Category Archives: Paradigm Shifts

Being Free Now

When the same message arrives from two different women with pretty different world views within a few minutes of each other, it is meant to be shared, I think.

In her Sunday sermon shared via her subscriber newsletter, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us of Doubting Thomas who questioned the rebirth of Jesus until he saw where the nails had been driven into his hands. The story, Bolz-Weber says, isn’t about not doubting; instead it is about how Jesus reacted to the doubt. He did not judge or condemn Thomas. He showed him his hands and welcomed him as he was. Jesus doesn’t wait until we are perfect to love us.

Because notice that the text doesn’t say “and when they had repented of what complete asses they had been; and when they had perfected their faith and the purity of their doctrine; and when they had achieved the right condition of personal morality THEN they were worthy of receiving Jesus.”

Sebene Selassie practices Buddhism and is one of my favorite writers and meditation teachers. Her newsletter this week was titled We Are Free. She focuses on the present moment and reminds us that we are free. We are not getting free. We are free now.

She encourages us to take a hard look at the beliefs and structures we hold around all the facets of our lives. She and her husband rethought their living space and how beliefs about the functions of certain rooms were keeping them from really using the space for their own needs. She talked about getting off social media for a few weeks and postponing her newsletter, a decision that focused on her self care rather than the needs or expectations of others.

I really needed that. By that, I mean, the autonomous decision to take care of my damn self.

It is entirely up to me to remember this fundamental truth:  I am a grown-ass adult human, and I AM FREE.

Both women, coming from different belief systems and even world views, are preaching the same message. Stop waiting for perfection, for courage, for solutions. I’ll end with Sebene:

We will not get free once everything is resolved; we ARE free, right in this moment… And this one. If we allow ourselves to feel it.

PS I hope the colorful language these women use is not offensive. I have, as I have gotten older, also begun to get a little saltier so that may be why they both speak to me.

Fighting Old Battles

As a former teacher union member and ardent supporter of educators, I am watching the events in Wisconsin with great interest. I can’t claim great union support when I started my career; I really only joined the union because I was required to pay 80% of the fees anyway since I benefited from the contract negotiated by the union. I figured I’d chip in the extra 20% and get some of the perks like insurance and legal representation.

I saw the power of the union when, in my second year, my district went out on a six-week strike. Collective bargaining helped boost our salaries but also made sure that we were paid for all the extra work we did in support of the kids outside of our teaching responsibilities: coaching teams, advising clubs, and organizing community events. When I moved to a non-union state, I saw how the lack of the ability to negotiate meant that pay was low, extra work was uncompensated (and yet teachers still did it), and administrators made decisions without ever feeling the need to consult professional staff. Association membership was low as well, with some veterans afraid to join because of potential retaliation. I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would retaliate against an organization that had no power anyway.

With that perspective as well as recent frustration with the National Education Association who seems unwilling to stand up for the professionalism of and personal sacrifice made by public educators in this country, I find myself in a quandary. I could dive into the debate: that the Wisconsin governor is using fiscal crisis to break the back of the unions, something he said he was going to do when he ran. I could cheer on my fellow teachers who are trying to remind their neighbors that they are not some elite group that has gotten rich on the backs of their fellow tax payers, who struggled with the decision to abandon their classrooms to protest and yet in doing so provide a powerful example of citizenship to their students, and who will return to those classrooms to again spend their days with the next generation, doing a sometimes thankless job with the spirit and dedication that we have come to expect and yet take for granted.

But, there is another part of me that wonders if we are watching an old battle, based on foundations that are crumbling. More and more teachers can be found outside the usual systems. As schools discover money savings related to online learning, they may choose to do an end run around more traditional educators and create more adjunct-like relationships with their professional staff. Unionists will shake their heads since adjuncting is often seen as the sweat shop of the higher ed world, but adjuncts also have a great level of freedom in terms of their schedules and their responsibilities. I love adjuncting because it means I get to teach, putting my energy into developing courses and working with my students, rather than worrying about getting published or attending faculty meetings.

Do I miss the security of a full time job with its benefits? Not really…I’m willing to make the trade off of less security for more freedom. And, as I look across the landscape, I don’t see the same kind of ongoing security that drove my father’s generation to leave home each day in order to toil for another. Teachers are getting laid off, something that was unthinkable in the past; collective bargaining is under attack; and benefits are no longer a given when you get a job. And in the worst slap in the face of all, workers who devoted their lives to a company are losing their retirement and looking at the potential of a second career as a Wal Mart greeter.

