Sunday, July 8, 2007

Everything Old is New Again

I’m now more convinced than ever that the concept of literacy is no different in the digital age than it ever was, even though there are certainly many new forms it can take. Clarence Fisher identifies three components of literacy: comprehension, production, and interactivity, but then goes on to make a really big deal about how literacy is in a constant state of change. I kept expecting him to then add new components of literacy to his list as a result of newer media, but he didn’t, which proves the point that literacy is literacy. All of the many skills students need that Fisher discusses, his “toolbox,” are things students need to be literate in any kind of media. When I got my MAT thirteen years ago, our clinical professor for social studies was a Vietnam vet who talked in every single class about how the US was involved in Vietnam for more than twenty years, but the average textbook covers Vietnam in about two paragraphs. In other words, he was teaching us that we had to teach our students to “evaluate for content” and “discern the truth.” I’m sure anyone who has received a teaching degree in the last decade, or even anyone who has had any professional development in the last ten years recognizes the need for differentiating instruction, part of which, to me, is allowing kids some latitude in and teaching them how to choose an appropriate medium in which to present their work. One can open any crappy textbook and notice all different forms of text combined in a single space. The internet didn’t invent that, though Clarence Fisher seems to think it did.

If anything, I believe that the “constant state of change” in technology behooves us to teach students skills that will allow them to adapt to this constant flux, rather than trying to teach them each new technology as it comes along. I can make an analogy to teaching history here: just as there’s no possible way to teach “all” the historical content in one course, there’s not possible way to teach “all” the new technology. Just as we have to focus on processes and teach kids how to “do” history rather than to memorize it, so do we have to teach kids to “do” technology.

As an urban educator, I also take exception to Thomas Friedman’s “the world is flat” analogy. While technology may be flattening the world as a whole, allowing parts of the populations of China and India to “catch up,” these populations are just leaving the rest of their countrymen who do not have technological access farther and farther behind. The same holds true in the US. People seem to be so concerned about making our students technologically literate because China and India might surpass us, but what about the inequities within our own country? The walls haven’t come down when my district blocks our use of social networking technologies, but the private school across town has access to this technology. I guess in the end I’m just more a Jonathan Kozol girl than a Thomas Friedman girl.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nuts and Bolts

What strikes me as I read Ecotopia is that I enjoy it because I understand the historical context in which it was written. I am always nostalgically amused by the '70's because for the most part they are on the periphery of my memory; though my very earliest memory is of Nixon's tapes (I thought we had them, because my mother had a reel-to-reel tape player), my first true awareness of the outside world was Reagan's election in 1980.

The pedagogical point here is that Ecotopia provides social studies teachers with their own curriculum--whoever gets to study the seventies? In addition of course, is all the stuff we could do with the history, economy, geography, etc. of California, Oregon, and Washington. Then the added bonus is that "context" as a concept is pretty Englishy, especially when students write a creative piece as they do on red team in which they are always required to use social studies-type details.

The science aspects of Ecotopia are so obvious I stopped noting them after about 10 pages.

Theses (always sound so dirty)

One important graduation requirement sgolb could help scaffold is the senior thesis. Presumably the senior thesis would be based in some way on the creation of the student utopias, and I've been trying to think exactly how this could work, since creating the utopias will take research, and of course the thesis takes research. How to do this without overwhelming the students in research? One way to approach this would be to have red team create their utopias before their thesis, (in the first half of the year) and use the research for the utopias for practice and honing skills needed for their thesis. Perhaps the thesis questions are developed when the students "pitch" their utopias before some sort of panel or board, as we had been thinking initially. Could students choose a question/questions posed to them by the panel to explore more in depth for their thesis; ie: is a stable state system the most effective way to go in your utopia?

The junior thesis could be connected to our work with Save the Bay, since we've said we want junior theses to be connected to community service. The juniors on red team could transform a piece of land and/or a building into a "green" space, designate it for a particular purpose or organization, and present/pitch to the community group for whom it was designed.

Gniggolb in Our School

...I'm just trying to post this quickly so that maybe people working at the district's PBGR workshop can see some of my ideas. Oh yeah, I forgot, they won't be able to SEE this blog (at least, while they are working) because all blogs using the word "blog" are blocked!

Of course, the big presumption I am making here is that by September, we'll have figured out a way to have the students blog without using the word blog. Perhaps we could do what happened with Google in China and have kids golb instead of blog.

My other, less significant presumption is that we will be using Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach as our central text in our utopia-themed interdisciplinary curriculum for next year, but this plan goes with that assumption. The premise of the book is that the area of California, Oregon, and Washington have succeeded from the US and have created a utopia called Ecotopia. A reporter from the US enters Ecotopia and the book alternates between news articles and journal entries he writes on his visit. Presumably we are going to have groups of students creating their own utopias as the year progresses, so I was thinking these groups could each have their own blog for their utopia. Like the reporter in Ecotopia, the students could post reports and journal entries about their utopia--perhaps reports from science and social studies, and journal entries from English. Then, students could be required to "visit" other utopias via the utopia blogs, and leave comments for the creators of these utopias.

