Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Cult of Negativity

I have been reading a lot of educational blogs recently. They are usually fascinating reading, punctuating by numerous new and progressive ideas. However, I have one problem with them. Teachers are much too negative. I don't mean negative in the sit-in-the-faculty-room-and-moan-about-everything sense, but I don think that we as a profession are much too hard on ourselves. Blogging has created a new generation of the self-reflective teacher. Now our thoughts have a place to go, that isn't just our head or a piece of paper that we will lose. Now, they can be posted to a public space, read by everyone and real discussions can ensue. This is a wonderful change, and lots of positive improvements will come from it. All of these people must work very hard to analyze their jobs the way that they do. Plus, they are always looking to improve and make changes.

I must admit that sometimes the blogs depress me, though. Far too often, the blogging teacher is much too hard on him or herself. I fall into the same trap sometimes. We want, not to make a difference, but to make THE difference in students' lives. We want them to love education. We want to embrace new means of teaching and learning. We want our lessons to be amazing. And guess what? It's not all going to happen overnight. We actually need to celebrate the small victories. If we try to do everything perfect all of the time, we will go absolutely crazy and never refresh or recharge for the next school day or the next school year. We have to learn to take baby steps and be satisfied that we accomplished something better over what we did the last time. Massive change will come, and with it self-satisfaction (and the feeling that we are still five years behind the times). But, we cannot forget to actually compliment ourselves, instead of always being so hard on all of the things we didn't do. We actually need to look at the things that we did.

I had to get that out there, perhaps as a meta-self-reflective piece after reading other blogs. This has become my outlet for my thoughts so that I won't forget them. And so I won't later be too hard on myself for not writing them down.

Turning on the Lights

Last Friday, I went to a workshop on technology at Montclair State University called "Turning on the Lights." As the title would imply, the workshop was all about using technology to invigorate students and the learning process, while simultaneously creating responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the digital age. I have a story to tell. I fear it may be convoluted. Please bear with me.

When I began working, just out of college, I took a job fixing Macintosh computers at a local high school. I actually never really enjoyed the tedious, repetitive aspects of the job (like fixing the computers), but I became fascinated with problem solving and using technology in the classroom. That fascination, and the education environment in general, helped push me to pursue my Master's Degree and begin a career as an English teacher. Ever since then, I have been fascinated with using technology in the classroom and in the learning process. Therefore, this conference was certainly something that interested me.

Dumont High School (where I'm currently teaching) is not the most progressive technology oriented school district in the world. Many web sites that other school districts use on a regular basis (YouTube, various Wiki sites, flickr, blogspot, etc.) are blocked by our internet filter for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, my colleagues and I become frustrated because we cannot even access many of the technological tools that we would like to use. Granted, there are still many that we can use (or we can get clever in what we implement and how), but there is a general feeling limited by many of our non-options.

In this case, however, I'd like to focus on YouTube in particular. My previous post features a great YouTube video from a Kansas State University Anthropology class. The presenter also showed this video at the Turning on the Lights conference. It would make for an amazing discussion piece with students of all ages. What does it mean to be a student? What are we as a school doing right? Doing wrong? Currently, we cannot use the video in Dumont, although many of us might want to present either this one or another in class. If given the opportunity, I think that we would be euphoric beyond all rationale.

The point of this post is not to attack the Dumont School District. Rather, it is to explore both sides of this complicated issue (Am I a bad writer because I just had to spell out the thesis statement?). Having worked in educational technology, I do have some (albeit dated) understanding of what it means to try to suppport an network designed for school use. This point was further refined at the end of Friday's conference. As I was leaving the center, I ran into one of my old bosses. He works in a very affluent school district that could basically afford any piece of technology that it wanted. I told him that he must feel very privileged. While we wait for a crumb (either in equipment or the disappearance of the internet stop sign), teachers who work with him must be like kids in a candy store, I reasoned. He told me that was absolutely not the case.

He said that, in affluent districts, teachers become very accustomed to just being able to get whatever technology they need for class. If they want to show a YouTube video, they do. If they want to project something at a moment's notice, they do. If they want to film a lesson, sign a form, no problem. The issue, as he told me, is created when something breaks or does not work correctly. Sadly, the culture is such that everyone just begins to expect that everything will work, all of the time. My former boss explained to me that he had to block YouTube for three days earlier this school year, because the network needed maintenance and could not support the traffic. He said that teachers nearly crucified him. How could they teacher their classes without it?

