Thursday, January 24, 2013

In the Presence of Greatness

I attended a beautiful memorial service at the weekend. I didn’t know the person we were honoring very well, but by the time the service was over, I really wish I had.
Colleagues gathered to impart their reflections about their shared professional lives and described a man who was dedicated to his role as provost of the College of Creative Studies. A man with a vision who led with courage and conviction, whose love for his work motivated and enriched the lives of those around him. He was an innovator, an agent of change, a trailblazer. Students told tales about how he had inspired them, pushed them, challenged them to dream big and aim higher. Friends from all over the globe arrived to share the stories of their friendships, nurtured over decades and continents. I learned about a loving and loyal friend, a risk taker, an adventurer, a traveler. Family members described a fun, exuberant man who they longed to be around. His children painted a portrait of a father who enjoyed nothing better than to be with them, guiding them, sharing with them, learning from them and loving them. His own artwork revealed even more about his talents and his passions and I was overwhelmed with a sense of enormous loss.
We’d met on only a few occasions but I couldn’t help but feel sad about the fact that I missed an opportunity to know a great man. I think about all the other people whose worlds collide with mine on a daily basis and wonder how many similar opportunities I have missed. What about the people I spend the majority of my time with, my students?
Children are masterful at showing you exactly who they want you to see: the quiet studious child, the boisterous child who likes to make everybody laugh, the follower, the leader, the helper, the lost. But how well do I really know them? How much time do I take to get behind the fa├žade they allow me to see and figure out who they really are? What hidden talents, gifts, strengths and passions lurk within them that I have yet to uncover?
At the memorial service speaker after speaker lamented the fact that they had been denied more cups of coffee, more bike rides, more barbecues, more time. I have been blessed with a reminder that the time we have to share with the people in our lives, our friends, our colleagues, our families, our students, is short. We need to  be vigilant while we are with them, we need to listen, we need to learn from them, we need to be appreciative of the fact that we just might be in the presence of greatness.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Google, Copy, Paste!

I love the State Farm TV commercial about the French model. A young lady believes everything she reads on the Internet to be true and ends up meeting a dubious guy claiming to be a model. I like this commercial because it highlights a real problem that our students face every day. Never before has knowledge been so easily available and our kids are bombarded every day with gigabytes of information. How do we as teachers help our students to become discerning consumers of information?
As an educator I have found the best way to deal with this issue is Project Based Learning. Project Based Learning engages student interest and motivation by designing activities around a real world question or problem. A well-designed project provokes students to encounter, and struggle with, opportunities to conduct meaningful, independent research. When research has to be undertaken online, I ask my students to use a simplified version of the CARS Checklist (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, and Support). Even using this checklist however, the temptation for students to Google, copy and paste is great and when this is the path they choose they can often end up with a mashed together product that  provides a distorted truth.
I read a classic example of this kind of fragmented writing yesterday in the New York Post. In this article Lisa Nielsen, author of the Innovative Educator Blog, is heralded as a class clown. By copying a little piece of information from here, reproducing a snippet from over there, and topping it off with an image borrowed from somewhere else the author has created a misleading version of Lisa. I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa at the Microsoft Global Forum in Prague last November. She is a passionate advocate for students and for transparency. She has a mind that is open to new ideas and innovation and she invites examination and debate through her Blog and various Facebook pages. Far from using social media to encourage readers to flout policy, she uses them to inform her readers about policy and about their options.
Applying the CARS checklist to this article I find the author to be lacking in credibility, with no apparent expertise in the field of education. In terms of accuracy I consider the intended audience and question the hidden agenda. It also concerns me that there is no invitation to comment, to respond, to present an opposing view, therefore is it a reasonable , fair and balanced portrayal? With no corroborating websites or links, or any evidence of having communicating directly with Lisa herself , I would hope that a discerning reader could deem this piece as lacking the key criteria required for a source of quality information.
The Internet is an incredibly powerful tool but we need to help our students learn how to avoid the class clowns and the French models that lurk within it. My favorite kind of PBL includes research that is done first hand, when my students engage with local community experts personally and work alongside them to help uncover their own truths. By connecting our students with professionals they can learn the skills and methodologies employed in the real world and gain a deeper understanding of what meaningful learning looks like.