Indeed, foundations are crumbling and the protesters on both sides in Wisconsin don’t seem to understand that they are arguing over the past rather than looking towards the future. If the educators do manage to save collective bargaining, it will be something of a Pyrrhic victory as states and localities find that they simply can’t meet the agreements that they have made.

Naming Things

I couldn’t find my phone this morning. Not plugged in. Not by my chair. So, I dialed the number and discovered it propped up against the kitchen window. I had used it yesterday for access to a recipe for Thanksgiving. There it was, spitting out the blues riffs that I had chosen for my home number, reminding me of the difficulty of names in this crossover, hybrid, multi-tasking age in which we live.

Earlier yesterday, that 3 X 4 inch piece of technology had been a camera, which I used to record the passing of the seasons as I walked the dog along the road to the winery.

This morning, I was looking for it because I needed it as a book to look up a quote to share with a friend.

Later, I will play sudoku and surf the web and listen to music.

Yet, we reduce it to one name: cell phone. And, we ban it, despite its potential to provide access to all the tools of education from textbooks to videos to pens. Because we can’t control it and schools have a responsibility to keep kids safe and we’ve seen plenty of examples where they’ve gotten in real trouble having unfettered access to the world. But there are also plenty of examples where grown ups haven’t done such a good job either. It’s THE media literacy issue that we need to discuss: consumer/producer/prosumer and the implications.

But even as I write the above, I wonder if we will miss this opportunity as well…the chance to make learning, working, and living all more humane enterprises. Anyone who knows even a little of the history of school reform understands that technology almost never drives real change. Instead, it gets incorporated into the existing structures of the system, maybe making small changes, but ultimately being changed itself.

But, at the risk of flying in the face of history, there seem to be larger forces at work here that are challenging our names for lots of things. Work: Changes in the way people access their jobs may lead them to question a school schedule that no longer matches their own. School: Easy access to educational resources makes it easier to imagine teaching your own children.

Even the word “teacher”…last Saturday I was part of a conference with pre-service teachers and I made an off hand comment about not being a real teacher. One of the 20-somethings looked at me and asked what I meant by that. I explained that while I was a teacher in many ways, since I didn’t teach the grueling schedule of a K-12 classroom teacher, I didn’t really consider myself a “real” teacher. I had it easy with my online courses, afternoon workshops and evening webinars. But, he insisted, I was a real teacher because I was doing the work of teaching. Just because I wasn’t adhering to a particular schedule or killing myself to try and meet impossible demands didn’t make a difference to him.

And, there it is: what will make the real difference in the future. Young people who are questioning everything about the world we have created and the way we have defined words like “work” and “school” and “fun.” His generation is the real force that, when joined with mobile multimedia technologies and other cultural shifts, will change definitions in ways we can’t even imagine.

Post Pencil?

Sharon has been writing eloquently about Sherry Turkle’s book Simulation and Its Discontents, which I also read as part of the “choose your own reading” part of the course. Go read Sharon’s posts, particularly the one about socks, and then come back…no, really, go…

Turkle’s book is a microcosmic look at experience of the analog to digital transition. I am part of the generation that is living through that transition. Like Turkle’s engineers and architects, I face the fundamental question: As technology replaces so much of what we do “by hand,” what analog practices do we want to keep around? I know that some of my colleagues would probably say none, having developed digital lives for themselves.

But, as I face the transition, I find that there are certain things I like to do with a pencil in my hand and the digital alternative is simply not as satisfying. The main one: my to do list. I use it, in conjunction with a print calendar, to map out my months, weeks, and days. It’s the way I’ve always done it and I have yet to find an online alternative that satisfies me. I begin my day by jotting down what I want to accomplish and still get a thrill when I can draw a line through it at day’s end.

I also prefer using a pencil and paper for brainstorming and drafting. Like Turkle’s folks, I sometimes feel as though word processed text looks too complete and the highlighting and commenting tools do not provide the same level of contact with the text in order to complete detailed editing. Of course, my advisor and I used these tools to pass drafts of my dissertation back and forth but my own work on the draft often include lots of handwritten work from outlines, to diagrams, to chunks of text. My spiral bound notebook is included in the archives of the project because much of the thinking about themes was concocted in its pages. At some point, I tried using a digital graphic organizer but somehow the technology got in the way. I wanted to scribble, to draw wavy arrows, to circle words, to jot pictures, to create messiness, and the software seemed to demand neatness and order. I wasn’t creating for someone else but instead trying to dig into my own thinking and the pencil was more inviting than the mouse as the tool to facilitate that process.

