Monthly Archives: December 2015

What I Learned This Year in School

The idea for this blog came to me when I was on a plane from Cleveland to Charlotte after shadowing Ann Klotz at Laurel School. Shadowing Ann was a required part of my graduate work that turned out to be a life-changing experience.

I really dislike flying, so I was trying to think about the future rather than the present, in which I was buckled in a chair in the middle of the sky. I thought about Ann and what she represents to me and to many others she has taught or mentored. In addition to running a truly wonderful girls’ school, teaching English there, and raising her own children, Ann is a powerful writer who publishes her work in the Huffington Post and other places. Seeing her in action at school, and reflecting on her contributions to family, education, and journalism, I was inspired to create something, too. Thus, the blog: what I learned in school today.

My goal at first was to post twice a week. I figured that would be easy; after all, I usually teach every day, and that takes a lot of planning and thinking. But I was wrong — it was much harder than I expected to compose my thoughts and observations into succinct paragraphs, and I knew I needed to write in a way that was both short and sweet. I quickly shifted to posting once a week and, when things got very busy at school and in life, once every two weeks.

But despite the unexpected challenges, I vowed to stick with it because, in addition to wanting to create a platform for sharing ideas, I also hoped that blogging would help me to become a better teacher, mentor, and role model for my students. They know that I am interested in and a little worried about technology’s impact on things I cherish — identity, voice, relationships, reading, and habits of mind (like research, communication and the writing process). I wanted to show them that although I am wary, I can try new things. I wanted to join them where they are.

After one year and 54 blog posts, I can see that blogging has taught me a lot — greater discipline, for one thing. It has also pushed me to develop a clearer voice, to read more and talk more, and with more people. In truth, I learned a lot more than I anticipated I would learn. That’s how school, and life, are.

Some of the other things I learned this year in school:

  • That it’s important and okay to fail — as students, as parents, as people. I know I failed in some of my posts. But I also know that I gave each post as much of myself as I could. (See especially Jessica Lahey,The Gift of Failure.) Also, and phew, that vulnerability is a strength. (See especially Brene Brown, Rising Strong.)
  • That talking face-to-face is a human necessity. (See especially Sherry TurkleReclaiming Conversation.) And that with technology, as with everything else, adults need to model the behaviors we want our children to adopt. (See especially Catherine Steiner-AdairThe Big Disconnect.) I agree with Scott McLeod that if we don’t participate in the digital world with our children, we risk becoming “dangerously irrelevant.” (See his blog Dangerously Irrelevant.)
  • That we all still have a lot of work to do when it comes to discrimination, especially when it comes to race. (See especially Mahzarin Banaji,Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People.) And that across our nation — and in our classrooms — race always matters. (See especially Ta-Nahesi CoatesBetween the World and MeBryan StevensonJust Mercy.)
  • That Twitter is interesting and actually fun. Where else can you tag someone you don’t know and tell them, hey — I read your work, I liked it, and it made me think. (Thanks to Lindsey Mead, Nina Badzin, and the other fabulous writers @Great New Books.)
  • That a key to adapting to the many technology-driven changes in teaching and learning is to have more empathy — for teachers and students alike. Both are faced with an ever-expanding set of expectations in an increasingly competitive world. It often feels like the road to making things quicker, easier, sleeker, and smarter is filled with complicated messages and unwieldy tools. Everyone needs a bit more space and time to work it all out.

A final takeaway, but not one that’s in any way new, is that I am married to a wonderful husband. He reads my work amid his own deluge and has the affection for me to interrupt what he is immersed in to give me honest and helpful feedback. I’m indebted to him for his input – although I still don’t love hearing him tell me that what I’ve written “feels like two different pieces” or that it isn’t good enough (yet) to publish. Everyone needs an editor, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have one.

Ordinarily, I use a syllabus to frame a class so everyone knows where we’re going. But this year with my blog, the syllabus wrote itself as time went along — demonstrating once again that no matter where it happens, school is always in session.

 

Look at Us

herman-melville-quote

Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Keep, and I think her short story in the form of tweets, “Black Box,” is one of the more brilliant feats of creative writing.

