Honoring Anxiety – Acknowledging Reality to Improve School Culture

In this brilliant podcast episode of “On Being“, Krista Tippett interviews Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratitude. Brother Steindl-Rast is eloquent on gratitude, but also on all that we may not be grateful for, like violence and environmental destruction, and his thoughts on being born as the beginning of our struggle with anxiety, to go forward is to live, to retreat from fear is to die – indeed before ever living, struck me. He says for this purpose we must validate our anxiety, recognize it as real, and as based on reality. In a humanity that is choosing to destroy our own ecosystems of survival and networks of connection that, as Brother Steindl-Rast points out, put food on our plate, this anxiety is valid.

Such resonance – our anxieties are valid. In the context of a school, imagine all of the anxieties on offer every day for each member of the community. Will my daughter reach a competitive university like her father and I did? Is my child being bullied? A bully? What if they find out I am here on scholarship? Will the principal observe this lesson today, and will she understand what she sees here? Nobody else in this room is dressed like me. I’ve been away on business too long and missed another play. I don’t have anything for show and tell.

Obviously, that list could go on.

A colleague recently described the anxiety high school/upper school parents in affluent schools feel about university entrances as “guarding the family jewels,” and it helped me to conceptualize that anxiety as one of preserving capital – cultural or otherwise. I recognize that parents in high poverty areas like those in which I have previously taught have many different anxieties – will the child return home if she attends university? Is that a reasonable fear? And what Brother Steindl-Rast shares is that yes, this is a valid anxiety, and that acknowledging this should protect against reactions from fear, like pressuring a child until he cracks and has a real psychological break before reaching majority age, or blowing up a relationship with a child to protect oneself against the pain of another brilliant kid leaving the reservation forever.

I wonder how many schools open conversations about these anxieties and validate them? How many ameliorate the problem at hand with platitudes and then roll eyes in the office after 5 pm? That’s a hard conversation, even just the easy bit about Penn State being a great place to be educated, even though it’s not in Princeton, NJ. Honoring anxiety about an ever crowded and seemingly chaotic world that could strip a standard of living from our children acknowledges how little control we actually have. I wonder: Would that reduce fear and stress in the long run?

I think it’s worth a try.

The iPad 2 for Learning: Some Answers, More Questions

The first big list of questions I had have led to more questions and a few answers:

  • Syncing – not that big of a deal, for the most part. We will sync the iPads to a single MacBook Pro and a single iTunes account, purchasing apps with a gift card so as not to leave an open tab for HyperAngry Birds 18 to be downloaded at 1 am and so on. I don’t think this is going to be a bother for students in terms of “ownership,” but I may be wrong. Of course, because of the locked down proprietary structure of the iPad, following RSS content is not totally smooth if not routed through the Apple system. For example, if students set up a Google Reader account, they can easily read blog posts, watch video, and listen to podcasts from a single location, but, alas, the Google Reader apps cannot stream podcasts and the podcast links don’t work in Safari. So, the iPad is not a one-stop shop for digital content without each student having an individual iTunes account to which the iPad is synced or unless the paradigm is teacher centered, teacher directed media consumption, which is not a way that I will operate with secondary school students. So, new question: Is there a way to make the iPad into a totally functional media machine without individual iTunes account syncing?

    Sad T-Rex struggles to type on the iPad, just like me. Thanks to ijammin.
  • Accessories – they are legion. They are expensive. They are often necessary for the functions we have come to expect from our digital companions. So, better budget for them, educators! A case is a must, a stylus comes in second place, a keyboard is awfully desirable, as I look like a Tyrannosaurus Rex typing on the thing. I’m sure there’s more…
  • The million dollar question: So far, nifty sidecar for me. But, students don’t have their hands on them.
  • New question: Is a proprietary, death-by-a-million cuts approach good for education? Do we really want to be buying lots and lots of cheap apps when the Internet used to (and, truly, still does) offer totally functional free versions of these apps?
  • And another: I’m super, super lucky to be working in a well-resourced school willing to take risks and experiment with possibilities in order to give kids the best possible learning environment. So, I have iPads. So far, it feels very extravagant. As I noted in my first reflection on the iPad for teaching, I could really use the iPad or a ringed notebook for the lesson planning function via Google Docs, and the notebook wins for ease of note-taking (funny, that). Perhaps more than a question, I have a quandary about the expense of the toy/tool/device. Will what we learn justify the expense? To that end, I’m working hard to learn as much as possible.

More questions are coming and I look forward to sharing some student questions and answers as we research the possibilities together.

Thinking About “Tools for Thinking”

Now is an amazing time to be alive, but the context of now is clearly that of the past. A case in point – what you think of the uprisings of “the Arab wave” will likely be determined by how you view the world, based on your upbringing, education, and myriad other factors. The United States is behaving in these conflicts like a griffin of sorts – half Cold War beast, half Bush doctrine hawk – and the result is a superpower behaving unpredictably. Why, exactly, does this happen?

