Category Archives: Media Literacy

Naming Things

I couldn’t find my phone this morning. Not plugged in. Not by my chair. So, I dialed the number and discovered it propped up against the kitchen window. I had used it yesterday for access to a recipe for Thanksgiving. There it was, spitting out the blues riffs that I had chosen for my home number, reminding me of the difficulty of names in this crossover, hybrid, multi-tasking age in which we live.

Earlier yesterday, that 3 X 4 inch piece of technology had been a camera, which I used to record the passing of the seasons as I walked the dog along the road to the winery.

This morning, I was looking for it because I needed it as a book to look up a quote to share with a friend.

Later, I will play sudoku and surf the web and listen to music.

Yet, we reduce it to one name: cell phone. And, we ban it, despite its potential to provide access to all the tools of education from textbooks to videos to pens. Because we can’t control it and schools have a responsibility to keep kids safe and we’ve seen plenty of examples where they’ve gotten in real trouble having unfettered access to the world. But there are also plenty of examples where grown ups haven’t done such a good job either. It’s THE media literacy issue that we need to discuss: consumer/producer/prosumer and the implications.

But even as I write the above, I wonder if we will miss this opportunity as well…the chance to make learning, working, and living all more humane enterprises. Anyone who knows even a little of the history of school reform understands that technology almost never drives real change. Instead, it gets incorporated into the existing structures of the system, maybe making small changes, but ultimately being changed itself.

But, at the risk of flying in the face of history, there seem to be larger forces at work here that are challenging our names for lots of things. Work: Changes in the way people access their jobs may lead them to question a school schedule that no longer matches their own. School: Easy access to educational resources makes it easier to imagine teaching your own children.

Even the word “teacher”…last Saturday I was part of a conference with pre-service teachers and I made an off hand comment about not being a real teacher. One of the 20-somethings looked at me and asked what I meant by that. I explained that while I was a teacher in many ways, since I didn’t teach the grueling schedule of a K-12 classroom teacher, I didn’t really consider myself a “real” teacher. I had it easy with my online courses, afternoon workshops and evening webinars. But, he insisted, I was a real teacher because I was doing the work of teaching. Just because I wasn’t adhering to a particular schedule or killing myself to try and meet impossible demands didn’t make a difference to him.

And, there it is: what will make the real difference in the future. Young people who are questioning everything about the world we have created and the way we have defined words like “work” and “school” and “fun.” His generation is the real force that, when joined with mobile multimedia technologies and other cultural shifts, will change definitions in ways we can’t even imagine.

The Power of Creativity

Most of us have probably heard Ken Robinson talking about creativity.  Yesterday, a story on National Public Radio underscored its importance in the lives of young people.  The subject of the story was the creation of “scraper bikes” in Oakland, California.  The reporter described how the fad spread because of a YouTube video: “The video spawned what is becoming a worldwide movement, even as it changed the lives of the young men who customized the bikes and made the video.” In fact, Tyrone Stephenson, Jr., who calls himself the Scraper Bike King, credits the creation of the bikes with saving his life: “Because I was at a young age, getting into a lot of serious trouble, selling drugs and on the verge of going to jail. So my mom told me this is a way to channel anger and frustration, just focusing on something that’s creative, something that’s me, and the bikes is me.”

These are young men growing up in a tough place who have found something that makes them happy and, as Stephenson suggests, allows them to have a positive influence on their community. As an English teacher at heart, I will admit to cringing a bit at the grammar.  But as someone interested in grassroots media, I am reminded of the power of YouTube to tell the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These young men understand that power and have taken advantage of the media to tell their own stories.

Here’s the video:

New Poll Has Parents Conflicted About the Web

Just read an article in Education Week about this new poll from Common Sense Media that reports that parents are conflicted about the role of digital media in their kids’ lives, particularly in terms of how well it helps them learn to communicate and collaborate. Here’s a sample:

But parents expressed skepticism about the value of many digital media platforms, particularly when it came to whether digital media could teach kids how to communicate and collaborate, skills that are essential in a 21st-century workforce. For example:

• 67 percent of parents said they did not think the Web helped teach their kids how to communicate.
• 87 percent of parents said they did not believe the Web helped their kids learn how to work with others.
• Three out of four parents do not believe the Web can teach kids to be responsible in their communities.

I can’t help but wonder why we would think “the Web” would teach our kids anything. Indeed, the Web is a tool with potential for lots of different types of learning, but if we expect it to teach anything, we have to interact with it. For kids, that means parents and teachers need to help them learn to use the tools in appropriate and powerful ways.

The report suggests that organizations like Common Sense Media need to help educate parents about the risks and rewards of new media. And, I think it’s a reminder to people like me that we need to be careful about the claims we make about new media.

The poll was conducted by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping parents and kids enjoy media sensibly. They have ten “common sense” beliefs about media that begin with the belief in media sanity not censorship.

Just What We Need: More Negative Publicity

I taught in a small, rural school division where students still called me “ma’am” as a sign of respect.  Each year, the community hosted a huge weekend festival that, over the years, had begun to attract thousands of people from all over the region.  I never attended but from the stories I heard, it was a somewhat raucous event with lots of drinking and revelry.

