Saturday, November 18, 2006

Professional Conference Attendance

In school libraryland, especially in the financially-challenged Grand Ledge Public School District, attending an educational conference is a delightful, thoroughly re-energizing event. The 33rd Michigan Association for Media in Education (MAME) conference was held in Grand Rapids the last week of October, and seems to always arrive at the right time: professional development funds are still available at the beginning of the school year, so when I apply to attend in August or September, I have a better chance of getting my application accepted.

The location of Grand Rapids for the rotating conference schedule is also nice, because Grand Rapids is relatively close to home, and the city has a lot of choices for lunch right outside the conference (lunch choices can be important to someone who multitasks during his midday meal, all completed usually in the allotted 20 or so minutes, and I am certainly not the only school librarian who eats at his/her own desk). Grand Rapids is also a good choice for my colleagues because it seems that a lot of out-state folks, not even necessarily limited to school librarians, do not travel well to Detroit, and the annual MAME Conference rotates to the Motor City on a four year basis.

Keynoter David Warlick is notable to the students of the GLHS Library because of our advocacy of his tool, The Citation Machine. In my experience, educational keynote speakers at conferences and opening day events overwhelmingly speak from what I would call the extreme futurist point of view, and Warlick filled his role well. The educational futurist perspective tends to be both anathema to rank and file educators, as we are like most other people: set in our ways. But, teachers are also realists, and we recognize that changes on the magnitude that Warlick aspires take much time in school bureaucracies and state legislatures. It is also noteworthy that the theses of education futurists are quite financially impossible, considering the current state of affairs in Michigan: we neither have the money to install webcams in our classrooms (a theory I heard at a MACUL conference keynote several years ago), much less start podcasting said classes. For perspective, many of our machines here at school run on the Operating System with which they came: Windows98. The audiences at these educational conferences either endure a scolding lecture on how we educators are not forward enough in our thinking, or how outdated our current tools or techniques are. A few years ago, Grand Ledge Public Schools led off the year with a guy who claimed in his keynote that if we failed to immediately learn to speak Mandarin Chinese that we would all be summarily left behind in the growing global economy. Returning to the discussion of the MAME 33 keynote lecture, Telling the new story, Mr. Warlick described the next generation of workers, the young people that we are currently educating, as those that are also highly oriented towards multitasking: students, like his own son as an example, that are adept at instant messaging, text messaging on their mobile phone, video gaming, and perhaps even conversing on the landline phone simultaneously. Most importantly to Mr. Warlick, though, is how outdated our methods of educating these students seems to be, how poorly we communicate with them, how inadequately we prepare them for their uncertain future. But has anyone unequivocally defined the skills that are needed by our young people in the future? Can any theorist accurately show how we are failing, and how we can rectify our shortcomings?

There are many K-12 educators that look forward to the days when we are freed up to simply communicate to students in the languages they speak, and to the days when budgets are such that we don't have to worry about being displaced. But the financial challenges facing public schools, and the onerous legislation and the various testing agendas meted out by our governing bodies keeps us working toward the tests that must always be taken, the data that must be measured, the adequate yearly progress that must be attained.

Post Script: Now Mr. Warlick's thesis is making popular and studied appeal. According to a Reuters article, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison advocates that U.S. schools should use video games to teach contemporary students how to juggle technology tasks. Dr. David Williamson Shaffer -- with a gaggle of roles and titles, such as assistant professor in the departments of Educational Psychology and Curriculum and Instruction, a Game Scientist at the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory and a Research Associate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Communication and Democracy, which, as near as I can tell, is in the Journalism School -- argues that allowing students to game will enable the United States to compete with the rapidly developing countries, like China and India, which produce more engineers and scientists. With similar efforts beginning in Britain and Singapore, Shaffer will begin implementing his theories in Wisconsin and Chicago schools this year. While I reserve judgement on Dr. Shaffer's and Mr. Warlick's theories, it would certainly seem that the classes for which they are advocating would become the next favorite destination of school kids everywhere, the 21st century secondary equivalent of the former university racquetball or first aid or aerobics or wine and beer appreciation classes.