The Tao of Blended Learning
Seated oh so uncomfortably in a rickety, wooden chair and behind a weathered, hand-me-down teacher’s desk littered with white stacks of ungraded essays, I stretched my aching neck and scanned my classroom of thirty-four students. High school teenagers in a Language Arts class. Some pretending to silently read with their heads propped up on tiring, wobbly arms. Others didn’t even bother to fake it. Their heads rested on the presumably all-knowing but extremely outdated textbooks while thick strands of drool oozed like sedated snails from their mouths.
A slight, sitting adjustment from me emitted a sound not unlike the chopping of kindling with a hatchet. Heated by sudden jolts of adrenaline produced by the “Oh, my gosh! Is the teacher staring at me?” look, a few eager-to-please students stirred and re-shifted. Unengaged and motionless, like mannequins in neat rows of yellow-topped desks that included right-handed armrests, pencil holders, and welded undercages suited for holding other textbooks or maybe 45-lb. weightlifting plates.
All was quiet. No talking. No chaos. No passing notes. No smartphones visible.
After all, students knew the rules. Heck, they were posted, all twenty-two of them, right next to the hanging wall clock.
A controlled environment with no problems.
And the students? Well, they were busy with their assignments. They had life-changing worksheets in front of them. I told myself without a doubt, learning was evident.
But my internal self-assurances were interrupted by the creaking of the opening door.
Could it be time for another observation? Perhaps I should pop up and begin a riveting, mono-toned lecture with a PowerPoint slideshow. Was Principal Justin X. Ample about to confirm my awesome teaching skills?
Nope. Dr. Ample was nowhere to be found.
Only Bruce Lee.
Yep, bedecked in a yellow jumpsuit with a thick, black stripe on both sides, the King of Kung Fu, the creator of Jeet Kune Do, and the philosopher who was mistaken to be a martial artist first, stood with a wide base and hands on hips.
“Totally nontraditional teaching attire,” I sarcastically mumbled to myself, too intimidated and awestruck to say aloud.
A quick movement of his right arm and extension of his index finger (yes, with action sound effects) pointed the way to a golden ladder in the middle of the room. The rivets that held the ladder together were emblazoned with black and white yin-yang symbols, and a sign containing the Chinese symbol for “change” beckoned us to climb the steps.
After taking five steps up the ladder and shifting a tile from the hanging ceiling to the side, Bruce broke his silence and said,
“The doubters said, ‘Man cannot fly.’
The doers said,
‘Maybe, but we’ll try.’
And finally soared
In the morning glow
Watched from below.”
I knew I had two choices: 1. Follow Mr. Lee up the ladder, through the ceiling, and into the unknown or 2. Get my butt kicked by a Kung Fu master before I could even blink. Remembering a painful thrashing I received from an older middle school foe many moons ago, I swallowed my fear of the unknown, embraced my curiosity, and ascended the ladder.
And what about the thirty-four frozenly bored students I was leaving behind? It was no use. After the way I was teaching, they would not have followed me to a cold water fountain even if they had just spent a week in the desert. Sad but true.
Looking up through the ceiling, I climbed every so cautiously as Mr. Lee’s yellow jumpsuit faded into black nothingness. A whispering echo from above guided me out of my stagnant classroom…
“If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”
Call it Star Trekkish, or whatever you want, but the moment my feet left the top rung of the ladder, I was transported into an unreal, almost unbelievable, classroom.
My first perceptions?
My educational sidekick (pun definitely intended) led me to an area where a team of ten students were using online instructional videos to solve math equations. They transcribed their newfound knowledge on dry-erase boards, took smartphone pictures of their colorful creations, and uploaded their digital notes to a shared folder in Evernote. Their learning was organic, spontaneous, and definitely collaborative.
However, I couldn’t squelch my pessimistic side, and my knee-jerk reaction blurted out of me, “Well, certain circumstances don’t allow for such activities, especially with the use of smartphones in class, and I don’t—”
My negative rambling came to a screeching halt with a bold look and a terse reply from Bruce, “To Hell with circumstances; I create opportunities.”
(Gulp) “Yes, sir,” I replied with a crack in my voice.
I continued to follow Mr. Lee, lest my skull be thumped by lightning-fast nunchucks. Truth be told, however, I was so eager to learn, so eager to break forth from my sedentary and traditional mode of teaching. I yearned for an enthusiastic learning center, a place where students had a voice about their own education. In essence, a place where they wanted to be, not had to be.
The next learning zone exhibited five students who were choreographing a dance to interpret certain aspects of the Spanish culture. With each new move, students articulated their explanation in their infantile language. Each moment of the dance was intentional. The music, the clothing, the meticulously timed steps. And the process of creating the dance? It was clearly spontaneous and highly collaborative.
My professional insecurities and fear of change must have taken hold of me again. “Well, I don’t like dancing. I don’t even know if I’d ever have them do something like that.”
My discouraging remark elicited a soft chuckle from Bruce. He said, “A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence.”
I rolled my eyes, more of a gesture of how inferior I felt when surrounded with such greatness than a judgment of the current classroom.
Our next stops revealed even more learning power. We witnessed green screen acting, collaborative writing with shared Google Docs, team movie editing with WeVideo, and virtual conferencing with schools in other districts via Google Hangouts. Whether teacher-led, student-driven, or digitally inspirational, the entire classroom was an energizing magnet for curiosity and zealous learning.
I had seen enough to know that I stunk as a teacher. I felt like a waste of a college degree. Change was needed.
“But how?” I asked.
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water,” Bruce answered. “When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
I smiled, and Bruce reciprocated my attitude with the offering of a fist bump.
I obliged and said, “I guess it’s about change, flexibility, huh?”
“Yep,” he responded. “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
My alarm clock jolted me back to consciousness, and I rolled out of bed and into the morning routine of shower, coffee, breakfast, kids, and work.
But work was not routine. Nope. Never is.
In fact, the moment I reached to open the door at the E.P.I.C.C. Academy, I was greeted from behind by a group of eager students waiting to record in our music studio.
7:30 in the morning.
An eager teacher.
A creative classroom.
That’s when it dawned on me. “Hmmm, so this is the Tao of Blended Learning,” I mumbled.
“What’s that, Mr. Hardison? Did you say somethin’?” asked a student.
“Oh, I was just thinking how fortunate I am to experience a dream twice in one day.”
I am helping to create a video studio space in a public library here in Prescott Valley, Arizona, to let the Tao be the Tao for teens and the rest to the library-loving public. This is really inspiring stuff. Keep dreaming!
Epic. Just epic.
I hunger for updates on how the EPICC Academy is doing. This was such an entertaining piece to read. If Bruce Lee were to come visit your school, he would most certainly come up to you and remark, "This is nice, but you know that it is you and not the technology that has helped these students learn to love learning?" You're the man, John! Keep doing amazing things like you do best.
This is hilarious! Love your take! We need a major culture shift. I plan on quoting you at our next planning meeting! Tom Vander Ark mentioned your post at iNACOL.
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