Sunday, October 27, 2013

Significant Conversations: Two reflections for Two Important Crises Facing Children Today

Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance

This is probably my favorite piece we've read so far. I enjoyed every bit of the short, but comprehensive piece written by Michael Wesch. Reading Wesch's article this weekend really resonated with me because of some things that came up this past week at school. Here's the story:

Part of the content I'm required to teach includes the physical geography of the regions we study. Within the physical geography is the topic of natural resources, something I have found to be one of the most boring and difficult topics to connect to students' lives. This was the case up until last week... 

As we are covering the region of Latin America we got into a discussion of fossil fuels and the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources. So we talked about how things like petroleum and coal are not renewable, and then moved into a conversation of resources that are renewable, like sunlight and wind energy. This triggered some really meaningful and significant conversation about what students can do to conserve resources in their daily lives, where they may have seen solar panels or wind turbines. Many of the students hadn't made those connections until this very conversation. I also shared a story that came out a few months ago about a young man who invented floor tiles that used kinetic energy to produce electricity for a school. The kids were really into this, and wanted to try to come up with their own ideas about how to harness different types of energy to power homes, etc. On Friday I brought in an article about a professor who is going to live in a dumpster. He's retrofitting a dumpster to make it into a sustainable home and he's requiring his students to do the same. The kids really connected to this article and it generated some wonderful dialogue about why on earth he would choose to live in a dumpster. 

Almost all of the students participated in the class discussions of these topics. I was able to encourage students to continue to think about ways we can use different types of energy, and let them know that this is something they could even pursue as a career when they are older (or they could get started now!). The look in many of their eyes was one of excitement and motivation. One boy said he now wanted to join STEM club to try to come up with some of his own inventions. 

All of this stemmed from the boring topic of natural resources. This has been a dreaded topic for me in the past, but is now something I can use as a hook for engagement in the future. The power of significance has brought this topic to life. At the end of the day on Friday we ironically lost all electrical power. The school went dark and we had to evacuate. The school next door went dark. Half of the town lost power. As we were standing outside in the soccer field, a few of my students turned to me and said "I bet this wouldn't have happened if we were using a different source of power..."

The Flight From Conversation

In her article for the New York Times, author Sherry Turkle writes about the declining sense of community we experience in our day to day lives. Turkle argues that we can attribute this cultural shift to the increasing popularity of technology in the digital age. She says that we have moved into an age where people have checked out of real relationships both physically and emotionally. We "hide from one another, even as we are constantly connected to one another." Turkle argues that this "technological universe" is destroying life as we know it. We "dumb down conversations" and "present the self we want to be."

Despite going through the doomsday laundry list of ways our society is falling apart at the seems, Turkle offers no real suggestions about how to stop this technological disaster from happening. The reader is left with visions of robots and humans walking down the street hand in hand, lovingly gazing into one another's eyes. I think this painted picture has some validity, but Turkle's piece is a bit sensationalist and incomplete, she fails to take this topic the few necessary steps farther, steps which will be addressed in this post.

I will say that this is an extremely interesting topic to me. I've expressed similar complaints regarding technology and social media. I think that people spend way too much time on phones and in front of computers, kids especially. I have friends who post to Facebook multiple times per day. I probably scan through Facebook 2-3 times per day. To be completely honesty, I've scaled back my Facebook time tremendously because I found myself becoming one of the statistics that Turkle mentions. More time social networking does lead to a greater feeling of loneliness and depression.

Now on the flip side, what I think Turkle fails to address is the fact that the good outweighs the bad when it comes to the internet and social media and technology in general. I think that social media and the internet can be incredibly useful in terms of helping people find others to share community with. I know it sounds crazy, how do you have community on the internet?....Well, I read a couple of blogs that have helped me through some dark times of depression, uncertainty, and negativity. I've found bloggers who write about real gritty and dark topics. These are not people concerned with putting on a pretty face and sharing only a portion of themselves with people from all over the world. These are people who put everything out there, honestly. In many ways, I think it's sometimes possible to find more "real" people online than in person. I've had "relationships" with "real people" that still made me feel incredibly lonely. I don't enjoy polite conversation. I don't enjoy discussing hair, nails and makeup. It's difficult to meet people, especially women, who aren't just interested in surface level conversation. I have a few close friends who I would consider to be "real" friends and I'm not sure that I need a large community of people to share my "real" self with. I feel like I could keep writing and trying to address the pros and cons of the internet and technology, as there are plenty of both, but I don't think that would be meaningful or useful. I guess in summary I would just ask Turkle to consider the fact that not all technology is harming our society. There is hope for the future, there will always be surface level relationships both on and offline. It's up to the individual to maintain an awareness and balance of healthy relationships in their own lives, to concern themselves about the world around them and to seek out real living breathing community.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Linked Up

Hi everyone, here are the links to the two videos worth watching. Both of these videos would have made for great discussion in class tonight, but we just didn't have the time.

