A Posture Of Listening

Listening is important. I have only been married four years, but I know that closing the laptop and listening makes or breaks a conversation with my wife. The same is true at school, especially in my job as a technology coordinator, where I regularly listen to teachers talk about their classes and the lessons they would like to add technology into. 

I think listening is most important because it honors the image of God in the person you are talking to. There is something of God that is revealed in each of us, and truly listening to another person can uncover that nugget of God you would have otherwise missed. 

As I thought about this during a class this summer I reinvented my workspace to reflect the importance of listening. The pictures are before and after pictures of my desk. Screens no longer get in the way of my view of the other technology coordinator, with whom I plan all sorts of different events, lessons and technology implementations. I also removed the screen that was in the way of me actually using the conference end of our desks, I will be able to stay at my desk and join a conversation on the semicircle without distraction. I am using both inputs on the monitor still on my desk to use my desktop and add to my laptop if needed. 

I also adressed some issues of equity related to those I am listening to. There is now gigabit ethernet for them to connect their laptops to. There are more comfortable chairs on wheels for guests. There is a power adapter for a teacher or student to charge their laptop while at a meeting. 

I am hoping that these changes make listening physically easier, and thereby will increase my effectiveness in helping teachers and students be creative technology users. By allowing them greater creativity I will be allowing them to reflect the image of God better in themselves. 

Culture in Special Education - Image of God

I have been refining my thoughts on what it means to bear the image of God. What are the fundamental human characteristics? 

God uniquely creates all humans each day.
All humans live in brokenness each day.
God requires us to carry each other through the brokenness each day.

Kalyanpur and Harry's describe a "posture of cultural reciprocity" (pp. 118-119) as a solution to communication problems with parents of special education students. It described treating all people like they bear the image of God. I thought of God creating me through being a reflective person. "In other words, first ask yourself, 'Why?'" (p. 118) When they tell me to find out about the culture of the person I am trying to help, I know I am asked to help. When they ask me to give of myself to aid the understanding of others, I know that is required of me. When through this process a good solution is found, a solution that will carry us all through the brokenness, I should not be surprised. As God uses us to create each other, we find a way to carry each other.

"If we seek to understand ourselves and the families who we serve at every intersection, however small, then the task will seem less onerous." (pp. 130 - 131) Carrying each other and allowing ourselves to be created is an everyday occurrence. Like having a posture of cultural reciprocity, it cannot just be used when needed. Each of us is unique, therefore it requires a lot of work to understand everyone we serve. We cannot ever be the same as anyone else, "but that we have the willingness to learn about and understand their experiences, that we are willing to understand how our own experiences have shaped us, and that we respect and accept these differences in our various experiences" (p.131) helps us carry and create each other every day.

Culture in Special Education - Work

Kalyanpur and Harry use "two criteria [to define] meaningful work: 1)It should be essential in that if one individual did not undertake the task another would have to, and 2) it should be paid." (p. 111)

We often hear the argument that one of the objectives of school is to prepare students for the world of work. In the case of special education students, it means specifically that parents and professionals will be setting goals for the work a student might do. At first read, I underlined the quote above and thought it was a good working definition of work. But, it was followed up with this, "As Harry and Kalyanpur pointed out, however, these criteria do not apply to all valued work even within the mainstream: work such as that of housewife... and that of an entertainer or an artist... These criteria also do not apply to entrepreneurs who create new new kinds of businesses for which there was no previous demand." (p. 111)

What is totally interesting to me is the arguments that we made for bringing laptops into the school mirror much closer the needs of the efforts that are outside the working definition of work. We never claimed that test scores would go up or that students would be better workers. We claimed they would be more creative, artistic, expressive, and musical because we see the laptops as the ultimate creativity machine. We claimed students would be more collaborative, and raising children requires support and collaboration. We claimed students would be more creative problem solvers, thinking outside the box like entrepreneurs.

May be this is cliche to say, but I am glad that we are not preparing students for the world of work. We are helping students become who God wants them to be. That will include using amazing skills in places of work and other places they never imagined to bring God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Culture in Special Education - Parenting

"More and more, the task of child rearing no longer remains solely in the hands of parents and extended family but has come to be shared with experts and paid professionals who design, oversee, and provide services." (p. 81)

A couple of weeks ago at camp I was sitting on the floor of the lodge building, listening to the rain and participating in chapel. I watched as a counselor a few rows up from me turned to try and get a camper to sit still. At first I thought it was going to be just a look, but then I saw that the camper was struggling to put his arms in has t-shirt. It was cold that morning and the camper had not worn a jacket. The counselor quickly figured out what was happening and handed over his coat. The camper eagerly participated in the rest of the chapel.

