Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Technology: a Blessing with Responsibility

Technology: a Blessing with Responsibility
Each day, we see students as young as elementary school age weaving through schools with cell phones in their hands. They check text messages and social media more fluidly than many of their parents. Tweeting, snap chatting, instagramming…they do it all.
If we take only a quick look at the technology picture around us, we can be fooled by what it means. One perspective is that every student holds a cellular key to the world in his or her hand or pocket. Is it true though? Why is it important to even ask?
I was recently confronted by this question in a new way. Why? It’s partially due to the ongoing thrust of technology and the encouragement to use it across education.
Each week I stumble upon new apps or websites that could enhance learning or teaching in some way. Some offer promise in my classroom; others present solutions to students.
In as far as I appreciate this, I am forced to take pause for thought. Do the many hours of digital content creation benefit all students?  Do all students have equal access to the content? Am I somehow blocking out or marginalizing certain students as I increase the volume of digital content? Am I unwittingly supporting the creation of a culture of haves and have-nots?
I think that it is important to consider these questions for the benefit of my students. Quickly asking my classes about their access to technology one day, I learned that at least 2 students in each class have no cell phone and that another 2-4 lack smartphone access. Many of those who own phones have very limited data plans. Furthermore, each class is represented by at least one person who has no internet access at all, not even at home.
A quick and plausibly helpful response to this question is to point out the access to school and public library computers. Thoughtful as the thought may be, a challenge arises when we think this way. If I ask students to use their lunch time in the library, and their evening time at a local library, I am, in a manner of thinking, penalizing them. Not having internet access at home consigns them to study in a specific place and in a specific timeframe, which may not be possible. May I presume that my students’ lives match up with library hours? Do all students have transportation to a local library? Am I necessarily the only teacher asking students to work online? Will the 30 minutes of allowed internet computer time at the public library suffice for the work assigned? Do we unintentionally grant educational partiality to the students who have easy access to the electronic tools that we use or build? 
James 2:1 reminds us to, “…show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ…”
These thoughts challenge me as a teacher and as a parent who fully supports the creation of digital learning materials. Access to quality learning can go a long way toward leveling the educational playing field and help slower learners. Giving students around-the-clock access to reviews and practice components is a beautiful gift that a teacher can offer. 
Nonetheless, I would challenge fellow teachers(and continue challenging myself) to spend some time considering how we can guarantee equal access to necessary learning and offer all of our students equal space for their education, all the while supporting each student in our classes and avoiding unintentional partiality.
I invite you to respond to this blogpost and join the conversation.
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Friday, November 20, 2015

Caring for our Students through the Work we Assign

November 20, 2015

Caring for our Students through the Work we Assign

When I was young, I worked on my grandfather’s farm from February until the harvest in the fall.
One day during our lunch break, my grandfather began reminiscing about the “good old days”.
Whenever grandpa told a story, we listened, partially because he didn’t tell very many stories. It also owed to the fact that his dry sense of humor usually left you laughing, if you listened well.

Grandpa related a story from growing up during the Great Depression and how, to help get people back to work, certain jobs were created. One particular job that Grandpa could remember was the moving of dirt. Each morning, when Grandpa and the other men arrived on the job site, they were handed their shovels and work gloves and sent to the task of moving a pile of dirt and gravel from one side of a work site to the other. By the end of the day, if the men worked hard, the job would be complete. Then they would sign out and go home, just as the second shift arrived. 

After some time on the job, the men were getting the hang of their work and found some shortcuts, helping them to complete their task more efficiently. It was, nonetheless, hard and time-consuming work. The men did it, because it was, after all, work. They also did the work under the assumption that it was accomplishing something of value—maybe for construction of a new road…

One day, my grandpa returned to the job site after his shift had gone home. He had forgotten his hat and wanted to pick it up. When he arrived, he saw something very confusing.  The very pile of dirt that his team had spent the morning and early afternoon moving from one place to the another was being moved back to the point from which it had come. He shook his head and probably grumbled something savory.

Grandpa still went to work the next day, but not out of a desire to move dirt, not out of a sense of purpose. He simply went for the money that he needed.

As his story continued, it became clear that my cousin and I were supposed to learn something from listening.  The two of us had been complaining about hoeing the bean patch that morning, and Grandpa appeared to be making a point.  When we asked him what that point was, he told us.

He said, “The work I give you boys has a purpose. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t give it to you. I’m not interested in wasting your time or mine.  Hoeing the beans keeps the weeds out and puts oxygen in the soil.”  
He waited and looked at our faces for understanding. Then he continued. “The work that I had on that worksite looked like it had a purpose, but at the end of the day, we were just moving dirt around for money.  Then, the next day, we moved it again. If I did that to you, you would have a good reason to complain, but this work in the dirt is getting something important done.”

We told Grandpa that we understood, and he smiled and said, “By the way, I have a pile of dirt out behind the greenhouse.  If you want to move it, you can.”  

I still don’t know if he was joking. We never went to see.

This memory came back as I read the following word from Philippians this morning.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

As teachers or anyone else in a position of assigning work for that matter, we remember that the people doing the work we assign need to be able to trust in the meaning and purpose of the work we give.  If its purpose is hard to see or questionable, we run the risk of losing trust. 

