Monday, February 4, 2013

On Tactility and Technology

"I'm going to EduCon. It's like Comic-Con, but--you know--with teachers."

This was my favorite retort when anyone asked me what conference I was going to again?  Although the reference was lost on most, I did like the conjured-up image of teachers with capes wafting behind them, eyes masked as they whisked off to tackle the next issue that has arisen in their classrooms.

It's an appropriate metaphor: we are superhero-like in our powers to both impart information, coddle fragile egos, engage many different learning styles, organize student work, grade grade grade, and of course: work 8 hours without a food, water or bathroom break.  On the shuttle back to the airport on Sunday, it turned out my fellow passenger was another EduCon attendee, and so we did what attendees do when at EduCon: we had an invigorating discussion about education.  When I pointed out to him that these conversations were the theme of the weekend-- more than technology or  innovation or creative design thinking-- he, a veteran of the conferences, replied that of course it was. People who go to EduCon are the people that want to change, to better to invent.

When thinking about how to post about EduCon, it is this idea that I keep returning to: the people at EduCon. The big thinkers.  Which reminded me how important connections and relationships are when learning.  This has been the hardest part of my embracing technology. I see my husband unfulfilled by the TV screen that is his graduate classes and remember back to the great personalities that collided and meshed and argued and laughed in my own graduate classes.  I'm still in touch with many of my fellow students because we bonded through those lively debates and pre and post class chatter. I don't get the sense that my husband will cherish the relationships he's sort of formed through his online classes.

And I think of my middle school students and how tactile they are. I have a Newton's cradle and a stress ball in my classroom and both were destroyed within a month. Not because my students are overly destructive, but because they show an engagement and excitement about those toys that I wish they'd show toward my grammar lessons. So on day one of the conference, after taking a rather bone-jarring fall on the icy pavement as I was returning from lunch, my frustration was quickly met with delight as my next session had a description that included: 

It’s time educators break down the walls, promote mindful disorder, leverage ALL of the environment for learning, and guarantee our young people access to contemporary materials for learning and creating new knowledge. This session will cause you to question all that you have come to believe schooling is as we collectively imagine what learning can become.
Oh, yes.  I was ready.  And this group delivered.  Immediately we logged on to, a bare-bones site that is as beautifully stark as google, making it probably the easiest web tool I've included in my classroom. Essentially, you open a closed chat room, and everyone can easily contribute to  it within a limited character length--I'm looking at you fellow verbose English teachers.  It's easy to setup, easy to explain, easy to navigate, and it disappears within hours or a week--you choose. Did I mention it was easy?

Throughout our 90 minute session, I was continually drawn to the ideas being posted and linked to at todaysmeet.  Mini-conversations about related topics punctuated the main topic of the day: how to create a school, from scratch, without a template.  With Legos.  Yes, we began by creating with Legos, then touring our Lego metaphors, then-- my favorite part-- changing each other's Lego designs as we walked around on a second tour. It was an eye-opening experiment that likely caused us to be more disorderly than mindful, but I found myself so much more engaged and full of ideas than in the sessions where I stared at someone talking and tried to listen and take notes for a sustained period of time. The tactile experiment engaged my brain, and todaysmeet gave me the connection I needed to develop what I was thinking.

To me, technology needs to reinvent, not substitute. To do it the old way, but slap some technology into a dusty lesson plan seems clunky and out-of-touch. Why a smartboard to replace a whiteboard that's replaced a chalkboard? Why not think of a new way to work with information than a board? Which brings me to my second take-away from the conference: failure.

The opening night's panel, an eclectic group of people that included google's "Senior Education Evangelist," eventually got to that light and easy topic so crucial to success: failure. You know, the thing we teachers tell students it is safe to do, yet never allow ourselves to really practice it? Yes, putting a lot of effort behind something that just.doesn'  To me, if we are going to use technology in our classrooms, we have to fail at it. A lot. As we're responsible for educating tomorrow's leaders and workers and givers and takers; it's a hard pill to swallow. But most teachers agree that this Industrial Revolution-inspired classroom setup is outdated, and no amount of one-to-one laptop programs or stacks of iPads is going to fix it.  If we are going to really change things, we need to find a way to use the ever-growing technology at our fingertips both to enhance our current lessons, but also to break away from safe planning and fail until we find success.

At 8pm I arrived at the airport, opened my email and found over 50 emails that need imminent attention. I'm ready.

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