Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why I Want to Teach Freshman English

I've known for a while that I wanted to teach freshman English, but I hadn't yet been able explain why, at least in short and simple terms. A recent conversation brought about a metaphor to explain my reasoning.

The English teacher who teaches honors English or AP English is a stone polisher. They take a finely cut stone and make it shine. The freshman English teacher is the gem cutter though. They are the ones who pulled the diamond out of the rough.

I'd like to be involved in the entire process, but if I had to choose, I'd cut gems any day of the week.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Facebook, Education, and Cyberbullying

It seems that a lot of my posts involve facebook and now I'm going to talk about it yet again. I have found another reason why it isn't in my best interest to be friends with students on social networking sites such as facebook. As you may know, many employers use facebook to snoop in on their employees. Schools are no different and some schools including the one I'm at, access facebook in order to gather information about inappropriate or illicit behavior from students. In order to do this though, they need some sort of in, meaning a student or faculty member who is friends with the student on facebook and willing to share that information. Let me blunt, I would not be willing to participate in those types of investigations.

An important part about being a teacher is building a trusting relationship with students. I can't in good conscious build this sort of rapport knowing that I may be asked to use this trust in order to access student's facebook profiles for investigative purposes. I suppose I could just refuse the administration access, but that wouldn't sit well with me either. The other option would be not telling my administration that I was friends with students on facebook which would also violate my principles. There needs to be a level of transparency to what you do. I'm not saying that you need to be the perfect teacher at all times or that you discuss every detail of your teaching with your administration, but if you are asked about goes on in your classroom or in what manner you are interacting with your students, you should be able to justify your actions.

In regards to my students lives and facebook, what I don't know, I can't reveal. My attitude is that I should maintain some distance from my students' lives. I don't want to know the details of their hookups or alcohol binges. Hell, I know they happen, but I rather not have to play the role of the narc. If I did know the information, I would feel obligated to report it.

This whole issue becomes further complicated when we consider the issue of cyberbullying. Schools are being urged to not tolerate cyberbullying, but how do we do this without violating privacy? At the moment, I think the best option is education about the issue. Students should be made aware what cyberbullying is and what one can do to stop it. Students also need to be made aware of how their actions live on in the internet forever. In the days of gossipy notes and writing on the bathroom wall, those pieces of evidence could be erased and destroyed. This is not true with the internet.

I see schools acting in the role of conflict mediator. If a student wants to volunteer their information in regards to how they are being ill-treated by classmates online, then that that's their prerogative. However, I don't think schools should be acting as the policeman or investigators for these actions. Just because we're faculty and administration doesn't mean we can't put on a great witchhunt.

I have a slightly different attitude toward attacks made on the internet while at school, regardless of if a student is using a school computer or internet connection. In that case, I see schools as within their right to review web history and actions made. It's impossible to ban a website because students can use proxy websites to get around the ban. To be safe, schools and teachers should monitor student internet use and have them sign a technology user agreement in regards to what is and isn't appropriate use.

I suppose this is just another reminder of the dangers of mixing your social circles when there is a disparity in power and authority. Of course, I can still see advantages to being friends with your students on facebook. If a student were to write a suicide note or death threat, then being friends with a student could potentially save lives. However, it's more likely that another student would see the note and report it. It's a cost benefits analysis for me. If I were to be friends with students on facebook, it would be for an educational purpose, not social. I wouldn't really want to look through their pictures or read their notes and comments.

In summary, I refuse to be used as a tool for investigating students. If something life threatening was happening and a student was talking about a school shooting or killing themselves, then I see that as a probable cause for the school to search cyberspace. Bring the student into the office and have them sign into their account. If they don't want to cooperate, then turn them over to police for official questioning. However, leave me and other teachers out of that sort of investigation. I don't want to be used as a front line defense to find and report student behavior. Hopefully, schools would use approved protocol, but if they decided to skip a step or two, and gather information through more shadowy methods, then it certainly wouldn't be my facebook account or integrity they used.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Failing Your Students into Achievement

People who never experience failure or difficulty in their early life, have a habit of crashing hard later in life when they are faced with challenges. Not developing any sort of resilience is detrimental to personal growth and the only way to develop this sort of personal fortitude is through failure. As Bruce Wayne's father says in Batman Begins, "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."

Students who never fall, never learn to pick themselves up. With that in mind, I wanted to talk about the power of controlled failure. Design a lesson where the intention is for the students to fail at it. Whether you tell them that your objective is to have them fail is really up to you. Afterwards, have the students share their failed ventures as a class and discuss how one can convert failure into success. What changes can be made to remedy the situation? Or, now that we've failed, where do we go from here? By having students fail in a somewhat controlled manner, students will be better able to handle future roadblocks. Instead of just lying on the ground and giving up, students will know that there is another option out there.

The thing is, students will fail to achieve all the time. Some students are quite used to it, while others have never tasted the bitterness of defeat. This type of activity helps both ends of the spectrum. It helps the students who have never failed experience a reality of life and it helps students who struggle know that there are alternatives. If you aren't comfortable with designing something where your students fail, go ahead and fail at something yourself and then discuss with the class how things could have improved. Come on, we've all had lessons flop on us? Did you just curl into the fetal position behind your desk or did you try something new to remedy the situation?