One way of showing care and compassion for our students is by showing them the value in the work they do, by sharing the short, medium, and long-term vision.  We show it by connecting what they are doing now to what they can do with it later.  Flippant phrases like, “It is to help you learn how to think” carry little value. 

Both the story and the verse challenged me to look again at the material I teach, the units I create, the homework and study guides that I provide.  Am I being careful to care for my students?  Am I showing this to them by looking to their interests in humility?  Am I valuing them, their work, and their time?  Am I valuing them by giving them work with true value?

How about you?

Monday, November 2, 2015


As I grew up, I listened to my grandparents, great aunts and uncles and my parents spin stories of “the good old days.”  
“Great Grandpa did this…,” my grandma would begin.  
“Oh yea,” My great aunt would reply, “Well, Aunt Beatrice did that…” 
As I sat and listened, my imagination ran wild with pictures, some of which were actually based on places I had visited and people I had known.  I pictured younger versions of the people before me, and my mind’s video editor filled in the rest of the picture for me.
Recently I listened to a podcast about the brain and what is happening when we use language.  In the podcast, Dr. Ginger Campbell interviewed Ben Berger about his book, Louder than Words. Listening to this podcast, I took away some wonderful insight that helps me as a teacher, and it easily connects to stories and teaching. As it turns out, the excitement that helps us remember all of the stories of childhood has its basis in science and how we are made.
It seems that when you describe something to me, many different parts of my brain are built to jump on the task and help me understand what you are saying. For instance, if you share a story with many visual details, my visual cortex activates in a way similar to when I am actually looking at the thing being described. The same is true if you tell me a story full of action.  When you do this, my motor cortex fires up and works in a way much like when I am doing the actions myself.
This information is really important to me when I teach.  When I tell a story to my students, I understand that their brains do many things to engage the material, classify it and organize it.  What seems to be an intellectual process of remembering, turns out to be even more than that, and it is due to something called “embodied simulation” 
By telling a story full of visual imagery, action, and pathos, I am connecting with my students, drawing them in, and helping their minds prepare to grasp what I am teaching. If I succeed in telling the story well, I stand the opportunity of engaging my listeners kinesthetically, visually, and aurally, all at once.  This is important because each person learns differently.
More than, though, we are naturally curious beings.  We want to connect and be connected to those around us.  A story can help achieve this connection for us. It worked for the ancient Greeks with their oral tradition, and it can work for us.
So, who is your audience?  What do you have to share or teach?  How can you use a story to reach your listeners?  
If you have a story to share, please share it.
For an excerpt for the book, Louder than Words, copy this link and paste it in your web browser:

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Where are they coming from and where are they going?

The new school year has begun(a new season), and like many other teachers, I have come out of a summer planning period of imagining where I would like to see my students in several months, if not in two to three years.  As I planned, I saw specific students in my mind.  I wondered how they were experiencing life the past months and where they will be emotionally and academically.  Looking to the end, or at some projected point out in the future, I worked through the content of my teaching to try and prepare the groundwork for the next year.  It required reflection on the previous year, understanding of the students who would be coming to my class and creativity.  

None of this comes as a surprise.  In fact, teaching is only one of many professions that calls for this type of activity.  Business, medicine, law, psychology, etcetera call the professional to look back and look forward to preparing.  

While preparing, though, a theme from Genesis 16:8 (ESV) came to mind.  When Hagar had run from Abram and Sarai, God spoke to her and asked: “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”.  When I hear these questions coming from God to Hagar, I hear him asking me, "Brian, servant of learners, where have you come from and where are you going?"   I hear Him asking me to search my heart and His wisdom in preparation for my students.  I hear him asking me to be reflective and learn about my students' lives and perspectives.  Where are they coming from and where are they going?  How can I prepare to receive them, care for them, challenge them, help them grow?

Where are we coming from and where are we going?  Do we know? Have we thought about it enough?

Where are our students(or if you are not a teacher… your employees, or patients or clients) coming from and where are they going?  

Everyone Has a Story

Each of us has a Story!

This last week was the type of week that both energizes and saps energy, fortunately, they work together for balance.
The week marked the middle of our grade period...and our classes for this term.  On the way to school, I quietly panned my classroom in my mind and tried to imagine what I knew about each student.  The deeper I dug, the more I realized that what I knew about some students was surface-level knowledge.  This disturbed me, because it represented a break in the community, the very thing that we all need. 

Upon beginning my classes that day, I pointed out to my students that we had been working hard in class.  We had been learning a great deal about our subjects, which is why we are in school.  We are there for another reason, community, and to build community, we need to know each other.  We work alongside each other and build a team through that work, but how often do we stop to intentionally learn more about each other on a personal level?  So, we decided to challenge that assumption.

I started by telling something about myself that I felt the class did not know, and others in the class were invited to ask a question about it.  The response was wonderful.  Students wanted to know more about their teacher.  Then, I chose someone in the circle.  That person could share like I did or have me ask a question to prompt sharing.  To my surprise, these students wanted to share.  They dove more deeply than I expected and came out toward the end of the class period with a question.  "Mr. Pickerd, can we do this tomorrow in French?"  

It was clear to me that in as far as I desire to know about my students, they want to be known.  As we come to be known(and know others) we begin to recognize that our individual stories mix and mingle with those of others around us.  They become parts of a larger story.

Each of us has a story!