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.


  1. Brittany, your conversations with your students last week seem to have went very well. It is so fun when students start to engage in the subject matter more than just regurgitating back information. They make great connections and come up with great ideas and then the challenge becomes how do we "grade" that? I know that the are alternative assessments other than tests, but at times I feel as though administrators value the alternative assessments as less

  2. Hi Allie, grades are a really tough thing, you're right. I typically don't end up with many test grades each quarter, maybe one or two at most, and lots of little quizzes. I enjoy having students work together on projects in class to apply the facts and information they have learned (alternative assessments). So I've decided to do these projects, assessments, etc. Monday through Thursday, and I reserve Friday for current events. Current events count as homework credit (students have to fill out a response form), but are also an outlet for connections,discussion and engagement. The kids love debating, discussing, and getting into current events. I guess this is how I find my balance. I'm still meeting the standards and we still have a scope and sequence, grades, etc. But Friday is more open and current events can be used to bring significance and meaning to what's being learned.

  3. Brittany, I enjoyed reading of your classroom lesson along with your emphasis of the power of significance in bringing the lesson to life. Making connections to kids' lives and then extending that connection to local, national and global awareness (or vice versa) means the kids are making real meaning with what they are learning. I'm interested to hear about any other extensions that lesson brought to the kids. The second piece really resonating with me. I didn't feel as though Turkle exaggerated the problem, however. Our over usage of digital devices is changing our mentalities, our thinking processes, our interactions, our ability to concentrate well. Years from now, we'll see this time as a shift in humanity - I believe - unless we learn to better balance devices with the real world. I still have at least one foot still planted in the non-digital world as one of the last hold outs from facebook or having a smart phone. I personally find that digital devices and the idea of constant connections/updates etc. to be intrusive and a bit boring. And, while I also have bonded with unmet folks on line via forums, for instance, I have never thought of any of them as true friends per se, just acquaintances that disappear every time this computer goes off. Regardless, thank you for your honest and heartfelt thoughts.

  4. Brittany, I love how you were able to allow yourself to take a sidestep from the course work and invest some time into the work that was interesting to your students. Why can't everyday be like that?

    More and more Wesch's article inspires me to improve my teaching. I too really enjoyed this article.

  5. Hi Brittany,

    I am so glad that the Wesch piece resonated with you and also that you created the fun and engaging activity that was a spin-off from our class discussions and readings last week for your students. I don't know why, but I was left less inspired by Wesch for some reason. I absolutely agree with his points about energizing our students, creating a class environment that is conducive to conversation, and of course, that all students are cut out for LEARNING. I definitely agree that we need to make their educations more significant for them. I guess it was his style of writing; it didn't move me as much, although I don't disagree.

    On the other hand, I went crazy over the Turkle article. I even researched another author to find some pros of internet use because I was so discouraged and frankly, frightened for my own children, after reading it. I don't know if she really was exaggerating; it's a pretty real situation with young people and their 24/7 internet use. Are you on Twitter? It's like Facebook on steroids! I find it to be addictive because people post as many as 30 times a day; I myself am guilty of that on occasion. (okay... a lot!) The problem is, it can make you feel terrible about yourself if someone blocks you or drops you, which just happened to me the other day. I am an adult. It is scary to think about how hurtful this can be to emotionally fragile teenagers and young adults. I like that you see more positives than Turkle with the use of technology!

  6. I love your ideas for your classroom! Students will remember these lessons. I enjoyed the Wesch article also. I was convicted as well as inspired.