Technology Dance — Part 6 — Save the Last Dance for Me


It is time for me to close out the first part of this blog on the Technology Dance.  In part 2 I will provide specific directions on how to handle some of the technology resources at our school   In the Introduction and Dedication you learned about the purpose for this booklet as it applies to St. Theresa School and to Technology usage in schools in general.  In closing this section I want to explore some issues that face all of us as we move forward into this 21st Century and look at the technologies that are shaping the world in which we live and teach.  As usual, I will begin with a story from my life that I will use to illustrate the technology points at the end of this section.  I hope you have enjoyed the journey thus far, so sit back, relax, grab a cup of coffee or your favorite beverage, kick off your shoes, grab your favorite snack, and get ready to dance.

In the winter of 1972, I was kneeling in eight inches of fresh snow on a hillside at Twin Pines Retreat Center.  I had been deeply troubled all weekend by a variety of events impacting my life and was taking this last quiet time walk to try and sort things out.  Up to that point, for me, the technology dance had been a jumble of occasional mainframe computer projects in High School, College, and Graduate School.  In High School, I had joined the computer club just so I could participate in their annual computer dating project.  It culminated in a dance in which your date for the evening was chosen by the computer.  I wanted to learn how to program the computer so I could get a date with a specific person I was interested in.  I was able to learn how to manipulate the data to do that and got the date with the cheerleader I had hoped to get.  To my chagrin, she was engaged to a young man who graduated two years ahead of us and was serving in the Navy.  Our date was cordial and pleasant but was going nowhere after that, so I learned that while computers can be useful you don’t always get what you want from them, especially when it comes to unpredictable human beings.  In college, I used mainframe computers to compile data and prepare my Thesis on an analysis of the Doomsday book and the identity of the real Sheriff of Nottingham.  In graduate school I completed the data analysis for my graduate research on physiological responses of counselors to patients with severe physical trauma, only to have the computer yell at me, and put a  message on the screen during a data entry session. It said, “What are you doing dummy?”.  On this winter day in 1972, I was on the cusp of something that I had no idea about as I knelt there in the snow crying my eyes out and telling God I really didn’t know whether I could handle all the changes being thrown at me at work and in my personal life.  I prayed that He would answer me by putting a Gideon type “fleece” before him that day.  (If you don’t know what that is, check out the Book of Judges in the Bible, you’ll find the whole story there).

I had been searching all weekend long for the deer whose tracks I saw in the fresh snow that had fallen each day of the retreat.  I had seen lots of tracks but no deer.  As I knelt and prayed that day, I asked God to let me see at least one deer before I left the mountain later in the day at the close of the retreat.  I wanted this to be a sign that God was really going to be with me in the days and weeks ahead so that I knew I wasn’t going to be alone facing the tasks set before me.  After praying for quite some time, I realized my knees were getting pretty stiff, so I wiped my eyes with my gloves and proceeded to raise my head slowly.  When I had my head fully upright I opened my eyes.  Standing just one foot in front of me was a large buck and surrounding me on all sides were a herd of does and young bucks.  I didn’t move, I could hardly breathe.  What an overwhelming answer to my prayer for God to show me that he would be with me in whatever direction the circumstances of my life would take next.  The buck looked me in the eyes and I looked back.  There was no fear, only a sort of gentleness of spirit.  I had never heard them approaching in the midst of my sobbing, and for some reason they obviously weren’t frightened by it either.  I don’t know how long I knelt there looking into the face of the buck, but finally he simply turned and walked back into the thicker part of the forest on the far side of the hill with the other deer following calmly behind him.  I finally got up and shouted a great big thank you to God at the top of my lungs.  I have had lots of prayers answered in my life, but few quite so strikingly dramatic as that.

