I’ve spent a great part of my life researching sensory experiences, sensory integration, and how children learn through their senses. Why? Because, for years, we were walking the journey of parents, trying to help their child. A child whose senses were terribly out of balance from the world. She could feel the drops of water, individually on her skin when stepping out of the pool. Not feel in awareness, but a sting. She saw the intensity of light in a way that I still can’t explain, but that made a 5 year old say traffic was “a beautiful sight” because of the sea of red glow in front of us. She’s challenged everything I thought I knew and opened my eyes to everything I’m ready to know. You know that thing about our kids teaching US more than we teach them. Fact.
Now when I watch kids, at 4, at 6, at 8, take the world in, I see their senses. I see them smelling the paper. I see them touching the cardboard. I see them listening to the sounds of beads pouring into a bucket. I see their sticky fingers and watch them use too much tape. Places where I used to intervene, I now know to be quiet. I now understand how precious these experiences are.
Maybe, because these experiences were always a challenge, always different than expected, always bigger when I thought they’d be smaller. They were drops of water on the skin. Most of us don’t notice when we walk from the pool, most of us don’t experience the greatness when we go under and that stinging ceases. Most of us don’t get the blessing of being so aware. The raw look at senses.
Being fully aware is a gift. It allows us to question. Technology is a huge passion of mine– I’ll be in line to get iPhone X and I wore the Apple Watch as soon as I could get one. But, balance. The work of people like Seymour Papert who believed that technology was a vehicle for kids to create and construct and Friedrich Froebel who knew that hands on play was the vehicle kids needed. We can never throw out this work in favor of selling a kit or promoting a product that doesn’t take kids needs fully into account.
I find myself torn. Google tools are exciting. AR and VR. All the hardware, Pi, Arduino, LittleBits, drones, and I could go on. It’s all got the potential to be meaningful, to add to great experiences for kids. But, meaning. Those senses are calling. Raw learning. To me, in my heart, making encapsulates all that is good and raw. And necessary.
I am left thinking, just because I CAN stick an ipad in the hands of kids in our world and they CAN manipulate it, should I? Where are the sensory experiences? Where is the texture? The smell? the crinkle of materials? The resistance of the tape roll? Virtually, it’s not there. We can help our kids get ready for the future whether they learn to manipulate system preferences, taps, and clicks at 4 or at 10.
So, in the same way that I worked so very hard to help my child balance her senses all those years, I will work in the same way to find learning balance. The balance between raw and digital. And that’s what the experiences that I hope to plan in the classroom can be about. Raw learning. Technology used for creating. Incorporating sensory experiences in all of those things along the way. Developing all the things that will never be obsolete: resilience, joy, optimism, problem solving, flexible thinking. Ever tangle with a tape roll? Trust me, all those things.
Anyone who has ever created anything will tell you, you create with your whole being. Not just sight. Never just touch. Your senses working together to take your experiences from the environment and turn them into something that ONLY YOU can conceive of. And that? It’s what makes it so awesome. Raw creativity. Magic. It’s the reason I can’t settle for recipe learning. I can’t settle for finding all my lessons or teaching scripts on the internet, from someone else’s heart or soul. It’s the reason our kids, the ones right in front of us, hold the answers to our classrooms.
Our future is technology filled, that’s a given. But, it’s what our kids do with the power of combining their hearts and souls, their learning, the raw materials WITH that technology. it’s that. Kids come to us with millions of ideas, and it’s our job to help them feel the confidence to take those ideas and bring them to life. Technology might make that possible, but it will be our guidance and our getting out of their way… that’s when the magic will unfold.
Harvey swept across Texas and Louisiana in a literal whirlwind, and stayed. For so many days people watched water creep it’s way into their homes, the homes of their neighbors, family and friends. Communities shut down. People kept in touch with each other via various technological devices. Rescues via boat, helicopter, and open arms were bigger than the storm. For days, and honestly, I can’t really even tell you how many, I watched Coast Guard and Navy helicopters fly across our back yard, knowing what they meant. Someone else was in trouble and help was on the way. With every single chopper, I’d think the same thing, “Please let them be okay, too.”
