Friday, August 12, 2016

The Power (and Responsibility) of Human Connection

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As a blended learning specialist, I spend significant time thinking and talking about technology, and within this process, reframing the role of the teacher from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”. But in my approach to blended learning in action, the teacher remains core to the experience. This is because the power of human connection cannot be replaced by gamified, adaptive software interaction. I am reminded of this again and again when I hear from my former students who have pursued life paths funded by emotional currency exchanged years ago between a passionate teacher and their younger selves.

This morning I was reminded of the power of this emotional currency through a creativity exercise. I’m working through Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way to bring my creative energies to a peak, and today’s learning prompted me to uncover “creativity monsters” in my past, individuals who (perhaps inadvertently) caused creativity scars. Of the three I thought of, two were teachers, and one I remembered vividly from early elementary – Mr. Jones, my music teacher. As I thought about Mr. Jones, I thought about my younger self and her interactions with him. I recalled identifying as a singer when I was little; I loved music and envisioned myself frequently being chosen to sing the National Anthem in class. There was a talented girl who always sang it, Katie, and when Katie sang it, the sound was so otherworldly to me. But Katie was in the choir, so I thought if I joined and learned, I could sound like her. I remember the day I auditioned, nervous and standing alongside Mr. Jones’s traveling keyboard. It was bad; I didn’t make the choir. I failed a subsequent test in music on memorizing one of the scales, something that led to my only report card F of my academic career. From second grade on, I never sang aloud whether in school or in life. I declared myself a “bad singer” who “lacked a musical bone in her body”.

Five years ago, I had a highly contrasting experience in a music class as I had the wonderful opportunity to have a lesson from a former Grandview colleague, Michael Yanette, who offered to teach me how to sing the new school song. He had taken the beautiful poetic creed and put it to music that year, one of the numerous ways he had woven love of music through every inch of Grandview’s fabric. Shortly after his arrival, students could be heard singing all the time in and out of classes; seniors who had hated or been indifferent to music class were lining up to join the musical; the Grandview halls were “alive with the sound of music”. Mr. Yanette was magic. I entered his classroom full of nerves. It took a while for him to get me to sing beyond a whisper, but within the hour I was singing and laughing alongside him, full of joy. I told him it was my first music lesson since I could opt out in sixth grade. More importantly, it was the first positive music lesson of my life. I hugged him and left in joyful, grateful tears.

In contemplating these contrasting experiences this morning, I thought of so many other powerful moments of human connection I experienced firsthand as a student, later created as a teacher, and after witnessed as a leader. In the span of seconds, we as educators have the power to ignite curiosity and channel it into creative magic…or we have the power to leave a creativity scar. This is true in every discipline where the greatest measure of student learning can be seen in creative problem solving and authentic application of skills learned.

It is also possible to build this human connection through technology that brings teachers and students closer together and contributes to a deeper, multifaceted understanding of the student. I’ve experienced such a moment when I was teaching a composition class from New York to students in Florida, and a “normally silent” student opened up via chat about her writer’s block, a conversation that led to her sharing some creativity scarring she had experienced, and the eventual a release of her block. It was “constructive feedback” of mine that had contributed to her block, but through a more constructive sharing, it was emotional currency that had empowered her to move it.

A device is not a teacher, and while it is essential we power-up our classrooms with digital connectivity, that action alone is not the mechanism for student empowerment. This remains in the hearts and minds of teachers who passionately seek out the innate seeds of student curiosity, lovingly cultivate them, and creatively direct them to the light of growth. Thus, as we design ways to connect more classes, we must do diligence in designing ways to support teachers in this change. In this manner, we can avoid leaving scars that block their practices and instead spark their creativity so that they may continually uphold the critical responsibility of human connection contained within each momentary student-teacher interaction.

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