Selfish Generosity

Chris Lehmann has written some of the best posts for my money in 2008 and his timing always seems to be impeccable. His recent Letter To A New Teacher spoke to all teachers, new or experienced, regardless of sector or country and I found Chasing False Gods to be really good fodder for my own thoughts. As the whole Al Upton and his miniLegends issue dropped into the edublogger pool and the ripple waves started washing up onto various shores, Chris's words have new meaning for me as I try to work out why blogging is worth pursuing in the classroom. Is it a faddish idea because it's new technology and merely digitises what's always been done in classrooms or does it offer students regardless of age something more? Chris points out:

We have to understand -- we cannot compete with the ever-more-fast-paced and realistic entertainment world. What we can offer is meaning and purpose and authenticity.

Does blogging have purpose and authenticity? Or is it just a shiny new wrapper that just maybe has too many hard-to-manage variables for the average teacher? Where does it fit?

Something tells me that we should be encouraging teachers to be innovative, to push into unfamiliar territories but once again, Chris's most recent words come swimming into my brain, looking to temper that innovation with our responsibility as educators:

As educators, we must be hyper-aware that we cannot be revolutionaries at the expense of our students.

And there are plenty of revolutionaries around. It is one of the things that Al himself must guard against - being the poster boy for any cause that sees itself at odds with the status quo of administration that doesn't get it, railing against an impersonal system that just doesn't care or in desperate need of an overhaul or dismantlement. He must beware of powerful personalities willing to hitch their cause to the miniLegends - and most are worthy but it's so easy to get sucked into the frenzy, to forget that there is a curriculum to deliver, a classroom to run and there are the students who probably just want their blogs back and have had enough of their time in the spotlight.

But Chris does elaborate more about the role of the risk taker in the classroom:

We must take risks in education. We must challenge the tried-and-true way of educating students, but we must do it thoughtfully and carefully and transparently, because we don't have the luxury of just "going out of business." Every school that makes those choices poorly affects the lives of the students who honored that school with their choice to go there. This is -- as much as any other reason -- we must always, always, always humble ourselves before the enormity of the task in front of us.

I know that writing a blog has altered the way I learn. But capturing the elements that enable me to reflect and connect is not so easy with the students that I teach. It's why I think that the work that Konrad Glogowski has done with his students to be incredibly important. It's also why Al's issues have resonance for me. It's why my own department's response and planned future responses are important to me - how authentic student blogging can be will be determined by how well they can connect to each other, to other students learning similar things and to adults who can guide and direct them in their learning. Otherwise, it will be just recounts and writing in short bursts in pretty themed environments - the digital equivalent of colouring in the page margins.

By running a class blogging program, am I really pushing the boundaries of what the classroom should be today? I think so but only if there are connections out of that classroom. It's early days - and I'm pleased that a sense of community is starting to emerge with my students. There is encouragement, there is some risk taking going on in terms of reluctant writers creating their topics and posts, there is some exchange of ideas and the kids are looking already in under a month to go beyond the "Cool blog" comments and add some substance to their observations of their peers' writing. The Blog Coaches was my next logical step - I need to partner that up with parent information and education as the greatest threat to this carefully monitored situation is media-fuelled apprehension. So I can see the blog as a learning tool that helps students to become digitally literate, improve their use of the written English language, explore topics from their SOSE (Studies Of Society & Environment) curriculum and reflect on their learning in any area of their set curriculum.

But how realistic is this all? How sustainable is a model that demands that the teacher implementing it be linked into a global network? That they understand the digital tool they expect the students to use intimately? I like what Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach has to say on this point:

As educators we need to get ready for a real shift in culture. The shifts that are coming will not allow "business as usual" rather it will be "business as unusual". That is why it is critical for all of us to first own these emerging technologies and the pedagogy/culture that surrounds them, by using Web 2.0 tools to connect- in an effort to chase our own passions. Through the experience of building of your own PLN, not only will you model for your students how this should be done, but you might find some transformational moments along the way -that like mine with Jenny and Dan- will leave you a better person. And do NOT discount what those younger or older than you have to offer. Use expertise and passion- not age- as criteria for who you should learning from and for who should be part of your learning network.

