Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Conduct Unbecoming?

Not only did thousands of teachers meet in New York City earlier this month for the NCTE Annual Convention, but many of them blogged about their experiences. Some educators and administrators might question whether they should have. Just last week, the Ohio Education Association urged members not to post personal information on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. eSchool News shared an excerpt of the warning message:

“OEA advises members not to join [these sites], and for existing users to complete the steps involved in removing their profiles,” the memo said. “While this advice might seem extreme, the dangers of participating in these two sites outweigh the benefits.”
News stories across the nation have identified instances of blogs and social networking profiles that resulted in problems for the teachers who composed them. The Edutopia site has posted a poll, with links to related stories of teachers and social networking gone awry. The poll asks:
Can pictures and writing displayed on a personal Web page qualify as “conduct unbecoming”? Or do teachers have the right to express themselves as they please outside of school grounds? Tell us what you think.
The Wired column “Sex Drive” argues that the answer is no. The column’s title makes the point clear: “Teachers Should Blog, Tweet and Flirt Online Like the Rest of Us.” Teachers should participate in any online communities that they desire, columnist Regina Lynn asserts, and they should follow the same general rules of behavior that they would in any other social context. Lynn explains, “teachers who understand appropriate relationships with students are not going to ‘friend’ teens on MySpace, text message youth about sex lives or hook up with minors in role-playing games.”

I have online profiles, blog entries, and twitters out there in cyberspace, so my position is probably obvious. Are personal blogs “conduct unbecoming”? If teachers mention going out to a bar with colleagues after convention sessions, have they stepped over the line? Would a blog post with a photo of friends raising a toast or hugging be inappropriate?

I say no. Forbidding teachers to use social networking and blogs distances them from the 21st-century literacy tools that students use and suggests that teachers cannot use mature judgment when they communicate with others. I’m not suggesting that everything included in the Columbus Dispatch article that reports the OEA’s memo is acceptable. But the solution is not silencing teachers either.

Instead why not provide some professional development for teachers that focuses on safe and savvy online communication? Ignoring sites like MySpace and Facebook isn’t going to prepare teachers or students for the future. Talking about the communication that happens on blogging and social networking sites is a far wiser and more pedagogically-useful step toward toward 21st-century literacy skills. Hiding from the technologies of today and the future is not going to make them disappear, but dealing with the issues of effective online communication actually could lessen problems that the Columbus Dispatch identified in their investigation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

If Only the Text Were a Game . . .

The Tampa Tribune article “Students Use Technology For Critical Thinking” describes many of the classroom activities of Abigail Kennedy, winner of the 2007 Media Literacy Award, which is presented by NCTE’s Assembly on Media Arts. Kennedy, who teaches at Pasco High School in Dade City, Florida, explains the goals for her teaching:

“With media being so prevalent in the world,” Kennedy said, “if they’re not taught how to view it, they can be passive viewers, and can be taken advantage of.” So naturally, Kennedy was thrilled earlier this year when a student told her the young teacher had “ruined” the girl’s enjoyment of television commercials.
Kennedy’s story gets at one of the bittersweet aspects of teaching: students often resist and sometimes even resent teacher’s efforts to open their eyes to the ways that texts manipulate people.

It’s even more frustrating for me because I love to explore how texts work. It’s not just that I want to avoid being a passive audience. I want to know why texts have been put together the ways that they have and how people react when they interact with them. I’m sure I’m saying nothing new to an audience of English teachers. I suspect most of us feel this way. Our challenge is to try to help students engage with texts in this same way—to find fun and usefulness in discovering how texts work.

People do this kind of thinking naturally all the time. They even accept critical thinking and analysis in some circumstances. I’m thinking in particular of sports, and no, not just because my Virginia Tech Hokies are headed for their in-state rivalry game on Saturday.

People have no problem tuning in to a ball game on television and listening to announcers who share not only play-by-play descriptions of what’s happening on the field, but also provide analysis of the ways the players line up and the choices that they make. Pre-game shows are built on a foundation of critical thinking and analysis. The former coaches and football players look at the match-ups, analyze the possibilities, and offer predictions. At half-time breaks, they analyze what has happened so far in the game. After a game, they discuss how it all happened—analyzing how the plays were put together and why the different teams reacted to each other as they did.

I’ve seen hundreds of people watch football games on television. Yet not once have I ever heard anyone complain that the sportscasters “ruined” the game with their analysis. Never. People even share their own analytical comments, agreeing or challenging the ideas presented by the sportscasters. Why does this kind of analysis come so easily to people? Why are they willing to accept and engage in analysis of a football game but not the beer, soda, and automobile commercials that run during timeouts? If we can figure out the answer to that question—and apply what we learn to the classroom—perhaps students will begin to realize that critical thinking and analysis isn’t really ruining things.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

MySocial SpaceFace

Tengrrl as a South Park characterIn the last week, I've been attacked by several vampires and joined the Jedi in the fight against the Sith. I have a zombie and a pirate army, but I don't pay much attention to them. I go caroling as a Snooper Elf, and I'm a member of Gryffindor. I even have a South Park character who dresses far cooler than I actually do.

