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Digital Detox

A little while ago I was sitting on my bed reading my daily quota (3 chapters) of Junot Diaz’s riveting novel ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’. All the while my right hand kept twitching; my mind signaling me to get up and make a grab for my smartphone or my iPad. You see ladies and gentlemen, my name is Sydney Atkins and it’s fair to say I’m a digiholic!

Virtually every hour of my day is spent with some form of technology at arm’s reach. While I am far from the worst offender of this nature, since last night I have been on a self-imposed digital detox; limiting my use of the internet to only e-mails and of course, blogging. Since 11:50 last night this experiment has been underway.

Why am I doing this? For a while I’ve been feeling the urge to try fully disconnecting to free myself from the never-ending obligations and the constant stimuli. I wanted to take a break from it all for a couple of days at least to see what happened. After all, throughout the last few years, I’ve been plugged in 24 X 7, hyperactive to my work e-mail inbox and social media notifications. The PINGS come in torrents and it’s taking me every ounce of will power to press the mute button and ignore them all.

This final push to try going sans internet came yesterday when a colleague advised us on the benefits of disconnecting and doing nothing just for a few minutes in the day. Living in a world where the line between digital and real gets blurred at times I was forced to see the significance of her words and this experiment is step one in my journey to being able to perfect the art of doing ‘nothing’, just for a few moments every day.

As you can tell by this blog post, abstaining is not an easy task! My hands feel restless without something to tap on, and I have begun to imagine my phone sending of subtle PINGS to get my attention. It’s like all the devices in my home are playing mind-games with me. I’m pretty sure this is what withdrawal symptoms must feel like.

Anyhow, in case you’re wondering why my twitter feed is silent or why I haven’t uploaded another selfie on Facebook, well now you know! I’ve got another day to go. I am fully aware that  I’m  not going to be any less of an addict on Friday morning, but I’m learning to handle the craving for my digi-highs and I’m sure it will make me appreciate my time a little more. For my twitter followers, you might want to download tweetdeck and mute my account this Friday. I have a feeling I’m going to be tweeting to make up for the 48 hours spent offline!


P.S This blog post gets shared to my twitter and Facebook feed automatically, I do not cheat.

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Silence is Overrated

‘Silence please’ is a phrase I hear about a thousand times each day. While that may be an exaggeration, you get my drift, right? Lately however I have realized that for me, silence is overrated. I don’t like a silent classroom, I don’t like the silence in the corridors when students are on leave and I most certainly don’t like silence when I’m at home.

To me this feels like a new-age problem, brought on, I believe, because of a culmination of several things. My job, my lifestyle, my friends and to an extent the time I spend online. Whenever I’m under-stimulated, such as in a quiet environment, I become instantly bored or very very lazy.

Luckily there isn’t much quietness in my life. Life is mostly noisy. I’m sitting outside a Starbucks right now there are families walking by, couples laughing and little children enjoying their evening out. I can hear a low hum of freeway traffic in the distance and some industrial moans from the crane across the parking lot as labourers work tirelessly in their evening shifts to add another imposing structure to the Sharjah skyline. Strangely, all of this is just the right amount of noise to keep the quiet away without distracting me.

I find that I am more creative and productive when there’s human background noise, such as in a coffee shop or at work each day. The trick with background noise is that I’m not interested in hearing individual conversations. I just enjoy the muffled hum of activity.

Don’t get me wrong, I love quiet solitude in proper doses too. Too little is stressful. Too much is its own kind of stress. When I need to focus for long periods of time on a solo task, I need some sort of background noise. I often play the same couple of albums over and over at low volume – but coffee shops work best! This is just me, take it for what you will.

OK then time to wrap up, I need to head home before the Barista’s decide to pour me a re-fill. Good night y’all!

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Take Time To Listen

I just got home from school about thirty minutes ago, I’m in my bed, coffee mug beside me and the radio is playing a 90’s pop ballad softly in the next room. This is probably the calmest part of my day and boy what a day it has been!

