Sometimes We All Benefit From Unplugging

“Today, when nearly every question can be handled instantly by Siri, Google, or Alexa, we’re losing the habit of pausing to look inward, or to one another for answers.  But even Siri doesn’t know everything.  And Google can’t tell you why your son or daughter is feeling hopeless or excited, or why your significant other feels not so significant lately, or why you can’t shake chronic low-level anxiety that plagues you.”–Vironika Tugaleva

 My classroom now includes the integration of an Apple TV through which I connect a  computer or iPad in order to project content onto a whiteboard.  One day recently, it wasn’t working, and after completing a few troubleshooting steps, I was at a loss.  A co-worker suggested that I unplug the device for a short time, then plug it back in.  Which led me down a path of reflection . . .

It is amazing to think I incorporate the Apple TV with all of the other forms of technology in my classroom after beginning my career with little to no technology in the classroom, much less in my own life.

I find the technology I integrate into my classroom a point of marvel.  The most advanced technology that I used with my students during my early years of teaching in the late 1980s was a rolling chalkboard that was also magnetic!  Since then, the role of technology, not only in my classroom, but also in life in general, has remarkably transformed.  It reminds me of making a snowperson as a kid. 

Forming the largest part of the snowperson required concerted effort, and it was slow work. With each segment, however, the snowperson became easier to form, and the results came faster until everyone in the neighborhood had access to see and enjoy its newest member.  Eventually though, no matter how much more snow did or did not fall, the snowperson melted away into the soil, and the once novelty then became part of the neighborhood’s foundational ground without the kids and their families releasing it.

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In a similar, but much more complex fashion, technology became integral to humans.  First, its development was a slow, laborious process that required the endeavors of many. People would gather and marvel at the latest creation, until eventually those cow-spotted boxes became a common home delivery sighting. However, as information began to gather, momentum picked up, and soon the technological developments started evolving at an even more rapid pace until the technology melted and integrated into the very foundation of society, no longer a curiosity.

Information can be gathered in one or two keystrokes of a computer or handheld device.  Additionally, one can gather statistics, facts, figures, and so forth, at any time of the day or night.  As a general rule, this acquisition of material is neither good nor bad–it all comes down to the producer and user of information. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing sea of pride developing among those who can amass large quantities of data, gathering facts in their head on a daily basis–as if the more data one can gather, the more important their opinion becomes. 

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This has also led to a new mantra regarding disdain for one another’s feelings.  I have seen it crudely phrased on bumper stickers and yard flags/signs, and I’ve likewise overheard it stated slightly more civilly (although often still aggressively) in conversations.  In fact, I have even made similar statements. However, I do believe there is a danger in discounting feelings/emotions. 

I could make the argument that those who state that they dismiss feelings or emotions are still unwittingly attached to their own.  This is due to the fact that their pursuit of intellectual facts/data/statistics, on which they make their various stands, is motivated by the good feelings that accompany their accumulation of data.  In fact, according to the latest data, the use of technology–even in intellectual pursuits–is designed to create positive sensations driven by dopamine, those feel-good chemicals released by the brain.  This is the exact same chemical response that is the force behind both positive habits and negative addictions.  Therefore, to say a person’s feelings don’t matter is ironic, since at the most biological level, it is dopamine driving one’s attachment to gather facts, data, and statistics.

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Now, before I am sent outcries of defensive outrage, let me continue to lay out my points in order to get to my thesis.  I absolutely value knowledge, and I enjoy listening, reading, and discussing valid research content.  In fact, without it, I would not have an education, nor would I have a job.  In fact, without these intellectual endeavors, society as a whole would not have made many of the significant advances that contribute to our well-being.  

Instead, I think that the danger resides in valuing data/statics/facts above all else, causing us to lose sight of the importance of unplugging and listening to that still, small voice that resides within each of us.  It is that voice–that level of consciousness–that allows us to discern, not only right from wrong, but also develops and fosters those less-intellectual, but critical pursuits, such as compassion, empathy, communication, adaptability, creativity, interpersonal skills, teamwork, collaboration, and so forth . . . .   Without these so-called soft-skills, humanity is not any different from the technology on which I write this piece.

