Tag Archives: critical thinking

Community and Identity

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A ramble.

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DigPed PEI participants contemplate identity collaborations

It is the question of the ages: Who am I?

Every generation struggles with its corporate identity, and within that conflict, individuals find their own places in it. Some generations are shaped by war. Others are shaped by revolution or religion. Economics shape generations, whether during a time of great want or a time of tremendous prosperity. Massive outbreaks of illness or natural disasters frame corporate identity. Generations are sometimes named for whatever shaped them: the Greatest Generation of the 1940s, the Hippies of the 1960s and 70s, the Me Generation of the 1980s, and most recently, the Millenials. These group identities are usually thrust upon the generations by social forces, and not everyone fits neatly into them.

To complicate matters, we now have an entire generation of teenagers searching for multiple identities. People have always had the option to present a public identity while protecting a private one, but the internet brought with it a whole new world of identity creation. Now we not only have to determine who we are in the physical world, but we also need to decide who we will be in the virtual one.

In one sense, the web allows us to take on any persona we desire.  Online groups and games allow teenagers to interact with adults as peers, disrupting the power structures of the physical world.  There is danger there, as there is in any undiscovered country, but just as we all learn to look both ways when crossing the street, we can also learn to protect our vulnerabilities online.

But that’s not the point of this ramble.  Here I want to explore the idea of identity and what it is. How is it constructed? What effect does community have on identity development? And how does technology, especially the affordances of social media, affect our sense of who we are and who we want to be?

In the exercise pictured above, attendees of the Digital Pedagogy Labs Prince Edward Island conference last month engaged in an ice-breaker introduction that centered on self-identity in 140 characters.  Pairs introduced themselves to each other, and then wrote 140 character descriptions about each other, writing the results on the white boards without indicating who belonged to which description. And that was the end of it. Never referred to again, the descriptions were ultimately covered with notes from another session. But the exercise made a point: identity is elusive and morphs based on the community around it.

Or is identity something deep within that we parse out depending on the particular community surrounding us?

Ontologically, I believe that each person is created with a unique identity, one that develops over time, but always around a central core, a golden thread of unique essence.  Always in the process of becoming, the true self finds itself in community, but also in the solitary activity of personal reflection.  When we try to morph that true self into something other, we generally find ourselves frustrated and unhappy. We are at our best when our unique essence is allowed to intersect with the world and people around us without compromise. I think this may be one reason teens and young adults struggle with anxiety. Parents send mixed messages about who they should be:  busy, driven, and ambitious, but at the same time, kind, obedient, and good, whatever that means. Media floods them with information about how they should look. Schools press them to think about college and career at all times. We expect teens and young adults to be malleable into whatever forms we adults think is best for them and then we tell them they can be anything they want to be. We tease them with an idea of self-determination and then tell them what they have to be, how they have to act, and what they should be doing at any given point in time. We talk about identity, but do little to give teens time and space to discover their own.

Even in education, or rather especially in education, we tell students that they can be good writers or artists or readers, but if they want to succeed in the future, they had better be good at math and science and technology. We adults complain that students can’t think for themselves, but we train them to take standardized tests and write predictable five paragraph essays that contain buzzwords, but no originality. Is it any wonder so many young adults enter the marketplace unprepared? How can they prepare for life as an adult if we don’t let them discover their own essential golden thread of identity?

In the DigPed exercise, the element of introducing ourselves to strangers was influenced by the fact that it was an education conference. How much of my essential self did I share? Very little. And I am certain most people focused on the superficial elements of life: family, job, maybe a hobby, along with a general connection to education. The context of a particular conference influenced the kind of information shared. A gathering of dog lovers or artist or musicians would likely yield a different kind of information shared. Having to limit that description to 140 characters further influenced the depth of identity revealed. In that sense, the exercise was a failure. No one knew anyone else any better at a substantive level after the exercise. Where the experience succeeded, however, was in recognizing the limits we place on ourselves when it comes to revealing our identities. Perhaps that is why we sometimes think that identity is only a social construct. We are who we need to be given a particular context. And as we engage with more and larger communities online, those limits further constrain us until we don’t recognize ourselves anymore – if we ever knew ourselves in the first place.

