Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hanging Out

"Why don't you go outside and get some friends together to play a game of soccer?" I say to my then 7-year-old, back in 1999. "Who will decide teams and who will be the ref?" she asked in a perturbed and mystified tone. Needless to say, no soccer game took place.

As a child? I was a tomboy. I was an athlete. So much of my "character"—determination, discipline and dedication—comes from my childhood experiences in athletics. My students typically assume I am referring to formal sports teams, like park district or school sponsored programs. Programs where an adult was facilitating all events, from start to finish. Yes, I had coaches. And I loved them and learned from them. But I fondly recall the majority of my childhood evenings being occupied by pick-up basketball or softball games, tag, olly olly oxen free, and just general kid craziness in our back yards. When it was time for bed, my mom would ring the bell to signal the end of the evening. Yes, a bell. We determined a winner and/or settled our differences, and then planned the next get-together.

No, I don't consider myself ancient. I'm only in my 40s, and I still LOVE basketball, working out and running. So as a parent, I am bewildered by how foreign the idea of "pick-up games" is to my kids, which has led me to a more general area of concern. My daughters' days are so scheduled, the idea of simply "hanging out" with friends is somewhat frightening to them. The "down time" they have with their own thoughts and the impromptu interactions with peers is far too scarce. And I have always thought that the institution of education and the underlying political/commercial motives continue to cause our children harm, in so many ways. (A telling poem by Clydia Forehand is worth a read.)

danah boyd has shed light on at least one aspect of why shutting down, controlling and/or "facilitating-to-death" our kids' free time might legitimately stunt their growth in terms of developing social skills. She provides an intriguing perspective in her article Sociality is Learning. Our kids are trying desperately to take back their free time. And they're doing so right in front of our eyes. It's not so much rebellious behavior, but a personal necessity. The uncertainty and awkwardness that we navigated during our adolescence might be (partially) achieved through social media.

Certainly, I have many parental concerns regarding social media—the need for interpersonal communication, the detriments of multitasking, the art of managing time, etc. But perhaps we need to embrace the idea of teaching our children how to navigate this new world. Perhaps we need to "unlearn and relearn" how to teach and fine-tune social interactions. Certainly, as an educator and parent of both a teen and a tween, I have some brainstorming and investigating to do.

As a parent, are you teaching your children the benefits of social media? Are you discussing etiquette? As a parent and/or educator, how might we embrace this world so that children don't feel we're trying to "structure" their "unstructured" social media time? How do we become comfortable with this? Still formulating my questions...Would love to hear your thoughts/questions as well.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Edublog Awards

My nominations for the 2009 Edublog Awards are as follows:

1. Best teacher blog: An American Studies, by Spiro Bolos and John O'Connor

2. Best educational tech support blog: New Trier Curricular Technology, by Spiro Bolos

3. Best individual blog: Metanoia, by Ryan Bretag


Friday, November 20, 2009

Education's Role in Fighting Media Disinformation...?

“The increasingly blatant nature of the nonsense uttered with impunity in public discourse is chilling. Our democratic society is imperiled as much by this as any other single threat, regardless of whether the origins of the nonsense are religious fanaticism, simple ignorance or personal gain.”

This quote caught my eye this morning while perusing my unread RSS feeds. My first thought was, "Exactly! This has gotten completely out of hand. I can't STAND to read or hear the news anymore." I finished reading the Scientific American article, War is Peace: Can Science Fight Media Disinformation? I was hoping to gain some clarity as to how I might prevent myself, my colleagues, my children, my friends and my students from getting hypnotized by media disinformation.

And then it hit me. "Wait. This article in and of itself can be an example of media disinformation, at least in certain areas!" It was actually fun for me to recognize this so quickly. (As I age, I can't tell if I'm getting wiser or just more cynical!) An article in Scientific American would likely provide any reader the comfort of being reliable, being accurate, being "true." After all, it is science, right?

The article contains much to ponder. For instance, the author implies that perhaps free and open access to information, through the internet and 24-hour news programs, is bad. I suppose there might be a point where I would agree, but those reasons would be outside the scope of this post. Instead, I find it very important to allow free access to ideas, even the ideas I personally believe to be false, hypocritical, and/or idiotic. And I, too, have always been curious as to how people get drawn into a seemingly simplistic debate, particularly one rooted in drama rather than evidence. But the one question that really got my reflective juices flowing was, "What makes people so susceptible to nonsense in public discourse?"

And therein lies the key, at least for me. "What makes people..."

