Back to School (as a TechCommGeekMom)

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Someone mentioned to me recently that as “TechCommGeekMom” that I seem to concentrate on being the “TechCommGeek” than the “Mom” in my posts. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, since I do talk about my son often enough, but it’s true that I do mainly try to center my writings about tech comm and m-learning/e-learning geekery, but perhaps it’s time to think more about adding some more parent-centric postings.

And just as a warning–this is a true test of using mobility, as I’m typing this on my iPad while on vacation, so this will truly test how mobile *I* can be to do most of the things I like to do more than 600 miles from home.

Recently, the following article came to my attention:

Guest Post: Core Skills for Technical Writers Often Overlooked

In this article, the author talks about how many of the basic, fundamental functions of being a good technical communicator are lost. Writing cover letters, resumes and follow-up correspondence with well-written, grammatically correct technical aspects are now missing. He questions how that could be lost, and how that needs to be recovered.

I agree, not only as a technical communicator, but also as a parent. For me, while my technical communications skills are truly at the heart of my profession, being a parent is highly integrated into what I do as a technical communicator. As a parent, I am equally responsible to make sure that my child is getting at least an appropriate education, and being able to get the fundamentals of good writing is important.

One of the big things that seems to be a hot topic in the e-learning and tech comm worlds is the idea that conventional methods don’t seem to be working anymore, and the big DIY movement is starting to take hold slowly but surely. There was also a Forbes article that was out a day or two (sorry, don’t have it at my fingertips–will edit this and add later if I find it again) that was trying to dispel the myths of online learning. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a big proponent of e-learning and m-learning. The Internet is FULL of resources that I wish I had as a kid, and now as a parent, I know my child can utilize instead.

And this is when mommy-mode comes into play when I’m thinking about my son’s education–or the education of any child as a mother. I guess I think about it more since I am trying to gain more footing in the m-learning world, but also because I am a mom, and I can see how he benefits from it. Because my son is high functioning Autistic/Asperger’s, his learning needs are more basic, meaning it’s not that he can’t learn the same information as everyone else, but one needs to get down more to the core of those topics on a very basic level and build up in order for him to understand and grab the concepts. Again, this is not a dumb child–far from it. In many respects, he’s brilliant. He loves science, especially physics-related topics, and can out talk some grown-ups on the topic. But math and writing and social studies and foreign languages…ugh, that’s another story. One also has to remember that just learning appropriate behavior does not happen inherently for him either. He gets easily frustrated, and resolution skills do not come instinctively to him. He is constantly being taught strategies on how to improve his behavior and resolution skills so he doesn’t have meltdowns as often. Social skills need to be taught to him like any other subject at his school, so as a parent and wannabe educator, I have to think about these things. Even for me, I had many of the same issues, but I think my parents were equally able to try to handle it as my father was a professional educator for over 40 years, so I benefitted from him, as well as my mother, who instilled strong communication foundations with me at a very early age.

As a parent myself now, I feel it is our duty to work with teachers to help our children as much as possible to learn the fundamental skills that will not only allow them to do well in school, but also do well in life. There was a recent argument as to whether people really need to learn algebra. I happen to be a proponent of algebra for everyone, but how advanced one gets with the subject is the question. I remember my father saying–and I agree with this– even when I was a small child that we are taught basic algebra when we are still in grammar school. After all, getting the equation of 5+5=___ is really the same as 5+5=X. Or 30/X=5, and X needs to be determined. So, sure, cranking up the challenge is inevitable. But calculus? I didn’t take it, and with the career I’ve had, I never used it. But I needed more on probabilities and statistics, for sure, now and then (I managed, thankfully). There are professions that do need higher algebra and calculus, and if kids think they are going into those careers, then they should take advanced mathematics.

At the same time, depending on the school, basic life skills aren’t taught anymore. There was a time when wood shop, metal shop, auto shop and home ec were necessary classes, as they were what drove the economy, and most people’s highest level of education was completing high school. I went to a prep school, so I learned none of those topics except through my dad making sure that I could check the oil, change a flat, add brake fluid and change the air filter and my mother teaching me a little bit of cooking (mostly self-taught). They still are, but other things like computing and basic business classes are needed. My own parents always would try to get me to take business courses. To take the marketing or business law courses that I was most interested in, I had to pass accounting, and I couldn’t pass accounting. So everything I’ve learned about sales and marketing I learned the hard way–through experience. I did take a computing class (remember, I graduated from college in 1990, when dot-matrix printers were the norm as well as having computer labs to use Notepad-like word processors to write our term papers. I credit my own instincts to take that computer class as the right move–that served me more than taking accounting.

Recently, one of my cousins mentioned that she was making the suggestion of taking business courses to her almost college-age daughter. I told her that unless her daughter wanted to go into a business career, it wasn’t a good idea, and that I felt that some sort of computing class would be better. There are two essential courses that I think EVERYONE on the planet who seeks an education should have a basic technical writing or business writing course, and at least one computing class under their belts. It doesn’t matter what country one comes from or what language one speaks, but clear communication in any language, and knowing how the technology that helps that communication–especially in business–is essential. Without being able to communicate effectively and not understanding the tools that will helps one communicate effectively, a person will not get as far as they could. The basics of business otherwise comes purely from doing and learning on the job, not from some book.

