opposition to the Common Core State Standards, so masochist that I am, I decided to immerse myself in the rhetoric to try to understand what’s at its root.

The purpose of this post is to share with my readers an outstanding article by Jennifer Finney Boylan in the New York Times in which she makes some very astute observations about our nation and the folks who live here. Here’s a sample:

“We don’t ever want to educate South Carolina children like they educate California children,” said Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, presumably because doing so would result in children in the Palmetto State riding longboards and listening to the Grateful Dead.

Please give a read to Ms. Boylan’s A Common Core for All of Us.

How do teachers think about the Achievement Gap?

educational inequality balanceThis title wrecked my morning, specifically around selecting the first word. There is no question teachers think about the Achievement Gap. I have not met a single teacher who has not given the entire issue a great deal of thought, so the question requires some form of relative pronoun, hence the use of “How?”

This is not a post about grammar, but about beliefs. I think.

This question is a genuine one, and I’m hoping for serious help in addressing it. I know a lot of teachers, and to a person they are admirable professionals who seem to be in our business for the right reasons. My confusion stems from the very different contexts in which they do their teaching, particularly in two districts I can’t help but contrast. I know teachers working in a district that has managed to close its achievement gap putting them among the top ten in California according to Ed Trust West, and doing this with a diverse student and parent population of varied ethnicities, broadly distributed parent education levels, and significant socioeconomic challenges. Simultaneously I know teachers working in a district which occupies the absolute basement of their regional achievement gap stats, within a much more privileged demographic community. None of these teachers, from both districts, actually talk much about it, and they are all professional people of good will.

The districts I’m contrasting have obviously addressed their respective achievement gaps differently, making very different program choices, and I am neither naïve nor ignorant as to how they operate on a system level leading to this outcome. It is also clear that instructional practices in the two districts are quite different, so there is a clear cause and effect thing happening. None of these strategies are terribly mysterious, having been well-described in publications such as this one that was released a full five years ago.

As tempting as it is to speculate about teachers’ internal processes, I will continue to scratch my head. This is clearly more complicated than mere denial or delusion. If a teacher winds up working in either of these districts, how does he or she process either reality? I think of sitting in a restaurant, having ordered a house salad because the guy at the next table did that and it sounded good. His salad comes out magnificent, gourmet greens garnished with fresh peppers, capers and sprouts, sliced parmesan and the best balsamic, and he’s offered fresh, aromatic ground pepper. The salad set before me is a quarter head of iceberg with a dob of mayo, no pepper. Do I notice? Am I curious about why this disparity exists? Do I wonder if my business is valued, or whether my neighbor has connections? How does my neighbor process this disparity?

Please help me here, readers. What is happening in the heads and hearts of the great human beings that do this difficult work that allows them to keep smiling in the face of naked inequity? How do you explain the silence?

So teacher, are you just about the technology?

Last week Doug Johnson featured the article 7 Myths About Empathy, and it recalled a powerful memory for me that made its way to a guest post on his blog. I reprint it for  you here, as a courtesy to those of you patiently awaiting a new post.

Doug,

While reading your 7 Myths About Empathy post, I found myself looking for a description of not just what empathy is or isn’t, but also how it actually functions in the course of instruction. Then I wondered, “Why am I looking for that?”  As I read I remembered I had been provided with exactly that insight in the middle of my teaching career.

The path to understanding this many years ago was my biochemistry professor’s manner of delivering excruciatingly complex material; at least it was that for me. I was an adult learner, early forties, taking some career-necessary coursework at UC Davis. I was drowning, and apparently I wasn’t alone in feeling that way, and was seriously considering dropping the class. I remember the moment… at one point, the professor put down his dry erase pen after filling half the board with yet another enzyme reaction series. He turned toward the class, and with deep compassion in his eyes he proceeded to talk to us about knowing how difficult his was for us, how our brains needed time to unravel it on its own, and to not worry that we didn’t comprehend the complexity right at that moment. He then, as he had occasionally before, talked about the nearly miraculous nature of what it was we were trying to understand, that it was the essence of life itself, a complex process shared by virtually every living thing on the planet. He advised us to just take it in, relax, return to it often, and give our brains time to quietly sort it out.

That moment was a huge gift. Not only was he right about our brains and we how we come to understand complicated things, he used it as a teaching moment to share his love for the subject matter, and his compassion for us. He completely drew us into his discipline and communicated to us that both we and the content mattered, and the effect on us was quite amazing. I aced the damn class. My study partner (a second-career older adult) and I earned the two highest grades out of fifty or so in the class, but even our  desperate-looking whippersnapper classmates did quite well.

I’ve had other experiences like this, with inspiring professors and teachers, but this particular one informed my own practice as a teacher because of his precisely directed, caring advice. I came to understand that the empathy relationship was bi-directional in a classroom, and that the deeper that relationship became the more powerful and permanent the learning. I became a much better teacher, and had much more fun. Teaching this way was personally more challenging, more emotionally risky, but I look back on my teaching days as having been very successful thanks to that understanding.

For me, this is the heart of why the teacher cannot be removed from the learning of complex subject matter. Learning a “discipline” happens when the learning setting is informed by a discipleship of following and seeking rather than 19th century discipline for punishment and order (The flogging will stop when morale improves.) Learning is often hard, at every age and level of development, and we can only be drawn to it as willing participants, not driven by compulsory anything.

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