Working as a high-school teacher is (I assume) a little like being schizophrenic. I hear a hundred voices in the day. The difference is that they are mostly not in my head. It is the student whose enhancement class schedule is not quite right, the colleague who wants to discuss the ‘attitude’ of a cheeky 11th grader, the disappointed parent who writes a long email about his son still not finding good friends, the list is endless. I hear complaints and laughter, anecdotes and protests, girly talk and boy trouble and all about teenage romances!

And then suddenly, in the midst of all these voices I hear something that catches my attention. A cry for help, a colleague in need of someone who he can share with, a child who needs to confess something or a teenager facing adult problems that seem to weigh down heavily on his young shoulders. It’s in those moments when I stop hearing and begin listening instead.

At this juncture, I’m forced to reflect on how we live our lives. Are we too focused on the messages WE want to deliver, and not necessarily on the messages the people around us want us to receive? Are we just constantly talking AT our students, and not engaging them in  conversation? Do we take enough time to actually listen to the subtle hints, the cries for help or the joy that is waiting to be shared?

The last year has been eye-opening for me. I’ve realized that 21st century children have a whole new set of 21st century problems to deal with, and sometimes listening to these things leaves me down and miserable. My thoughts come like torrents. Why do children have to have bad days? Why can’t adults be more sensitive? Why can’t friends be more supportive? Why do children have to suffer?

But then when the questioning slows down, when the emotions settle a little and when there’s a moment of quietness I realize that there is a calm reassurance within; a gentle voice whispering to me and reminding me ‘that’s what you’re here for’. So I sit down and think. I plan. I organize. I pray. I remember that HE is in control and so I take one day at a time and do what I can each day, every day. And by the time the end of the year rolls around I may be worn a little thin, but I’ll end the year knowing I have done what I can, for as many as I can. And, most of the time that is enough.

Sigh! Coffee’s gone cold.

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Because Moulds Are Too Mainstream

I’m amazed by the number of young people I meet who feel they’re stuck in a limbo; caught between their dreams and a society that thrusts its dreams on them.

Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? This is a question that haunts them and us at various points, especially when the people around us are trying to constantly answer this question for us.

It is a universal truth that it is difficult and uncomfortable to be different, so why not just conform? The mold is there for a reason, right? While I can’t answer that question for you, I can tell you that the mould didn’t work for me and I continue to meet so many young people who have had that same realization but can’t do anything about it.

Growing up I was fortunate to have parents who thankfully didn’t load me with too many expectations other than having good manners and being kind and respectful towards others. I was allowed to grow and evolve into who I am today. I made my own choices. Made my own mistakes (plenty of), but I learned along the way.

Now as a teacher, I am more and more aware that the many expectations that parents hold can linger over their children in such a negative way. The general expectations have developed over time and through our culture and they are not necessarily wrong, but for children they can be quite a load to bear.

I met someone recently whose parents have just enrolled him in a course in chartered accountancy. He has no option but to attend. What he really wants, is to study film-making in the USA.

It is so sad that some parents want their children to fit into these water-tight moulds. It can be exhausting sometimes for teenagers to remain true to themselves in an environment where everyone expects them to be something else; someone that they don’t want to be.

Sadly, as long as these young people are dependent on their parents, several of them are going to have to conform, to fold, to play along in a symphony that drowns out their own voices.

I know that most parents mean well. But I think that as educators, we need to remind them that sometimes freeing their children of these expectations is as important as teaching them right from wrong, and doing so will have a profound impact on the adults they grow up to be.

To the kids who read this and say ‘hey, that’s me’, realize that you are in good company. Almost all the great people in history chose to break the mold and to walk their own path when they had the chance to. At some point you will have that chance. So be the square peg in the round hole. Colour outside the lines. Dream and pursue those dreams. After all, moulds are too mainstream.

