Featured post

7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Achieving Balance

It’s interesting that all children – whether they are toddlers or teens – tend to simultaneously need opposing things. For example, they need structure and predictability, yet they also need a considerable amount of freedom. Without structure, there’s chaos and kids tend to do nothing at all, yet without freedom, there’s a stifling of creativity and imagination. Similarly, they need high expectations and a little pressure/stress so that they really push themselves, but they also need a safe and nurturing environment where they feel comfortable taking risks and failing. They need guidance because when left completely to their own devices they tend to flail and flounder, but at the same time, they also need to be given choices and left to themselves so that they think creatively and learn to make their own decisions. They need teachers and parents who are simultaneously firm and nurturing, who are at once both “hands-on” and “hands-off.”
The more I think about it, the more I realize that achieving this balance is an important part of being a successful teacher. And it is not always easy. For example, I often wonder about how prescriptive an assignment/project should be?  And how democratic should my classroom be? How do I find the right balance between guiding students and empowering them? And what about the effect of grades: how much should I consider a student’s feelings/self-esteem when I grade a paper or give feedback on a project? How do I find the right balance between pushing a child to work harder and helping a child maintain his self-confidence and self-esteem? How much to critique/push versus how much to praise?
Similarly, as a mother, I find that I’m constantly trying to find a balance between holding my children close to me and letting them go. I’ve been trying very consciously to give my six year old son more freedom. And I’m trying hard to give him the time and space he needs to play creatively on his own in any way he chooses. Yet, I also want to make sure that he gains exposure to organized sports and music, and I want to help him improve his reading skills, so I enrol him in classes and work with him on his reading at home. What’s a good balance though? How much structure? How much freedom? As a mother, I find this balancing act particularly interesting because it has such an emotional dimension to it. Should one be a “free-range parent” who encourages lots of creativity and risks, sometimes at the expense of safety, or should one be a “helicopter parent” who hovers and protects, thereby squashing independence, creativity, and risk-taking? Obviously, the answer is to be somewhere in-between. The mothers I admire most are the ones who are simultaneously very involved in their kids’ lives but also very relaxed and chilled out about their kids. They know intuitively when to let go and when to hold on, when to encourage risks and when to provide safe support.
So, both in my teaching and in my parenting, I think I need to continue to seek balance between contradictory and opposing forces.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

A Visual World

I just finished a two day workshop on ‘teaching in the technology age.’ The school I work at is going to distribute macbooks to all high school students in the fall, so we’ll be a 1:1 school in August. And we’re working on figuring out how best to use and manage all this technology in the classroom. I am simultaneously fascinated, excited, and terrified by the huge paradigm shift that’s occurring.  My own sense of fear and inadequacy makes me think of Socrates resisting the onset of literacy, and of all the thinkers and philosophers who resisted the mechanization of the industrial revolution. We really are on the cusp of a massive shift in the way people understand the world.
One of the major changes, of course, is the redefining of the Language Arts.  Since the world became literate, we’ve revered the printed word. When I began teaching English, I assumed that my students would read books and then write papers about them. We’d analyze literature and write interesting essays that probe the world that exists beneath the surface of a text. We would, as a class, pay daily homage to the power and magnificence of the written word. Yet, I’m not sure that this vision of Language Arts is true or relevant today. We process way too much information at far too rapid a pace to really have time for long, sustained narratives.  For most people in the “real world,” writing will merely be an accompaniment to visuals. From powerpoint presentations to Keynote presentations to podcasts and multi-media events, we now present all our information in visual and auditory ways. And even our stories are generally told visually – the number of people who watch movies far exceeds the number that reads books. And even books, for that matter, now come in electronic forms, fully equipped with visuals and audio, ready to be played on an ipad or kindle.
So in this brave new world, where the written word is just one of many ways to convey information, what should we be teaching students? Should we be asking them to write fewer literary analysis papers, and instead, to create multimedia presentations that analyze both books and movies? Should we be asking them to respond to podcasts and then create their own? Should we get them used to even more visual stimulation by introducing material using Keynote slideshows with musical accompaniments? Over the last two days, as I messed around with various macbook applications, I was extremely impressed by all the ways in which we can tell stories and convey information. Visuals obviously make a tremendous impact on the human brain; as someone once said, "a picture is worth a thousand words.” And when you add music to a visual presentation, you’re making an even bigger impact on the brain. The writing, generally relegated to a few bullet points, seems almost peripheral.

I was definitely impressed by the fast and flashy world of all this new technology, and I left the workshop feeling committed to trying out some of this technology in my classroom. Yet, the workshop also raised a number of questions in my mind. The basic premise of technology seems to be that faster is always better. My colleagues and I were impressed by how we could use this new technology to quickly access and share lots of information  as a class -- no more slow and deliberate writing on whiteboards. Is faster always better though? My brain needs time to process and incubate ideas, and I suspect that many of my students need that kind of time too. Also, I value the slow and deliberate process of reflection that is encouraged by reading and writing. Will a technological world allow for that kind of unhurried reflection? And will a fast and flashy visual world diminish the quality of human interaction? Will it cause some sort of yet-un-named anxiety within students? How are students going to cope in a world where they are literally deluged by information all the time?

I have one other big question as a result of this workshop. Many of the teachers at the workshop kept talking about the need for us to "prepare students for this hi-tech future." I fully believe that students have to be comfortable with technology, and I agree that a large part of our jobs is to prepare them for the future. However, I think that, as educators,we have a complex challenge on our plates: we need to simultaneously prepare students for the future and help them retain a connection to their pasts. Educational institutions serve as a connector between generations; we help students  understand the wisdom accumulated over time. Schools are, by nature, conservative institutions that change slowly and gradually so that we are able to stay connected to our pasts even while we get ready for the future. I, for one, am all for more gradual shifts. These radical and sudden upheavals are exciting but scary.

Nevertheless, I feel committed to learning more about technology use in the classroom, and my goals for this summer involve preparing my own keynote presentations (with music and effects) and designing assessments that involve a variety of media. This year, I made a few short powerpoint presentations, showed some You Tube clips to my classes, and had the kids do a couple of presentations that involved technology. Next year, I’m going to do much more.

Yet, I am, at the end of the day, a book lover. And I like the slow and unhurried pace of a book, and I, for one, love long and sustained written analyses.  Despite all the new technology, the human experience itself hasn’t changed: we are born, we grow up, we love, we suffer, we experience joy and sorrow, we grow old, we get sick, and eventually we die. That hasn’t changed. The essence of our needs hasn’t changed. And since we are still mortals, we can’t possibly sustain this frenetic pace of life. We need the natural world, we need downtime, we need quiet time, and we need human contact. We have to remember our innate needs, which have not quite caught up with all this rapid change.
Anyways, I clearly have a lot to think about and a lot to learn.