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Your Schools: Play, passion, and purpose; also, contemplating technology

Two weeks ago, I attended a Wisconsin School Boards Convention in Milwaukee. Several dedicated River Falls Board members took their personal, work, or vacation time to attend with me and a handful of central office administrators.

The annual conference always gives us good updated educational information from the Department of Public Instruction, along with national speakers on educational trends and issues.

One of the speakers we heard from this year was keynoter Tony Wagner from the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University. Wagner studies young, innovative thinkers who think critically and creatively, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and exhibit curiosity in their work.

Wagner's research analyzed the educational practices that had nurtured these innovators and discovered that they had consistently been encouraged by adults to be creative and imaginative, to learn from failure, and to persevere through challenges that come along.

Wagner summed up his speech by identifying three commitments that adults can bring to the lives of kids in order to foster such innovative and creative thinkers: play, passion, and purpose.

Our dedicated River Falls School Board president, Stacy Johnson Myers, is a member of the local clergy and works closely with youth and educators in her church.

Stacy attended the three-day conference and sent me her thoughts on these three commitments. I decided to share a portion of her take-aways from Wagner's presentation in this column.

--Play: "Children and teens need to play. They need to spend considerable time in activities that do not require a battery or a have a plug. Many kids need both fewer toys and better toys, toys that encourage them to be creative and cooperative rather than simply provide them entertainment."

--Passion: "Children and teens need to have passionate, intense interests. They need to have something that truly holds their interest and is worthy of investing their interest. I am not so much concerned with the content of their passions giraffes, tools, drawing, music, etc.), but I do hope they connect their passions to a higher level or spiritual component that helps bring vision, critique, direction, and companionship to human life and relationships."

--Purpose: "Dr. Wagner suggested that successful young innovators show a need to make a difference in the world. That requires a commitment to action and to service, thereby contributing to something much larger than themselves."

Stacy's thoughts show much wisdom about children and provide our school district's staff and parents with the reminder that we must carefully shape the opportunities our students have to play, to develop passion, and to consider their own purpose for living.

Another reminder for me about what's truly important for teaching our young people came from the editorial page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week when the editor shared what John Brockman, thinker extraordinaire, asked 660 top intellectuals, "What should we really fear?" The debt ceiling? Terrorism? Gun violence? Taxes? Climate change?

Brockman's answer, according to 150 essays written by various thinkers, was, "We should worry about the interplay between humans and technology." The Star Trib's editor asks, "Does the Internet devalue the written word? If writing decays, will thinking also decay? Do humans still have the attention span to solve problems? Can we reliably separate the trivial from the significant? Can we tell fact from fantasy?" To these questions I would add, "Does the overuse of technology leave us with learners incapable of collaborating, cooperating, communicating, or interacting at deep human levels?"

As our district moves forward with necessary technology and other innovations to help prepare students for the career paths they will enter upon graduating from the River Falls School District, we cannot forget Wagner's three commitments we adults must promote in educating children... Play, Passion, and Purpose. Added to these three P's, I would suggest, is the fourth essential P, People/Interpersonal Skills, too often found wanting in our plugged in and battery-ized 21st century world.