Saturday, January 4, 2014

21st Century Learners

What was the last answer you found by look up a topic in an encyclopedia? When the need for information struck, did you jump in your car and drive to the nearest library to access the information? Did you go through stacks of books and journals in your office?

Probably not.

How did you find your answer? Chances are you used your phone. A tiny piece of technology that fits in the palm of your hand, yet provides quick and easy access to every piece of information known to man. A wealth of knowledge right at your fingertips.

As a child, my first instinct was to go to the encyclopedia. We had a set Santa had brought. Those books served us well for many years. In fact, I only recently parted with them. I loved looking up random topics and reading about it; following the "see also" to discover even more. The encyclopedias provided me information about Hernando DeSoto in 5th grade. I used them to research rock formations in 8th and win the school science fair that year (even going to the district fair.) They helped me write papers on presidents, planets, and world events. Santa was even so kind as to get us a subscription to the Year Books the publisher printed. For a number of years, we received a yearly book of updates to the world's events. Apparently, one book provides plenty of print room to include all the events and news that transpired that year.

I loved riding my bicycle to the library to find books on my research topic. That feeling of spending time sifting through shelves of books to see if the one I needed was there never leaves you. Even with today's speed in book publishing, encyclopedias are out of date before they hit the shelves. Libraries offered just as much frustration to this voracious reader as they offered enjoyment.

So why, if encyclopedias and libraries offered us so much information and enjoyment do we, as adults not use them anymore?

Probably the same reason our children don't. Efficiency. If your first instinct when asked a question to which you do not know the answer is to "google it" on your phone, why do we not encourage this access to information in our children's schools? Why spend the time searching through encyclopedias (which are bound to be out of date) when I can search via my computer and find more information at a faster rate? Plus, I can get up to the minute information.

Now, before the hate begins; I am not anti-library or anti-book. I love the feel of holding a book in my hands. I love the smell of a freshly cracked open book or an old favorite found in an antique store. In fact, while we are antiquing my family has to pry me away from the book sections because I begin to channel Alice as I fall down the Rabbit hole, deep into Wonderland. I get goo-goo eyed as I scan the shelves like a child on Christmas Day. Books are pure pleasure. My offices have tons of educational reference books. They are tabbed, highlighted, coffee stained, and well worn. I reference them daily.

What I am saying is that with all things, comes progress. I don't complete a 5 digit long division problem on paper when I have a calculator on my phone. I don't use an inkwell and quill when I have a ball-point pen. I don't wait for shipping if I can get the book instantly on my Kindle. I download professional and pleasure reading almost daily (it's a sickness). If I need information that is not in one of my books, "Google" is my friend. There is most certainly room for both versions of accessing text, but we need to face reality: 21st Century Learners learn differently and education needs to change with them. We need to be willing to accept that there will come a time when print versions of some materials will be obsolete. And, we need to be OK with this.

Our classrooms can no longer fit the mold of the past. The mold that prepared students for the assembly line and cubicle jobs of the 1950's through 1980's no longer meets our needs. Classrooms where teacher talk dominates the day, imparting knowledge for students to retain are no longer preparing students for success. As the needs of society change so too, must our classrooms.

Today's jobs require students to search out information, push their limits of understanding, challenge what we know, and create something new. They require communication and interaction skills. This is what our 21st Century Learners deserve from their classrooms. They crave a classroom that challenges them to figure it out on their own in order to find that pride. They have the means in their pocket; right at their fingertips.

                                 (A great RSA Animate of a talk given by Ken Robinson)

21st Century Learners are social creatures- they share everything with each other. Haircuts, boyfriends, current mood swings, new outfits are all shared via social media. They ask advice, congratulate each other, stand up for the rights of others, and share in each others sorrows on a minute-by-minute basis. They are constantly powered up.

Why do we power them down when they walk in the school? That's just asking for trouble.

They should be sharing, discussing, blogging, and posting about their learning. Why have them ask four people for information, when they can tweet it, blog it, Facebook it, or SnapChat it and get hundreds of answers? Which method provides the student of today with more chance for dialogue, analysis, and global perspective? We need to use what 21st Century Learners are already doing.

The students of the past were prepared for the past. Our 21st Century Learners need to be prepared for the future. What that future looks like is anybody's guess. I mean really, researchers have invented a device to translate your dog's thoughts to English. Honest. It'll be released in April of this year. Google it.

(Anyone else have a "Jetson's" flashback?)

Change needs to happen. Our 21st Century Learners deserve it. They are already equipped; cell phones in hand, typing skills of legend, and computer expertise rival to none.

As an educator, are you on Twitter? Does your class have an account? A class blog? Do you provide easy access to digital information whenever students need it? Do you allow reading on a mobile device, Kindle, Nook or iPad? Does your school district have a "Bring Your Own Device" policy in place? Are you helping to get one written? Do you access interactive sites (polleverywhere, todaysmeet, etc.) during class?


Why not?

Jump off the cliff.

Become a 21st Century Learner yourself and help build the 21st Century classroom.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sonoma wine country and teaching.

A somewhat odd pairing, and yet as we finished our tour of the Benziger Family Winery and vineyards that is exactly where my mind went. This was our first tour of a winery, and we were looking forward to the experience.

We (my husband and I) decided on the "Partners Tour", a longer and more in depth tour of the winery - plus better tastings. Tom was our tour guide and there were only two other couples. A nice, intimate setting. Tom started the tour by telling us about the Benziger family and the history of the land, he then informed us this would be important information for later. He described the tour layout and mentioned all the places we would visit; the top of the hill, the ponds, the wine press, we'd have a sit down tasting in the caves, then finish it off with some chocolate and Port in the tasting rooms. Wow! The next two hours sound amazing.

We were off. Once we reached the top of the hill, we got off the tram and went to the overlook. Beautiful, isn't it?

Here, Tom described the volcanic rock and ash that made the land perfect for wine growing. He described how Cabernet grapes love the other side of the mountain because the obsidian rich soil heats up during the day, and then keeps the soil warm at night. Tom then went into detail about how the winery is its own ecosystem, and that the Benziger family practices biodynamic farming. They believe in farming organically and sustainably. Tom pointed out the pond that the bees, dragon flies, ladybugs, and birds love. They in turn eat the bugs that harm the grapes. He pointed out the hawk, owl, kestrel, and blue jay boxes where the birds make their nests. A hawk soared overhead.

Tom explained the predator birds eat the moles and groundhogs that would threaten the terracing during rainstorms. He pointed out the sheep barn and explained how they, along with the other animals provide fertilizer and aerate the soils. A cute story about the sheep loose in the vineyards eating the weeds and barley crop was told in such an entertaining way I could picture the sheep in the vineyard below us.

We traveled down the hill to the pond Tom had pointed out to us. Here he brought out a bottle of wine and poured us a bit. As we began walking toward the pond, we learned how the winery recycles water and uses a series of ponds to naturally clean it. The owner, Mike joined us out by the pond. His love and passion for his vineyard shown brightly as he shook our hands and added more info to Tom's story. He explained how he would know the grapes were ready- nature would tell him. We asked questions and he gladly took the time to answer us. All this, while sipping a sauvignon blanc perfect for picnics and outdoor grilling. (We bought four bottles.)

Next stop... the wine press. During the short drive, Tom recanted the story of how Mike hired him away from his previous job. (Mike can hire me away!) At the press, we saw how they cleaned the barrels, learned how they separated the grapes from the stems, and learned how the grapes are pressed. Contrary to popular movies, they do not stomp them. We also learned how red wine gets its red color. (It's not from the juice!)

We left the presses and headed into the caves. What an awesome feat! Here we learned how the barrels are labeled, rotated, and how the oak affects the wine. We had our sit down tasting here.

