Our Continuous Opportunity to Learn

This Thanksgiving, my husband and I travelled to San Francisco for a four day get away. We hit the regular tourist hot spots including Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, the Cable Cars and a 49ers game. We also took a trip to Alcatraz, getting a firsthand look at the infamous prison. We took the audio tour where we were each given a pair of headsets allowing us to hear the voices and stories of the prisoners and the prison guards as we walked through the corridors. This experience impacted me much more than I anticipated. The best way I can describe my emotion is to compare it to a disturbing but true movie, where you are glad you watched but don’t really need to see it again. For the first thirty minutes, we saw the cells, heard about the prison conditions and read about the prisoners who resided at Alcatraz. Regulation #5 was posted throughout the jail reading “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.”

As we turned the corner, we walked into the prison library. I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion. I held back tears as I read about the library. The prisoners who had no physical freedom were able to earn the right to education, or mental freedom. They were permitted to order books or register for distance education classes. The average prisoner read 70-100 books per year to create a mental escape from their reality. The books became their hopes and dreams. In an institution where metal bars jailed their bodies, the library freed their minds and allowed them to learn. Some of the prisoners embraced this opportunity and developed skills and knowledge preparing them for life after prison. Near the end of the tour, we learned about four prisoners who left Alcatraz after their sentence and became contributing members of society, giving back in their communities and helping deter youth from a life of crime. This is such a wonderful example of the power of education and the power of restorative practices. Education is freedom.

This Thanksgiving I reflect on my own life and realize I have so much to be grateful for. I am thankful for my friends, my family, my amazing husband our boys, my career and my health. After visiting Alcatraz, I am also thankful for the learning opportunities that exist all around me. In any moment I can choose to read a book, engage in dialogue, sign up for a course, Google a topic or visit a library to improve my understanding of the world. We have the continuous opportunity to learn and for that I am thankful!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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A is for Apple…

Last spring I took the morning off work to take my seven year old son to the doctor.  On the way back from his appointment it crossed my mind that he may be hungry.  Knowing I had an apple in my work bag, I turned slightly from my driver’s seat and asked Jaden if he would like an apple.  His face lit up like Christmas morning and with excitement he exclaimed “Yes! I want a new IPod-touch!”   You can imagine his disappointment as I explained that I was only offering him a piece of fruit.  Moments like these are humourous, yet they also bring to light the way technology is changing the way our children grow up and the way they experience the world. 

When I compare my childhood to my children’s childhood I can see that we are living similar experiences though technology is changing how these experiences happen.  Many of us grew up watching cartoons on Saturday morning.  Today, my children set the PVR and watch their favourite cartoons when it is convenient in their schedule.  My brother and I used to collect pop cans as kids and we would save our money for a trip to the store for a new toy.  My boys also love to spend their money on something new but more often than not, they choose eBay over the toy store.  They have discovered that Pokemon toys are much cheaper if they order them from Hong Kong so they often spend their allowance on PayPal purchases and wait three weeks for their favourite toys to arrive in the mail.  They use their IPod to record music, take photos and play video games.  They use the computer to write stories, create and share artwork, and print colouring sheets.  Their computer skills are phenomenal, and unlike when I grew up, they are learning the keyboard at the same time they are learning to write on paper. These experiences shape how they learn, despite the fact that the concepts and knowledge they are acquiring are for the most part the same. 

For children, their ability to use technology seems natural as each experience is new for them and they do not have a pre-defined method of completing their tasks.  For adults, we need to re-think how we do things which sometimes requires a greater adjustment.  My mother has recently learned to text, to program her PVR and to read on a Kindle; although we have a ways to go before she will be able to understand some of the other capabilities of her smart phone such as photography or recording music.  When I think back to the past year, I am amazed at how many changes I have made as an adult adjusting to new technology.  I use my I-Pad rather than paper to take notes in meetings, I create to do lists on my phone, I use Twitter to share articles about education and I have replaced the traditional photo albums with online photo books.  I use the Starbucks app to scan my morning purchase, use the EEBA app to budget our family finances and I track my fitness goals and weight through health related apps.  When I told one of my colleagues I was using the phone to record my weight every day she looked at me in disbelief and said “you do that on your work phone?”  When I affirmed this, thinking that the worst that could happen would be that someone would discover my weight she replied with “you stand on your phone?”  Just as my son’s comment had drawn attention to the changes technology is making on childhood, this comment drew attention to the shift we experience as adults re-teaching our brains how to complete functions in a different way.

As an educator, technology has changed the way we communicate with parents and students.  Every adult in our building uses email and many have created their own websites to share lessons and homework expectations.  Our library has grown exponentially as our librarian has embraced the digital world and resources available.  We use Facebook daily to send school messages to students, as the response time is almost immediate and yields faster results than the old fashion daily announcements read over the PA or posted on paper.  Social media provides insight into the social relationships that impact our students and the emotional wellbeing of our kids.  Our counsellors and youth workers are often made aware of issues kids are struggling with through their Facebook status updates or their tweets.

