Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Seeking Connections

One of the polarizing arguments about technology use today is whether technology creates human connection or replaces it.  On one side of the fence sits the twitterverse, where social media creates foundational relationships built on a constant stream of 140 characters. This side of the fence is where facebook status updates and instagrammed images help weave the stories of our lives and interconnect one another in ways that were not humanly possible ten years ago. On the other side of the fence sit those who believe that all of the technology and gadgets are creating a divide between the real and digital world. Those who sit there believe that nothing can replace the human experience, lived face to face, one conversation at a time. Let’s also acknowledge that there are plenty of fence sitters as well.  In education circles, the argument is one in which the idea of MOOC’s, self-paced learning management systems, and learning on demand terrifies, excites, or leaves you with the question “What’s a MOOC?”  The cheers of teachers who welcome the evolving role of educator are being met by the cries of those afraid that they are being outsourced by devices and software.
As a classroom teacher, what mattered most to me was relationships with kids.  It’s what I miss most about my current role as an instructional coach. And although I have forged some incredible working relationship with colleagues, it’s a different animal altogether. Building relationships with kids is hard but rewarding work.  It’s why teachers meet their kids at the door and greet them as they enter the classroom. It’s why they are willing to help them over lunch or before and after school. It’s also why we grin from ear to ear when we see our students stretch and grow.  Building relationships with students benefit us in a million little ways that add up to major gains. Classroom management, true academic stretching, commitment to the school and greater community are all impacted positively by getting to know kids really well.
One of the greatest lessons I ever learned as a middle school teacher was that in order for me to build these meaningful relationships with my students, I could not teach the same way I had been taught or had been teaching for the first few years of my career.  Teaching from the front of the room did not afford me the time to conference with students. Reading from a textbook and leading whole group discussions did not afford me the chance to connect often enough to make a real difference in the lives of each student.  I was realizing that the opportunities that gave me the most one on one time with students were the experiential learning activities. It was in small group situations. And eventually, it was when students were personally interacting with devices to question, research, and create.   It was in these small one on one interactions where I could clarify, push, support, challenge, and celebrate safely with each student.
The technology also afforded different opportunities to personalize communication. Providing feedback and comments through google docs. Clarifying questions through instant messaging. Sharing of assignments and reminders through a texting service like Remind101.  Creating student portfolios of growth and learning through google sites and blackboard.  Maintaining a class wiki to share exemplary work with the world. Students reflecting through personal blogging. The tools themselves did not build, strengthen, and maintain the relationships. But the use of them provided time to foster them more fully.
Believing in face to face relationships and supporting technology are not opposing perspectives. Just as it is ok for us to continuously use social media to connect, communicate, and learn, we must also learn (and teach our students ) to put the device aside and interact more fully and in the present with one another. This also needs to be modeled in our classrooms with our students. We need to put the devices aside whenever possible. We need to close our mouths and open our hearts and ears to our students. We need to continually let them know they matter.  Seeking connection to one another is as human as it gets. Using technology to enhance human connection is not wrong.  It should never be about the device or tool. It is always about the ways in which we use the tools to learn, grow, and connect.

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