Four phenomenal red wines. We were instructed how to swirl our glasses to "volatile the esters." We learned what scents and flavors to expect. We learned what to pair the wines with, how they were blended, and how the owners decide on the names. Our fifth wine was a wine straight from a barrel. What a treat! We then learned Mike has plans for this barrel when it's ready. Shhhhhh. Tom explained that the Benziger family sits down and discusses each barrel batch when it's time for bottling. Since they have tasted the wines every 4 months or so, they know what each tastes like and how they want to blend them. 

The tour finished in the tasting room with four more wines and the Port and chocolate pairing we were promised at the start. 

So what does this all have to do with teaching besides the amazing lesson in wine making we experienced? Without knowing it, Tom engaged in effective teaching practices. It was seamless and effortless. He even managed to get in a few high quality sheltered instruction techniques. Without. Even. Knowing. It. (Tom was first to admit that!)

Can we, as educators say the same for our lessons? Do we as teachers flow as easily from the Introduction of our lesson to the Review to the Concept Development? Do we engage our learners as effortlessly as Tom? Do we encourage questions and involve our learners?  Is our passion for our content as evident as Mike's? Do we know where each of our students are in their learning process? Are we acutely aware of what is effecting their growth, their learning, their life? Do we take the care and time needed to cultivate the desire to learn in our students? If not, how do we get there?

Each employee of Benziger can tell you about biodynamics, how the wines are pressed, even how many carp are in the pond.  And- they all love working there. Can we say the same for the employees of our schools? Do we tie experiences to our students' learning; see, smell, taste, touch? Do we check our students learning as we go, before it's too late and we lose a whole batch? 

And what about Biodynamics? That's the title, of course.

A biodynamic farm uses only natural techniques that are available to them. They are self-contained ecosystems. They do nothing that could harm the land. No crop dusting, weed killer, or chemicals. They use what they have on the land (only occasionally restocking the ladybug population.) They listen to nature and the grapes, and find natural solutions to problems that arise. The employees understand that weather is unpredictable and they create solutions to unforeseen challenges. They put their heads together to find creative and unique ways to adapt. They do what is best for the grapes. The Benziger website puts it like this:

"There are no silver bullets in Biodynamic winegrowing. When you eliminate all the artificial crutches, you learn to trust your instincts and to trust nature’s ability and capacity to make a great wine."

Like Benziger Family Winery, each school is its own ecosystem and each class in that school a smaller system; each student and teacher interacting in different ways with their environment. Can we employ the lessons of biodynamics in our schools and classrooms?

Of course we can!

Do we listen to the needs of our students? Children are social learners. Do we employ natural methods that have the smallest negative impact when dealing with our students? Meaning, do we allow them to talk, move, and share to facilitate their learning; or are we confined by the perception that classrooms should be quiet? Do we guide and help our students on a natural path to achievement, or push them before they are ready? Do we tailor our lessons to our students or do we force them to adapt to our lessons? Do we look for silver bullets, or to our own professional knowledge and research to guide us?

Our students are 21st Century learners. They live for technology. For them, it is natural. Have we kept up with them? Do we use technology to enhance their learning or is it sporadically accessible? Do we change and improve our techniques and teaching styles, or do we do what we have always done? Do we see change as a challenge or an obstacle? As educators, do we learn from our hardships and come out better for it, or do we complain and fight it? (The instructional shift necessary for Common Core State Standards comes to mind.)

Mike Benziger summed it up the best. While standing by the beautiful pond, he stated that biodynamic farming was what was natural, not what was easy. 

Good teaching is the same. It's about looking to the students for guidance. Letting them show you how they learn, what they need, and what is best for them. It's not about doing what's easy.

I think as educators we can learn much from the biodynamic philosophy.

It's imperative that we do.

You can find information on the Benziger Family Winery on their website Like them on Facebook: Benziger Family Winery. Or better still, visit them in Glen Ellen, CA; about a mile up the hill off Arnold. Ask for Tom, and tell him Kelly and Kelly from Vegas say hello!