The Teacher’s Note: Too Much, Too Fast

Jerry Brodkey is a math teacher at a public high school in Northern California. He sent this note to his colleagues at the beginning of the school year.

Thursday was the technology professional development day at the District, and although I thought the day was excellently planned and carried out, and I was impressed with all the presenters, when I left, I felt battered and pessimistic. I have been trying to figure out why.

This summer I went back to Iowa to visit my 97 year old mother. She is active and alert, reads, travels, is engaged in life. I am very lucky. A couple of years ago we gave her an Ipad, and she uses it for three or four things. She does a little email, looks at pictures of the grandchildren, occasionally looks at a web site. When I was sitting on the couch with her one evening, I picked up the Ipad to show her how to do more — maybe some crossword puzzles, look at the international newspapers, a little family history. I thought she’d enjoy doing more. After a few minutes of my enthusiastically showing her possibilities, I noticed a glazed look on her face. She is very polite, but it was clear it was all noise to her. Too much, too fast, not something she sought. I pulled back, realizing she was using the Ipad as she wanted. Nothing more was desired.

I think the dazed look that crossed her face was the same expression I had during much of the day on Thursday. Four presentations and the speaker. Too much, too fast. Google Mail, Google Docs, Google Forms, Google Surveys, School Loop. It became a blur, like I was watching a train hurtling down the track. I felt old.

What perhaps bothered me most is that I think we have stopped asking questions about our assumptions concerning the value of all this technology. How does it change the relationships I have with parents and students? What is the cumulative effect of having students locked into technology each day, and then again for perhaps hours after school? What are the truly critical goals we have for our children and students? I still want the very basics to be of central importance — discussing, listening, caring, being empathetic, having the ability to think deeply about a problem. Will technology help me achieve these goals?

The speaker flashed a picture of old ways of teaching and learning, and in one slide five books came on the screen: Of Mice and Men, The Canterbury Tales. I hope my own children still read those great works and others. She mentioned Othello, I want my son, who is a junior this year, to read Othello. I want him to think and write about the themes of passion, and love, and betrayal, and revenge. I don’t want him reaching for a computer or his phone; I want him to do the harder work of examining his own beliefs.

Instead of looking outside themselves, I first want my students to look deeply inside, then listen and respond to others.

Instead of emails and school loops, I want to continue to pick up the phone and call parents and have a real conversation.

Instead of flooding students with information, I’d like to have them deeply examine a few central ideas from different perspectives.

I want each of us in my classroom to be present with each other. The classroom provides this rare opportunity that seems to be disappearing elsewhere in life.

Instead of my son coming home from school and watching flipped classrooms and participating in on-line discussions (all of which can easily take hours each night), I want to make sure he has time to still play ping-pong with me, to read a book for pleasure, to have a family dinner and discuss the day’s events.

I want my eighth grade daughter to run and jump and play and dream, to get off her phone, get off the computer, and walk with me and my dog in the evening.

Instead of speeding up, I want to slow down. I want meaningful communication, not just a flood of communication.

I don’t want my children’s school to email me their assignments each night. I want my children to take responsibility; I don’t want to monitor their grades on a daily basis.

Instead of speeding up, I want to slow down.

Last spring I was talking to a ninth grade boy who is a neighbor. He was taking geometry and struggling. The teacher (not at our school) had used the flipped classroom approach. When I asked him how it was going, he responded: “Not very well. My teacher seems to be more excited and interested in the technology than he is by his students.”

His comment continues to haunt me.

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