I worked on a team with several younger teachers who had grown up in the community.  The week before the event, the principal arrived at our team meeting to remind us that, as teachers, we had a certain standing in the community, and he expected us to act appropriately if we attended the festival.  In particular, he suggested that we should not spend too much time in the beer tent.

Well, the beer tent is now online, according to The Washington Post, and it is called Facebook.  Thanks to Tim over at Assorted Stuff for pointing me to the article on young teachers and their Facebook sites.  You probably don’t have to read the whole article.  Just the headline–When Young Teachers Go Wild On the Web–gives you the sense of the direction this article takes.

I have written several articles about social networking for the VEA News.  My goal in those articles was to encourage veteran educators to explore social networking as both a way for them to learn more about it and as a way for them to collaborate with colleagues.  It’s a tough job both because of the technology but also since social networking sites get such bad publicity.  So, a big thank you to the Post for adding some more negative press to combat.

I will forward the article to my pre-service teachers as a reminder of what they are getting themselves into as teachers.  Or, maybe I shouldn’t both.  Tim points out that many of these young teachers won’t last beyond 3 years anyway so why should I give them yet another reason to consider a different career right off the bat?

The article does ask a serious question: “Do the risque pages matter if teacher performance is not hindered and if students, parents and school officials don’t see them? At what point are these young teachers judged by the standards for public officials?”  But I did laugh a little at the notion of standards for public officials.   ken Blackstone from Prince William helped out with a definition of those standards: “But as public employees, we all understand the importance of living a public life above reproach.”  Do we?  Or are these young teachers following in the footsteps of some of the great public officials like Eliot Spitzer?  His “public life” might have seemed above reproach until his not-so-above-reproach private life came into view.   And, I think in this case, these young teachers are living up to those standards:  it’s my life and I will get away with it until I get caught.

I think I’ll give my pre-service teachers the “grandmother” advice:  if you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see it, it probably shouldn’t be on your public Facebook page.  Pictures from your wild 21st birthday party are probably best circulated privately.  Not everything has to be shared with the world.   These are actually some pretty simple media literacy skills.  The girl who suggested that her work and social lives are separate clearly does not have a solid understanding of how the Internet works.  I would hope that if she is a good teacher (or since she’s young, has the potential to be a good teacher), school officials will be willing to work with her rather than just firing her.

I’m also going to continue to encourage my students to use those social networking skills for their own professional growth and, maybe even, for the growth of their students.  This semester, I asked my my pre-service teachers to join VSTE’s ning site.  It was a way to expose them to older teachers who had harnessed a “digital native” type technology for their own purposes.  I wanted to show them that social networking can be about your work life as well as your social life.  And, hopefully, to spark in them an idea for how they might use these technologies with their students, to break down the often oppressive walls of the classroom in ways that promote powerful, collaborative learning.

Digital Literacy: Reading the Paper Online

This post was supposed to discuss Chester Finn’s editorial about No Child Left Behind, which appeared in The Washington Post on Sunday. He outlines five myths about the law, taking both Republicans and Democrats to task for the way they mischaracterize the law, while providing some insight into the history of national educational reform.

I think the most important one of those myths–that standards will fix the schools–must be addressed at both the federal and the state level if the standards movement will ever have a positive effect on our schools. Finn writes, “For this to work, of course, good standards have to be in place, and NCLB doesn’t address the problem of mediocre or even downright silly standards.” How much of what our students are learning is about snippets of information that can easily be found when needed? Isn’t it more important that our students know how to use those snippets to develop understandings of larger issues? That rather than knowing Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States, they grapple with how someone like Jefferson could write that all men are created equal even while owning other human beings? That even as the country was being put together, the seeds of the Civil War that would threaten to rip it apart were being sewn? (I had this sudden flash to the musical 1776, where Rutledge of South Carolina sings about the link between molasses, rum and slaves. I saw that musical numerous times in the theater where I worked as an usher and sometimes think I learned more about American history that summer than in my high school course.)

While I focused on the content of the article, I was also intrigued with its format. The article is littered with hyperlinks that take the reader to lists of articles, videos and audio related to the link. Here’s an example for President Bush.  What a great example of how online newspapers can take advantage of technology to expand the focus of its readers.

However, one of the links on the Bush page also reminded me of the importance of helping our students become discerning readers.  For instance, I couldn’t help but click on the headline Bush to Phase Out Environment by 2009.  It’s a very funny piece from Andy Borowitz, originally published at Creators Syndicate.   It’s clearly a parody despite its third place ranking in the list of articles related to the President.  It would be a great discussion starter with students about the kernel of truth that makes it funny.  And, it might lead to reading and discussing other famous parodies such as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

The bottom line for me is that we need to be helping our students navigate this sometimes confusing world of digital publishing.   Susan Jacoby, in her current book The Age of American Unreason, takes on Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good for You) for suggesting that somehow Internet culture and gaming may be making us smarter.  I think here’s a good example of how Johnson may be right.  It takes a pretty smart reader to move from a serious news piece to a parody and be able to read both intelligently.  What we need to ensure is that they can make that move.