Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Technology Growing a Gap?

It's mid-week. I am fresh off the plane from ASCD in Chicago. I have to say this was perhaps the best conference I have ever attended. I gauge that by the low ratio of dog sessions to dynamite sessions. In three days, I attended only one session I would call a "dog." That's a sign of great conference. The others ranged from off-the-chart amazing to perspective building and contextualizing radical shifts in how professionals are adapting their approaches to education based on shifting paradigms powered by technology.

As an independent school educator, I find I have to shift through sessions that offer straight content to those that are offering approaches for how to navigate new responsibilities in program-based learning (Common Core at the moment). While the public school focused sessions do offer some good content, I always find I am somewhat out of the lexicon loop, that public school teachers know a language that I am only vaguely familiar with. What is Common Core, for example. Well, I can guess and make inferences based on conversations with others and based on perusing books dedicated to the subject, but meeting federally mandated curriculum standards is not the language of independent schools.

Instead, I find I am able to pick sessions that speak to learning that is driven by other forces. In a session about ischool, a NYC charter, I listened as its principals (yes, there are two) described restructuring curriculum to allow for modules. Modules are units in experiential learning. In a particularly compelling example, Alisa Berger and Mary Moss described how their students worked to create an exhibit for the Ground Zero 9/11 museum. Students were asked by museum curators to discover global perspective of teenagers on the disaster. They found teens in Israel who told them Americans need to move on, teens in New Orleans who compared federal response to 9/11 versus Hurricane Katrina, and even teens in Iraq who described their country's celebrations in the streets. The students compiled their findings and presented them to the museum where they are now on permanent display.

In the most moving session of the conference, I was rapt by the descriptions students offered of their experiences in an experiential learning project, Minkai, to reform education in an impoverished, rural village north of Buenos Aires. This program began as an opportunity created by a visionary teacher to bring her privileged students from St. Andrew's Scots Prep School to interact with young people in a rural village north of the capital called Palomino. The students were so moved, that they launched their own non-profit devoted to teacher education and scholarships for the village school's instructors and students. Today the program includes teacher exchanges, fundraisers to build resources (a marathon and a gala dinner), and outreach to families within the town.

While other sessions offered ideas about how to employ technology to extend learning, these schools were finding ways to engage students in authentic experiences supported by technology. In a session on responsible social media led by a talented tech director for a school district in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Steve Anderson described hearing a teacher boast about kinesthetic learning in a unit where students build dioramas with toothpicks and marshmallows to create a small village. Anderson offered that programs like Minecraft have created much more sophisticated approaches, allowing students to imagine and construct urban centers. But when I heard about Mikai, I couldn't help seeing that learning as the pinnacle of what all technology, all Common Core curriculum, all best practices should aspire to.

The expansion and development of technologies that support learning are incredible, no doubt. But educators must find ways to engage authentically.

I grew up in Evanston, a northern extension of Chicago at this point. Coming to ASCD in my hometown offered not only incredible opportunities for reflections like those I offer, but also time to visit with family and friends who have also devoted their lives to education. My best friend from high school teaches the same grade I do in an urban high school. She and I met for coffee one afternoon to get caught up. I was brimming with news of the conference, excitement about diving deeper into Twitter to connect with other teachers and improving ways I engage with students to guide learning. I was tempered by her stories of a principal who begins meetings by berating teachers about cell phones, students who tell my friend that if they ever come to school with their guns they won't go after her, and stories of teen mothers and their families bent on suing the school district. While I would be naive to think independent schools aren't facing some of that, the dialog is not the same.

When I asked her if she used technology in her classes, she laughed and told me that the school won't allow it. In fact, ASCD's presence in Chicago that week was news to her. No one she knew had been encouraged to attend. She talked of needing to search her book room for a class set of novels for her next unit, an IB program about to begin with no teacher training in sight, and new teachers relegated to five period rotations with no place to hang a book bag. On my way home from work today, I heard a news story about how Chicago is about to close 61 schools due to a budget short falling of a billion dollars. This will be the largest mass shutdown in US history!

The inequities in education are appalling. While I left our meeting with a profound awareness of the blessed environment of my independent school, I couldn't help feeling for my public school counterparts who are struggling to build skills while simultaneously enduring administrators who've been Peter Principaled into leadership positions and crumbling, underfunding infrastructures and resources. These are educators who have the same love for their students, the same passion for their curricula, the same dreams of possibilities in learning, but they are battered by a system that is eroding beneath them.

We need to look long and hard at what we value as a nation. The models for best practices are out there. Consider ischool's modules or St. Andrew's Scots Minkai program. In 2009 I attended NAIS where I was lucky enough to hear Michell Rhee, chancellor of schools for Washington, DC speak about her experiences. In this enormous session of several thousand independent school educators, Rhee said we could fix the public system by eliminating the private one, that once independent school educators and the powerful families that send their children to them were absorbed, the public system would be forced to change. She then told us she was not truly advocating an elimination of independent schools. She offered instead that independent schools provide the model we need to aspire to in public education. 

What happens next is critical. Those with access to technology and innovation in teaching are moving even further away from those who don't. We are increasingly facing a divide in access to learning. This bodes badly for the future of education.

I am happy that I have the many opportunities I do as an independent school educator. I am overjoyed that my own children have access to this education as well. But I worry for the students and educators we are leaving behind in a system that was originally designed to offer equal access to success. 

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