Saturday, April 25, 2009

Passion is a Two Way Street

I've been reading a few blogs lately that have been bringing up the value and necessity for teaching with passion. I'd suggest Jarrod Lamshed's most recent blog Finding the Passion as one of the better examples. I realized that after teaching for thirty years, I'm still jumping out of bed a 4:45 AM, even on cold, gray rainy days when my limbic system is yelling "what are you doing?", ready to get going. This caused me to introspectfully examine the many things I have learned about what works when teaching and what is still providing the kindling that keeps that fire in my belly going.

I have taught the same biology class for three decades now, at different levels perhaps, but always the same content. Every day, usually two days in a row because of alternate day block scheduling, it's the exact same lesson, and yet I still find the gusto for that last class that I had for the 1st. The adrenaline still kicks in, and I rarely get that "Oh my God, here we go again" feeling that quenches my inner flame. Yes, at the end of the day I am spent, I collapse in my office chair with a big heavy sigh, and I still relish the thought of coming back for more. I love my summer breaks, but I get antsy and ready for more before August even starts. After reading Jarrod's latest writings I asked myself, what is this all about, and can I share this with others?

Learning is all about establishing neural pathways that our students can call up and use when they need to. These pathways are often fleeting, we start classes & conference with jokes that are rarely remembered. The joke makes a connection, but only a superficial one. The lessons that last have connections at a deeper, visceral level. Our minds make connections that are strongest when bonded with an emotion. Strong visual images and heart-felt stories from our past make much deeper and better-remembered connections. But even with these amygdala-fused bonds between a lesson and an emotion, true learning creates great amounts of cognitive dissonance. This dissonance arises when what we have constructed in our minds is rebuilt, even torn down completely, to make room for new constructs. Cognitive dissonance is difficult, it causes us to doubt ourselves, and creates anxiety and confusion and frustration. It creates roadblocks to accomplishing our learning goals. Even worse, all this learning is not gradual. Instead of slowly building each day, it's punctuated; coming in sudden rushes as the scrambled pieces of our shattered constructs suddenly jig saw back into a new pattern.

So how do we get students and teachers to learn new things when it is so, so difficult? How do get our students to do this when they lack the experience that helps them realize how vital learning new things are? How do we get teachers to learn something new after a lifetime of education has probably jaded them and made them weary? Where will the energy for all this come from? Here's where passion links in. It's the teacher instructing the lesson that links the new concept to an emotion deep within us. Combine that with the response back to that teacher who has their own visceral connection, and we all get through that tough time of the student's frustrated attempts to grasp a new concept, and to the teaching of these new ideas to frustrated students as well. We then have a strong, deep pathway in our brains that will get us through the struggle that leads to that punctuated and energized "ah-hah" moment. By connecting the lesson with an emotion, neural pathways are made that run deep for both the teacher and the student, and thus we generate the desire to continue on for teaching and for learning. This is the energy that lights us up, that drives us to learn the new, difficult things, despite the anxiety that it incurs. These deep visceral bonds provides us all with the mental scaffolding that will stand us up as what lies beneath is reshaped, reconstructed and reborn.

My latest realization is that the energy I get for all of this is not only from within. Yes, I am passionate about science and its past and its possibilities. I draw on this many times as I do my lessons, but it is not enough to sustain me through a long week, a longer quarter and a seemingly endless school year. I get this energy from my students. As I help them make visceral connections to their own lives and my teachings, I make those same connections within myself. Leonard said
in his afforementioned blog, "I realise that we have a crowded curriculum and I am not saying that this is something we need to find extra time for." Well, I am saying that we must find the time, and that this is a vital part of any curriculum. If you don't find the time for each of your students to conect their passion with yours, then you will never accomplish conveying the rest of that crowded curriculum. You may cover it, you may go through all the lectures and all the labs, but your students won't be learning it. As the year grinds on your students will founder and become restless and you will feel drained as the energy of true learning is first dampened and then finally diassappears.

I can hear you saying, "He must be joking, I have 180 students and standards to teach to each one. I have no time for this." Well, it's not a joke, it is a mission. It's not one you have to complete the first week or the first month. In fact, it's infectious. As you slowly find and connect your fire with some of your students, it spreads to those who you haven't yet conversed with. They will talk with other students who will see the connections being made and they will start to ignite as well. If you are vitalized and your students are burning within, then there will be the desire to do true learning; to withstand the confusion and frustration of a changing construct. They will have that mental scaffolding in place, built by your taking the time to help them form it. It a far cry from the alternative where we lecture on through the year and the students slowly tune us out, conversing and texting to others about what they do feel passionate about. Sure, you may not have time for all this "touchy-feely" stuff, and your students will reciprocate and probably not make the time for you.