If this revelation of identity is complicated for adults, imagine how complex it becomes for a generation of people who were indoctrinated to information overload practically from birth.  This group of individuals has always considered google a verb, can type with two thumbs as efficiently as with ten fingers, and may never set foot in a building called a library. Exploration happens without leaving home, unless, of course, Pokemon awaits capture outside. Even then, the screen dominates vision. The resources readily available to today’s young adults boggle the mind of adults who researched using microfiche and card catalogs.  Young minds are filled with images of worlds once relegated to National Geographic Magazine, and people can connect across oceans in seconds. With so many opportunities to explore the wide world, are we doing enough to reflect and look inward to discover the world within ourselves? We are a pendulum swing away from Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson, who eschewed popular society for inward discovery. Our Western culture reaches out and around, seeking experiences to define us. We look for our people, but how can we recognize them if we do not know ourselves? And how can anyone expect depth of young adults whose world has generally been miles wide but only inches deep? How can any of us share an identity we don’t know?

As an educator, I want to give students the tools they need to find their own unique identities but avoid telling them what those identities must be. I find, however, that goal thwarted by demands for accountability through standardized tests, writing samples, administrations looking for money, and the politics of education. These elements are part of teaching in this era, and until some massive paradigm shift tilts the education world off its axis, it is not going away anytime soon. The demand for quantitative data drives funding, and identity is not quantifiable, so it becomes unimportant in the system that wants to turn individuals into bits and bytes that can be neatly categorized into neat little boxes of success or failure, determined by whomever has the money and the power.

I think the affordances of the internet can become useful in the search for identity if students (and frankly, adults) use the tools as places of solitude now and then. Walden Pond may be a misty idea, but journaling doesn’t have to be. If identity and the golden thread of self-essence are best discovered in quietness, then we must make room for contemplation in the midst of the whirlwind of activities that make up our days. Furthermore, if we say we value independent thinking and individual identity, then we must, even in our classrooms, encourage exploration without fear of reprisal or correction. Journals and blogs can become sanctuaries for reflection, while the world we see online serves as inspiration. It is in reflection that we discover ourselves. As we then identify our own unique essences, we can then come to community, not to define us, but to teach us to see how that essence fits with the greater whole and to contribute to that whole.

Teach us to see. That is the key to both identity and community. When we see our true selves, we know what we have to share. Community cannot construct identity. Individuals who know and understand their unique identities work together to construct community. Maybe that’s where the paradigm needs to begin to shift.

O Me! O Life!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Processing DigPed PEI

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Content is people. Context is people. Life is complicated and complex and messy.

Celebrate that.


My sweet greyhound, Dolce, went to the Rainbow Bridge while I was at Prince Edward Island. What does this have to do with #DigPed? Nothing and everything all at once.

I knew when I left Atlanta on Tuesday that my 12 year old brindle girl was not well, and I had a gut feeling that it would be a rough week for her. By Thursday, it was clear that she was done fighting and ready to be free from whatever it was that caused kidney and vascular failure. On Friday morning, my sweet husband, who had been traveling himself earlier in the week, held our girl as she breathed her last. Brian let me know that she was gone. And my heart tore into fragments.

My heart was in fragments, but I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by a community of compassion and passion and empathy — none of whom I had met in the flesh until that week. I cried in their arms, we shared stories of beloved pets, and we connected. Life at its messiest, most vulnerable, and most authentic.

Authenticity should be at the heart of learning. As educators, we need to remember that our classes, whether face to face or in online spaces, are made up of people. Our content is not the curriculum; our content is the lives of the people who inhabit our classes, and it in is the contexts of their lives that we can make the connection of relationship building that undergirds the most memorable learning experiences.

