Exactly What I Needed to Hear . . .

by danielagins

I am still unsure how I got to TEDxNYED. I am so miniscule on the ed/tech scene that I am practically nonexistent. I joined Twitter several months ago and prior to this event was following a mere 40 or so people, with about 25 following me in return. I’m still learning the rules. It was only a few weeks ago (after the confirmation email) that I decided to start blogging. The grand total of posts on my blog, including this post, is two.  Indeed, I did not even make the first round of invites. I will proudly acknowledge my 2nd round draft pick status. It is no wonder that I was asked at one point (in a genuinely curious and amiable manner) how I came to hear of this event? I don’t really recall. I think George Siemens tweeted something about the event way back in November. I was, at that moment, infatuated with TED talks in general (trying to watch one on my iPod touch each night before bed. Who needs books, right?). I had been attempting to embed technology and social media in my 8th grade social studies classes for a few years now, and in addition, I had just mailed off my application to Uconn’s graduate program in educational technology. The event seemed like a perfect opportunity. I made it my mission to get there. This event was the one thing in my six years of teaching that I really and truly wanted to go to. I bled over my application essay. I felt as if acceptance into this conference would also mean acceptance into the “club”. As much as I try to be a beacon of reason for my 8th grade students in their battles for acceptance with their peers, in their desire to place themselves where they want to be on the social scale; as much as I play the wise sage that tells them seeking acceptance should not be their true aim, I suppose that they have rubbed off on me. Or perhaps I am still an 8th grader under the surface. Either way, when all was said and done, I think I took more away from this conference than I had intended.

I could write about the virtues of each of the speakers and throw their now oft-quoted sound bites in the “echo chamber-ber-ber-ber” and place that mixture in the oven, which, just for kicks, might end up looking something like this:

We can donate our skills as we try to use the media, which ends up using us in this participatory culture, where overcoming our inner two year old allow conservatives to teach liberals a thing or two about remixing. Meanwhile, the falling cost of finding each other allows us to do what we do best, and link to the rest. If this method is used to connect optimists then we are one step ahead in our preparation for the vital combat for lucidity, where perfect order battles imprecise chaos over the critical mass content we must come to grips with in order to be less helpful as we allow ourselves to be transformed and thereby letting us transform our students.

Amazingly a few parts of that linked together quite nicely. Well, they at least sounded like they did. Thankfully this is not what I took away from the conference.

My biggest takeaway was not a sound bite or a moment of illumination, although there were plenty of those to go around. I actually took away no content that I did not already believe prior to my arrival. Ultimately, I was able to build a framework in which to better understand or articulate my pre-existing beliefs. Even that, however, was minor in comparison with my ultimate discovery.

People are people. Presenters, curators, organizers, prolific bloggers, and attendees with astronomical twitter followers are all people just like me*. They are all people who are concerned primarily with the human beings we are in charge of preparing for the exponentially changing world. Having first hand access to such people, to rub shoulders with them, has given me the confidence to return to my school with a brand new sense of purpose, not only for my own classroom, but also for my school’s (and dare I say, district’s?) direction. Idealistic? Sure. But it has been two weeks now and I am still feeling the same way. I suppose that it is only idealistic if I ever get jaded or lose interest in the battle. Therein lies another shift in my thinking that occurred as a result of TEDxNYED.

If words matter as much as David Jakes claims, then even the word “battle” implies animosity and actions that bring about casualties. Who are these casualties? Are they fellow faculty in opposition to our shift in educational vision? More often than not, the casualties of this battle end up being the very people we intend to “save”, be it fellow educators or, more perilously, students (The irony of the parallels here between theoretical pedagogical battles and actual gun firing battles is not insignificant). I will no longer frame reform as a battle in which I am trying to be a crusader for the cause. That simply puts unwanted emphasis on reform as a struggle. If this is truly a movement to “win the hearts and minds” of peers less inclined to embrace technology and the new media as the relevant mediums that they are, then putting on the war paint will not be the most effective method. It suddenly seems clear to me that one of the talks from TEDxNYED that I considered a throwaway at the time, might instead have had one of the biggest impacts on me. Gina Bianchini’s discussion of connecting optimists has apparently had more of an impact on me than I initially thought. Sitting there, I was unimpressed with the content of the talk. Only now (as I write this) am I understanding that deep down it is optimism that is driving my new direction; and collective optimism, at that. We can do this is so much better as a mantra than I will fight you until you give in and do this.

Pretty much all of the talks that day were thought provoking. Some more than others, but that is what is to be expected. I tried very hard to comprehend both Dan Cohen and George Siemens, but simply felt that their intellectual prowess dwarfed my own. I tried, but ultimately failed. Lessig and Jarvis were entertaining, and I was so spellbound that I took zero notes during their presentations. In fact, I recall reading a few things that dubbed them the unofficial headliners. I disagree. When all was said and done, I am not sure if I took anything practical away from their talks.  Mike Wesch’s cautionary tale of how emerging technologies ultimately change us was the most riveting philosophically. His talk was probably the one that gave me the most challenging tidbits to roll around in my brain. It was cognitive dissonance to the max. I loved the “brain hurt” feeling. However, in terms of practical application for me, the headliners were Dan Meyer and Chris Lehmann (coincidence that they were the last two speakers?).