And yes,
they will come up to you and talk with you at the end of class about what their lives are about and what is important to them. When this happens there are two choices any teacher can make. Wait with impatience, hoping the conversation ends soon so you can go on to that seemingly all-important preparation for the next class; smile and nod and say "Uh huh, uh huh," hoping this kid's story ends quickly. Or you can realize what is truly important and seize that moment; see what your student is passionate about and create the two way path that will nuture you both. You will be vitalized, your students will be connected and your next class will benefit as well. Passion is a two way street, and we must take the time to bridge every gap between what we teach and what the students are learning with emotion. Emotion is not a weakness, it's is not for wishy/washy teachers, as Sean Nash (The Synapse is his wonderful Ning site) shared with me in a recent Twittering. We must teach with passion and reap the passionate energy that is generated by our students. I hope you all can go on to teach for 30 years, I know I'm still looking forward to my next decade.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Two strategies to unblock internet in schools

In blog after blog, post after post, tweet after retweet, I read over and over that Web 2.o is great, but teachers don't have access. That I really could use Youtube in my class,that I found great stuff.... but it's blocked by my district. Site after site on the internet, in school after school, is banned or blocked. Teachers complain, as we are wont to do, but with some effort we can all actually do something about this. We need to

1) Teach appropriate use in every class with each of our students and

2) Let parents know that we are using tech appropriately in every student's class.

1) Why are internet sites blocked and banned? These sites are banned and blocked because parents demand it, and school board policy, in a typical knee jerk response, makes it policy. Internet blocking policy is now an issue that mostly rests between between School Administration and Tech Administration, and teachers are simply not in this loop. But if we get in the loop, then this small block/ban circle widens to encompass us all in a comprehensive policy for using the web.

How many of us actually take the time to form an appropriate use policy? How many of us spend a few days discussing what is appropriate use with our students? Maybe we need to ask ourselves if we just want to complain about this and remain powerless, or if we want to empower ourselves and our students with well thought out policies? This is not rocket science or brain surgery... but it is time consuming. I personally take the time, often over a few days, with each class to discuss this issue. We talk about how streaming video & song downloads at school eat up internet capacity, what sites are appropriate and what sites are certainly not for use at school. Teachers, ask yourselves are you doing this, and if not why? Take action, teach appropriate use to your students, and involve them in that discussion.

2) Communication to parents about the policies for appropriate use of the internet developed in classrooms is the only way to avoid ban/block policies by school boards. Most parents and school boards want what is best for all kids, which is a safe and a sane environment when the web is used. It's usually the parents who worry about the evils of internet use, and rightfully so. Yet how often are parents made aware that teachers have an appropriate use policy for technology? Not often, and that's because there rarely is one. These policies must be formed, discussed with students and then shared with parents. We need to let parents know we are on their side. We need to constantly restate that message to parents. We need to let them be able to watch a web cam in a classroom like William Chamberlain's which will lessen their fears and invite them to watch us teach and demonstrate appropriate use.

I keep being told by fellow teachers who twitter and blog that I am preaching to the choir, and perhaps so with blogs like this one. But I believe it is now time for action, not words. Now is the time for teachers to go out and talk to the parents, to communicate that we do teach appropriate use, that we do dialogue with students about those policies, that there are classrooms and libraries that are open to parent scrutiny and that students do lose privileges when these policies are violated. If we teach appropriate use to our students and communicate this with parents then the internet will open to us all like a rose. It's time for the choir to start singing.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Abraham Maslow Now More Than Ever

As we head into a digital age where distance shrinks, information explodes and people sit isolated from one another in front of computers & hand held devices, we must remember that the human factor must be constantly revisited. Abraham Maslow, in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation , wrote about the necessity of safety, love & belonging and self esteem as solid bases for learning. We assume our digital natives are fine with the technology we are hurling at them without checking the lower levels that support self actualization. We must check these lower levels now more than ever as human interaction becomes increasingly limited.

Do we check that our students are OK? I have seen teachers who keep upset students, angry students, crying students in their classes, refusing to let them to leave. Will these students learn anything, except to despise the teacher who does not recognize their needs? What will other students in that class think of this and of you, will they learn as well? I hear teachers yelling at students in front of their class, probably the most embarrassing thing you can do to a student. Will this improve their behavior, or just make you feel better? With each and every incident like this we isolate our students and make them feel unwanted. Unwanted students are unmotivated students.

How often do we let the power of our position outweigh the basic needs of out students? How many Kings & Queens of Kidneys are out there, giving two bathroom passes for the year to each student? I find this an abhorrent abuse of power. These people quickly reply. "well, they could of went before class...", but refuse to see the reality of diet soda's effects on the kidneys after 30 minutes. What is going on here? Do we respect our students and treat them as adults or do we act as the Barons of the Bathroom? If we don't constantly observe our students and check in with them, then respect is lip service and we project to them that we really just don't care.