The miniLegends are well on track in this regard. Al Upton is an exceptional teacher who believes in empowering his students. If Sheryl is right and she's identifying what is needed to be a teacher today, I feel ready for the challenge and I reckon that the kids in my class are going to be well positioned.

For this year.

See, that's where my selfish generousity kicks in. I can leverage my network and hook my students up with Alaskan kids on wikis or have well respected edubloggers waiting in the wings to become another one of their teachers. But what about the other teachers in the building? The ones without their own blogs? What about the teachers in my son's school who have never ever read a blog? What about the students I teach as they leave me and hit high school where they get taken back to basics with their technology use and assumed levels of competency?

Has my genorousity been more about me and my passions than their needs for their actual future? As opposed to the one we all agree they should be getting? Don't worry - I teach all of the stuff that Chris advocates we do not overlook. Balance is important.

We need innovators. As Leigh Blackall once said to me, (I'm paraphrasing here) that you need the boundary pushers as it then gives those following behind room to move. Occasionally, however, it doesn't hurt to remember that the students of innovative teachers don't get a say in coming along for the ride. But then there are implications and consequences for inaction and ignorance as well.

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9 thoughts on “Selfish Generosity

  1. Clix

    What about teachers who’ve got their own blogs but whose students (for a significant part) do not have access to the internet? *sigh*

    Reply
  2. Lisa Parisi

    Thank you. Your blog is really making me think. One line in particular is one I struggle with each year.

    “Occasionally, however, it doesn’t hurt to remember that the students of innovative teachers don’t get a say in coming along for the ride.”

    I work hard to be innovative…not for me but for my students. I recognize the reality of needing to be in touch with new technology and needing to be more…entertaining…in the classroom. And I realize that I can make learning very authentic and use blogs, etc. and keep the students engaged. All positives.

    But then, they leave me and head off to a middle school with no blogs, no podcasts, no wikis, no collaborations. And they come back to tell me how bored they are. I wonder what will happen in two years, three. Will they forget the power of a network? And are they worse off for being with me for a year…knowing what’s out there and not having access to it?

    Reply
  3. Kerry J

    Dear Graham and Lisa

    I’ll preface my remarks by disclosing that I am not a classroom teacher and I am childless. I help teachers use technology and deliver training, but am not a classroom teacher.

    Okay. That done —

    I love the fact that you and Lisa are worried about the future of your students at the base of it all. At work we always try to question ourselves when planning new tools “Will this help teachers teach?”

    So is it selfishness to use innovative tools, knowing that in all likelihood the kids won’t have access in future? Are you opening a door that will remain shut for them in future and only serve to frustrate them?

    We’ve all read countless articles about how bored kids are and are going to be in school. They won’t necessarily be able to articulate why their time on the internet with friends is so much fun and schoolwork is boring. If they tried, most people in authority would roll their eyes.

    But if your students say to subsequent teachers “We had blogs. We learned to interact with other kids, how to stay safe on the net, my writing/English skills improved and I LOVED learning that way — how long are they going to be ignored?” Especially if their parents can see a difference.

    Parents are the missing links in all of this because they have the greatest influence on administrators and systems. The problem isn’t that one parent complains and moves to get a program shut down. The problem is that dozens of others haven’t praised and demanded that more teachers innovate so that the one parent who is worried doesn’t have others to talk to.

    What’s the answer then for teachers like you who are afraid you’re only serving to create frustrated students? It is about ensuring that parents and administrators and the students themselves recognise and can identify the value in what you do. It is about creating a body of evidence that cannot be ignored and is backed by parent and student demand.

