Category Archives: Media Literacy

It’s Not All Black & White When It Comes to Fertilizer

I was not expecting the first paragraph of Bill Gates’ plan to save the world to focus on fertilizer. Or really the whole first page. Turns out he is a little obsessed with it:

I am a little obsessed with fertilizer. I mean I’m fascinated with its role, not with using it. I go to meetings where it’s a serious topic of conversation. I read books about its benefits and the problems with overusing it. It’s the kind of topic I have to remind myself not to talk about too much at cocktail parties, since most people don’t find it as interesting as I do.

He finds its fascinating as an invention that has had a positive impact on human life, likening it to the polio vaccine.

Let me reiterate this: A full 40 percent of Earth’s population is alive today because, in 1909, a German chemist named Fritz Haber figured out how to make synthetic ammonia.

I bristled a little when I read this. As a part-time farmer who lives in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, I am biased towards hating synthetic fertilizer. Run off causes algae blooms that shade the sun and create huge problems for aquatic life.

But Gates does mention the problems of overuse and he seems like someone who would be interested in environmental concerns so I felt like I needed to do some follow up. What I found out was what I seem to continue to find out about most issues: there is no black and white answer when it comes to fertilizer. Certainly, in our country is it overused probably because it is cheap and readily available and we have decided that green lawns are an object of desire. But in developing countries with poor soil, according to Hunger Math, fertilizer can increase crop yields and that could mean the difference between life and death for those farmers who are raising the food to feed their families.

In other words, we shouldn’t deny artificial commercial fertilizer to the developing world merely out of a concern for the environment. Organic food production may result in healthier food and lower impact on the environment, but the needs of the hungry outweigh those values. First, feed the world.

They go on to suggest that the use of fertilizer might actually be “good” for the environment because by allowing each acre to produce more food, less land will need to be farmed:

The 150 million ha that would need to be fertilized, for one crop only per year, to end world hunger, is only about 10% of the total agricultural land. If we could obtain 2 fertilized crops per year from that land, we would only need to fertilize 5% of the agricultural land.

This all makes sense and feeding people should certainly be a priority. Of course, using fertilizer is only one of many potential solutions to be explored for alleviating world hunger, but if it can save lives, that IS more important than environmental impact. But, only to a point. Synthetic fertilizers do harm the environment. So, as with most of these kinds of sticky problems, we need to find the middle way. Using fertilizers where they can make a real difference but also being sure to help farmers learn sustainable techniques so that they can move in the direction of more earth-friendly agriculture.

Beyond learning something about world hunger, my little foray into fertilizer was a reminder of how much information we have available to us. When we wonder about something, we don’t have to live with that wonder until we can get to a book or talk to some expert. Instead, we can fact check Bill Gates on the spot. Gates doesn’t provide any footnotes so it’s up to us to figure out the truthiness of what he is writing. The exercise required close reading on my part, a focus of Common Core, and then the ability to frame my question, search for answers, and evaluate the sources providing those answers. Part of that evaluation was understanding that two of my sources–Hunger Math and Organic Valley–have their own biases that swing them to one side of the fertilizer question. The answer to “Is fertilizer good or bad?” is very similar to the answer to “Are charters schools good or bad?” or “Are interactive whiteboards good or bad?”: it depends.


Sometimes It’s the Journey

I was prepared to write a blog post recommending Ted Bell’s Nick McIver series as great reads for middle schoolers…historical fiction with a little time travel thrown in. Maybe a little violent but in the swashbuckling tradition. They are set on the Guernsey Islands at the start of WW II but take us back to other great historical battles. In Nick of Time, we meet Lord Nelson just a few weeks before Trafalgar, and in The Time Pirate, we stand with George Washington at the Battle of Yorktown. The second volume would be a great addition to an American history class.

There’s the recommendation…here’s the journey. Along with the review, I was going to post a list of links related to WW II and the Revolutionary War as part of my Diigo posts. I’m still going to do that but as you browse the links, you’ll see the  journey I took from checking out these animated maps to learning about the Battle of Gallipoli (which, for the record, is a WW I battle but was the brain child of Winston Churchill) to checking out even more interactive maps to thinking about the definition of genocide.

The interactive maps are examples of the way media can bring history alive. As I was reading about Gallipoli, I was thinking how useful a map would be and was a little relieved to discover that I wasn’t going to have to create it myself.

But the definitions demonstrate a much more profound use of the Web: opening the world of ideas and debate to our students. As I read about Turkey’s plan to keep Australian officials from attending the 100th anniversary, I thought about the treatment of native peoples’ around the world. Why wasn’t that genocide? Turns out there is disagreement about the definition and its application despite the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the United Nations in December 1948.

Meanwhile, how did I know I had reached the end of my journey? It took me here.




