BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER BJ ENZWEILER
I write this blog post on Jan 7, 2021, a day after the protest, insurrection, sedition, attempted coup, or whatever you want to call it. Like many Americans, I was appalled by what I was seeing at our national capitol building. In a desperate attempt to understand, I flipped through different news sources on an almost minute-by-minute basis. Three screens, my phone, and my two computer monitors all showed news sources until I couldn’t take it anymore; sulking, I crossed the street to Rite Aid to buy a whole box of Tastykake Chocolate Bells. I needed to consume sugar to try and sweeten an incredibly bitter day.
Now, a day later - with more hours of news and chocolate bells devoured - I’ve given myself some time to reflect on what has happened and what it means for me as an educator. This is an educators’ blog after all. I want to understand the cause of what happened on January 6th in Washington DC.
The first assumption my brain jumps to is that we need more critical thinking in this country. This idea has been tossed around so much that it has almost become axiomatic. But, I must pause and think about my own experience and what I know of the teachers I have met. All of the teachers I have known in my decade of experience have tried to push for critical thinking in their classrooms through their own disciplines. We have used projects, Socratic seminars, and debates to push our students to see the world more broadly. We all know about the necessity for critical thinking in all classrooms, and we have known this for decades. To say that the current and former students of the United States schools have not had critical thinking training is reductionist. We should not discount the efforts of our fellow teachers across the nation. Many of us have pushed our students to take different perspectives and know that our students are thinking critically.
There are definitely other root causes of the events of January 6th. I think one of the more important causes is tribalism. This is blind loyalty people are expressing to demographics, religion, and political affiliation. With the rise of the internet, social media, and more politically focused news sources, we are able to choose our social groups and information. As such, political discourse has more easily turned into echo chambers that inflame the rages of sedition. Tribalism comes from a deep human desire for belonging. We must remember that we humans are still animals; we are social creatures with a basic need for connection. The tribalism of the 2010s and on comes from the community building that humans will always do. Tribalism appeals to our base nature and can circumvent our critical thinking when we are angry, hurt, and vulnerable.
So what do educators need to do? When people feel underappreciated and unheard, rabid tribalism can emerge. Therefore, we should recognize our human need for connection and listen to all of our students’ pain and perspectives. We need to continue to teach perspective-taking and critical thinking, but something else must be present too: compassion. Always recognize the humanity and pain behind the rage. In our classrooms, we should not ignore whatever crazy news is going to happen in 2021. Instead, we must talk about it with our students. No, we don’t all teach current events, but showing our humanity is a slow but positive step towards anti-tribalism.
With all of the directives and paperwork, this can seem like another thing that has to be added on to the workload. Compassion is not more work; instead, it is a methodology. We should inject empathy into all interactions we have with our students. Let’s not allow anybody to feel so sidelined that they turn to rabid echo chambers online or elsewhere. We should hear our student’s views to make our classrooms safe and stable spaces. Let’s be available, and let’s be kind.
And, maybe have a few more emergency Tastykakes stashed away somewhere.
BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER, ALICE FLAREND, PH.D.
Students usually see teachers as having finished school and, therefore, finished learning. However, the need and the drive to learn new things are integral parts of being an educator, both as an inherent trait and as a result of external forces.
I earned a PhD a few years back, and that process threw me back into a nascent learner mode. I had to learn not only a new language (e.g. epistemology, cognitive versus sociocultural constructivism), but I also developed a new social science way of viewing the world. This brought into sharper focus how I push my students to explain all the motions in the visible world with a few principles and with unfamiliar use of the familiar words, such as force (comes from the interaction of objects), acceleration (not just speeding up), and energy (specifically defined).
I was once again riding the roller coaster of learning: the frustrations of not understanding, the doubts of whether I could understand, and the elation when I finally could understand. I was in the same emotionally charged position in which I placed my students and was reminded just how difficult learning is. My learning journey improved my teaching by pushing me to build stronger relationships with my students to help them manage the emotional swings and to build stronger ties between my curriculum and their prior knowledge to help them navigate to deeper understandings. All of my students come with different prior knowledge, experiences and understandings. As a teacher, I need to learn these particulars about my students and then help them fill in the gaps and further their individual knowledge. This means taking the time to listen to the voices of my students as they tell me about themselves, their ideas and their questions. It also means the classroom activities will look different for different students.
Fast forward to teaching in times of COVID. With little warning, my fellow educators and I were thrown into the uncomfortable world of being learners of technology with a deadline and with hundreds of students, parents and community members counting on us. I need to help my students learn during these stressful times but without the means to look over a shoulder at the student device, or more importantly, without being able to look them in the eye.
My students are willing to simply click, secure in their cavalier view of technology that nothing cannot be undone. I, as an adult, am less adventurous, having unwittingly transferred funds between accounts with one of those simple clicks. My mistakes as a teacher are visible to and affect the lives of my students and their families. Posting wrong Docs, giving assignments on sites that cannot be accessed on certain devices, missing student responses that need an answer can all contribute to losses of learning and faith in schooling.
I felt and still feel awash in a dazzling forest of technology without much of a map. I am one of the lucky ones because my science and engineering background means that at least I have a foundation of programming and electronics which fills out a bit of the map. I understand that computers only know the syntax of the commands given not what we intend to do. This does not, however, mean that I know why sometimes my text comes out backwards on EdPuzzle questions or that I am able to predict how a Doc will look on an iPad versus a Chromebook versus my laptop.
One of the only good things to emerge is that once again I am in touch with the world of the learner, hopefully, pushing me to be a better teacher.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee