Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hear Me Out

CC image on Flickr by Michael
I've been thinking about voice a lot lately.  It's a theme relevant to our current political climate, our culture's love affair with televised singing competitions, and the exponential growth of social media.  As an educator who focuses greatly on digital citizenship, I regularly reflect with my students on today's Web and the ways that our voices resonate through it.  But lately, I've been pondering a particular distinction: the difference between making noise and making our voices heard.

We all know that there’s no shortage of channels through which we can all make noise on the Web.  Indeed some of that noise is downright depressing.  And I'm not just talking about bad karaoke.  Online exchanges run the gamut -- from vapid to amusing to insightful to combative, condescending, or cruel.  But, in the noisy worldwide cafe that is today’s Web, we need to empower our students to find, refine, and effectively utilize their voice for good.  This is easier said than done, however.  For while the mechanics of publishing one's words are growing simpler by the day, the challenge of effectively conveying one's message remains.

Hopefully as educators we embody the motto of the StoryCorps project: Every voice matters.  But despite the increase in opportunities to express ourselves, we should also recognize how challenging it can feel to actually do so.  Making a point online can feel like trying to speak up in the middle of Times Square at its busiest.  And you might observe that those who manage to find a captive audience, at least momentarily, are The Naked Cowboy, David Blaine encasing himself in ice, or the group of fanatics shouting about Armageddon.  Surrounded by attention seekers and a perpetual din, it can sometimes feel like your voice hardly matters at all.

I think we need to pay attention to this.

The vast reach of today's social Web is only going to continue to expand.  If we're going to succeed at nurturing the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs, and activists, today's students need to develop strong, clear voices.  And they need to recognize that that strength doesn't derive from any decibel level, font size, or quantity of exclamation points.  It comes from the power of the words they construct, the media they use, the personal connections they leverage, their capacity for empathy, and the patience they may need as social filters push good ideas upward.

Refining one's voice is a lifelong process.  It can be frustrating, hilarious, humbling, and rewarding.  It requires feedback, engagement, reflection, and the ability to listen well.  It is a process we should model for and share with our students.  Because our voices do matter -- including and especially the ones we may hear the least.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Little Wonder

This academic year is going to be an especially challenging one.  We're launching a school-wide 1:1 iPad program.  We're transitioning to e-books and working further to embrace digital workflows and significantly reduce printing campus-wide.  We're upgrading our network to be able to support not just iPads but all laptops, smart phones, and desktop computers.  We're continuing to encourage our faculty members, administrators, and students to create and leverage a PLN.  We're transforming the way our faculty and students learn with and from one another.  We're inviting family members to connect with these experiences both in person and virtually.

Along with a wealth of powerful new learning opportunities, I know we're going to encounter hurdles, growing pains, and moments (mobs?) of resistance.  Acutely aware of the challenges ahead, I logged into my email this morning to find this note from my seventy-one year-old dad.  Darnit if it didn't make me well up.

Subject: Little Wonder

When I think about students going to school, I recall how you wanted to go to the "Rumble Room" and then set up your own classroom and "read" a story to the dolls and stuffed animals. I remember how we took you to visit Saint John's Nursery School and you walked in without ever looking back. I especially remembered how you worked hard at being the best student you could be. It wasn't easy and you worked very hard, but you were intent on succeeding. It comes as no surprise that you became an innovative educator with a love of teaching matched only by your love of learning.  

Here's hoping I don't lose sight of what my father sees so clearly.  Here's hoping when heading in new directions, even when things don't seem to be going smoothly, I can forge ahead without looking back. Here's hoping I don't forget to thank my dad for instilling in me the gifts, courage, and humor that have gotten me this far.

Here's hoping those little wonders never fade.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Take note

"History is still in the making right here and I want you to see all sides of it."
~General Robert Eichelberger to his wife, Emmaline
9 September, 1945

I work in ed-tech.  My school is embracing tablets, mobile technology, and e-books.  And I'll be the first in line to extol the virtues of connecting students to the wealth of learning resources, both digital and human, that are available via the Web.  But I was reminded today of the treasures that can still be found on the printed page -- in ink -- that if we're careful enough to notice, may take us down a path of discovery we might otherwise miss.

On this Memorial Day, I opened up a published copy of letters written by my great uncle, Robert Eichelberger, a four-star general in the U.S. Army, to his wife during World War II.  I had ordered the copy through Amazon and was initially pleased at the good condition in which the used book arrived.  As I flipped through the pages, I noticed some underlining and some notes in the margins.  For a brief moment, I was slightly disappointed that the pages were marked up.  It was as if I sat down to let my uncle tell me a story, and someone was talking in the background.  I wanted to shoosh him... until I began to listen.

I've written about my uncle before.  He was second in command to General Douglas MacArthur, was superintendent of West Point when Pearl Harbor was attacked, made the cover of Time Magazine, and was recommended for the Medal of Honor.  I never tired of hearing my dad talk about his interactions with him or of reading the telegrams and letters he sent home.  He served humbly and honorably and despite extraordinary leadership, gained little fame.  He may not have become a household name, and part of that was due to his boss's ego, but he had some extraordinary stories to tell.  And here I was about to be a captive audience to his wisdom once again.

But there were those marks.  The words "See memoirs," a check mark, some squiggly lines, then...

"I was there... In fact I was wounded on that operation."
I've never been able to raise one eyebrow on purpose, but my right one shot up.  I continued reading.

"I was with him"
It hit me that the book I was holding, the edition I somewhat randomly selected online, was held and annotated by my uncle's contemporary, another eyewitness to history -- both my family's and the world's.  For me, this book just easily tripled in value.

Who was this reader?  What did he experience?  What had he lived through, and what impact did reading my uncle's correspondence have on him?

"I'm one of them"
These questions... the clues that invite you to keep going... this is why I love history.  And not the sequence-of-events-summarized-on-a-timeline-kind of history.  The layers-of-stories-and-voices-and-mysteries-that-we-have-the-privilege-to-explore kind of history.

I now wonder not only about the stories from this era but about the stories of this book itself.  I want to trace its path not just to the hands of the man who wrote it, but those who wrote in it.  I am not sure how far I'll get, but I have enough to begin a journey, and I'll go as far as I can.

What I do know is that the journey of a book is a story unto itself.  And I wonder what will be lost, as well as gained, as we print less and download more.

I wonder in what direction digital annotations will take us.  Crowd-sourcing and digitally connecting those with questions to those with answers will surely continue to help us examine and learn from the past.  However, in my quest to fill my virtual bookshelves and project the directions that electronic publishing is taking us, I want to remember to take stock.  I believe in the power of shiny new e-books.  But I also want to be sure that new, popular, and bold never eclipse quieter, enduring, and layered value.

In thinking about my students, I couldn't agree more with my uncle's words:  "History is still in the making... and I want you to see all sides of it."  I just hope I can lead my students in recognizing and appreciating those different sides and the media of their origin.  I hope I can help them take note of what they may find in the margins.  The paths of learning they may then forge could be some of the most valuable, intriguing, and rewarding of their lives.