Hopefully all the links are intact!
Can tools shape the mind and eye? An interesting question posited by Greg McVerry (@jgmac1106) during a Twitter conversation that began with a #nofilter photograph I posted from my holiday at the beach and ended with a conversation about vision.
It’s not about technology.
At least, not really. And it certainly shouldn’t be.
Technology opens the world so that the eye can see farther than before and the mind explore ideas once hidden in isolated locales. Technology affords the ability to make connections with people and places far away by geography, but as close as the nearest computer. It’s a transformative idea for education. Textbooks become important supplemental resources to real time interaction with other cultures. Art and music become accessible to all students, even those who have no access to museums or symphonies. Tutoring is available from experts in minutes, rather than limited to scheduled sessions. Ideas can be exchanged through annotations or Twitter dialogues or shared blog posts. It is a new paradigm that shifts the learning model from one of reciting established ideas to developing new ones through unique connections.
Having said that, the elemental units of learning are unchanged. Curiosity will always drive discovery. Vision will always precede art. Necessity will always be the mother of invention. The mind and the eye are far more complex that even the most advanced artificial intelligence. The artist or reader or scientist brings himself (or herself) to the equation of learning. Experience, reason, logic, and emotion are all unique to the human mind. To see something in its parts as well as the whole is a function of the human eye. The ability to connect emotion to the parts of something seen is impossible to duplicate mechanically. The human element will always be more powerful than the technology no matter what science fiction tries to say.
One thing that #walkmyworld has demonstrated in the 20 weeks I have participated is that people are pretty much the same around the world. I understood this before, but this project illustrated the fact perfectly. The only really common ground was that the participants were involved in education and interested in technology. The learning events revealed our humanity. From the view from our front doors to the virtual high fives, we learned that we all start our days with motion and that we all appreciate encouragement, even from strangers. Maybe especially from strangers. We recognized how one poem or story can affect each person differently depending on his (or her) personal history. Make no mistake, the study of literature will never be completely free from personal interpretation. The best literature will always connect to the soul. We learned to see through the eyes of children in Australia, graduate students throughout the US, and a few (ahem) seasoned learners. We saw the importance of heroes, and the journeys each of us must take as we live out our lives.
Technology made the learning events open and available, but it was the mind and heart and willingness to risk vulnerability that made #walkmyworld work. Tools do not shape the mind and eye; the mind and eye use the tools to shape a connected culture.
Heroes among us
This week’s learning event caused me a little angst. I understand the hero’s journey in a literary sense, but we live in an age where true heroes come in unique forms.
Learning Event #9 connects the previous events into a story and a reflection. From the opening of the first door through the connections of high five, the reflections of dreams and totems, and an exploration of heroics, #walkmyworld is a journey of identity, discovery, and connection. The Story of Us is that, underneath the trappings of culture and training, we are all the same, reaching for the bright lights of a future yet unseen, pressing on toward a world that is better and brighter than the one we leave behind.
“Our story is never written in isolation. We do not act in a one-man play. We can do nothing that does not affect other people, no matter how loudly we say, “It’s my own business.”
— Madeleine L’Engle (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art)
Back in late 1988, Michael Jackson released his album, Bad. I was student teaching 7th grade in Arroyo Grande, CA at the time, and decided to create a unit about taking personal responsibility for making the world around them better. Jackson was near the height of his popularity, so I used his song, “Man in the Mirror” as my central theme. Of course, the internet didn’t exist, and even MTV was so new that it actually played music videos, but Jackson being who he was, every student knew the song. I recorded the song from the radio for reference and as a class we decoded the lyrics and analyzed them (I was cutting edge even then!) We created “mirrors” of tinfoil and constructed paper frames, writing poems on the silver about personal change. We discussed current events: the Cold War just ending, human rights issues in the Soviet Union, uncertainty over China’s policies, economic challenges in the US, drugs, drought, and increasing Anti-Semitism. The bulletin board reflected light from the foil, while the students reflected for a moment the power of attitude. I discovered the role of relevance in the classroom.
Skip ahead a whole bunch of years, and #walkmyworld again considers self reflection, addressing the man in the mirror. Looking back at the headlines from 1988 and comparing them to headlines in 2015, and the stories are largely the same: wars and rumors of wars, human rights issues around the world, uncertainty over foreign policies, economic challenges, drugs, drought, and a rise in violence in the Middle East, a symbol of increasing (again) anti-Semitism. The old aphorism, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” sings true. In his poem, “Two Fusiliers,” Robert Graves wonders, “And have we done with War at last?” The 2014 movie American Sniper was a huge box office success that told the story of the bond between war veterans because of the “wet bond of blood” they share. We have not done with war, as Graves had hoped. If anything, war is a constant in the 21st century.