Most of us who pursue education were inspired by one teacher who stands in our memories as the one who pushed us the hardest, believed in us the most fiercely, and motivated us to reach farther than we ever thought possible. In the exhausting midst of standards and curriculum and politics, teachers sometimes forget that the curriculum in a tool, not an end unto itself. DigPed expands the notion of tools and how they can benefit the entire education community, but the real lesson is found in building relationships. The warm compassion with which I was enveloped at the loss of my sweet greyhound is essential for all of us who call ourselves teachers to offer to the students in our classes. Learning is about developing people. Education is how we discover things together in the world. Curriculum is a tool. Life is messy and complicated. This is the stuff of education. Content is not subject matter.

Content is people.

*first published on Medium

Homeschool, Hybrid school, and making opportunities

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Homeschool, Hybrid school, and making opportunities

Learning at home has been part of education since the beginning of civilization.  As far back as ancient Greece, only the elite went to schools while most children received instruction to some extent at home. Ancient Romans valued literacy, and even the poor learned to read and write  so that they could participate in the economy. The Jewish people of the Middle East of the first century established schools for all children to age 13, after which only the brightest were able to study under a master teacher.

By the Middle Ages, education became something only for the very wealthy or the clergy. The Renaissance brought about new interest in formal education, and the Reformation brought about the first hints of a universal and public education for children of all income levels.  A decline in the 17th and 18th century was followed by a resurgence of philosophy and epistemology that began with Johann Comenius, progressed through John Locke and Jacques Rousseau, and expanded with Benjamin Franklin and Noah Webster in the New World.

The cycle of education trends continued through the illiteracy of child laborers during the Industrial Revolution that preceded the advent of the first Kindergarten by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Harbart developed and idea of teacher/curriculum centrality of education, while Montessori followed with more child-centered pedagogies.

As the cycles commenced, there was always a segment of the population that considered itself independently taught. Whether this was the surreptitious education of girls or the secret teaching to slaves, home school has been part of education, either underground or in public.

One of the major criticisms of the home school movement has been the isolation of the students. Perhaps this was legitimate concern at one time, but that is no longer the norm. There are, and probably always will be, families who choose homeschooling in order to prevent their children from interacting with the world beyond the home, but today, the resources available to home school families ensure interaction with other students of multiple ages in multiple venues. Museums, farms, galleries, aquariums and other attraction offer group rates for home school groups, and many offer special programs designed for students who have special interests in specific topics.

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This prima ballerina chose homeschool – hybrid education in order to pursue dance.

Some parents choose to home school because their children excel in sport or dance or competitive ventures that preclude attendance in a traditional school setting. These students are far from isolated; in fact many of them have connections with their peers in multiple geographic locations and from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.

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Studying granite. Home schooled sisters explore a large monolith without time constraints.

For those home schooled students who are at risk for isolation because of location, health, or other inhibiting factors, the internet offers a way to connect without leaving home. There are massive open online courses and a multitude of derivatives that allow teens to connect with one another on line and form friendships. Short term events like #walkmyworld and #digiwrimo allow parents and students to participate in national and international forums without lengthy commitments. Sites like Youth Voices and KQED Do Now allow students to write about important issues from politics to social justice and interact and collaborate with other students without regard to location, school schedules, or test materials.  This interaction allows students to engage in meaningful collaboration which is sometimes missing in the traditional classroom.

In addition to the asynchronous opportunities, there are a number of accredited hybrid schools that allow students to meet in a traditional setting one or two days a week and work independently the other days. This affords the synchronous learning opportunities to supplement the at home learning. Students are able to collaborate face to face, participate in class discussions, and connect with each other as well as with a teacher who can come alongside parents. In many cases these students are fully independent; their parents support, but do not instruct.

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Hybrid school students collaborate on a project in two spaces: the classroom and online.

These schools also allow for online collaboration. Projects can be worked on both online and in the classroom, mimicking the pattern of projects in the business world. This benefits students as they learn the essentials of communicating in multiple modes.