After reading a recent article that captured a great conversation between Egan and George Saunders  (“Choose Your Own Adventure”), I grabbed a copy of one of her earlier books, Look at Me, that I had never read before.

Published in 2001 but written over six years during the 1990s, Look at Me is a jarringly predictive novel — not only about the role of the internet and the way in which self-image is influenced by technology and social media, but also about terrorists, both foreign and domestic born, in America.

The novel, which was released before 9-11, is uncanny in the way it imagines and comments on the world as we have known it since 2001. I kept wondering as I read, how could she have possibly known the things she seemed to have known?

In her conversation with Saunders, Egan said that she had no inkling of what was yet to come. She thought Look at Me would be far-fetched, even funny.  “I had never been online when I imagined a lot of that novel, and I was projecting forward into what I thought was extreme, goofy satire.” But, she said, she “took a long time to write Look at Me, and some of what I imagined as wacky hypotheticals — for example, a type of self-branding reality-TV-ish website I called Ordinary People — had already started to come try by the time I published it.”

Of the character, Z, who comes to America to destroy it from the inside, Egan wrote in the afterword to the book, “Z had always worried me the most. I was afraid no one would find him credible … [W]hile it may be nearly impossible to read about Z outside the context of September 11, 2001, I concocted his history and his actions at a time when the events of that day were still unthinkable.” She concedes, “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress in the fall of 2001, I would have had to reconceive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.”

Whether or not we arrive at every terminus predicted in fiction is not the point. As long as we have the freedom to imagine the future, we may also have the power to shape it.

Sometimes a Little Mess is Best

Throughout my childhood my father, a very neat person, would rage against the trail of shoes and socks I’d leave in my wake as I passed through the front door and down the stairs to my bedroom.

In my adult life, with my very neat husband, I continue to push the proverbial envelope when it comes to the clutter that I create by hanging on to many of the things that I acquire: magazines, letters, tea, scarves, shoes, and, especially, books. Our house is lined with them, our table surfaces stacked with them, our floors sometimes perilously mined with them.

Teddy Wayne’s recent New York Times essay, “Our (Bare) Shelves, Ourselves,” made me think about the value of a holding on to books. “Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically,” Wayne writes. “Libraries,” Wayne insists, “matter even more than money.”

In this case, he argues, digital isn’t the same as physical. “Digital media trains us to be high-bandwidth consumers rather than meditative thinkers. We download or stream a song, article, book or movie instantly, get through it (if we’re not waylaid by the infinite inventory also offered) and advance to the next immaterial thing.” Far better, he says, is to “poke through physical artifacts … to examine each object slowly, perhaps sample it and come across a serendipitous discovery.”

We all know that wonderful experience of sifting through things — sand, seashells, photographs, scarves, jewelry boxes belonging to our ancestors. In this age of decluttering and discarding, it’s a good idea to be intentional about what we choose to keep. However soothing neatness may be for some, to me, a little mess is definitely best.

All Kinds of Minds

At the NAIS People of Color Conference in Tampa last week, I heard the amazing Dr. Mae Jemison talk to over 4000 teachers and students about 100 Year Starship, a project dedicated to making “the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years.”

Beyond the obvious challenges of distance and time, Jemison highlighted the additional challenge of getting enough different kinds of thinkers into the mix so that true innovation can occur. She referenced data from Change the Equation supporting the fact that “the STEM workforce is no more diverse now than in 2001.” This is a problem, she said, because the promise of 100 Year Starship depends on diverse participants who dare to pursue coursework in fields still not typically felt to be open to women or minorities.

While making the case for educators to more intentionally steer students from diverse backgrounds toward STEM, Jemison also made a great case for “scientific literacy” in general, which I particularly loved.

Scientific literacy, as defined by the National Science Education Standards, is “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” Jemison’s point of connecting science, diversity, decision making, and participation in civic and cultural life made clear, without a doubt, that all kinds of literacies are relevant to 21st century learners and citizens.

Literacy, the ability to read critically and write clearly, is both foundational and transcendent to every endeavor — be it the challenge of developing a self, contributing to a society, or voyaging beyond the known boundaries of space.