Friday, January 28, 2011

The Digital Divide of Usage Instead of Access

About two weeks ago, I was working with my English language arts class on a literary analysis essay they were peer editing. One student's partner had to leave class early, so I encouraged the two of them to work together at home electronically via email or some other program; one of the students replied, "Yeah, no problem, we can just do it over Skype."

Right about that same time, this article appeared in the Denver Post in which it reported on the use of the internet by minority populations. Even though the article focused on race, I suspect there is a certain amount of socioeconomics that factors in as well, particularly since it refers to the use of smartphones and the like to access the internet which are much less expensive than a computer, particularly if given the choice between a phone with internet access included or a computer with internet access as a financial add-on. While a smartphone can get you online, you can still do more online with an actual computer, and that seemingly small difference is actually pretty huge.

I think part of the issue is also simply training and awareness of the potential represented by an online presence. The potentialities for the relay of information became incredibly apparent during the recent State of the Union speech by President Obama. As has been the case for many years now, there was a simple television broadcast carried by the various networks. However, for anyone with an online presence and who was interested, the experience became completely and totally different. The White House had a live streaming feed alongside of which was space alloted for graphs, images and so forth (The tag line: "Watch and Engage.") After the speech, various members of the White House staff took questions via Twitter and Facebook.

The Sunlight Foundation not only had a live stream of the speech via C-Span, but also had a live blog going on via Cover It Live with various journalists and others posting comments; questions; links to sites, files, and videos as a means to "fact check" the speech even as it was occurring as well as a live Twitter feed and posting of graphs and the like on the page as well. Anyone without internet access or who was busy watching cute kittens on YouTube was out of the conversation and denied the access to the information that was being shared. Now more than ever, it holds true that those without an online presence are simply not a part of the conversation.

It is not enough to teach our students how to use Power Point or how to use a word processing program. It is not enough to tell them about Facebook or Twitter. We must teach them how to use these (and other) tools to their advantage; we must show them the potentialities of the web beyond entertainment. We must close the new digital divide.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The tender heart of teaching

Well, it has been far too long since I've updated this for sure. I've certainly not been slacking; if anything, I've been learning more this year than I have in a long time. After 22 years of secondary level teaching (20 at the high school level, 2 at the middle school level) teaching (primarily) third and fourth grade is almost a complete career change. While I do have a sixth and seventh grade English language arts class (which I absolutely enjoy), I spend most of my day working with much younger students.

The biggest difference is in the day to day interaction with my students  (at both levels). One of the aspects I've developed over the years of working with high school students is a somewhat protective "shell" over my inner self, as have the students. Sincere glimpses into my inner life or that of my students at the high school level were rare; I mostly developed a rather facetious attitude in many ways, finding that a dose of flippancy was sufficient for many situations around that more vulnerable Self.

Not so with younger students. Elementary and most of my middle school students are much more open, much more honest, than my high school students were, and I am unable to fall back on my previous behaviors. I find myself opening myself up a bit more than I have in the past. An "I love having you as a teacher" at the high school level could be met with a "Yeah, yeah...thanks, but you still have to do your homework" or some other such remark (accompanied by a smile); the student would get the point that I appreciated the comment but I was still left somewhat "protected" as it were. With younger students, I find that a smile and thanks is far more appropriate; younger students tend to not pick up on some of the cues that older students are able to read.

I read The Book Thief with my middle school students recently. The end of the book is rather emotionally intense, and I have yet to make it through without some sort of visceral reaction. In previous readings with classes, I assign that section as homework then hold a completely academic discussion about the end, with a passing comment of "yeah, I cried" and leaving it at that. This year was different. The class opted to read the end together, and for the first time, students actually saw me experiencing a response to literature that extended beyond the typical pedantic English teacher response. It took some doing for me to do that as well as discussions with several of my colleagues, some of whom didn't understand my struggle...until placed into context of "oh're used to working with high school students."

This year is the year I've exposed my tender heart of teaching. It's been one of the most intense and scary years I've had since I began teaching, and in many, many ways, one of the most rewarding. And yet I can't help but wonder in retrospect if perhaps my students at the high school level would have been better served by my allowing myself to be a bit more vulnerable. As teachers, especially at the high school level, we spend a great deal of time discussing compassion, empathy, and connecting with literature and literary characters while failing to extrapolate those skills into relationships with human beings. We assume that the students will do that  on their own by default yet fail to realize that unless students are encouraged and even shown by example, they are unlikely to move in that direction. And so for many students, literature remains dead; nice stories, some better than others, but for many, what they read is likely forgotten shortly after they have finished reading it precisely because they have failed to bring it into their lives. I do it, we think, so of course they do, right? Not necessarily. Not unless we are able to risk bringing what we are teaching alive for them. As teachers, it behooves us to allow ourselves to be openly touched by literature and to allow others to see it touch us.

As I read the end of The Book Thief with my students, I could feel the eyes of virtually every student in the room on me, especially the boys, watching my reactions and my struggles with the more intense sections. For those keeping track, engagement was at an extreme high, and not just because of the story itself, but because I was allowing myself to be exposed, I was letting students see that literature can cause a reaction, and perhaps that it should. We later discussed my reactions; some students said they didn't feel anywhere the same level that I did; we discussed why and how readers connect with characters, we discussed the tools authors use to develop those relationships with readers. We discussed literature as a warm, living, art form rather than as a cold, dead thing on a metallic laboratory table ready for dissection. No mere lifeless frog, literature for us breathed and bled; it beckoned us in and came alive. It was one of the more rewarding discussions I've had in my years of teaching.

And so now I begin the second half of my first year as a 23 year veteran first year teacher. I am looking forward to the continued growth; I am looking forward to returning to the roots and essence of being a teacher.