I have taught in multiple venues and I see the affordances and constraints of both the traditional classroom, the hybrid school, and homeschooling. The most important element is keeping the needs of the students at the forefront, no matter what the educational model may be.

 

 

 

 

 

My gratitude to Robert Guisepe at http://history-world.org/history_of_education.htm for the background information!

Identity formation and Walking

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I wrote this on Medium and thought I’d share here as well.

We live in a connected world. That said, we seem to be more isolated than ever before. There are coffee shops that promote face to face conversation by eliminating wifi and informal games that require groups in restaurants to put down their mobile devices (because the handheld technologies are far more than phones these days) or foot the bill for the entire party. Ray Bradbury saw it coming and wrote about it (remember Mildred’s “seashells” from Fahrenheit 451?)

The challenge for those of us who choose to embrace the digital spaces is to create authentic connections with people across time, distance, and cultural differences. For me, it’s one of the most exciting things about #walkmyworld. Because it is designed to be a fun collaboration of identities around learning events, the stress level for perfection is reduced. Even though the learning events include content instruction that is easily augmented in particular classrooms, the tone is light and engaging, so the threat level is low. People from around the world come to play, and it becomes a true multi-cultural experience among like minded people of all ages. There are elementary and secondary students, graduate students, pre-service teachers, and professors all involved, but no one is an expert. Instead, all participants are learning and sharing together in a virtual community of equals.

Since this is my third year as part of Walk My World, I think I have a sense of what to expect: expect the unexpected. Unexpected learning, unexpected friendships, and unexpected glimpses into a digital identity still in formation and ever evolving. This is how a connected world can work: people being authentic, sharing an experience, and learning how to walk together.

Walk My World

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It’s here! It’s time!

Walk My World begins its third iteration this week. I have helped craft the learning events and I think this will be the best year ever.

Join the fun here! The first week is all about getting set, so jump right in!

 

Wasteland

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This image has been sitting in this draft for months, so long that I don’t remember the original purpose. I think it had to do with a #clmooc challenge over the summer, but I can’t be sure. Still, it is a powerful image that I can’t bring myself to delete, so it must be something to explore.

Fig.1 Drawing by Belgian artist Yslaire

I titled this post Wasteland when I put the image in place; perhaps it is the title of the piece, perhaps just my impression, but when I look at it my mind goes to the cruellest month  underscored by the organ and guitars of Baba O’Riley. The image, I am certain, refers to neither of these, but in my mind they are inexorably connected.

Wasteland is a place beyond hope. A place where there is no escape from monotony and tedium. In this image, the television screen acts as hypnotist, so mesmerizing the viewer that he forgets he is a winged creature, made to soar.

 

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,

http://www.bartleby.com/201/1.html

We too often allow life to put blinders on us. Even if we resist the allure of the screen (be it television, computer, or smart phone), we manage to stay in the parched shadow of the red rock, afraid to venture out into the unfamiliar until we, too, forget we have wings to fly on the fresh winds  of the exodus from the wasteland to the promised land.

Connections and the Twist

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One of the great things about the connected learning community is the vastness of subject matter about which to write and think and create and share. I know I need to be creating and thinking constantly, and sometimes I just need to break free and do something because I WANT to do it. I enjoy learning, so my PhD studies interest me and keep me busy writing. I love teaching, so my time spent creating lessons that teach composition and critical thinking is time well spent. But then I read some of my favorite blogs or tweets by some of my online colleagues and I feel like I’m missing out on something fun.

My friend, Sarah Honeychurch, wrote about a creative challenge she was participating in about twisted pairings. Following her blog to the original source, I found Steve Wheeler, the learning technology blogger behind #twistedpair challenge. The purpose of the challenge is to put together two unlikely people (real or fiction) and explain their connection to teaching and learning. It’s similar to his #blimage challenge from last summer. (My attempt at that challenge is here.)