David Brooks suggests in a recent column entitled “Tools for Thinking” that such behaviors may be attributable to certain intellectual traps, like the Einstellung effect, which he describes as trying to “solve problems by using solutions that worked in the past instead of looking at each situation on its own terms.” Beyond simply applying solutions that have worked in the past, I would argue that we often view the present as more of the past, past 2.0. Of course, the context has changed over time, wildly differing causes can lead to remarkably similar effects. Knowing this is only a little helpful, however, as it takes a truly divergent thinker to break with deep-seated instincts like the Einstellung effect.

The Einstellung effect is somewhat related to another trap labeled Path Dependance, which “refers to the notion that often ‘something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.'” Brooks gives the example of the QWERTY keyboard, which we use today across the English speaking world. The QWERTY keyboard was designed not for ergonomic ease, but to slow the typist, reducing jamming of typewriter keys, which I think we can all agree will never happen on an iPhone screen. We use the QWERTY keyboard because it’s what we use, not because it’s what we should use. The difference is clear, yet…Path Dependance rules the day.

How does this relate to the classroom? In a number of ways, I’d venture. I have a Smartboard and projector in every classroom I enter, and I use it like a chalkboard from the nineteenth century roughly 80% of the time (that may be low). We want technology in the classroom, so products are designed based on existing, low tech products – like chalkboards/whiteboards – and the problem is solved! Sort of. Not really. Part of this disconnect is the path dependent design of the tool, and part of it is my own experience and sense of classroom context. Can the Smartboard be used to get the teacher out of the front of the classroom, or students away from PowerPoints, acting as teachers in front of the classroom? I don’t see it.  Breaking the model, changing the path – here lie innovative solutions. Here we are, 1 to 1 – why use a Smartboard to share information? We could use Google docs and Dropbox over coffee and conversation in the hallway.

If you, as a student, use your tablet computer as a notebook, a textbook, or even Scott Klososky’s “outboard brain,” how engrained is the path? Can you make your tablet into a sidecar easel, a portable printing press, an onboard media studio and darkroom, a compact global network? As a teacher, what are ways for me to facilitate the path shift? I think, first and foremost, we need to bring an attitude of play into each class, removing the life-and-death, fear of failure paradigm wrapped up in our AP/IB courses and start blazing divergent paths to the top of this mountain we’ve chosen to climb (worth it or not). Creative learning is learning, and if the tests have any validity, they test learning. If they don’t have any validity, we should be smart enough to change the path.

In our brave new world, a successful thinker is a free associater, one who can draw connections between broad sets of information and create new, valuable information for wide or specific audiences. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, has something to say about this, as well, in his “Six Verbs for the New Web.” Check out the last one: Generate! If you want to make a mark, and have an audience, you must generate something new and useful, or at least fun. Can you take a fresh look at the world, de-Einstellung yourself (so, the solution is not on a single Wikipedia page, bout could be in 15 taken together), break with the path dependance of tools (see iPad), and make something new?

Can we? I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on this one.

Additional, tangentially-related, and fascinating discussion with Kevin Kelly via the good folks at Radiolab in a roughly 20 minute podcast here.

On “Modern Status”

Living in a time when 20% of all American children live in poverty, David Brooks is on a search for Jane Austen’s America. Seriously. Brooks has his eyes on the ball in “Modern Status” when he notes that there is little difference between the mannerisms and noticeable intelligence of students from Arizona State versus Harvard, but he loses any sense of critical analysis when he notes that “employers aren’t looking for genius as much as energy and clubbability” without a hint of irony. Certainly, the club that Harvard students are game to join is that which “attribute(s) superior intellectual, moral and cultural qualities to people who can get into those places.”

Indeed.

Brooks goes on to observe that “The message, which one does detect on elite campuses, is that the actual academic content to be found in these places is secondary.” I looked around, but can’t find any numbers indicating how many freshmen admitted to Harvard went to test-drilling charter schools or failing schools where all arts, music, and extra curricular activities have been restricted or cut completely, but I bet 100% of those students haven’t spent much time on their sculling stroke. The message is academics first! and they don’t even cover academics. They cover testing, because if they don’t, teachers get fired. The problem, however, goes beyond vilified teachers and students who may not fit in easily to Harvard’s secret clubs.

This argument by Brooks is exactly why money has to be invested in all public schools, and why non “core” classes must be restored with vigor and respect: the culture that these kids lose when they spend all day on math multiple choice strategies goes beyond the critical thinking, beyond even the culture of not hating boring, awful school lessons, and right to class culture. Elites value those who know how to learn and how to live. Those who know pay attention to life beyond the walls of the school, and for the most vulnerable students, that world must be brought into the schools or they’ll miss it. Underpinning Brooks’s argument is a sad reality: modern status is the status quo, reinforced, and girded by taxpayer dollars flowing into banks and out of schools.