As our world changes rapidly, we as educators need to stop and ask ourselves “What role does technology play in school?”  At our recent professional development day, I was surprised by the range of answers this question provoked amongst our staff.  Some feel that schools would be better without technology while others are on the cutting edge of technology and wanting to purchase the newest and fastest devices.   Some focused on the limitations we face with school budgets and bandwidth issues.

Personally I feel that we owe it to our students to understand how they are learning.  As educators, we need to model learning, and we need to have a vested interest in understanding the students we work with.  Perhaps we will not shift how we do our weekly tasks, but an awareness and understanding will only enhance the options we have when we develop lessons or plan activities for our students.  Who knows? Perhaps what we learn will leave a lasting impact and teach an old dog a new trick.  Technology has certainly allowed us the opportunity to see ourselves as learners as our students are often able to teach us the latest technological skills.

Our world is changing rapidly and entrepreneurs in our society are busy finding ways that technology can improve our lives.  Whether or not these changes ‘improve our lives’ may be a personal opinion though I believe there are some fundamental principles we must address as educators. 

First, we need to teach our students how to filter the information they are bombarded with.  Knowledge is no longer a scarce commodity shared amongst the educated.  Instead, knowledge is available, free of charge, almost instantaneously through Google or the Khan Academy. Even Harvard University offers lectures free of charge to the online audience.  As educators we need to continue to teach content, but we must put even more emphasis on how our students sift through content, ask questions and think critically about the information they are gathering.  These skills have always been important but as access to information grows exponentially, so must our ability to process information effectively.  Our students’ information literacy and ability to learn will become more important than what they learn.  As teachers we need to keep up with our students, continue to learn, and see ourselves as facilitators guiding the learning process rather than subject experts teaching kids.

Second, I feel it is important to speak the language our students speak.  If they are using Facebook to communicate, we need to at least understand this process so we can take care of our kids.  We need to educate them about the dangers of social media, and teach them how to use social media as a positive way to connect and network with others.

Third, in a time when education budgets are tight, we need to be creative and understand that the students may have the solution.  A teacher on our staff recently shared that he gives the same assignment, and discussed the learning outcomes that the students need to achieve but he allows the students to choose the medium of their project.  If they want to integrate technology into their project or present through an online medium they are welcome to do so.  We also need to be aware that our students already own many of the latest gadgets, long before the schools have the ability to purchase them.  Many if not most of our high school students have smart phones with them in class.  Teachers teaching in a regular classroom can group students in teams and have each group access the internet through their phones to find answers to questions or ideas to explore.  Sometimes these changes to education don’t cost a thing.  Vancouver School Board recently embraced this idea and launched their BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) campaign to encourage students to bring their phones and laptops to school. Encouraging students to bring their own device seems easier to implement than trying to police technology and asking everyone to keep their phones off.  In fact, asking for technology to stay out of schools may be near impossible.  Last year our school experienced an emergency situation where we needed to put the school on lockdown as a preventive measure as there was an intruder in the area.  When I announced the lockdown over the PA system, I asked teachers to turn on their email for further detail.  It took me three minutes to correspond with police and send out the first email.  However, a local radio station broadcasted that we were on lockdown just 90 seconds after my PA announcement.  Students had used their phones to contact parents the second the announcement was made.  We discovered that our ability to send out accurate information and update people as much as possible kept everyone calm and safe.  Trying to refrain from using technology during emergency situations may only lead to chaos, especially for people on the outside who are worried about the students.  

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we as parents and educators need to help our children understand when to turn technology off.  Family dinners will be more meaningful when families have face to face conversations rather than texting friends during the meal.  Allowing face to face friendships to develop serves us well as children and adults. Facebook has re-defined the definition of a ‘friend’ and it is important that we let face to face authentic friendships develop.  We can help our children get a good night sleep by allowing them downtime without technology before they go to bed.  We also know that students who do not have computers in their room are less likely to stay up all night checking their Facebook and Twitter.

Personally I know that I am often able to find the answer I am looking for when I turn the gadgets off.  Having time to self-reflect allows our character to develop and allows us the opportunity to discover our inner voice.  Technology is here to stay, and it is shifting the way we learn.  Our challenge is no longer what to learn, but rather how to learn, and deciding when we should welcome technology and when we should turn it off.  Although I embrace the impact technology has had on my family, I am still hesitant to book a camping trip at a campsite offering free wireless service.  Sometimes it’s nice just to get away with friends and family, power down, pack up the cooler, and enjoy an ‘old fashioned’ type of apple.