Trees Falling in the Forest

April 9, 2010 · Posted in Personal, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

A long time ago, fresh out of school with a shiny new M.Ed. and a desire to change the world, I took my first public school teaching assignment in Fairbanks, Alaska. The school I taught in is no longer there, but a lesson I learned there has stayed with me for over 30 years.

I thought I was pretty good at what I did. I crafted my lesson plans carefully (indexed to district curriculum, no less!) and I worked hard to put on a good show in front of the class. One lesson built on another, a veritable symphony of pedagogic order and logic. I was stoked. Until I talked to Brandi.

Brandi was a fifth-grader with huge blue eyes and an engaging smile, the sort of person that easily made friends with peers and adults. She always tried to pay attention and she worked hard in class. She was a “special” student–identified as learning disabled, but really, as I came to find out, just a very deliberate learner who needed a lot of repetition and hands on work to grasp concepts that were easy for most of her classmates. After a series of math lessons–which I thought were beautifully crafted, if I do say so myself–I became aware that Brandi just didn’t understand the concepts I was teaching. I was a little irritated. I had spent a lot of time constructing and delivering those lessons, and I was perturbed that she didn’t get it. I think I said something like this to her: “Brandi, what’s wrong with you? I taught this last week.” I may be fuzzy on the words I used, but I’ll never forget her response: “Well, you taught it, but I didn’t learn it.”

Ouch. Catharsis can be painful. Everything I had been taught about teaching suddenly came crashing down around me. By just about any measure, I was considered a “good” teacher, but here was a perfectly willing learner under my care who was not learning what I was teaching. At that moment, it dawned on me that the most important activity in my classroom was not teaching–it was learning. It wasn’t about me, it was about them, and I wasn’t doing right by them.

The rest of that year–and the rest of my life, so far, anyway– was spent in rethinking my approach to teaching and in unlearning much of what I had been taught about effective teaching. Reminiscent of the koan about the tree falling in the forest, it turns out that teaching without learning isn’t teaching at all.

Flash forward thirty or so years. I look around in K-20 education and I’m constantly reminded of Brandi, sitting dutifully in class but not gaining much from my fledgling efforts at teaching. I see districts adopting reading and math programs that dictate that all students be on the same page of the book on the same day and that all teachers say the same things to all of the students, and I think about Brandi. I watch lectures about constructivism at the post-secondary level and I think about Brandi. With great anticipation I observe one to one laptop programs, hoping to see students exploring and collaborating and discovering only to find so many of them simply doing research on the web and writing a report, and I think about Brandi. While there are many efforts at reform based on authentic learning models and implementation of technology tools, there seems to be an even larger effort to turn public schools into factories turning out uniform products.

Convince me otherwise. Please. Let me know what’s happening in your situation that is helping to insure that the Brandis of the world can be successful and learn productively.

And Brandi–if you’re out there, I hope you’re a teacher. Experience counts for so much.

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What’s in a Name?

August 26, 2008 · Posted in Personal · Comment 

If you arrived here looking for iTeach – Skip Via, you’re in the right place. I’ve changed the title to more clearly reflect the intent of the site.

Some Recent Articles of Note

August 26, 2008 · Posted in NCLB, Personal, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

The beginning of each school year–whether it be k-12 or post-secondary, since my teaching activities touch both worlds–is always a reflective time for me. I think about what I can do to improve my own instruction and, hopefully, the ability of my post-secondary students to expand and improve their instructional activities in preparation for their careers. But mostly, I think about the nature of the K-12 world for which we are preparing our students. What kinds of problems will they encounter, and how might they respond.

In that light, here are a few recent articles that are worth a look by K-12 educators and those who are responsible for preparing them to teach.

One Teacher’s Cry: Why I Hate No Child Left Behind
How much control do K-12 teachers have over their curriculum? Does a “one size fits all” approach to teaching work for everyone? What will current students remember about their schooling 10 years from now?

Remember ‘Go Outside and Play?’
As an adult who very fondly remembers leaving my front door each morning, finding a couple of friends, ending up at someone’s house for lunch, going back outside and returning for dinner, I appreciate this article’s emphasis on the importance of independent, unsupervised play and exploration. There are many lessons for school experience embedded here.

A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash
How can a teacher who believes in the power of science to explain natural phenomena teach evolution to students who refuse to accept one of its basic tenets? A fascinating, in depth article about a teacher who truly cares about science education, and a cautionary tale for most teachers entering the profession.

12 New Rules of Working You Should Embrace Today
While this article is focused on the business world, there is much food for thought for K-12 and post-secondary educators–particularly in the areas of online collaboration and applications. Schools exist in a social context that is rapidly changing to adapt to new methods of communication and productivity. How should schools educate their students for this evolving context?

Beloit College Mindset List
It’s always a good idea to get a demographic handle on the students you are working with. Beloit’s annual Mindset List is an amusing but thoughtful glimpse at the realities of our students’ lives. Definitely worth a bookmark.


June 18, 2007 · Posted in Personal, Teaching 2.0 · Comment 

I have been using my blog space lately to make some important points about many aspects of ubiquitous connectivity–the efficacy of living and working in a connected environment, the need to recognize and utilize students’ need for connectivity in our classes, and the immense benefits of having information available when you need it, among others. I believe that understanding the nature of Web 2.0 connectivity in our teaching and learning activities is critical for success with out students.

However, I’m using today’s entry to remind myself that being disconnected is also important. The eight-day lag in entries is due to a trip that my wife and two sons took through Alaska to the Yukon Territories and British Columbia (CN) and finally to Haines, Alaska–a trip total of over 1500 miles. The purpose was to support my sons’ relay team in the Kluane Chilkat International Bike Relay, a 148 mile race from Haines Junction, YT to Haines, Alaska. <brag> They each rode stellar 40 mile legs.</brag> We took a couple of extra days to take some hikes in YT and explore the area–a highly recommended activity even if you live in Alaska and are used to spectacular scenery, bears, lakes, mountains, and mosquitoes. (It’s not all sweetness and light here.)

We didn’t take our laptops. We took our cell phones for emergencies, although they were never turned on. The boys had their iPods, but their use was self-regulated to car time. There were a few times during our trip that we missed our technology–several times we noted that we needed to Google this or look up that on WikiPedia when we got back home, and when I realized I needed a new tarp I had the urge to see what new tarp designs were out there–but for the most part having no connectivity was not even on the radar. We talked, we set up camps, we hiked, and we had an absolutely great time sleeping in tents and cooking on our camp stove. We did hit the computers when we reached home to catch up on e-mail, check the news (nothing good there), and get in a bit of WOW time. But the un-connected time was great.

In my college classes, when we discuss one-to-one laptop classrooms or other ubiquitous computing models, someone inevitably brings up the fear that students will miss having books, or needing to go to the library, or being able to write with a pencil. I have to remind them that using technology is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Using laptops in a classroom does not mean that you throw the books away. Having Google at your fingertips does not mean that you ignore the resources of the library. Composing on a computer does not mean–well, okay, I can’t write with pencil and paper anymore, but I write more and write better with my laptop. Why go backwards?

Similarly, being connected doesn’t mean that you give up your real life for your virtual life on-line. Un-connecting is a healthy thing.

Here are a few photos from the trip.

Created with Paul’s flickrSLiDR.

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