-The American Dream at Groton (this is an older video, check out some of the new info on their current website

- People Like Us (this is just the "opening tease" clip, if you would like to watch the full video you have to watch it in parts on YouTube)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ira Shor Would love this post by the Oatmeal

This is a fantastic link to what we were just discussing in class. It would make for a great student centered project- maybe with the question of "should we celebrate Columbus Day?" Take a look, I think I'm going to use some of the material in class on Tuesday.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Questioning Answers: A Response to Empowering Education

About the Reading:

Many researchers, doctors, philosophers and scholars have tried to solve the age old problem of student disengagement and academic under-performance in the public school system. Ira Shor writes about these struggles in his book, Empowering Education. In chapter one, "Education Is Politics: An Agenda for Empowerment," Shor cites many causes for students' lack of educational success. He states that the root of the problem, though, lies in undemocratically functioning classroom settings, saying that "many students do not like the knowledge, process, or roles set out for them in class. In reaction, they drop out or withdraw into passivity or silence in the classroom." According to Shor, in far too many classrooms students view their teachers as autocratic figures and see themselves as having no role in makings of the classroom syllabi. Shor continues the chapter by reiterating this point again and again, asserting that teachers and schools need to undergo a paradigm shift. The author is fully convinced that if teachers would just open up the classroom as a free space where students feel they have some control, power and choice within their education, that we would see a massive change in the number of students actively participating and learning within schools. Furthermore, Shor believes that teachers should throw out their multiple choice tests. Get rid of rote memorization and skills based lessons, and begin to ask more questions. There should be an emphasis on process based learning, or what we may now call inquiry based learning. Students should stop and think about why they are in school, they should be taught to "question answers" rather than "answer questions." The teacher in this model of excellence is thought of as a facilitator or a coach, rather than an enforcer or knowledge depositor.

Why Shor is right...

As I was reading this text I kept flip flopping between underling words, phrases and quotes with extreme excitement and intrigue, and highlighting words, phrases and quotes with a strong sense of disagreement. I think in many ways Shor really hits the nail on the head. Students need to think about what they are learning and why they are learning it. Metacognition is an important piece of becoming a life long learner. This is why many teachers have students take the multiple intelligences test, to help them learn about the ways in which they learn best. With all of the research about ways in which students learn differently, teachers have been told to differentiate instruction. This is my fourth year teaching and I can honestly say that most of the teachers I've observed and had the fortune to work with do differentiate. Most teachers offer different ways for students to show what they know, they encourage participation and questioning. I've worked differentiation into my classroom and tried to be more of a facilitator for learning rather than an enforcer of knowledge. Throughout the school year my seventh grade students have the opportunity to complete various creative assignments, use technology, participate in debates, and incorporate as much of their own life experience into the classroom as possible.

And why he's wrong...

I was with Shor until he started arguing that students should partake in the making of the classroom syllabus. I think this is a step too far, and that this idea is a bit naive and unreasonable.The twelve year olds that come into my room can't remember to bring a pencil.  How would they know how to draw up a syllabus? Never mind elementary school students. I think students need a set of parameters to function within. They need direction, guidance, and someone to oversee the activities they are engaged in. Does this mean that I should refuse to be flexible? No. Most definitely not. I think teachers need to be flexible and accommodating, but not to the point where they hand over all control to students. Shor seems to recognize this struggle when he cites a conversation from a 1930s labor workshop. One of the men involved says "No matter where this kind of educator works, the great difficulty is how to make education something which, in being serious, rigorous, methodical, and having a process, also creates happiness and joy." It's VERY difficult for students to self-monitor and function in an environment that is too open and breezy. I've tried it. Kids need some sense of routine. They need the teacher to provide them with some expectations and guidelines. As much as I wish this utopia of open-minded, free thinking and engagement existed, it does not. I think Shor could have written more about how to create a structured and rigorous environment that is simultaneously democratic. Our formerly studied authors, Delpit and Johnson would probably agree. Many students come from unstructured and disorganized homes and crave teacher authority and leadership.

Another place where my highlighter and pencil marks lit up the page was the part in which Shor said "education is more than facts and skills." Education most definitely is more than these two old school practices. It is more than lecturing and note taking. However, skills based learning has its place, again, I think Delpit would agree. Students need to practice adding without a calculator. They should memorize their times tables. Students should easily be able to find Asia on a map and point out the state in which they live. Should these facts and skills be taught all day every day? Should these facts be the center of all curriculum? Again, definitely not. But they have their place. How can a teacher expect students to work independently or in groups to complete cooperative projects without some kind of foundational knowledge? What ends up happening in this scenario is that kids form great opinions and answer great questions, but have no basic understanding of the places they are discussing. So, again I found myself disagreeing with Shor.

Final Thoughts:

In summary, I think Shor is a great writer and philosopher, but I don't think his writing is quite practical and applicable enough for the real living, breathing classroom teacher. He speaks a lot of truth, and I agree with him that many teachers (myself included) need to remember that student engagement is the key to success. But how does this play out in real life? How do you get teenagers to stop being self focused and become curious about learning? How do you have twelve year olds set up a syllabus? How do you allow students to work in cooperative groups without a basic set of facts? Also, how does this look in a classroom where a predetermined scope and sequence has been laid out? Shor raises many wonderful points, but leaves us with far too many unanswered questions.