Thursday, May 29, 2014

For Those Who Are Leaving (...And the Ones Left Behind)

To Those Who Are Leaving:

As each school year draws to a close, teachers, students, and parents inevitably begin to reflect on all that has transpired and what the future may bring. I personally find this time bittersweet; some students whom I've known for 3 or 4 years (or longer!) will be leaving, most never to return. A few will undoubtedly come to visit in the next few years, but the relationship will have morphed. It will no longer be a didactic and dialectic conversation, the immediate give and take of brain cells firing in the here and now, but one of nostalgia, of ossified memories and what-ifs.

The sweet part, of course, is watching your seedlings flourish into autonomous agents in the world. I love having the conversations 1, 2, 3 years out, when my former students expound on their newfound passions, relationships, and experiences. They come into their own and usually become the people I knew they could become.

That said, I don't think I could summarize all the advice I have for outgoing seniors. And to be honest, the most important things in life must be experienced to be understood. Only a few are able to neatly bundle up their words and deliver them in a neat package: I suggest you read (or find Youtube clips) of these thought provoking commencement addresses. These are the ideas that should not be saved for an annual ritual, but should be reflected upon regularly.

So, departing students, let me close with some clichés. YOLO and Carpe Diem. This does NOT mean do stupid things to shorten your lifespan; in fact, this is an exhortation to be as Epictetus and not sweat the small stuff while taking control of your own actions. This is an exhortation to live with authenticity as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche would recommend. Do NOT let life pass you by, or you will pass by life. Take the bull by the horns and run.

To Those Left Behind:

We aren't done yet! Get back to work!

Do you wish you could leave? Do you hate coming to school? Have you packed up the cupboards of your mind and your synapses are singing sayonara? Well, my love may be unconditional, but it doesn't mean it isn't taxing for me to put up with you giving up.

Giving up and checking out are cop-outs. It is a way to flee responsibility and hide from that which is difficult. There is no pause button on life; you cannot flee the inevitability of moving out, finding a job, being a citizen of the world. Those things will happen to you whether you want them to or not. So don't flee it. Embrace it.

The more you know, the more power you have. The more power you have, the more you can affect change. If you don't like how school or society works, you have to change it. No one else can because they aren't you and haven't felt it in your exact way. You are the one affected, so you must be the agent of change.

But before I go off into too many platitudes, let's bring it back to the here and now. Why should you finish that homework assigned last night? Why should you do that assignment in class? Here's a secret: it isn't for you to learn that tidbit of information.

The real reason we teachers want you to do work (from the mundane to the transformative) is to empower you to empower yourself. If you can "suffer through it" then you can "rise above it." Life is about outlook. If your approach to adversity is defeat, anger, pity or apathy, then you will be defeated, angry, pitiful, and apathetic your whole life. But if you can do the unsavory tasks (whether homework, scrubbing dishes, or reading through this whole diatribe) without those negative qualities, you may realize that you can handle anything thrown at you, and that makes you powerful. And, because it bears repeating, power gives you the leverage to change the world. You can change those boring, miserable, and unsavory tasks. You can rise above them.

So yes, I know it's nice outside and you want to go to the beach. I know it's so much easier to put in your earbuds and tune out the world. I know it's convenient to write that note to get out early, or come in late. And believe me, we teachers feel that same siren's call sometimes. But together we must power through it. It may be the end of the school year, but that is an arbitrary construct. There will always be something else around the corner. So we should heed Larry's advice.

Let's git r done.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Valentine's Day Message to my Students

To my students - I love you.

To the loud ones: I love the way you inject humor and feeling into a class. I love the way you aren't afraid to say what's on your mind (though I do sometimes rue when and how you say it.)

To the quiet ones: I love the way you can be tacitly self-confident. I love the way you can draw or write or express your infinite wisdom and smile to yourself as you take in the world. I only wish you could share it more with others.

To the unsure ones: I love the way you puzzle out difficult problems. I love the way you don't give up, even when you feel like a ship lost at sea. I only wish you could take strength in your struggle instead of despair; through adversity come solutions.

To the aloof ones: I wish you understood that I love you. You are not an island, and neither am I. We can solve problems together if you and I put in the time together. It is never too late to change the approach, and it will only work if we have the conversation.

To the "smart" and "dumb" ones: I hate those labels, but I love when you overcome them. If you think you know it all, you haven't tried hard enough. If you think you know nothing, you are taking yourself for granted. Each person has a unique talent, and sometimes it can be hard to understand what that is in yourself. Never stop trying because of a label.

To the leaders: I love the way you motivate and inspire others. I love the way you listen to others' problems and try to find solutions. I only wish that every person could realize there is a little bit of leadership in themselves, too.

To the thinkers: I love the way you take longer to answer a question because you are thinking over all the ramifications and possibilities. I love the way the world is not black and white for you, but a myriad shades of gray. I only wish you could spread your patience to others.

To everyone: I love you because you inspire, create laughter, heartbreak, wisdom, perspective, innovation, and more. You make teaching exciting, challenging, demanding, rewarding, and completely awesome. If you are feeling alone today, don't. I love you.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thinking about Thinking, or "Why Memorization is not the Boogeyman"

I have been going to a lot of conferences recently. I even wrote about those experiences on another blog to which I contribute, CANEns. The short of it is that I think conferences are valuable not only for the "hardware" (i.e. the tangible materials and resources I can take from it) but also the "software" (i.e. the meaningful conversations that occur and challenge my preconceived notions.)

