Twitter Challenge: Find your voice, but know when to hush

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I consider these past several months my “Twitter challenge.”

When I attended the International Society for Technology Education conference courtesy of the Avi Chai Foundation this summer, I experienced a new phenomenon — a technique that raises interesting questions about classroom practices. At the conference, nearly every lecturer was positioned at a podium with a large screen on the side. Each presenter began by giving out a Twitter hashtag (keyword) and inviting the audience use it to tweet reactions to what was said during the presentation. From the moment a presentation began, people tweeted and the screen to the side of the presenter filled with scrolling commentary.

My initial reaction was that this new phenomenon was exciting — we were all participating in what could have been a traditional one-way lecture. Indeed, that engagement is an advantage of this use of technology; however, after a few more presentations, I found my eyes darting from the speaker to the Twitter feed and finally to my phone, where I began tweeting as well. I left these sessions less inspired and more exhausted as I tried to process all that cross-conversation.  I found myself annoyed by the many insipid tweets — those items that people put up just for the sake of “speaking up.”

As I’ve observed our classrooms this fall, the questions that keep me up at night are very directly connected to my summer conference experience. What is the most effective way to balance the encouragement of creative thinking with the humility of listening patiently? How can we help children learn to take the time to think carefully about an issue? And how do we help children understand that not all their ideas are worth sharing with everyone? It’s truly a balancing act — giving children the chance to find their voice, while helping them to understand there are many moments when they should silence that voice.

Our school, like many fine schools in the area, is clearly inquiry-based, and this is a powerful and engaging way to learn. Inquiry-based learning means that we allow children the freedom to explore, to figure out things for themselves. Yet that freedom often leads to impatience with listening to others and respecting other people’s need to think in a different way.

And that freedom can lead to arrogance — that only “my” ideas matter and that every idea I think is important needs to be shared. It’s a perfect training ground for the dark side of Twitter, but it is not necessarily a formula for an improved world.

I now realize that one of the antidotes lies within our Jewish tradition. It lies in connecting to our history, to the language of prayer and to the practice and knowledge of Jewish values. When a child realizes that she or he is part of a very long history filled with inspiring characters and transcendent events, his or her life story is resized. That connection to the past provides powerful examples of great ideas from generations ago and the expectation that my ideas might also be among the ideas of the future. It’s not just about “me”, it’s about “us.”

When we teach children reverence for introspection (through daily prayer) we give them the means and the space to quiet their minds in order to take stock and to notice. We give them the chance to wonder without reacting. They learn to express their feelings and yearnings in a quiet meditative way. They learn to listen. Whether they see their prayer as theological or communal expression, they are again connected to something bigger than themselves.

A Jewish value system filled with mitzvot provides thoughtful ways to nurture kindness and caring for others.  Mitzvot are predicated on understanding “the other.”  And the idea of mitzvot as expected behavior, rather than “nice-to-do activities,” further moves us from me-centeredness.  A person of great character in this tradition is someone who has highly developed empathy, who can distinguish the trivial from the monumental and who sees the divine in all human beings.

Those values should give pause to ask if the idea to be tweeted benefits others or only promotes me? Hence, my Twitter challenge from this summer has led me back to the conclusion that an education that embraces the past, makes time for quiet introspection and teaches values intentionally as it engages in creating and innovating strikes that optimum balance.

Barbara Gereboff
is head of school at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.