    Speaking as a concerned Auntie, I’ve got to say that watching my two and a half year old nephew learn on his computer at his desk — I tremble for him when he is old enough to go off to a school system that celebrates a kid to computer ratio of 5 to 1 and has to be concerned about risk management because of litigious parents.

    Reply
  4. Graham Wegner

    Clix, when we start fearing what might get taken away, it is important to remember that there are those who never had those things in the first place. Thanks for adding your thoughts in here.

    Lisa, that question bothers me a lot which is why I wrote it in the first place. I also worry that the energy and time expended on ventures like a classroom blogging program might not have reaped more substantial benefits elsewhere.

    But then we have Kerry’s comment. Thank you for articulating perfectly what drives the innovative teacher – it kept evading me all through the writing of that post but you’ve nailed it. I guess what always sows the seeds of doubt is when you look back and see many colleagues just wondering what on earth you are doing. When you try to explain the rationale, you get looked at like you are some frothy mouthed geek with too much time on your hands.

    Because it’s not easy to shrug your shoulders and walk away from other educators thinking, “It’s your loss…”

    Because that means that it’s their students’ loss as well.

    Reply
  5. Pam Thompson

    Graham, it would be all too easy to just walk away from the doubt and controversy, but teachers like you and Al give students wonderful opportunities to learn in a different and more innovative environment. Just because their future schools and/or teachers may not continue along the same journey doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t set that journey in motion. This is always the nature of progress. Don’t worry, one day the secondary schools will catch up with us progressive primary school teachers!! You are a great role model to your students as a life-long learner.

    A great, thought-provoking post.

    Reply
  6. Kirstin

    Hi Graham,

    Your post struck a chord with me on many levels and I feel I shall need to revisit it a few more times in order to fully digest it and consider the implications – both to my teaching practice and as a mother.
    One part which I feel I can comment on now is where you wrote –

    “But what about the other teachers in the building? The ones without their own blogs? What about the teachers in my son’s school who have never ever read a blog?”

    For some reason over the last few weeks as I have been exploring the educational blogosphere as well as infusing my classroom programme with technology ( hoping to enhance their learning and develop engaged, motivated learners who are able to think deeply, apply previous learning to new situations, reflect, question and dream), I have been constantly reminded of the Latin motto from my high school – Lumen Accipe Et Imperti – Take (or receive) the light and pass it on. As a teenager, with an already clear intention of becoming a teacher, this really resonated with me. I love to learn, explore, create, question, debate and dream. For me, the opportunity to share these things that I love and pass them on to others was what I wanted to do. (helped in part by a healthy diet of movies like “Dead Poet’s Society”, “To Sir With Love”, “Goodbye Mr Chips”, “Lean on Me”,”Dangerous Minds” and the like). I knew that I wanted to make a difference, to pass that light on. This is what drives and motivates me as a teacher.
    What I have also discovered, however; is that the light I have to pass on is not just to my students, I pass it on to the teacher down the hall, to my son’s teachers, to any teacher (or for that matter, parent) who will listen. I show them what I do and do what I can to kindle that flame within them. Sometimes just the tiniest spark will take off with a vengeance. At other times it smolders for a while and I take every opportunity to add kindling, until finally, one day, it takes hold. Other times the light is extinguished or it sparks briefly and then it’s gone. No matter what happens I continue to share the light that I have, always appreciating that not everyone is ready to accept what I have to offer. I keep on sharing. I also hope that the little lights my students take with them will help to ignite the flame.

    I need to reflect on your post some more, you have raised so many important and thought provoking points. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and questions with us – you have certainly challenged this teacher and made her really think.

    Reply
  7. dave

    In terms of the intersection between education and technology, we have found that many students who often don’t like reading classic literature, due to the dense language, are finding it much more enjoyable with new technology, particularly streaming video of the story. For example, we send students to the Adam Smith Academy (http://www.adamsmithacademy.org/ ) and they can watch the classic short stories be illustrated with professional narration. It really increases understanding and retention of the material.

    Reply

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