Back to the Future

I was born in 1977 and as an 8-year-old boy in 1985 I was a huge fan of the movie Back to the Future. I must have seen it a dozen times in the mid 80’s, but Back to the Future II became my obsession when it was released four years later in 1989. In the second movie of the trilogy, the main character, Marty McFly, races thirty years into the future arriving in the year 2015. In this “fictional” version of the future, teenagers are moving around on Hover Boards, video games are based on virtual reality, phone calls are accompanied by video chat, and the Cubs have actually won a World Series. Sometimes it’s crazy how much society can begin to emulate Hollywood make-believe.

For those who may have never seen any of the Back to the Future movies, the major plot element of each of the movies involves Marty, a teen with access to a time machine, working feverishly to alter the future by the decisions he makes in the past. The movies are filled with twists and turns as Marty gets a glimpse of what life could be like without his intervention and his attempts to alter it.

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As I write this post, it is the end of the 2019-20 school year, a year that will definitely go into the history books as a defining time. During the last 10 weeks, we have been thrown into a world that to many may seem like a dystopian society. It’s like we are being shown a glimpse of what the future could hold. We have been told for years that robots and computers are going to take over the world. We have been told that social media is evil. We have been told that teachers are no longer needed and online learning and computer programs can be a suitable replacement. Over the last few weeks we have been able to confront each of these versions of reality and now it’s up to us to determine if this is the future we really want to accept.

Computers are not evil, but they can never replace a human.

For the past two years I have been using Zoom and similar applications to connect with educators from around the world. I used these applications out of convenience and necessity, not as a replacement. As a podcaster, I rely on being able to interview guests and learn their stories. When I have the opportunity to connect face to face, in real life, I jump at the chance, but when a guest has a busy schedule or lives on the other side of the country, Zoom it is.  This spring, educators around the country were introduced to Zoom as a “new” tech tool and many began to depend on it as a way to connect with students who were no longer able to visit their classrooms.

As we look to the future, we must remember that video conferencing apps have a place in our new reality, but should never be seen as a suitable substitute for in-person interactions.  Next school year maybe you can utilize Zoom to facilitate parent-teacher conferences for parents who have conflicting work schedules or split households. Perhaps you can utilize video conferencing with students this summer to get to know each child a little better as they hold a pet, introduce you to siblings, or show you around the house. Perhaps you can utilize a live stream to support learning for students who are at home sick or to supplement learning on a snow day. Your future does not have to include stagnant office hours lacking engagement and video bombing. Your future can include increased dialogue and barriers removed. Video conferencing is not a replacement for in-person instruction, but it can definitely be used as a way to remove barriers that have existed in our past. How will you use it in the future?

Social media may be a distraction, but it may also be a connector.

Tik Tok, Instagram, Snapchat…oh my. How many students had their cell phones taken away last school year because they sat in a classroom “playing” on social media instead of listening to the lecture being provided by their teachers? This spring, how many devices were passed out to students by schools who realized that teachers could not teach if students were not connected?

Over the last ten weeks, I have seen the power of social media to encourage and engage young people like never before. I have seen churches utilize Instagram to hold live events for teens. I have seen Tik Tok challenges rolled out by teachers encouraging students to produce evidence of learning. I have seen Facebook support groups pop up for parents in need. I have seen Twitter re-emerge as a hub for professional learning.

Next year you have a choice. You can either tell your students that their school, a place meant to prepare them for the real world, does not welcome technology, or you can learn how to embrace the power of social media for good. The future will include social media. It’s up to us whether we learn how to use it for good or evil.

Teachers matter more.

Teachers matter more…more than anything. More than textbooks. More than devices. More than pacing guides, grades, or software programs. We have seen the memes proclaiming how badly teachers are missed and how deserving they are of our support and encouragement. We have seen the need to embrace teachers as facilitators of learning and connectors of ideas. We have seen now that teachers do not have to be in charge of providing direct, explicit instruction, but instead are needed to be a support and provider of feedback as students learn at asynchronous, self-paced timelines.

We have seen teachers embrace that their students come from a Netflix and YouTube generation where they can control when they consume content and have adjusted their own schedules away from the traditional 8am-3:30pm to a schedule that allows students more choice and flexibility. We have broken down boxes that were restricting and removed pacing guides and arbitrary deadlines allowing teachers to focus on the focus.

We have seen teachers learn and grow in the skills needed to reach their students. In a day and age where daily interaction has become almost impossible, we have seen the value of the teacher like never before. The future will depend on teachers more than mandates. The best teachers are those who have been allowed to adapt and evolve. If we want to have a future that embraces learning and does so with inspiring educators, we have to remove the shackles that have placed teachers in boxes and allow them to grow along with their students. Teachers matter more.

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As we look to the Fall we are looking to go “back to the future”. Right now we hold the keys to our time machine and it is up to us whether we go back to the way things were, whether we allow the future to just unfold, or whether we take control and embrace a new destiny. As for me, I am going to go throw some dinner in my Instant Pot, go for a drive in my self-parking car, Facetime a friend, and figure out how to make this Fall unlike any I have ever experienced before. I am going to focus on the focus, embrace all that I have learned this Spring, be grateful that I have seen what could be, and own my ability to make a change. The future is mine.

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