I relish these kinds of challenges and fully intend to steal…er…borrow this concept for use in my writing classes. Making connections – between individuals, groups, and ideas – is a critical skill in a 21st century world. For this challenge, Steve shared a list of possibilities, but none really resonated with me until I saw

Doctor Who and Snoopy

     An immortal Time Lord from Gallifrey and a wisecracking beagle from the USA couldn’t possibly have anything in common, could they? Nor could there be lessons to be learned from the pair, right? Well, perhaps. Deeper inspection may reveal connections that unite pop culture lovers from two distinct cultures and two very different points of view.

     The most obvious connection is in the imagination of the writers. Charles Schultz gave Snoopy a character all his own, and whether he was Joe Cool or the Ace fighter Pilot, underneath he was still Snoopy the beagle. Similarly, the Doctor has undergone 11 or 12 regenerations (depending on how one counts), but underneath each unique visage and eccentricity, the Doctor is the same: finding truth, fighting evil, and making friends along the way.

     Friendship is another common theme. Snoopy has Woodstock as his primary chum, but he has other friends too, including his brother, Spike, and his “owner”,Charlie Brown. The Doctor, for all his clamoring about his independence almost always has a sidekick: from Susan in 1963 to Clara in 2015. In between is a crew of men, women, and even an android dog. As Donne says, “No man is an island”, and both the Doctor and Snoopy manage to surround themselves with the companions they need to persevere. Often students, especially the introverts, try to exude a countenance of confidence when they really could use a buddy. It’s one of the reason I am so pro-technology. Twitter, Google docs, even discussion boards can give voice to the shy or struggling while giving opportunity for the more outgoing students to listen. Collaboration makes student writing and comprehension stronger.

     The real connection, however, is not in Snoopy and the Doctor per se. It is in their dwellings. Snoopy’s doghouse is fighter jet or study, depending on his need. The interior must be enormous based on the sheer number of things he keeps stored there. For the Doctor, his TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension In Space) is known for being “bigger of the inside.” This concept is the connection between Doctor Who, Snoopy, and teaching practices. So much time is spent preparing for standardized tests (and now even teacher preparation programs are moving from innovation to EdTPA standardized assessment) that the imagination is too often left behind. But the human mind is “bigger on the inside” because imagination and innovation dwell there. It may be that we are instructed to educate creativity out of our children (thank you Sir Ken), but those of us who teach from a place of passion must find ways to connect that vast space of potential to real and concrete ideas and projects.

     Creating relevant scenarios is a key element to engaging imagination. Doctor Who has his conflicts thrusts upon him by Daleks, Weeping Angels, and Cybermen, among a dozen or more others. Snoopy should have a life of ease, but he creates problems for himself by engaging in flight battles or Christmas light competitions (which he inevitably wins). Teachers need to teach students to look at assignments (even the dreaded close reading multiple choice assessments)as problems or challenges or scenarios that can be outwitted with creative thinking and “smarts” rather than tolerated until over.  But how do we do that when admins breathe down our necks about test scores and even universities cry out for universality? How do we prevail against a system that strives to create a generation of Nestean Autons instead of independent thinkers? These are the challenges facing educators today. The paradigm is shifting; teachers need to regenerate into a new form with the same underlying passions and take on the Red Baron of politics in education with Snoopy-esque panache.

Resources:

Robinson, K. (2006). Do schools kill creativity? [Webcast]. TED2006. Retrieved from          https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity?language=en

On Rhizomatic Learning, Virtual Connections, and Sherwood Anderson

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For several weeks I have been immersed in a digital world. Coming back into a face-to-face reality has given me pause to reflect on the contrast between what is “virtual” and what is “real.”

It’s really Simon Ensor’s fault. In a Google Hangout during a conference, Simon asked someone to define “virtual buddy.”  He asked the question again on Twitter. He followed that with a blog post. And then he wrote a poem about belonging.  And so I started thinking.

