Thursday, February 9, 2017

Making the World a Little Smaller

It never ceases to astound me that as connected as our world is by modern technology, our classrooms can still feel like islands.

Several years ago, I read Curriculum 21 by Heidi Hayes Jacobs for a Master's course.  Jacobs puts forth a compelling vision of what education ought to look like in the 21st century, and describes what various schools and teachers are currently doing to make that vision a reality.  Naturally, technology featured prominently in several chapters, including the recommendation that communication technology be used to connect students with other people around the world.

I wonder how many of us have connections we simply haven't recognized.  Several years ago, while my brother was teaching high school math on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation through Teach For America, I had the idea to have him talk to my students on Google's video chat.  I hooked my laptop up to the projector, and he joined our class for 40 minutes to talk about his experiences.  In a curricular sense, the activity was an after-thought.  I hadn't prepped my students, and did not have a clear theme in the unit that I was teaching, other than "Native Americans have had it rough".  Fun as it was to bring my brother into my classroom from halfway around the world, I missed opportunity after opportunity to really make his virtual visit count.

We did it again the next year, and even had the opportunity to talk to several of his students, who were as curious to talk to a class full of international school students in Japan as my students were to talk to Lakota students in South Dakota.  That opportunity made the experience more meaningful than the year before, but again, the idea lacked sound curricular context.

After that year, my brother's contract with Teach for America wrapped up, and he embarked on his Master's degree.  I didn't think to utilize his knowledge and experiences again for a couple years.

This year, as my brother began to apply to law schools, having finished his Master's degree, he told me that one direction he was considering was to study Native American policy.  His time living and working with the Lakota people had profoundly impacted him, and it was clear that the plight of Native Americans today was still very much on his mind and heart.  Everything clicked into place in that instant.  In the two years since I had last invited him to talk to my students, I had developed a unit exploring issues connected to Agency and Victimhood, and it occurred to me that my brother would have keen insights into what agency does and does not look like for Native Americans today.

I was already planning to have my students examine slavery and women's suffrage as case-studies in this unit, and from there it was not too much work to carve out time for the historical and contemporary issues facing Native Americans as a third case study.  I had my students research and present on Lakota history, culture, boarding schools/assimilation efforts, contemporary social issues, political structure and modern day activism.  They presented in groups on Monday, and my brother talked to the students on Tuesday.

This was far more interactive than the previous conversations had been.  My brother started by briefly describing what he did during his two years on the reservation, but after that, the floor was open for my students to ask questions.  One student asked whether the government's heavy involvement was hindering the Lakota from improving their situation.  Another student asked whether or not it was right for the people to resist the government.  Another student asked what my brother thought the first step needed to be to effect real change.

The discussion was steeped in the thinking my students had done on agency leading up to this point, and this lent all the more weight to my brother talking about how his goal was essentially to teach himself out of a job, to see more Lakota aspire to become teachers.  He talked about the importance of humility when coming from a place of privilege, being able to put aside one's own agenda and listen and learn from those you are working with.  He talked about the complexity of the relationship between the tribe and the federal government, and the need for thought and care.

It was an organic high point to a unit that had been spent wrestling with complicated issues.

I would not have been able to teach my students what my brother taught them--I could lay the groundwork and guide the discussions along the way, but I have never lived or worked in a situation like the one on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  I needed somebody who had.

Herein lies the power of communication technology in the classroom: the act of Skyping with someone on the other side of the world, in and of itself, is fascinating and personally enriching, but it may not have inherent value to the curriculum.  However, if teachers are able to discern when and where an expert's perspective, or a first-hand perspective will complete the picture the teacher is trying to create in the unit, they ought to consider whether or not they know anybody who can provide that perspective.

Ideally, teachers will look for ways to make new connections and build a portfolio of human resources, but that is not where we need to start.  We need to start by thinking through the connections we already have, whether near or far, and then taking steps to make the world just a little bit smaller.

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