When a student refuses to do work, do we take this as a personal affront? I would hope not, because other things are at work and we are taking ourselves way to seriously. If we take this personally, we become fools in the student's eyes and become one more adult that just doesn't get it. Perhaps the student is exercising the only power they have over their parents, the power to refuse to do work. Maybe they just had a fight with a loved one, or got fired from a job, or demoted off of a sports team... how do we know if we do not ask. Even if they don't answer, the fact that you asked makes them respect you more, because you are actually seeing them. How many teachers would not even notice if all their students suddenly transformed into shoes? I think this number is alarmingly large.

For every student we have we must ask ourselves: Is the student safe? Is the student feeling friendship and love from family? Do they have your respect? If they don't then they will absolutely not be in a place to learn in your classroom, despite all the Skype and IWB and Prezzi and Flips and other tech you pile on. Students feel dehumanized by schools because most teachers only look at their highest level, and rarely touch on the lower ones. But you might say"we have an interventionist or a psychologist for that.." Sure, you might have an interventionist, who is most definitely overwhelmed because they are the only ones asking these questions. We must all intervene, we must all show our students they are not just "walking grades" in cold hallways where no one seems to care. Reflect on how you look at your students, how you treat them, how you react to them. Now more than ever before, our students yearn to be truly seen by their teachers, they need us to help and nurture them, and we become more whole in the process as well.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Do Content Kings Need to Abdicate?

Content has been King in education for millennia. Education has a long and storied past, going back to the Greek schools of thought of Empedocles, Democitus and many more. These ancient padagouges were the vessels of knowlegde, dispersing thier contents as if it was water to their parched students. They set the model in stone, and it has laid lithified ever since.

Teachers ever since have followed the grand tradition, spending years learning their content from other professors, each being granted scholarship and license by colleges and universities in the great Greek tradition. You've seen these teachers, you know these teachers, you have glimpsed their diplomas hanging on office walls. They are the Content Kings. They fill their classes with notes, power points, handouts and lecture, lecture, lecture. All filled with the countless items of content they learned and now disperse from on high. Their students struggle to transcribe the notes, read the suggested texts and give the teacher's content back to them during exams, papers and oral presentation.

This is how it was always done, but is it how is should continue to be? Information was always been hard to come by. It had to be gleaned from dusty library stacks and countless journal publishings. These Content Kings spent a large part of their lives learning their disciplines and are proud of that fact, one might even say haughty. Content is their realm, and these educators are the Royal Dispersers of Knowledge.

Yet the playing field of information has changed. Content is doubling at rates never conceived of. Information has left the libraries and is now at the fingertips of anyone with a modem. There is so much content that no one can be an expert in their field; only hoping perhaps, to learn one small parcel of knowledge in a vast compendium of exponentially increasing information. The situation upon us now shows that we can lo longer deliver all the content. I daily see teachers who are overwhelmed and now must resort to picking and choosing what they cover in depth and what they simply introduce and move on.

What I learned 30 years ago as biological content may serve well as a base of knowledge. Yet without my constant vigilance to take in the daily discoveries in my own fields, the content that I learned so long ago would be insufficient to teach an AP biology class today. Still, we treat our information as sacrosanct and the classroom where we hold forth. Is this the model for education of today, of the future? I say it is time for Content Kings to abdicate their thrones.

I can bring up on the internet for my students experts in my fields with knowledge that far surpasses mine, and do so regularly. I have my students, individually and as collaborative groups, go out and gather information and present it, rather than simply regurgitate of my own words. It is an old and hackneyed expression to be the "sage on the stage," yet the phrase persists because it ring true. It is time to give up the royal crown of knowledge and to instruct our students in ways that allow them to teach themselves. The world can easily be brought into the classroom, yet these Kings remain isolated in their no longer quite ivory towers. What are we doing to our students when we use an antiquated model that is thousands of years old and has little to do with garnering an education these days?

Teachers must step down from the lectern and turn to the world. It has never been easier to find data, to collaborate with other students and to present in all in media unheard of just 30 years ago. In this brave new world of exploding content the educator's task has changed. We must show our students where the data is, that data must be harrowed into information, that information must be processed to become knowledge and that knowledge must be applied to become wisdom. This is the modern role of educators everywhere. Yes content is assigned to us by boards and by AP and by IB and their likes, but we must search it out together. Students and teachers join in on the content through true teamwork; no longer a feudal system but a system fueled by collaboration. King Content is dead, all hail the new King Collaboration.