The camper could very easily have been a fidgety eight year old. We make assumptions about students behavior all the time. It seems much rarer that we look for ways to figure out what the problem really is. We assume that when something goes wrong it is the same reason every time. Like eight year old boys just cannot sit still. Kalyanpur and Harry argue that right and wrong are not so easy to define in parenting. They argue that most parenting decisions are built on a few continuums that reflect the culture and realities of their life. For example, one parent might make a decision with only the nuclear family involved. On the other side of the spectrum there may be families for whom descisions have to go through a large extended family before they can be made. This extened family may even include, "fictive kin" (Stack, 1975, p. 59) who are not related at all.

I really like the image of parenting choices being a set of sliders, like the sliders on a color chooser. Every kid, reflecting the uniqueness that God created them with will end up a unique color. Each decision about how to help a child become involves adjusting some sliders, like how many people are considered family, and how hierarchical the family is; or how involved the family is at that stage the person is at. As people who love a child, it is important that we all communicate where we think the sliders be adjusted to and why. It is also incredibly important that we listen to the other who have a stake in those sliders as well.

As I read this, I thought a lot about discipline. It is hard to talk about discipline publicly. As a technology coordinator I get involved in discipline issues. The cultures at the places where I have worked with kids seems to be that parents, teachers and administrators all want to put in the good work to help everyone navigate the complicated waters that we have today. I think this respects the uniqueness of each child and family while building the community to be more resilient against the forces that would normally break us down.

Culture in Special Education - Objectivity

"Objectivity is highly valued in the low-context culture of Western professionalism, the assumption being that professionals are likely to diagnose and remediate more effectively when they are not emotionally involved with their clients and when the process is informed by a scientifically based and, therefore, objective body of knowledge that yields universal solutions. Indeed, the concept of objectivity itself is essentially Western." (p. 51)

I am struggling with what role objectivity plays in the life of an educator. The more I practice the more I think it does not belong. There is no way to do something so human as educate a child, really to find truth together with a child, and do it without putting your own heart in the game. All that objectivity serves to do is distance me from the subject and from the learner, and in my experience, increased distance does not help learning. This quote hit me hard because I have been deeply struggling with what true objectivity is, and this has been a core struggle. Then to think that the idea of objectivity might just be a cultural artifact from the scientific revolution shakes me up even more.

Here is why the struggle to define objectivity is important to a technology coordinator. We are asked to evaluate the one to one laptop program all the time. Currently numbers define educational success, but numbers do not tell the story. In some sense numbers are not objective. You have to come and visit. You have to talk with our teachers about the impact of technology on learning. You have to hear the stories of students creating their learning. Objectivity is a, "judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices" and as such seeks truth. We should make observations. We should allow those observation to shape us, in fact we have to because they become part of our experience. If we learn something from an observation we will not remain uninfluenced. It will be personal because learning is personal.

What I strive for in helping people understand the impact of technology on teaching and learning is understanding. I want them to learn from me and my wonderful colleagues. I do not really want them to have an objective opinion. I want them to to be impacted by experience and put their own imprint on me. Just like I want my students to explore their worlds and show me the great new things that they find.

Culture in Special Education - IQ

"The problem with IQ and other standardized test is that they overlook the fact that children are competent in multiple domains, such as kinesthetic, and interpersonal skills, and not just the academic domains that IQ tests measure" (p. 36)

People sometimes ask what books are on my reading list. recently it has just been things I am reading for class, like Culture in Special Education. However, I also try to read things that I find referenced from two different sources. So if I am going through my twitter feed and see two people who do not know each other comment on a book that they are reading, I add it to my Amazon wish list for later reading.

I did not originally underline the quote above as I read. However, it was one of my classmates favorite quotes. I am very thankful to her for pointing it out. It fits my test for a good future read, except it is a test for something that is true. The education blogs love quotes like the one above because of the call for changing school to be more individual and student centered. They love it because it talks about needing to nurture each learner or like Proverbs 22:6 says, "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (KJV) The point of the proverb is that each child has a way. Each child has a unique, creative, Kingdom-building way to go.