The Hangout that began the process was a “between” space during the annual conference for the Association for Learning Technology, this year in Manchester, England. A number of presenters were from a virtually connected associates discussing a project called #Rhizo14. I had followed along with #Rhizo15 in connection while actively participating in #clmooc (another virtually connected community focused on learning), so I had an interest in the conference, even though I could not attend. I was introduced to the “between” Hangouts during yet another conference about hybrid pedagogy (#digped) when I was invited to participate by colleagues I met on Twitter through #clmooc. *

These “between” spaces were supposed to be a sort of “third space” for collaborative discussion about the keynote speakers at the conference. As they evolved they became a sort of debriefing for participants while the online participants (from all over the world) became sort of eavesdroppers who gleaned whatever information came through the on site players. It made me feel both connected and disconnected at the same time. When the on site players shared a single computer their conversation was often between themselves as they developed tactile relationships while the rest of us watched. When they returned to conference activities, those of us left in the Hangout tried to make sense of the information and even found ways to create our own “mini-sessions” of informal collaboration.  While I had connected with many of the participants (both on site and online) before this conference, Simon’s question made me consider the reality of those relationships beyond the words shared on the screen.

In a reflective post about Rhizo15, Dave Cormier discusses the challenges of creating a structured community in an unstructured idea (rhizomatic learning is by nature without formal structure). How can individuals belong to a community without creating a division between “we” and “them”; in this case those who had been around since the first experiment (Rhizo14) and the newbies who were just figuring out the concept? Dave writes far more eloquently than I about the conflict between Instructivism and Constructivism, but it all goes back to Simon’s original query: What exactly is a virtual buddy?

I have playing on the digital playground long enough that I no longer consciously differentiate between local acquaintances and those whom I have only met online. In many ways, I often feel MORE connected to those virtual friends because we have to make an effort to connect across time zones, geography, and cultural barriers. Underneath that, however is a common interest in how to harness the power of the internet to make education both accessible and relevant to as many people as want it. Along the way we discover other common interests: knitting, photography, Doctor Who, and other facets of life that have nothing whatever to do with education.

So are these friends “real”? And if they are, why is there a disconnect when some of them are together in a place while others of us connect from our own individual spaces? This whole new world of digital relationships and collaborations is messy. But then, new things are often messy. And not always “right”, especially at the beginning.

This idea of messy newness is a reflection of something Sherwood Anderson said to William Faulkner in June, 1953:

…America ain’t cemented and plastered yet. They’re still building it. That’s why a man with ink in his veins not only still can but sometimes has still got to keep on moving around in it, keeping moving around and listening and looking and learning. That’s why ignorant unschooled fellows like you and me not only have a chance to write, they must write…it won’t ever be quite right, but there is always next time; there’s always more ink and paper and something else to try to understand and tell. And that probably wont be exactly right either, but then there is a next time to that one , too. Because tomorrow’s America is going to be something different, something more and new to watch and listen to and try to understand; and, even if you can’t understand, believe.

(as cited in Meriwether, 2004, p. 8)

And there is the answer. Online relationships won’t ever feel “quite right”, but we must keep trying new ways to connect and eventually we will see something “different…more and new” that, even if we don’t fully understand, we can believe. In its imperfections, there is still connection. Perhaps the best part of being “virtual buddies” is the journey we are taking together into something unexpected.

 

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*All the acronyms are confusing, but much of the hybrid pedagogy/virtual connections take place on Twitter with extensions to Facebook and/or Google Plus. All of the things in which I participated were forms of MOOCs (massive open online courses) geared toward educators who wanted to explore and promote the idea of open learning. Rhizo  is based on the idea of the rhizome plant, one that sends out new growth from its roots so that the visible growth is supported by an underground structure that is interconnected. Dave Cormier is probably the leading expert in the current iteration and his ideas on the purpose of education need more thought that I intend for this particular post. DigPed is attached to the Hybrid Pedagogy journal. The Connected Learning MOOC (#clmooc) was a six-week course for educators organized mostly by professionals connected to Youth Voices. All of the hashtags are still active on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

References

Meriwether, J. B. ed. (2004), William Faulkner: Essays, speeches, & public letters. New York, NY: Modern Library. Random House, Inc.