A week after coming off that mountain, at the beginning of 1973, a young woman appeared at my workplace who I had not seen before.  I was immediately struck by her  deep warm eyes, her broad smile, and her genuinely caring demeanor.  She was also a very attractive young woman.  I was drawn to her like a fly on flypaper and I felt immediately that I had to ask her out.  I did about two weeks later.  Three dates later we were engaged and six months later we were married.  To the surprise of our wedding guests there was no dancing only a Moravian Love Feast and an extraordinary buffet meal attended by nearly 30 clergy from many different denominations in addition to the other guests.  Some were family, some just wonderful friends we had made over the years. I think the only reason we didn’t have dancing at our wedding was that there were a lot of  Methodists there who would have probably walked out if we had dancing, so I’m pretty sure that’s why we skipped it, but my wife and I have been dancing at weddings ever since.  In between my wife  Kim and I have danced through many life challenges as we’ve struggled to have children and then raised four (twin sons and two daughters), and now are grand-parenting four more including another set of twin grandsons.  Over those years Kim has put up with my technology dance, as I worked with severely physically handicapped individuals to teach them how to use computer technology to replace lost functions and helped them learn how to use robots to provide essential services for them.  She’s put up with the dance as I moved from 18 years of counseling and training with technology to 22 years of teaching children and adults in a wide variety of educational and corporate settings.  I taught them how to use technology to manage their work,  how to play with it, and how to make it a useful tool in a wide variety of areas of their lives.  This has been the best part of the technology dance for me, and one I would not trade for anything in the world.  Kim knows me so well she can anticipate my every step on and off the dance floor.  She lets me lead, but knows how to check my movements when they are not in the best interest of our relationship or our families well being.  She knows how to bring up a passion in me for the things I do and encourages me to take risks I might otherwise be unwilling to take.  She is and will always be my dance partner for the rest of my life.   I haven’t always been a perfect dancer in the process, I know I’ve stepped on her toes way to many times to count.  Her forgiving heart allows me to keep dancing even when I’m being a Klutz about it.  When our steps are well timed, the dance is amazing and I feel like I’m that kid back on the dance floor in the earlier stories I’ve shared.  While I’m a lot older now and I don’t move quite as quickly as I once did, and if I tried doing the twist, I’d probably be laid up with major back surgery, I still love dancing and I still love using technology as well.  It was never my desire to have any real involvement with technology.  Remember my only reason for beginning to use it at all was to get a cheap date with a cheerleader.  God just placed circumstances in my life where I had to learn to use it.  In the beginning I had to learn to use it to help myself with my school studies which was very self-serving.  God turned that around as I started my career in counseling and opened doors to me to learn how to use it to serve others.  After 18 years of practice he opened doors to allow me to share what I had learned with others so that they could do it for themselves.  I’ve been doing that part of the technology dance for 22 years now.  In the process, I find I keep learning every day.  I keep trying to share what I’ve learned every day.  While God has never seen fit to allow me to have the real career dream of my life, which is to be a farmer, I have never regretted any of the doors he has opened in my life.  My wife always says she believes God is reserving the farming job for me in heaven.  Not a bad deal at all, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

Okay, here is the part I wanted to get to at the start of this chapter; what kind of challenges do I see us facing as we move forward into the 21st Century in the use of technology in the school setting.  How will we have to adapt to the changes in the music and the dance as we continue down this career path?  Even if you are planning to get off the teaching career path in the near future, here is a little tip:  You won’t be able to escape the impact of technology on your life, even after you retire or choose another career option.

First, some comments from my story before we delve into the technology issues more deeply.
I think we all come into the technology dance from different backgrounds and perspectives.  We may even be so overwhelmed by it at times that it makes us fall down on our knees in tears like it did with me; however, we just might be surprised what God has in store for us, if we diligently seek Him in the process.  He could provide a dance partner for life, or certainly one for key times in our lives.  He could even provide us with surprise confirmations that we are on the right track like my experience with the deer.  As long as we stay open to His leading, following Him in the Technology Dance can turn out to be a long and wonderful chapter in our lives, at least for some of us.

Here are my thoughts about some of the challenges that lie ahead for us as we move forward into this 21st Century.