Therefore, it is good to hear the same news in a different arena. And to think, if it were not for a colleague I would have read right past it.

Culture in Special Education - Individualism

Americans are individualistic. There may be many faults with this, but there is no getting away from the basic truth. In reading Chapter 2 of Culture in Special Education I learned that there is a very intentional affirming of this in our special education laws. The laws are set up to make every American as independent as they can be, "to ensure that individuals who posses a trait -- an 'immutable characteristic' -- that could reduce their chances for making choices toward the pursuit of happiness will not be denied these opportunities." (p. 27) The law also seems to require an independent American parent to advocate for the services a child qualifies for.

The point the authors make is that this culture of individualism does not work for every sub-culture in the United States. Certain "families may be both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the prevailing 'culture of rights' on which American special education policy and therefore, practice are based." (p.26) If the goal is pursuit of happiness for all Americans, is it acceptable that we would have certain sub-cultures who cannot access the services that would give them this right. One could argue that in figuring out how to achieve the services the sub-culture become more American, but one could also argue that if they never get the services the sub-culture risks never joining the greater culture. Either way, this is a great example of two cultures tugging at each other as they work to reshape each other.

In my setting I wonder: how have I as a technology coordinator set up an individualistic foundation in our policies, and who am I missing because of this? In my context I still get students who claim to not be computer literate even though they have had a laptop every day of the school year since eighth grade. I wonder if this is because there is little formal help for students who need help using programs. They are told to ask a teacher, a friend, the helpdesk if there is no hardware issues, or try Atomic Learning. We assume that they will advocate for themselves in their learning of computer skills, probably because most of them do. However, the most vulnerable to this problem have the greatest need. I think it will be important going forward that we have student ambassadors that help students new to the school learn about the use of the laptops.

A Committee That Worked

I have been a part of a lot of committees in my professional life. None has worked towards a goal like the K-12 Technology Committee. This committee was tasked with evaluating the past uses of technology in school and setting a vision for the future. It was made of of an administrative facilitator, a couple of building principals, the Technology Director and a teacher from each building in our district. Each year we would meet during the school day to discuss where we had been. The administrative facilitator had a good solid agenda and we were asked to prepare for the meeting. There were reports, but mainly we discussed teaching and learning and how it changed with access to technology.

I remember vividly the day that we talked about the impact of laptops on our teaching. Each teaching member of the team had been given a laptop the previous year and we discussed how it had changed our personal lives and our professional lives. While this seems like a trite thing to do now, in 2002 it was an amazing experience. We decided more teachers needed laptops and more rooms needed projectors to go with the laptops.

Then in 2004 we talked about having pushed computer labs as far as they would go. The labs were busy places and filled with learning, but everything else we wanted to do with computers required more. We knew students would each have to have a laptop to take our technology use to the next level. We designed a pilot program for the following school year and we were off. Now every student in sixth through twelfth grade has a laptop. A committee with a leader who is willing to get out of the way, a mandate and a vision is essential to good collaboration.

Collaborating with Dale

I remember touring the high school that would eventually hire me for the first time. I was walking down the hall with the principal and saw in the distance Dale. I had been a camp counselor with Dale for three summers and he had told me about the job. I yelled to him like it was camp. Later I learned that he was nervous about that. He wondered if that kind of excitement to see a colleague was going to hurt my chances of getting hired. I was oblivious and they hired me anyway.

At summer camp there is no option but to collaborate. Days are packed with activity and if you share a responsibility with someone you have to trust that they will come through. Our third summer at camp Dale assigned activity leaders. He would come up to me after assigning classes and tell me that I was leading an activity I did not really like to lead, but at least I was leading it with him. That made all the difference. Who I was leading with was more important than what we were leading. From there we could figure it out.

That fall I was assigned to teach the same subject, earth science, as Dale. I think he thought his work was done when he handed over a copy of his lesson plans from the last few years to me, but one night a month into school I called his home with an idea. We both got excited about teaching the way we had counseled. We were up late fine tuning the activity and gathering supplies. Slowly over the next year the course changed. New ideas, new strategies, new goals. The trust and the workflow that we had honed as camp counselors flowed into the classroom. We felt comfortable in our roles, each using our strengths to compliment each other.

Dale helped set my career off on a creative path. Our cooperation helped me to realize that the profession I had entered required using the best of my skills and finding someone to help where I fall short. Our collaboration mixed our talents and really modeled what what God created us to be, creative unique individuals working in community to better the world.