This brings up the concept of DIY education again. While there are still a lot of things that are right in instill our children with basic skills through a conventional education, something’s not working anymore to make sure that our children know more than we do. Yes, you read that correctly. Our children SHOULD know more than us. They should be know as much as parents, and then some whenever possible. They should be learning from our past mistakes as well as learning what has been discovered since the time we were children. There’s a term that’s thrown about with today’s generations about these kids being “digital natives”. This is a somewhat accurate statement, only because for the most part, they don’t remember telephones with cords, Atari 2600 video game systems being the revolutionary gaming system that everybody had to have, or a time when there weren’t computers to do everyday school research or type up a professional looking report with fancy fonts and pagination. But today’s Generation X–my generation– really were some of the earliest adopters of digital technology, and in some cases, we don’t have much to show for it as a whole. I don’t know how many of my friends will tell me how they don’t understand how such and such works with a computer, and it’s something rather simple. Today’s generation has to be prepared for the future better than we were. I did my best to keep up, and it was my ability to write well and having some computer knowledge that helped me along the way. But much of the computer knowledge I’ve gained over the years was more self-taught, or I made my own agenda to learn it. I created my own DIY education out of necessity. While there will be an argument that DIY education is really about meeting individual interests and individual needs, why isn’t there an interest in doing so in conventional education?

Many years ago, the “No Child Left Behind” act was put into place in this country (the USA). It sounded good on the surface, but then I found out that the award winning, top notch school district that we were sending our son to didn’t comply to those standards. I was initially shocked and upset about this, until I understood why. The district was not in compliance because it was accounting for special needs children that either could not or never could, comply with the standardized testing needed to prove that these new standards were being followed. Those children needed to be left behind due to their own personal necessities. Some would catch up or do the work at their own pace, and some might never comply, and my district doesn’t force these children to be something they’re not; they are treated like people, not numbers. And as it happens that my son eventually fell into a category where sometimes he was able to meet those standards, and sometimes he couldn’t–I understood what my district was doing. They were allowing kids to be individuals and did account for different learning abilities. The other part of that is that many of the parents in my district tend to be fairly well educated professionals as well, and a huge majority are newer immigrants that place a very high standard on education, so it’s clear that parental intervention is a big part of that. For my family, the involvement of both my husband and myself in my son’s education is very clear. Without us, my son would not be where he is today. I’m not saying that teachers weren’t essential in helping my son learn–quite the contrary. They fill in all the huge gaps that we miss. It is because we intervened at an early age, worked with him, sometimes using unconventional methods to get him to learn what he needed to learn, and it was due to our personal intervention and playing such a key role in his learning that his autism eluded us until he was 9 years old.

So, as kids of all ages start going back to school at this time of year, I feel that tug of academia pulling me in again. Sometimes it’s the student in me yearning to be back in school again myself, learning something new. But for now, it’s me knowing that I have a responsibility as a parent to ensure that my son gets the most out of his education, whether it’s through homework exercises done with me to learn a concept he didn’t understand at school, or helping a teacher reinforce a new learned social skill that he learned in school. I recently saw a cartoon in which it depicted that in the past, if a student didn’t do well, the parents blamed the student for not working hard enough, but in current times, the teacher would be blamed by the parents. While there are instances that both students and teachers today need to be accountable for a student’s success, the key missing piece that is equally accountable is the role of the parents.

Parents are a child’s first teachers, so by not setting higher standards for ourselves both personally and professionally, we, as parents, fail our children by setting a poor example. Parents need to set the tone and set the standards for their children. If it means finding unconventional ways to ensure that a child is learning in addition to what conventional education is already providing, then so be it. For me, using my experiences as a technical communicator/budding m-learning specialist are what help me be a better parent. I use my skills to help my son learn how to write in his voice, using various means that work for him in a way that can help him grow and progress in the future to a day when he will need to be able to use these skills on his own in the “real world.” I try to show him new technology as well, and sometimes he teaches it to me.

In the end, it it my job to help him grow up to be an effective communicator–no matter where his path leads him, and it is my job as a parent to ensure that whether it comes from me, a teacher, or some sort of digital learning experience, that he has the foundation he needs to get ahead.

About TechCommGeekMom

Danielle M. Villegas is a technical communicator who has recently started her own technical communications consultancy, Dair Communications. She has worked at the International Refugee Committee, MetLife, Novo Nordisk, and BASF North America, with a background in content strategy, web content management, social media, project management, e-learning, and client services. Danielle is best known in the technical communications world for her blog, TechCommGeekMom.com, which has continued to flourish since it was launched during her graduate studies at NJIT in 2012. She has presented webinars and seminars for Adobe, the Society for Technical Communication (STC), the IEEE ProComm, TCUK (ISTC) and at Drexel University’s eLearning Conference. She has written articles for the STC Intercom, STC Notebook, the Content Rules blog, and The Content Wrangler as well. You can learn more about Danielle on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/daniellemvillegas, on Twitter @techcommgeekmom, or through her blog.
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