1.  The students we serve will come to school increasingly more well versed in the use of basic computer technology.  If we don’t keep up, they will simply pass us and may move on to Virtual Schooling via that technology (a phenomena already occurring in surprising large numbers across this country and around the world).  There are now 7 Charter Cyber Schools in Pennsylvania with a goal of enrolling more than 15,000 students by 2012.
2.  More and more text materials are being converted to electronic format to save costs and facilitate ease of distribution.  A similar phenomena is occurring with standard fiction and non-fiction books as well.  This means that we will most likely be using less paper materials. Students and staff will be downloading the text materials and support materials directly to their computers or smartphones.  It will force a new look at how we learn to read, and how we handle the issue of books and library resources.  I love books, there is something really special about holding someone else’s thoughts between my two hands, but I am also coming to appreciate you can do that too with your Kindle or other e-book readers, or on your smartphone or “pad” computer.
3.  Pod and Vodcasts already enable students to receive more lesson and homework support help outside of the school or when they are absent.  Many schools provide this service as a part of their regular postings to their school websites and even provide full video captures of classroom sessions for students who have missed school.  Some colleges,  university, and advanced placement high school  courses can now be taken strictly by downloading the course content to a person’s individual computer system, and students never have to enter a classroom setting.  While I believe student interaction is an essential element in learning, the power of social networking is already proving that you can engage students online without them ever having to step into your bricks and mortar environment.  While I’m not advocating for this format, we need to realize that at some point along the way, we’ll need to consider providing similar content to our students, and it may very well be that as operating costs continue to rise, that more and more education will be delivered in a non-bricks and mortar fashion via the online learning I talked about in item number 1 above.
4. Surface computing and voice-controlled computing is expanding exponentially with the advent of “pad” computers and “smartphones”.  These tools will replace paper and pencil and even conventional keyboards and mice quickly and will make it possible for the students to do work from nearly any environment where cell phone or wireless Internet access is available.  In our schools we need to accommodate these tools and allow students to use them in place of paper and pencil.  How will this effect handwriting classes, not sure yet,  but it may actually not affect them since software exists for them to practice and use handwritten recognition software on the “pad” and tablet-type computers as well as on smartphones?
5.  Having students use their own portable computing tools like cell phones, smartphones, netbooks, pad computers, tablet computers, laptops, etc. in the classroom will reduce the cost of providing one-to-one computer access in the schools.  If a school’s wireless network is carefully constructed and has enough built-in firewall and filtering tools students should still be able to work safely online and within a school Intranet without risking damage to the overall school network and/or exposing students to potentially harmful data online.  We need to allow these tools in the school and establish clear and well thought out guidelines for their use.  Certainly this should be true for middle school and high school, but with kindergarten children  using cell phones, it won’t be too long until we have to extend those options to the lower grades as well.
6.  Interactive whiteboards provide a powerful tool for large group instruction, but as advances in high definition flat screen TV continue, and advances in integrating computer and TV technology continues to proceed along its current path, it won’t be long before the whiteboards are replaced by flat screen devices that are really a blend of all three of these technologies into one device.  This will reduce costs and will expand the array of visual and auditory data that students can incorporate into their daily learning experiences as individuals and in a group.  Fortunately we here at St. Theresa’s school already have the foundation understanding of how to use our interactive whiteboards in this way, so it should not be a great usage leap when this other technology arrives on the scene.  In some cases this may include holographic projection which would vastly improve 3D simulation learning activities for the children.  That may be a bit further down the line, but we already have the holographic projection equipment to make this possible and Hollywood uses similar techniques to create the wonderful 3D effects it incorporates into movies, so it might not be as far off as we think.
7.  Most teachers and parents are now understanding that there are negative effects of having kids sit in front of screens too long each day.  Tools like the Wii Fit are just beginning to push into the physical movement and fitness aspect of learning.  I am a great believer in Kinesthetic Learning.  I also believe that our school ought to have a couple of these Wii fit units already in place to expand our physical education program, especially for those rainy day sessions.  The units are quite portable and could offer some very healthy indoor activity experiences in inclement weather.  Many students already have the Wii remotes that they could bring to school to participate in the use of this equipment.  Other companies are producing interactive mats and pads similar to the old Nintendo dance mats, for interactive movement learning in the lower grades.  While I think this is great for the younger children and gets them out of their seats and engaged in the learning process, I think that technology should not just be exclusively aimed at younger children and needs to be incorporated into the learning process for students at all age levels.  Remember Kinesthetic learning is one of the learning types and often gets overlooked in an educational environment where everyone is supposed to sit quietly at their desk and work all day.  God didn’t design us as human beings to be still.  We are to be mobile.  Why did we lose this concept in our schools?  I think we need to glorify God with the movement of our bodies, like the dancing I’ve been talking about.  How about letting that glory shine a little bit in the classroom as well.  It doesn’t have to be technology supported, but one thing the technology does, is that it forces us not to ignore it.

