Old Dogs, New Tricks

One of this summer’s big projects was our school’s transition to Google. All of our sacredsf.org email addresses are now GMail accounts, and we’re using Google docs and calendars to share information more efficiently than ever before. I’ve talked before about my own obsession with being an early adopter and a digital near-native, so this transition was pretty straightforward for me. The main challenge was that I had to back-construct a few Google things I’d done for work where I’d originally used my personal GMail account and I now needed to use my school email account. Other than some cosmetic differences between my ultra-customized home GMail inbox and its Convent counterpart, I was good to go.

Others were less ready to go, though, and I was happy to help. I had the pleasure of working with a few colleagues on tasks big and small, from creating a Google form to adding events to calendars to building entire course websites complete with course texts. In every case, I was struck–though not surprised–by my colleagues’ willingness to learn and their facility with their new skills. They wanted to do their best for their students, and they were determined to use these new tools to better serve their students’ needs.

In my opinion, the mark of a great teacher is a lifelong commitment to innovation and improvisation: the goal is to find a way to teach every student by any means necessary. From a lower-tech perspective and more traditional perspective, this means that you might solve a math problem multiple ways or make a major point aloud and then write it down on the board so students can read it. Technology tools give us even more options for leveraging students’ learning strengths. The best tech tools are driven by our students’ needs and not by how appealing they are, and I am confident that that’s been the spirit of our iPad program and our Google transition all along. Put simply, I’m confident that the dog’s wagging the tail here and not the other way around.

As we embark on another year of adventures in technology at our school, it’s worth considering that you absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks. My favorite example of this is my former colleague, Anne Graves, Latin teacher, English teacher, and elder stateswoman extraordinaire of Saint Thomas Episcopal School in Houston, Texas. Mrs. Graves has taught at STE since the school opened in the 1950s. At least seven of her grandchildren have graduated from and attended the school. She wrote the school song. Even as another adult member of the community, I could scarcely bring myself to call this school matriarch “Anne” instead of “Mrs. Graves.”

Nearly sixty years into her teaching career, Mrs. Graves (see?!) is incredibly committed to her students. She is eager to be fair: she raises purebred Basenjis, and she invokes the “Basenji rule” in her classes: if a student’s paper went missing on her watch, and the student had proof that they’d turned it in, the student would not be penalized. Mrs. Graves is equal parts dry wit, fierce affection, and Renaissance woman.

Most strikingly, Mrs. Graves is committed to doing anything she can to help her students learn. Latin is part of the required high school curriculum at STE, and Mrs. Graves spent years trying to find the best ways to ignite passion for the language in her students. A few years ago, she learned about flipped teaching, and she decided to try it out. One of her several YouTube videos is below: it’s a little low-tech (it’s 2010!), but it gets the point across: here is the expert teacher explaining a passage in detail and pointing out its key elements to the student. Each student could watch this video once, or twice, or a dozen times. Each student could learn not only the specific translation but also key skills for translation.

Mrs. Graves inspired me when she was my colleague, and she inspires me still as a great example of what it means to be a great teacher.

So next time you think you can’t learn a new technology tool or a new teaching method, remember this: there’s a woman in her eighties in Houston who’s been posting flip teaching videos on YouTube since before you knew that was a thing. Surely you can find ways to use new tools to reach your students in new ways.

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