Labor Day, Teaching, and Vocational Education

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Once upon a time, Labor Day meant the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. That, I believe, is what the Almighty intended. Of course, with schools today starting at the beginning of August and summer not really over until the end of September, Labor Day is fast becoming just another holiday without meaning or purpose.

Perhaps it would be wise for educators to spend a few hours sharing with students the plight of the American worker at the beginning of the Industrial Age. We are horrified at the “sweat shops” we read about, but this was the common practice in this country for many years. By the late 1880s, conditions were so poor that workers, backed by the then necessary Labor Unions, staged revolts and strikes, one of which led to a clash between federal troops and protesters. Attempting to reconcile with the workers, Congress made Labor Day a national observation of the contribution of America’s working class (History.com).

In the last several years I have had numerous conversations with colleagues regarding the current push to send every student to college. I suspect this may be partly in reaction to the continuing struggle between politicians, educators, and unions. The student voice seems to get lost in the debate.  There are students who are not college bound and who should not be pushed that direction. There are some for whom vocational education is more important and more practical than college-readiness. Reasons vary by circumstance, but may include career goals in areas that do not require a college degree, a family business, or a distaste for school in general and a willingness to work up from the lowest position.  Coming from a working class family myself, I see a need for a resurgence in vocational education.

Living in the suburbs, my position is not popular. The mindset of that particular demographic is that value only comes with a college education. This thinking is wrong, and must be addressed both in the classroom and in society. In an article published on Edutopia and reprinted in the Washington Post, Mark Phillips wrote,

“We live in a society that places a high value on the professions and white-collar jobs, and that still considers blue-collar work lower status. It’s no surprise that parents want their children to pursue careers that will maintain or increase their status. This is even more evident in high socio-economic communities. And for most teachers, if the student is academically successful, this will be seen as a ‘waste of talent’ ” (Phillips, 2012).

I could not agree more.

How may students feel stigmatized because they prefer working with their hands to sitting in classrooms? How many homeowners would be completely lost without well-trained electricians or plumbers? And why do we assume that mechanics are not well-read or welders cannot write? I know a certain truck driver who writes beautiful poetry without an advanced degree. Artistry is hard to teach, but the best nail technicians and hairdressers are skilled artisans. Why must our culture belittle these choices? I was horrified to hear of a former student who chose to pursue work as a dental hygienist and was told by a school administrator that she was aiming too low. What that administrator refused to see was the passion this young lady had for improving people’s smiles and how she planned to take her skills to under-developed countries where she could help people in a tangible way. If students have dreams of practical work, then we, as educators, must both prepare them for that work and encourage them to follow their hearts no matter what the culture around them says.

This is where vocational education comes in. If students are afforded a choice between practical academics and apprenticeships or college preparatory work, they can better prepare for the futures they choose. Just because we as educators believe that higher education must be accessible to all does not imply that we should mandate it for everyone. If education is truly about the students, then they must be given the tools and the choices to dictate their own futures. All students must become literate in language arts, practical mathematics, history, and science, there is no question of that. Those skill can readily be addressed by tenth grade. Advanced studies in vocation or academics can them specialize in the fields that profit the student most.

We as educators must lead the way to de-stigmatizing vocational education. College is not for everyone; nor is vocational education. Both ensure students have goals and the tools to achieve them according to their individual skills, talents, and desires. It is time to elevate vocational education as an equally viable option to college preparation. Then we can focus on teaching students to learn for the love of learning alone, rather than crushing them all under a load of school work some neither want nor need. In becoming adaptable to student needs, we become better teachers, focused on students and whom they will become in time.

References

History.com Staff (2010). Labor Day. A&E Entertainment. [Weblog] Retrieved from  http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/labor-day.

Phillips, M. (2012, May 29). Why should we care about vocational education? Edutopia. [Weblog]. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/vocational-education-benefits-mark-phillips.