8.  Collaboration / WEB 2.0 and beyond — We all know what the word collaboration means, but as we move forward into this century and technology further impacts our teaching and learning activities, we must adjust to the fact that our students will need to be equipped to be more effective with learning that may be teacher initiated and at points facilitated but will more often be student generated.  Students will need to explore more, will need to share more, will need to listen better in order to be able to share effectively.  They will need to learn new forms of communication from verbal to symbolic and will need to be open to learning more and appreciate more about other learners in other parts of their own country as well as around the world.  For us teachers it will mean taking the risk of standing back a bit and letting students lead some of the learning and teaching process.  It will mean letting students evaluate the thinking and ideas of their fellow students without belittling them or without us jumping in. It will also mean allowing students the freedom to evaluate the information we are sharing with them as well.  I’ve seen many experts over the years make huge miscalculations and mistakes that students saw but were afraid to speak up about.  How, unfortunate for both student and teacher when that happens.  Allowing student-generated learning will mean being willing to let some of the direction of learning be moved by the students rather than by us, not necessarily all the time, but definitely more frequently than it is happening now.  It will mean becoming more flexible and adaptable to change and less rigid with our time and curriculum structures.  All subject content areas will need to be open to this process and we will need to be open to watch students create learning content for other students, including content practice activities, quiz and assessment tools, and study materials, as well as suggest topics for further exploration.   In a Catholic Educational setting this might seem very foreign, but to me it is a logical extension of the very concept of the relational God we worship.  God designed us to be in relationship with him and with others.  Jesus summed that up nicely when he told the young Pharisee that the greatest commandment was to love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit, but the second was not unlike it which was to love our neighbor as yourself.  These two Jesus said could sum up all of the commandments.  These two are about relationships and collaborative learning is about building relationships.  In a day and age when personal and family relationships often seem fragile and easily broken, I think one of the greatest roles we can play as educators in the 21st century is to teach our students about relationship building through collaborative learning and communication.  Perhaps through that practice we will rebuild the foundations of relationships in our families, communities, and churches.  WEB 2.0 collaboration tools offer a wide range of helps in all areas of curriculum content.  Fortunately here at St. Theresa’s we began this process of collaboration through technology two years ago and last year spent a great deal of time testing new WEB 2.0 tools.  I am encouraged to believe we will continue that practice in the future and become leaders in this area not only in our Diocese but in a much broader educational arena.

9. Personal Learning Networks (PLN’s) — These are the tools for Life Long Learning to be a reality for all of us.  Learning how to search for information, learning how to determine its relevance to the problems we are trying to solve of the things we are trying to discover, learning how to seek the input of others to our process, testing our thoughts and ideas by bouncing them off of others who may come at it from very different perspectives or even cultural and language backgrounds, building links to experts in the field, modeling for others and having the models tested by others.  These are just some of the tools included in the PLN toolbox.  The technology tools make it possible for us build and manage personal learning networks.  These are essential tot he work world that our students will enter.  To be successful in the future not only will you need the knowledge, but you will need to be able to analyze and reflect on it and shape it with the input of others.  You will need to be able to share it not only with your work team, but perhaps with hundreds of others who may work for various branches of your company around the world.  We need to master the art of PLN’s and share what we’ve learned with our students, especially those in the Middle Grades (6, 7, and 8).

10.  We need to be able to help students see that learning is a year-round process that also extends beyond the normal school day hours and week.  We need to help them understand that assuming that learning takes place only in school is a very dangerous idea that will limit their growth as human beings and may very well limit there effectiveness in the world of work.  As our economies worldwide become increasingly more connected the idea of working a 9 to 5 job is something that will quickly pass into oblivion, as it should.  Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we don’t need time for play and recreation, we do, but here in the United States, play and recreation has become a religion of its own, and we worship it far more than the productivity we should be concerned about in today’s rapidly changing economies.  We need to help students understand that it is there responsibility (with their parents help when they are younger) to explore and practice the things they are learning outside of the classroom.  Traditionally we have called this “homework”.  I’d prefer to think of it as “self-directed learning”.  I think we need to be assigning kids to tasks that use the technology they have in their hands at home like their computer, mp3 player, Nintendo DS, Play Station 3, smartphone, etc. to explore the things they have been learning in school further and to practice using them.  How about learning to write your own game program for a DS using data from a Social Studies Class and math concepts from Math Class.  How about exploring writing and ideas by creating a blog or wiki on your latest Science Project, or a topic from your Religion class.  What we’ve got to do is help them see that exploring beyond the classroom is where learning often really takes place.  We also need to help them understand that while they are out “recreating” they might use those same tools that they carry with them to do some GeoCaching, or how about researching the history of an area they are going to visit along with the best restaurant in town.  How about exploring great cultural and art opportunities by finding out whose style of painting someone may have copied from, or whose music influenced the rock group they are currently sitting listening to at a concert.  Many of them can look that stuff up on their smartphones, and others often have their netbooks or laptops with them in the car.  How about using their cell phone cameras to document a trip and then create an online travel log for other kids who may have never visited that area of the country or the world before.  These are just a smattering of ideas on how to apply the technology to year-round learning, but instead of having our kids turned into couch potatoes just staring at a screen playing useless video games, how about we encourage them to use the tools and time to become a more creative and effective learner.  It would be a whole lot better than wasting hours in front of the “boob tube” each evening because they aren’t getting any really interesting “self-directed learning” opportunities suggested to them.

PS  For number 10 above, I believe we all need to spend more time educating the parents on how to better use the technology in their homes and that is another thing I’m going to be doing in Part 3 of this Blog.

So those are just a few things to think about as we continue the “Technology Dance”.  As I said in one of my earlier tomes “I hope you dance”.

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