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Normal Is Not Really My Thing

I had a very interesting conversation with someone this weekend – someone who was on a mission (or so it seemed) to make me see the sense in wanting what she called a ‘normal life’.  A life that included a very definite plan for marriage, children, buying a home and living the predictable way that everybody seems to love and want. The problem is I don’t want all of that, yet.  In fact, I really don’t know what I want just as yet and I see nothing wrong in that. But I’m pretty certain that ‘normal’ isn’t something I want my life to be.

I think when people say normal they actually mean typical or average, neither of which I’ve ever wanted to be. It has taken me years to not-fit-in and I’m not about to let that go. I’ve always been drawn to the road less traveled, the abnormal, the uncommon, the strange, the romantics, the round pegs in the square holes and the freaks.

I’ve been questioned and prodded about my choices. I never shared my friend’s interests or hobbies. Typical teenage shenanigans bored me. In fact and as far back as I can remember I have always been known to go back to what my heart really wants.

I guess people just want to feel comfortable around us and when we choose things that sort of rock their world or are different from what they think is normal, it makes them uncomfortable. Maybe it makes them question their own choices, or maybe it brings up their own desire to not fit in so perfectly. It really has very little do with us.

To assume there is a normal way of life, and to judge others is a form of denial. It’s denying the beautiful differences and freedom of choice that we have been given. It is a way of disconnecting from others and leading isolated lives. Well, that’s how I see it.

I learned long ago to live with my choices. They make me happy. I am still learning to be open to what comes to me when I ask God to lead my footsteps. I know he’s pretty unpredictable, always springing surprises and I really love it!  I am about letting go of the past and what others might want for me. I am about the round pegs in those square holes I talked about. I just wish more people saw that as sort of normal too!


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Unpacking Emotional Baggage

This summer will mark eleven years since I graduated from high school. The educational climate of our world has undergone monumental change since then but sadly, the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” still rings true.

Being in school as a member of the faculty this time, is like an old familiar T-shirt: very comfortable but somewhat ill-fitting because students today face similar obstacles and some even more complicated than when I went to school. Sadly, sometimes teachers can’t help but stand silently on the sidelines with no way to intervene and no answers to offer.

emoThe last few weeks have been particularly eye-opening for me and some of my colleagues and it got me thinking.

As teachers it is sometimes so easy for us to bulldoze our way through a lesson. We plan, we prepare, we create resources, we try to make learning relevant and when we’re in the classroom to deliver it, we don’t want to let anything get in our way. But, very often we forget that just like we do, our students bring with them emotional baggage and a host of 21st century problems and complexities that they’re dealing with individually. As educators, this can be a daunting task—teaching students who come with a book bag in one hand and emotional baggage in the other.

You see, it’s so easy sometimes to forget that our students are a product of their own unique experiences – a culmination of their own sensibilities, their personal beliefs, family dynamics, values, thoughts and feelings. They each come with an untold story—some typical and average, others awful and extremely sad.  Though I’m in a rather unique position as a teacher and friend/counselor, even I find myself fighting an inner battle to see which role serves my students the best. Very often, the teacher in me has to take the back seat. Sometimes all students really need is someone who’ll hear them out.

You see, what adults see on the outside is very often a child’s protective suit – their armor – while this inner world is often kept tucked away unless an environment is created that allows for feelings of safety and a sense of belonging. When any child or adult enters into a space that accepts, inspires and affirms their emotional space, we have finally found the key that unlocks the door to extravagant learning! What is that key? That golden key is a connection and nothing matters more to a teacher-student relationship.

How do we do this?

We do this through sharing our own stories, followed by the deepest kind of listening that usually escapes most of us. When we share a personal account, a story that brings forth our commonalities as humans, we connect on the most basic but close level because we can begin to empathize, feeling what it must be like to walk in the shoes of another.

We need more teachers in the world who realize the full extent of their calling; teachers who are willing to sacrifice their years of experience and preconceived notions at the altar of service to children who need that connection.

