Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Achieving balance

The summer is nearly here, though you wouldn't know it from the weather in Rhode Island this week. Our minds are easily fooled by the weather, and when I stepped outside this morning and smelled the crisp, wet-leaf air, it felt, just for a moment, like back-to-school and not the end of the school year. I'm sure my sensory confusion also has something to do with the fact that I've been on sabbatical since December 22, freed from my teaching and administrative duties for six months to rekindle the creativity and drive from within. I have been a teacher since 1994, the year I graduated from UMass Amherst with my M.Ed. and my Massachusetts 7-12 English teacher certification. I was full of fire then, my desire to affect change, to make a difference, to make a mark, fueled the gears and pistons inside of me. But, as even a hybrid car will show you, engines cannot run without fuel. After 18 years of teaching high school, completing a doctoral program and dissertation, co-founding a non-profit organization, hopping on the "tenure track" and eventually earning tenure and promotion, the brain and the body deserve a rest, a recharge, a renewal.

I am happy to say that I have achieved this goal. I've found renewal in an odd combination of lo-fi and high-tech. I've found new joy in the exploration of Nature, in drawing with a pencil, in writing cards and letters and mailing them, in resurrecting forgotten technologies in order to access old memories (slide projectors, reel-to-reel tapes, record players). I've also found joy in Twitter, where I've formed a professional development network of people I respect and want to commune with as intellectuals. I've found joy in digital comics-creating tools, in creating YouTube videos of my mandolin playing so I can share my music with others, and in creating a digital presentation using my ethnographer's skills.

I find that the slower technologies--paper, ink, stamps, magnetic tape--slow me down, too. And, I like that. The reward is in the doing, in the process, in the unfolding. It's also in the inconsistencies and idiosyncracies of these tools. ("Oh darn! The rain is smudging the fancy ink on the card! I should have used ballpoint. Oh well, I'll put it in the mail anyway and see what happens.")

The faster technologies--namely Twitter and Facebook, all accessed with one device, my iPhone--allow me to cast a wide net and catch halfway decent-sized fish very quickly. The reward is in the instant gratification. The reward is in the instantaneous publishing of, well, anything. ("Look at what I found, everyone! Make sure you read this! Right now! It's important! I'm important!)

These two modes of being--slow, deliberate and quiet and hasty, multifaceted and public--have gotten me thinking a lot about teaching and learning and schooling. As with most things in life, the answer to the riddle we are all trying so desperately to solve lies in the balance: balancing what we know about how people learn and grow with preparing young souls for the the imminent rapidity of technological change in this futureworld.

I read an article last summer about how young children in China are growing up without knowing how to create, with brush and ink (or brush and water for the novice), the individual characters of their language because they've been taught to read and write on computers and keyboards, where they press a button for a character instead of learning the brushstrokes needed to create it. Surely this isn't only happening in China. I think about the muscle memory of learning how to write, the slow, artistic process we use when we create letter after letter, words after word, the complex brain and fine motor function that we cultivate by practicing and practicing this most basic form of communication. I think about a teacher showing her students how to make letters, how to move their fingers, hands, and arms to create these abstract symbols that indicate sounds that make up words that form sentences that allow us to talk to one another, face to face and screen to screen.

I worry about losing these things--these ancient human traditions and interactions--because we are so drunk on solutions, competitiveness, and "reform." We need to resist this strong pull to let the machines and the men who own them take over our schools, our jobs as teachers and teacher educators, and our expertise. There's no balance in their "solutions;" they are quite one-sided, in fact, in that these "solutions" benefit the purveyors and not the consumers. Until we remember that balance--of the old and the new, of the slow and the quick, of the bland and the sexy--is how we achieve our fullest potential, we won't be able to "fix" anything. Balance=sanity.

Here's some further reading to get you up to speed.





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