I am not giving up

This post is a response to a wonderful educator from Saskatchewan who has written a very thoughtful piece on his blog expressing his frustration with his or his district’s battle to wean students from Youtube and Facebook. Let me preface what I’m going to say by letting you know that I teach middle school students about technology and I began with a charge to teach 7th & 8th graders digital citizenship a couple of years ago.

I also teach in a computer lab that was designed by someone who wasn’t teaching. It’s got rows of computers and the chairs all have wheels and the floor is hardwood. Every time a child fidgets in a seat there is a noise. When we have 15 to 17 students in the room it can get very distracting. If I was going to redesign the room I’d remove most of the computers and replace them with bean bag cushions some iPad and/or Android tablets and a few desktop Macs. My room would be bit less noisy the students would learn more and they’d be more comfortable and it would be a space that is more creative. I’d also remove the window shades and add a couple of skylights.

I’m a lifelong learner and teacher. I started teaching my brother when we were in pre-school and when I got old enough I used to make up tests for him with my Dad’s old mechanical typewriter.  Moodle is a dramatic improvement over that arrangement. I’m curious by nature and I’m almost always reading something. In the pre-internet days if I couldn’t find a good book I’d curl up with an encyclopedia. I’ve taken encyclopedias to lunch and to the restroom with me. I had the good fortune to grow up next to a public library and I lived in that place when I wasn’t in school or doing chores around the house.

I did reasonably well in school, but unlike my brother and sister I was not a valedictorian. I failed algebra, geometry and trigonometry. I excelled at spelling, but continue to struggle with grammar. I love to read and I loved American history. I liked science but had nothing to do with computers even in the punch card days because of my frustration with mathematics. I found school interesting at times but boring much of the time and much of my day was spent looking out the window. Much of what I loved to do they didn’t teach in school.  My teachers liked me. Even the math teachers liked me. It wasn’t lack of effort in mathematics. I spent hours with my Mom who has a masters degree in mathematics. I couldn’t “see” math. I’m a visual learner and it wasn’t until I was teaching a young man geometry using Apple LOGO that I had an epiphany about that area of my life.  As an undergrad I excelled at statistics and I still find statistics are far more interesting field than other forms of mathematics.

When I went to school there was a more of less discrete body of knowledge. Information was more difficult to come by. There was no Google or Yahoo and when I wanted more information which was nearly all the time I had to spend hours in the library or write the Library of Congress which I did once upon a time.  School then as now was really about socialization. It’s about learning too but when I think back to those days at St. Pius X, Archbishop Walsh and Pioneer Central I remember people not facts. I remember relationships and common experiences. I remember Mother Emily bursting into our sixth grade classroom to tell us President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I remember Mr. Douglas’ wonderful American history class that almost everyone loved because of his wonderful stories.  I graduated from high school with a 92.5 average and membership in the National Honor Society. I had a Regents Scholarship. I had a high verbal and low math score on the SAT. Today those numbers are only memories and almost meaningless. High school and even college are terrible predictors of future success.

Education is compulsory in the United States and Canada. Our students come to us not because they choose but because they must. They come to our classes from an endless variety of homes and cultures. Some are interested in learning what we have to offer but others are not too interested at all. They come from homes and and environments that are information rich and very social. Most 7th grade students are Facebook members even though they are not old enough. They are drawn to this medium for a variety of reason but most of them are social. Bullying and violence are a part albeit an unwelcome part of life. Man’s savagery to his fellows did not begin with the internet. Youtube is titillating for a variety of reasons. Children much like myself are curious and they are fascinated with games, Youtube and Facebook. Wouldn’t you love it if your students found your class as engaging as Facebook?

Educators used to be the gatekeepers of knowledge or at least they could make a better claim to that 40 years ago when I graduated from high school. Now, K-12 is a distraction for most students. Do we teach meaningful skills? Yes, we do! Who could function without reading or basic counting skills?  We have a captive audience who are required by law to attend our institutions. If education were a free market enterprise like McDonald’s we’d be forced to be a lot more creative. We’d spend more time trying to engage students in curricula meaningful to them rather than forcing them to learn what we value. We’d spend more time asking them if we are boring them and then re-tooling the processes to ensure that they are engaged.  Youtube and Facebook are social and that’s what people are by nature. We’re social creatures.  Our cafeteria is social, the drinking fountains are social and so are the after school activities.  You can filter the internet, you can remove all the wiring from your school too. You can trying locking the doors and nailing plywood over the windows too to focus their attention on your subject matter but it won’t solve all your problems and in the long run it will create an even greater dilemma.

We need to teach children and adults how to use technology for their good. The horse is out of the barn and nailing the door shut is only a temporary solution. Students don’t need our networks. Most of them have cell phones and they can message each other without our permission. They can access Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks without our knowledge or permission. It’s high time to re-think how we educate and deliver instruction. More interactive white boards and gadgets attached to boring content is like painting a turd.

There are ways to engage students and I’m spending much of my summer preparing content that will do that. I’m glad you wrote because you’ve helped me to focus much of what I’ve been thinking about.