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Greatest Invention? Kindergarten

Green Screen Weather

Ms. Meyer prepares her students for a weather report.

Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media Lab, calls kindergarten the “greatest invention of the last 1,000 years.” And in his latest book, Lifelong Kindergarten, he argues that all schooling needs to be more like it. His point is that the rapidly changing world, only assures us of uncertainty in our future. So instead of preparing students for the world we know now, steep them in an environment where they can think creatively and develop the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions.

This has been on my mind as my kindergarten colleagues (Ms. Meyer, Ms. Theall, Mrs. Nedwick), our librarian (Mrs. Turner), and I wrap up a weather project featuring the greatest elementary school combination ever! Kindergarten students and a green screen.

Teaching and learning is always fun when everyone around you is pulling together and smiling. To the persnicketers, no this culminating project does not make these students weather experts or meteorologists. They may have misspoken or over/understated some weather facts that save lives.

But in this project, their tender brains were inundated with a flurry of activity. Self-checking content information, delivering memorized and unscripted lines, coping with the pressure of performance, in front of peers, teachers, and a live camera, while recalling their preparation for storytelling, including body presence, eye contact, and voice, while balancing on a stool so that we can see more than their heads, and also trying to imagine that the green wall behind them is actually a funnel cloud or snowstorm, and then in the end, hopping off the stool with relief and laughing about it all… my goodness.

Every school day really should be more like kindergarten.

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Public Speaking Used to Be Scarier

edgewoodtalent

Second grade girls perform at the Edgewood Talent Show.

I am always astonished at the ease with which Edgewood students rise to the challenge of public performances. Whether it’s the Edgewood Talent shows or 5th grade Capstone TED Talks and Ignite/Spark presentations, students today have the capacity to summon the right mix of adrenaline and fortitude to perform for a live audience.

That’s not how I remember 5th grade. I do have this one vivid memory. My 5th grade teacher, Mr. Gordon, had his students read from the play he had written for our annual class production. He asked me to read the lines for one particular role. It featured a baby airplane and he needed me to talk like one. He even demonstrated the part with his own “baby voice.” The class howled with laughter. Everyone in the room could see the show-stealing potential of this one scene. And Mr. Gordon had asked ME to read the lines.

When I stepped in front of my classmates, with script in hand, I wanted to reward my teacher’s faith in me. I wish I could say I had shed my “shy guy” persona and stood with poise and confidence at that moment. I wish I was able to channel my inner baby and upend the room with laughter. But the only inner baby I could summon was the one that cried under pressure.

They weren’t tears of fright or embarrassment. Even as tears rolled down my cheeks, I was laughing right along with my classmates. But I remember feeling the crushing weight of the attention on me. Too much to handle. Eyeballs upon eyeballs, all on me. Needless to say, I didn’t take the baby airplane role. It went to Teddy who begged for the part and would ultimately steal the show with his performance.

Public speaking was a deal breaker for me back then. So it was not surprising to learn, through much of my childhood and adulthood, that it was the number one fear among Americans. But that was so 20th century. In this new era of online information and perhaps misinformation, Americans find that there are now far worse things that frighten us, according to the 2018 Chapman University of American Fears. Public speaking pulls in at #59.

top 10 fears

The Chapman University Survey of American Fears 2018 has “public speaking” at 59th on the list.

It makes sense. We are of a generation that accessorizes with mobile recording devices and leaves little of our lives undocumented. We have grown accustomed to posing, performing, and sharing our lives with our social media friends. And their friends. And their friends (who collectively remind us of the many things that ought to scare us).

In fact, our social media feeds are tantamount to performance art. Collectively, they represent artistic portrayals of lives that are dramatized and romanticized in hopes they are received favorably. We can only hope that those who post these portrayals are also genuinely finding happiness in their lives, even when there are no likes or retweets at stake.

It stands to reason that the everyday performances we share with an online community makes us a little more comfortable seeing and hearing ourselves in a public setting. And as a teacher, it also makes it a little easier to encourage students to share their voice with a public audience because there’s now this cultural expectation that we should pose with our food, post video of our glorious summer trips, and share and re-share appeals on behalf of important social causes.

It is a cultural norm that even those who shape education policy have noticed. Take for instance the new K-12 Next Generation English Language Arts learning standards and its focus on audience engagement. The following is from the Speaking and Listening section called Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • Standard 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence so that listeners can follow the line of reasoning. Ensure that the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Standard 5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.
  • Standard 6: Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of academic English when indicated or appropriate.

This means that our K-12 students are not only learning the content, they are asked to present it to an audience for the sake of teaching them. To teach is the ultimate test of whether we have learned. In teaching audience engagement skills, we help students get past anxiety and self-consciousness to focus on connecting others with useful information. But most important in teaching students these skills we help them find their voice and ideally help them use it in ways to contribute to their community.

And when I think back to that day in Mr. Gordon’s class, I realize now what he was doing. He had looked inside me and saw something I hadn’t. That the best of me was yet to come and that with time and experience, I would one day step forward to center stage, and be heard.

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“It’s Only Technology If It Happened After You Were Born.”

In 2012, the lead wave of students who never knew a world without the Internet, began their freshmen year in college. “Teaching will never be the same,” laments every teacher that doesn’t understand what these kids are doing on their devices or why they’re doing it. Some teachers are quick to label today’s students “digital natives,” naturally wired for a tech saturated world and adept at negotiating the requirements of the environment. Then they explain away short attention span in the classroom, as a result of digital addiction.

But it’s that kind of teacher bias that will short-circuit the effectiveness of their own teaching. As one college student puts it, “It’s only technology if it happened after you were born.” So with every new technology, there’s a curve and period of disgruntled learning. See? Even these natives can get restless.

The reality is that the so-called natives can be just as confused by today’s digital landscape as those of us born in an analog world. Technology is constantly in flux. It can adapt to user needs as well as define them with each gadget that makes our hectic lives a little easier to manage (Alexa, Waze, Smart home devices, etc). And some day each of these devices will wind up in a scrap pile, replaced by something better, prompting a new learning curve.

What does this mean for teachers? It means we have an Ace up our sleeves. It means the core values that inspired us to get into teaching in the first place are just as important today as they were in the days of corded phones and 8 track tapes and earlier. Effective teachers engage and inspire learning. They challenge students to energize their efforts and elevate expectations. They push them to expand the capacity of their internal radars to find new ways to solve problems. They connect students with the World outside the classroom through current events and video chats with expert practitioners and pre-eminent voices. Most important, teachers emphasize dispositions that will help them succeed within and beyond the school day such as patience, empathy, diligence, flexible thinking.

Some day the world will be racked with problems we didn’t see coming. Some day there will be holes that all of humanity had dug for ourselves. When the day comes, we’ll be saved by inspired thinkers and doers– our students– who will strive for greatness, not out of a craving for Likes and Retweets, but for the sense of Purpose their teachers helped instill in them.