As teachers, our job isn't to pick up our students when they fall, but to show that they can get up themselves and move on. It's the difference between between guiding a rope and pulling a rope. The person who has been guided will eventually learn the paths and nuances, but the person who has been pulled, won't be able to find their own inertia to start.

I'm a pragmatic teacher and I don't expect every GLE or CLE or NCTE standard to stick like glue with my students, but if they can mature into responsible, self-guided adults, then I haven't failed completely as a teacher.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Facebook Friendly Education?

As you may recall, I've already stated my opinion that teachers should be wary about being facebook friends with students because it creates a disparity in the student/teacher power structure. This is more true with younger teachers who are having to deal with challenges to their role as an authority figure.

A new bill is being introduced into the Missouri congress that would ban teachers from being friends with students in these social networking sites. The bill's sponsor Rep. Jane Cunningham (R) says, "We're trying to make sure parents know that there is not private communication that is blocked from that student's parents or other school staff or administration." In short, it's for safety/PR/covering their ass reasons.

I'm personally against this type of bill. There are some teachers who use Facebook as a means of communication with students in responsible manners. They start groups for clubs and as a reminder for upcoming events. Facebook communication really isn't off limits to the courts and records of conversations between students and teachers could be subpoenaed and used. In short, a teacher would have to be pretty stupid to use Facebook inappropriately in that manner.

I suppose I should amend my previous position. Young teachers who have facebook profiles already shouldn't be facebook friends with students using that profile. If they want to set up an alternative profile just for school, then that might work out better. I personally don't want my student's writing on the same wall that my friends do.

I still don't plan on friending my students through either my actual profile or through a proxy profile any time soon. In the actual classroom, I'm more open to redefining the roles of student and teacher as I believe any good teacher is a learner and that any student has the potential to be a teacher in a self-directed classroom. However, in the social networking community, I rather leave those distinctions where they are. I'm willing to be a student's mentor or friend, so as long as the actions don't usurp my primary role as the teacher.

Edit: After thinking about it for a while on my drive to the Write to Learn conference today I decided that facebook friending students should only be done if there is some educational benefit from it. Otherwise, stay away.

Online Highschool Newspapers

I do not want to be a newspaper adviser, at least as things are now. Print journalism is dying. It's a noble medium but the internet has surpassed the printing press. As advertisers catch on to this simple fact, expect more and more daily newspapers to go under. It's happening already as major newspapers such as the Washington Post and L.A. times cut staff members. Asking me if I want to be the newspaper adviser is like asking if I'd like to be a deckhand for the Titanic. No thanks, but I've seen the movie and I know how it ends.

I'm no stranger to journalism, at least at the high school and collegiate level. I was the editor in chief of my high school paper and I wrote for my college newspaper as a columnist for 2.5 years before quiting in disgust in regards to editorial direction. As such, I know that journalistic writing is an important skill to teach, but I think the time has come for high school journalism to be a bit more proactive and head to the digital realm. My High School Journalism hosts 660 high school papers online and it's a step in the right direction. Forgive the fact that the site layout for these cookie cutter online papers is about as exciting as standardized testing, because at least they're trying to move into the 21st century. One thing to keep in mind though is that these online papers are not the primary medium. It's a supplement for the printed paper, a handmaiden to the old traditions.

There are a few advantages to publishing online. The most important one for any journalist is timeliness. Newspapers that publish weekly or monthly suffer from the fact that their news is rather old and stale by the time it gets printed. An online high school paper could have students reporting on events as they unfold. Another benefit would be cost. Printing newspapers is expensive. Ink and paper cost so very much. With an online paper you have server costs to worry about, but ad revenue and budgeted money could offset that. As well as low costs and timely news, online papers would also have a broader base of appeal in the community as a whole and for alumni.

I suppose I am somewhat of an advocate for online technology in general, so that bleeds over into online publishing as well. Speaking as something of an outsider/insider in the world of journalism, I believe that in the next five years, the following things need to start happening in the realm of high school journalism:

Teaching New Design Skills
Start teaching website design in conjunction with graphic design. If students can master Indesign and Pagemaker, then they can handle Dreamweaver. Flash and Java can come later, (and often look tacky) so we might as well concentrate on html and the basics. In all honesty, many students are better with these programs than the teachers, so it might be best to let them handle the training.

Journalism Community
I know, there are communities out there already, but high school journalism staffs need to stay connected online. Some sort of directory of high school papers, both online and offline would be great. In smaller communities, schools could pool their resources and have several schools publish on one online paper. Heck, I think that could work well in larger communities too.

Blog It Up.

Professional papers make use of bloggers on staff to contribute commentary and perspective to issues. In a web 2.0 world, blogging makes sense for the high school community. Blogs are a medium with which the average student is familiar. Let's take advantage of that.