I don’t know if you could be in the city and not have been changed, forever, by the events that unfolded. Whether you were directly affected by the winds, the floods, or the storms that continued, or indirectly affected as the experienced the knowledge of people you love being torn from their homes by rising waters. Either way, Harvey’s presence isn’t one that will soon, if ever, be forgotten.
It’s what has happened after Harvey that will also stay with me forever. The outpouring of love, literally flooding the city with kindness, and literally coming over the people of Houston like a wave of absolute support. It’s THAT which I will forever marvel at.
I honestly couldn’t wait to return to school. Maybe it was for the normalcy it would provide. Maybe it was to see colleagues I’d been incredibly worried about. Maybe it was to hug the kids in our community. Probably all of those things. But the week we returned, I walked into a classroom and a student hugged me and said, “Was your home okay?” I nodded, “Yours?” and she nodded. And we both smiled at each other. It was a hello smile, a happy to see you smile, an “I’m so glad you are okay,” smile. It was empathy, deep and alive. It honestly makes tears form in my eyes when I think about it. For we all know too well here, there are so many who are not okay just yet. They are grateful to be alive, grateful to have each other, and at the same time– hard at work to rebuild their lives. Normal will never be the same, but Houston will reach a “new normal” as we all try to figure out what that looks like and for those of us who still have a bit of normal, we’ll work hard to help others find theirs.
For me, every single moment now feels bigger. I honestly though they already were as big as possible. You cannot work with children and fail realize the size of each moment. Kids have a way of reminding us. Relationships in education are everything. I know that. I knew that. We all know that. I now know it on a level I can’t truly describe. Every conversation with a kid, every talk with a colleague, every little bit of every single day. Because in those little tiny, itty bitty bits of life we can find the biggest, most gigantic amounts of good. Ginormous good. If there were a rating scale for good, this kind is beyond Category 5. Off the charts.
I suppose, after all this, I’ve learned, or been reminded deeply, of something. It’s those times in our lives that are the worst, hardest, and most difficult… the storms… that change us. For it’s those same stories that end with some sort of good, some raw unfiltered joy that lands there. The only way I can even describe it are the words of the brilliant Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Harvey may have left a crack in the city of Houston, but nobody was prepared for the light that would flow in.
I’m reading Lifelong Kindergarten. I’ve been obsessed with the Lifelong Kindergarten at MIT since I visited there a few years ago. Legos, Scratch, the Logo Turtle, and so much creative inspiration about learning in ONE place. So many thoughts are running through my head as I read, I’m asking myself a lot of questions. I’m rethinking the way I look at technology learning. I feel a shift. I feel some things becoming more important that we just didn’t need or know to consider several years ago. We’re beyond tools. We’re living in a world immersed in technological advances. It’s exciting and it’s daunting. And it’s something we constantly have to be adjusting our awareness of. I’m not saying the answers to these questions are yes, no, or maybe. I’m just saying I’m trying to raise my own awareness of what I need to consider as we move forward in our exciting, fast paced, technological learning world.
Am I teaching and modeling how to learn without the constant distraction of technology?
Am I providing kids the chance to not only choose which tool is best to use, but also consider that technology may not be the best tool to use?
Am I fully present in the conversations with learners, without the distraction of a device or glitzy tool?
Am I constantly considering student privacy and their rights whether they are 4, 10, or 18 years old?
Am I helping kids understand that just because we CAN share everything online, doesn’t mean it’s always the best idea?
Am I encouraging kids to think about how doing acts of kindness matter JUST as much whether done in secret or shared with a selfie that earns 1400 likes?
Am I helping kids understand that the VERY most important devices are their imaginations and providing the chance for them to fully rely on their own thoughts?
