I spent the day presenting at a summer institute in Ontario, Oregon, where hundreds of educators were eager to add to their knowledge and understanding of best classroom practices. But little did I know (though I should have expected it) that I would be the one learning the most valuable lesson during my afternoon presentation.
The topic was using Evernote in the classroom, but it could have been anything for that matter. My lesson learned wasn’t about the digital tool I was presenting on because there wasn’t much presenting going on. That is because of how slow the building’s WiFi network was due to the demand on the bandwidth. Now, I have my suspicions that we were somehow connected to the old AOL dial-up that you could get free trials of at Blockbuster. Aside from being wireless, the experience didn’t seem to be much different. Nevertheless, when things begin to fail and you’re left standing in front of a few dozen expectant learners, what are you supposed to do? There are many options, sure. But, in my opinion, the best one is to acknowledge that your plans have gone awry and forget about your silly pride.
I didn’t learn that lesson on the spot today, however. It’s been marinating in me since my first year teaching, four years ago. I was standing in front of my third grade students, teaching them about lines of symmetry with various shapes. When we looked at a pentagon (that I had drawn very poorly), I asked the class how many lines of symmetry the five-sided shape has. Many of them, having looked at my sketch, said that it had one line of symmetry, which I agreed with. However, one astute and antagonistic student stopped the lesson to claim that a pentagon didn’t have only one line of symmetry, but five. Having my intelligence as a mighty first-year teacher questioned put me on the defensive, and, rather than asking why this student thought that a pentagon had five lines of symmetry instead of one, I asserted that he was wrong. This 8-year old boy proceeded to explain the difference between regular and irregular polygons to the class and that a regular pentagon not only had five lines of symmetry but rotational symmetry as well, all the while I stood by getting “pwnd” in front of the kids that I wanted to impress.
Fast forward to today. Though WiFi crashing isn’t the same in a lapse of judgement, the issue at hand (I now like to call it a learning opportunity) was identical. How could I create value out of a situation that went embarrassingly wrong?
Though it took me days to come to my senses and apologize to my third-grade student back then, I saw the train wreck at today’s conference for what it was, an opportunity to teach a lesson much more important than what I had intended to teach. So, what was more important for teachers to learn about in a class about Evernote than how to use Evernote itself?
How to roll with the punches when tech goes wrong.
Sure, I didn’t have the aesthetics and media of the slide-presentation I had spent days preparing. And few session attendees were even able to download the app or access the website. But things like that don’t make a learning experience valuable. What does is the honest connection between teachers and learners. So, we did what any group of opportunists would do. We put down our devices and had a discussion.
Everything inside of me wanted to duck my head and leave that room quicker than you could say “network error.” That instinctive response hasn’t changed since my third-grade math class. But having the courage to acknowledge that my plans had gone awry and leverage the moment for a very valuable learning opportunity was now something I was mentally and emotionally prepared to do. And surprisingly, nobody threw rotten tomatoes at me or “asked for their money back,” so to speak.
I’m positive that their responses would have been different if I tried to force them to learn what I had “canned” for them to learn this afternoon though. And from what I hear, tomato is very hard to get out of clothing.