Student Editors
Every high school paper has student editors, but not every paper has a system which trains and supports good student editors. With the flexibility of publication that online publishing would bring, student editors will play a very important role in deciding what events are newsworthy and deserve immediate publication and attention. It will also require a larger degree of autonomy, unless the newspaper adviser wants to micro-mange everything. That is a recipe for insanity though.

Goodbye Darkroom
Digital cameras have already more or less taken over for film in many areas. I still prefer film myself. There's just a certain magic that film captures that a memory card does not. However, it's a much faster process of uploading pictures when the camera is digital. In addition to digital film, students should be trained in the uses of photoshop and adobe illustrator. Furthermore, we must discuss with students the ethics of photo alteration. When is it in poor taste and when does it enhance the subject?

Freedom of the Press
This is both the easiest to solve, but the hardest to change. Without freedom of the press, web 2.0 is dead. You might as well shackle high school journalists to the anchor that is print journalism and forget the whole thing if freedom of the press isn't allowed. At the moment, many high school journalists are being dragged to the icy depths since free press isn't guaranteed to all high school journalists. Content and publishing is up to the discretion of the administration at many schools. The internet, especially online news and journalism does not work that way. I'm not saying that there aren't checks from editors, but online journalism requires room to work. Of course, if the administration wants to approve everything a student writes, I'd be happy to have them approve every single article before it goes online, though I'd require my students read it to them over the phone.

Change moves slowly in the educational system. I don't expect any of these changes to happen on a national scale for a while, but they'll happen eventually. I don't mean to pretend that the print paper will completely go extinct, but if we continue to insist to use it in high schools while the professionals abandon the medium, then we'll be training future journalists in obsolete methods. We don't teach fighter pilots how to fly biplanes before they actually fly jets and we shouldn't have students publishing in print papers if their older contemporaries publish online.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Not so Flattering

It's tempting to ignore things that reflect poorly on your teaching when you're writing a blog, but when I started this project, I decided I wanted to be honest and open about my experience. With that in mind, I'd like to share something a student wrote about me in the classroom. The assignment was to rewrite something they wrote from the perspective of another person. This student chose me and the view he presented isn't flattering for either of us:

"Dale (name changed) I hate you, you truble making kid. Your Just gona be a pice of crap garbage guzzler when you grow up. That is if you get out of the pen. I will hate paying Taxes because they will go to feeding you in Jail. they should feed feed you moldy bread and let rats in your frame of a bed." (spelling and grammar mistakes were left)

Now this is a student who I get along with fairly well. He isn't very motivated to work and I have to tell him to be quiet and to behave himself on a daily basis. He's funny and apologetic when he does something he knows he isn't supposed to do, but he'll do the same action again without fail. He just never learns to quit. His disruptions have gotten better as the year has gone on, but he's still a handful in class.

I'm not sure if this is how he really thinks I see him or if this is his attempt at humor. I've never suggested that he was going to prison. In the past, I have tried to tell him that I could see him being successful someday. In another story he said that he would probably die in a drunk driving accident and I said I didn't think he would.

I'm not sure if this perception has to do with the fact that I have to remind him to adjust his behavior everyday or if he really thinks that I see him as a worthless person. If that's so, I'm disappointed in myself for not dissuading that perception. As a teacher, you have to balance being a supportive role model, and being an authority figure that requires respect. I feel as though I'm loose enough with my discipline as it is and to go any further would break the tenuous hold I have on the classroom management. I prefer rapport over the rod, but I have to draw the line somewhere and with Dale, I've had to draw it on a regular basis. Most likely Dale is going to forget this, but it's giving me something to reflect upon as the week progresses.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

I didn't know you wrote...

It's been a long time since I've written here, almost a month in fact. Were it not for the fact that the number of readers for this blog is so low, I would feel a bit guilty. In any case, things have been progressing normally. Second semester is going smoothly. Since I've last written, I caught the flu which knocked me out of commission for two days straight. It was a pretty horrible time especially since I tried to go in to teach during the first day. Other than that, things have been great.

I experienced an eventful moment in teaching just last night. I had gate duty for a basketball tournament so it basically meant that I took money. However, since I was at a door where so few visitors came in, I didn't really have much to do. I mostly sat there for 3 hours listening to the maudlin lamenting of one of my 7th graders who is currently heartbroken because the girl he likes isn't interested. It was kind of endearing, though it got old after the first hour. After a while, the student asked if I wanted to read his dream journal. This surprised me because this is a student who complains vocally before, during, and after every writing assignment. You would think that I was pulling his shoulder out of the socket given the amount that he protests. However, here he was, showing me his dream journal which was filled with a rather detailed record of his nightly adventures.

I was pleased that he decided to share something so private with me, but also a bit disappointed in myself that I had written him off as someone who would never enjoy writing. Apparently, he had already found a mode of expression for his writing and the activities I had planned in school never seemed to fulfill his desire to write. It was a small reminder that the will to write can come from different inspirations and apparently even the most resistant student can find a outlet for expression through writing.

I'll have to keep this in mind as I design future lessons.