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At the time of writing, the Northern Hemisphere is in the early stages of spring.  The ground is softening, and soon, the soil will be prepared for cultivation.  Branches, rocks, and any other debris will need to be removed, the soil will require proper tilling, leveling, and fertilization in order for those tiny seeds to grow into a harvest of bountiful, nutrient dense food. Likewise, it is only by unplugging and pulling ourselves away from devices that we can prepare, fertilize, remove mental detritus, and grow a harvest of intra- and inter- personal skills–which starts when we take time to plant inner-seeds of faith in order to grow our relationship with our Creator.

Faith is not about intellectuality–although people certainly try to do this.  Instead, I believe faith requires conviction, and that conviction comes from the cultivation of one’s inner world–the heart center, the residence of, yes, emotions. Faith is not tangible, it cannot statistically be verified.  However, I argue that without faith, we cannot fully develop emotionally.  In fact, I would go so far as to state that without faith, we cannot understand, offer, and receive love; and without love, we are little more than a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” as one of my favorite Bible verses states. 

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 As such, I strongly suspect that many of the wars waged around us, both at home and abroad, have as much to do with a lack of faith and development of all those so-called soft skills, as they do intellectual evaluation of facts, statistics, and data. Unfortunately, we may not be able to control conflict around us, but we do have a choice in how often we unplug, look within, and cultivate/enrich our own faith/heart.  It is through these unplugged pauses that our faith becomes more strongly rooted, increasing our trust in the belief that Divine Providence will provide for a path through–maybe not the way we had hoped, but a plan, nonetheless, for all things to work towards the higher good.

So pardon me if I do value unplugging from all that input, and stand in the center of my faith–the heart of my emotions. I believe that it is through regular bouts of unplugging–even for short periods–that my faith is renewed, my resolve is strengthened, and I am refreshed and once more ready to move forward in the data-driven world–just as the Apple TV in my classroom ultimately did. The difference, however, between the Apple TV and me, however, comes down to my faith–my emotional heart center.  I believe the same is true for humanity. 

The End of an Educational Experiment . . .for now

“What a long strange trip it’s been.”–Jerry Garcia

“Dear Ms. Hill,  Thank you for all of your hard work and patience.”

This was a one-sentence thank you note I received from a student in advance of the end of the academic school. I appreciated his sentiment and reflected over what I now think of as the “pandemic years of education”.  These past two academic school years have certainly tested teachers’, students’, and parents’ abilities to practice patience–both within ourselves and with one another in the educational community.  It forced all of the involved stakeholders to work in ways for which we were not prepared, and it stretched us to new limits.

As a middle school, 6-8 Reading Language Arts teacher, I have read countless student journals expressing their feelings of fear and uncertainty when the pandemic first began, their high levels of anxiety as well their feelings of isolation during their time in quarantine, their feelings of frustration during day-upon-day of virtual learning, and their exaperastion when dealing with glitchy/malfunctioning wifi or frozen devices.  Despite all of the pandemic educational vexations, students also wrote of their newfound appreciation for the value of the in-person community that schools foster.  Nonetheless, the scars of this experience, I fear, will remain with many of our students for years to come. 

“Reduced learning time has likely impeded student learning and also affected the development of the whole child.”–Economic Policy Institute

Meanwhile, when reflecting upon this pandemic experience with colleagues, both in the public and private school setting, many reflect upon the multiplicity of issues and/or frustrations, depending upon their unique school community.  Pedagogical adaptations seem to have been one of the major challenges often stated by the educators due to virtual learning, shortened school year, and/or hybrid learning.  Then, there were forced adjustments to instructional delivery in order to balance the engagement of virtual students while simultaneously instructing and attending to the needs of in-person students. This demanded that teachers refine and adapt instructional plans–often on-the-fly if there were wifi issues–in order to best facilitate student learning. Additionally, curriculum was often gleaned to the most essential learning objectives and standards also due to a shortened calendar year and/or class time and, in some cases, to allow for additional time to address the social/emotional needs of the students. Meanwhile, administrative tasks seemed to double with an endless supply of emails, on-line grading, and a multitude of spreadsheets and documentation monitoring student attendance, progress, or lack thereof.

