Sunday, April 8, 2012

But It's Complicated...

So there I was at WEMTA (Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology  Association) listening to Rushton Hurley, the quite fabulous educational reformer / Japanese linguist / edtech enthusiast, while chatting via keyboard to other audience members in the room.

As he waxed poetic on what’s most needed in education today, my co-texters shared thoughts, Q&A’s and laughs, toying with his ideas, taking them in divergent directions, sharing quirky stuff we do in class: my fake mannequin hand as a SMART Board pointer won me some in-room popularity (these people actually thought I was hilarious - shared ideas and an ego boost to boot).

Rushton played a quirky video of Japanese Businessmen dancing. He simply asked: “What do you think of this?” A few dozen of us backchanneled about it as we watched it. Our chat was  intense and interesting and quick and smart, metaphors and analogies flying. When the clip was over, he asked us to talk about it with the people at our table. Some said a few words, but the texted chat during the video was far more rich than the table talk. Instead of 45 minutes of “sit and get,” by offering a backchanneling opportunity, Rushton turned my lunch into sustenance of body, mind and spirit as I listened, chatted, pondered and interacted.

And so I thought, what would a similar opportunity mean for students? The chance to share ideas, challenge each other, interact with the topic at hand during class instead of the “sit and get”?

Much is being written about the use of backchanneling and Twitter in the classroom to increase student engagement. Some say this is clearly the way to connect with students, it’s clearly their preferred mode of communication; others say it’s a distraction, allowing students to tune out and preventing them from concentrating on difficult concepts.

Much has also been written lately about the fallacy of multi-tasking. That while we would like to believe we can do many things simultaneously, the fact is that we trade doing a few things well for doing many things poorly. This is a problem.

I know that while I was eating lunch and listening to Rushton, I was wholly engaged thoroughly enjoying myself and at a heightened state of awareness. I was having fun.

I suspect if we were given a quiz after Rushton’s presentation, I would have scored lower than many in the room. I wasn’t hearing every word he said; backchanneling reduced my ability to accurately regurgitate, but it also increased the value of my experience, allowed me to co-construct meaning with others in the room, to process what he was saying, to figure out how it related to my experiences as an educator and how I could use it to improve my practice.

And isn’t that what 21st century learning is about? Leveraging information and gleaning real-world experience? And isn’t multitasking how our digital natives operate? And isn’t it our charge, then, to help them multitask more effectively, help them manage their world and function well within it?

Maybe it’s not an either/or; maybe there’s a compromise between the “sit and get” and Twitter  that would allow teachers to be fully heard and students to fully process. Harvard Educator Eric Mazur’s “Just in Time Teaching” comes to mind - offering short bursts of lecture followed by students immediately interacting and applying and questioning.

One thing is certain: we have more questions than answers in education today. We know what we’re doing isn’t working. We have ideas. We have energy, but we have more questions than we have answers.  We know we need to engage more authentically with students, we know we need to prepare them for an ever-changing and increasingly digital world. To do this, we need to change the paradigm, give up some of the control, embrace uncertainty, and forge ahead.  

But it’s complicated...

To Friend or Not To Friend

It’s not that I’m anti-Facebook.
It’s not that I’m anti-technology.

I encourage my students to use cell phones in class to discuss, research, write, but I have yet to find a sweet spot using Facebook with students.  Of course I know the Facebook No-No’s. I know better than to friend current students, but beyond that, the line gets fuzzy.

Three times I’ve dabbled in Facebook with students and three times I‘ve been burned:

  1. Strike One: two years ago, when recent graduates sent me a facebook invite, I accepted. It was fun staying in touch, seeing how they were doing in college, keeping my finger on the pulse of teendom.  But soon enough, I ran across a rant about my AP Class: too hard, too much reading, what did it have to do with real life anyway? I was surprised by my reaction – how much I took this to heart: ‘this” being my life, my livelihood. “This” being why I stay up way too late at night, why I bring a stack of papers with me everywhere I go, why I feel perpetual guilt for not spending enough time with my family. So I revised my Facebook policy: no “friending” former students until post-college age.
  2. Last year was strike two.  I violated my policy and let one recent grad slip in; a beloved student and the daughter of a friend and colleague. Things were fine until her friends realized that we were friends, and the requests started streaming in. Clearly I had to reestablish the line. Fresh out of my classroom, our teacher/student roles were too recent. And once friends with a recent grad, their friends (many who are still in high school) see my business. FB is a place where I want to be a non-teacher. If I feel ike ranting, I want to rant.
  3. Third Strike: This year, my beloved Freshmen blew my mind. I assigned a “This I Believe” essay modeled after the National Public Radio Show. It required that they write and read aloud an essay about what they believe. I had hoped this assignment would inspire the sublime – that it would force students to examine themselves and their world in a profound and meaningful way. This year, my 5th year of teaching “This I Believe’s,” it happened. After being touched by the work of one of their peers, who opened up about a deeply personal topic in her essay and courageously read it to the class, my freshmen, with no prompting from me, rewrote their essays – getting much more personal, opening up, writing about what matters most. They bound their essays, wrote me a cover letter that made me teary, and ceremoniously presented it to me in class. And so, when they told me they started a facebook page with their essays and invited me to join, I hesitated, talked it over with them, and ultimately joined, hoping to affirm and extend the inspiration they clearly had for writing and the camaraderie clearly forming . That was about two months ago. Today, a single comment posted on that page pierced the heart of their poorly-labeled “fearless leader”: “So guys, what are we going to do when we actually have to try hard to pass English next hear?” OUCH. BIG OUCH. ENORMOUS OUCH. These are accelerated students. I expect that they will have no problem passing. I expect them to strive for excellence on each assignment. I expect that my job is to encourage and nudge, not threaten or penalize.  And I would expect that I’d have thicker skin after 18 years of teaching.  And so, strike three, facebook is out.

Public and private spaces exist for a reason. With social media playing an increasingly powerful role in our culture, teachers must be deliberate in making and walking the public/private line.

There’s an inherent paradox in education: we are told to get to know our students, to personalize their educations, to appeal to their interests, but we’re also rightly told to leave our personal lives and biases outside the classroom and to maintain a professional distance. A tough balancing act.

Students need a place to blow off steam, to be themselves, to say things they can’t say in school. We need to give them their space and we need to accept that not every technology tool is effective and appropriate to use with students.

And so, farewell Facebook.