How we unknowingly make history |

How we unknowingly make history

Sunday in the Park

By Teri Orr
Park Record columnist

The other day my friend, who is also a music agent I have worked with for years, was so at a loss for words in our text conversation he sent back a string of emojis.

There was a thumbs up, followed by a checkered flag, then a snowman and clapping hands, followed by a smiley face with heart eyes and finally a disco dancer. I laughed out loud, alone, in my office. Then I wrote him back and said something like, ‘but what the hell does all this mean?’

And here’s how he responded:

“Good question. If we leave a digital trail 1million years from now someone might look at those icons and make up some meaning that’s beyond just some random guy’s love of goofy emojis.”

“You mean like petroglyphs of the future?” I asked.

“Something like that,” he said.

And I laughed and went back to my work but I have to admit I have been thinking all week about how we learn now and what we learn now and what language matters and how we adapt.

As the discussion is moving along again (and really never stopped in the past four years) about the need to build some new school facilities here — I have been in favor each time — it occurred to me the buildings matter, a lot, but the methods matter more.

And what are we doing to teach teachers how to teach in the new world/information age? And will our new schools be built with new systems for learning and teaching? And new equipment that engages students who are already learning, every day, vast sums of knowledge all on their own?

Because as someone who has worked as a journalist for nearly four decades, I envy this time in the age of news gathering. What could have taken months or years — if you even knew where to look — and perhaps thousands of dollars to travel to the source can now all be done with a few key strokes.

You want to do research on something that exists only in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.? You don’t need to leave your living room to type that in and start exploring the stacks and the documents that are stored there.

Have you always wanted to see the detail in a Vincent van Gogh painting? Just type in Google art and you have access to the collection in Amsterdam. You see the brush strokes of his work in a way you’d never be allowed in the actual museum.

Want to see all the artwork housed in The White House? Google art has that too. And Google earth can put you on top of Killimanjaro and the bottom of the ocean floor. You can go to the moon and you can try to understand the street patterns in Rome.

Should you want to find a news story about, well, almost anything, you just type it in your browser. And voila! pages of suggestions appear on where to find the information you need. Public records ditto. All those hours of making friends with the front desk clerk in the court system in hopes they would share the documents filed with you, in a timely fashion, are, poof, gone. Your access is immediate.

And, hey, all the kids are doing it. This information age has students becoming crazy good at researching how one topic leads to another and they, at once, find answers to questions that might have been a semester long project in the past.

So if we have these adapt kids who all know how to work computers in a way that we were only imagining a generation ago, why are we still teaching in so many ways like we did a century ago? Why are teachers still standing in front of a roomful of students and trying to get them to memorize stuff they don’t need to remember in the real world? Why are we teaching the same lessons when what we should be teaching is context? Sure you can access all the information, but how do you make sense of it? What are the nuanced stories to help you understand the battle or the discrimination or the disease?

I keep hearing how kids are bored in school and increasingly doing poorly. Not because they lack aptitude, but because we aren’t teaching critical thinking and how to be curious and deep dive into the “why.” Give dimension to the life and pain of the artist, not just delight in the brush stroke.

As we move to create much needed new buildings in our district, I hope we also move to find new ways to hack school itself. To liberate the librarian in us all and search for answers. And then to have caring teachers be able to weave together the factual stuff with the human compassion part. To spark conversations that students want to have because they are again brimming over with innate curiosity for the planet and the people on it.

A good classroom should feel like you were just transported into the center of a pot of popcorn exploding. Pop! a conversation here. Pop! A project started there. Pop! A new composition on the trumpet in the air. Let’s give our teachers permission to walk away from all the “teaching to the test” instruction and give our students tools to function in the world as compassionate, curious, contextualized humans.

There are, no doubt, a string of emojis that could punctuate these thoughts. And I just might research that on this Sunday in the Park…

Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.

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