This certainly highlights a digital divide. It also demonstrates poor prioritizing. Technology becomes the gimmick, THE way to teach. If one can't have it, then what good is teaching. Balance must exist somewhere. Some schools (Dumont) currently have very little available technology. Others have a ton. Yet everyone complains. Too much, too little, why is it broken, why can't we use it, etc., etc., etc. I needed to write this post to remind myself that technology is not the most important thing. Learning is. As long as someone learns something, the day has not been wasted, no matter how great that "other" lesson might have been. If I ever get access to the YouTube videos I want to show in class and the one laptop per child, I do not want to carry on and moan like a spoiled baby if something stops working. I need to always remember this exchange and what it was like to teach (I hope effectively) without having that same amount of access.

If that isn't the most Dickensian of blog posts, I'm sure nothing is.

A Vision of Students Today

Two words for now: fascinating and sobering.

More to come later.

Just watch.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Milgram Experiment

At the end of each year in my English 3 CP (Junior) classes, I teach Night by Elie Wiesel. This text, for obvious reasons, usually grabs the students' attention and holds it for the duration of the book. In addition to Night, I also use two supplemental materials, in an attempt to make some kind of sense of the atrocities of that time period. As a class, we read two chapters of Christopher Browning's excellent book, Ordinary Men, about civilian Germans who become mass murderers and the possible reasons behind this awful transformation. Ordinary Men works very well in tandem with Night.

I also show video of the Milgram experiment. Originally, I wanted to find a film about the original experiment. Failing that, I decided to settle for ABC News' recreation. Once again, this really captures student attention, and prompts some interesting discussions. In my opinion, this experiment is also something that every educated person should know.

I had found the ABC News recreation of the experiment on Google Video. Sadly, it's been removed from the site. However, in my search, I did come across this video of the original.

Edit: This video has also been removed. That's the problem with web-based video; there's is no sense of permanence. Everything is here today, gone tomorrow. That leads into the discussion of whether we should own things or just "rent" them using subscription models. And it's a topic for another day, another post...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Technology in a Useful Fashion

The major problem with technology in the classroom is that very few people know how to use it effectively (how's that for stating the obvious?). Whether it's the teachers I remember from high school who could not figure out how to press 'play' on the VCR, or students simply reading from their PowerPoint Presentations, no one is learning anything new from the use of technology in these instances. I think that to make technology in the classroom useful, we all have to change our thinking about it.

We can no longer just "bring" technology into the classroom, in the form of a television set on wheels, or a laptop and projector that gets set up for the day. We need to infuse it into the course itself. Technology should not just kill time for an easy day (the traditional, "I'm tired today, I'll show a film") nor should it be something to which we expose students every once in a while. Technology surrounds their everyday existence. Sometimes, yes, they are lost under the crush of it, but we need to find a compromise. Is it any wonder that they are bored with traditional school, when life outside the classroom is so exhilarating? They have text messages, cell phone calls, camera phones, flickr and facebook accounts, video games, etc., etc., etc. There are certainly ways to integrate some of these things into the classroom.

We cannot abandon traditional skills, that much is for certain. Traditional reading and writing skills still run the world, although technological creativity is no longer too far behind. Therefore, the emphasis on the classroom should be focused on using technology in meaningful real-world ways that will still pass on the older essential skills to our students. In fact, maybe these revised methods of teaching will help to make our students more involved and interested, thereby actually raising their abilities. It is certainly worth a shot.

There are lots of variables to consider, and each school district has its own limitations when it comes to technology (Dumont certainly has theirs), but there are things each and every teacher can do to promote technological literacy and creativity. In the long run, I believe that an integration of new methods and ideas will only help to reinvigorate both teachers and students, and perhaps we can finally find useful methods of incorporating a projector and a powerpoint presentation into our classes.

This post has taken on much more of a preachy, moralizing tone than I wished, and I still think I'm just stating the obvious. But, I'm going to run with it anyway, as I have lots of technologically influenced ideas that I'm going to begin detailing in the coming posts. Stay tuned.