Monday, April 29, 2013

The John Henry Challenge


If you ever find yourself in the situation of needing to get a group of five-years quiet and looking at you with rapt attention, I recommend singing the song John Henry. Never fails to get the room down to a pin-drop silence as those young minds take a trip with the hammer-swingin’ hero beating down the mechanical steam drill— and then dropping dead at the end. Don’t know which is more captivating— the hero’s quest of man against machine or the win-lose scenario of breaking your heart in the process and laying down your hammer to die. But trust me— the kids are mesmerized. Every time.

My own heart is breaking as the mental i-Padded steam drills have broken down all resistance in schools and declared victory— our machines are more interesting than our teachers. And we’re turning over the minds and hearts of our children to them. Us old hammer-swingin’ types are ancient history— no more nuances of knowing just where in the mountain of ignorance to place the pick and chip away until the light is revealed, of knowing how much pressure to apply, when to tap lightly, when to swing mightily, where to place the dynamite to blast open a world previously unrevealed. Just the relentless mechanical chug-chug of the heartless steam drill banging away in its uniform disco beat.

Today I visited my daughter’s five-year old class and entered with my own version of the hammer— a ukelele. I had a mere 30 minutes at the end of a long morning to capture their attention and up I stepped with a few chords and three songs that opened the doors to diminishing mathematical patterns, diminishing sizes, sequence, word syllables, pronouns, rhymes, alliteration, farmyard information, food and fun with their friends. Throw in a few dozen key musical concepts, the invitation to create and share ideas, humor, kinesthetic development and coordination and so on and all the cynics who think it’s not education if something isn’t plugged in might have to re-think their paradigm. But of course, the key word there is “think” and that’s precisely what we’re moving away from. The only way to attract their attention is to stage a competition of mythological proportions.

And here it is! I offer my own John Henry challenge to be witnessed and adjudicated by education’s top thinkers. Me against the i-Pad. Nothing personal, i-Pad, you’re a lovely little machine that has many redeemable features, but I don’t want you raising my children. And so I challenge you to an education duel. Give me an hour with any age child, armed with nothing but my own body, voice and mind and perhaps a few supplements like the ukelele, banjo, blackboard and chalk, paper and pencil (all of these optional) and then you take your hour and let the judges decide. Maybe once and for all we’ll declare that any teacher who is not more interesting than the screen they turn on is disqualified to nurture the next generation of vibrant, thinking, feeling human beings. Any teacher who is spending more time looking at the screen with the students than looking at the students themselves is likewise unworthy.

Any takers?! I say, “Bring ‘em on!”

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