Getting Some Perspective

It seems we cannot blame social media for the shoddy performance of news outlets last week. They’ve always done a poor job with breakout news, at least according to Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. His description of the reporting of John F. Kennedy’s assassination includes lots of similarities to the Boston bombing from identifying innocent people as suspects to declaring arrests when none had occurred.

The difference, of course, is the ubiquitous nature of media in our lives. Sabato points out that most people were at work or school when the shooting occurred and wouldn’t have had access to the news. So, they missed the initial erroneous reports. I think, however, that Sabato misses the more crucial difference: the people who heard the erroneous reports could only spread them so far…perhaps over the back fence or by telephone to a friend. They couldn’t tweet and retweet and like and share, editing along the way to fit into 140 characters, or creating their own false reports that were then picked up by the media as truth.

I think Sabato offers sound advice:

Media gaffes and goofs should not be easily excused, since commendable restraint — occasionally, simple silence — is the obvious remedy. There should be a penalty for a big error, even if it is only severe criticism.

A simple statement: “here is what we know for fact and here is what we’re still checking out” would help give viewers perspective as they navigate the chocking flow of information. It allows news outlets to have it both ways: report the hearsay but make sure everyone knows it for what it is.

Thinking About Media After the Marathon

I’ll start by thanking Chris and Melissa Bugaj for re-energizing my enthusiasm for podcasts. I used to listen to lots of podcasts but, for some unknown reason, stopped. Maybe it was just media overload, or switching to iOS from Android. After participating in the recent VSTE webinar (scroll down to find the archive) on integrating audio in the classroom, I installed the Podcasts app on my phone and iPad and added a few podcasts to my library.

On of my previous favorites had been On The Media, a program sponsored by WNYC. Brooke Gladstone takes an engaging, reflective approach to the workings of the media, often interviewing journalists involved in the week’s news about how and why they did the things they did. Not surprisingly, this week Brooke focused on the Boston Marathon bombings and the somewhat shoddy performance of the media in their seeming willingness to abandon long established principles such as confirming stories with multiple sources in order to beat others to the story. They reported erroneous information rather than wait to make sure it was correct because if they got it right, they would be heroes and if they got it wrong, they could just blame fluidity of the situation. That excuse ignores the important role of the formal media in our live: we rely on them to get the story right before they tell it.

But, there seems to be a very fuzzy line these days between journalists and bloggers and tweeters with journalists being lured away from their role as the nation’s fact checkers. Reporters are monitoring police dispatchers and, according to On The Media, those dispatchers were actually monitoring Twitter and reporting on things they heard. It became a closed loop where no one was doing any fact checking at all.

And, of course, there were the fake twitter accounts from the bombers that immediately got reported as real messages.

The program is worth a listen and, I hope, will prompt discussion about the role we all play in the exchange of information. Meanwhile, Slate offers some good advice about what to do the next time there is a breaking story. I’m planning to finally read Proust.

The Middle Way

The faculty and staff at St. Michael’s College is on a technology fast, giving up cell phones, email and the like for the week to have a chance to reflect on their use of digital media. The article gives examples of similar movements, including a comedian who went web-less for a whole year, and I was reminded of the “turn off the TV” campaign we did at my middle school back in the 90s.  I also found myself  substituting different words for the digital media; for instance, I have something of  a “reading addiction” so wondered if I needed to go on a “book fast,” as a way to reconnect with others and examine my seemingly endless need to absorb written text.

I have no complaint with these “disconnect to reconnect” movements.  We fall into habits and only by stepping outside them can we see how they might be causing harm. But the question not addressed in the article is about what kind of changes result from these fasts.  If it’s like my own attempts to give up chocolate for Lent, then not much long term change happens.  I’m grumpy for a few days, eventually get used to not eating it, but when Easter morning dawns, I breakfast on a chocolate bunny and bring chocolate back into my life. I wonder if it is similar for these fasters: we put aside the cell phones and iPads and video games for a few days, but once the fast is over, return to a life of texting and talking and emailing without applying any of the supposed insights we gained.

If the goal is to establish a better relationship to digital media then fasting doesn’t seem to be the right answer.  Instead, we might consider the Buddha who, after living a life of wealth, then living a life of austerity, chose his final path to be the Middle Way, one of moderation in all things.  Rather than an all or nothing approach of a fast, this might mean setting particular times when you are online versus offline.  So, you drop into Twitter for an hour in the morning and afternoon, or you make a list of particular emails to send and answer and when the list is completed, you close your client and move on.  Leave your cell phone in the car when you go into dinner.  Turn it off when you gather with friends. Choose a day out of the week when you are not digitally available.  It seems to me that these are practices that will lead to more long term change and a better overall relationship with media, certainly a lesson that will help both us and our students as we move into an increasingly connected age.