One other blogging, oops, gniggolb idea is to set up a class blog in addition to the utopia blogs, and have students post reports about their visits to other utopias, which would more accurately mimic what the main character does in Ecotopia.

Whichever way, I think the golb entries would be perfect scaffolding for most of the different types of things we were thinking of as a culminating project. The entries could be the basis for many different types of more formal, traditional writing. English teachers, feel free to comment. Golbs would also be an excellent way to track the research students need to do for their utopias, and for their thesis on red team (see the next post on theses). I'm really eager to see if teaching students to put in links to their sources will help them understand citations better. I just have this feeling that making that physical link and having it take the reader to the actual source will make the whole process of citations less abstract.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Black Tie and Tails?

I've been trying to figure out how "formal" writing should be on a blog, especially as I begin to think about how I will use blogs in my classroom. I revised my first post: An Inconvenient Truth and sent it to the Lewiston Daily Sun as a letter to the editor. The process of writing essentially the same thing in two different formats for two different audiences made me think a lot without coming to any definite conclusions. In Coming of Age: An Introduction to the New Worldwide Web, David Warlick writes: "The difference that students see in blogging is that it is much less about writing as a set of rules, and much more about communicating." I actually felt far more aware of "rules" and the implications for breaking them when I wrote my blog post than when I wrote my letter to the editor. I knew what was and what was not appropriate to say in the letter; I didn't call anyone a crank, for instance, whereas before I published my post, my husband asked me all sorts of complicated questions about how anonymous I wanted to remain, questions for which I did not have an immediate answer.

In his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms Will Richardson points out that blogs have "obvious relevance" in almost all of the 12 NCTE standards (p. 33). On the other hand, an English teacher at my school believes standards such as the NCTE or the New Standards do not address newer types of writing. The question remaining in my mind then, is: which is it? Does blog writing require a new set of rules, criteria, standards, or what have you, or is it just the same thing in a new package? From my own experience this past week, I would have to say that blog writing feels more like its own unique thing, the skills for which must be taught and learned as methodically as we teach or learn more traditional types of writing.

Monday, June 4, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

It seems some of the residents of my hometown, Farmington, Maine are having a little bit of trouble discerning the facts surrounding the production of "Hurricane of Change," a joint collaboration of Foothills Arts Center and the Mt. Blue Middle School music department, directed by Anne Geller. The show about global warming and related topics was researched and written by seventh and eighth graders at the middle school as part of their after-school program funded by a 21st century grant. Students brainstormed topics and discussed their own experiences with environmental changes in the Farmington area, did research on global warming, then developed a script, wrote the songs, and created the giant puppets that were part of the production.

I was appalled by the reporting of the event by the Lewiston Daily Sun. Ann Bryant inaccurately portrayed the show as one on which students did "some work," and then proceeded to cover only one side of the controversy--the cranks who feel the traditional middle school spring concert was hijacked by left wing liberals. I'm curious that she could not find one single supporter of the show to quote from an audience of 600. While Bryant did quote Geller, she appears to have relied for the most part on a letter to the editor from J. Dwight in the Daily Bulldog for her [mis]information. (Do I need to comment on proper journalism here, or how to determine if a site is trustworthy--things I teach my juniors and seniors in high school??)

Anne Geller is my mother. She has spent thirty years, the vast majority of them unpaid, working to improve education for all children in SAD 9. Twenty five years ago, long before NCLB was conceived, my mother worked tirelessly for an enrichment program open to all students only to see it transformed into a gifted/talented program once a director was hired. She is soley responsible for the district's amazing string program. In fact, if it weren't for her, the audience for "Hurricane of Change" would not only have been sitting in the dark, they would have been sitting in silence. The cranks who are complaining that Geller hijacked their kids' performance are the exact same people who used to go to budget meetings and vote to cut the arts.

I'm beginning to remember why I hated every single minute I spent at Mt. Blue Junior High (now the middle school).

Even though much of the rhetoric used by the naysayers is familiar to me from my days in Farmington, I found the diatribe surrounding this particular issue particularly mean-spirited. I'm afraid it is part of the legacy of eight years of Karl Rove's machinations. Ever since Bush took office, our freedoms and the forums from which to criticize our leadership have been curtailed so much so that the press can barely report that they are being curtailed. The Bush White House has made people forget that one of the freedoms we're spending billions to establish halfway around the world is the freedom to express oneself. These people who are bashing the kids' show are the ones who are endangering our democratic traditions, not my mother.

Funny that the people who yell loudest about democracy are the least democratic, and the ones (often the same ones) who yell loudest about being Christian are the least Christian. How Christian is it to harass and threaten your neighbor with a horsewhipping?

The real victim(s) in all this is not my mother, who can certainly stand up for herself, but the students whose show this was. Unlike high achievers who will just put on a show if they're told they're going to put on a show, lower level learners (who are the target of the 21st century after-school program as part of NCLB) won't produce unless they are invested in the process. They couldn't have done the show unless it came from their hearts. Not from my mother's heart, their hearts. These kids have done something really great, maybe for the first time in their lives, and for the umpteen millionth time in their lives, someone has to come along and say they did something wrong, again.