So this brings me to the reflection of this week. Jackson’s song is a call to take responsibility for making the world better, not on a global scale, but by reaching out to the needy nearest us first. While we wait for governments to “fix” society, it continues its decline. The best of times are when individuals come together. We saw this as a nation in the weeks following 9/11. Jackson calls our normal state a “selfish kind of love” that needs to be replaced with personal change that makes a way to improve life for someone ELSE. It doesn’t take wealth or fame or influence to give of oneself. The smallest things matter. I have given countless hats and scarves from my own head and neck to individuals who needed them more than I. It takes just a few seconds. I have sorted shoes for donations, served lunch in rescue missions, sung in nursing homes on Christmas day, and photographed memories for strangers who couldn’t afford a photographer for their events. I’m nothing special, but I did look in the mirror back in the 1980s and vowed to make a change that makes me see others in a different way.
To take this concept to the classroom would be such a easy thing: trash collection, scrubbing dirty and graffiti tagged walls, food drives or clothing drives to replenish the stores of the local rescue mission, and any number of other things that students can imagine. Let students brainstorm ideas. Give them ownership of the new vision and give them power to make it happen. Connect the service to poetry or song lyrics and biographies of people who have given of themselves (Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eric Liddell come immediately to mind). This particular learning event can serve as a springboard to all sorts of positive changes, one student looking in the mirror at a time.
Graves, R. (1918). “Two Fusillers”. Fairies and Fusillers. Retrived from http://www.bartleby.com/120/4.html
“To sleep, perchance to dream…” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1)
How do dreams reflect identity? How does the unconscious mind become the conscious decisions of daily life or long term plans? Who am I in my dreams and can that become reality if I so desire?
This week’s learning event afforded an opportunity to consider the power of dreams, but also reflect on which dreams are worthy of pursuit.
Dreams release us from all limitations, but also bring our fears to life. Patrick Ness’ book, A Monster Calls, brings to life an old yew tree in the dreams of a boy who must find a way to cope with his dying mother. The fear of monsters parallels the fear of the disease and how it has and will continue to affect his life. As the protagonist faces the dual monsters (the tree and the cancer), he finds himself able to do things he never imagined.
Of course, it is a work of fiction, but in many ways, dreams can help us discern new ways to manage life’s stress because in dreams we are not limited to what is practical. As a teacher, some of the best lessons I’ve ever written have come either in dreams or in that twilight between waking and sleeping. Once the idea is discovered, the analytical daytime mind can begin to work out the logistics of overcoming the limitations of practicality.
Some dreams can take on a real life, as Ryan Neil demonstrates as an American Shokunin. His artistic dreams manifest in Bonsai, where he has learned to balance life and design to create living sculptures that will live for hundreds of years. This is the beauty of art, no matter what the medium. I have some skills with photography and digital manipulation, and if I were to describe an impossible dream, it would include being discovered as an artist and making a living with this kind of creativity. My logical mind, however, sees the limitations (including my inability in sales and marketing), and puts my art into the category of hobbyist.
Still, the creativity of my dreams does find its way into the classroom. I never teach the same lesson twice–even on the same day. Every class has its own personality and requires a unique approach, a certain kind of humor, and a personal touch. I use the analysis to create goals and objectives and outlines, but once class begins, I shape my lessons in much the same way Neil shapes his Bonsai art.
One element of pursuing dreams is the freedom to do so. The arts offer that kind of freedom. Today’s educational system does not. The current obsession with standardized tests, single stream learning, and strict analysis places nearly insurmountable limits on teachers. The standards themselves are not the issue, for the most part. The application of those standards, however, puts many teachers in a bureaucratic maze with only one escape route. This devalues the creative passions of the teacher as well as minimizes the students’ ability to innovate, create, and think beyond multiple choice. What will happen to the dreamers and the visionaries if they are forced to conform to a false norm? Is there a place for the Einsteins and Edisons in our elementary schools today?
Teachers must dream bigger than ever in this day of sameness. We must find new ways to talk about literature and culture and society. We must create new ways to connect content with life in relevant ways all while ensuring our students are able to perform on state test day. It is a challenge that for me has inspired a new dream. While I once dreamed of leaving a legacy in the world of visual art, I now dream of leaving a legacy in adults who, having walked into my world classroom, are not afraid to push back, who value creative problem solving, and who are able to meet ridiculous regulations with style, panache, and enough humor to know that in the long run, life is a better teacher than textbooks anyway.
Totems are not things I generally consider often. I associate them with trips to Seattle and thoughts about Alaska, but as a general rule, they’re just not on my personal radar. And then came learning event 5: http://bit.ly/walk2015le5.
By definition, a totem is a sacred object that represents a group of people connected by lineage, family, or tribe. When families are fractured, however, the ideal symbol is elusive. One side of my family may be best symbolized by wheels: trucks, race cars, go carts, and gears. The other side is less connected, some sharing a similar faith, some a love for words or music, and others deeply patriotic. There isn’t a real shared tradition or history; in fact, it is difficult to trace back even names more than two generations removed.