Discussion surrounding the ideas of SAMR, Blooms, and others started me thinking. The first thought was: Wow, we humans sure like to compartmentalize and categorize the perceptible world. The second was: Hmm, why are so many of these charts hierarchical or linear? I started thinking about how students learn now, how I learned when I was "in school," and how people 100, 200, or 2000 years learned before us. I considered the many "great thinkers" of the history books; Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero, DesCartes, Ben Franklin (as just a fraction of the tip of the iceberg.) We want our students to be great thinkers. How did they do it?

They didn't have the technology we have. Communication was limited in many cases (especially before the printing press.) Where would Ben Franklin be on the Bloom's chart? What about the SAMR? Did these great thinkers create and produce in their equivalent to school? We know they created because we have their books, essays, and inventions; but did this happen early in their learning or later in life? What did they do in school?

I think there was a lot of memorization. There was translation, and reading. There was a great deal of order, and perhaps teaching via models (i.e. read the works of great authors who have come before and memorize how they wrote. Now practice that model and emulate it.) These practices sound like the bottom parts of the SAMR and Blooms models. They sound so "last century." (Ha, well... they are!) But it makes me wonder.

What is the underlying value of that practice? We use the word "rigor" today to try to explain this phenomenon. Perhaps a better term is perseverance, combined with structure and motivation. A key difference between "then" and "now" is that those who went to school had wealth, or power, or means, and it was optional. They were also guaranteed results from this schooling. Today schooling is more or less mandatory, and there are no guaranteed results (read: jobs.)

Did rote learning create a Ben Franklin? I think it did. But why? And why won't that work today? Is it partly sampling bias (after all, we only know of the successes of history - for every Ben Franklin, how many were failures?) We see students' eyes glaze over when we try to do too much rote memorization. We advocate for more synthesis, more analysis, more creation. And yet, even given these freedoms, sometimes students' eyes glaze over. What gives?

I think it comes back to motivation. If Ben Franklin sat up at night and said to himself, "I want to invent awesome stuff," what was he willing to sacrifice for that goal? Was he inventing stuff when he was 10 or did he resign himself to the fact that he needed to practice and do some rote tasks? Is creation the end of a process or is it immediately available?

If this post seems scattered, it is. I can't really formulate my thoughts around an essential question. But I see that the simple tools of yesteryear, that created great thinkers, are scoffed at and almost vilified today. And I see kids today who have tools that are, in a word, magic, take them for granted and pass them off after 2 minutes. The tools have become disconnected from the learning process.

If memorization is a piece of the puzzle that leads to creation, then it is essential. If it stymies creation, it must be discarded. Perhaps the SAMR and Blooms models are not so black and white; the context of the learning matters more than the mode to get there. Creation without perseverance, gumption, drive, spirit, verve, rigor - or whatever you want to call it - is empty and will fall flat, and any "low level" skills will seem like busywork and void of meaning. Yet if you add that drive back to the equation, then the low level skills are building blocks to creation; indeed, without those building blocks, creation (rich, meaningful, and deep) is not possible.

I think we need to be careful when we look at these charts. Learning is not linear, and it is not easily explained through graphic organizers. In our pursuit of new and better ways to teach, we cannot forget that the low level skills are essential pieces of the puzzle. We should not forgo the nails when we dream of our castles in the sky.

I'm curious about your perspective. Leave comments below or Tweet me @brevkin.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Pondering the Past

I recently completed another Coursera course entitled "Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets" featuring Sue Alcock and a bevy of her graduate students, production crew, other archaeologists, and many other helpers. It was a wonderful experience because it really showed the potential of MOOCs and showcased how even the humanities can be broken down into manageable units with interactive elements. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a large swath of the MOOC landscape seems to be relegated to the hard sciences, computer programming, and math. My hope is that the dearth of humanities courses on MOOC websites is due to a lack of marketing rather than a fear from humanities instructors that the mission and execution of MOOCs is incompatible with the teaching and learning of said humanities. A well executed humanities MOOC such as ADSL foments the same curiosity, interrogation, discussion, deep thinking, and comparative analysis that any great teacher in a classroom could ever hope to foster.

We talked a lot about context. Context gives meaning to things; a piece of pottery found in isolation means nothing, but with its surroundings it gains new meaning. I think this idea of context is important in our increasingly fragmented and decontextualized world. Standardized tests increasingly demand mastery of diverse scintillae of facts; teachers are increasingly told to teach more with less time, so that a triage of information occurs where only those facts most essential for the test are saved and anything else is left on the cutting floor. Marketers ask us to choose product A or B without explaining why it matters in the first place. All around us, our collective forest is disappearing and, not only do we not see the trees, we only see the single leaf that someone else told us was important.

People tend to look forward for improvement and innovation. Yet this is only half of the work. Without investigating the past, how and why do we improve and innovate? From what insufficient past must we create a more sufficient future? As George Santayana has written:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Context allows us to progress. It is my hope that, as we push forward into the brave new world of tech integration, streamlined processes, big data, and super-specialized knowledge, we don't lose sight of the arc of history. Though the MOOC I took was essentially a beginner's guide to archaeology, it has reinvigorated in me, and I hope in many others, the larger import of context in our daily lives.