Sunday, March 18, 2012

Try, We Must

It is possible that Yoda was completely wrong when he told Luke Skywalker, “Do or Do Not.  There is no Try.”   I had always figured that Yoda must be right, since he is a Jedi Knight.   But now that I am older (and wiser?)  I am realizing that he had it totally backwards. Some days, perhaps most days, I think that the only thing that matters is Try.

Education has largely followed Yoda’s first methodology.  Whether it is levitating a spaceship out of a swamp or solving a physics vector problem, we have told our students that their choice is “Do” or “Do Not.”   I can remember congratulating a student who choked out a “D” in chemistry, “You got the credit!  “D” stands for done.  You are done with chemistry.”

More recently, I had a conversation with a student who was clearly choosing “Do Not” in most of his classes.  “Why don’t you just hand a few assignment in?” I begged the kid.  He answered, “Mrs. Webb, if I tried and still failed, I would feel rotten about myself.  But if I don’t try, it doesn’t feel as bad when I fail.”  It is tough to argue with that logic.

Last week I met with representatives from a few Iowa school districts that are considering Competency Based Education (CBE) pathways.  There are pockets of innovation emerging all throughout the state.  Ideologically, CBE makes a lot of sense, and it may be an idea whose time has come.  Computing technologies make personalized learning (finally) possible in terms of data management.  Individualization in student demonstration of mastery for common learning goals isn’t as overwhelming in 2012 as it was a decade ago. 

So, where do we start?  We Try.   Next year at Spirit Lake High School, there will be teachers who decide to Try.  Chemistry and Physics will be competency based.  The ninth grade team is actively pursuing competency-based pathways for English Language Arts, Science and Social Studies.  Digital animation will be online, allowing flexibility in scheduling and pacing.  Other departments are opening doors to CBE and finding that the perceived barriers are not so hard to clear away.

We are asking the questions that go along with Competency Based Education pathways as defined by the Iowa Department of Education.  How do we devise learning outcomes that emphasize application and creation of knowledge?  How does our schedule adapt to students who advance upon mastery instead of seat-time?  What exactly is a competency, and who defines it?  How do we utilize technology-enabled solutions to provide rapid, differentiated support for students who fall behind or become disengaged?

It might seem too hard to decide to Try until you realize you are a part of a team.  Jedi warriors travel together, employ the mentor model of teaching, and capitalize on each other’s strengths.  If you think that you might be ready to join the rebel forces, we have a light saber and a Jedi robe in just your size.

We are all just Padawan learners when it comes to Competency Based Education.  But, we will Try.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Who Moved My (Nacho) Cheese?

In case you missed the huge announcement last week, I want to be sure that everyone knows:  Taco House has re-opened for the 2012 season.  Let the grease begin.

As residents of the Lakes Area, our lives are intensely seasonal.  The crowds come and (thankfully) go.  The snow-birds return, the docks go in, and then just as suddenly, the docks come out.  We mark the changes with our own quirky traditions, as reminders that in the midst of the change, the important things (like Taco House and nutty bars and roller coasters) stay the same

We biked down to Taco House yesterday to join the crowds.  I wasn’t as hungry for Nachos Royale (hold the onions, add extra guacamole) as I was for the nostalgia and the tradition.  As I pedaled, I thought about seasons and the inevitability of change.  As teachers, we work in a profession which is certainly as much or perhaps even more seasonal than tourism at the Lakes.  Every year, we fall in love with a new set of students.  We adjust to new schedules, new curriculum and new people.  And, in the midst of the change, the important things (like kids learning and growing and becoming) stay the same

Do you remember the summer when Taco House was threatened?  Taco House became the icon of summer back in its glory days, with a prominent location on Highway 71.  When the city decided to widen the road, it was declared that Taco House would no longer be on the highway but would be tucked away several hundred yards to the West.  I worried about Taco House that summer.  I worried that the change wouldn’t be good for its business, and that it might never be the same.  I lost weight due to the absence of grease and nacho cheese in my regular summer diet. 

You can imagine how happy I was when Taco House re-opened again after the Highway Project was complete.  I vividly remember sitting outside on the picnic tables, munching nachos with joy.  “This is amazing!” I exclaimed.  “How did they move Taco House without changing even one thing?  The concrete tables are exactly the same, the potted plants, the little brick wall, and even the booths and the interior of the restaurant are completely the same!  I can’t believe they were able to move Taco House without changing everything that I love about this place.”

James sat silently as I marveled about this engineering mystery.  Finally, he looked me in the eye and said slowly, “Kari, they didn’t move Taco House.  They moved the highway.”


I had wasted a lot of energy worrying about something that wasn’t even real.  My fears were based on imagination, and mis-information.  My reflexive response to change is generally one of doubt and fear and uneasiness.  But what I learned from Taco House that day was this:  change is inevitable, and beyond my control.  But fear is not.

James smiled at me and we started to laugh and laugh and laugh.  We still haven’t stopped laughing.
“You should worry less and bike more,” he said.  And he was right.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"C'mon, [Hu]man!"

This week, the medical clinic in our little town lurched forward a couple of decades.  The doctors were handed laptops, and dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.  The idea, of course, is a very good one:  EMR, Electronic Medical Records. Why should patient information (complete with illegible doctor’s notes and typewritten dictations) be kept in manila folders, hanging in the hallway with patient’s names hand- written in permanent marker?  It makes me feel like laughing, “C’mon, man!”

Still, from the doctor’s perspective there is room for concern.  One of the most important things that a doctor does everyday is to listen.  Listen for the hurt, listen for the subtle clues, listen to the doubt and the questions and the pain.  Listen to the joy and the hope and the whispered fears.  What if the doctor’s primary focus shifts away from the patient to the damnable machine?  What if, in pursuit of filling in boxes on a screen, both the doctor and the patient are robbed of the humanity behind the art of medicine?  No measure of technological efficiency would be worth that cost.

I have heard educators echo similar concerns as computing technologies redefine teaching and learning.  We (rightly) protest two-dimensional digital learning which flattens, deadens or de-humanizes the educational experience for our students.  Instead, educators and doctors alike must find ways to practice their professions in an environment that is at the same time both “high tech” and “high touch”. 

Technology is meant to extend the human potential:  telescopes to reach the distant stars, motors that let us fly, and sonar to plumb the depths of the earth.  Technology opens avenues of human exploration, probing the limits of the universe and pushing past the barriers of time and space. 

Doctors and teachers both use technologies with the sole goal of extending the human experience:  seeing, reaching, exploring, investigating, creating and finding new answers to human’s greatest questions of life and health and learning and living.  For both professions, it is our duty and privilege to be pioneers in the use of technology, safeguarding always the well-being of our patients and students.

Meanwhile, if you happen to catch your doctor scowling with his face two inches from the screen of his new computer, or maybe even grumbling at the unfamiliar keyboard, be a patient patient this week.  You could even go so far as to feel sort of sorry for the doctors:  they had to choose PC instead of MacBook, for obvious reasons….
They couldn’t take the risk that the old saying about Apples and doctors just might prove true.