A Birthday Reflection

I turn 48 years old today. When I was born, the Vietnam War was just heating up, the Summer of Love was still five years away, and Kennedy was in the middle of those glorious thousand days that came to be known as Camelot. I am on the far edge of the Boomers and can even claim Generation X status when I get annoyed at what I think is the sometimes smug Boomer culture. All that Boomer optimism had faded by the time I came into the world and those of us in the 13th generation grew up in a much more cynical age. I have a good friend who is on the other end of the Boomers and when we play the Boomer edition of Trivial Pursuit she knows all the answers to questions about Howdy Doody and the Beatles. I get the ones about Watergate and the war.

There have been some positives over the past five decades…such as a focus on environmental conservation. But it doesn’t always feel like things have gotten much better. I lived just 30 miles from Three Mile Island when it melted down and am now sick over the oil gushing into the Gulf. Earth Day began when I was seven because things had gotten so bad that rivers were on fire and whole communities were being poisoned. Now, we regularly see bald eagles flying over head. But we still haven’t figured out how human beings can live without destroying everything else.

And, then there’s education: A Nation at Risk was written in 1982 and I am watching its influence play out now, nearly 30 years later. That report was all about what students didn’t know and that’s what we are busy trying to test now. There was little concern for what they could do or whether they could think and how schools could foster more critical, creative problem solvers. I wonder how long it will take to see any influence from current reform efforts as the slow educational pendulum continues its eternal swinging?

Technology was not absent from my classroom when I started teaching in 1988. They were very old school: film strips, film reels, an overhead projector and an oft-used record and cassette player. I did have a computer in my room…an early macintosh that was used with a laser printer to desktop publish the school newspaper. It was hidden away in the back room. There was no Internet, just the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, most of which we did not have access to. Yet, we learned together with the materials we had. Much of the technologies supported my presentations as a teacher. But they also provided creative outlets for my students. My students used the analog video camera to make public service advertisements. After cleaning the strips in chlorine, they used pens to draw their own film strips. We listened to music as part of our poetry unit and watched the movie versions of Shakespeare’s work which added an interactive element to what was often a text-only approach to literature. I didn’t really think about it as “technology,” the way we talk about digital technologies today, but was glad to have choices related to how I could present and have students interact with information.

The excitement today, I think, is what students can do with the technology. Creating film strips and analog videos seem like cave writing in comparison to digital videos and interactive web sites. My worry? That all this great technology is still mostly being used to enhance teacher presentations and kids don’t get much chance to do their own creation and interaction. I was glad to see that several of my pre-service teachers this semester adopted Google Maps for their lesson projects and allowed students to do the creation. You could argue that it’s not that innovative since teachers have been doing map work with students forever. But what a step away from the flat views with their colored pencil hatch marks. Add markers, draw lines, zoom in and out, check out the terrain, the possibilities are endless.

I’m a huge fan of Google Maps as a great example of the interactivity that I think is really the innovative part of digital technologies. I used it recently to plan and execute my recent walking tour of Denver. I created the map on my laptop, pulled audio from the Denver Story Trek website, and then moved everything to my phone. (Don’t get me started on my phone…I really am in love with my Droid.)

View Denver in a larger map

It’s been an interesting time to be alive. Technologically, watching the world move from analog to digital must be a similar experience to the generation that went from horse-drawn wagons to automobiles. I’ve seen great cultural shifts as well particularly in terms of individual rights. The landmark civil rights legislation was signed when I was a toddler. And while it didn’t pass, the Equal Rights Amendment was part of the milieu as I came to adulthood in the 70s. I’ve grown up surrounded by conversations about race, gender, and sexual orientation and while we are a long way from answers in any of those areas, we’re moving in a positive direction I think as we learn to think of each other as individuals first and then members of particular groups second. We’re complex beings whose identities are woven from disparate threads.

I’ll close with the weirdest thing about being this age: the President of the United States is my age! And, I graduated from William and Mary with John Stewart. My generation is moving in to the leadership, joining but also changing the establishment while the next generation breathes down our necks.

Leave a Reply