Am I quiet often enough to allow thinking to go deep?
Am I honoring that kids are often less enamored by devices and tools than adults are?
Am I stepping aside to allow the students to figure out the way?
Am I fully valuing the tactile acts of building with blocks, cardboard, and raw materials?
Am I listening with a teacher’s ear to give answers or with a learner’s ear to gain understanding?
Am I spending personal time outside my classroom doing something creative so that I can remember the importance of it?
Am I honoring the introverts just as I am the extroverts with balance and thought?
Am I striving to help kids create their learning story or am I busily designing my own?
Am I taking the time to notice each and every learner, each and every day?
Am I still learning? That answer I know for sure. Every single day. That moment we think we have everything figured out and are finished learning? That’s when we are finished teaching.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we teach technology skills to kids. More so, how much that has changed. When I think back to my first year of teaching, in a classroom with just one computer and printer, I don’t recall more than small group web quests, the occasional math game students could play, and the biggest display we had in class was an overhead projector. I blinded myself. A lot. Just me and my marker smeared hands. The next level was a 2:1 classroom with desktop computers. We created movies. We recorded podcasts. We used websites to explore and learn. We also played games to practice skills. I can remember someone popping into my public school classroom of 28 kids, all on a computer, staring at a screen, playing a game and he exclaimed, “Wow, this IS the future. They are all SO engaged.” I can also remember thinking, they are NOT engaged. I was horrified. The movies we made? That was true engagement. The research the kids did to prepare. The stories they wrote. The scripts they recorded. That was engagement and collaboration at it’s finest. Those kids, a classroom mixture of special education, gifted and talented, and some students in both categories… they taught me HOW to teach. It was the year I learned to get out of their way. The year I took a backseat in the car that they were driving… fingers gripping tightly, tires screeching at times, but their journey.
Just a few years later, or maybe more than I want to admit, the landscape of technology in the classroom has shifted. Those giant desktop computers that I couldn’t see around are now small, mobile laptops. The iPad or tablet fits in hands and allows creation to happen at numerous levels. The movie that previously took days to render now can be easily customized with fancy kid-created music and published in a heartbeat. A quick share. There’s now the ability to capture anything and everything.
Technology is portable. TV is flashier. Everything in our world moves, beeps, jumps, zaps. It’s no wonder that fidget spinners were recently born. Gifs. Videos. Clicks. Rinse. Repeat.
But there’s a new art to it all. The art of stillness. We are living in the time with the GREATEST creative potential on tiny devices in our hands and pockets. But our imagination will always be the very thing that provides the greatest potential. Slowing down, listening, thinking, and dwelling on a thought is an important skill. Iteration of a design takes time, persistence, feedback, and resilience. Clicking and tapping often doesn’t take much thought, it’s often a knee-jerk reaction. A mere fill-in-the-blank exercise. Stillness and wrestling in your mind? It forces you to be uncomfortable with your own thoughts. It also forces you to realize that you may indeed be wrong. That uncomfortableness contains all the ingredients that stoke a creative fire. It’s messier than clicking and tapping. More humbling. Far harder to clean up. But you know what? It’s necessary and far more rewarding. Deeper. There is no undo button.
Did you know the Saturn V rocket that got man to the moon did so on the technological power of a dollar store calculator? Those who made that rocket wrestled with that problem. Tried. Failed. Rose up in resilience. Literally watched unmanned crafts explode on launch pads over and over and over. All along, they practiced the art of stillness. Listening. Reflecting. Thinking. Solving. They were working without the undo button. They only had each other and lots and lots of practice.
Not every lesson will lead us to the moon, but I hope our kids can slow down and experience the stillness of deep thought. There’ll be no pop up or gif to tell them to listen. It will be up to them. Self-reliance in a world in motion. Imagination set into orbit and us along for their journey. Their small steps tomorrow might just be a giant leap for the future. And if we’re not careful, we’ll all be too busy clicking and tapping to discover it.