Inside the classroom, the lesson might sometimes be uncomfortable, staccato and the attainment or the outcomes may not be as high as other days. There will be a lot of squirming in the seats as we search for underlying themes in a play or contemporary relevance in a piece of old English Prose. But I honestly believe that sometimes it’s more important to show students it’s not a question of how to get better at subject content, but rather that you’re there for them willing to do whatever it takes for them to make it through that day, through high-school and beyond.




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Stop and Stare! #HappyDigitalLearningDay

In today’s tech-obsessed climate, we share almost everything online – even pictures of our food! We let everyone know where we spend our weekends, when we check into restaurants, where we’re holidaying, who we’re having coffee with, even who we’re engaged to marry! We’ve given an online dimension to almost every aspect of our lives. The internet now does the same for teaching and learning and that makes this one the most exciting times for educationists and students around the globe.

Today the world is celebrating #DigitalLearningDay and while it’s easy for those standing on the sidelines to point out the shortcomings of using educational technologies, not many are so eager to find and apply a solutions to make learning more robust and enjoyable. Many educators fear that the development of social media and educational technology will have a negative impact on the education of young people. But at one point in time, people were afraid that the emails and laptops would stop people from being able to handwrite, which hasn’t happened yet and we all know how we’ve integrated e-mails into our daily lives.

Don’t get me wrong, traditional education is important and I am fully aware of and understand its significance. Still, it has many shortcomings and may not be ideal for students in the 21st century. As a teacher, I’ve tried to take what’s best in my classroom (student discussions and collaborations) and bring it to the online space, where all of my students, regardless of their academic standing or anything else, can exchange knowledge and skills. In case you weren’t already aware I have an educational blog as well and I’d like for you to see how the students are using the internet and technology so responsibly to learn their course content. Here are a few examples I’m happy to show off in honour of World Digital Learning Day.

Blog: ‘My Reassigned Classroom’ provides students with an informal online learning environment to share ideas, discuss subject matter and interpret content. A few months ago my grade 10 literature class read a Chinua Achebe story that made them question the ideas of arranged marriages, romantic love and age-old religious traditions. Soon after the lesson I posted a question on the blog and was amazed by the responses of the students. I think we had a better discussion online than we did while we were actually reading the text! (Click the hyperlink below)


Voicethread: provides a wonderful opportunity for student self-expression and creativity but more than anything, I find that it is a wonderful tool for differentiation allowing students to comment using video, voice or text responses whichever they are most comfortable with. Have a look at this summer assignment on poetry that brought out some wonderful responses from the children.

(This is a hyperlink – click the title to open the page) Stopping By Woods

TestMoz: Children today are overburdened with assignments and tests. Using online test generators like TestMoz makes it fun and engaging for students to participate in summative assessments and collaborative quizzes. These tools also help teachers to collect data and other statistical information that is crucial to their own planning and progress.

Twitter: Is already the most widely used social media site today.  It is now being used as a tool to encourage discussion, collaboration and easy access to the teacher when in doubt. (See screen-shot)



While these are just a few examples of how I am using EdTech it would be prudent to mention that following a Web 2.0 tools workshop conducted last year, teachers in my school are currently using a wide-range of educational technology. In addition to these they employ the use of wikis, Edmodo, YouTube Time Machine, Class Blogs, Facebook, Evernote, Prezi, Glogster etc.

The main aim here is not technology for technology’s sake. It remains our consistent endeavor to provide students with ample opportunity to hone 21st century skills such as working online, collaboration, independent research etc.

Today we don’t shy away from technology; we acknowledge the depth and breadth of its influence and embrace it for its powerful impact on teaching and learning. We are currently setting the stage to introduce digital storytelling and the use of augmented reality in our teaching-learning. (click on hyperlink to open)


These are exciting times for both the students as well as me as a teacher.

I’ve said it before and I will say it again. EdTech is no longer an option for schools and educationists. It is a 21st century requirement. Whatever we do, it’s unlikely that the students won’t use the new technologies they’re discovering every day. Perhaps at this point it’s time to stop the conjecture and start learning how to keep up with them!





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