While these activities seem mundane compared to Turkle’s folks who are grappling with the meaning of simulations for their very work, they illustrate in a very practical way the decisions we make each day about our use of technology. I think it’s important to consider these decisions and provide opportunities for kids to understand them as well, lest they become like the younger designers who see no value in the old ways and rely, sometimes too completely, on the simulation.

It’s Really An Environmental Problem, Isn’t It?

As I read Will Richardson’s response to Jay Mathews’ Washington Post articles related to 21st century skills, I had a lightbulb moment (compact flourescent, of course).  Here’s the quote that flipped the switch for me in terms of some of the cognitive dissonance I’ve been experiencing lately:

But this new potential to learn easily and deeply in environments that are not bounded by physical space or scheduled time constraints requires us as educators to take a hard look at how we are helping our students realize the potentials of those opportunities.

Will isn’t talking about student skills or literacy; he is talking about school infrastructure, both the bricks and mortar and clocks infrastructure and the curricular infrastructure.  It’s not as sexy as thinking about kids, but it is becoming the 800-pound gorilla in the room.  We just can’t take advantage of the kind of social networking possibilities that Will envisions within the current environment.   It’s something that Tim Stahmer writes about a lot, how silly it is that for all our connectedness and new understandings about learning, we continue to believe that kids only learn from 8 to 3 in the fall, winter and spring months, they all learn at the same pace and generally in the same way, and everything that’s important to learn can be tested through a multiple-choice test.  It’s also something that Tim suggested recently is nigh upon impossible to change.

If there is a more challenging educational paradigm than the organization of school, I don’t know what it is.  The physical/temporal structure seems to be part of the fabric of America and thus restructuring the school schedule seems to be the most resistant of reforms. There are glimmers of changes on the horizon, mostly wrapped around distance learning which, not surprising to this sometimes cynic, are being implemented to save money rather than in the much loftier interest of helping students engage with the community through social media tools.  They seem to tend to be online versions of face-to-face classrooms, primarily interested in delivering content related to the state standards. So while the format makes it easier to access education, it does not allow for the kind of passion-based, networked learning that Will is really envisioning.

For that to occur, there is a more pressing issue to deal with. High stakes, standardized testing is fast becoming as entrenched as the school schedule in the infrastructure of our national educational system, and I’m convinced it is the biggest problem we face in making any significant changes to curriculum and pedagogy in the schools.  In my state, teaching is all about clearly defined state-provided content.  Certainly there are some process standards but there is defined “essential knowledge,” mostly factual that will form the core of the test so teachers feel responsible for making sure students see all of it before the test in May.  Everyone single teacher I’ve talked to recently has said something to the effect that they know they aren’t supposed to teach to the test, but they also know that someone is going to talk with them if their scores go down to any significant degree and they certainly have to clearly identify which standard they are addressing every single day.  They get very little personal learning time, and they definitely don’t get an experimental year to try out new things.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if we just took a hiatus from the tests.  One year in the life of a classroom teacher and her students without the bubble sheet looming on the horizon.  Teachers would still teach the same subject (we won’t get too radical here), but they wouldn’t have to worry about covering every detail and could allow individual student interest to drive the learning.  So, without that accountability, would teachers everywhere just kick off their shoes and show movies the whole year?  I really don’t think so.  Instead, I think that given the opportunity, they would rediscover their own passion for the content that would lead them to an openness to new technologies and pedagogies that would support student engagement.

Since this is an imaginary scenario, I’ll also add that all teachers would have ongoing  job embedded professional development, technical and pedagogical support and adequate access to technological resources including the web, in short, if we  treated them like professionals.  Will got it right when he described teachers as “suffocating in paper, policies and processes that prevent them from exploring the potential of online networked learning spaces.”

To conclude, here’s the original quote from Will:

But this new potential to learn easily and deeply in environments that are not bounded by physical space or scheduled time constraints requires us as educators to take a hard look at how we are helping our students realize the potentials of those opportunities.

He doesn’t define educators, but I immediately thought of a subset of the citizenry engaged in educational pursuits.  I would suggest this call needs to be extended to the community as a whole.  Infrastructure issues, whether physical, temporal, or curricular, are often not controlled by educators.  Instead, they originated with policymakers and legislators who are influenced by the opinions of many people, not just educators, and often make decisions for budgetary or political, rather than instructional, reasons.

It may be that we are living in an age of incommensurate paradigms. You simply can’t implement the kind of education Will describes within the confines of the prevailing paradigm.  Tinkering won’t do it this time.  Blaming teachers won’t do it either.  This is more than just adding some stuff to the curriculum called 21st century skills but a chance to really think about what Neil Postman called the “end” of education.  Everybody seems to want to have a national dialog: here’s a good starting point for the one about education.