If we really want to determine how our life-positions (for me...parent, wife, teacher, friend) can help nurture more intelligent discourse, the answer is not to shut down information. It is rather in providing an honest perspective on the information being considered. And this is challenging. Not only should we ask the "who, what, when, where, how, and why." We must also consider,
"Why do I want to (or not want to) believe, agree, disagree, etc.? From where am I drawing this desire to jump on board (or argue against) a particular stance?"

Students come to our classroom with life experiences. Parents bring their own historical perspective to every conversation with their children. And teachers are PEOPLE. Whether subconsciously or self-aware, we see what we see, feel what we feel, believe what we believe for a reason.

We must be up front about our "life curriculum," especially to ourselves, if we want to have meaningful, constructive, intelligent dialogue. For instance, to make the assumption that an educator, regardless of grade or subject matter, can stand up in front of her class and just "present the facts," or that a parent can be "completely objective" with her child's struggles, is ridiculous. And this mentality is the root of the problem causing the posed craziness in the original question above.

So what can we do? Be honest. Teach one another how to scrutinize information through multiple lenses. Maintain an open-mind, particularly when examining the why and how behind your thinking. Remain open to the idea that some of the most foundational thoughts you have are open for discussion. Your life curriculum is the basis for every interaction you have, as it is for all those whose paths you cross. It is in being aware of this "data" that true growth can begin.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More Reflections

"Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day," one of my colleagues quotes a Harvard University psychologist, Daniel Gilbert. "Tell me about it!" I retort. "Never used to bother me, but these days, I really wish I lived close to school! Where did you find the quote and what's the context?"

The article he quoted from is "Critical Mass," by Jonah Lehrer. (SEED, June 2009) It's worth the read, especially if you're like my husband and I. Driving. Driving. Driving. (Or taking the train...) And being worn down by the very thought. Honestly, I've developed a permanent back ache from sitting in my Civic all these years!

In truth, I'm finding myself in a very reflective mood these days. And there are times when the reflection I "see" is a surprise to me. It's both exciting and unsettling, but the beginning to all honest growth always is, I suppose. One thing that has been on my mind is how badly I wish I could take back all the lost minutes of my life that have been spent in a car commuting to and from work over the past fifteen years. But of course, hindsight is 20/20...

Twelve years ago, when my husband and I purchased our home, we did so for more than just the ridiculous size "bang for the buck" we could get; we were looking at schools, affordability, safety, and mostly location. At the time, it was necessary to be close to my parents-in-law; they were both needing extra support for health reasons. Unfortunately, our plan was short-sighted. Don't get me wrong. I have incredibly fond memories of family gatherings, comfortable conversations and warm connections taking place in our home. I also have a treasured peace of mind being a full-time working mom. I've always felt the reassurance that my daughters were safe and our neighbors were really looking out for them. (And of course, we have the best neighbors in the world right next door to us! I wouldn't give that up for anything!)

But, the time I've lost driving has really weighed on my mind these days. Perhaps that's because my girls are older. Not existing in two different worlds would be a welcomed new peace of mind for me. So why did we stay once the parents-in-law no longer needed us? A host of reasons. But none worth mentioning seem to surface at the moment!

"A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office."

Hmmm...Anyone have a cheap helicopter for sale?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Midterm Reflection

Ten days into the 1999-2000 school year, a young man walked into my classroom with administrative paperwork documenting that he was a new addition to Glenbrook North High School and my chemistry class. I introduced myself, as did he. I swiftly recorded the information into my gradebook and announced to the class, “Everyone please welcome Isaac to our chemistry community. He is a new student at GBN, so we want to make sure we make him feel welcome and catch him up with our investigations up to this point!”

The class welcomed Isaac with smiles and a few handshakes. One student pointed to an empty desk and Isaac took a seat. I then moved quickly into the day’s activity. “Okay, I need everyone to move desks so that you each have a partner and you’re sitting back-to-back. Those of you facing south, take out a sheet of paper and pencil. Those of you facing north, I’m going to give you a picture of a sketched figure. You are to describe this figure to your partner in a manner that will allow him/her to draw it. You cannot look at each other. And only the person with the figure can speak. You have 5 minutes. Go!”