So the idea of a totem has to be rethought. My last 30 years have been spent creating a family with the guy I married at 22. On our 25th wedding anniversary I created a book that contained some of the best memories. It’s certainly not sacred, but it is a symbol of our life together.
“Maybe it comes and goes. Maybe it’s always there.” Jonathan Levitt
Feelings often do come and go, but the commitment represented by any totemic symbolism is always present as underscore and foundation upon which the rest is built. The challenges of mortgages, moves, career changes, and loss are balanced with the satisfaction of raising three independent young women and still actually liking each other at the end of each day.
And so, more than 30 years since our first date, our totem rises higher and higher, represented in thousands of photographs, lived out by the real people who make up our family.
For the full book, click here.
As a teacher of young adults, I am intensely aware of the search for identity and significance most young people face. My texts are often selected partly because they afford an opportunity to discuss and reflect about how one transforms from a child whose parents must be right to teens who are certain their parents know nothing to young adults who take the best of what they were taught and blend it with what they learn to become independent adult thinkers. However, the more I consider the concept of identity, I recognize the transitory nature of knowing the self.
This particular learning event coordinates with my focus word for 2015, chosen because my own life is in a transition not unlike the one from child to adult. This is the year I turn 50, an age once upon a time I considered old (and I am certain most high schools students think of 50 as one step from the grave). This is the year I complete my M.Ed., officially become an empty-nester, and embark on a career path still uncertain. So, I reflect: Who am I? Am I the sum of my beliefs? My experiences? My surroundings? All of these? None of these?
This week #walkmyworld encouraged my to consider my own identity, apart from the roles I play as woman of faith, wife, mother, daughter, educator, artist, writer, runner, coach, musician, photographer, student, blogger, and friend. I have always considered myself a modern Renaissance woman because my interests and skills are diverse. On the worst of days, I call myself a “Jill of all trades, mistress of none.” On the best days, I manage to do some pondering, some crafting, some writing, and some exercise, feeling very accomplished in the process. Either way, these are things I DO, not necessarily who I AM.
Pardon me for a moment while I consider the importance of understanding the changing nature of identity as taught by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth in the mid 50s CE: 11 “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” Paul here sets up his argument that identity as a believer requires change over time. He uses familiar language to make his point, comparing physical change to spiritual change. The fluidity of identity must be addressed periodically throughout life in order to truly know the self beyond the activities of life.
This is the reason I chose “identity” as my word for the year. And this is what makes this particular learning event important for both students and educators. We are ever evolving as we learn and think. Projects like #walkmyworld expand our horizons and expose the participants to cultures and ideas that may not be otherwise known. For teachers, it can form an unexpected Professional Learning Network (PLN) wherein ideas from one side of the world can find a place in the other. Students who participate may develop friendships in unexpected ways. In sharing bits of our worlds, we begin to see our individual identities as they stand at the moment. When we open our worlds to others, we also enter the worlds of others, and this new information may well alter our identity, affording us the opportunity to change and grow and morph into the next “version” of self.
It’s a mind-expanding idea: identity is fluid, changed by time, experience, relationship, and ideas. Understanding that, however, eliminates the identity-confused “mid-life crisis,” because instead of fearing great life change, one may anticipate with excitement whatever is next. Who I was at 18 is certainly not who I am at (nearly) 50. The things that I do influence the way that I think. The relationships I form in person or via digital means add to the depth of how I understand the world. Every day that I learn, I grow up a little bit more. Growing up, but never getting old.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
There comes a time in every project where the unexpected happens and things just get better. This is true of #walkmyworld. This week’s learning event was a “virtual high-five” intended to allow participants to create community within the broader scope of the project. In a sense, #walkmyworld became a portal to an affinity space (Gee) wherein participant made new connections based on a common interest. Some participants high-fived each other for classroom interactions or favorite foods or exercise. These new revelations created bonds between people who have never met–and possible never will in a non-digital environment. Some shared inspiration, some silliness (never, ever take yourself too seriously!), and others posted adorable images of baby animals. A few even reached out for employment, which was unexpected, but hopefully led to something great!
I happened to observe a familiar mug in one post: an exploding TARDIS. For many people (maybe most, but I cannot fathom why), this detail may have gone undetected, but for me, a dedicated nerd, this homage to Doctor Who made me happy. I quickly poured a cuppa for myself and sent a high-five to the poster. Someone saw that and added a favorite, along with a comment about her Van Gogh TARDIS mug. And there we were: three Whovians from different places who also happened to be educators participating in a common project.
It was fun to connect and talk about something fun and trivial even as we pretended we were participating in an educational learning event.
It just doesn’t get better than that. Unless you add fish sticks and custard.
Gee, J.P. (2009). Affinity Spaces: From Age of Mythology to today’s schools. Retrieved from: http://www.jamespaulgee.com/node/5