I hate math. Always have. Maybe it was bad teaching. Maybe it was my diagnosed learning disability. I wish I loved it. I am envious of mathematical minds. As much as Dan Meyer is a math teacher, and his talk was about math . . . it wasn’t. I saw Dan’s talk as proof that anything in the classroom can be made applicable to life. If, in 18 minutes, he was able to convince me that my most hated subject was applicable to real life, then I can make sure that my subject, which I a passionate about can be made applicable to my students. Interestingly enough, when I approached him at the post-event and had a 30 second conversation in which I expressed how much I enjoyed his talk, he asked if I was a math teacher and seemed perplexed when I said that I teach social studies. I never did figure out why.

Chris Lehmann was both passionate and inspiring. He was able to articulate much of what I intrinsically believe about the role of education. While some people might criticize this as preaching to the choir, perhaps sometimes that is needed. Not to get all hokey in the analogy department, but I found this similar to the Oracle telling Neo exactly what he needed to hear. I am in no way saying I am akin to Neo. Really. I am not. The fact that the Oracle also told neo that he was not what everyone thought him to be is not really my connection with this analogy, either. It is more about the fact that he heard whatever it was he needed to hear in order to do “his job” better. So . . . if I returned to my job with a bit more confidence in myself because I heard someone say the things I have believed but never articulated, and that person was standing in a spotlight on a stage talking to a packed house and thousands more via livestream, and even though the format in which he spoke has been dragged over the coals (by fellow presenters earlier in the day and in the twitterverse/blogsphere), the fact that I experienced it live alongside fellow members of the choir, made it exactly what I needed to hear. Sure, Jarvis had the sound bites that were both shocking and witty and therefore memorable (F%#K the SAT’s, life is beta) but Chris Lehmann’s were applicable. I love the idea of aiming for good citizens first and getting good workers as a result, instead of simply aiming for good workers and having hollow citizens as a result. I am going to live the idea of making my classroom the real world and doing away with the dangerous mindset that is all too prevalent in educational systems that the “real world” is some tangible thing that students will enter sometime in the month of June after 13 years of preparation (K-12). The real world is now. It is here. It lives in room 213 of Pawcatuck Middle School just as much as it lives everywhere outside of that room.

If we as teachers can’t unlearn the ways of education built for the industrial age, and relearn our roles for the post-industrial era, then we will repeatedly fail the students (humans) in our charge. Failure is only good when you learn from it and use it as a springboard to success. Are we doing that in education? A reoccurring theme that I have heard many times before TEDxNYED, and it was echoed here as well, is the question of the educator’s role in the era of Google, etc., and now the rise of mobile Google, etc. as well. Lehman answered this beautifully. We might not be the conduits of information as teachers had been in the past. We are not the monopolies of knowledge. In the era of on demand learning and fact gathering, we can still impart one thing. Wisdom. The question I have is: how much wisdom can we truly impart if we continue to, as Marshall McLuhan said, view the present in a rearview mirror, marching backwards into the future?

*Qualifying my “people are people” statement: I arrived in NYC knowing no one in person and only a handful of people (2) that I had conversed with via twitter enough times for me to feel strangely comfortable speaking to them in person, Ben Wildeboer and Meredith Stewart. However, I walked into the Friday night pre-event totally alone and unsure of what to expect. Upon entering the Dublin House and making my way to the back, I encountered a group of people having a conversation right in the entrance. I asked if this was the TEDxNYED pre-event, they said yes, so I jumped right in and introduced myself (something I do not do very well). I recall shaking hands with them and asking what they did, because that is what your supposed to do to make small talk with strangers. The responses I got did not register with me until the next morning. “I’m at USC”, replied an older looking man with a rather long white beard. “I’m a Historian at George Mason”, replied a younger looking gentleman whose name was also Dan (same as me, as I remarked to him the way we all do when meeting a fellow name).They asked what I do and why I am at TEDxNYED. I launched into my well rehearsed answer to my application question, but the bottom line is that I teach 8th grade social studies at a rather small public school in southeastern CT. The group seemed fine with that. We kept talking for a bit until I excused my self to go mingle. Uh-huh. I was so embarrassed when I looked at the flickr photostream the next morning and saw . . . the same people I was chatting with the previous evening on stage practicing for the day’s event. I didn’t even know I was speaking with presenters and it didn’t matter to them that I am such a small fish. Throughout the night I met and talked to several of the coordinators of TEDxNYED (Dave Bill, Basil Kolani, and Karen Blumberg) who were all exceedingly down-to-earth genuine people. They helped shatter my country boy perception of city folk. Throughout the day on Saturday I met and spoke with such twitter superstars as Shelley Krause, Sylvia Martinez, and Will Rich ( I think Meredith Stewart probably belongs in this company as well). All with followers in the thousands, and all genuine people. During the trek to 86th street for the post-event I looked up to notice that I was walking with Mike Wesch and George Siemans among others. Although I stayed out of their conversation I stil found it to be an important discovery for me. I was made aware that, as I stated earlier, all of these ed/tech superstar philosophers are people just like me. They know more (or have read more) about certain things, but our hearts are in the same spot. They do not exist on a plane above. This was the most empowering and important thing I took away from TEDxNYED.