The Technology Toolkit column in the December 2007 issue of Voices from the Middle focuses on “The MySpace Culture.” Column editor Sandy Hayes explains that Grunwald Associates’ research found that “71% of tweens and teens between the ages of 9 and 17 visit social networking sites weekly” (59). What do they do when they visit these sites? They communicate and interact with the people they know.

It’s not just teens visiting these sites however. Hayes explains:

As MySpace itself has matured, it now features adult content in a different sense. More than half of MySpace visitors now are age 35 or older. Some libraries have even created MySpace pages (www.myspace.com/hennepincountylibrary) where teens can literally become friends of the library. And as the ultimate signal of cultural acceptance, most of the 2008 Presidential candidates currently have MySpace pages, including, in August 2007, friend lists of up to 164,500. (60)
Teachers number among these adult users of social networking sites as well. Much like the tweens and teens in the Grunwald study, the pre-service, early career, and experienced teachers I see on these sites use them to connect with colleagues near and far, in both serious and silly ways.

I know. The media would have you believe that teachers only go to social networking sites to keep an eye on students. But the truth is that my colleagues and I go to these sites to connect and have fun. Sure, we discuss teaching issues on discussion lists like TechRhet and WPA-L, but we also update each other on our grading, writing, and personal activities on Facebook.

Just like the teens on these sites, we build community as we support and mentor each other. And just as importantly, we learn more about how these sites work so that we can use and discuss social networking in the classroom. If you’re interested in learning more, consider joining the NCTE groups on Ning, MySpace, or Facebook. And friend me— I may even poke you in return. My username is tengrrl on Ning and MySpace, and I’m Traci Gardner on Facebook.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I Was a Mac. They Were PCs.

When I first began teaching in a computer-based classroom at Virginia Tech, I was essentially a Mac user. I had had some previous experience using an old DOS machine as a glorified word processor—anyone remember Volkswriter? But that was it. I had taken a summer workshop on using Macs in education and read extensively on the subject. Macs were my friend, and even if I didn’t know everything about how to use them, I knew where to find the answers.

The problem was that the majority of the students in my classes were PC users. The Engineering Department required all incoming first-year students to buy a PC, so these students knew far more than I did about their machines, which were nothing like the Macs that I knew and loved.

It was awkward going at the beginning of the term. Even though the Macs in the computer classroom were equipped with software that allowed them to read PC floppy disks, there were regular challenges to get students’ work off their PC diskettes and onto the Macs. And to make matters worse, the Engineering Department was using Word Perfect while the classroom was equipped with Clarisworks.

We were all frustrated. I knew that students needed to save their homework in Rich Text Format (RTF), but I didn’t know how they would do it on their PCs. All I could do was send them off to read their documentation and try again. They hated it. I hated it. I thought I’d made one of my worst decisions ever by teaching the computer-based class. Still we all kept trying.

At the beginning of class one day, one of the engineering students asked if she could share something. She handed me a sheet of complete instructions, starting with saving a document in RTF in Word Perfect on a PC and ending with opening the file in Clarisworks on a Mac. I gave her the class, and let her teach the process that day. Everyone left with a copy of her instructions, and the aggravations of our platform differences essentially disappeared. I no longer felt inadequate, and the students were no longer frustrated by the technology.

One of the challenges of teaching 21st-century literacy is the vulnerability that teachers like me feel as we teach with technologies when we are not the experts. The 21st-Century Literacies Policy Research Brief tell us to persevere in the face of this challenge:

Myth: Teachers need to be experts in technology in order to use it effectively in instruction.

Reality: Research shows that effective teachers collaborate with students to understand the information landscape and think about its use. Since success with technology depends largely upon critical thinking and reflection, even teachers with relatively little technological skill can provide useful instruction. (3)

With all due respect, research may show that teachers do not need to be the technology experts, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stand in front of a classroom, facing twenty-five technology-savvy students. But the truth is that it actually is more effective to let the students take control. When we talk about student-centered pedagogical strategies, we rarely think twice about asking students to be responsible for their learning. Somehow technology shifts things around though.

What can we do? Formally place students in the position of experts:

  • Ask students to write technology autobiographies, which share with the entire classroom community the experience and knowledge they have with technology.
  • Have students write instructions for the different technologies they know how to use.
  • Call for student volunteers to serve as peer tutors on specific pieces of software or processes.
  • Encourage students to share the ways that the technology they have access to effect their lives.
  • Invite students to share texts that they have found and to discuss why they think they are valuable.

In other words, ask students to take the lead. When they do, we no longer have to stand in front of a classroom, facing twenty-five technology-savvy students. Instead, we are standing in the classroom alongside students who are strengthening the 21st-century literacy skills that they need to meet the demands of our rapidly changing world.