Looking back over this experience, I feel as if I am standing on top of one mountain peak, but I can clearly see there are more summits to climb in the coming academic years.  From my current apex, I can tell you this.  Teachers and students should not judge themselves too harshly as this school year winds down.  Virtual teaching and learning during a pandemic was hard–plain and simple.  Students and teachers alike, across the country, were asked to exit their respective schools on March 13, 2020 with all of their personal/professional supplies and no preparation.  Then, on Monday, March 16, we were exhorted to embark on what would, at this point in my 30-plus years as an educator, be the most dramatic educational paradigm shift I have experienced that continued throughout the summer months of 2020 and on into the 2020-2021 school year for which we are now wrapping up.

One thing is for certain, the pandemic compelled teachers and students alike to establish a strong foundation in the employment of technology for educational purposes. The downside of this is that we also learned that technology is dependent upon access to wifi, devices that work, and equal access for all students to reliable devices and internet access.  While I was blessed to work in a school that offers equal access to devices (although our local wifi provider had MUCH to be desired), that was not the case for all schools.  Additionally, even with working devices, the importance of reliable internet service came to the forefront of the educational world as I witnessed in my own school.  As a teacher who committed to operating paperless during this school year, due to virtual learning, my students and I, very quickly, had to learn how to be incredibly patient when there was no service, certain platforms crashed, or devices simply froze. Which leads me to another lesson.

The last day of school for 1st period, 8th grade, Reading Language Arts students, for 2020-2021, whether in-person or virtual. Eventually, all but one student, returned to the classroom.

“It’s (COVID) taught us that technology can be wonderful, but it will never replace the value of people in safe but rigorous learning spaces talking, playing, and working together.”–Brad Olsen, Senior Fellow in the Center for Universal Education

The importance of local communities, administrators, teachers, students, and parents valuing and supporting one another cannot be overstated. Communities witnessed, very quickly, that not only do schools provide an education for their children, but they are also a reliable source of childcare that keeps children safe, fosters their social development, and supports their emotional and physical well-being.  Meanwhile, administrators, teachers, and students discovered the importance of the synergistic experience that happens with in-person classroom learning. While the remote learning model worked–and will probably continue in certain circumstances–there are real educational, social, and emotional benefits from interacting on-site with one another within the structured periphery of a school setting. 

The last day of school for my 8th grade, second period, Reading Language Arts class for 2020-2021, at times, many were virtual, and by the end of the year, all were in-person

“COVID-19 highlighted the essential role of child care for children, families, and the economy, and our serious underinvestment in the care sector.”–Daphna Bassok, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy

While I have no doubt, next year will bring the educational system continued challenges from the lingering effects of this pandemic, I believe, overall, we have the ability to face them with an even greater capacity of compassion and empathy if we heed its many lessons.  The pandemic, it seems to me, has reinforced why it is crucial for the community at large to listen to the needs of educators, parents, and students.  It has given local leaders an opportunity to reflect upon the critical role of childcare and its contribution to the fiscal wellbeing of its community.  Likewise, the educational system must continue to rethink and adapt instruction in order to better facilitate student learning while continuing to cultivate ways to meet the emotional and physical needs of children, caregivers, and educators.  One-size does not fit all when it comes to technology, education, and childcare, but all affect and influence the successful functioning of the communities at large.  

In the end, I circle back to what my student simply wrote.  Thank you to the many who extended me patience through what has been one, if not the most, challenging 15 months of my career.  Many have granted me grace in moments of extreme stress and emotional duress, and for those unnamed moments, I am eternally grateful.  Here’s to summer break, and a fresh start on the coming school year.  May schools blessedly remain open.

First period class clowning around on their last day of school which was also a dress down day for their last day of 8th grade.
Second period, 8th grade, striking a pose on their last day of 8th grade which was also a dress down day.