Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Everyone Is On A Personal Journey

Post by Nancy Emmerson: Nancy has been teaching Language Arts for 21 years, 17 of those years at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Nancy on Twitter @NancyEmmerson

This is the story of a journey within a journey. The larger trek is my personal journey as an instructor born and schooled in the era of books and pencils slowly adapting curriculum to today’s technologies. It has not always been easy, and sometimes I have felt overwhelmed, but ultimately it has been and continues to be a positive, transformative journey.

The Greater Journey

Last December my husband Tim came home from work with a small chrome rectangle, and said “Check this out.” My family gathered around the device, Tim pushed a button, and a red virtual keyboard appeared on the table. “OOH!” we said. Tim synced the keyboard to the iPad, and typed. “No way! “ we said, looking at one another in disbelief and amazement at this crazy tool. “The future is NOW!”  I said.

So the future is now, which is very nice for many teachers who embrace and easily adapt to teaching with technology. Yet I come from the era of books, and as a Language Arts teacher happen to love books very much, thank you. I will continue to read, teach, and analyze books for a long time to come. Therefore the leap to technology is greater for me than it might be for others, who all around me seem to be seamlessly integrating it into their classes, while I wonder what to use, how to use it, and most importantly, how technology can make learning better for my students, who are from, and live in, the future.

The Journey within the Journey

Obviously the larger pilgrimage in this story is me as a teacher over the course of my career. The journey within the journey is a 74 hour trip to Educon 2.6 in Philadelphia to a school called the Science Leadership Academy. Going in, the question was, how can attending a conference hosted by a Science Institution and school apply to me, my subject area of Language Arts, and my students? I am pleased to report that it does, and that I was enriched and inspired by what I saw and experienced. 

At the Science Leadership Academy there was a great deal of freedom and choice on both days; go where you want, ask questions, visit classes and students. Each grade level has only 125 students, who apply and go through a rigorous interview process in order to be selected. During the site visit the school buzzed with the energy of a hive. The students were attentive, well spoken, friendly. It was hard to tell who was in class, as students were everywhere, with backpacks and hats, sitting on sofas or floors, giving tours, making coffee. One teacher ate lunch in the back of the room while her class was conducted by a student teacher; they were so busy! And although the school didn't look as shiny and new as BHS, there was a sense of purpose and pride. Class atmosphere was inclusive and serious. The students liked being there and loved showing their school to us.

According to their website, the School District of Philadelphia is the eighth largest school district in the nation, by enrollment. As of December, 2013, they have 16,827 Employees, 8,390 Teachers, and 293 Principals and Assistant Principals serving 214 District Schools educating 131,362 K-12 Students. The student population is 87.3% Economically Disadvantaged. I gather that the Science Leadership Academy and other magnet schools are a response to a serious dropout problem in horribly failing public schools. Students want to be in a magnet school if not only to escape a dangerous neighborhood school, but also, to feel as if someone cares. SLA  receives more applicants than they can take. There seems to be no special education, and no behavior problems. One boy I spoke to said he rides a bus and then a train to get to school. Another student said they can’t go off campus unless accompanied by a teacher, and that she often eats lunch off campus with her adviser. Clearly, student life in Philadelphia differs from student life in Bettendorf.

I was fortunate to have a few hours of free time after the site visit on Friday to tour Independence Hall with a few colleagues.  As I listened to the guide I suddenly felt a new, symbolic significance to being in Philadelphia as an educator. The guide explained that the 13 colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia in 1787 to try to write a constitution. They came from different places and had different needs and goals. The delegates deliberated over the document for four months. They argued, they disagreed, and before they voted, Benjamin Franklin articulated that neither the document nor its framers were perfect, but he believed in the perfectability of both. In the end they signed, for although the document may not have been perfect, they hoped for a better future together; reaching a compromise was best for all in attendance.

See the entirety of Franklin's speech here:

That future is now. The analogy is that just as the founding fathers strove for equality in the nation, teachers and students today strive for equality in education. It is a highly democratic idea that everyone deserves access to information. With 1:1 our students have access. They also need continued guidance on etiquette and navigation of the brave new transparent world we are living in. Another way we see the democratic ideals in education today is the idea of student choice and student voice.. Students will be more involved if they feel their opinions matter.

Our forefather’s desire for freedom and equality parallels what I am seeing and hearing in education in ways besides leveling the playing field by providing access to technology. At Bettendorf, teachers and administrators all have different opinions and voices; we come from differing disciplines, yet have the same shared goal, that of improving student experiences and achievement for every student in our district. How Democratic is that? Like the framers of the constitution, we also trust that moving forward together is better than going forward alone. Collaborating and discussing ideas for change and generally getting to know colleagues better was also a highly inspiring and honestly, the most enjoyable part of my experience.

One more analogy came from my visit to Independence Hall. Again, before the delegates voted on the final draft of the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin addressed the group.  Franklin, 81 years old and in poor health, had been carried to and from the meetings all summer. George Washington had headed the group, and was seated at the front of the room in a chair with a carved image of a sun. Franklin said, "I have often looked at that (sun) behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now I... know that it is a rising...sun."

See the rising sun chair here:

The chair symbolized hope for Franklin. I believe educators also channel the spirit of Franklin in our great hope of making education a personal, meaningful journey for each student. Like Franklin, we worry that our efforts may not come to fruition. Like Franklin, we must remain optimistic, and listen to voices of dissention. We know that we may not see the end results for our students, whether they will achieve success or experience failure. The most we can do is to provide a good foundation so that each student can be his or her own rising sun.

Journey as Transcendence

Before I left for Educon, my American Literature class was studying Transcendentalism. The concept under discussion was how Emerson and Thoreau were inspired by nature and intuition. I assigned my students a project, and off I went on my trip. I returned from my Educon journey and rejoined my teaching journey. My students presented their projects. A few people really went above and beyond. One student in particular blew me away with an original song he wrote, composed, and performed. He played his mandolin, and the class and I delighted in this creative culmination experience. My part in this was so little, but what he did was amazing! He took a quote from an author from the past and created a beautiful masterpiece. It was a live performance, a special moment in time, a snapshot. His song is a beautiful product that transcends the classroom. It matters; it humanizes those of us who come into contact with the melodious creation. Some talents cannot be scored by a standardized test. So finally, I strive to improve my instructional practice because, though I have been here a long time and plan to be here for a while longer, my students have one shot at it, and I want their education, and their future, to be rich and meaningful.

1 comment:

  1. Nancy -- This is a beautiful story of your journey and, really, everyone's journey! Being a former English teacher, I can appreciate where you have been, are and are going and, no matter how difficult it is for one personally, it is for the kids we take on such challenges. We want, as you said, to make education meaningful and rich for them! Thank you for all you do for our students! I appreciate you!