As the activity progressed, I noticed that Isaac was not drawing and appeared quite confused. I immediately intervened so that his first introduction to my class would not be traumatic. I soon realized, with the help of another student, Howard, that Isaac spoke very little English, and in fact had just arrived in the United States the night before! So I stopped the activity, asked Isaac up front and announced, “Okay, change of plans everyone. You all are now going to listen to Isaac describe this new figure to you. Draw it as best you can.” I told Howard to tell Isaac to describe it in his native language, Korean. Isaac looked at me confused. I reiterated, “In Korean.” He smiled and began speaking in what I can only interpret as a confident and happy tone, and it sounded swift, too!

“Okay! Time’s up! Hold up your images!” The class smiled and held them up, with every card being blank except three students, who, of course, all spoke Korean. I smiled and said, “Great job, Isaac! From the looks of these three students’ drawings, you gave incredibly good directions!” To the rest of the class I said, “Now we have a better idea of how Isaac feels when we talk to one another during our classroom activities. Let’s make sure we remember that and do whatever we can to stay together, okay?” I then had them journal their thoughts about the activity and strategize ways to work together. It is one of the most potent memories I have with students really absorbing the meaning of empathy. To this day, Isaac writes me to tell me it was an incredibly positive turning point in his GBN experiences and always looked forward to coming to class.

When Dr. Ming Fang He came to speak to my curriculum class, I immediately reflected on this memory. The sense of “in-betweenness” she spoke of is something I do encounter with many of my students in my district. We have a significant Asian population, a large percentage of whom have been in the country less than six months or are first generation. Isaac certainly taught me a great deal about this idea of "in-betweenness" as I read his journal reflections. I learned about his background, culture, home life v. school life, responsibilities, transitions, hurdles, successes, etc. The cross-cultural lives highlighted in Dr. Fang He’s narrative research was quite informative and filled in more of the academic details needed to aid me in my instructional practice.

As I read her stories and heard her speak, I also made an unexpected mental leap with the information. I, too, am living a life of “in-betweenness” right now. I certainly would never equate these feelings with those of Isaac or any of Dr. Fang He’s subjects. However, the parallel idea is quite striking, and a bit unnerving. I am someone who likes to look at the big picture and then figure out the details later, either as a means for building something or deconstructing something. So here are my categories of “in-betweenness.”

Reward vs. Anxiety
• I suppose my thoughts first traverse through superficial waters. I feel quite lucky that I happened upon this program and that I was given the advice to take this course first. I am so glad I did. I realize how much is out there and look forward to digesting more. Dewey, Schwab, van Manen, Noddings, Chomsky, Schultz, Schubert, Kohn, Pollan, Fang He, etc. have all passed through my hands this semester and I find my head spinning. How will I synthesize, process and harness these ideas in both a practical and foundational manner? What will it look like? What will it feel like?
• At the same time, I am incredibly anxious. Will we have the finances to allow me to continue? Will the remaining courses be this inspiring? Or has this been an act that will surely be impossible to follow? How will I ever get through all the readings I want to do since I need to continue to work full time for now?

Happiness vs. Depression
• I love being a student. I love listening to my classmates ask reflective questions on the readings. I love being a member of a community where people are passionate about the world of education and are open-minded to the idea of honestly investigating not only institutional curriculum, but also their own personal curriculum and how that influences what they do.
• I cannot believe I spent so many years directionless. I should’ve listened to my husband years ago and absorbed what he had to say. Had I done so, I would’ve broken free from the feeling of helplessness I felt the last few years. This feeling also took a toll on my family. It’s hard to be a part of the very institutional setting that actively makes poor choices for students and not feel suffocated. But I know it’s not impossible to break free and I should’ve found an avenue. Why did I think I had nothing to offer or feel so down? It is so unlike me…It’s frustrating that I waited this long to act. I’m incredibly upset with myself for not reflecting with eyes, heart and mind more open.

Enlightenment vs. Confusion
• Every Wednesday, I look forward to coming to class to hear stories, process readings, connect with peers and receive affirmation that my experiences and practice are on a good path. It has been such a treasure to have access to some of the most insightful, experienced, intelligent scholars in the area of curriculum. I look at my work through a new lens and see myself doing so much more…
• Every Wednesday, I come to class challenged by a personal or academic puzzle in the area of curriculum and leave with at least five more! I love being pushed into an area of intellectual discomfort and working my way through it by experimenting in class and/or talking with family, friends, classmates and colleagues. It’s invigorating! It’s the foundation for true growth.

Presently, my sense of “in-betweenness” permeates my daily life. I oscillate between illuminating and demanding emotions every moment these days. Suffice it to say, I’m feeling alive and inspired to unfold the next phase of my educational journey.