This post may not be a popular one and may even offend some. That is not my intention. I’m only speaking personally about what feels right for me as an educator and want to dig deeper into the topic on this recent NYTimes post. .
First of all, I get it. In the world of education, teachers are often undervalued, taken for granted, and those that take the risk to do something innovative? Prepare to take that path alone in your school or district. Schools around our country are limiting travel experiences, taking away professional development funds, and often struggle to purchase the latest and greatest devices… or even ones that work. It’s a true fact, not even an exaggeration. And I feel bad for complaining, because the schools I’ve been in, urban, suburban, and rural, still likely had more than many. I’ve worked in schools where I was not allowed to travel out of state or attend any conferences and I was always desperate to push my thinking and learn. It’s why I fell in love with edcamp and connecting online in the first place. But the atmosphere online is not what it once was.
As it turns out, teachers also have an incredible passion for their work, for their students, and will do just about anything to be sure they can provide for their students. Even when that means spending their own money or taking their own spare time to make it happen. Even when that means accepting offers and becoming a part of something bigger than your classroom or school. One minute nobody wants to hear about your new idea, the next you’re signing a non-disclosure agreement and giving input on products you use with your students. It’s easy to see why someone would be drawn in. Like a moth to a flame… we fly toward the light. Especially if we feel at all like that light will burn brighter for our students.
Imagine how things get complicated when companies make offers like, “We’ll send you to ___ conference.” or “Promote this on your blog, we’ll pay you.” Or, “Here, sell this resource you created on our site and give us 60% of your profits.” It’s not hard to understand why this is lucrative. Every company has an Ambassador program now – it’s so overdone it’s becoming the norm. I mean, as teachers we’re often excited about our ideas– like kids-on-Christmas-morning-excited. Find an audience that shares our enthusiasm? We are so in. All in. Like, completely.
You mean someone will PAY me to talk about this product? Someone will PAY me for my idea? The dark side to this? Either sell your idea, or I can guarantee you, someone else will. They’ll take it, package it, and profit. It’s happening. It makes you wonder, should I have been selling this myself? It makes you feel like you are less of an educator because you are choosing not to sell your ideas or monetize your blog. You are just you – not a brand – and you constantly have to ask yourself, is this enough? Am I making the right choice for myself? Should I be selling more of my ideas? If I do sell this, who owns it – my school or me? Should I be saying yes to that book offer? If I create resources for my classroom, who owns them? Do I need to use my own device on my own time? Should I put these posters online and sell them so I can pay for my child’s college fund? So many questions, so many complicated answers.
But there is one question that has an easy answer…
Who is truly benefitting in all of this? At first, it may seem completely that the teacher is. It may seem, on the surface like a win win. You scratch the company’s back, they’ll scratch yours. That it’s all set up to benefit learning. That these companies are “celebrating teachers” and providing a platform to “make extra money.” But, a deeper look? Businesses are. Free advertising, teachers sharing experiences at less of a cost that traditional methods of “spreading the good word” about the product? The teachers are hooked – making money and supplementing already stretched tight income, earning free things for their classrooms because they love their kids.
When I see a company offering to celebrate and empower teachers, I’m leery. We are in the midst of an era defining social media use. The advertising game is constantly evolving. The internet allows EVERYTHING to be monetized. I’ve done the class Twitter account, had experiences where my kids tweeted with an astronaut, people around the world, and built relationships with other classes from our small town. I could tell you a million great stories about the joyful experiences we’ve gained. I even met one of my very best friends because of a shared experience with a space shuttle launch.
But I can tell you, the bottom line is, I’m not a brand. I’m a person. And if I ever feel that that’s not enough, I shouldn’t be in this field. Because the truth is, it’s harder enough to become who you truly are meant to be, without trying to be a brand, too. And at the end of the day, I’m just not sure the payoff is big enough for our kids in our world. And that will always be my bottom line.